The Light in Emma’s Room

By Ray Goldrup

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    Jessica paused by the weed-tangled, paintless picket fence to gaze with uneasy wonder at the old, hauntingly still, two-story house. It stood in the scorched summer field just off Banberry Road.

    She knew nothing about the old woman who lived behind those chipped gray walls except what had been told her by the townspeople of the whistle-stop town of Dogwood. In fact, she had only seen Emma Murphy once since she moved here with her parents the summer before, yet she still remembered the woman’s pale, weathered face eroded with furrows that seemed almost as deep as the ones in Papa’s field. She had wondered then how a woman so old could ever have been a little girl. And Jessica remembered every word the woman said: “Get away from here, you nosy little scamp!” She also remembered how anger elbowed its way past her own uncertainty when she yelled back, “You don’t scare me, you mean ole … snippety snap!”

    Jessica turned and stomped off that day, small puffs of dust exploding about her feet. She was doubly certain that the tales spun about Mrs. Murphy were true—tales about her never coming out of that house unless it was to chase some poor child away with a big stick and stories about her howling and bellowing at everyone.

    And if the accounts about the old woman weren’t enough to make Jessica a firm believer, the sight of the house was! Its walls, wrapped in heavy vines, rose eerily skyward. The old swing on the buckled wooden porch was blanketed with dust, leaves, and a gauze of ancient webs; and it creaked in the slightest breeze like something alive.

    Today Jessica was on her way to the creek, another half mile down Banberry Road. It was mid-July, and the sun that rolled and burned its way across the hot creek bed had sucked up all but a few isolated pockets of water. She felt sorry for the small fish trapped in the puddles and had taken upon herself the task of catching and transporting them by bucket to bigger ponds upstream.

    She studied the old house a final moment from behind the tall yellow weeds that hedged the fence. Never once had she seen the musty curtains drawn open. It must be awfully dark and gloomy in there, she imagined, dark as Papa’s eyes were the day I poked fun at old Mike Kelsay’s long braided beard.

    “A body’s different only to the extent that he’s himself and not anybody else,” Papa had sermoned. “If it’s in Mike Kelsay to braid his beard, then it’d be unnatural, maybe even wrong, for him not to. A body can’t be dishonest in his feelings and ever hope to come to terms with himself.”

    Papa had a way of saying things that one just couldn’t argue with. Somehow he always sounded so right that all a good Christian heart dared do was store it away with other pearls of wisdom.

    But does that make Emma Murphy’s wild stick waving and unfriendliness fine and proper? Jessica wondered. Her face twisted in confusion, and she was just about to turn her back on it all and start down the dirt road when she saw the old woman a second time. The ancient claylike face suddenly peered between the tattered curtains and stared out from behind dirty windows into the yard, glancing in both directions up and down the road. Then it disappeared, reappearing a moment later in a patchwork of light that filled the open front door. Mrs. Murphy stepped out onto the porch, and Jessica cowered behind the weeds.

    She didn’t want to be caught staring—not again. Just to be caught by Emma Murphy was a fate that could put white hair on a twelve-year-old girl. Uncertainty pulled at the coattails of calm and dared her to feel at ease. She would have to wait out Mrs. Murphy, who was starting down the crooked path toward her. Jessica gasped and glanced quickly over her shoulder. Banberry Road was empty—not a wagon, buggy, nor single soul in sight. She was alone.

    Jessica’s eyes shifted back toward the old woman, who hobbled closer still. The girl scrunched into a ball like a little dead spider and shut her eyes tighter than two pages in a closed book, expecting the worst.

    After a moment of tense, sun-blistered silence, Jessica heard the old woman’s grating voice and dared to open one eye a slit, just enough to see Emma Murphy bent over a little grave marker in a tangle of briers just a few feet inside the fence. “Picked you some bluebells by the side of the house this morning, John.” The quiet reverence of the voice stunned Jessica so that her eyes popped open round and wide.

    Mrs. Murphy placed the small wad of flowers atop the crude tombstone. “Not too regular I get out here, John,” she went on, “what with the way folks stare at me, like I was something out of a bad dream. Haven’t come by a kind word from anybody as long as I can pain to remember. Just the sound of rocks thrown against the house and people whispering things could turn a God-fearing woman into the hardest human being that ever took a breath. Folks call a body mean long enough, he’ll start believing it.”

    Emma’s chin quivered and emotion stumbled her words. “Been downright choreful to act Christian of late, John.”

    Jessica watched Emma brush away a tear, cock her head, and gaze darkly off down the empty road, her explosion of white hair rivering in the hot wind.

    Up close, Jessica observed something that distance had hidden before. It was more than the corroding of time that had set the shadows so deeply upon Emma’s face. And it was something more than the scowl she wore like a tiresome chore. It was a look of loneliness every bit as sad as was Jessica’s when she had first moved to town and had not known a soul. But children and grownups alike had talked to her and made her feel at home. Soon the loneliness had pleasantly vanished like a late winter day filled with sunshine.

    Mrs. Murphy’s eyes glanced back to the grave, and her knotty hands pulled feebly at the weeds around it.

    Jessica rose slowly, rigid as an old field oak. She wasn’t sure where her courage came from. Maybe it was something Papa had said, or maybe guilt had pushed it out. Whatever the cause, it was a hair ahead of fear. Suddenly she realized there was something she had to do.

    Mrs. Murphy’s eyes took hold of the girl in the rustling weeds. They widened with surprise and then narrowed with the old hardness. “What do you want here?” she snapped.

    “I—I want to help you,” Jessica declared meekly.

    The old woman stared, disbelieving her ears.

    Jessica managed a smile. “Maybe I could help you pull some of those weeds, Mrs. Murphy.”

    “You want to help me?” the voice scratched out with puzzlement and suspicion.

    Jessica nodded. Emma Murphy straightened, her eyes still narrowed with distrust, but she was too dumbfounded to speak. And since she didn’t lift her voice or raise a stick to Jessica, the freckle-faced girl pushed through the rickety gate and started pulling weeds.

    Emma continued to stare, completely taken aback by the girl’s friendliness and grit. Finally she said, “Nobody wants to help me.”

    “I’m not ‘nobody,’” Jessica declared, “I’m Jessica Goodhue. I live a few miles down the road.” She twisted off a prickly brier twig, then squinted at Emma Murphy’s withered shape, shadowed against the sun. “Can we be friends, Mrs. Murphy?”

    The old woman’s silent stare was unbroken.

    Just as Jessica thought that perhaps she had made a horrible mistake by coming through the gate, Emma hunkered down beside her and eyed her so deeply that Jessica felt her very soul had been seen for the first time since Heavenly Father had told her good-bye and she was ushered down to earth!

    A smile slowly faltered across Emma Murphy’s face like a young baby trying to walk. She extended her hand to Jessica, and a moment later a smooth, youthful hand was enfolded in one old and worn. Winter was suddenly gone from the old woman’s eyes, and warm tears meandered down a furrow in her cheek and disappeared into the folds of her neck.

    For a long while the two just sat there, lost in the magic of the other; then they turned to pulling weeds together.

    Two days later when Jessica walked by the old house with some friends on their way to save the last of the fish in the creek puddles, they noticed the curtains pulled back in Emma’s room. For the first time in their recollection, Emma Murphy had let in the light!

    Illustrated by Dick Brown