One Autumn Afternoon

One Autumn Afternoon

A Story by Debbie Barry
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A story about a series of interesting encounters for a teenage girl taking a walk in late autumn.

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One Autumn Afternoon

 

“Nana, I’m goin’ out!” I said, pausing on my way through the living room to kiss my favorite grandmother’s soft, dry, wrinkled cheek.

“Okay, Honey,” she replied, her cool, dry lips, scented with instant coffee and Camel cigarettes, pressing a return kiss on my cheek.  “Where’re you going?”

“I dunno,” I said, offhandedly.  “Just for a walk.”

“Is your homework done?” she asked.  It was Saturday afternoon, and I was supposed to do my homework before I could enjoy the weekend.

“Yeah, finished it last night,” I replied, thinking of the pile of work I had done the night before, finishing the last essay a good while past midnight.

“Well, have fun.  Be careful,” Nana smiled, taking a sip from the mug of murky, brown coffee on the lamp table beside her customary chair, directly across the room from the large, console, color television.

“I will, Nana!” I promised.

“Take a jacket!” Nana called as I passed out of the living room, and crossed the large kitchen to the back door.

“Love you!” I called back, grabbing a dark blue, hooded jacket, lined with red flannel, from a hook beside the door.

Snick.  I closed the back door quietly, knowing better than to slam the door, which would rattle the shelves of antique tea cups and saucers Mom had hung on the same wall the door was in.  I skipped down the two steps, covered in rough, thread-bare, red carpeting, to the back hall, and then out the second back door to the yard.  I left the outer door open, as usual, so my cat, Dragon, could get inside.

Outside, a bright, warm, golden sun shone down, warming the crisp, cool air of early November.  I paused to look around at the expansive yard.  Directly in front of me, the white, concrete bird bath stood empty against the dark tangle of leafless branches that was our enormous purple lilac bush.  The hens-and-chickens Mom had planted in the rocky mound that supported the birdbath, making it look like some sort of ancient, Pagan altar, were withered, and lavender-brown, amid the chunks of bright, white, native marble.  Looking beyond the denuded lilac bush, the edge of the swamp formed a straight, dark, false horizon.  The greyish-green leaves of the swamp grasses were punctuated by the dark heads of the furry, brown cattails; most were just dried husks, this late in the season, their velvet brown tops already burst into clouds of fluffy seed threads, blown away by the chill autumn winds.

To my right, the old, white garage, which Daddy had turned into a workshop, stood bright and white against the dull, grey, weathered side of the large barn, which stood at the edge of the swamp, as that wetland wrapped around the back of the yard.  The red-painted trim around the garage’s dark window was a cheerful splash of color, but it seemed lonely among the sere colors of November.  At the corner of the garage, my old swingset still stood, the bright, green and yellow paint on its steel-tube frame weathered to a uniform, powdery, pale, greyish-green, which nearly matched the nearby reeds and swamp grasses. 

To my left, the gravel driveway, covered with fragments of native marble, and glinting with bits of milky-clear quartz, behind the two long, white, concrete planter boxes.  The dead, dried remnants of the summer’s brilliant, red geraniums, and colorful pink, purple, and white petunias still stood in the boxes; the crisp breeze rattled the dry stems, making a sound like rustling papers.  Beside the driveway, the low-hanging branches of the large crab apple tree rubbed together in a raspy, rattling symphony of phantom violins.  Beneath the tree, the grass was thickly littered with the hard, wormy apples, already rotting into the compost that would feed the tree in the spring.  A heady aroma of rich cider, tinged with an acrid tang, wafted off the fallen apples, tickling my nose, and making my mouth water.

I started walking down the driveway, toward the street.  We lived just outside of the village, with few neighbors, but a busy street ran right past the front of the house, busy in the mornings and evenings during the week, with men and women hurrying to and from their jobs in the mills and factories that supported our little, rural community, but the road was quiet on a Saturday afternoon.  Reaching the end of the driveway, I passed between the huge sugar maples on my left and the tall pines on my right, sentinels of our home.  The maples, like the lilac and apple trees, were leafless, their skeletal branches dark against the pale, blue, November sky.  The pines, thick with long, sharp needles, had dropped their large, papery seed cones on the yellowing grass, and the empty husks of the cones, emptied of their seeds by squirrels and chipmunks, lay pale and lifeless, ragged remains that would soon decay into the rich compost that would feed another year’s growth of pinecones.  The three pines stood tall, dark, jagged points spearing the cloudless sky.

Checking both ways, I crossed the black macadam of the main street in four quick, skipping strides; I hated crossing that road, and always crossed as briskly as possible.  The sticky, bitter-sweet scent of warm tar filled my nose, making it wrinkle.  Safe on the far side of the road, the crepe-rubber soles of my canvas tennis shoes crunched softly on the glinting, white gravel.  Four more steps carried me across the grassy embankment, by the hard-packed, dusty, brown foot-path, worn into the bank over years of frequent crossings. 

I stepped out on the charred, oily, black stones of the railroad bed, which ran parallel to the busy street.  I paused, and inhaled a deep lungful of crisp, cool air, moist and moldy from the nearby swamp, and laced with the acrid tang of the oil and soot of the trains.  IO sighed, releasing the breath, and smiled.  I felt safe on the railroad tracks, at home among the rotting, tar-soaked, wooden railroad ties, and the long, satin-smooth, steel rails, with a bit of rust around the spikes that joined rails to ties, but polished silvery smooth on top by the many trains that passed this point every day and night.  Looking about, I saw that the four parallel pairs of tracks were deserted.  Far to the right, one old, blue boxcar stood in the loading yard of the village feed store, beyond the railway switches, but not a single active train, engineer, or even another walker, was anywhere in sight.

“Which way?” I pondered, half-aloud, surveying the gleaming rails and the blackened gravel.  I let my eyes drift over the winter-bare banks beyond the tracks.  In spring, tender, pale green asparagus grew along that bank, a remnant of the farm that had claimed the land, before the railroad, and then the paved street, claimed the space.  In summer, the bank was a colorful collage, with blue chicory; delicate, white Queen Anne’s lace; golden wild mustard; and pink, single-petaled, wild roses; the whole punctuated by clumps of flaming orange day lilies.  Today, it was a study in tawny browns and greys, a delicate tapestry, in which each of the past flowers could be picked out, amid the prickly thistles and fallen maple leaves, if you knew how to see them.

“South?” I asked myself, looking toward the feed store.  To the south, the dried flags showed where the paved road had cut off not only the asparagus, roses, and lilies from the old farm, but a narrow ribbon of murky swamp, as well.  I could see the empty, grey shells of milkweed pods, their downy seed long-since carried away on the autumn winds, alongside the empty spikes of the dried cattails.  Farther down the edge of the track, a stand of tall, golden feather grasses stood a dozen feet tall, waving softly in the slight breeze.  At their foot, a pile of blackened, discarded railroad ties had tumbled into the edge of the ribbon of swamp.

“No,” I shook my head.  “North, today.”

I turned left, and started walking, the sun warm on my back, my shadow pooling before me, slithering, black-over-black, over the coal-strewn railroad bed.  I smiled as I watched the shadow-me dance and play over the jagged stones and rocks, and the fragments of raggedly-broken, tar-and-oil-soaked wood.

I hummed as I walked, trying the recall the lyrics of the tune that was trapped in my head.  The bus driver played the radio on the bus yesterday, on the way home from school, the local FM station pouring out all the current rock music, but I had been reading, not listening to the words.  I often read on the bus, sitting alone in the front seat, right behind the driver, by choice.  I wasn’t interested in the chatter and babble of the other kids, and I loved reading.  The scrap of music had wormed its way into my subconscious, and was now a pleasant companion for my walk, but I didn’t know the words.

I walked for ten minutes or so, and I was starting to put words of my own to the scrap of music, delighting in playing with nonsense.  Around me, the light breeze rustled and riffled through the weeds and seed pods, the brambles, and the branches of small, stunted poplar trees and tangled bushes that grew in the tainted, toxic soil at the borders of the railroad bed. 

Suddenly, a flash of crimson and gold caught my eye.  I paused at the verge of the rail bed, and bent my left knee to lean up, onto the dry, weedy embankment.  There, brilliant amid the sere, sandy hues of the grasses, a bittersweet vine had grown in profusion, and its brittle, leafless tendrils still carried their gorgeous berries, the crimson outer hulls split open to reveal the golden berries within.

“Oh!” I gasped.  “Aren’t you beautiful!”

I knelt against the bank, my left knee pressed into the cold, moist dirt, as the dead, dry grasses parted beneath the worn denim of my jeans.  Gently, I gathered the brilliant sprays, using the Swiss Army knife I carried in my jacket pocket to careful cut the vines close to the earth, just below the point where they became dry and brittle, so the beautiful plants could regrow in the spring, after a long, cold, winter’s sleep.

I was nearly finished, and my left arm was almost overflowing with the vines, when a rustle in the dry grass, several inches from my hand, arrested my attention.  Holding the knife blade ready, in case of a late snake " there were venomous copperheads, locally called checkered adders, all through the fields and banks of our area, especially in my own broad, sweeping front lawn.  My legs tensed, ready to spring away, and my heartbeat quickened.

“Why, hello!” I gasped, the tension in my muscles easing.  Pushing up through the moist, dark soil, beneath the faded, tawny grasses, was the funny, rosy-tentacled snout of a star-nosed mole.  Its dark-adjusted eyes blinked blindly in the bright sun, framed by its broad, spade-like forepaws.  In another moment, its plump round body was propelled out of the ground by its clawed, paddle-like hind feet.  Finally, its scaly, fleshy tail, covered with coarse, prickly hairs, emerged from the ground, sticking out behind it.

To my amazement, the mole, now directly beside my left hand, where it rested against the ground, laden with bittersweet vines, did not retreat back into its freshly-dug earthen tunnel.  I held very still, my shoulder tensed, ready to withdraw my hand, if necessary, and waited to see what the funny, adorable rodent would do.  It moved its tiny head from side to side, snuffling with its tiny, wiggling nose-tentacles.  After a few seconds, it found my hand.  I caught my breath.  The tiny, pink tentacles tickled as he sniffed and snuffled the side of my index finger.  I held back a giggle, making my eyes water.  I stared in wonder as one sharp-clawed digging paw pressed down on my finger.  The strong claws were long for his size, but didn’t hurt any more that kitten claws.  The back feet pushed him forward, and the mole’s head and both front paws lay across my first two fingers.  The nose tentacles delicately tickled my palm as the snuffling nose pushed under the pile of vines I was holding.  A moment later, the entire mole sat on my hand, the stiff hairs of its tail prickling my finger.

I jumped when a tiny, pink tongue licked the palm of my hand.

“Oh!” I whispered.  The tiny creature licked my palm again.  “Are you lookin’ for some dinner?” I asked it, very softly.

I was afraid it might bite, but it only licked my palm a third time, turned around once, its sharp claws nipping ticklingly into my skin, and then curled into a small, warm, black, furry ball.

“Oh, my,” I sighed, cupping the warm, trusting, wild creature in the palm of my hand, the bittersweet vines still gathered in the curve of my arm.  I eased my left hip down onto the cold earth, and then carefully rotated, until I was sitting on the embankment.  I cupped my fingers around the resting mole, and examined it, carefully keeping it far enough from my face to avoid a bitten nose or scratched eye, if the creature was startled.

“Aren’t you beautiful?” I said, softly, looking at the thick, black fur, the almost-nonexistent ears, and the funny, ringed tail.  I tried to count the tiny, pink fingers on its nose, but it gave a shuddery little sigh, relaxed its body, and retracted the rosy fingers into the end of its nose.

“How’d you do that?” I gasped, careful to keep my voice low.  To my amazement, the creature seemed to have fallen asleep.

Carefully closing the blade of my knife, one-handed, against the outside of my thigh, IO slipped it back into the deep pocket of my jacket.  Then I spent many minutes, just sitting on the embankment, the sun warm on my hair, on my shoulder, and on the side of my face.  The bundle of bittersweet smelled warm and spicy, cradled near my cheek.  The damp soil was cold, and the backs of my legs felt chilled.  All the while, the little mole slept on, snuffling in its sleep now and again.

Half an hour passed.  Then, an hour.  My shadow stretched longer over the grasses and twigs beside me.  The mole slept on.  My hand and arm grew tired, and I supported my left hand with my right.  All the time, the mole snuffled and slept.

“I can’t hold you forever,” I said to the mole.  It didn’t wake.

Later, “You need t’ wake up, little guy,” I softly pleaded.

Suddenly, I felt a strong, familiar vibration under my butt, where I sat on the dirt.  A moment later, I felt it in my feet, humming up through my legs.  The silent, steel tracks in front of me started to hum.

“A train!” I thought.

Carefully, reluctant to disturb the furry, warm creature in my left hand, I used my right hand and the heels of both tennis-shoed feet to push myself further up the bank.  The vibration was low and gentle, which reassured me.  A fast train made much more violent vibrations, and drew a much higher-pitched tone from the humming steel rains. 

Moments later, the big, diesel engine rumbled into view, going no faster than the cars that drove past on the paved road.  I felt safe and confident.  I was far enough up the bank to resist the dragging air caused by a train at that speed.  I could sit on the bank and watch, which I always loved to do. 

Mm-hoooo-hooo! Hoooooo-hoooooooo-mmm!

As the train passed me, the conductor sounded the horn.  Startled, my eyes flashed to the engine’s window in time to see a smiling, ruddy face, and a friendly, waving hand.

“Cap’n Jim!” I cried, momentarily forgetting my tiny companion.  Captain Jim was the engine driver for a short-haul cargo train that made frequent, almost daily stops at the feed store, just beyond my house.  Over the years, Captain Jim and I had had many conversations.  He told me tall tales of the folk hero, John Henry, and stories of trains that had crossed the old Wild West.  Captain Jim never ran out of stories.  He let me climb up into the engine, and showed me all the levers he used to control the big, heavy train.  He taught me how to use the attached ladders to climb up and over the boxcars, and taught me never to duck under the couplings, if a standing train was in the way; if the train suddenly moved, I could be killed ducking under, but could get to the platform at the end of the car, hang on, and ride safely, if I climbed over.

I didn’t forget my little companion for long.  The train whistle had caused me to close my fingers, balling my fists in a startled fight-or-flight response.  The loud noise and the sudden pressure didn’t hurt the mole, but he was startled awake.  The sharp claws of his four large-for-him paws scrabbled in my hand, and tiny, sharp teeth bit into the little web of skin between my left thumb and index finger.  My hand sprang open.

“Ow!” I yelped, but the slowing train’s rush of air sucked the sound away.

Immediately, I put my hand down on the ground, next to the mole hole, and used the fingers of my right hand to nudge the small, black rodent off my palm.  His nap over, the mole dove, nose first, back into his hole, and I saw the funny, scaly, ringed tail quiver as it disappeared into the earth.

“G’bye, little guy!” I said, laughing, and then stuck the small, bleeding, tooth punctures in my mouth.

I was sucking on my stinging hand, still, miraculously, clutching the bittersweet vines, with their crimson and gold berries, when the string of blue, brown, yellow, red, green, and orange boxcars slowed to a stop, the bright red caboose, with its glass-enclosed viewing cupola on top, right in front of me.

“If it ain’t Miss Debbie!” called a familiar, deep, rich voice from the rear platform.

“Mr. Eddie?” I called back, in pleased surprise.

“Sho’ ‘nuff!” he laughed “Whatcha doin’ way down ‘ere?” he asked.

I stood up, brushing dirt and grass from my jeans with my empty right hand.  Mr. Eddie’s smile was gleaming white in his smooth, round, ebony face, and his wide, melted-chocolate eyes sparkled with pleasure.

“I was just walkin’, and I found this bittersweet,” I said, tilting my chin toward the armful of brittle, brown vines.  “But I got bit by a mole just now,” I added.

“You got bit?” Mr. Eddie asked, concern in his voice.  “Lemme see.  Don’ worry, Jim’ll keep ‘er stopped ‘till I tell ‘im we’re safe t’ move.  He said he saw you sittin’ there.”

I walked over to the train caboose, and Mr. Eddie helped me up the black, metal steps.  As soon as I was on the platform, he took my pale, small hand in his large, callused one, and peered at the bite.

“C’mon in here an’ lemme clean that up,” he said.

Nodding, I followed the conductor into the caboose.  As I laid my pretty bundle on the table against one wall, and sat on one of the vinyl-padded seats, Mr. Eddie went to his radio.

“Go ahead t’ th’ yard, Jim.  Miss Debbie’s gonna ride home wi’ us.”

“Headin’ out, with one passenger,” Mr. Jim’s voice cracked through the speaker.

Mr. Eddie hung up the mic, and then reached into a cabinet, and pulled out a red, plastic box, with a hinged lid.

“Tha’ don’ look too bad,” he said, glancing at the bite again, as he opened the box.  “How in tarnation did’ja get bit like that?”

“The train startled the mole,” I explained, watching him soak several cotton balls ion rubbing alcohol.

“A mole!” he replied, incredulous.

“Ow!” I yelped, as he scrubbed the little punctures with the alcohol.

“You best tell me about that mole!” he said, laughing.  “Tha’s gotta be a good story!”

I told him all about the intrepid little mole, while he cleaned the bite with alcohol, swabbed it with iodine, and wrapped a gauze bandage around my hand.  The train came to a stop before either of us finished, and a few minutes later, Mr. Jim swung himself up onto the rear platform, and walked into the caboose.

“Well, hello, Miss Debbie!” he said, in his rich, jovial voice.  “What happened?” he asked, concern entering his voice.

“I got bit,” I replied, holding up the newly-bandaged hand.

“What on earth?” he explained, his usually-merry blue eyes dark in his sunburned face.  He ran his right hand distractedly through his wavy, straw colored hair.  “You better tell me what happened.”  He sat on the seat across from mine.

Mr. Eddie chuckled, and started cleaning up the first aid kit, while I told Mr. Jim the whole story.

“Whew-wee!” he exclaimed, when I finished.  “That’s an adventure, no doubt about it!”

“Yessir,” I replied, smiling in response to the delighted light in his eyes.

“We’re at the feed store,” the engineer said, after a few moments.  “You’re about home.  D’ you need me t’ send Eddie over with you, to explain to your mom?”

“No, sir,” I replied.  She’s not home.  I’ll tell Nana what happened.”

“You give Mrs. B. my regards,” Mr. Jim said.  He had met Nana several times, and had great respect for her.

“Thanks, Mr. Eddie,” I said, smiling at the conductor.

“Any time, Miss Debbie,” he replied.  “You be good, now.”

“Yessir,” I replied, smiling, and gathering up my bittersweet.

Mr. Jim climbed down from the caboose ahead of me, and gave me his hand to help me down.  I shook hands with both men, and the engineer brushed a light kiss on the top of my head.

“Bye!” I called, as I hurried to the little footpath across the embankment.  “Thanks!”

I rushed across the empty paved road, and walked down the gravel driveway.  Ahead of me, the setting sun painted the sky scarlet, pumpkin, and rose, behind the old, weathered barn.  A pigeon cooed mournfully.

I carried my bittersweet vines into the house, shutting the door gently behind me.

Snick!

“Nana!  I’m home!” I called, placing my bundle on the big, heavy, maple dresser below Mom’s teacup collection, and hanging my jacket behind the door.  “I have a story t’ tell you!”


© 2017 Debbie Barry



Author's Note

Debbie Barry
Please let me know if you catch typos; it helps me. Initial reactions appreciated. Constructive criticism welcome.

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Featured Review

Oh, a tale from your childhood Debbie?

I loved the vivid imagery from the moment lil Miss Debbie kissed her Grandmother's soft wrinkled cheek, on through the description on nature. Oh what is are these bitter berries?

When you described this little mole creature I was truly amazed and want to know if that really happened?

By gone era's where a train conductor knew the local kids, is so heartwarming to me.

Another great story, Debbie. Thanks to the descriptive language, and you may not realize this, but I think of one of those kids shows my granddaughters watch. Thomas The Train and the like.

Cheers

Posted 6 Days Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

6 Days Ago

Yes, the ravine was exciting, even though we crossed it several times. We always listened for appro.. read more
Karen Redburn

6 Days Ago

You too, Debbie. I am working on the next chapter of The Girl Who Broke The Funhouse. Enjoy the writ.. read more
Debbie Barry

6 Days Ago

Thanks! (((hugs))) You, too!



Reviews

Another entertaining, well-written tale from your adventurous youth. Getting mole-bit is a new one on me, I tell ya. Is there a badge for that? If not, there should be!

Posted 5 Days Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

5 Days Ago

Thanks, Samuel! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I never actually got bit by a mole, just scratched a bit,.. read more
Oh, a tale from your childhood Debbie?

I loved the vivid imagery from the moment lil Miss Debbie kissed her Grandmother's soft wrinkled cheek, on through the description on nature. Oh what is are these bitter berries?

When you described this little mole creature I was truly amazed and want to know if that really happened?

By gone era's where a train conductor knew the local kids, is so heartwarming to me.

Another great story, Debbie. Thanks to the descriptive language, and you may not realize this, but I think of one of those kids shows my granddaughters watch. Thomas The Train and the like.

Cheers

Posted 6 Days Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Debbie Barry

6 Days Ago

Yes, the ravine was exciting, even though we crossed it several times. We always listened for appro.. read more
Karen Redburn

6 Days Ago

You too, Debbie. I am working on the next chapter of The Girl Who Broke The Funhouse. Enjoy the writ.. read more
Debbie Barry

6 Days Ago

Thanks! (((hugs))) You, too!

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Added on November 15, 2017
Last Updated on November 15, 2017
Tags: story, teenager, autumn, november, nittersweet, mole, star nosed mole, bite, railroar, tracks, train, engine, cabeese

Author

Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI



About
I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..

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