Lamented ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
A child’s life in school is a continuous round of simple commands: stand up, sit down, go out, come in, open the book, close the book, stop talking, start reading, don’t run, spell the word, solve the problem, go to recess, come in from recess, go to lunch, come back from lunch, don’t copy your answers from your neighbor, write legibly, don’t knock anybody down on the playground, don’t press anybody’s fingers back the wrong way, don’t stand up in the swing, don’t lie to me, don’t spread disease germs, use the bathroom when you’re supposed to and don’t wet your pants.
Recess was over and all the children came back into the room quietly and took their seats. Looking out over the ten-year-old faces, Miss Snow saw that one piece of the mosaic was missing. On the outer row of desks, next to the wall, third seat from the front, the space ordinarily occupied by Ella Ruffin was without a face and without a body.
“Does anybody know where Ella Ruffin is?” Miss Snow asked.
“Did anybody see Ella?”
“She was sitting out on the playground when the bell rang,” Kay Hood said.
“Why was she doing that?”
“I don’t know, Miss Snow.”
“All right, everybody open your social studies books to page thirty-eight and begin reading the chapter on Peru. I’m going outside for a minute and see if anything has happened to Ella.”
She was sitting all alone at the corner of the playground, a tiny, frail child in a vast expanse of asphalt.
“Didn’t you hear the bell?” Miss Snow said.
“I heard it,” Ella said.
“What’s the matter? You’re not sick, are you?”
“No, I’m not sick.”
“Well, come back inside, then. We’re just starting social studies.”
“I can’t get up,” Ella said.
“Why not? Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m not hurt. It’s worse than that.”
“Ella, I haven’t got all day! What is the matter with you?”
“I wet my pants.”
“Oh, Ella! Why didn’t you go to the restroom when everybody else went?”
“I didn’t have to go then.”
“Do you want me to bring you some paper towels?”
“You can’t sit there all day. Come on inside and we’ll get you cleaned up.”
“I’m not getting up.”
“After I peed in my pants, I did the other. You know. I pooted in my pants. It was an accident. I sneezed and it just happened.”
“You go on home, then, and get yourself cleaned up. You’re excused for the rest of the day.”
“I can’t go home. There’s nobody there. The door’s locked and I don’t have a key.”
“Do you want me to call your mother?”
“She’s in Atlantic City.”
“What about your father?”
“He’s been drunk for three days.”
“Don’t you have an older sister?”
“She’s in the hospital with vaginal bleeding.”
“I’ll go get the school nurse and she’ll bring a big towel to tie around your waist and she’ll take you back to her office and get you cleaned up.”
“No, I’m not getting up. I’m too embarrassed.”
“Ella, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. It was an accident. Everybody has accidents.”
“How many people have you known of that’ve peed in their pants at school and then pooted on top of it?”
“All right. We all have embarrassing moments. We’ll get it straightened out.”
“People will laugh at me when they see what I did.”
“No, they won’t. Nobody will even know.”
“They already know. They were talking about it.”
“You can’t sit there. It’s going to rain. Just look at the sky. If you can’t go home now, you’re going to have to come inside. Come on in now and we’ll get you cleaned up.”
“I think I’d just rather sit here for a while.”
“Ella, I’m responsible for you and I can’t just let you sit out here by yourself during school hours.”
“I’ll be all right. When school’s over, I’ll go home just like I always do. If you would be so kind as to have somebody bring me my coat, that’s all I ask. It’s yellow. It’s hanging in the cloak room next to the fire extinguisher.”
“Well, all right. I guess I can do that. But if it starts to rain, you come back inside, do you hear?”
“If nothing else, go to the girls’ restroom on the first floor and wait it out. Nobody will see you.”
Miss Snow went back upstairs to her classroom and put Ella Ruffin out of her mind for the time being. In a half-hour or so, the sky turned dark and the wind blew briskly from the southwest. The rain began lightly at first and then came down in torrents. The windows had to be closed and the lights turned on.
When Miss Snow’s eyes were once again drawn to Ella Ruffin’s empty desk, she remembered something she was supposed to do. What was it? Oh, yes. She was going to have somebody take Ella’s coat down to her, the yellow one hanging in the cloak room next to the fire extinguisher, but she somehow forgot. Poor Ella. A little girl outside in a rainstorm without a coat. She’d probably end up with a terrible cold, at the very least.
A lightning strike that shook the building to its foundations caused the lights to go out. Miss Snow knew that nobody was going to learn anything as long as the storm kept up, so she told everybody they could close their books and sit quiet as mice and not make any kind of disturbance. A few of the children were nervous and worried about the storm, but most of them were excited and couldn’t sit still. They hoped that school would be called off for the rest of the day and they would be released into the wild like a bunch of captive birds.
The children jabbered among themselves and Miss Snow let them do as they pleased as long as they didn’t make too much noise. The other fourth grade class across the hall was not making a sound; likewise the fifth grade classes down the hall.
Miss Snow stood up from her desk and went to the window, hoping to see some sign that the storm was dissipating, but there was no indication at all that their old school building and everybody in it was going to be saved from annihilation by lightning and thunder. From her third-floor perch, she could see the playground, but not clearly.
Water had collected at one side of the gently sloping playground, as it always did during a heavy rain. Gravity forced the water into a trough where it ran off into storm drains.
She was going to turn away from the window and go back to her desk when she saw something that arrested her attention. In the rushing water that had collected and was running off, she thought she saw a small, shabby, blonde girl in a plaid dress, face down, arms out, being carried along in the torrent. She couldn’t be sure of what she saw and when she strained to get a better view she decided that what she had seen was a clump of old newspaper.
When the rain let up a little and the sky became lighter, the lights still hadn’t come back on, so the principal, Mr. Murtaugh, sent word to all the classes that school was suspended for the day and everybody could go home or could go to the devil if that’s what they wanted.
Miss Snow dismissed her class and they left, eagerly, in a happy, holiday mood. She herself was relieved that another day was over, another week, and for two days and nights she wouldn’t have to give school a single thought.
In the night she woke up thinking about poor little Ella Ruffin. She hoped she had made her way home in the storm and hadn’t caught a cold. She probably should have insisted that Ella come inside, not matter how embarrassed she was. And maybe she should have called for help when she thought (or imagined) that she saw Ella’s body floating in the runoff water during the storm, but she didn’t, and in those situations it’s best not to think about it anymore. She was sure it all worked out for the best.
Monday morning was a new day. The sun was shining and the air cool and fresh. As teachers and students alike arrived at school, they all heard the sad news.
Ella Ruffin had been found dead in the river, several miles away from the school. Nobody knew how she came to be there. Police were not ruling out the possibility that she had been abducted by a madman, sexually molested and killed, and her body dumped into the river.
The police came to the school and asked Miss Snow a myriad of questions. Did the little girl leave school before she was supposed to? What was she wearing? Did Miss Snow notice anybody suspicious-looking near the school that day? What kind of family did the little girl have?
Miss Snow told them all she knew. Ella lived outside of town on a farm, or what used to be a farm. The family was poor and there were many children, who often came to school dirty and poorly clothed. Ella usually kept to herself and didn’t mix much with the other children. She wore ragged clothes and always seemed sad and underfed. You couldn’t look at her without feeling sorry.
When all their questions had been satisfied, the police left and Miss Snow took a deep breath and hoped she wouldn’t have to speak to them again. The whole thing was too distasteful to even talk about.
The class took up a collection for a floral tribute for Ella. The entire fourth grade class attended the funeral, including Miss Snow. Ella wore a white dress with a white ribbon in her hair and a spray of white flowers in her hands. Since the family was without funds, an anonymous benefactor from town paid all expenses.
On a certain day a few days later, Miss Snow arrived at school early, before anybody else was there. She had some work to do that she wanted to get done before her students arrived.
She turned on the lights and opened some of the windows to air out the room and then she sat down at her desk and started working. A slight stir in the room caused her to look up and when she did she saw Ella Ruffin sitting at her usual desk on the outside aisle, third row from the front.
The apparition seemed so real that she spoke to it.
“Ella,” she said, “what are you doing there?”
But, of course, there was no answer. Ella just kept working, kept writing, and Miss Snow knew from the way she looked that she wasn’t really there, or, anyway, not in any physical sense. She wore the white dress and the white ribbon in her hair. She was altogether clean, something she had never been in life, and, not only clean, but glowing with a kind of radiance.
“Ella, how are you?” Miss Snow spoke again. “I was very worried about you.”
Ella did not look up or acknowledge Miss Snow in any way. She continued to write and in a little while she became dim and disappeared as if she had never been there at all.
When Miss Snow’s students arrived, she had everybody pitch in and clean out Ella’s desk, throw away any old papers, and turn in her textbooks. Then they took some cleanser and wet paper towels and gave the desk and its seat a good cleaning from top to bottom. When they were finished the desk gleamed. She then pushed it out into the hallway for the janitor to pick up and put in the storeroom for when a spare desk was needed.
The next time Miss Snow saw Ella, she was floating up near the ceiling, as if floating was the most natural thing in the world for her to do. She floated on her stomach and when Miss Snow became aware that she was there, she turned over and floated on her back and made her way out of the room that way.
Finally Miss Snow believed that Ella was taunting her in a way and she wanted it to stop. One afternoon after everybody had gone home and Miss Snow was still at her desk, she looked up and there saw Ella standing a few feet away looking at her.
“Did you want something, Ella?” she asked. “Can I do something for you? I think you need to go on to wherever you’re supposed to be and not hang around here anymore. It’s not healthy for you or for me.”
Ella made no reply.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Miss Snow said, “but, really, considering the circumstances of your miserable life, don’t you think you’re better off where you are now? I know it’s not your fault, but your mother and father ought to be ashamed of themselves for having more children than they could reasonably take care of.”
Still no reply.
“I’m going to go home now, Ella, and I want you to know that this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other. I won’t see you again, Ella. Do you understand what I’m saying? You’re going to have to quit haunting me or whatever it is you’re doing because it’s not helping either of us.”
Ella smiled blandly and faded into the air, as if she had never been there at all.
It was Thursday before Easter. School was closed for Good Friday, so Miss Snow was going out of town for a couple of days, up to the small town where her parents and her retarded sister lived. She went home and packed her suitcase and collected her mail and set out in her car, glad for the chance to get away for a while.
After she had driven for an hour or so, it began to rain; a light rain at first and then a pounding, punishing rain. She turned on her wipers and headlights and cringed when the lightning ripped the sky. She turned on the radio and found some soothing jazz music to calm her nerves.
It was an old country road, curvy and hilly. She had to watch every second because it was fully dark now and the road was unpredictable: a hilltop curve followed by a precipitous drop as if you were skating off the side of a mountain, followed by a curve in the other direction and then a climb up a steep hill with woods on both sides.
Once when the lightning flashed, Miss Snow realized she wasn’t alone in the car. In the passenger seat beside her was Ella Ruffin. When Miss Snow became aware of her presence, she realized that Ella had her head turned slightly and was listening to the music on the radio.
“Don’t you like this music, Ella?” Miss Snow said. “Do you want me to find another station?”
While she was turning the knob on the radio, she came to a low place in the road where water was flowing across. It was so dark she couldn’t so how far the water went and she had no way of knowing how deep it was, but she was tired and impatient and couldn’t stand the thought of anything holding her up. She drove into the water, hoping against hope that it wasn’t too deep to drive through, and when she had driven a hundred feet or so, the water drowned out the engine. She tried to restart it, but it showed no signs of life.
“What do I do now, Ella?” she said.
But when she turned to her right in the dark she saw that Ella was no longer there.
Believing she had no other choice, she opened the car door and when she did the cold water rushed in and covered her feet. Shivering, she stepped out into water up to her knees. When she was leaning back into the car to get her purse and some papers, a wall of water she never saw came out of the darkness and overtook her and knocked her down. She struggled the best she could, flailing arms and legs, but the water carried her away and she was dead in a matter of minutes. Her body was found three days later a couple of miles away, bloated and unrecognizable.
Miss Snow’s fourth grade class took up a collection to buy her a floral tribute to go alongside her closed casket. The entire fourth grade class attended her funeral, accompanied by their newly hired teacher, a fat lady named Mrs. Bertha Boykin, who was nothing like—looked nothing like—the late and lamented Miss Snow.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp