Mary Elizabeth sat in the July shade of the ferryboat landing’s rough wooden overhang, her head resting peacefully against Isadora, the ox her father used to draw his ferry back and forth across the Fox River. The huge animal was harnessed to one end of a horizontal pole; the pole’s other end was fitted into a revolving stone wheel about which the ferry cable was wound. It was Mary Elizabeth’s responsibility to lead the old ox around its well-trodden path when the ferry was in use.
Mary Elizabeth let her fingers move up the length of Isadora’s great horns. They felt strong and smooth and warm like the now-rubbed-worn railing her father had built long ago onto the sides of the landing to keep her from falling off. As long as she could remember, she had liked to sit on the edge of the jetty and dangle her feet in the water that ran cool and deep through the hot, towering redrock gorges. She’d tilt her head and listen for the lonely screech of a circling hawk, for the wind whining through the sandstone pinnacles above the cottonwoods across the water, and for the faint, scolding squeals of a prairie dog in one of the invisible washes beyond the skyline.
This afternoon Mary Elizabeth’s attention was fixed on the red cliffs across the easy roll of water. She tried to imagine what red was really like. It must be warm, she thought, because Mother often says that the evening sun looks as red as the earth here in southern Utah where we live.
Mary Elizabeth wondered a lot about things—more than most, perhaps, because she had been born blind. Though she lived in a perpetual nighttime, in her nine years she had come to know better than many people the earth beneath her feet and the secrets of life that flourished upon it in reverent profusion. She had developed her other senses to detect the finer sounds and smells, and her hands were always reaching out … touching … feeling life as she found it.
She knew well the melodies of God made in the windy wood just down from Red Owl Ridge and the hymns of the leaves that whispered to her ears. She detected the delicate scent of a wildflower on a windless day and the wee rustling in the greasewood when a jackrabbit scampered by.
It was the little things that she enjoyed most: the wet tickle of Isadora’s nose, the friendly sound of lapping water against the mossy landing timbers, the softness of the newborn fawn that Father had found, and the gentle music of the white-throated swift.
Most of all, Mary Elizabeth enjoyed being with Father. His strong arms could split wood with one stroke of his big broadax, or they could gently sweep her up onto his big, powerful shoulders. He would carry her to where the dirt was soft between her toes, and as they sat amid the fluttering sounds of aspens, his soft, easy voice would spin a tale. Or he would talk about something that Bishop Andrews had said on Sunday or about how good it was to see Brother Nielson’s boy baptized in the Fox River or about how Mother’s smile could light up the whole world.
Mary Elizabeth had felt that wondrous smile with her fingertips more than once. It was as soft as lace and every bit as smooth and warm and constant as the earth beneath her feet.
The young girl had accepted her blindness as a part of life, a part of God’s plan for her. Her mother had said that a body should not brood over something that couldn’t be changed, and Mary Elizabeth believed her.
Now as a wagon neared, the blind girl sensed a kind of penetrating sorrow. It seeped through her contentment and challenged her peace of mind.
Mary Elizabeth heard her father welcome the wagon’s occupants, Mr. and Mrs. Styles. Then he said hello to their son, Joshua. Once, when Mary Elizabeth had asked her mother why the Styleses used the ferry so often, she had been told that they took their boy to a doctor for treatment at a settlement upriver.
“What’s wrong with him?”
Mother had been quiet for a moment, then explained that Joshua had a disease called leukemia and that he was dying.
Suddenly Mary Elizabeth began to comprehend the strange silences that always seemed to accompany the Styleses’ visits and their mumbled, listless hellos when Father greeted them by the landing.
Because it was late in the day, Father invited Mr. and Mrs. Styles and Joshua to lodge with them that night. They must have nodded agreement, because Mary Elizabeth heard Joshua’s father instruct him to go into the house and lie down. Mary Elizabeth listened to the boy’s feet plod heavily across the long yard toward the house.
Mary Elizabeth tugged on her mother’s arm. “Can’t he stay outdoors a little while, Mother?” she asked quietly. “I could show him Isadora and—” She stopped upon hearing the warning sound of her mother’s shoe poking at the hard ground.
“Joshua’s parents … well, they don’t allow him to do much of anything, from what I hear, honey, … except to rest. He only has a couple of years left, and time is precious.”
Mary Elizabeth lay awake that night, feeling for the first time a different kind of pain. She spoke her thoughts to her hug-frayed rag doll. “Time is precious, Charity! A person shouldn’t waste it moping. There’s too much to be happy about.” She rolled over and listened to a chorus of piping frogs among the reeds. That’s funny, she thought. Somehow they don’t sound as happy as they usually do.
Even the owl’s wonderfully bewitching hoots didn’t seem very enchanting that night. There was something out of harmony with the proper order of things, at least in Mary Elizabeth’s way of thinking, and she wondered how she could set things right.
The next morning when Mr. Styles opened the door to the spare room given to Joshua the night before, the boy was gone. Mary Elizabeth was also absent from her room.
“Where do you suppose they’ve gone?” Mary Elizabeth’s father questioned. He stepped to the window. Through the glare of the morning sun on the soft river mist, he could see the children. Mary Elizabeth was walking Isadora, and Joshua was riding atop the ox’s great, swaying back.
Mr. and Mrs. Styles joined Mary Elizabeth’s father at the window and were taken aback. “Joshua’s riding an ox!” Mrs. Styles gasped.
“Isadora’s as gentle as a baby, folks,” Mary Elizabeth’s father reassured them.
Mr. Styles blanched. “But our boy is dying!”
Father put a kind hand on the man’s shoulder and spoke with gentle understanding. “We all are, Mr. Styles. It’s just a matter of when. In the meantime, don’t you think a little sun might help thin out the shadows?”
Joshua’s mother sighed. “You don’t understand,” she said, “the more Joshua tromps around, the weaker he gets, and the weaker he gets—”
“What my wife means,” Mr. Styles interjected, “is that we don’t want to lose our boy a day sooner than we have to.” He crossed the room and started to open the door.
Mary Elizabeth’s father counseled compassionately, “Did you ever stop to consider the possibility that you’re already losing him, Mr. Styles?”
“What do you mean?” Mr. Styles asked defensively.
“I’m just suggesting that maybe you could go to him more, not after him.”
Mr. Styles just stared, and Mary Elizabeth’s father smiled and continued. “Joshua needs you and Mrs. Styles. But I just can’t help but think that the way you two go around so stretchy-faced all the time has your boy feeling like he’s already dead and buried.”
Mr. and Mrs. Styles regarded each other silently, then went outside.
Joshua slid off the ox into the tall grass, laughing with simple glee.
“Take off your shoes, Joshua,” Mary Elizabeth said, encouraged at the sound of his joy. “The grass feels good between your toes, especially when it’s early wet.”
Joshua sat down, pulled off his boots, and worked his feet into the green dampness that tickled his toes.
Mr. and Mrs. Styles, unnoticed by Joshua and Mary Elizabeth, stopped a short way from the children, surprised at their son’s exhilaration. “He’s laughing!” Mrs. Styles exclaimed in a stunned whisper. “And so is your daughter,” she added to Mary Elizabeth’s parents, who had joined them. “I mean,” she went on, “you’d never know that she was blind by the way that she’s enjoying herself!”
Mary Elizabeth’s mother smiled. “She has a way about her, all right—a way of living, I guess you could say, a bright way of looking at things.”
Mr. Styles shook his head, tears welling up in his eyes. “I can’t remember the last time that I saw Joshua so happy.”
Mrs. Styles took her husband’s arm and blinked back her own tears. “When was the last time that we let him be happy—or ourselves?
“It has come to me,” Mrs. Styles added a moment later, “that you’re right,” she said to Father, “that maybe it isn’t always how much time we have that matters most, but rather what we do with that time.”
Mary Elizabeth listened to Joshua’s uninhibited laughter. Things were in harmony again. The owl in the lightning-split poplar tree would sound wonderfully enchanting again. And life would be, and was, sweet and fine. Each moment of it.