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Down the River

Dixie let the lanky willow trees brush the top of her head as she sat the paperback book down on the rock beside her, sleep still dozing in the corner of her eyes. It was five in the morning, just when the blushing sun started to rise over the mountains of Abingdon, Virginia. She did this every dawn, even in the chill of winter, it’s almost as if the creek called to her, and boy, her mama did not approve. It’s just not right for a lady of 16 to be messing around by the river, she could soil the bottom’s of her perfectly hand-washed dresses. She could tear a seam, even worse, get a mud stain, lord knows those never come out. This wasn’t even the worst of it. Dixie had taken a book from her father’s study, and if he ever found out about it, she would be held accountable for immediate punishment. Why waste time reading when she could be washing the dishes or making breakfast for her four other siblings in the house? Why scan words on a page when she could be learning to take care of a family she could be gaining in the next couple of years? Her mama is a fond believer in marrying her young, and getting her out of the house, after all, her two older brothers married when they were 17. Dixie has never seen a mother so proud of her boys before, yet all she had to do was look right in front of her to get a good look at it.

The silence of Turkey Sag Creek is a blessing and a curse, Dixie lets the words written on rice paper consume every nerve in her body, she lets them bathe her in everything she can’t have at her real home. Yet, the guilt also skims her head in every way. Her mama has raised her to be a good wife, not a scholar.

This morning, the only noise was that of a Chickadee, fluttering in the branches above her sweetly. It’s wings reminding Dixie of the crashing of waves on the shore. She had seen it once, and only once. Father said women don’t go anywhere ‘sides the kitchen. Dixie believed she would never see anything in her lifetime that could rival the beauty of the beach. Except maybe a brand new book with a leather spine that still smells of ink and love.

Church bells were her only saviors, for they told her when 5:30 was approaching, time to get back before mama hung her hide above their mantle. The tall grass that scraped up the sides of Dixie’s knees, they smelled of swamp and the sunshine that they soaked in every afternoon. Her knee stockings were staining at the ankles with kelp green dye, thankfully her dresses were long enough to cover her shameful stains.

The trek back to her home was long and winding, gusts of wind brushing through her tangled curly hair, going over one shoulder, then the other. The sun was already starting to give off it’s rays, hurtling them like racing horses to the earth’s mossy ground. Each step she took rattling the floor, making the center of the earth cry out in distress as she conquered her territory.

She was everything, flowing through the air like nothing ever had before. She cut the atmosphere in half, giving one half to the oceans, and the other to the rolling hills.

Dixie’s mama was still asleep when she reached the gates of Ivy Grove Chateau, the home belonging to her father, Richard Abel. It’s tall stone walls and old copper roof were grand and luxurious, even though sometimes living there wasn’t so grand. Sometimes in the night, the Ivy Grove Chateau settled in the ground, tucking the rickety foundation of the bottom floor into the ground for bed. Mama claimed it was normal, but Dixie had big ideas of her own. Her favorite was trying to imagine baby mice running through the crevices of each stone, trailing their microscopic prints all over the stone. She has a wild imagination, never letting the real resolution rest, she always has something to think of in that stubborn head of hers.

She set the wash bucket in the water basin, letting it fill halfway before taking the wood polish and carving a chunk of the solid block off into her hands. Dixie dropped it in the water and watched in fizzle into nothing at the bottom of the old bucket. Her right hand grabbed the brush off the table, and on her hands and knees, washed the floors until they sparkled like cracked open geodes. Mama always tells her to do her chores before anyone gets up, that way she’s no in anyone’s way, and no one has to see her working. The skin up to her wrists turned red and raw, the vinegar stripping away the levels of youth still laced in her complection. She stared at them in hatred, she wanted out of this life. She’s never felt so trapped before. Having to sneak out to see the sun, she was a lion in a cage, thrashing around, looking for dinner but not being able to clamp it’s jaws to fulfill itself. At this rate, she felt like if she did get married, she’d have more freedom than she has now.

Mama’s footsteps were light and airy against the cold stone floor, even though the air was already warm and sticky, the house was still freezing and felt absent of all emotion. Her voice was stuffed like a Christmas pheasant, sat on the long, over decorated table with berries and gravy pouring out over it’s opening, spilling over the sides of the plate.

“Did you get your house chores done yet?”

“Yes, mama. If you don’t mind, I’m going to the barns to feed the chickens.” Mama and father have been talking about hiring new hands to help out on the farm so Dixie’s sisters, Charlotte and Annie-Belle, won’t have to milk the cows every morning, kind of ridiculous if you ask Dixie, after all, she enjoys going out there, the smell of the air was enough to keep her going for the day.

The back of the stone castle was bleak and somewhat sad, reflecting on everything she felt in the deepest parts of her heart, where no one else dared to go, and no one dared to find. She trotted down the path way, she could hear the chickens clucking in the distance, her rooster, Beau, crowing to the sun, smiling as he rallied the troops. Dixie opened the red large door, they sound of shuffling hay scraping the barn floor filled Dixie’s ears. Chickens of all kinds ran through the large doors, spreading and flapping their wings to stretch after a long night's rest. She walked past them, dumping the bucket of scratch onto the dirt beneath her feet. Hay was being thrown from on top of the pre-piled stacks.

“Charlotte? Are you up there?” Dixie hadn’t seen her sister out of bed this morning, she was one to extol in “beauty sleep.” Something her mama also praised.

“No, who’s Charlotte?”

“Hello? Who is it?” A tall boy jumped down from the haystacks, Dixie jumped back, nearly tripping over her hoop skirt.

“Jackson. I’m assuming you’re Dixie? Your dad told me all about you.”

“Why are you here?” Dixie took a step back, tripping over the bucket of chicken scratch, falling onto her back with a hard thud. She sat up on her arms, stretching like a cat, only to try and get away from this new intruder.

“What do you know about my family, huh?”

“Nothing ma’am, just that you’re father hired me to work.”

“You’re not from around here, are you?” His accent wasn’t as dainty as those from Virginia, it was thick, like molasses on a cold morning.

“No, just in from Texas, got here not too long ago, I needed the money and heard from Old Man Waylon that y'all were in need of some help.” Dixie scoffed in protest, more so at her father than anyone else.

“Lord knows that man wants all his daughters in the kitchen.” Jackson lowered his head, he seemed uncomfortable, like he wanted to say something, yet he only just met her, and it was not his house, nor his place to say anything.

Dixie walked past him to her Maple. The only thing that keeps her going anymore. Maple is a oak colored Stallion, with the longest, flowing mane you’ve ever seen.

“Hey Maple, how’s my girl doing?” Maple neighed and sighed softly, shaking the sleep that’s caught in her tail.

“You do know she can’t talk back, right?” There it was, Jackson’s voice again. Something she didn’t particularly want to hear.

“If you don’t mind, I would love if you could keep your smart mouth to yourself.”

“Actually, I never went to school, so if anything, I have a dumb mouth.” Dixie tried to hide a smirk, she thought he was funny, but she had no intention on letting him know. His improper grammar also irked her, his voice is like biting into a sweet peach, but his mouth is a hundred shards of glass enclosed over his vocal chords.

The bell sounded twice, calling her back to her roots.

“I think you might need to go.” It was as if he sounded relieved, like he's never talked to a female before.

“I suppose, well Mr…” Dixie trailed off, not knowing the boy’s last name.

“Carter, but please, just call me Jack.”

“I’ll see you around, Mr. Carter.” Just because she was a little bit of a wild card, doesn’t mean Dixie doesn’t have manners.

She saw the high peaks of Ivy Grove in her peripherals, Dixie never looked back to Jack, she felt that she was too good for that. Her hair swung back behind her, the abyss of dark curls absorbing every ray of sunshine, warming her head, and her thoughts.

“So I see you met Jack.” Richard is a stern man who pays no regards to those of pure nonsense and foolishness. His thoughts are correct, no matter what. A true man of “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” Something Dixie has learned to love and hate in her 16 years.

“I did.” She kept her response short and sweet, she was in no state of being to hold a conversation with such a character.

“What do you think of him?” Richard keeps prying, yet Dixie is smarter than he presumes.

“Well, he’s definitely charming, yet he has a smart mouth on him, what shame.”

“You’ll warm up to him, he’s a lovely boy.”

“I’m sure.” Dixie said in no more than a mumble, she was meek around him, small and coy. She is just trying to keep away from great jeopardy, and if that meant steering clear of her father, she knew that’s what is would have to come to.

Her mama called her into the dining room, an odd request to say the least.

“Dixie, I need you to get cleaned up and make yourself presentable, we will have guests in a short hour.” Mama is a peach pie. Hard and crumbly on the outside, yet warm and comforting on the inside. She puts on a persona of a no nonsense mother, but her love for her children tops everything else.

“Yes mama, can I ask why?” Dixie has always been a curious child.

“No child, just let it happen, what will come is a surprise for my lovely daughter.”

So Dixie lanked up the stairs, as no lady ever should. She passes a confused Annie-Belle, still dressed in her night clothes and tan moccasins.

“Why are you so jumpy, Dixie?”

“Jumpy? I’m in no such way jumpy.” Dixie is not good at hiding things, she never has been, and she probably never will be.

“Well alright, whatever you say.”

The door to her chamber was open, wide open in fact. Almost as if someone had been in there moments before. It was never like that, she thought to herself, she has more dignity than to let someone see inside her personal room. She peeked around the corner, looking around the corner with a slipper in her hand, ready to attack any intruders. To Dixie’s dismay, a new dress lay on her bed. It was blue, the lightest blue she had ever seen. Like fresh rain, or maybe a drop of the ocean, but just one drop, nothing more. It has pearls on the collar, simple but sweet. As innocent as a daisy. Dixie wondered why it was sitting there, she only received new clothes every once in a while, mostly during the season changings, not in the middle of summer. Here she was though, putting on the dress and pinning back her hair. She could hear quiet murmurs coming from down stairs, she couldn’t make out anything they were saying, Dixie quickly walked down the stairs, almost as if she wanted to ascertain the information right away, she has always been a “rip off the bandaid” type of person.

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, there stood her father and mother with three unrecognizable faces.

“Ah! Dixie, please join us, we have news for you.” Richard was too excited, not a fake type of excited like he usually puts on, but a real excitement.

“ Dixie, I want you to meet Mr and Mrs. Johnston, this is their son, Zachary.” Her father’s voice was as fake as honey glaze sweetener.

“It is a pleasure to meet you all.” Dixie curtsied as a true lady would, and they bowed back to her. Zachary took her hand a kissed her knuckles, she already was not a fan of him.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Abel.” Dixie tried her hardest to not gag, his face was too beautiful to be true. So she bowed to him, and crossed her legs at the ankles.

“Dixie it is about time that you be married off, since you have not shown any interest in suitable partners, we took it upon ourselves to find you one.” Of course it was Dixie’s father who made this decision.

“What? No! I will not! How cruel of you! You expect me to marry some boy I just met? I have tried so hard to be your perfect daughter, but because I don’t want to be married at 16, this is what you choose? What on earth is wrong with you?” To say the least, Dixie was furious, red crept up on her cheeks like burnt milk in a tin bowl.

“Dixie! You will speak to me in no such manner!” Richard tried to sound as collected as he could, after all, they did have guests.

Dixie turned to see Zachary and his mother standing side by side, the boy seemed hurt, Dixie didn’t understand how, considering she had said only a couple of words to him. In mere seconds, Dixie grimaced at her own mother, yet Clara’s features were stone cold.

“There are to be no excuses, Zachary will court you until a month after your 17th birthday. We will be making preparations in the meantime, and that is final.” Dixie’s father was always a “no excuses” type of man.

The Johnstons had stayed for dinner, yet Dixie pardoned herself, she couldn’t stand to look at her father’s face. She ran up to her room, tears burning the corner of her eyes with blue tainted dye. DIxie sat on her canopy bed, thinking to herself in a dreamy way.

“He just doesn't get it. I have tried to tell him so many times that I want nothing to do with a suitor right now. I wonder if I could just… Get rid of him. There is some old rope in the back of the barn… Oh no, I couldn’t. That’s just too insane. Maybe I could run away. Lord, I wonder what running away with Mr. Carter would be like. He has such good morals and oh my how I do enjoy that. He could be everything I’ve ever wanted, and yet I will probably never get the chance to even speak to him in a romantic way, if father or mother ever found out, I’d be dead in a heartbeat.” Dixie decided to go to the place that she use to frolic in as a young girl.

She walked out to the glistening gardens, the flowers dew drops singing in the night like her tidal wave tears. Gasoline lamps were scattered evenly throughout the grass like Cherry red Crepe myrtle blossoms got caught in her hair as she sulked along, their small leaves brushing away the impulse on her palms. She ran the tops of her fingers along the daisies, and let their golden pollen stain her sun washed skin. This made her feel no better, she thought about the only place that could make her feel whole. Turkey Sag Creek.

Dixie felt summer brush against her bare feet, something her mother has scolded her for numerous times. The usually warm air was beginning to turn cold and crisp. This only bugged her to a degree. Turkey Sag was quiet and peaceful as always, she hiked up her skirts and waded into the water, she only dared to go to her ankles. Rushing water gilded against her like a skater dancing on crystal cold.

“Isn’t it a little cold to be out here with no coat?” There it was, that stupidly charming voice.

“Well Mr.Carter, I see we have different ideas of cold.” Jack smiled, and even in the purple dusk, you could see the dimples indent themselves into his cheeks.

“Indeed we do, Miss Abel, and I do believe that you are still standing in the middle of the creek.”

“Indeed I am, and please, call me Dixie, ‘Miss Abel’ is far too old for me.”

“Alright then, Miss Abel.” Dixie caught his joke, and couldn’t help but chuckle. He might be a smart mouth, but he does have a sense of humor that Dixie could appreciate.

“You know Dixie, you remind me of Anne from ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ Same love for literature and the written word. It also amazes me how bold you are, and if you don’t think I can’t see those books tucked away in your apron pouch, you’re a fool. Dear Dixie, I would hate to think of you as such.” Dixie’s mouth hung open a little. He was right, she is a fool. A helpless fool, and that’s the greatest thing a girl can be...A downright fool.

“How forward of you, Jack. If you do not choose to think of me as a fool, then what am I? Do place your wisdom upon me as I have only talked to you once this morning.” Afterall, she was still right.

“You are too easy, Miss Abel. Instead of sneaking books around and hiding them in your sister’s riding bonnets, maybe just carry them around like nothing could happen.” She was not amused.

“You better listen here, boy. I know you aren’t from around here, and obviously you don’t know how this works. What do you think my father would think if he caught me reading a book? One that was banned by the church, too. What do you think he’d do to me? Slap me on the wrist? Tell me to not do it again? I’ll clue you in here, I’d be saying goodbye to that roof I sleep under.” With that, Dixie turned around to face the other side of the creek, the water seemed to flow with great force now, and she climbed the bank in that horridly beautiful blue dress.

“Look Dixie, I can’t say anything about how your father runs your family, but I know that that’s not how you treat your daughter! I heard what happened, word travels fast around here. I don’t know you well, but I know you enough to realize that that’s not what you want. I know that if my pa raised my baby sister like that I’d never speak to him again.” His words did not comfort her at all.

“ I think it’s best if you go, Jack. I shall see you in the morning.” Dixie still likes him though. She wants him to court her a lot more than she wants that Zachary guy. It hurt her heart to beat in such a way when she thought about him, therefore she tried to stop thinking about him. This only made her think about him more.

It has been two months since Jack started to work on the farm. Each day he would eat early dinner with them, and on Sundays he would attend church with them. Dixie still feels that same rush of heat to her cheeks whenever the young man looks her way, her eyes drooping heavy with love, as it rests its wings upon her eyelashes. She learned about Jack every day from their chats in the barn. He by no means comes from an opulent family, and his younger sister, Lacey, just turned 10 last week. Jack wished he could’ve been there, but traveling fees were far too pricey.

As for Zachary, the wedding plans are still on, and Dixie has not said a word to him since the day they met. Her father has not received a word from her either, his spoiled ears are far too dour for her sugar cane words. Jack pretends like it is not happening, she is still Dixie. That girl who reads stolen and banned books by the pound. She’s everything he hoped for, and everything he can not have. They share a mutual love. As they would say in “Anne of Green Gables,” they are “kindred spirit,” connecting to each other solely because they were made for one another. Such as the stained glass leaves were made for the blue salt water taffy sky on a crisp fall day.

“Hey Dixie, what do you think of the ocean?” Jack was brave enough to ask this question now, preparing for the long speech he was about to get. He didn’t mind, he asked on purpose, he just wanted to hear the sound of her sweet as ice cream laced voice.

“Jack you know my answer, I’ll tell you again, though. It’s beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, to be exact. The sound of the waves crashing onto the sand. It’s everything I want it to be and more.”

“You have the most beautiful mind.”

That evening, Dixie fell asleep on the hay stacks. Mr. Carter covered her peaceful body with an old blanket, and blew out the candles. Jack forgot one. One candle. One stick of burning paradise.

The smell of smoke drew nearer to Jack’s nostrils as he slept that night. His guest cottage was lit with orange and purple licks of heat, the sudden scream woke him from what he thought to be a horrible dream.

“Dixie!’ Jack bolted up from his cot, his arms flailing and his neck sweating. Mr and Mrs Abel ran out of their house, screaming the poor girl’s name and embarking on what could be their daughter’s last hours.

Jack did the only thing he could think of, he ran into the barn, Richard and Clara yelling for him to stop. He couldn’t. He physically could not stop himself. In there was his friend. His untold love. His kindred spirit, and it was all his fault.

The indomitable fire only continued to grow in size, yet he forged for her body in the falling rubble, and finally through the dust and ash, Jack carried an unconscious Dixie through the entrance. His body was weak from breathing in lungfuls of smoke, with his face covered in black soot, he fell to the ground with a thud.

Clara ran over to his body and felt his neck. There was no pulse.

Dixie sat up, coughed and sputtered incoherent nonsense.

“Oh Dixie! You’re alive! We thought you were gone!” Richard showed concern for his daughter for the first time that night. As tears streamed down her face out of pain and thankfulness to feel the ground beneath her, and not red hot lava.

“Where’s Jack?” Of course, this was the only thing Dixie could think of. Her mother looked at her with a heavy heart, and Dixie fell to the ground with horrid wails leaving her mouth. He was her world. He was the book that she stole every morning. She read him down by the creek every morning and every eerie night when the owls sang and the willows weeped.

“Dixie, honey, he’ll be okay, he is a servant of God now. He wouldn’t want you to cry as so, he saved your life. So cherish it like he is still here with you. It’s what he would want.”

With those words, Dixie weeped harder, and harder.

The sun began to rise as her neighbors poured buckets of ice and water on the blazing inferno. Red and orange watercolor paints lathered the sky as Dixie laid by the creek. She couldn’t feel anymore. She wanted nothing. A piece of her broke like glass under pressure. This was it for her. The water felt cool on her toes, a lot different than what her burning skin felt like.

Dixie rolled over, into the water. She let her burnt nightdress float around her as her hair spread out around her pink face.

That morning, Dixie let the river take her. She let the waters of Turkey Sag scrape her skin like the wild wind. Dixie became one with the water, what she believed could take her to the ocean once more. One final time. Where the tides kiss the shore and the sun melts the sweet kelp wreaths, she found her peace.

The only piece of the girl that was able to be seen was a piece of blue cloth from her night dress. People from all over flushed close to Abingdon, trying to help find this “missing” girl. Dixie was not missing, in fact, she did not feel lost anymore. The final verdict when the water froze and the sunshine turned gold was something simple, Dixie went down the river.


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