Things We Can’t Explain by Linda J Pifer
‘The hillside was partially cut away for a driveway by Dad when he started to clear the land and built our house in 1939. Aided by my uncle and his boys, the dirt was hauled further down the yard by wagon and dumped unceremoniously in low spots near the back pasture. I was born about five years later.’
“Where you going?” I call to my friend Carol as she walks away in the direction of her house, that five-room cottage that sits behind the large hillside garden.
“I have to go home for dinner, Cat,” She calls over her shoulder with a wave of her hand, her curly hair bouncing about.
“Are you coming back?” I yell louder so she can hear me because she’s already past the neighbor’s front yard.
“I doubt it; see you tomorrow.” She continues walking.
“Rats” I swear, since I’m not to use any worse language at age ten. I know much stronger words by hearing Dad swear, he can ‘make a sailor blush’ my mom says, but I don’t feel the need to risk a spanking to use them.
Carol and I spent all afternoon exploring the grass-covered, twelve-foot high bank of earth above our driveway that separates the upper pasture from my yard. We’re both in the same class at school and studied old Indian tribes and amateur archeology before summer vacation. The thought of digging up something old sounded exciting and we decided to do our own dig right here in the yard.
With Dad’s permission, we pounded stakes into the hard, clay-laden dirt earlier today and strung white string, measuring off three-foot spaces as we were taught. We wanted to get some digging done before the day ended, but Mom called me for dinner and reluctantly, I head to the back door.
“Stop right there missy!” she says as I enter the landing. “Get the broom and go back outside; you’re covered in dirt,” she observes and smiles patiently.
“Aw Mom,” I answer, but do as I’m told and trudge halfway down the basement stairs where the broom hangs on the wall.
Brushed off, I’m admitted to the kitchen and Mom places a kiss on the top of my head. “That’s better Cathy, now go wash your hands for dinner…and change those clothes,” she adds as she turns back to the stove.
She cooks for me and herself since Dad works the evening shift in town. If he were here, he’d back her up with, “Do what your Mother tells you,” though I know he secretly enjoys seeing me act like a tom-boy. I had an older brother who didn’t live long and Dad probably hoped I’d be a boy, too. He works in our garage on weekends and teaches me about tools and how to do stuff most girls don’t enjoy. But it’s ok, I like passing him wrenches and knowing he trusts me to give him the right tool ‘for the job’. I often think someday I’ll make him proud of me-his daughter; not just for the tom-boy I appear to be.
Dinner and homework done, I pull down the big book on Indians in Ohio and lay on my stomach in bed turning pages until I find the one on arrowheads. Mohicans were the most likely to walk and hunt our area because of the springs and creek flowing just across the street in the ravine. Carol and I hope to find some arrowheads or remains of hunting tools in our ‘dig’.
When the sun breaks through the morning haze, Carol and I take our collection of hand spades and weed trowels we borrowed from the shed to the site. We work hard at moving away the topsoil of the first three foot square on the bank…with no finds. It’s Saturday, the air is beginning to heat up and we’re sweating. I put down my trowel and wipe off my face with a kerchief.
“Find anything?” I ask her.
“I did find this piece of flint,” she holds up a gray, satiny rock for my inspection and I take a closer look. There’s a lot of loose flint in our area, making it likely that Indians once did come here to make their arrow heads and tools.
“It doesn’t look like part of an arrowhead; there’d be marks along the edge where they chipped it into shape,” I tell her and hand it back. She sticks it in her bucket just the same.
“That’s okay, “She responds, “I’ll keep it in case.”
“In case of what?” I ask.
“Just in case,” she smiles and goes back to her digging.
Carol’s been my friend since grade school. As an only child, I never had anyone to play with until we met on the school bus and became fast friends. She was in need of a girlfriend since she has three brothers, one younger with asthma. The two older ones are okay, but it’s always them against us whether building hideouts or forts or treehouses.
Carol and I can just be girls and play board games together and talk about anything. She doesn’t have a father, well she has one, but he lives in town with his other family. Her mother is responsible for holding the house together for four kids and two dogs and maintaining the gardens that render food both summer and winter, thanks to her canning and preserves.
We finish sifting through the dirt and move on to the next square of earth. So far we’ve found an old steel penny, a piece of barbed wire and someone’s shoelace; not a very productive day.
Dad comes to check on our progress before he leaves for work. “How’re you kids doing? Find anything?” He’s dressed in work pants and dark gray shirt, his work boots are stained with black rubber dust from the factory where he cuts tire liners.
“Just some junk and a nice steel penny,” I tell him. This whole thing may be wasted energy, I think, but don’t admit it to him.
“Why don’t you try over here?” he suggests and walks to the other end of the embankment. “It’s closer to where the creek ran through before the highway was built.” He kicks at the dirt and weeds growing thick there.
“I have to go to work; good luck with your hunt.” He walks away to the car with lunch bucket in hand.
We take his advice and move to the last marked-off square near the end of the driveway. It’s getting cloudy and the weather man said it might rain. For now, we’re glad the sun isn’t beating on us as we dig up the weeds and begin to loosen the soil.
Carol’s brothers decide to pay us a visit and seem interested in what we’re doing. “Hey, what you got in here?” They take Carol’s bucket and the oldest, Robert, picks out the flint shard she found.
“This isn’t worth anything, it’s just a rock,” He says and quickly flings it across the street into the ravine. Carol stands up and begins chasing him, but his long legs carry him several steps in front of her until she tires.
“Why don’t you guys just go away and leaves us alone?” she demands, her curly hair sticking out and her face red.
“Well maybe we will; what’re you going to do if we don’t?” he teases. Carol ignores him and goes back to work with her trowel.
“Okay,” he says to the others, “let’s go to the woods and look for blackberries. See ya Cat.”
“See ya” I answer. Carol is digging away then stops to look up at me.
“What?” She asks in answer to my stare. “I have to live with them; you don’t.” Her frown turns into a smile, “Besides, I can’t let them think I like them; they’re my brothers.”
Storm clouds began to roll in, the sky slowly darkens and Carol leaves to go home. I want to finish this one square before I go in, I think, but the wind picks up suddenly and I grudgingly stand up with my trowel in hand. I happen to glance toward the sky just as a flash of lightning splits the clouds.
My eyes are drawn to a shadow just the other side of the locust trees that edge the embankment. It must be one of Carol’s brothers messing with me I think and holler, “What are you doing over there?”
Silhouetted against the stormy sky at the edge of the clearing is someone, but now I’m not sure who, since there’s no answer.
The lightning strikes again, illuminating the trees…it’s an Indian. He wears buckskin, his dark hair fashioned into a crest with thongs of the same leather and a black feather on the back of his head. His eyes are dark, but reflect the flash of the lightning for a split second. He stares at me then smiles.
“She’s coming out of it,” a voice says.
I hear someone, my mother, “Oh thank God.”
I feel a hand, large and strong, take mine; “Sissy, can you hear me?” It’s my Dad; what’s he doing home, I wonder and slowly open my eyes. He’s looking at me and starts to smile, his eyes crinkle at the edges and he says, “There you are.” Then he kisses me on the cheek and steps away.
My Mother puts her hand on my shoulder; “We were so worried,” she says and has tears in her blue eyes.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, “Why’s everyone here?” I start to get up and see I’m not home in bed as I thought. I feel my forehead where it hurts and there’s a bandage.
“You had a fall little lady,” A man in white says, “during a run-in with some lightning, but you’re going to be okay.” He smiles and uses a flashlight to look into my eyes then pushes me back to my pillow.
“You’ll need to stay quiet for a few days, promise? If you do, I’ll send you home with your parents to your own bed.”
“We’ll make sure Doc,” Dad says, “won’t we?” he asks and I nod agreement.
“Good! Check in with your family doctor in a week, sooner if you have questions or new symptoms, but I think she’s going to be just fine.”
“What happened, Dad?” I ask, but Mom gets me dressed and I sleep in the car on the way home.
It’s been three days since my ‘accident’. Dad explained I caught some bounced lightning from one of the trees on the embankment, probably because of the trowel in my hand. Luckily it had a wooden handle and lightning didn’t travel through my body. It did knock me off my feet and I fell down the hill, hitting my forehead on one of the rocks there. Mom heard the thunder clap and looked out in time to see me tumbling down. She came to me, but when I didn’t respond, she phoned Carol’s mother who quickly sent her boys to carry me into the house. Dad drove home from work and that’s how I wound up in the emergency room.
I feel better now and Dad took some vacation so today we walk around the yard together, my hand in his. It’s nice to have him all to myself; he’s given me all his attention over the last few days, more than before the accident. I’ve always felt like a substitute for the boy he couldn’t have, never quite measuring up in his eyes, but now I know it’s not true.
“Oh no,” I exclaim when I see our archeological site. All the markers, string and stakes lay in the driveway. The embankment itself, stripped of its natural grasses and weeds has eroded; deep gullies remain on the side of the hill where dirt was washed out by the storm.
“We’ll have to take care of this during my vacation,” Dad remarks, “but not until the Doc says you’re well enough,” He cautions.
Suddenly, I remember something and look toward the trees where the Indian stood.
“Dad, are there Indians around here anymore?” I ask. He laughs then sees I’m serious.
“No, not to my knowledge, why?”
“The storm…before I fell, I saw an Indian standing over there.” I point to the trees and describe how he was dressed.
“Certainly sounds like a real Indian,” He remarks. “Sometimes, when we get knocked on the head, we see things that aren’t really there.”
“But he was real, Dad, I know he was,” I say emphatically, “and it was before…” I realize I don’t remember anything after I saw him.
“There are things we can’t explain in life, Sissy,” Dad says, “and if you say he was real, then he must have been. Let’s go in and get some ice-cream, what do you say?”
Today I’m cleared to walk outside by myself and I return to our ruined excavation site. Something gleams where the debris from the wash-out lays and I keep my eyes fixed on it as I walk toward it.
I find three arrowheads partly covered with dirt, their smooth flint catching the morning sun. I look around to see if this is a prank someone’s waiting to see, but not even Carol’s brothers are around. I pick up the prizes and brush off the dirt clinging to them. They feel warm in my hand, like someone just placed them in the earth.
I suddenly hear a stick snap, up by the tree where the Indian stood. I turn my gaze sharply to search the place, half-expecting to see him there again, but there’s no one. Then a wispy breeze rises to swirl through the leaves, ruffling them quickly and I give a little wave, in case it’s him.
Linda J Pifer was born and raised in the hills of Ohio and learned early on about the history of the area. She and her husband now live in Florida, but still return in the fall to see the changing of the seasons.