In This World ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The girl came down the mountain in a rainstorm, about to deliver herself of a child. When the people who found her asked her where she came from and where her husband was, she just wailed and pointed back up the mountain. Mrs. Laughlin was running a boardinghouse then. She said she’d take the girl in. She could use her as a sort of chambermaid after the baby was born and, if the baby was healthy, it would come in handy, too. Mrs. Laughlin’s son took a liking to the girl and said he would marry her if she didn’t die in childbirth. He also said he would make a fine papa for the baby, whether it turned out to be a boy or a girl, or whatever it turned out to be. His name was Burl Laughlin. He had always been a solitary man. Most people thought he wasn’t right in the head.
When she was able to speak, the girl said her name was Freda, but she couldn’t remember a last name. She shrugged her shoulders when asked who her people were. The only doctor in town said she seemed to be suffering from some kind of amnesia, no doubt brought on by a traumatic event, such as seeing someone she loved murdered. It had to have been something so horrible, the doc said, that her mind just blocked it out. Maybe someday she would be able to recall, but it was probably best if she didn’t.
On the night the baby was born, Mrs. Laughlin called in Mrs. Altenburg from the church to assist. Freda screamed for several hours but the baby was born easily enough. It was a girl. When Mrs. Laughlin and Mrs. Altenburg looked at it, they knew it wasn’t right. It didn’t weigh more than three pounds and had a drawn look to it, as if, being only a few minutes old, it was already sick. It hardly moved at all and gave a weak whimper when smacked on the bottom.
“Poor little thing,” Mrs. Altenburg said. “I expect it ain’t long for this world.”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Laughlin said. “They can fool you sometimes.”
“I don’t know about you,” Mrs. Altenburg said, “but I think we would be doing the poor little thing a blessed turn if we was to end its suffering right now.” She eyed the basin of dirty water beside the bed. It would be so easy to hold the baby under the water until it rested in the arms of Jesus.
“No, no!” Mrs. Laughlin said. “Don’t do it!”
“Because He’s watching us.” She pointed to a picture on the wall of Him in His Crown of Thorns, and He really did seem to be looking down at them.
“Far be it from me,” Mrs. Altenburg huffed.
They gave the baby to Freda and she somehow knew what do with it. She said she wanted to name it Beatrice. The name didn’t have any significance other than it was a name she had always liked. Two weeks later she married Burl Laughlin in the front parlor of his mother’s house with all the boarders looking on. If it turned out that Freda had a husband after all, it wasn’t her fault if she couldn’t remember, and nobody would hold it against her. They would just have to sort it all out later, if it turned out she was married to two men at the same time.
From the first, the marriage between Burl and Freda was a marriage in name only. Mrs. Laughlin fixed up a nice room for them with a large bed and plenty of space for Beatrice, but Burl refused to give up his snug little room in the attic. He knew nothing about women. Whenever he went near Freda or, heaven forbid, tried to touch her, she screamed and drew away and that frightened him. After several days of this treatment, he lost interest in her; he began to ignore her and to go out of the room whenever she entered. He seemed to forget he was married to her.
Freda didn’t care how distant Burl was. She was half afraid of him, it’s true, but all her time and energy were taken up with her housework and with taking care of Beatrice. She didn’t want the baby out of her sight and didn’t trust Mrs. Laughlin or anybody else to take care of her. Whether she was cleaning the rooms, washing clothes or preparing meals, she kept the baby in a basket close by. When dinner was finished in the evenings and the work done for the day, she retired to her room with the baby and nobody saw either of them again until the next morning.
For the first three years of her life, Beatrice was expected to die. She had none of the round rosiness that other babies had. Her skin was cool to the touch and her limbs spindly and lifeless. She ate hardly anything at all. She lay for hours in her basket, not making a sound, staring out at the world with disinterested eyes. It was as if she had already taken up residence in that other world.
When Beatrice was four years old, she spoke her first words and began walking on her own. She remained tiny, not weighing more than a bag of seed, but she seemed to draw her strength from something outside herself. Freda attributed her new vitality to the lemons she had given her to suck on since she was born, which, the doctor conceded, couldn’t hurt but probably didn’t help much, either.
Freda began making all of Beatrice’s clothes, rather than buying them ready-made. Whenever she came across a piece of cast-off material, she squirreled it away in the trunk in her room until she had time to sit down and cut out the pieces and sew them together. She took Beatrice’s measurements and just made the dresses up as she went along. What she had in her mind was a miniature version of a grown-up woman’s dress, so, after she had refined her sewing technique, she had Beatrice looking like a little dressed-up doll. She made little hats to go with the dresses and adorned them with fake flowers or whatever else she had on hand. When she started curling Beatrice’s hair and putting a dab of rouge on each of her alabaster cheeks, the doll illusion was complete.
Beatrice taught herself to read when she was five years old. Burl would take her on his lap in the evenings after dinner and read to her from the newspaper, the Bible, or whatever written material was available. Beatrice would look at each word as he read them out loud and soon she was reading the words on her own. She might not have known the meanings of all the words, but she knew how to pronounce them from the way they were spelled. Soon she was a better reader than he was. Mrs. Laughlin gave her some books that a boarder had left behind, a couple volumes of poetry and some English novels, and she began reading them, slowly at first and then with ease.
She began to be curious about what was outside the walls of Mrs. Laughlin’s boarding house. She had only ever glimpsed a horse or a dog out the window and she was curious about them and about flowers and other things that grew. She wanted to be up close to them and to touch them and see what made them what they were.
One day in spring Burl decided to take her for a buggy ride in the country. She loved seeing the cows grazing on the hillside. When he stopped at a little bridge over a stream, she was amazed that she could see fish swimming far below her in the water. She had only ever seen fish in books before. On the way back home, since the ride had gone so well, he decided to take her by the general store and buy her a candy cane.
The people in the store crowded around her with smiles. This was the first time that Burl realized how unique she was. He had been with her every day since she was born and he didn’t see her the way other people did. Here was this tiny child, like a beautiful living doll, half the size of other children her age but with the proportions and manner of a grown woman.
“What a sweet little darling!” a large woman with two loutish-looking boys said.
“Haven’t you ever seen a girl before?” Beatrice said as the two boys gaped at her.
“Well, not one like you, dearie,” the woman said.
Burl let her pick out some candy and when he went to pay for it, the store clerk said, “Is she some kind of a midget or something?”
“No,” Burl said. “She’s six years old and small for her age.”
“Well, you ought to sell her to the circus,” the man said. “People would pay money to see her. You’d make a fortune.”
“Do you have children?” Burl asked.
“Got seven,” the man said.
“Why don’t you sell yours to the circus and don’t be giving advice to them that haven’t asked for it.”
When Freda and Mrs. Laughlin took Beatrice to church with them, people crowded around to get a glimpse of her. Some even wanted to touch her, believing it would bring them luck. They asked her such questions as if she had ever been married or if she had ever seen a ghost. She smiled politely and sought her mother’s hand to guide her away from them.
She sat through the long, dry sermon without moving and when it was over and time to go home, the minister made a special point of speaking to her personally.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” he said, bending over and taking her hand in his. “You’re already quite a well-known personage in these parts.”
“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” she said. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The minister looked amazed, as if a dog had spoken to him. “Well, my goodness!” he said. “She certainly knows her scripture, doesn’t she? I wonder if she has any notion of what she’s saying!”
“Well, of course she does!” Freda said. “She’s not a talking parrot!”
When they got home, Beatrice said, “I don’t want to go to church anymore. The whole places reeks of vanity and hypocrisy. I can find out what I need to know from reading the Bible.”
Not long after, Burl received a surprising letter from the State Board of Education. Every child in the state, the letter read, was required by law to attend school, public or otherwise. Since he had a daughter, or ward, at the age of six years, by the name of Beatrice Laughlin, he was forthwith required to see that she was enrolled in a certified institution of learning. If the aforementioned Beatrice Laughlin, age six, was not forthwith enrolled in a certified institution of learning, appropriate measures would be taken that might include removal of the child from her home and placement in a state-run institution.
“They can’t do this, can they?” he said weakly as he handed the letter to Freda.
“She can’t go to school,” Freda wailed as she read the letter. “She’s too tiny and frail. The other kids would grind her under their heels.”
“She’s not going if we say she’s not going,” Mrs. Laughlin said. “She can learn everything she needs to know right here. If she needs a special kind of arithmetic book or something, we’ll get it for her.”
“Yes, we can teach her everything,” Freda said, sniffling.
The next day Burl took Beatrice to see the schoolhouse. He told her about the letter he received that said she had to go to school with other children her age.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to school?” he asked.
“I’m not going,” she said, “and there’s an end to it. I’ll bet I can already read and write better than anybody there, including the teachers.”
“That may be true,” he said, “but it’s always best to be humble in all things.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she said.
Two days later there was a terrific thunderstorm in the night. Lightning struck the schoolhouse, setting it ablaze. All was lost. School was suspended until such time as a suitable alternative place of learning could be found. No other property besides the school was damaged or destroyed.
A couple weeks after the schoolhouse fire, one of the boarders, a man named Helmut Bloodsaw, was trying to run away without paying his back rent. He had stolen some food from the kitchen, along with twelve dollars in cash, and was leaving by the back door at one o’clock in the morning. Beatrice had the feeling that something was wrong in the house and got out of bed. She saw the man from the window of her upstairs room and shot him in the leg as he crossed the back yard. He wasn’t able to go any farther. He lay there and screamed, rousing the neighbors and causing the dogs to bark.
“How did you, a child, happen to have a gun?” the sheriff asked Beatrice when he came to investigate the incident.
“It was my papa’s gun,” she said.
“I didn’t know she knew I had it,” Burl said.
“How did you know your papa had a gun and how did you know where to find it?” the sheriff asked.
“I don’t remember how I knew,” Beatrice said.
“You shot him in the leg. You didn’t kill him but you stopped him dead in his tracks. Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
“I saw him by the light of the moon.”
“I didn’t ask that,” the sheriff said. “I asked where you learned to shoot.”
“I don’t know. It just came to me, I guess. I never fired a gun before.”
The next day a piece appeared in the newspaper about how Beatrice Laughlin, the little doll woman, protected her family from a thief who was absconding with the family’s food and money. In the absence of a photograph, the paper ran an “artist’s rendering” of the girl, showing her size in proportion to that of a fully grown adult, a dog, and a cat. Underneath that piece was another piece written by a supposed “expert” on the subject of “proportional dwarfism.” The opinion was put forth that Beatrice Laughlin wasn’t a child at all but a woman of about thirty-five years who had attained notoriety some years earlier as an expert marksman in a Wild West show. She had killed somebody in the pursuit of her profession, probably accidentally, and was hiding out in a small town, pretending to be a child. Many people who had seen her up close and had spoken to her were of the opinion that she was too smart, too wise, too intelligent, and knew too many things, to be a child of six or seven years.
Overnight Beatrice was famous, when being famous was the one thing in the world she didn’t want. People were dropping by the boardinghouse day and night, sometimes whole bunches of them at a time, to see and to speak to the little doll woman who was not like anybody else on earth and was a heroine in the bargain. She received hundreds of letters from people wanting a lock of her hair or a signed photograph. She received proposals of marriage, one from a convicted murderer and one from a former priest. Three men from a newspaper in the city, one of them a photographer, came to the front door as if it was their right, wanting to write her story for their paper. Mrs. Laughlin went after them with an axe without hearing how much money they were willing to pay.
“Don’t worry,” Burl said. “Something else will come along and attract their attention and they’ll forget all about Beatrice before too long.”
But they didn’t forget. The fame and adoration continued through the summer months. Burl and Freda began to fear for Beatrice’s safety and for their own safety and for everything they held dear.
One morning when Burl got out of bed and went downstairs, Freda and Beatrice were gone. Freda had left a note for him on the dining room table. He went into the kitchen and sat down at the table and handed the note to his mother.
“You’d better read it,” he said. “I think I already know what it says.”
I know that something terrible is going to happen if we stay here, Freda wrote, so I’m taking Beatrice back to the place where I came from so I can keep her safe. Don’t try to find us because if you do the whole thing will start again.
“Where is the place that she came from?” Burl asked, staring out the window.
“That’s something nobody knows,” his mother said. “Maybe it’s another world or another dimension.”
But Burl didn’t believe in other worlds or other dimensions. He believed that if he tried hard enough he would find Freda and Beatrice in this world. If he wasn’t able to return them to their rightful place at his mother’s boardinghouse, the three of them would live together some other place.
A few days later he was gone without a word. His mother knew without being told. She comforted herself with the thought that she would see all of them again in this world and, if not, she would more than likely see them in the next.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp