“Green shadows she prowls.”
The line was not meant to describe anything literal. Yet I’d barely written it before my neighbor girl stole, as if cued, into her overgrown backyard. She passed stunted pines and wildflowers and headed toward the canyon rim of Turtle Bayou. Two fingers held aloft the hem of her dress; in the other hand she carried a sheet of paper.
Melodica, I recalled, was her strange name.
I set aside my poem-in-progress and stilled the rocking of my chair. The child was about seven, blonde, her skin a translucent white. This was the first time I’d seen her in daylight.
The ethereal creature paused at the chasm-edge, a spot of pale against a riot of greenery. Realizing her peril, I stood to shout, but she raised the paper so theatrically that my warning cry died in my throat. To interrupt would have been akin to yelling during a tender moment in a play.
She released the paper, sending it toward the bayou, far below. For seconds her hand remained out, fingers splayed as if waving farewell. The page sawed itself to and fro, descending to the ends of the vines which wept from the canyon rim, then disappeared into the verdant darkness—no doubt to join the mats of water lilies floating at the bottom.
I could not help but be charmed by the romance of mailing a letter into thin air. But was it a game, another symptom of the girl’s eccentricity, or—something else?
She turned and walked back. Her shoulders seemed slumped with the weight of grief. There was a mystery here. I had avoided mysteries for years, but this one, shoved under my nose, rekindled my curiosity. If the dropped page constituted a letter, what words did it contain, and to whom was it sent?
I rose, sprayed on mosquito repellent, and took a stroll.
I am in my early eighties, twenty years into retirement, and a good fifty past my prime. Old men, I’ve discovered, can still do marvelous things; they just need more time. Thus did I successfully reach the canyon bottom—using a steep, rough footpath cut in cruel switchbacks—though what would once have taken three minutes now took a full ten.
The fertility of the Southern soil has reduced this trail to a thin line. All else is a blanket of green springing from brown layers of decay: swamp grass, spiny-tipped palmettos and rushes. Overhead, cypress and crouching live oaks droop into the black water itself. The dank perfume of blooming flowers and rot intermingle, rising into my nostrils like a physical slap. The smell of the bayou. Setting for my poetry; inspiration for my idle years. And balm for a troubled mind.
Access to this place was the reason I chose this house among all others in which to retire.
The paper lay unfolded and partially submerged in the middle of the water, the letters printed in large, childish script. From the shore, I could only pick out bits and pieces: “When will you come …” and the single words “play” and “miss.” Holding overhead branches, I carefully leaned out, but the sluggish top current carried the cryptic message from reach even as I watched.
I marked the direction it was bound. Beyond the maze of water lilies, a beard of Spanish moss hanging from a water-bound cypress caressed the surface, acting as a screen. The strands were decorated with waterlogged scraps of paper.
It looked like Melodica had sent other letters—but why?
I looked about, sweating in the steamy atmosphere. In spite of the repellent, mosquitoes whined at my ears. Then, in a narrow band of black mud marking the border of earth and water, I spotted two boot prints. The toe-impressions faced the water. A clue?
I smiled to myself. Old man trying to play detective again. Reliving his youth.
The prints were unusually large and recently made. In one lay the impression of an anchor. Being an occasional angler myself, I recognized the brand as a high-quality maker of men’s fishing boots.
I daydreamed my way back up the hill, trying to put the various facts together—or at least find the poem which lurked behind this. At home, I plunked ice cubes into a glass of sun tea and sat again in my rocker. The sticky breeze caressed my face.
I turned over the few things I knew about the girl and her family.