by Collier McLeod
Dorothy Jane was twelve and she had a habit of sitting on the front stoop of her house, scuffing her Mary Janes against the brick steps. Ethel, who always wore primrose pink lipstick and barrettes in her hair, rarely failed to comment on the knots in her hair or the scabs on her knees, but her father never noticed. Ethel would call after Dorothy Jane, “Stop spilling juice on your dress. How did you get grass stains on your shorts?”
Dorothy Jane was familiar with the taunts that came more often since Momma died; she always shrugged her shoulders.
“Why don’t you wear the hair ribbons I bought? Don’t leave this house without brushing your teeth — what on earth would Momma say if she saw this?” Ethel would ask.
Dorothy Jane always reminded her that she hated hair ribbons, but Ethel tied them into her braids anyway.
But she didn’t have to hear Ethel’s taunts today because Daddy was taking her to the Cedars.
She waited in the Old Chevy truck while Daddy picked up a six-pack and cigarettes at Hill Drug on the corner of Monte Sano Avenue and Central Avenue. She could see through the glass display case to the aisles of medicines and groceries within. Inside, Daddy casually chatted with the pharmacist and other customers as he leaned on the counter, his elbows poking through his summer plaid shirt.
She squeezed her nails around a splinter in her thumb while she waited, pushing and pulling skin over the wooden speck. Before Momma died, Daddy used to take the family to Hill Drug for ice cream cones. Strawberry had been Momma’s favorite flavor. When she stopped leaving the house, Daddy brought her ice cream cones. The ice cream had always started to melt by the time he got home.
He didn’t ask Dorothy Jane if she wanted ice cream this time.
Ms. Magruder, a widow who attended the same church as Dorothy Jane’s family, casually strutted over in patent pumps to join the conversation inside. Dorothy Jane watched the older woman brush her hand against Daddy’s arm and lean into the chatter, smiling slightly but eagerly. Ms. Magruder had attended Momma’s funeral in a pale pink suit while everyone else wore black. She’d had red lipstick stained on her front teeth from smacking her lips too many times. It looked like the fake blood used at the neighborhood haunted house every Halloween. Dorothy Jane hated that haunted house after Mike Blanchard chased her down the street covered in blood and screaming.
Ms. Magruder was also the last person to leave Momma’s wake. Dorothy Jane never understood why she stayed so late and continued to bring food over every Wednesday for weeks after. Ethel had said that that was downright inappropriate.
Wrinkling her nose, Dorothy Jane turned to look away.
Ms. Magruder reached for Daddy’s hand as they walked out of Hill Drug, but he didn’t grab hers. Dorothy Jane remembered Daddy holding Momma’s hand when she died. He had held her hand long after her body started to cool, as if he was hoping it would grow warm again.
A breeze idled through the truck’s cab, pausing hazily between the windows she had cranked down. It almost pushed the suffocating summer air out into the open, but not quite. The gust ruffled the geraniums in terracotta pots next to the store’s front door.
Daddy finally returned to the truck alone and they continued toward the Cedars.
The steering wheel creaked as he turned right onto Hepzibah-McBean Road and Dorothy Jane picked at the splinter again.
“Daddy, why don’t you take me and Ethel to get ice cream any more?”
He responded by turning up the radio, where a man’s voice was advertising the arrival of a new department store in town.
“Daddy, I want to get this splinter out.”
Furrowing his brow, he turned to look at her. “Quit messing with that damn thing. It’ll come out on its own.”
She didn’t stop picking at the splinter until he’d turned onto the clay driveway. Dust streamed behind the truck as Daddy maneuvered through the gate and rocked over the ruts. He accelerated past the pig shed and headed toward the house, which prompted her to grab the door and holler, “Daddy! Slow down! I’m bouncin’ off the seat!”
The steering wheel creaked again as he turned off the clay driveway behind the white plank house they called the Big House. It sat empty now. From her seat, she squinted through the window to see the red outline of his tractor where it had sat since last Saturday. Shoving open the door, Daddy silently grabbed the bag with the beer and cigarettes and stalked off toward the distant tractor, leaving Dorothy Jane to her own fancies.
She walked the length of the shed toward the horse pasture, tracing the whitewashed planks that shone in the midday sun. Pulling her hand away from the wood, she found her fingertips dusted in a fresh coat of white paint. Paint. Like what the Cherokee Indians wore when they went to battle!
Wiping her fingertips vigorously against the wet wood, she smeared then in a claw-like motion across her cheeks. With one swift gesture she was no longer Dorothy Jane Wright; she was Indian Princess of the Cedars!
On a nail on the back of the pig shed were loops of bailing twine leftover from the weeks of feeding hay to the horses. Daddy said that bailing twine was good for almost anything. He always kept a few knotted strings in the bed of his Ford, but other than the occasional makeshift gate chain, she’d never seen him use them. Pulling a tan string apart from the bunch, she tied the string around her forehead in true Indian headband fashion with a small knot at the back.
Sauntering around the edge of the pig shed, she glanced around in search of Daddy’s handyman, Deke. When Dorothy Jane was little, she had asked him why his skin was the color of Hershey’s chocolate bars when hers was the color of South Carolina peaches. He had smiled, his white teeth gapping and his belly jiggling. Even though the Big House sat empty, he didn’t live in there. Dorothy Jane asked Daddy why once and he told her that was how things were.
Deke didn’t even own a car and Daddy never let him drive the tractor. Daddy said that Deke was simple. Shrugging Daddy’s statement away, Dorothy Jane thought about how she and Deke planted daffodils along the brick walkway of the Big House when she was little. Sitting in the grass, they had placed each small bulb in the ground before carefully layering the dirt on top of it.
He lived in a metal house a stone’s throw from the pig shed. Most people called him Deke, but Daddy called him Deacon Jones. Once he’d told her that Deke’s family had been at the Cedars longer than Daddy had been alive, but she wasn’t sure how long that was. She asked Daddy why Deke never moved away, and he said that Deke didn’t want to leave; he liked it here, he said.
Daddy sometimes brought Deke Coca Colas.
“Ain’t nothin betta than a nice, cold Co-Cola,” Deke would say.
The Cedars wasn’t Daddy’s farm so to speak. Or at least Daddy always reminded her that it wasn’t his. It was passed down through Momma’s family.
Momma was born here. And her momma before her was born here, and her momma before her. But Dorothy Jane wasn’t born here. Daddy always reminded her of that too.
Scuffing her shoes through the weeds, she walked the length of the shed and never saw hide nor hair of Deke.
The chicken coop! Feathers! How could she have forgotten that every good Indian wore feathers?
Daddy usually kept the coop locked so that no one could disturb the chickens. He said commotion disrupted their egg laying, but a small gap in the chicken wire left enough room for her to wiggle through. Once inside the outer part of the shed, she went into the inner shed through a small square cut out of the plywood corner. Luckily Dorothy Jane could still fit through almost any small space. Sliding her knees up to her elbows and inching her arms forward, she wriggled her shoulders through the opening and pulled her legs through. Standing up amidst a wall of clucking feathers, she was reminded of the one time she had seen snow.
The hen’s beady eyes squinted warily at her, blinking rapidly. Pinching together her thumb and index fingers, she extended her arm toward the wary bird. Quick as a flash, she snatched at the hen as it erupted in a flurry of squawking. Feather rained down as Dorothy Jane swatted thick flakes away from her face with one hand while the other clasped her prize.
“I got ’em! I got ’em!” she shrieked.
Holding her prizes triumphantly in one hand, she dove toward the exit, squeezing through in record time. “Ain’t nobody quicker than Dorothy Jane,” Momma used to say.
Once outside, she opened her fingers to examine the three long, white feathers and carefully slid them in between her hair and the twine. It had started to leave a thin line across her forehead where the skin was pink and tender.
With her mouth open, she tapped her fingers against her chapped lips. A nearby branch served as her rain stick, and she twirled it in her left hand as she skipped circles around the oaks between the pig shed and chicken coop. Waving her arms, she tried to mimic baton twirlers she once saw at the Barnum and Bailey Circus with Momma.
“O O O O O O O! I am the Indian Princess of the Cedars! I am going to war on my Indian pony!”
A horse. It was the final and most necessary piece of her costume. Everyone knew that a good Indian rode a pony. Turning on her heels, Dorothy Jane marched through the summer-stale grass toward the small horse barn where Daddy kept his plow horses and Momma’s show pony.
She entered the aisle, peering into the empty stalls. A row of dusty bridles hung on a far wall. As she moved to pluck a bridge from a nail, she stopped, planting her feet in the shavings. She quickly remembered that a good Indian rode his Indian pony without a saddle and bridle. Bareback and bridle-less. If they were here, Ethel and Momma would say that that was not lady-like. Dorothy Jane shrugged the thought away.
As she skipped toward the pasture, she thought that this might be the best idea she ever had, perhaps second only to the time she had untied her sister’s bikini top at the Summerville Community Pool. Her nostrils flared as a breeze whisked bits of hay into her hair. Once at the gate of the horse pasture, she paused to watch Daddy plowing away in the distance. Round and round the field he went, churning up dust and dirt that streamed behind the red tractor like murky ocean waves.
Climbing through the wooden slats, she advanced toward the closest mount, Momma’s pinto show-pony, Belle. Wading through the grass to Belle, who stood apart from the other horses with one black ear cocked toward her, Dorothy Jane was careful not to make a ruckus. Stretching her fingers out to the pony’s curious nose, she whistled like Momma used to. Belle took a few lingering steps toward Dorothy Jane as she walked backward to the fence with her arms outstretched in a beckoning motion.
Dorothy Jane waved a bee out of her of her face and slid on to the warm breadth of Belle’s back. She wondered if Indian girls ever tried to ride sidesaddle. Daddy said that ladies must ride sidesaddle, but she couldn’t imagine anything worse. Riding sidesaddle was like trying to balance while standing on a barrel in the middle of the Richmond Avenue hill.
Lacing her fingers through Belle’s salt and pepper mane, she shoved her bottom right behind the mare’s withers. The pony’s back, which boasted a quilt of black and white patches of smooth hair, felt warm against Dorothy Jane’s thighs. Her shoulders and lower back started to relax into the mare’s curves when the bumblebee returned, buzzing around her bangs. Unlacing one hand from the tangle of man, she swatted at the bee until it disappeared from sight.
Stupid bee. You don’t be stinging me today, Dorothy Jane thought. Lacing her fingers through a tangle in Belle’s mane once again, she exhaled and turned to look at Daddy plowing in the distance. Buzzing in her right ear caught her attention as she turned her head to face the pest. This time it landed on Belle’s neck, pausing its wings as it slid the short stinger against Belle’s hair and under her skin. It stung her quicker than Dorothy Jane could say Jiminy Cricket.
Belle gave her neck a momentary shake and took off in true Indian pony style, ears pinned back tight and legs flying. Dorothy Jane’s fingers were caught, tangled in mane that started to tighten and pull at her then.
“Whoa, Belle! Easy girl! Whoa! Stop! Stop please!”
Daddy always whispered “whoa” and “easy” to nervous horses. But no amount of “whoa” and “easy” was going to stop Belle. Not today, no sir, Dorothy Jane thought.
Straight through the field they went, carving a path out of the knee high grass. It seemed to Dorothy Jane that Belle cantered faster than she ever had in her whole life. She had never seen Momma ride her so fast. Black and white legs blurred into one beneath her as the pasture fence, once distance, loomed larger and larger ahead.
“Ahhhh! Stop! Stop! Whoa!” Dorothy Jane screamed. Each scream seemed to only propel them closer and closer and faster and faster.
The fence grew larger and more certain with each stride. Squeezing her eyes shut, she leaned back tensely, bracing herself for an uncertain outcome. Dorothy Jane wasn’t sure if Belle jumped. She wasn’t even sure if she knew how to jump.
The wind whipped through her hair and smacked her cheeks as she felt herself slowly lifting into the air. She couldn’t feel Belle’s back beneath her but that didn’t seem to matter. This was it! She was jumping!
Thud. Skidding across the clay ground, Dorothy Jane rolled to a stop in a patch of weeds, legs splayed and elbows scraped. Clay grime mottled her arms and her breaths came quickly and shortly for a few seconds. She gingerly touched her face paint and the feather still snug in the headband, making sure everything was still intact.
Belle poked her nose through the fence as if to ask why Dorothy Jane was sitting on the ground by herself. The pony’s ears flickered at every sound. Staring back into her warm eyes, Dorothy Jane snatched several blades of grass from their roots and started to thread them into a braid. She split each blade into smaller strings with a decisive tear. The noise made her smile.
Daddy’s bark shattered her moment.
“What in tarnation are you doing?! What the hell is on your face, and why are there chicken feathers in your hair? What part of ‘stay out of trouble’ did you not understand?”
Grabbing her under the armpits, he heaved her to her feet and stooped over to look her square in the eyes. Dorothy Jane paused and contemplated their earlier conversation as she looked down at the rumpled grass. He never said to stay out of trouble when he left her in the truck, but she sure as heck wasn’t going to point that out now.
“What would your momma say if she saw you riding willy nilly through the field on her pony? You’re lucky you didn’t break your damn neck falling off like that!”
Sharp tears simmered behind her eyelids and she quickly wiped the streaks away with a dirt-caked finger as his barks faded.
“Go get in the truck and wait for me there until I finish.”
Dorothy Jane silently nodded and trudged toward the Chevy, dragging her toes in the grass.
Minutes later, Daddy returned to the truck, where she sat waiting and picking at the splinter still in her thumb. This time, she scraped her fingernail roughly over the skin.
“Daddy, I still can’t get this splinter out.”
The Chevy swayed as he pulled over to the shoulder of Highway 25. He slid his hand under the seat, and a Swiss Army pocketknife appeared clenched in his right hand while he held out his left hand, palm flat and open.
Dorothy Jane placed her thumb in the center of his palm as he sliced the tip of the knife under the skin, carving the wooden scrap out of her thumb. She barely felt the pain as blood bubbled through the small crack.
The blood was a lucent red: the same color as Indian war paint.
He grabbed her thumb, holding it tightly, squeezing until it turned white like the whitewash on the pig shed.
Looking away, she felt the heat from the rusted floorboards that was almost too hot for her Indian feet. She picked dirt from beneath her fingernails and used her thumb and forefinger to roll it into lines. He let go of the steering wheel to wrap his arm around her shoulders. They leaned toward each other tentatively, like they did sitting in the church pew at Momma’s funeral, neither wanting to make the other uncomfortable. She pulled away to roll down the window.
Cranking the rusted handle twice, the window slowly heaved downward and fresh air flooded the stagnant interior. Daddy tuned the radio to the local station as Billie Holiday belted through the speaker.
“Momma may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child’s that got his own.”
As they drove down Highway 25 toward Augusta, Dorothy Jane looked out at the fields of Georgia pines dotted by the occasional shanty — so much land she had never seen before.
She only knew that she wanted an ice cream cone from Hill Drug.
Collier Elizabeth McLeod is a second year student at the University of Georgia School of Law. She completed her Master of Philosophy, with an emphasis on Creative Writing, at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing in Trinity College Dublin. She interned with Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, as an undergraduate. She enjoys writing short stories in her spare time as a reprieve from her legal endeavors. Read her 2015 story “Edisto Island,” also featuring Dorothy Jane.