Writing and Photography by Sherrie Robins
Tilly lived beside the river, in the valley between two ridges. Always had. It was a small place, according to most folks’ standards and didn’t amount to much. The shack had been handed down to her by her Granny, and had always been leaning a little far to the right. The floor boards creaked, the roof leaked, and there was but one room that served the purpose of many.
But it had a wrap around porch with two rockers and a porch swing. There were flower pots and baskets galore, three shade trees, several fruit baring trees and a weeping willow beside a slow-moving creek, sauntering on to the faster river, beyond.
Tilly had always planted a garden, just like Granny’d taught her, and was often busy canning in the shed right next to the kitchen area of her home. It had a gas burning stove, a garden bench and shelves stocked with canned garden produce, but mostly fruity concoctions of Tilly’s own making. When the colder months came, she’d move them to the rather sophisticated root cellar, bulging from the earth by her shack. (Granny had always told her to have her priorities straight, and eating had always been a priority.)
Now, Tilly had never taken much to people. People had not been kind nor had they understood her way of life. Her clothes were worn, her long graying hair gathered in a braid and she often had dirt on her long skirts, from kneeling in the garden or wiping her hands when canning. (Granny had said to wear an apron, but somewhere along the way, Tilly had dropped that habit.)
But Tilly did have a dog. Like her, Ezra was a bit of a mutt. He was unkempt and lethargic of movement, which might have given the false impression that he was lazy or a recluse, and he was anything but. He just took his time.
Tilly loved Ezra like nothing or no one in her life, before or since. She had loved Granny dearly, but Granny had required many things of Tilly and had been tight- fisted with affection. Though she had been kind, and taught her many lessons, including faithfulness, loyalty and forgiveness, Granny held back in the giving of praise.
Ezra, on the other hand, required little to nothing. He appreciated food, was happy for a warm fire to lay before in the cold of winter and enjoyed sitting on the porch, watching the birds. But, Ezra was unsparing with his love.
He would wag his tail at any joke, wait patiently for her to clean the pot before he took a turn, and snuggled up close to her on top of her quilt at night. Whenever Tilly left him alone (which was seldom to never) he would whine like a pup upon her return, slathering her with kisses, his tail batting feverishly on the floorboards while he positioned himself to acquire the mandatory belly rub.
Tilly enjoyed being self-sufficient and really didn’t want for much, but sometimes having a bit of cash or a barter here or there, came in handy. She needed jars, flour, a soup bone for Ezra, and sundry items to be purchased in town from time to time. And what gal doesn’t want a bit of chocolate or candy, every now and again?
In order to make a bit of money, Tilly would bring canned goods to market. There was one on the outskirts of town where she and Ezra would make the hike to, once a week, right up through Christmas, weather permitting, until the spring thaw. It was quite the sight to behold, old Tilly, tattered and torn, a bit of a hunch to her back, with Ezra meandering by her side. She pulled an old children’s wagon, stocked up to the hilt with fresh jams and jellies, canned persimmons and quince fruit. For though the town folk were not particularly fond of her, no one could light a candle to Tilly’s canned goods. Even if the women were a bit squeamish about her lack of cleanliness, their men ensured Tilly would return home with an empty cart on a regular basis.
“So, old boy” Tilly addressed Ezra in her distinctive crackly voice. “Ready for our Saturday jaunt?” Ezra looked up at her with his kind, warm eyes, partly hidden by a wraggly tuft of matted fur, just begging to be lopped. His tail nodded agreement and his paws set out along the familiar trail, near to his beloved’s side.
Mostly they were left alone, but every so often a handful of town boys, (varied by persons through the years) had been known to heckle this ragged twosome. They’d sat in the trees of the apple orchard, tossing the odd wormy apple in their direction, accompanied by delayed and muted laughter. They hid in shadows shouting insults or tossing pebbles, and once gone as far as stringing a thin rope across the path, causing her to fall and the cart’s contents to spill onto the dirt. It would have been quite the sight to see her sent to sprawling, and laying there, face planted in a puddle. But all had grown quiet when Ezra began to howl and bay, as if to cry at his dear one’s predicament.
And that’s when the mean streak came to be. All it took was one man’s son. A man who had beaten the boy, repeatedly, kicked his own dog and took the willow switch to more than the boy’s behind on a regular basis. Jealousy was born in the young lad’s heart. It burrowed in like a tick on a dog’s back, sucking at his life’s blood, and becoming ugly.
So that particular week, Tilly and Ezra had started out like they had so many, many times before. She’d asked “are you ready for our Saturday jaunt?” Ezra was following close by her side. Her raspberry compote and huckleberry jam were in tow, and she whistled a cheery tune in the early morning sunlight, thinking the day was good and of the pleasantness of companionship. She patted her old pal’s head. Why, if Mr. Fitzsimmons had the items at market today, she might just buy a bit of chocolate for herself and a beef bone for Ezra.
Suddenly a single stone, large enough to do the damage, came hurling through the air, without any warning, landing square on the back of Ezra’s head. There was no blood. No howl. No twitching. Just stillness.
Usually, following mischief, there would be the sway of grass, the crunch of leaves or twigs, a twitter or a giggle, fowl word or a curse. But today there was only silence.
The whistle had fallen off Tilly’s lip and hung in mid-air. She stopped, still holding the cart handle, tightly. So tightly the jars and bottles began to shake when she did.
Kneeling at her faithful companion’s side, she picked up his old matted head, laying it on her lap as she sat upon the trampled earth. Rocking back and forth she began to moan, then the moan became a song and the song became a prayer. A prayer like Granny taught for the poor, unfortunate souls who entertained deep malice in their souls.
The angry boy, hiding behind the mulberry bush not twenty feet away heard every word and did his best to let that fury feed his hunger for revenge, misdirected toward the woman and her dead dog. But a tear escaped the well-built dam, a tear invested by a woman’s hope that tomorrow or a fortnight or a decade hence, would water the dead seed now laying out before her. It would be all in the world she had left to give.
Scooping up the only friend life had given her, she left her livelihood sitting on the wagon, behind her on the path, and she was never to be seen again.
The men of the town were left to speculate as to where the maker of their favorite fruitful treats had gone.
And ten years came and ten years went and the shack had leaned a little too far to the right, until it had fallen out flat.
The garden became overgrown with weeds and the fruit trees were left to the birds and wildlife alone. The rather sophisticated root cellar was laden still, ‘neath the bulging earth.
Some say when they walk the path by Tilly’s once fruitful homestead, they can hear a whistled tune drifting on the wind.
But all are left to wonder what happened to the peculiar fruit lady and her ragtag mutt.
All but one young man who wrestled in the silence with a conscience bigger than the rock that he had thrown.