As she stood on the doorstep and reached to ring the bell, she wondered who would open the door and why she had been summoned here. Before her hand could drop to her side, the door opened and there stood Dora.
She knew Dora. Saw her often. Out in her yard. Raking, planting, weeding, shoveling. Off and on, year round. She and Dora were familiar. Spoke easily if only occasionally. About all kinds of small things, often the weather to start. She liked Dora, what she knew of her.
Dora smiled at her before turning her head to look down at a girl standing beside her. Youngish. Not yet an adolescent. Or smallish if she was. Blurred, somehow. Wispy. Not her physical self. Which was solid. Not fat. Not big or heavy. Just -- solid somehow. It was her being, or the sense of herself she projected that seemed blurred somehow.
Without a word or a look the girl moved past her, rather gracelessly, going quickly down the steps, heading around the house without looking back.
Dora smiled a smile that turned to a grimace, saying that the girl, Thilea, had asked specifically for Leanne.
“She wanted you. Well, she said the girl next door. T’other side of us is Doc McNally, so I knew it was you she meant. Your Mum said you’re not in school just now. It’s nice enough weather out. The back, around there, goes all the way down to the river. Figure that’s where she’s heading. Spends lots of her time outside. But always alone, her. Asking for you surprised me, it really did. She’s not much for people. But if you can spare an hour or three, mebbe every day? Or if that’s too often, every other day? For the summer, like. Just to keep her company. I don’t know what she’s got in mind. Your Mum told me your usual babysitting fee and I’ll gladly pay that. I mean, she’s not a baby, but...?”
Leanne nodded her understanding, wondering why her mother had only told her to come to Dora’s not why or what for. The girl interested her. And time was heavy on her hands now. Her part-time job had petered out and school was out for the summer. Why not try it? Very handy, right next door and all.
So she nodded again, thrusting her hands deep in her jumper pockets. Said it was okay for today anyway. For a few hours. To see how it went. Whether or not they could get along...?
Dora nodded, smiling broadly herself, and saying it was grand of her, to go right around now, and telling her she had only to knock at the back if she needed anything, adding she’d be bringing out drinks and something to nibble on when the sun got over a bit. Then closed the door.
Leanne stood there a minute longer. Odd, she thought. Very odd. But that was what made it interesting. She set off around the house, making her way to the gate in the waist-high fence that closed in the back garden and the property beyond. Where the girl stood. Unmoving. As if in attendance. Waiting.
But before Leanne could reach the gate, the girl had slipped the latch and let herself in, opening the gate and sliding through before pushing it wide, against its spring, and then letting go for Leanne catch if she could and let her own self through. Which Leanne did, handily, but again with that frisson of strangeness that always signals something intriguing is afoot, even as it seems to be warning against or of something else. Something other.
The back of the house was a surprise to Leanne. From her house, in spring and summer and even in fall, there were only branches and leaves of the many trees to be seen. Also in those seasons, in and around, one could spy lilacs and hydrangeas, Queen Anne’s Lace and rhododendron and many others, some just green and not blooming and others blooming growths, all burgeoning and standing tall in their growing seasons. But Leanne saw that even though winter’s skeleton trees seemed to show the whole of the back of Dora’s house, all seeming normal enough, she now could see an almost head-high hedge standing against the fencing between her house and Dora’s, as if guarding the view from full sight. An odd thing, as she had never noticed it before. Only now, standing inside and looking about, could she see what had been kept secret -- the reality of what lay within the yard and the lawns and the garden beds.
The grounds were large. She could see now how large they were, separated into lawned spaces and closed gardens and guarded - there was that word again - it seemed by trees both young and ancient, some of a kind she had never seen before, with small stone towers or single large stones and birdbaths, trellises and arbors, and winding pathways that left and re-entered. In fact, the whole seemed more spacious and magical than was logical or possible.
But Leanne saw that the girl was seated cross-legged on the ground beside a heavy iron slatted bench. Leanne hurried to her, seating herself first before saying a hello to the top of the girl’s head as the girl did not move to look up or to greet or indeed to give any apparent notice of Leanne’s arrival. But then, after some moment’s hesitation, in which Leanne had decided to await upon her strange hostess’s pleasure, she did look up. Leanne saw wide grey eyes that made all other details about the girl and her face disappear. Staring straight into Leanne’s eyes, she spoke one word.
“Stump,” she said.
Leanne leaned forward, putting her arms on her thighs and clasping her hands at her knees.
“Stump?” she asked. “What stump?”
It took a silent ten or so minutes, the girl-child plucking grass and blowing it away, Leanne watching. Then, with a shift of her small buttocks, the girl chanced another, single word. Turning first to lock eyes again.
“Me,” she said.
The girl did not shift her gaze from Leanne’s and so the two continued to look at one another. Leanne knew she was staring, while the girl was calmly gazing at something. Something somewhere. Either deep inside herself or reflected in Leanne’s eyes. She could not tell which.
Wondering what or how this child-girl might be encouraged to speak more -- not so much for the girl, who seemed quite at home with her miserly speech, just as she seemed to be with silence and certainly with herself -- but for Leanne, whose curiosity was now fully aroused, along with a growing feeling of sympathy, though she didn’t know for what, exactly. But she sat silent, copying the girl and wondering what in the world.
Another fifteen or so minutes passed silently. The child attempted to weave grass blades together, but they always tore. Dogged, she returned to her attempts again and again. Meanwhile Leanne half thought and half dozed, finding pleasure in the sun’s warmth, the smell of grass and growing, and in the oddities of everything else.
Finally rousing herself, feeling it was somehow up to her to begin again, she spoke without real thought the thing that was foremost in her mind.
“How so, ‘Stump’?”
The girl picked up her head to gaze at her, unperturbed. Only after a bit longer did she shift that gaze, looking now it seemed down off the nearest pathway. When she did speak again, Leanne was caught off guard. The girl-child’s voice, Leanne realized, was low pitched. Not unmusical in tonality.
“I’m dumb,” she announced with a finality so flat and so matter of fact it was hard not to accept it as simple truth. The same way one reacts to someone announcing, flatly and without affect, the obvious fact that the sky is up.
Yet, Leanne very much doubted it. Once again, she stared at this odd child seated beside her. She wondered why this person had asked for her in particular. She thought it could be because they were both of the same sex. It could hardly be their ages. She herself was almost 17. Would be completing her secondary education this coming year. And this unfinished if very adult-seeming child could not be more than 10 or so. So what was it? Might it be as simple as loneliness and that she lived right next door? But there was more, and she wondered what it was. She, the child, seemed perfectly content with this no-talk what? Meeting? Hardly that. Not in any meaningful way. Well then what was this? What was she doing sitting here gazing at a young person who was happy to ignore her, giving her one and two words, at best? Sitting here was right. Must be almost three-quarters of an hour and they’d exchanged what? 9 words? Five of hers and four of the girls?
Mentally Leanne was scratching her head and heard her inner voice tell her that that was right, that was the place to start, from scratch. Shrugging slightly, well-used to this slightly cracked sense of humor, still she was silent for several more long moments, observing this very ‘other’ girl-child who did not move a muscle but sat as if rooted. Finally, at a loss for a better idea, Leanne did as told and started where the girl-child had left her.
“Dumb as in what?” she asked.
“As in dumb,” came the answer.
“No,” Leanne replied. “That won’t do. You must define ‘dumb’.”
Now the small person next to her did move. Rising quickly to her feet she stood and turned to face Leanne, bending slightly as she was the taller now if only by just a bit, in order to speak at her.
“Stupid,” was all she said.
Snapped it, really. But in speed, not anger. Then sank back down, sitting in front of Leanne, with legs pulled up so her chin rested on her knees. She was wearing a long skirt, yanked down as far as it could go. Not quite long enough to cover the white ankle socks with scalloped cuffs that sat modestly above a pair of saddle shoes that looked ancient to Leanne. Not like the current sleek styles. Much older, more common, with their thick red rubber soles, and yet more attractive, too. A bit like this child. This young-old girl-child.
Leanne took a deep breath. “That’s not the only meaning for ‘dumb’ you know. It’s not even it’s first meaning.”
The girl wouldn’t look up. Kept her head lowered and didn’t speak. All right, thought Leanne, two can play at this game.
Standing up abruptly, she started down the nearest path, speaking without looking back.
“Think I’ll go down to the river and toss some pebbles. See if I can skip one, make it bounce. I can do seven bounces when the stone is nice and flat and I throw exactly right.”
Leanne had no idea where the path led that she’d started down or if it led anywhere at all but back upon itself. She was startled but gratified to feel her hand grabbed by a much smaller but commanding one and to feel herself being yanked back while hearing the young determined seeming girl-child speak, and in more than three words this time.
“You won’t get there that way. That way only goes to the lily ponds,” she said, adding, “and the dumb carp.”
Leanne obligingly spun about to follow the short-stepped but determined stride of the girl, now in front of her and moving away quickly. I wonder, she asked herself, does she mean carp are stupid? Or does she know the first meaning of ‘dumb’ is to be without speech. Mute. But she had to hurry because though the younger girl was smaller, she was fast on her feet and Leanne had no wish to be lost in this maze-like place of garden beds and trees and shrubs. Catching sight again of the stiffened shoulders and straight back ahead of her, she hurried to catch up. Placing her hand on the child’s shoulder while keeping step with her and bending low to speak directly into her ear she said,
“The first meaning of dumb is to be without words. To be mute. In fact, unable to speak.”
There was a twitch. A definite tug on the line.
“Like the carp.”
And was satisfied to see the head switch upwards and feel the laser-like gaze of grey eyes before the head turned away again. No spoken reaction. Leanne reached to catch and hold the young girl’s hand. Feeling instant resistance, she began at once to swing their barely clasped hands lightly and risked asking a question. A longer, more complex question this time.
“Do you think whoever calls you Stump and says you’re dumb would be able to understand what you are saying if you were to walk right up, plant yourself in their face, and say that you are not dumb, you are not mute -- do you think that person would get it?”
She added, to emphasize her point, “You know. Mute as a stump.”
There was a flicker there, she was sure. Something was getting through. Somehow. Trouble was, she had no idea what or how. Keep at it, she told herself. Do some more scratching. The hand wiggled free, but there was no flight, only a determined stance. And silence.
She tried once more. “Stump?”
This time she waited patiently for acknowledgment. When it came, it was only after long minutes in which the child had dragged first one toe and then the other through the longer grass to force a rough bending of blades, first one way and then the other, first one foot and then the other, toe pointed, back and forth, like a scythe. And when it came it was only a sharp glance, thrown so quickly that if Leanne hadn’t been studying her she’d have missed it. So, she thought to herself, the child was listening. Good.
“Do you think, Stump,” she asked, persistent now, “that the person who calls you Stump and says you’re dumb would be smart enough to know what you are saying when you say you are not mute?”
She waited a bit and then added, “Or - is that person - well - too thick to understand?”
She waited a bit more and then inquired further, “You do know what ‘thick’ means, don’t you?”
She caught a hand and held it as lightly as she would a fallen nestling. And was pleased to feel a sudden quick tightening of the hand before it was removed, not abruptly or roughly, but gently, if completely, and then to hear the low, not unmusical voice answer.
“Yeah. I do. She’s not thick. And I’m not.”
After a beat, “Not stupid. But I am Stump. My name now. I’ve taken it as mine.”
Leanne laughed. Stopped where she stood and laughed. She was still laughing when she heard an almost-giggle response. She stamped both feet and danced in a small circle, suddenly seeing the girl-child had paused all action herself and was goggling at Leanne. Who stopped then, and smiled at Stump.
Then decided that yes, she was going to call this girl by that name until there was reason not to. Reason given her by Stump herself. So she clapped her hands and said, “Well, I’ve changed my mind, Stump. Let’s you and me go back and see if Dora’s brought out something cold to drink and something sweet to eat. Then we can decide if we want to go practice skipping stones this day or another day. I’m thirsty, I am. Aren’t you? ”
And was turning away, saying, “But I’m not waiting, so you’d better stir your stumps, Stump!”
And then, for the second time that afternoon, felt a surge of secret delight as her hand was taken and she heard the voice beside her say, “Yeah, okay.”
“Then let’s race,” she said, dropping the small hand and, without waiting for an answer, setting off at a trot, back up the path towards the outlined rooftops showing above the trees. This, she thought, this is going to be a most interesting summer.