Irises to Ashes
I was thinking about whether I should relinquish my virginity to Billy Ray and forgot about the pothole that Monday’s downpour had enlarged. I hit the edge of it so hard the canvas bag of quilting squares that Mrs. Watkins gave me for Mamma tumbled onto the floorboard. Good thing the bag was zipped. I wasn’t in the mood to pick up dozens of pieces of fabric.
“Oh hell,” I muttered and jerked the truck to the side of the gravel road. I didn’t feel the telltale list of a flat tire, but still I jumped out to check. It was sticky hot with the June humidity at August levels, and I didn’t feel like having to wrestle a tire jack with a nearly full bed of produce. Even more than that, I didn’t want to waste time listening to my brother cuss about me not taking care of his raggedy-ass truck. Crazy Miz Hatcher’s was my last stop, and I was supposed to meet Billy Ray at The Drunken Gull after dinner.
The tire looked okay. I ran my hand around it, glad to see that the jolt didn’t seem to have done any harm. I climbed back in, cranked it, and started to tap my fingers against the steering wheel to “You Can’t Hurry Love.” I liked the song even though I wasn’t looking for love to start with and that was part of what was bothering me about Billy Ray. Him telling me he loved me was just plain nonsense, and he should have known better than to say it. He and I had been going out more or less steady since February, and he was cute enough, plus a good kisser. And it wasn’t as if I was particularly saving myself for some future husband, despite last Sunday’s stern warning from the preacher about my generation’s lack of respect for family values.
No, my hesitation was pretty much rooted in stubbornness rather than moral concern. Billy Ray was already more possessive than I liked, and I figured taking the big step with him would hardly improve his attitude. On the other hand, he seemed to be getting impatient, and if I didn’t give in soon, he would probably take up with Rita Simpson, who everybody knew was no stranger to sharing a blanket on a beach come sundown. Did I care? That was the question I’d been asking myself all afternoon. Well, unless Billy Ray demanded an answer tonight, I guess I could take awhile longer to make up my mind.
The dune line and stone cottage came into view. The road dead-ended at the back of the single-story house with dark green shutters on wide windows. It was an oddity compared to the white frame or gray-shingled exteriors common to the Outer Banks. Even more out of character was the fence. Instead of hurricane fencing like everyone else had, this was split logs for rails interspersed with four-foot-high square stone columns instead of posts. The inside yard was devoted almost entirely to a vegetable garden, although different varieties of flowers bordered three sides of the large rectangle. There was a separate oval bed of purple and white irises between the garden and the black wrought iron gate and another bed with roses between the garden and the stone garage. The driveway that led through the gate and the rest of the yard was covered in gravel. Two paths of crushed oyster shells curved around either side of the house. I’d never seen the front, although I assumed it would be partially visible from the beach.
Crazy Miz Hatcher was kind of a hermit, if a female could be a hermit. She was one of three people who couldn’t deliver to Watkins Farmers Market where my older brother, Bobby, worked. Bobby and Mr. Watkins said her tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and strawberries were the best in the region, if not the whole state. Today, I was picking up strawberries.
I never saw her, of course. My instructions were to stop at the gate, load the crates into the truck, and leave. Mr. Watkins handled payment privately. Ronny Fuller, more commonly called Ronny Retard, always carefully laid the containers out in tidy rows for me, and when he was near the gate, he would wave or call my name. He was a hard worker no matter that he was slow in thinking, and at his size, he was good help with any heavy tasks. As far as anyone knew, he was the only one Crazy Miz Hatcher allowed around the place. I was thinking about how to dress for the evening and reaching for the last of the strawberries when I noticed a movement of fur to my left. I jumped back, not sure of what it was, and tripped over a pail sitting between the gate and the containers. Two rabbits bounded from under the irises as the bucket spun in one direction and I landed on my butt.
“Ah hell!” I sat still for a moment, my heart pounding foolishly. Rabbits! Nothing but stupid rabbits!
Ronny stood at the gate, cradling a black rabbit in his arms, grinning at me. “Did they scare you, Maggie? Did they make you fall?”
I shook my head and got to my knees, groping for spilled cartons of strawberries. “Just a little bit, Ronny. I didn’t know you had rabbits.”
“Miss Melly’s rabbits,” he said. “They feel soft. You aren’t afraid of them, are you?”
“No, Ronny, they just surprised me, that’s all.”
He opened the gate and came through, easily holding the rabbit in one beefy hand and pulling me the rest of the way up with his other. He was taller than most of the boys in school and had shoulders that made the football coach growl in frustration because Ronny wasn’t capable of following a playbook. He’d more or less been passed along through grades because he tried hard, could read at about a fifth-grade level, did basic math, and didn’t cause trouble.
“Your bottom is dirty now. Do you want to pet Blacky?”
I brushed the dirt from the seat of my jeans and watched him stroke the animal. It was big, with long ears, a breed I wasn’t familiar with. The other two, brown versions of this one, hopped within ten feet and stopped.
Ronny put his finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he whispered loudly and handed me Blacky. “I have to catch them for Miss Melly.”
I started to protest, but Ronny seemed so intent I decided a few more minutes couldn’t hurt. He stepped noiselessly, calmly, some of the spilled strawberries in his hand, extending them to the pair. He stopped within less than an arm’s length, far more patient than I would have been. The larger of the two took a single hop forward, nose twitching at the scent. Ronny laid the berries by the fence, poised for the next move.
The second rabbit joined the first, and in the snap of a finger, Ronny grabbed them both as they emitted tiny squeaking sounds. He began to laugh with delight in his accomplishment.
“I did it good, didn’t I? Got the bunnies for Miss Melly.”
“Yes, you did, Ronny. You did a good job.” I laughed with him, the bunnies squirming in his grasp.
“You! You girl, stop laughing at him!”
The sharp voice startled me, and I turned to see a woman striding toward us. Her white hair was pulled into a bun, large strands escaping to lie loosely around her face. She wore an ankle-length print cotton dress and carried a straw hat in one gloved hand, a pair of pruning shears in the other.
“You have no business staying here,” she said harshly as she approached. “Get the containers and leave! And what are you doing with that rabbit?” She reached out, glaring at me.
“But Miss Melly, Maggie is my friend. The bunnies got out,” Ronny said, his voice earnest.
“Ma’am, I’m not hurting anyone,” I said, trying not to snap. “I didn’t let the rabbits go, and I’m certainly not laughing at Ronny.” I thrust the black one into her arms, anxious to be away from this strange woman.
“Maggie is nice. She’s my friend. She helped me catch the bunnies,” Ronny repeated. “Don’t be mad at me.”
The woman’s face relaxed at his tone. She spoke softly to Ronny while ignoring me. I picked up the last of the produce and loaded it in the truck, gritting my teeth as I listened to her.
“No, no, Ronny, I’m not angry with you. You did a good job catching the rabbits.”
“Maggie helped me. She’s nice to me at school.”
“Then perhaps I spoke inappropriately,” she said and looked at me closely. “You’re one of the Stewart girls, aren’t you?” Her green eyes searched my face as though trying to decide if she’d seen me before. With my oval face, hazel eyes, and chestnut hair, I resembled my mother more than my sister did.
“I’m the youngest,” I replied. “Look, I’m sorry if you thought I was making fun of Ronny, but I wasn’t. I’ve got what I need, and I’ll be going now.”
“Wait just a moment, please.” She glanced at Ronny. His face was puckered in the way of a child still expecting a scolding. “You did a wonderful job, Ronny. Please put those two rascals back in the pen and then you can take Blacky. After you finish, we’ll have our lemonade.”
He nodded, obviously happy to know that the woman wasn’t angry with him, and walked toward the cottage, the rabbits tucked close to his body.
“I may have reacted too strongly, but Ronny is treated so badly most of the time,” she said once he was out of hearing.
I slammed the tailgate shut. “Yes, ma’am, I guess you’re right about that, but a lot of the kids don’t mean any harm; they just don’t think he cares.”
My desire to leave was mixed with curiosity. I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever talked with Amelia Hatcher. People sometimes saw her on the beach, but never any closer. If this was her, of course. After all, Ronny did call her “Miss Melly,” but that was sort of like “Amelia.”
“So why are you different?”
“What?” I stared at her, puzzled at the odd question. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t take the opportunity to engage in easy, thoughtless cruelty? And at your age? That makes you different.”
I couldn’t tell if she was laughing at me, but there was no smile on her face. Even though her hair was completely white, her face wasn’t deeply wrinkled and I wondered how old she was.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess it’s that Ronny is like some big kid. He may not be as smart as he’s supposed to be, but he’s a nice guy and it doesn’t seem right to poke fun at him.”
Ronny turned the corner, ready for the last rabbit.
“Look, I’d better be going,” I said. “Bye, Ronny.”
He grinned and gently took Blacky. “Do you have to leave, Maggie? Miss Melly said we would have lemonade. I like lemonade.” He looked at Amelia anxiously. “Can Maggie have some, too?”
“Thanks, Ronny, but I have to finish working,” I said quickly and climbed into the truck. “You take care of those bunnies, and I’ll see you next time.”
I drove away and watched the old woman and boy through the rearview mirror. She was only an inch or two taller than I was so she barely reached Ronny’s shoulder. She put the straw hat on her head and patted his arm as I cleared the driveway.
Bobby, my older brother by eight years, wasn’t curious about what I’d seen. I told him what happened while we unloaded the truck, and he said no one had seen that crazy old lady for ten years or better. He accused me of making shit up just to explain why I took so damn long making the run today. I flipped him the bird and ducked when he threw a chunk of dirt at me.
Jed, the only other one of us kids still living at home, wasn’t around for dinner much now that he was almost eighteen. He’d been working the summer at the Hortons’ farm and often as not, Miz Horton would feed him, then he’d swing by the Bursley house and hang out with his pal, Greg. ‘Course Jed was planning on joining the Army soon as he was done with high school, so we might as well get used to not having him around. As we finished one of my favorite meals of fried pork chops with cream-style corn, I told my parents about the encounter.
“Do you think it really was her?” I asked.
They exchanged one of the parental looks that immediately make you want to ask more questions.
“Don’t much matter,” my father finally said and wiped a biscuit around his plate. “She’s nuttier than a fruitcake, and you don’t need to be talking to her anyway.”
“Well, doesn’t it sound like her?”
“I told you, it don’t matter. If she was acting crazy, it probably was. You just do your chores like you’re supposed to and leave it be.” He stood up, the conversation over, ready to head for his chair in the den. “You help your mamma with the dishes and bring me a beer.”
“So what made her crazy?” I asked when Mamma and I were alone.
She sighed, squirted soap into the sink, and filled it, adding almost no cold to the sudsy water. “Oh, I don’t guess anyone really knows. She isn’t from here originally. Her family was over Manteo way.”
“Do you know her, then?” I picked up a towel and began drying the dishes.
Mamma shook her head. “No; it’s been a long time since she set foot off her property, and she wasn’t much for socializing even before that. I used to see her in town, but then she stopped coming in at all, made arrangements for everything to be delivered. She may not be crazy—she may just be an old lady who doesn’t like to be around people.”
My curiosity was on full alert. “Well, is she rich? And how did she come to be in that cottage? Wasn’t it a part of the old Thornhill property? Why is it built funny?”
Mamma slid the knives and forks into the hot water. “Now, Maggie, there’s no sense in getting all excited. No one really cares about her anymore. She was Mrs. Thornhill’s maid, or companion, or something like that a very long time ago when the big house was open. Mrs. Thornhill went off to Europe, got sick, died over there, and her son and daughter used the house in the summers until they were killed in that plane crash better than twenty years ago. Then there was some kind of legal confusion, and the house caught fire while the lawyers were trying to figure it all out.”
“Doreen, Maggie, one of you bring me a beer!”
“I got it, Mamma,” I said, hoping she would be willing to keep talking. This was exciting, no matter what anyone said. Why hadn’t I heard any of this before?
Mamma was rubbing down the frying pan when I returned. I grabbed a dry towel, scooped up a handful of silverware, and began wiping each utensil carefully.
“Well? What happened then? And is she rich?”
Mamma sighed again. “You’re not going to let this go, are you? It’s not nearly as mysterious as you think.”
“But Mamma, that old lady alone on a place that used to belong to some rich folks, she hides from people, nobody knows how she came to be there, and you don’t think that’s mysterious?”
“Maggie, if I tell you what I know, will you be quiet about it?”
I nodded vigorously.
Mamma put the frying pan on the stove and rinsed a rag in the sink. She began to scrub the counter and talked quietly.
“Like I said, Mr. and Mrs. Thornhill lived in Raleigh, and for some reason, their two children didn’t usually come to the big beach house. It was quite a house, I must say, the biggest one around here. One of those Victorian things with scrolled woodwork and a porch that could hold half the village. I don’t know how Amelia came to be with her exactly; I’ve heard stories of her being left an orphan or something. However it happened, she was just a teenager I guess, maybe about your age. Mrs. Thornhill went on a trip to Europe, sometime in 1933 I think it was; got sick; and died in Paris, or maybe it was London. For whatever reason, Amelia stayed overseas. Anyway, Mrs. Thornhill’s son and daughter were the sole heirs and took over all the property, but they were both killed in a plane crash. Lot of sadness in that family, even if they were fancy folks. Then, not long after the crash, Amelia Hatcher suddenly shows up after being gone all those years. The way I understand it, Mr. Harvey Trotter, the lawyer on Main Street, took care of getting her here. The big house had burned, but Amelia had a trailer brought in for a while. She up and moves into it, hardly ever speaks to a soul, brings in some Yankee builder, and has the stone cottage built, then she puts in the big garden and that fence. Nobody around here had ever seen anything like it.”
“So she is rich.”
“I suppose so, but it’s hard to tell. Like I said, she used to come to town some but drove an old Ford, and you sure couldn’t tell anything by her clothes. I do know Lilly and George Campbell kept French wine in the store for her. Not much call for that around here. Or not at that time anyway.”
“Real French wine?”
Mamma nodded and wiped the counter for the third time. “Oh, people talked a lot as you can imagine, but no one was welcome at her place. The preacher went out, and she told him she didn’t believe in the church or God and to get off her land.”
I stared but could believe it after what I’d seen today.
“A couple of the ladies tried and were treated about the same. Like I told you, wasn’t but a few years until Miss Amelia Hatcher made arrangements for things to be delivered to her, paid everyone by check, and stayed put right where she is today. I suppose Mr. Grayling at the bank, Doc Rundle, and the lawyer were the only ones ever talked to her.”
“So how did the business with Mr. Watkins get started?”
“Same way as with Lilly and George, I guess. Like I told you, she had the big garden put in, and after a while she got hold of Herb Watkins and offered to sell her produce. That’s why I’m not so sure she’s got money. Why would she bother if she was rich?”
That was a good point, and the clothes she was wearing today looked like she’d gotten them at some secondhand store.
“She just stays at that place all by herself? And why does Ronny work for her?”
“Oh, she’s always had someone around helping with the heavy work, but not anybody who would talk to folks. I imagine she picked Ronny for the same reason. Good boy he is, but not able to be telling many stories, at least not any that could make sense to regular people.”
That was true. “So that was her today?”
“The way you described her sounds right, but like your daddy said, it’s best you leave her alone. Even if she isn’t crazy, she surely is strange.”
“Maybe she’s got gold or boxes full of money hidden around the cottage, and that’s why she never leaves and doesn’t want people coming around.”
Mamma hung the rag across the faucet, wiped her hands on her apron, and rolled her eyes. “Maggie child, you do have an imagination on you. That’s downright silly, and I’ve talked enough about Amelia Hatcher. You go on over to Ruth Ann’s house and get me a spool of black thread. I’m about out, and the store’s closed.”
I glanced at my wristwatch.
Mamma looked at me sternly. “I know all about you meeting up with Billy Ray tonight, and you’ve got time for this first. And speaking of Billy Ray, you have yourself home before eleven unless you want a belt across your backside. Don’t think your daddy can’t hear when you come across the porch.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said with a straight face and scooted through the back screen door, my curiosity about Crazy Miz Hatcher taking a lower priority to my plans for the evening. If Ruth Ann wasn’t exhausted after a day with her kids, she might be willing to let me borrow the pink eyelet sundress I liked. I’d decided not to give in to Billy Ray yet, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind him that I was way better looking than Rita Simpson would ever be.
Copyright © 2001-2023, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.