A rush and a splash! The flabby toad nearly made it’s escape, except for Zoe’s expert hands that captured and coddled it at the same time.
It was a great beast. A great capture, that of dragon lore.
Zoe patted the toad until it stopped quivering and began to dry. She asked the toad if it could teach herhow to read dragon books that the Preacher’s son, Harry, told them about. When she felt satisfied with the answers, and the toad began to dry out, she let it slide down back into the creek so that it would live.
And she splashed her spindly nine-year-old legs in the cool waters of the bank. Mudlet drops flicked off her toes, and occassionally she hooked her heel on a broken spindle of dry reed left from seasons past and scowled in the pain.
As though it were personal. As though Willow Creek ought not to betray her skin and thoughts and meanderings with anything sharp or dry or decayed.
A blue-eyed dragonfly hovered by, as though to convery sympathy.
Zoe picked up a stone and splashed it into the water, to give the dragonfly a good adventure to tell. Then another stone, a skidding rock this time, and it popped three times across Willow Creek before sinking.
This was her “dreaming hour.” When she was out of reach of her mother’s call to chores and it really did not make that much difference.
But then it did make a difference, and the charms of barn animals, soiled hay, and sweaty stove took hold and she reluctantly said goodbye to Willow Creek and made her way across the meadow to the evening’s work and family and home.
Except for one afternoon.
One afternoon that she could never share with anyone. Even with those with whom she and her Ma and Pa and baby brother had made that long wretched wagon trek from Kansas to this new Oregon Territory the year before.
Even though the bonds they had forged on those long boring hot freezing sickening joyous wagon days would make it sensible to have a glorious story to share with; she could not.
Zoe could not share this story with anyone. Even with those, her new homestead neighbors, who had slodged and shivered and sweated and pulled and perished and lived and prayed, promised and cried with her Ma and Pa all the way from Kansas to this luscious, peaceable Willow Creek.
Because the subject of her secret tale was a ghost.
And people who pray their way across the Territories and Plains and Prairies do not want to hear about ghosts.
Mr. and Mrs. Mc Creary, all the way from a place called Ireland, had lost their little girl on that trek across the prairie.
Their Little Karry had stepped onto the ending embers of the evening fire and her burns had infected and she had died.
And now the Mc Crearies lived in their cabin, working an orchard, just across from where Zoe liked to play on the banks of Willow Creek.
It hardly seemed fair, or right with the Lord, to enjoy that blue-eyed dragonfly whe Little Karry would never ever be able to again.
And when Mr. and Mrs. McCreary would not want to.
So Zoe went home, and tried to hide her skipping, because it fact it was a fine summer’s day, nearly fall, and the air had a hundred exotic fragrances that she was certain had floated all the way from places called India and Zambia and Brazil.
And that toad, she was certain, was dragon lore.
but Preacher McCreary wouldn’t like such talk.
So she went home and cleaned out the dirty hay and hauled in fresh water for the horses — Jack and Jay — and splashed some on her face and went in for supper.
What a supper!
Zoe couldn’t remember anything about it because she was so intent on the cherry cobbler cooling for their dessert. So in Zoe’s mind, supper was all sticky sweet red drippy hot biting refreshing flakey chewy cherry cobbler and that was all there was to it until bedtime!
And she was content to lay in her fresh cotton nighgown and cap, after rinsing in the pail of Willow Creek water by her bedroom door to “redeem this Oregon Trail Dust,” her mother said.
And in the sweet silence of the night she heard, again, the ghost of Willow Creek.
On this night, she answered it.
She broke an holy rule — because there were animals of peril out there prowling at night on the Oregon Prairie and it was not safe — she snuck out of the house to find the ghost.
Zoe know that if she were found out of the house at night she would never be allowed out by herself again.
Her Ma and Pa were that strict.
But the ghost had talked to her so many times before, at Willow Creek, with all its fat twists and turns and sudden rushes and placid still spots, the ghost had been a friend.
And you can’t let down a friend.
Zoe’s feet were bare but stubborn from long summer months of seeking out the nooks and crannies of the banks of the creek. So she did not cry out when she stepped, in the pitch blackness, on a meandering blackberry vine or sharp stone.
Her parents never heard.
Just like they had never heard the ghost.
But the ghost was a friend in need, and Zoe was a true one who would not let it be alone in the dark.
Zoe found the ghost, for the first time, by the Slippery Rock. The rock that — even in summer’s heat, kept its moss and fern fiddles and could fit two upon it if you squeezed in together.
Zoe and the ghost squeezed in together.
Now, I must say this. In those days there was no television, movies or vivid books. If you had a couple of sweet bedtime story books you were the luckiest one!
So there was no prejudgement that a ghost was anything frightening or squeemish or unsightly.
A ghost was simply, a ghost!
Zoe and this ghost, whose name turned out to be Anne, who had perished as a young woman years and years ago before the Oregon Trail had been pounded and ruttted into a trail, had a good long talk.
Anne was so happy to have a friend and fell off the rock with the resounding details of the glorious cherry cobbler.
Anne’s family had moved back East long ago, overcome with grief of her passing, and had never understood that she was still at Willow Creek. Their early homestead tent-cabin had long ago disappeared and nobody who lived at Willow Creek now had ever even heard of the Alderman family.
But now Zoe knew.
And night and day, season after season, perplexing her parents but never rasising big questions, she and Anne Alderman met at Willow Creek and sometimes splashed, sometimes made ladybugs fly, and often shivered and then dried and got wet and muddy and found special worms that would attract the fish.
And they shared stories.
And some of those stories were about Zoe’s great great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in heaven, who passed on messages to say hello.
And of Anne’s olden days family who know were ghosts along with all of them and looking over — very closely — Zoe’s adventures at Willow Creek.
Because mossy rocks can be slippery.
And placid waters can have an undertow.
Some wild berries are poison, and a sudden freezing rain in Oregon can blind your way home.
Zoe always made it home. An old, old ghost who was always fifteen saw to it.
Season after season, as their family struggled and grew, cherry cobbler appeared. The hay got cleaned and some horses died and they moved over to buy the McCreary place when they died, too.
But the ghost of Willow Creek was always there, to catch every splash of every stone that Zoe threw and skidded into the waters of Willow Creek.
The frogs croaked, the dragonflies hovered, the berries were sour, and she had a friend with stories at Willow Creek.