Iffen you don't care, just stop here a minute. Ain't likely no one'll come along. This is a lonely place . . . it always was. Which I reckon is how come that girl to hide herself there. Such a pretty thing she was . . .
Yeah, boy, there's a story goes with it. Onliest thing is, it don't rightly have what you could call an ending. But I'll tell you the way of it.
Back when me and Luther went to church pretty regular, come this one Christmas when Cletus wanted to be in the Christmas play. They always let the young uns act out the Christmas story with the preacher reading the words. Now you know that Cletus was kindly simple -- the sweetest young un that ever lived but he couldn't learn to read nor to count much beyond five.
Howsomever, he loved the Christmas story and wanted so bad to be in the play. He was going on thirteen then and big for his age but Luther and I studied on it and figgered that if they would let him be the second wise man, with one ahead for him to follow and one behind to whisper at him if he was going wrong, why then he had ought to be able to get through the play without no trouble.
Myrtle Plemmons, who was the lady who ran the play, was a sweet somebody and she said she would be proud to have Cletus be a wise man and she found him a robe to wear and some shiny cloth to wrap around his head like a foreigner. They had a practice or two the day before the play and once Cletus learned that he shouldn't talk while he was being a wise man, she said he would do just fine
Oh, he was the happiest thing. And me and Luther was fit to bust when the day of the play come. We was sitting in our places just waiting to see our boy.
Debbie Davis and Travis Goforth was at the front of the church kneeling by the manger where they had a doll baby all wrapped up like the Baby Jesus. The angels had come and sung their piece and the shepherds had straggled in with Dayton's white dog on a leash for a sheep. And then it was time for the Wise Men.
Myrtle had rigged a big gold-painted star hanging from a shower curtain ring on a piece of wire stretched the length of the church from back to front and she had tied some of that invisible fishing line to the star so it could be pulled along for the Wise Men to follow.
Harley Freeman was crouched behind the piano tugging on that line while his mama was playing "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and we all looked up and there came that star, bouncing along overhead and then, through the door came the three boys with Cletus in the middle grinning like one thing. His head was tilted back and he didn't take his eyes off that star till they got to where the Baby Jesus was and he ran into the boy in front of him.
Then the preacher told how the wise men gave the Baby their gifts. The first boy had a fist-sized rock that had been spray-painted gold and he set it beside the manger. Cletus had a blue jar with a gold ribbon on it and he stepped up to the manger and set it down just like the other boy had. Luther reached over and squeezed my hand and was about to whisper something when Cletus heisted up his robe and reached in his back pocket and pulled out a hickory slingshot he'd made.
"This is for you too, Baby Jesus," he said, and laid it in the manger.
Well, the play went on and didn't no one fault Cletus for speaking out. As a matter of fact, preacher called him a good boy for giving the Baby something of his own. And me and Luther both had to wipe our eyes when preacher spoke those words.
No, I ain't forgot the story about this house. I was just trying to show you how it come about.
Well. The church play was several days before Christmas and for the next week, Cletus would dress up in an old overcoat of Luther's and wrap a towel around his head and play wise man, walking solemn up and down the yard carrying a flower pot before him.
It was a few days past Christmas and one evening after supper that we missed him. He had et his supper, still in his wise man duds, and then he had gone outside -- to the necessary house was what we figgered. But when ten minutes or so went by and he didn't come back, Luther went to look for him.
Pretty quick, here comes Luther. "Miss Birdie," says he. "Roy Meadows just passed by and said he seen the boy headed up the Worley holler. I'm going to take the truck and go after that rascal; it's nigh dark and getting colder every minute."
Well, I grabbed my coat and went with Luther, not wanting to have to set back at the house, alone and worrying.
It was one of them clear winter nights, with the sun fading in the west and the eastern sky all pink and lavender just above the mountains and turning to deep blue and purple like velvet beyond that. The big old evening star was hanging there, bright as can be and we could see it clear as we traveled up this very road.
Our truck bumped along slow, with us looking hard for any sign of our boy. Every so often Luther would stop and we'd call out, "Cletus, Clee-tus," but never a sound did we hear.
And then we came to this same house and saw a light inside. Luther stopped the truck and I leaned out my window and hollered for Cletus. There weren't no answer but all of a sudden the house door swung open and a young woman was standing there.
"Your boy's in here with the baby," she called, and smiled the sweetest smile I ever did see. "I'll tell him you've come after him."
Well, I have always been of a curious nature and I wanted to get a closer look for there hadn't been no word of any new folks moving in. And I have always loved babies. So I was out of the truck and hopping up onto the porch and through that door before Luther could say a word.
She was standing in the doorway with a blue shawl over her nightgown and as she stood to one side, I stepped into the room. And there was my boy setting on the floor beside an old chest of drawers. The bottom drawer was pulled out and I could see the baby, all wrapped up in flannel blankets and holding on hard to Cletus's finger.
There was an old wood stove giving off a good warmth, a table and a couple of mule back chairs, and a pallet of faded quilts on the floor next to the stove. The place was clean enough but so bare . . . Still and all, there was a sweet, homely smell about it and the crackle of the flames took away the lonely feel. I found myself thinking how welcome any shelter is when the weather is bad and feeling awful sorry for them as has none.
I said who I was and thanked the girl for letting my boy in. All the while I was looking around for any sight of her husband but seeing none, I up and asked," Honey, are you here all alone?"
"No ma'am," says she, looking toward the babe, "not alone no more." And she smiled that smile again and I begun to wonder if she was like Cletus -- a little simple.
The wood stove was putting off a world of heat and a kettle that she had atop it was beginning to steam to where my glasses got all fogged up. I remember thinking they must have been some kind of herbs in the water because the little room was filled with a sweet heavy smell that made me kindly woozy.
I pulled off my glasses to wipe them on my apron -- for I had come off in such a hurry that I still had it on-- and suddenly it seemed to me that the room was full of the strangest folks and that they was all singing . . .
Just then Luther honked the horn. I put my glasses back on and I told Cletus his daddy was waiting and we would have to go. He pulled his finger loose from the baby and reached out and touched the baby's cheek, just as gentle. . .
The horn sounded again and I took Cletus by the hand. "We got to be going, Miz . . ."
"My name is Miriam," she says, "it was nice to see you." And she opened the door to let us out.
The cold air cleared my head some and at the sound of the door closing I wondered what it was had come over me back in the house. Cletus was loping towards the truck and I hurried to get in.
"I followed the star," he was telling Luther. "I followed the star and found Baby Jesus."
Luther just reached over and patted his knee. "Next time, son, you best tell us before you leave."
I had all but forgot the quare spell I'd taken in the house and was busy with thoughts of coming back the next day to visit Miriam, to see was there aught we could do for her. I figgered her for a girl who'd gotten in the family way and maybe was afraid for her folks to know.
But as Luther got the truck turned around, I looked back at the house and it was all aglow.
"Luther!" says I, grabbing his arm, "look at the house!"
"What about it, Miss Birdie? There ain't much to see, dark as it is."
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. The house was as dark as the inside of a hat. I shook my head and told myself that I'd been seeing things and decided not to say aught to Luther about it.
Oh, yes, I went back the next day. I took Cletus with me and a big basket of baby things I'd saved, thinking to give them to Miriam. We pulled up in the yard but there weren't no smoke coming out the chimney. My heart sank, worrying that something had befallen that poor girl and me and Cletus hurried to the door,
It swung open when I rapped on it and I could see that they was gone. Everything was the same -- the table and chairs, the pallet, and the open drawer. I felt of the wood stove but it was cold. So was the kettle but there was still a faint sweet scent in the air.
Cletus went right to the drawer where the baby had been. But there weren't no baby nor no blankets. Just a homemade hickory slingshot laying there.
"I reckon he wanted me to have it back," Cletus said and he stuffed it in his pocket.
Naw, like I said, the story don't have no ending. I asked around but there weren't no one knew a thing about any girl named Miriam nor about no one living in that house. I never did tell Luther anymore than that she was gone.
But I can remember that moment when I had my glasses off and saw things that wasn't there. And I think about that Bible verse about seeing through a glass darkly . . .