Jack Straw (Continued)

by Midori Snyder

I stayed in bed another five days and then went back to school. I had five days of lying in my bed to think over whathad happened. Oh, I was happy to be alive, to be waking up each day and watching the sun shine through my windows, lighting up the whitedaisies on my wallpaper. Everything was just as it had been before I got sick. And that scared me. I had sent Jack Straw on his way. ButI got to thinking I was going to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, waiting for him to sneak up on me. And the thought of thatdry face, those long spindly arms reaching out to grab me when I wasn’t looking, made my victory seem cold.

"Look at your face," Granny Frank said on the morning I got up to eat breakfast before going to school.

"What’s the matter with it?" I asked

"It’s screwed tight. Grim as a soldier’s. Where’s that smile of yours, child?"

"It’s there," I snapped, and then felt bad for being cross with her. "I just don’t feel like smiling," I said more softly.

"Worried about school?"

"Uh-huh," I answered, because it was easier than telling her the truth.

"It’ll be fine," she said, picking up her knitting. "You’ll be caught up in no time."

But school wasn’t fine. It was terrible. Things had changed while I was out sick. They had painted the halls a new white with a blue stripe downthe middle of the wall to hide where everybody’s hand sort of naturally drags and leaves a dirty smear. The posters on my classroom wall had all been changed, the mapshowed we were studying a new continent, and the desks had been rearranged. People had changed too. My best friend, Mary Beth, came up to me as soon as I got into school and gave mea big hug. I didn’t recognize her at first because she’d gone and cut her beautiful long red braids and curled her hair. So instead of being happy to see her, I was mad.

"Why’d you cut your hair?" I yelled.

"Looks better this way," she said, tossing back the short curls. "More grown–up."

"What’s so good about growing up?" I said angrily. "You just die anyway."

Mary Beth opened her mouth and then shut it again without saying anything. She waited a few moments, maybe to see if I’d come to my senses and say something nice.But I didn’t, so she turned on her heel and left me standing there in that new–painted hallway.

Everything new made me scared, made me tremble. Change was the enemy that stole away my hard–won victory and left me open to the next coming of Jack Straw. I wanted time just to stop, foreverything and everyone to stay safe in its place. But the world isn’t like that, is it? It just keeps on going, and I knew that sooner or later Jack Straw would come around again to me. So every day when I left forschool, I felt the fear draw tighter and tighter around me as I tried to shut my eyes and ears to the changes. Granny Frank was right in calling me a grim soldier, because I faced each new thing like a battle.Even my own riddle came back to haunt me, for like Granny Frank’s stitches, I followed a road over hills and valleys, but never moved.

Whatever illness it was that took me came again and caught Daddy. I found him one day in the barn, just leaning his head against the old cow, too sick with fever to stand.His breathing was harsh, and his eyes burned a fiery red. I helped him to the house and into bed. For two weeks after school and at night, I stood guard over him, waiting lest Jack Straw come to take him.Daddy thrashed with fevered dreams, and his cries wrenched me from the rocking chair to my feet in terror. But the fever broke, and except for a terrible cough that lingered, he mended.

Mama got it next, and for a second time I stood my guard, certain this time Jack Straw was playing with me. Punishing me for beating him. I sat next to her bed, put cool cloths on her head, and held her hand while shestruggled with the fever. When Granny Frank tried to get me to leave and have a rest of my own, I refused. I was so scared that if I moved one foot from that room while Mama was sick, Jack Straw would come for sure and take her behind my back.The first thing Mama did when she felt the fever come down was to order me to bed. Only then did I leave her side.

I hardly noticed when winter changed and became wet spring. I had spent so much time worrying and fretting about things out of my hands that I walked around ragged and worn as Jack Straw himself. The face I saw in themirror was haggard, my eyes dark gray with purple smudges beneath. My hair had lost its shine, and my mouth was a sour frown. No wonder my friends shied away from me at school, talking in whispers when I passed like somespook down the halls.

They couldn’t know how heavy my burden felt, for with the spring Granny Frank took sick with the fever. And with each day that she got weaker and weaker, my burden grew until I felt I could no longer lift my head with theweight of so much dread. Granny Frank would smile at me, pat my hand, and tell me it was all right. "Everything’s got a season," she would say. I didn’t understand her then and thought she meant the coming spring. Then one nightI heard her singing in a tiny, sweet voice a song about spooning in the moonlight. She seemed so happy I thought maybe she’d been spared after all. But when I came closer and touched her head, I knew it wasn’t so. Her forehead was hot and dry.Her eyes stared out, not seeing me, but set on some happier memory. I took her hand and clutched it tight.

A cold draft swept through the room. Looking up I saw Jack Straw standing in the corner, just as before, with his hat pulled down and his hands stuck into his pockets.

"No!" I shouted at him. "You can’t have her!"

He pushed his hat back, and his face was wrinkled with sadness. "You mean to keep this one from me, too?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Is that what she wants, or what you want?"

"Makes no difference." I stamped my foot like a child.

"Ask her then," he said.

I turned to look down at Granny Frank and bit back a cry. She had stopped singing and was lying quietly, peaceful as a sleeper. By the light of a small lamp I saw suddenlyhow tiny and frail she had become in the last few days. And how old. Her skin had lost its color, growing pale and yellow like the husk of the corn dollies she used to make.Her white hair was tangled as dried corn silk.

"Do you still want to riddle me, Katie?" Jack Straw asked, his voice no louder than the rustle of leaves.

I didn’t answer. There was nothing to say. I realized then that just as I couldn’t stop things from changing in life, I couldn’t keep Granny Frank from her appointed death. I bowed my head eyessqueezed shut, and clung to Granny Frank’s hand. She squeezed back once, her grip firm as if to give me strength. And then her hand went limp. I shuddered as the cold draftcircled my shoulders. When the room grew warm again, I knew she was gone with Jack Straw. And then I cried, cried hard, grief breaking like a branch within me.

We buried Granny Frank on a beautiful spring morning. From cemetery hill I could see down into the pockets of fields newly plowed, the mist rising like steam from the earth.The air was soft and warm, full of promise, as crocus and daffodil buds swelled and burst open with color.

I was done crying, though I wore the sadness of Granny Frank’s death like a long–needed relief. I had been so long frozen that Granny Frank’s passing took me like a field set to by the plow blade.I was wounded, cut open, and yet, in the furrow left by her death I also felt released. I looked up across the open grave into which they lowered Granny Frank’s casket and saw Jack Strawone more time. He was standing between the preacher, who was saying the words, and Mrs. Johnson, who jiggled her new baby to keep him from fussing. He didn’t look sofrightening to me anymore now that I knew him. He looked over and gave me a sad, weathered smile, like he was satisfied with what he had done and sorry at the pain it had caused me.

Then he tipped me his hat in farewell and started ambling off toward the fields. I watched him as he went, like a freed scarecrow with his long, lanky body of dried yellowed stalks. And just before the mistswallowed him, I caught a glimpse of faint shimmering green of the new rye grass resurrecting in the fields around him.