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Told in lyrical, rhapsodic prose, SWEET SALLY ANN is a strange and witty tale about fear, death, and the quandary of a restless volcano ultimately slaked by the magma of love.
By turns quirky and inventive, humorous and adept, Sweet Sally Ann challenges the depths of childhood fear, from the suspicion of parents on the verge of divorce to the prospect of something that lurks in the woods. When young Cody Bryant becomes obsessed with the disappearance of his classmate, everything that was right seems suddenly wrong. A year later, when he discovers her bones, it's time to rethink the world at large and all that emerges from it -- the intimately personal, the fantastic, the shockingly real.In resolving the dramatic and tightly contained mystery of what happened to Sally Ann, Cody discovers one truth after another about himself and his childhood loves -- and the unimaginable hope promised through the choices he makes.
WHATEVER IT WAS came out of the woods and stood at the side of the road, its shadow long on the sedge. Neither woman nor man, certainly not child. The crest of its scalp folded back in wonderment, and the fall light fell about and wizened what appeared to be some wolfish yet humanlike snout, the whole of it sleek as an icon hulked down in a foul steaming hide. When it moved, it moved within the shape of itself, its own darkness seeming to rise up and touch back the sun. But for the cicadas the woods had gone mute, and after a while those insects, too, ceased. The thing did not return along the creekbed but took its bearing against the diminishing light, what faint light remained in the west. It lumbered back close to the trees and labored away, its every movement confusing the dusk. In time, night fell long and cool throughout the woods, and the spectral quietude deepened, as if something were about that even crickets and nightbirds might dread.
Spied upward through the narrowed brisket of spruce, the glaciered cone of the mountain, at first obscured in shadow and diffused by a quantum of light through the trees, soon put back the night and gathered light from the outcoming stars, nevertheless shivering in the heat of itself and casting off stones -- perhaps a portent of sorts -- like some palsied wraith. In time, the mountain grew still and the night fell complete, both dark and starblown, leaving but the breadth of imagination to sort out this sound from that -- whether wail or sorrowful howl -- together with a pair of figures in tandem, horseborn from the looks of it, the behind one streaming a long skein of hair, riding just beyond the ridge of that pale clad peak and up close to the moon.
Below, some nightthing, whatever it was, stalked back toward that forest of dreams, leaving but the weight of its impression sunk in the loam.
* * *
Regarding a question posed to the Sixth Grade class.
GLASS PANES RATTLED in their frames and the center drawer in Miss Dibble's desk chattered open, bouncing pencils to the floor.
The walls sagged and then stopped.
Dora got up from her desk and swung down the aisle. She squatted so the tops of her legs wouldn't show and we all watched as she gathered the pencils -- one, two, three -- from the floor to the drawer. She hurried back to her desk, kiss-closed her mouth, and tucked at her hair.
"Thank you, Dora." Miss Dibble turned her back to the class, put the chalk to the board, and made a single indistinguishable mark. "Is our world more or less real," she asked, "than one in which giants roam the land and fair maids are lost to monsters in the woods?"
Only one student raised his hand and it was a girl. Sally Ann Rogers, known for neck dirt and a melodious lisp, not your prettiest girl in school, and she had immediately begun to weep. We all turned our heads to watch her. She made gurgling sounds in the back of her throat, as though about to break into song, and her new breasts jiggled when she sucked for air. Tears and mascara muddied her cheeks as though she'd eaten a raw onion, and her nose began to bleed. To this day, I have no idea why the bloody nose, and she never got to answer the question before Miss Dibble rushed to the door, cried for help, and had Sally Ann dragged to the Nurse's Station by a team of soccer stars.
Throughout the ordeal, I sat at my desk stealing glances at Jessie, thinking hard, and trying not to look. Jessie came to school each morning and plopped herself down next to me, I mean day after day to the scent of freshly oiled boards and brisk morning light, but now it was she who smelled sweet and the flesh in her cheeks had taken a glow and right before my eyes, day after day, I watched the shape of her change. She looked at me with a sense of alarm and her look surprised me more, I think, than Sally Ann's bloody nose, and all of a sudden I could see her damp mouth and the ridge of her teeth and how her hair and the side of her face caught in the windowpatched sunlight brightened her eyes while Sally Ann bled. She glanced from Sally Ann to that indistinguishable mark on the board and then at me, her mouth a confused unanswered hole, and I had to turn my face away. Sally Ann hadn't ever done anything like that before to upset the class, a quite girl, slight in the frame, and then I sometimes thought that perhaps she'd met some giant somewhere known only to her or maybe, on her way to singing practice at the Grange, encountered her own nightmares in the guise of some fanged creature hobbling through the woods.
You can never be sure.
I sought Waxman who sat slouched and spilling from his desk on the other side of the room, eyes agog, thinking maybe the same I bet. When he caught my eye, he poked a finger in his mouth and made as if to puke. Through the window behind him, the sky rose bright as a bead, and I could see the mountain itself, the blue glaciers toward the top, a lenticular cloud there, and the cone of Shastina off to the side. I counted the windows again and then the glass panes. Jessie looked at me and I looked away. I glanced from Letty, whose clothes were too tight, to Geneva Lee, whose clothes were too loose, and then at Jessie again, her lemon-colored hair beribboned in red. Poor Sally Ann. One of the soccer girls tugged at her and said something soft, and Miss Dibble had a hanky at her nose and brushing the tears. She got Sally Ann in the cradle of her arm, head tipped back, the group of them huddling her away down the hall while the rest of the class sat stunned and lightly abuzz. Jessie watched them depart and then turned to me and said something I didn't quite hear.
She leaned toward me and put a hand on my arm and said it again as Geneva Lee squeezed up close listening in. Their leaning showed me some things, were I to look, showed me how grown up they'd become, how all of us had.
"I don't know," I told her, working to keep my eyes on her face, knowing however I answered would likely be wrong. "How d'you think it might be, that world instead of this?"
"I don't know," she said, and those sunbrightened eyes studied my bones. "You can never be sure."
"You can never be sure," Geneva Lee dittoed, "of monsters and such." I saw a speck of dirt in her eye as she batted her lid -- mascara, perhaps. She opened her mouth around the gap in her teeth and, shifting away, re-crossed her legs. She didn't pull at her skirt or even act like her legs were any different than mine.
Glass panes rattled in their frames, the floor groaned, and a map fell off the wall.
A week later when she turned up missing, Sally Ann, my suspicion began to take shape -- and half the community's, too, though none would speak a word of what they feared by the terror of their hearts. A vagabond, maybe, traipsing through the woods when Sally Ann came around a tree, that's what they said. An itinerant, a tramp, perhaps, who'd buried her body in the foothills or on the mountain itself, but nothing extraordinary or out of this world, certainly not legend or mention of beast. The search for her turned from hours to days and then into weeks, but not so much as a spot of blood, a fragment of clothes, or even a hair.
I remember Miss Dibble's return. She had a wad of damp paper towels in her hand and she stooped and hunkered and knelt to dab at the mess around Sally Ann's desk. Quackenbush came by and offered me a snort of cinnamon powder, that or an Alka-Seltzer -- my choice -- but I shook him away, and he went back to his desk, the general stink of himself wafting behind. The kids laughed a little and buzzed, and Waxman was across the room working up a spitwad barrage. Miss Dibble said, and the class got low while she scrubbed and scrubbed until there was hardly a trace. When she stood, she sighed and the pale sheen of her face drained away to something more pink and then she faced the class once again and shrugged and said she hadn't a clue.
"Monsters?" asked Letty, waving her hand. Through the sleeveless gap of her blouse, you could see the rim of her bra. "Giants?"
An aftershock shuddered the floor.
"How our world is more or less real --" Miss Dibble turned aside and caught her sneeze with a hanky, mixing Sally Ann's blood with her snot. She opened the hanky and looked at the stuff with alarm. "My God," she said, and she flung the thing toward the waste can where it missed and lay on the floor like a broken-winged dove for the rest of the day. Letty's hand was still hovering aloft, just a wedge of the filigreed cup there, possibly pink, and Miss Dibble brushed at her skirt and attempted a smile, her polished teeth a complement to the nine bone-white buttons marching down her starched blouse. She pointed a broken chalk at the board. "In five hundred words," she said. "And due at the end of the term." Then she scrawled the assignment in words with a click and occasional shriek of the chalk. "There, now. Due, I said, by the end of the term."
* * *
I still have my own essay tucked away in a shirt box on the top shelf of my closet, B-, with a few scribbled notes, but I wouldn't read it for money, marbles, or chalk. Not now. I would have to rewrite it with footnotes and addenda, the length of a book. Starting with Sally Ann and her nosebleed in class, then on to the discovery of bones.
Poor Sally Ann.
Now, when I think of it, that old nursery rhyme, "The Cow Jumped Over the Moon," is not so far-fetched, except maybe for the part about the dish running away with the spoon. If you don't think so, consider my point-of-view, ahorse with Jessie and galloping up close to the stars. You might consider, too, whether I'm a good person or bad. Whether good or bad, I suppose this is the tale I would have to tell: lightning itself charging the marital bed, steeped in the magma of love and so out of this world secure in the prospect of fathering generations to come like a god of something great, yet reduced to the freakish subject in a sidebar on page 197 of the latest edition of Ripley's Believe It or Not! A magician, you think? Savior to some? My own worst nightmare, perhaps. Just a remnant of the pitiful dead, some ghostly essence looking back on his handiwork and mistakes. Hey diddle-diddle, you think, and helplessly turn your face to the moon. Poor Sally Ann! If only, I sometimes think. When you live in the shadow of a mountain with trees all around, it's always best to be good. After all, what do you have in the end but yourself?