The Thirteenth of August, 2007
The Adventures of Dirty Rachel
Mary Fallon Fleming
“Shame on you, shame, shame!” Miss Bobbins reached for the child’s thick curly hair to give it a good yank, but dirty little Rachel pumped her leg hard and caught the old thing squarely in the middle of her shin. Bobbins went down howling, and Rachel could see the other children scattering as she escaped through the stone wall that surrounded the church grave yard.
She flew down the narrow, hilly street, paved with ancient cobble stones. The leather soles of her small black boots were slippery, but they propelled her slight body down, down to the bottom of the hill, to the open-air shops and dilapidated city houses that might provide a secure hiding place between them.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, Hail Mary, full of grace,” she recited to herself. She didn’t know the whole prayer. Finally she reached the bottom of the hill. She dashed into an alley and cowered breathlessly in the shadow of a crumbling two-hundred year old home and stinking refuse. She waited, still breathless, her heart pounding, until she saw Miss Bobbins come lumbering by the alley way like a hippopotamus, holding up her long skirt in her hands, her puffy face and bulbous nose red with exertion. She looks like she’s about to burst out of her corset, thought Rachel. Miss Bobbins stopped, out of breath, her grey bonnet blown to her shoulders, her hair disheveled. Rachel, terrified that she would be seen, squatted in the shadows with her thin arms wrapped around her knees.
“Rachel, you come out here this minute, or there will be no supper for you this evening,” Miss Bobbins called.
Rachel held her breath.
“Rachel! Rachel!” Miss Bobbins cried as she finally moved on down the street. Rachel could hear her for a long time, and she never moved until she could hear her no more.
She stood up. Her brain could hardly formulate the emotions she felt. I’m never going back to the orphanage, she thought. Cautiously she walked to the corner of the house and looked around it. No Miss Bobbins. She felt a surge of gladness, the first taste of freedom she had ever known.
She ventured into the sunlight again, and happily she ran like a doe past the shops and Victorian houses, down past the market place, until her small feet had carried her all the way to the quay. She walked out on the pier where a big boy sat fishing with a home-made fishing rod. He wore a long-sleeved white shirt with no collar that was tattered at the cuffs and a pair of worn woolen knickers. What Rachel admired most was the snappy red kerchief he had tied around his neck, just like a real sailor. Bravely she walked up behind him.
“Hello,” she said.
The boy turned around. He had red hair and freckles. He looked her over carefully before replying.
“Hello,” he said.
“My name’s Rachel,” she said. She smiled tentatively. “What’s your name?”
“Jamie,” he said. He turned back to his fishing.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He looked back over his shoulder. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m fishing,” he said.
“Are you going to eat the fish if you catch one?” she said.
Rachel was hungry, hungry enough to eat fish. She looked at her hand-me-down boots, darned leggings, and crushed pinafore. “Where will you cook it?” she asked.
“In the woods,” he said.
“Is that where you live?”
“Say,” he said, “you ask too many questions.”
Rachel fell silent for a moment, but her belly made her bold. “I’m hungry,” she said. “Could I have some too please?”
Jamie looked over his shoulder again. “Your face is dirty,” he said.
“I know,” Rachel said. “I don’t like to wash. They were punishing me for not washing.”
“So, are you a runaway?”
Rachel thought about this for a moment. “I guess so.”
“You’re awfully small to be a runaway,” he said.
Rachel stood up straight so that her full height could be appreciated before she answered. “I’m seven,” she said. She paused. “How old are you?”
“Are you a runaway?” she asked.
“Kind of,” he said. “Pa drank. When he died I hid in the woods so the authorities wouldn’t get me.” He turned back to his fishing.
“Couldn’t I please, please have some?” Rachel asked.
“Oh, all right, but only if I catch two.”
Rachel was satisfied. She sat down on the pier and dangled her legs beneath the railing. She admired Jamie’s red hair and kerchief. How she wanted to be big like him. How she wished for two nice fat fishes.
“Got one!” Jamie stood up and lifted the line out of the water, and a lock of his red hair fell across his forehead. A whopping silvery fish flapped and twisted on the end of the twine. “Okay,” he said. “This one’s big enough for both of us. Come on, let’s go. It’s not far.”
Rachel followed Jamie along the boardwalk until it ended in a grassy embankment adjacent to the woods. A narrow path had been beaten between the slender, leafy white birches. Just a few more steps and they were among the tall trees, and the path was shaded and spattered with sunlight by turns. Farther, farther they walked until the trees thinned out, and Jamie stopped. They stood in a barren copse where the ground was covered by crisp fallen leaves. A make-shift shanty had been erected where the woods picked up again, made with splintery boards and roofed with dead branches that Jamie must have scavenged from the forest floor. A fire pit had been dug in front of the lean-to. A dented milk pail sat beside it.
“Here we are,” Jamie said. “I told you it wasn’t far. “Okay,” Jamie said. “Go get that bucket.” He carefully dislodged his fish hook from the fishes’ mouth and then dropped the fish in the pail. “We’re going down to the creek to clean him and get some water.”
They went to the creek together. It was beautiful among the trees and warm for an evening in early spring. Jamie sat down cross-legged in the grass and dug into the pocket of his trousers. He pulled out a pen knife and set to cleaning the fish. “Come on, sit down.”
Rachel nodded and obliged, sitting cross-legged just like Jamie. She watched with fascination as he prepared the fish. Oh, she was hungry. She marveled as he scaled and gutted the creature. Supper time would be here soon.
What a wonderful meal. Rachel lay back with her head on her arm, toasting her toes in the last shimmer of heat that emanated from the fire pit. She was exhausted by the day’s turmoil.
“Listen, it can get cold out here at night,” Jamie said. “I think you should sleep with me in the lean-to.”
“Thanks, I don’t want to be cold,” Rachel said.
“Here, burrow down into the leaves. That helps,” he said.
Rachel nestled down on the ground inside the lean-to and covered herself up with leaves, just like Jamie. She was silent for a moment. “Do you miss having parents?” she said.
“Yeah, I miss my mom.”
“What’s it like to have parents?” Rachel asked.
Jamie frowned. He didn’t answer right away, and when he did, he spoke softly. “It’s like having your own house to come home to, with a fireplace with a big, warm fire, and a father that teaches you to hunt and fish, and a mother who reads the Bible to you and takes care of you when you’re sick.”
“Oh,” Rachel said, “Oh.” She felt warm and safe. Her eyes closed, and, like an infant, she was asleep in under a minute.