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The Collected Short Stories of Harriette Simpson Arnow
By Sandra L. Ballard, Haeja K. Chung
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2005 Marcella Arnow and Thomas Arnow
All rights reserved.
KENTUCKY: THE 1920S
Winky Creek's New Song
Arnow's typewritten note accompanying the manuscript of this story explains,
There was a tin trunk at my mother's in which for many years I kept among other 'precious' things my first story and later the manuscript of Mountain Path but now can not even locate the trunk; there has been much moving on my part, and some on hers. I thought I had seen the manuscript some years ago; the story was written when I was in the fourth grade as I recall, but it along with all my early manuscripts has disappeared. This fairy tale is the earliest I could find; written sometime while I was in high school; I remember I sent it to Child Life, and they retyped it for me, and I think corrected most mistakes in spelling.
Arnow later remarked that she had written it during her junior year in high school and surreptitiously typed it single-spaced on her mother's stationery before mailing it to the only magazine for children to which her mother subscribed. When it was returned, typed double-spaced on standard typing paper, a letter from Child Life editors explained that it had been re-typed because it had been torn in handling. The editors had liked the story and asked to see more of her work. Years later, Arnow realized that the editors had tried not only to send her encouragement (though she hadn't yet learned that a letter was much better than a rejection slip), but they also had shown her the way to prepare a story for submission to a publisher.
This story, published here for the first time, is the earliest example we have of Arnow's initial efforts to write fiction.
The little valley where Winky Creek begins its long race to the river is usually one of the quietest places on earth, quieter than an empty church, even. But on a certain breezy, blowsy afternoon in mid-April you should have heard it: that is, if you have fairy ears, and can understand flower talk. The Hepaticas and Anemones simply made the early butterflies' ears ache with their loud and breathless conversation. Jack-in-the-Pulpit was preaching uncommonly loud in order to be heard above the din. Even the tiny, blue-eyed Forget-me-nots were forgetting their shyness, and screaming across a fallen twig to Dogtooth Violet.
But I'm sure you will want to know about whom they were talking, so I won't waste any more time in naming the gossips. The subject of conversation was Lady Larkspur, that dignified forest cousin of tall blue Delphinium that grows in your grandmother's garden. The other flower people in Winky Creek's Cove, even though they are famed for their sweet dispositions, often made eyes at my Ladies Larkspur, and called them conceited and unneighborly. But I don't much wonder at this because these pretty flower ladies are just a little stiff and unbending. Perhaps they are a bit too proud of their grand cousins, blooming in so many fair gardens: just as you sometimes like to put on a few airs when talking of some wonderful aunt of yours, who sends those thrilling presents at Christmas time. But this isn't telling you what the flowers were saying about Lady Larkspur, which was very important indeed.
"I have always said," Double Anemone was saying, "that the Larkspur Ladies had a touch of royal blood, and now," nodding its head like a wise old uncle, "this proves it."
Jack-in-the-Pulpit gave a squeaky, "Humph," and announced that big names didn't always mean big people.
"But such a wonderful name," a pale Hepatica enviously sighed.
"Have the Lady Larkspurs' names been changed, or why all this hubbub?" a puzzled Breeze Boy, who had just blown in, wanted to know.
"Oh, you've never heard all about the great to-do the big man creatures made over her Ladyship this morning?" Lavender Hepatica asked in a shocked voice; for she, being a simple thing, supposed it had traveled over the whole world.
"One hears nothing when smothered in a cloud prison, as I have been this blessed morning," grumbled the Breeze Boy.
"If you'll promise not to make us jig, or whisk away just when I get to the most important part, I'll tell you the whole thing," Dogtooth volunteered.
But without waiting for an answer he began: "Well, this morning very early before Father Sun had chased the Dew children home, there came two great man creatures. One was young; but the other, the one who did all the talking, seemed nigh unto half as old as our Guardian Oak. He had a gray beard, and carried a book of a thing, which he wrote in every once in awhile. But the strangest thing was the way they behaved. Would you believe it? Those creatures walked right past the Hepaticas and the Anemones and the Reverend Jack and the Bluets and myself, and never even seemed to see us."
At these words all the flower people mentioned, looked very aggrieved, and nearly nodded their heads off to show that Dogtooth was telling facts.
"But the worst part, the most unbelievable thing," Dogtooth continued sadly, "was the way they walked right up to the Larkspur Ladies, and then acted as if they were the only flower people in this valley."
"Hateful old things," a Hepatica said so spitefully that the Reverend Jack was forced to give her a reproving squeak.
"Don't interrupt the speaker please," said the Breeze Boy, now greatly interested, and with no thought of skipping away.
"But it is just as Miss Hepatica said. It does seem as if those man creatures might have given us just a bit of notice; for I am sure we deserve it as much as those conceited ladies. But what do you think! The man creature with the great beard sat down by them, and after looking at them very closely for a long time, wrote in a book of a thing he had. The younger one drew Lady White Larkspur's picture. Yes, really and truly drew her picture. I know, because Dogwood looked over his shoulder, and then told us all about it."
"No wonder their Ladyships stand so stiff and straight this afternoon," observed the Breeze Boy.
"Hurry up, Dogtooth, and tell about what the bearded man said," cried Lavender Larkspur.
"I'm getting to that part," said Dogtooth, getting impatient with so much interruption. "The bearded man said something about a book. Yes, they are going to put my Lady Larkspur's picture in a book, with things in it about the Larkspur family. Did you ever hear of such a thing? And would you believe it, he said that White Larkspur's name wasn't Larkspur at all but—say it, Reverend Jack, your tongue is more limber than mine."
"Ranunculaceae Delphinium tricorne," said Jack all in one breath, and with a great air.
"Wonderful! Wonderful!" the flowers all exclaimed together. Though they had already heard it many times in the course of the day, they still delighted in its tongue-twisting syllables. Even the Breeze Boy was greatly impressed, and quickly found himself grumbling because of his own short name. Having heard the gossip, he flew away, whispering Lady Larkspur's name as he went, though he made a sorry mess of it.
The afternoon lengthened until the Shadow Giants touched the feet of the Guardian Oak with their gray fingers. Still the flower people, excepting the Larkspurs of course, talked of nothing but the wonderful name, and the fame that had come to its owners. Each felt just the teeniest bit jealous of the Larkspurs, but was too proud to say so.
Two whole days passed, a very long time in the life of a flower, and still the flowers tried to whisper the great name to each other, and thought constantly of their famous neighbor. And oh my! You should have seen the behavior of the Larkspurs. They stood stiff and straight as off-with-your-head queens, scorning to speak to anyone less important than Dogwood; and actually sniffing when the Master Breezes begged the favor of a dance. The Reverend Jack was greatly troubled by such unflowerlike behavior, and warned the rest of his flock of the evils of false pride.
The third day came, but scarcely had Father Sun touched Winky Creek's bottom, before the two strange man creatures were seen coming. But wonder of wonders, instead of going to the Larkspurs as everybody expected them to do, they stopped by the Hepaticas. Everybody in Winky Creek fairly held his breath while the two man creatures talked about Lavender Hepatica. Then the gray beard began writing, and the young one [began] to draw her. She held herself very straight and still, so that the picture might be a good one.
"And what is the name of this pretty thing?" Hepatica heard the artist ask.
But instead of answering "Hepatica" as expected, the gray beard mumbled, "Ranunculaceae Hepatica acutiloba," through his beard.
When Lady White Larkspur heard this, she nearly fainted and would have fallen had not a husky Breeze Boy stood at her back. Poor conceited thing, she had supposed that hers was the grandest name in the whole world; and now here was one of her common neighbors with one much like it, only longer.
But Lavender Hepatica, sensible little thing that she was, did not feel at all proud; but secretly decided that she would still be just plain 'Hepatica' to her friends.
When the gray beard and the artist had finished with Hepatica, they did not leave, but went to Double Anemone. He, too, had his picture drawn, and was given a great name. I won't tell you what it was, because I don't want you to risk a sprained tongue by trying to say it.
All day the man creatures worked. By the time the Shadow Giants came, each of the flowers I have mentioned in this tale had been given a great three-piece name; and each was trying to say his, and sometimes getting fearfully mixed up. None of the flowers were half so proud as Lady Larkspur had been. In fact, some of them looked downright troubled.
"What ails you, brother?" Reverend Jack asked Double Anemone.
"I have just been wondering what David and Baby Joe will do when they learn what my real name is. They can't possibly ever say it."
Now Baby Joe and David were the two children who came so often to see the flowers, and now and then gently pick a few to carry to their mother.
"I have thought of that, too," Lavender Hepatica spoke up. "They can't say mine either. Besides, I like to hear Baby Joe call me 'Patica.'"
"We'll just keep our long names a secret, and not use them except on formal—"
At that moment a Shadow Giant gently touched the speaker and his listeners, and they were forced to go to bed. However, some of them did not sleep very well, but tried to say their new names in their sleep.
Next morning Double Anemone was awakened by something he thought sounded strangely like a groan. Surprised at such a sound, he listened again. This time he heard Tiniest Forget-me-not actually give a great big groan. Such a terrible groan it was that it awakened Dogtooth also; both asked in the same breath what the matter was.
"My head, oh my poor head, it aches," gasped the sufferer.
"You mean to say you have a headache!" exclaimed Double Anemone. "How awful! I never knew of anyone in our valley to have such a thing before."
"It's all because of that horrid new name of mine. Last night I forgot part of it, and kept trying and trying to remember what it was. I've tried so hard my brains are sick," and here poor Forget-me-not was forced to groan some more.
"Oh you poor thing. Don't ever think of that hateful name any more. Bluet is much nicer. My, but you're looking frightfully pale. Double Anemone, what does one do for a headache? I never saw such a thing before."
But Double Anemone knew as little about headaches as Dogtooth; for aches and pains of any kind were almost unknown in Winky Creek's valley. I don't know what they would have done, had not the Guardian Oak heard Bluet's groans. He, being very old, was wise in such matters, and sent a white butterfly to fan her poor head. A Breeze Boy brought a bit of star dust for the patient to take. Tiniest Forget-me-not quickly began to feel better; but still she sobbed now and then because she had forgotten her name. A kind-hearted Breeze Boy ran to ask the Reverend Jack what Bluet's name was. "Good morning, Jack," he called out cheerily. "Little Bluet has forgotten her name. She has made herself sick trying to remember it, and wants you to tell her. You know all their names, don't you?"
Then the Breeze Boy got the shock of his life: Jack did not answer. "Are you deaf, or just stuck up like the Lady Larkspurs?" At this Jack looked pained and acted very queerly. The Breeze Boy, now greatly alarmed, stepped up to him and gently shook him.
"I can't talk," Jack faintly whispered in the hoarsest, weakest voice imaginable. Then little by little, and in a very strange low voice, he told the sad story: "Last night I tried to say all the new names three times, so that I could remember them. At the end of the second time, my voice just left me, and my tongue was so twisted it wouldn't move. Oh those names. Those hateful, hateful names." And here poor Jack looked ready to cry, but didn't because he couldn't.
In no time at all, the terrible news of what the new names had caused was over all the valley. The flowers decided to hold a council, and see what was to be done. Things were getting worse all the time: Double Anemone was complaining of a slight dizziness, and Lavender Hepatica said her great name was weighing her down.
You may be surprised when you learn what the Flower people did with all those names they had thought they wanted so badly. However, the Guardian Oak said they did a very wise thing when they had the Breeze Boys gather up all those grand names, and put them under a flat stone at the bottom of Winky Creek's deepest pool. Yes, they really did that, and when it was all finished they were so happy they danced for two hours.
You may think the new names were forgotten by everyone in the valley, but you are mistaken. Sometimes of a winter's day, when the flowers are safely asleep and Winky is a great rushing yellow stream with many voices, he says the names over and over: Ranunculaceae Delphinium tricorne, Araceae Arisaema triphyllum, Boraginaceae Myosotis laxa, Ranunculaceae Hepatica acutibola, and so on and on.CHAPTER 2
Dreams Come True
This story was written while Harriette Simpson lived in Burnside, Kentucky. It has never before been published.
"Ann, have you heard the latest?" Jeanette sang out, as Ann and her younger sister Willie entered the kitchen. Not giving her sister time to answer, Jeanette continued: "You know those awful Godbys. Well, Mrs. Godby sent her little boy up here to know if you wouldn't be so kind as to come down and cook her children something to eat. Her husband is still in bed with pneumonia, and she got up too soon after this two-weeks-old baby was born and has taken a relapse."
"What did you tell the child?" Ann asked.
"Naturally, we told him to tell his mama you were busy and couldn't come."
"That woman certainly has her nerve," said Sue indignantly. "The very idea of asking people like us to come down and work for those trashy Godbys."
"It would be terrible to cook in such a filthy place, but still I can't help but feel sorry for that family. They have had sickness all winter." Ann was always more sympathetic with people in distress than her more sophisticated sisters.
"Oh, Ann, don't be silly and think this is just one more form of social service. What would the neighbors think if you were to go down there?" Jeanette remonstrated.
Ann said nothing to this and the subject was dropped; the talk [changed] into other channels: high school basketball, a certain story in a favorite magazine, doings at the office where Jeanette worked, and comments of Sue's latest beau. The Bertram girls lived with their widowed mother in a small town, in the northeastern part of Kentucky, called Rothington. The Bertram family was very much like any of the other millions of decent, up right, church going families scattered over the world. They were rather poor, but as Mrs. Bertram was so fond of saying, came of one of the South's proudest and most aristocratic families. Of the four daughters, Sue and Willie were still in high school; Jeanette, the oldest of the four, did stenographic and secretarial work, while Ann had chosen teaching for her career. After two years of college study, Ann had decided to teach a year before finishing her studies. Her school being a rural school, and consequently of a shorter term than those in town, she was for the time unemployed save as a helper to her mother in the house work.
The other members of the family often spoke of Ann as being peculiar and full of queer notions. On more than one occasion she had been scolded by her mother and laughingly ridiculed by her sisters, because of some contribution made or work done for certain of the many destitute families around her home. While still in high school she had all but created a family scene by helping some older, public spirited women clean and fumigate the home of the shiftless Brays, while the whole family was down with typhoid. In spite of the severe rebuke called forth by this act, during the remainder of the epidemic she spent her spare time in visiting various sources of water supply in the outlying districts of Rothington. From these different places she collected samples of the water and sent it to the state board of health to be examined. Sometimes it was heartbreaking to have the results show a high count of the germs, and in many cases, see the owners of such a water supply listen stupidly to reports, and stubbornly continue to use the water. The local doctors, the only two within a radius of more than ten miles, did not greatly encourage vaccination of any kind to those ignorant and superstitious families. The doctors themselves were too nearly worked to death to preach vaccinations and sanitation.
Excerpted from The Collected Short Stories of Harriette Simpson Arnow by Sandra L. Ballard, Haeja K. Chung. Copyright © 2005 Marcella Arnow and Thomas Arnow. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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