Pretty Polly

     by Aidee Ladnier

prettypolly
“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me.”

 

If I was man, I’d have stayed to kill Rance Bonifay. And maybe I’d have died. But being a smart girl, I ran instead.

“Polly, you come back here, girl.”

Rance crashed through the underbrush behind me. He huffed like a prize hog running for the feed trough, so close I almost felt the heat of his breath on my neck. I wasn’t a fast runner, and today, since I’d just come back from delivering a jar of cane syrup to Widow Martin in town, my visiting dress tangled me up. Mama always said it was important to dress nice when going out in public. Mama. I gasped a breath and choked on it. A fresh rush of tears left cool trails on my cheeks as I bolted into the shadows of the trees.

I had one destination in mind. Rance was a sure shot. And the road was too empty to offer cover. But I could hide in the trees.

I’d planned to visit Lucy this afternoon anyways. It was wrong to bring trouble to her doorstep, but I had no one else. Lucy would know what to do. My Mama despaired of me marrying since so many young men died during the war. It didn’t bother me none. I didn’t want any man. I wanted Lucy.

I met her on the day the soldiers came to town. I’d led our ancient mule Otis into the woods to hide him. Mama and me scraped by at the tail-end of the war. My daddy died on Little Round Top at Gettysburg and he was sorely missed, but we kept the cane press going. If the army took Otis we couldn’t turn the press and get at the cane juice, so we hid him. Mama cooked, and I kept the kettles hot enough to boil the syrup. People paid us in cane syrup and we sold any extra to keep clothes on our backs and biscuits in our bellies. That little sweetness sure made the day easier when all we had to eat were vegetables from the kitchen garden and fish or a scrawny squirrel I caught.

That day, Lucy stood in nothing but her shimmy and bloomers beside the riverbank. The summer had been hot as fire and I reckoned she might be bathing or cooling off.

§§§

“You’d best not go swimming in the river. There’s gators.”

The woman whirled around so fast that her hair floated out in a dark cloud around her. “Gators don’t bother me.”

And then she smiled. She owned a big gorgeous smile, her teeth so white they glinted in the sunshine dappling through the trees.

My mouth went dry, and I swallowed to get spit back in it. I tied Otis to a tree, fingers shaking a little. Wiping my sweaty hands on my skirt, I picked my way to the river, careful not to slide on the moss and clay. “I’m Mary Margaret Aldridge, but most people call me Polly.”

“Pleased to meet you, Polly. I’m Lucy.” She tilted her head to the side and winked at me.

I blushed so hard my cheeks must have been red as tomatoes. A funny feeling began in the pit of my stomach. I sneaked another peek at her in her shimmy, the clear outline of her breasts swaying under the thin fabric. I was only seventeen, but it was a feeling I ought to have around menfolk aiming to marry. But this was wartime and there weren’t no menfolk except for the sick ones, the stay-behinders, or the broken ones limping back home. And in our small town even they were all married.

I straightened my shoulders like I’d seen Mama do when she went to town without my daddy. “You’d best watch for the soldiers. They’re in town taking supplies. My mama always sends me to the woods with Otis to ‘keep me from the devil’s hands’. Or at least that’s what she says.” Mama was thinking about the rape of the McCutcheon girl last year when a regiment came through Eatonville. I shuddered. Annie McCutcheon had gone to visit family in South Carolina after that and we hadn’t heard sight nor sound of her ever since.

“They don’t come this far in the woods.” Lucy’s long hair, unpinned and around her shoulders, danced on the cool breeze that flowed across the bank. “But I live just over there.”

Lucy pointed to a tiny house nestled in the trees on the other side of the river. “Won’t you join me for a cup of acorn coffee?”

And when she asked me, with her smooth voice and her deep brown eyes, I couldn’t resist. I gave Otis a quick glance before I followed her to the hidden shallows where you could cross the river. She held my hand so I didn’t slip, her palm warm in mine.

We had a fine visit and when I rose to leave, she made me promise to come again. I returned the next day. And the next. Soon we were fast friends. A year after that we were more than friends.

§§§

I skidded on some leaves and tripped while thinking about Lucy, not watching where I was going. Tumbling down, I hit the ground hard, a lick of pain shooting up from my elbow where I landed on it and my backside. I scrambled to get my feet back under me, but I’d lost my lead. Behind me I heard Rance cussing his way through a thicket. He burst into view a few feet away, still toting his rifle.

But I could also see the wide, dark river just a few more yards away. I was almost there. I ducked behind a tree and held my breath.

Rance slowed to walk, a twig snapping under his brogans. I needed to inch further toward the riverbank, but a sapling blocked me. I wanted to keep hardwoods between me and him so he couldn’t get a good shot.

“Pretty Polly. Come out, come out.”

I leaned around to peek out from my hiding place.

I’d misjudged the distance. He was right behind me. Rance grabbed me, his fingers biting into my arm.

He dragged me away from the tree. Rance’s thick lips smacked like he was relishing his dinner, his grin pure evil. But it was his eyes that gave me a chill. They were dead. Dead as my father buried in a mass grave on Yankee soil.

“Let me go.” I yanked back trying to break his hold. His fingers slipped down to crush my wrist, the bones grinding together. I kicked out then, but it only made Rance toss his rifle so he could secure me with both hands. He pulled me back against him, one arm circling my waist, the other banding across my chest.

“Now hold on, missy. Why’d you run away from me toward the river? I know you don’t swim, girl.” The evil chuckle against my neck made me shudder.

“You know nothing about me.” I squirmed, but he ground me closer against him, his front plastered against my back from shoulder to hip. I felt it then, his rise, hard against my spine. All those improper looks he’d shot me when Mama turned away, all those lingering touches that made my skin crawl. As I got older, Mama followed me to my bedroom every night, cautioning me to lock my door to keep the varmints out. More and more I heard her light step wait at the door until I turned the key. The floorboards only creaked once she departed for her own rooms and the bed she shared with Rance Bonifay.

“I’m your step-daddy. I married your mother.”

And he had.

Rance Bonifay came from North Carolina, riding the coattails of the carpetbaggers that flooded the state. He dressed nice, looked well-fed, and took a shine to my Mama. I’d be off visiting Lucy and come home to find him at the dinner table five nights a week and sitting beside us in the pew come Sunday morning. I didn’t begrudge my Mama her beau. Dad had passed three years by then and it was plain she was lonesome. Rance had nice manners, and I thought he’d treat her well. But he only bided his time until he put the wedding ring on her finger before he hit her.

Rance took a deep sniff of my hair and then lowered his voice. “You’re old enough to know a man, Pretty Polly, and you’ve been sneaking off into these woods. You got yourself a beau out here?”

“No.” I cursed the tremor in the word. I near about retched when his slimy lips pressed against the skin under my ear and his hand groped around for my breast. I wanted to move, get away, grab his rifle and shoot his head off. But my body remained frozen in the tight grip of his fleshy hands.

“Where I come from there’s a song about a girl named Polly and a river.” His easy words chilled me.

I’d heard the song, the one about the young man who killed his sweetheart when she got in the family way.

“Did you kill her too, like you killed my Mama?” I spat the accusation, my voice catching on the last word.

I’d come back from visiting less than an hour ago to find Rance holding the fireplace poker above my Mama’s body and a pool of blood—too much blood—spreading across the floor. The first words out of his mouth had been a lie.

“It was an accident.”

I didn’t believe him. It would have been plain on my face, as well as the thought that if’n he killed my Mama, he’d have no trouble killing me, too. So I lit out for the woods with him chasing right behind me.

“Polly?”

Lucy’s pure voice broke through the stillness of the woods, carried on the wind. It surprised Rance enough he slacked his hold. And it gave me the strength to kick back and wrench myself free. I stumbled forward. There was a jerk as he made another grab for me. My skirt ripped as he tried to reel me back in. I paid it no mind, but fled to the river, plunging into the cold, deep water.

My torn skirts didn’t buoy me like Hamlet’s Ophelia. They pulled me down. I drew a breath and dove into the river. My head filled with the silence of the water and my beating heart. I scraped the riverbed, the rocks hard and painful on my palms. The current dragged me as I swam with it, the water icy close to the bottom. My lungs wanted air but I daren’t surface until I was farther downstream. Six more heart beats, seven, eight. I couldn’t stay under any longer. My lungs were on fire. I got my feet under me and pushed off the bottom toward the sunlight again.

Rance was wrong about me not swimming. I don’t swim much because I don’t like snakes and gators. But I know how to fine.

I broke the surface long enough to gasp a breath along with some river water. The current and my clothing weighted me down again. Rance wasn’t the only one trying to kill me. The river was, too. I tried to turn, but with my skirts around my legs it was like flailing in mud. I reached for the fastenings on my skirt and petticoats. But the knots held wet and tight. My fingers slipped. I struggled to surface again and stole a coughing breath, only to sink once more.

Cool arms reached for me. I pushed away from them, but a strong grip spun me around. Lucy.

I almost sagged in relief. Lucy’s skin glowed a soft green sheen beneath the water, her dark hair spread around her. She pressed her lips to mine, blowing sweet air into my starved lungs. I wound my arms around to the dip of her back as she gave a strong kick and propelled us up to the surface. I gasped as Lucy tugged me against the current, her grip an anchor against the river’s clutches. She towed me to the far riverbank as if I was a piece of driftwood. My feet hit the rocky bottom, and I took an unsteady step forward, my skirts still threatening to pull me back into the water’s grip.

A buzz startled me, and then the rifle shot barked behind it. I ducked. Lucy turned from where she still tread water behind me.

“He killed my Mama.” I panted, trying to stay in the water’s shelter without getting swept away. I pined to kiss Lucy again. Rance killed the only other person I loved, and I wanted to kiss Lucy before he took her away, too. Or murdered me.

Lucy didn’t say a word but grabbed my hand. We swam together to where a half-submerged cottonwood tree hung over the river. She tucked me under it. I eyed it, expecting to see a moccasin sunning itself over a branch, but the tree limbs were empty.

“Stay here.” Lucy kissed me then. I ran my fingers in her silky wet hair and cradled her head to hold her closer. I didn’t want her to go. She needed to stay with me.

“Wait.” I couldn’t let her face him. “He’s got a gun.”

“Trust me.” She took my chilled fingers and pressed kisses against them with her petal soft lips. And then before I could grab her back, Lucy dove under the water and swam towards Rance.

From my shadowed hiding place I waited, my heart a fist in my throat. Rance waded into the water, his bulky frame easily fighting the current’s pull. He peered around the banks and squinted at the shadows of the overhang where I hid. I scooted flat against the slimy clay of the riverbank.

And then Rance belted out a laugh and sang.

“Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me.” He sang the chorus again, his voice echoing off-key through the woods. The birds, the frogs, even the insects quieted, disturbed by his call.

I lost sight of Lucy. She was a good swimmer, but I couldn’t help worrying. Rance was as mean as a rattlesnake and twice as dangerous.

“Polly Pretty Polly come go along with–”

Right then a low bellow followed by a hiss made me scramble from my cover and onto the low bank. I kept as close to the leaning tree as I dared. I still needed to hide. But no one wanted to be close to a critter that made that sound.

I could tell Rance heard it too. He spun around, his rifle on his shoulder. He aimed in front and then behind himself. A long dark shape I’d taken for a sunken log burst up right on top of him. Rance screamed. Massive jaws clamped on his leg. He flew like a rag doll into the deeper water. The fierce boiling of the water was loud. Rance slapped at the animal, trying to pull away. The gator didn’t let go though. It shook him side to side. Bone breaking snaps echoed as it whipped its head. And then they both disappeared underwater as the gator rolled him.

“Lucy!” I searched for a glimpse of her white shift, unable to spy her in the murky water. Where one gator hunted, more could be. Gators lived in these waters, but Lucy gave that no never mind. Now she was in danger too. They’d all come running if they got wind of a carcass in the water. I choked on a sob. No. She would’ve left the water when the gator blew. That’s what any sane person would do.

While I continued to search the wide river from the bank, Rance’s body surfaced one more time, face down. I saw the snout of the alligator poking at him, and then it rolled him again before they both dropped from view. No doubt the gator took him to a hidey hole to make sure he stayed drowned. There’d be no body to float downstream and wash ashore. That gator planned to eat him.

But where was Lucy? Did the gator grab her too?

The fearful sobs welled in my chest, fighting their way out of my throat in a ragged wail. Tears swam in my eyes, burning, making it harder to comb the water and the bank for any sign of her. The horror of the day caught up to me as hot tears scalded my cheeks and stopped up my nose. I gasped as my breath shuddered, my shoulders shook.

And then two arms circled me and the weight of someone’s head rested against my back. I gasped, turning around.

Lucy sat behind me, her long legs bare save for the bloomers over her thighs, her shimmy wet and stuck to her like a second skin. I fair dove into her to get her arms back around me. I cried all the harder then. But she cradled me to her chest, and I sobbed until all that remained were hiccups.

“I thought… I thought the gators got you, too.”

Against my wet cheek, the steady thump of her heart under her cotton underthings remained a comfort.

“Gators don’t bother me, love.”

I lifted up and saw her smile. Her big wide, beautiful smile. And her shiny white teeth.

Copyright 2017, Aidee Ladnier. All rights reserved.