The last time Christine-Ann Corbin wore a dress was two months ago when she turned twelve. Her parents had a small birthday party and celebrated with a few friends and neighbors. The conversation quickly turned to the unrest in Europe.
Little Falls, Vermont, was exactly as its name revealed in the early summer of 1914, a small town of a few thousand inhabitant’s dependent on the many waterfalls to drive old flour mills and Hadley’s Metal Fabrications, the biggest employer, where her father worked. Hadley’s built fenders for the automobile market, and earlier in the year won a contract to fabricate them for the Army.
On this particular day, Christine prepared herself for another “conversation” with her mother about her refusal to wear a dress, something her teachers were increasingly unsettled over.
“Child, you have to tell me what has gotten into you with these pants. My gosh, so many people talking about such a small issue while the world sits on the verge of war, is not what we are about. Now, please, lastly, tell me why you refuse to wear a skirt?”
“I can’t, Mommy.”
Beverly Corbin exhaled loudly and crossed her arms over her chest. The child rarely referred to her as “Mommy.” There was nothing else wrong or strange goings-on with her daughter. She seemed happy and playful as ever, and had long ago been able to give back as well as she got from her two older brothers.
“OK. But when I find out, and I will, it better be for a good reason. If I am going to fight for something you believe in, it better not be of little consequence.”
Christine gave her mother a faint kiss on her cheek, rushed up to her room, opened a ragged dictionary, and tracked down the definition of “consequence.”
Delighted with her mother’s support, Christine ran into the back yard, spotted a young robin crossing over her lawn, effortlessly heaved herself about fifteen feet in the air and plucked the little bird out of the air with an unnatural resolve of acrobatic acumen, and gulped it down before her feet touched back down on the ground.
A few feathers clung to her chin which she quickly snared with her tongue. “Try that with a dress on, and see how far you get,” she sang in unreserved giggles, as she jumped and danced herself across a nearby field.
“Dear God, help us all,” Beverly Corbin gasped in a whisper worthy of even the most sinister conspirators. “Oh, dear God, dear God, oh my lord,” was all she could muster, balancing herself and the pan of muffins she had just plucked from the oven.
She watched her princess disappear beyond an outcropping of stone and down to Cranberry Pond. Finally, she sat, clutched her face in her hands, and let out a whimper and a silent prayer that the devil might have already taken her princess.
“Now, you go there, and you, no, swim away from those two,” Christine directed as the tiny perch flitted about in a shallow pool of water along the edge of Cranberry Pond. “There, now isn’t that better?” she added, certain that without her intervention there could have been a terrible crash of perch that would have led to terrible injuries.
Noticing that one of the perch was lagging behind, she bent closer to the creature. Deciding that it had been given a fair chance, she scooped up the wriggling creature from the water and swallowed it whole.
Beverly pounced on her husband the moment he came home from work. John Corbin took off his shirt, washed, and stoking his grandfather father’s old meerschaum, patiently questioned his wife through her fright.
He reached out for her and she fell into his lap, and in his embrace settled herself back almost to the edge of calm. John Corbin delighted in his wife as a woman, a doting and fiercely devoted mother, and a partner that he so often told her that he never expected to be so pretty.
“So, what should we do? We can’t let this go on. The little one gobbled down that poor bird as if it were a chocolate pastille? And she just jumped into the air like it was… was nothing.” Beverly continued, “That can’t be. It just can’t be.”
“But you saw it and walked me through it from beginning to end, so I would imagine it was exactly as you said it was.”
She dragged herself from his embrace, stalked the perimeter of their kitchen, and stared at her husband, hands on her hips, consumed with purposeful certainty, “Well, it just can’t be.”
He took a purposeful puff on his pipe and unfolded the Vermont Gazette. “Damn councilman Hastings. Tax, tax, tax. Is that all he ever thinks about? Damnable Democrat is going to bury the State in debt we will never be able to pay back.”
“John, I saw it,” Beverly said, pulling away his newspaper.
“Yes, I believe you did. Can’t imagine how frightening that must have been for you, honey.”
“And, you’re just going to sit there and read your newspaper while that child is out there and, you know, swallowing down whatever other poor animal while we do nothing about it?”
“No, I’m going to sit here, read my newspaper, and have a few minutes of peace with my pipe and my wife before she comes home.”
“Impossible. Just absolutely and completely impossible.”
“You referring to me or that damn scoundrel Hastings?” he said, knowing full well that his wife had witnessed something terrible and unexplainable. He also knew that at this very moment he had no idea as to how he was going to deal with Chrissy, or his wife.
“Impossible,” Beverly muttered and went out back to gather in the wash that had been hanging in the June sun all day. “The devil is walking among us, but by God, he will not have her. As God is my witness, he will never have my little girl.”
Christine-Ann sat patiently on a hillock overlooking the Cranberry waterfall at the head of the pond not far away from where she saved the perch from what could have been a certain crash, and consumed the one that she knew couldn’t survive on its own.
“I don’t like the taste of birds, especially robins. And I don’t want to harm any creature, and I don’t want to wear a skirt and jump into the air and have everything hanging out for everyone to see. And Mommy is worried, which means my dad is worried. And when Bobby and Calvin get wind of this, they will make my life miserable, forever.”
Calvin was fourteen and Robert, two years and a world older than his baby brother, who was the rascal of the town, adored by all and given such a wide swath for his deviltry that he would probably have had to rob a bank and have taken hostages before he ever got punished.
“I was abducted by spacemen and they made me able to jump high…”
“They teach you to eat birds too?” her mother questioned after Christine-Ann returned and explained about dresses and the incident about the robin, which she knew her mother had spotted from the kitchen window. And she wanted to get it out before Calvin got home from baseball practice.
“Ah, that was an accident.”
“Go on,” her father urged, testing his own patience and trying to judge just how long his wife was going to put up with Christine-Ann’s creative confession.
“Honey,” he said, “your mother and I are upset for you so, now, please just tell us the truth, start to finish—and without the space aliens—what started all this.”
Christine-Ann adored her mother, but the way her father treated her, trusted and admired and loved her, was the spark of her life, something she leaned on and clung to and would never compromise.
“I think I maybe know what happened,” she said, reluctant and exhausted. “I was in the school playground a few months ago and fell. I got a pretty bad scrape and Mom bandaged me when I got home. My back and head hurt and my knees were stiff the next day. I walked around and it hurt for a few days. Then, a few days later down near Wallaby’s Bakery, I wanted to jump over a puddle of water and, I don’t know, I just went up higher than I had ever been. I came down, looked around to see if anyone noticed, and came home and fell into bed. I was… I was scared.”
“I remember. Your knees were badly scraped,” her mother added, already relieved that the aliens had miraculously disappeared. “The bump on the back of her head still bothers her,” she said to her husband.
“Oh, no. Not anymore,” Christine urged, quickly measuring the scope of her lie.
“And the next day, out back after Mom went into town, I tried to jump again and went up almost as high as our roof. I came down OK. I looked around. I was alone. I looked at my legs. I didn’t hurt or anything, but my dress was all tangled up around my chest and I was… I was embarrassed.”
“So no more dresses?”
“So, no more dresses. But I still like them,” she confessed to her father.
“And the bird?”
Christine-Ann shook nervously, wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “I don’t know about the bird.”
“You don’t understand why you ate the bird?”
She burst into tears. “I love birds. I do love the little things.” She sobbed openly.
Her father came to her side. “How many have you eaten?”
“Yes, we will understand, but just how many have you eaten?”
“This was my first! It flew right at my mouth. I don’t know what happened. I just gulped it down.”
Beverly and John Corbin studied their daughter and let the silence ease the fear that had gripped them both, though it was clear that Beverly remained suspicious, and fearfully unconvinced.
“Can you still jump so high?”
Christine-Ann had hoped she wasn’t going to be asked this question. She had hoped since leaving Cranberry Ridge and all the way home after deciding to tell her parents the story about the aliens. Calvin would have pressed convincingly ahead with the alien story. If it was good enough for him, she knew she could depend upon it.
“I don’t think so,” she heaved out as though lifting a terrible weight from her body. “I have jumped higher than today with the bird. A couple of days ago I jumped higher.”
Beverly came to her side. “How are your knees and back?” she said, clasping her child’s hands in hers.
“They’re OK. A little stiff at times,” she said, and started to sob again. “I ate a bird today, Mommy.”
John Corbin knew they needed to get her to Doc Kennecott, and maybe drive to Montpelier General for a full workup. There was gas in the car, but not enough to go that far. Doc Kennecott first. Let him decide.
“It’s OK. We just need to let Doc Kennecott look you over, especially that bump, and you will be better in no time.” He planted a kiss on his daughter’s right cheek and waited for her to return with two to his left cheek. It was their way of soothing each other. Beverly loved it, and had always wanted to be a part of their ritual.
Robert and Calvin arrived home, arguing about how badly they had lost to Connaught High School, and were quickly caught up in their world of bad pitching and worse fielding.
Already shaken and fearful, Beverly Corbin made an extra special dinner that night. She didn’t know exactly where her daughter was, though she was grateful the child was close by.
And she was right.
Christine-Ann Corbin was in the basement rummaging through her father’s old tool chest. She was looking for a file. And not any old kind of file, like the big clunky one her dad used on the wooden cabinets or when he repaired the kitchen table last month.
No. Christine-Ann was looking for something quite different. She was searching for a small file, a strong and flexible one that she could use to sharpen her teeth before going out hunting again.
The voices that had been haunting her since the schoolyard fall, filled her dreams with the excitement of the gift she had been granted for being such a good child, the glory of flying, and warned her not to tell anyone, especially her parents, or she would quickly fall from the heavens.
“Don’t want to fall from the heavens. Don’t want to fall from the heavens. Don’t want to fall from the heavens,” she repeated over and over as she found the file she was looking for. She cleaned it, and the tall antique framed full length mirror her mom had left down here long ago, with her shirtsleeve.
“Christine-Ann,” her mother called from the top of the stairs leading down to the basement, but there was no answer. “Christine-Ann, I know you’re down there so you come up for dinner right now.”
Beverly Corbin mumbled a word she hadn’t used in months. Between what she saw Christine-Ann do and the terrible dread she had taking the child to Doc Kennecott, she was in no mood for more melodrama.
She looked around the basement and quickly spotted the antique mirror her mother-in-law gave her years ago. The film of dust had been brushed away, and a dozen files of every size spilled out from her husband’s toolbox.
The small window that bled light into the basement was propped open. A fragment of Christine-Ann’s blouse was caught on the window’s rusted hinge. In a blinding flash of reality and terrifying sorrow, Beverly-Jane Corbin fell to her knees and howled tears of anguish that quickly brought her husband to her side.
As he held her close, she pointed to the open window, “she’s gone,” she said in a shard of a whisper. “I just know it. Oh, Lord, I just know it.”
And the child was never seen, or heard from again.
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