Lost Girl: A Beginning

Gavin Pate


When she happens, it’s like she’s been happening all his life.

First the grackles fall off Pine Mountain, cover quick the slope.  Willard’s in the kitchen window, rinsing out the percolator, watching the morning twilight fade.  That’s when he sees her standing in the driveway: the Holt girl circled by violet coronas, birds, their dry, yellow eyes the color of the sky. 

She stands there, maybe looking at the house, maybe looking at Willard.  With the meat of his thumb, he rubs his eye until the halos come.

Elizabeth tells Willard to go out and see what’s the matter.

This is when the scene gets framed by the kitchen window, the line of pines, the circle of grackle, the auburn-headed girl.

Willard’s natural reaction is to stay in the window forever, sure that the scene will shift, and with the rub of his thumb, adjust to a world making sense.

The grackles jerk and twitch their necks before they alight, make a sound like a vacuum to carry her off.  She doesn’t move.  Just her hair swirling up, her eyes for an instant following, and grackles take to the trees and disappear up Pine Mountain, leave her standing in the drive.

Elizabeth will one day deny the birds, tell him birds were never there.

It won’t matter.

Willard goes out the side door, walks around to where the drive snakes from the gate, up to the carport, where for years, Willard sits and smokes his pipe, stares into the yard and waits for the grackle to come. 

Not that this is his story.

The Holt girl walks half the night, comes out of the trees in nothing but a t-shirt and barefeet, into the wide acre.  She waits for the grackles to catch up, so they can lift her off this spot, fly her so far that when Willard rubs his eyes, sips his coffee in the frame of the kitchen window, the Holt girl will already be back to wherever she belongs, and Willard too.

Instead Willard watches the whole world tilt.  The twilight, instead of breaking, deadens the sky.  Things move backwards, as if winding up.  The Holt girl raises her head.  She’s porcelain, frightening.  Insects take flight: zooming beetles, swarms of gnats.  A cricket sings through his skull, and any words he might have go false, slip into the grass.  The Holt girl holds a leather book snug to her hip, a bible passed down a genealogy she’s already trying to show him.  She’s kneeling now, then crosslegged in the drive.  Willard sits beside, not even asking what’s the matter, instead watching little hands, dirty, knobby knees, shins and feet torn from brambles and rock, watching a girl open the bible, weigh the words in her right hand, move a chewed, brown nail down the list of names and dates and places that reach so far into the past they make no sense, names and dates and places just faintly inscribed, with cross-outs and parentheses.

Willard has to put a hand to the ground, keep from tilting forward.  He wants to look at Elizabeth so the moment’s not only his, but it isn’t his, or Elizabeth’s either. 

The Holt girl just ticks off the dead.


Years later, in a back room, Willard writes a letter he never sends.

In the unsent letter, he explains his theory of magic.  He comes to know the world as charmed objects and repetitions, a spiral of colliding stories, and in their fusion, great disturbances echo out.  In the letter he explains he can’t say what he means, that part of magic is slipperiness.  He uses a metaphor of a fresh caught mackerel, a silver fish too hard to hold, but the metaphor isn’t what he means either.  He just has to come right out and say it. 

The day he finds the Holt girl standing in the drive, the day he sits and watches her trace the names, the day he learns that words are interchangeable and unreliable and terrifying, on that day, even as he wants to look away, he has to follow her thin finger to the bottom of the second column, has to try to understand what he’s seeing.

He’s unable to write what he means by understand.

He crosses all of this out with the heaviest black ink he can find.  He writes to cross something out can be as magical as to write it.

In his seventies, Willard tries digging a tunnel in his basement.  He loses interest, and the tunnel collapses on itself.

By this point Elizabeth doesn’t even ask about the tunnel and she doesn’t ever find the unsent letter stuffed in plastic and duct-taped to the pipe under the kitchen sink.

In the back room Willard writes many unsent letters.  He tapes them throughout the house.  When he runs out of ink and paper, he tries to dig a tunnel, not to escape, but go deeper.

Later he realizes that what happens with the Holt girl affects him in one way, and since magic so often is reckless and dispersed, it must affect Elizabeth in her own way as well.

Willard will be unable to remember when it starts, when the first travelers come to Pine Mountain, searching for the Holt place.  One day he notices they’ve been coming, and from that day forward they’ll keep coming.  Across counties and states, mountains and oceans, with accents and languages he’s never known, they’ll busy the road past his house, often stop, ask if they are close.  They will sit in the carport while Willard shells peas into an aluminum bucket and smokes his pipe.  They will sit with him and Elizabeth, say how excited they are, so close to their destination.  Elizabeth will give them coffee, and sometimes, Willard will tell the travelers to look at the trees, ask if they’ve ever seen birds that black. 

No, they’ll say.  Never. 

Grackles, he’ll say. 

Elizabeth will make a noise in her throat, a raspy, choking noise, and with the noise, Willard will go back to his peas or coffee or pipe.

Willard and Elizabeth never discuss magic.  Some nights in his bed in the guest room, silence is a kind of magic too.

The travelers are in no hurry.  One more way-station, someone to hear their voice.  They tell Willard what they know, as if telling makes it all mean more.  He can’t imagine how they know such things, gruesome, shifting things.  Maybe from a computer.  Once, Elizabeth tried to persuade him to buy one, said that in the city to the south there are computers in every home.  Willard doubts this, but doesn’t say it.  She says this while they argue over the microwave she has bought and put beside the kitchen sink.  Microwaves are not to be trusted.  They use invisible forces to move and heat the world.  Computers do the same. 

Elizabeth says a microwave, perhaps a computer, could change things. 

Willard asks, Can they bring back the birds?

For the travelers, having coffee with Willard and Elizabeth is important.  It is an act of re-creation.  They will know things deeply, like they hope to know the Holt house deeply. 

Eventually they ask the question.

Did they, Willard and Elizabeth, know the Holts?  Being neighbors, they had to have known them some, maybe even well.  Perhaps they attended the services in the chapel behind the house.  Perhaps they knew Mrs. Holt when she still ventured out.  All of this is possible, the travelers think, waiting breathless for an answer.

One of two things might happen. 

Elizabeth, if she has not yet taken in the coffee cups, explains that, no, they did not know them.  The travelers nod, refuse to believe.  Impossible that ones so close would really know so little.  But being polite, as travelers tend to be, they nod as if the thing is settled.

Sometimes Elizabeth will have already gone inside.  Willard will walk the travelers to their car.  He will stand in a magical place, point up the slope of the land, prepare them for revelation.  Willard will ask if they see the birds in the treetops, if they know what those birds are for.  The travelers will not know.  Then, Willard will use a little magic of his own.  Pointing at the trees, he’ll give them silence, and the silence will cast a dark, dark spell, and it will drive the travelers into their cars, down the drive, and back on up the hill.

It’s not about the travelers, the house, the chapel. 

Not about what they think happened. 

Not about what’s been happening in the city to the south. 

It’s about the Holt girl, squatting in the drive, her finger at the bottom of the page.

It’s about the last three names, how they are not in the same delicate script, the letters ballooning, curling, still fresh on the page.  Three names with three black lines straight through to Genesis.

Willard is moving his hand to touch them, the letters and lines, focusing his eyes enough to see what’s wrong.  The names must be wrong.  Her hand touches his hand above them. 

Three names crossed through the page.

And how they shouldn’t be.

He does what’s expected.  He scoops her up, the Holt girl, limp and pale, Willard’s arms underneath.  Scoops her up and they’re already running.  It’s too late, though.  There’s been a flourish, a touching of hands.  A crossing out of names.

Which Willard is already trying to explain when Elizabeth takes the Holt girl in the carport.  He wants to say everything he saw on the page, this dark, dark spell, trying to get the words to act the way they should, so he can say it to Elizabeth, already in the house, the house already not the same, trying to say just simply what’s wrong with the last three names.

How if they’re already crossed out, then what’s it going to mean for him.

For Willard.

How in God’s name will he understand, will he explain the girl, the one he just held, the one now being carried across the threshold and into his very own house.