I grew up in a small town just a few dozen miles from the closest water sourcea slowly shrinking aquifer that squatted underneath the seat of Thompson County, our neighborly border. Fortunately, we hadn't yet been quite as devastated by our annual droughts as those in Oklahoma and Texas. Rumors would occasionally drift in with a tumbleweed traveler about how bad the deep South had dried up into nothing but an old dusty lake bed, but these flashes of news were too few and too far between to be counted on as up to date or even true.
Once, I heard one of my distant cousins, a boy by the name of Harold, was said to have been caught up in a barn somewhere in Oklahoma during a storm where only the dirt blowsthe dust and dirt block out the sun and the air until you get blown away with it. Apparently, poor old Harold had been caught up in that barn for so long (five days according to old Miss Harris) he eventually just smothered with the horses. Now, my mama always said that was just grapevine gossip. She told me that she had heard his father became so heartbroken afterwards he turned prone to wearing heels and calling himself Shirley, so it was doubtful any of it happened at all. She said she wasn't even sure I had a cousin named Harold to begin with. If I had, she never met him.
Anytime I'm reminded of the small town gossip that thrived in our dry conditions, I think of two different stories that I grew up around. The first one was of a black cat that ate Mr. Cartwright whole because he refused to set out a milk dish for it. Again, Mama out right killed the tall tale by telling me Mr. Cartwright just ran off with half his wife's family's money after learning she'd been expecting for at least three months, and Mrs. Cartwright had put about those rumors to keep her reputation unharmed by a yellow husband. It was easier to be a widow then to have driven away your husband at the time. My mama would always just shake her head whenever passing Mrs. Cartwright in townmainly for the woman's lack of imagination she'd say.
The second story that is usually brought up would be about Mollie Hart, a highly unusual woman who had sired many long and eventful tales about her existence due to her habit of avoiding any sign of life. Mollie lived right out of the town limits in a house her husband had built, enough to get away from the town's talk, yet she always failed in that pursuit because she was Miss Harris's favorite subject up until the day she died. Even her daughter Stephanie Harris claimed that while on her death bed, Miss Harris murmured in her last breath, "You won't believe what I was just told about Mollie," right before she passed on, though I don't think you can put much credit to the Harris name in this town.
Finding out more about Mollie had become a usual summer past time when I wasn't having to help my father with the farm work. From what I'd been able to gather from the chatter that swarmed her name, Mollie had suffered many tragedies in her life, or at least, that was what the townsfolk claimed. The first was of her mother during childbirth. During delivery, after severing the umbilical cord, it had become infectedleading to Mollie's mother's death a few days after, and her father took up whiskey as a daily habit. Growing up as an only child, Mollie didn't have many friends to spare, and her only friend, a girl that walked with her occasionally to school, died of typhus. Somehow, Mollie met a young man named Henry that was looking to make a fortune on oil, but it turned out our town was bone dry of the stuff. They soon became married.
Mollie had always wanted a large family. She tried everything to become pregnant, but after years of miscarriages, the town doctor, Mr. Brown, told the couple her womb just wasn't fit for holding children. She tried not to give up hope for a child some day, yet she was forced to stop by her husband after the tenth miscarriage nearly killed her. Mama said it was actually just three miscarriages, and the doctor was really the one who banned her from pregnancy, but Mollie didn't stop either way. Eventually, she got what she wanted in the form of a little girl that she named Emily.
During the fall, an odd storm came that flooded the entire town with washes of muddy water. The entire Hart family was on a trip into town when the floods hit; the horses then became spooked by the rising waters. Trying to ensure the horses kept moving, Henry got out of the wagon to force them into turning back home but was washed away by a powerful surge of water that surprised him from off the path. Mollie became panicked with a nearly five-years-old Emily in her arms. More and more waves of water berated the side of their wagon until it was eventually carried off in the flood. Mollie woke up the morning after. She had been washed up on the door step of an old farm house a few miles from the dirt path. Emily's blue stitched blanket, wrapped around her to keep her warm, was found entangled in the branches of a tree nearby, but nobody saw Henry or Emily again. Mollie would never comment on the flood. She once said, only once, of their trip into town that they were picking up a hand-made doll and a small box of silk ribbonsa surprise for Emily's near birthday.
It has been at least some years, but she hasn't quite forgotten her daughter. Mollie, every morning at the end of dawn, sits next to a small stone with five letters engraved into it. She sits there with her back against the stone, a wooden box next to her, and a doll in her hands. As the morning wastes away, Mollie hums a quiet tune while taking a thin sheet of dull ribbon from the box, a different aged color each time. She slowly braids the ribbon into the doll's hair, and then once she has finished this step, she peacefully unbraids it and puts the ribbon back into the box for tomorrow. Mollie Hart, at the end of her daily ritual, places her finger on the stone and traces the large letters on it several times before going home. "EMILY."