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Remembering Donna
Charlotte Carlile

There is an old Indian Legend that claims no big storm will make landfall at Cape Canaveral.  Being the skeptic that I am, I did not believe it. I learned the power of the computer early, and as soon as I could, I bought a floppy disk that tracked all known hurricanes at the time. I tracked every hurricane on the disk, and to my surprise, I found it to be true. None of those storms came in from the sea at Cape Canaveral. In July of 1926, one came at Florida from below Lake Okeechobee, then turned to skirt the coast and passed over the Cape. So the old legend still stands. But no matter where a major hurricane makes landfall, the devastation will be substantial and costly. Hurricane Donna is a classic example.

On August 29th, 1960, the African continent spewed another rainstorm into the calm Atlantic. The warm waters and bright sun fed the storm as it skipped across the ocean toward the Leeward Islands. It developed enough wind and rain to cause an Airliner to crash in the Cape Verde Islands killing all 63 passengers. The march of death and destruction began its forward trek in earnest. It claimed 108 lives in Puerto Rico from floods and landslides. Hurricane Donna continued on to become one of the most destructive hurricanes in history. The storm caused billions of dollars in damage. My family would be held in its gray turbulence for many hours.

By the time Donna reached Mayaguana in the Turk Islands, the wind gusts were estimated at more than 170 mph. This made Donna a category 5 hurricane for a time. The storm then turned toward the Florida Keys and by the morning of September 7th, residents began to evacuate. Many remembered the devastating hurricane that hit the Keys in 1935 and knew the terror, death and destruction it caused. Hurricane Donna began to grow in strength like a boxer training for a fight. On September 6th, the Daytona Beach Evening News reported a slowdown and a possible change in direction. This was an ominous warning for Florida. At 9am on September 10th, the center was located 80 miles southwest of Miami and 330 miles south southwest of Daytona Beach. Donna set a course north northwest and moved forward at 9 miles per hour. The weather bureau began issuing bulletins. Officials recommended those living in the low lying Halifax area to make evacuation plans.

The eye of the hurricane expanded to a twenty one mile diameter and passed over the Keys around 2am on the morning of September 10th. Marathon was the storm’s first taste of Florida. It slowed in speed as it seemed to take pleasure in buffeting the Keys with wind gusts in excess of 150 mph. Donna severed the overseas highway in at least a half dozen places. When it turned again, the entire peninsula became a target. Hurricane Donna devastated lower Florida. She destroyed almost half of the mangrove and mahogany trees in the everglades and decimated the wildlife. The seawater flood covered Everglades City and made the small town a virtual garbage dump. Snakes and rats took up residence in homes and vehicles. On the morning of September 10th, Donna pounded Fort Myers with sustained winds of 120 mph and a tide seven feet above normal. The upward trek began continued.  

I grew up in Mims, Florida, just south of Volusia County. We lived across the river from the Kennedy Space Center. The summer of 1960 played out in quick childhood scenes for me. At twelve years of age, I could feel my childhood slipping away. By the morning of September 12th, it would be gone forever. The highlight of that summer was the ‘camper’. Long before motor homes became a trend, my brother, sister and I helped our Dad build one. He bought an old bread delivery truck and worked tirelessly rebuilding the engine. He cut holes in the sides of the truck and installed window frames and jalousie windows. We painted the inside and he installed a screen partition behind the driver’s seat complete with a screened door. We spent many weekends scouring second hand junk stores in Orlando and Daytona Beach. We found old treasures no one wanted. We bought an old fashioned ice box for $2 and a roll of linoleum for $4. We built wood frames for bunk beds and my Mom bought sheets and pillows. It turned out to be the envy of all the neighborhood kids and a source of fun and pride for us. It would be a faithful servant.

We lived in a hurricane’s prey, a house trailer. A box of aluminum not made to hold steady in high winds or tornados. My father would anchor the trailer for storms and it always kept our little home grounded in hurricane force winds. Donna would be no different he said. I remember helping him anchor the steel cables into the eye hooks set in concrete. We stored all the bicycles, toys, garden hoses, outdoor furniture, minnow buckets and go carts, and we dismantled the swing set. We were ready for Donna. I felt safe and snug as I went to bed.  

My mother woke me up in the wee hours and told me to get my baby sister up and dressed. We went into the living room and I saw a box of food, blankets and water by the door. We were leaving. The wind pushed the sides of the trailer inward. You could feel it give as though trying to shrink from the pounding gale. The winds howled and screamed like ten thousand ghouls in purgatory. My Mother, being a third generation Floridian, knew what a big storm could do to those who did not heed the warnings.  

I remember being afraid. My Mother, though calm and in charge, gave off a palpable fear. My father pulled the camper at a right angle to the front door so we would only have to traverse a few feet to get to it. My Mom loaded my brother’s arms with blankets covered in plastic and sent him out to the camper. He didn’t know the truck had been moved so he disappeared into the gray howling wind and rain. I screamed for him to come back, and my Dad ran into the storm to get him.

Once we were in the camper and dried off, my Dad started the engine and slowly pulled away. I sat on the engine hump beside him as we crawled along. I could see nothing but gray sheets of rain. The truck shivered and rocked in the wind, but hugged the highway. I remember asking my Dad how he could see. He said he was feeling his way. He drove the camper about a quarter mile north on US1 into the little town of Mims. He maneuvered the truck into a narrow space between two buildings and there we stayed. We did not sleep and we talked about what we would do if we had no home to go to. We heard things in the night. A car carrier circled the block looking for a place to stop. We heard the plastic flapping against the cars and tearing to shreds. The big tin Texaco star from Brinson’s Texaco went flying and we heard it ricocheting like bullets against buildings then clattering down the highway. A woman screamed in the night and the wind carried her voice away like a piece of paper caught in a tornado. 

We stayed safe in the little bread truck. Donna curved back toward the Atlantic as though looking for strength and smelling the warm waters off the coast. She made her exit between Daytona Beach and Flagler, taking the innocence of another generation with her. The next morning, the skies cleared to a pearly gray and the quiet was broken only by subdued voices. Quietness covered the land like a fog. People began to survey the damage. We went home. Our trailer was there, safe and sound and still standing. I remember being so relieved. I ignored the spasmodic cramping in my gut. There was too much going on to give it a thought. We spent the day cleaning up the branches and debris and we were thankful to be safe. My Father never again evacuated during a hurricane, but my Mother always took us to a local school to ride it out. Donna did not claim her children, and she would never allow another storm to come that close.

Donna was the first media hurricane, and it paid off. Hurricane Donna is considered one of the most destructive hurricanes in known history because of its size, power and path, but there was little loss of life. That has been attributed to the early warnings and folks taking heed. In 1935, a major hurricane devastated the Keys killing more than four hundred people. When Donna hit the Keys in 1960, there were nine times more residents, yet only three people died. Donna cut a path from the Florida Keys to New England and only claimed fifty lives in the US. Thirteen of those lives lost were in Florida. In Fort Myers, a truck was blown off a bridge and the driver killed and in Port Orange, the bridge tender’s wife disappeared into the night and was found in the Halifax River.  

My childhood officially ended with hurricane Donna. I will never forget Donna and every year about this time, my thoughts turn inward to a gray howling night in 1960. It is a special terror that can only be imagined.

Hurricane Donna Timeline
August 29th………..Donna was born in Dakar, Senegal off the tip of Africa.
September 2nd……..The gathering storm was identified as a possible threat.
September 4th……...Donna passed over the Leeward Islands as a category 5 hurricane.
September 5th……...The downpour caused floods and landslides in Puerto Rico taking 108 lives     
September 6th………Donna passed over the Bahamas and the northern tip of Cuba.
September 8th………Hurricane warning flags went up in the Florida Keys.
September 9th 10th…The storm passed over the Keys.
September 10th…….Donna buffeted Fort Myers then made a northern turn.
September 11th…….Central Florida braced and held on as Donna slammed into the area 
  then made its exit near Ormond Beach.
September 11th…….By evening, the storm reached the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 
  The eye expanded to 50 – 80 miles across and winds reached 115mph                          
September 12th…......Donna hit Long Island, NY with sustained winds of 100 mph with
  gusts 125 – 130 mph.
September 13th…….The massive storm was decimated by the cooler air in New England 
  then it died as a low front over Newfoundland.

Back in 1998 and 1999, we had such horrible fires here in Florida. One summer afternoon, while working outside in the incredible Florida heat, I stopped to watch a gathering storm approach. I grabbed an old paper bag and pencil Ron had left in the workshop, and I just wrote down impressions of the storm as it came across the scorched woods around my house. I wrote this little essay from the impressions on that paper bag then forgot about it. When I found this essay the other day, it brought back that storm and I treasured the memory of it.  

STORM   by Charlotte Carlile

A steady wind comes from the east, from the Atlantic, across the Cape and the dark Florida hammock. The Indian River adds power to the building tempest. Wild cherry trees bend to the west as though bowing before an unseen army. Cabbage palms look like trees in a black and white cartoon swaying back and forth. Fire blackened vines cling to a leaning fence in a last effort to hang on and the tall grass in the back yard changes color as it bends and sways in the wind. Dry palm fronds crackle as they hit the ground and break into brittle pieces. At first, I hear faint rumblings like old trucks on a washboard road, and watch flashes of lightning in the distance. All of a sudden, with no warning, lightning flashes a hundred yards into the woods and a clap of thunder sounds like a dynamite explosion. It is time for me to retreat. From the shelter of the workshop I watch as gray sheets of rain roll like familiar smoke across burned and bruised woods. Scorched skeletal trunks of sapling pines sway to the ground and snap off. Limbs from older pines and scrub oak break and fall on wet ash as though a giant stomps through the woods, slashing limbs in its path. Some of those limbs have new green buds. Strong gusty wind makes the rain slant westward. I stand in the doorway and feel the rain mist on my face as the wind brings it inside. It feels like damp delicate spiderwebs covering my face and arms. I am afraid to stand too close to the opening. 
I hear the rain dancing on a plastic bag of topsoil; it sounds like a zipper closing. I begin to see very large raindrops, then realize it is not rain, but hail. For about three minutes, on a blistering hot August afternoon, after a summer of raging fire, ice falls from the sky. It is the most amazing thing.  
The dogs are afraid of thunder and glue themselves to my legs until the thunder recedes to a safe distance. They are not afraid of the rain, for they venture out a few feet to lift their faces and sniff the wet air. They are wolves and I believe thunder brings a call to them, a deep primal telling of danger and fire and days of hunger, and death.
It must be a large storm for it rages for 20 minutes. The rain leaves as fast as it came, marching away like a confederate army in gray tattered uniforms. Trees stop swaying and try to straighten. Thunder recedes and I know nature is redecorating the woods around me and this storm is a tool to speed the process. Standing alone, watching the storm move across the county, I feel thankful for it. I will watch and wait for the next one.  

This is the first story I had published in the now defunct magazine, Florida Heritage.  It was a great regional magazine and once it sold out to become a slick ad mag, it died.  The editor told me he loved my story.  I would have had more stories published there if it had survived.  This came from an old story my Mother told me once about riding that school bus from Orange Springs to Citra, Florida.  She said there were a lot of poor children in those woods during the depression.  

by Charlotte Carlile

"Come on Luther," Mattie yelled back at the old hound as she ran through the sand. "I cain't wait on you all day, I got to get on that school bus and you're gonna make me miss it". The morning was cold and frost covered the ground as though it had been sprinkled with shaved ice. Mattie ran barefoot along the narrow dirt road, her feet sending a spray of frost and sand behind her.
As the old bus wheezed to a stop in front of her, Mattie stopped to put on her stockings and shoes. The driver, Mr. Miley, waited patiently with the door open.  
"Say hey to your Grandma and say Merry Christmas for me."
"I will," Mattie said, as she slid into a window seat so she could look out at Luther one last time before the old yellow 
bus pulled away.
Luther, lying in the two rut road that ran to the cabin from the hardroad, gazed longingly at the bus. His grizzled old head on his paws, his ears alert to the clamorous cries of the blue jays in the myrtle bushes. He laid in the road for a long time before he could gather the strength he would need to make his way back to the cabin.
The little girl watched out the window at the passing woods as the old bus lumbered toward the central Florida town of Citra and the big red brick school house. She hoped to see a wild critter on the edge of the road. Sometimes she saw coons or possum going about their business. Once she saw a red fox bring her litter to play under the pine trees. Her soft brown eyes took in everything. As much as she liked going to school, the girl missed the pineywoods, her grandmother and Luther. School meant a break in the boredom and isolation of the scrub, however, she couldn't wait to get back every day to tell Luther about all the things she did in school. The old coon hound kept the loneliness of the scrub at bay. 
When Mattie got to school, Miss Heath, her teacher, was waiting for her.
"I have something for you Mattie," she said as she took a paper bag out of her desk. Miss Heath, who taught third grade, was the prettiest girl Mattie had ever seen, with her shiny chestnut hair pulled into a bun and her hazel eyes always gentle. The children loved her and she felt true concern for the poor people in the scrub. The depression affected everyone, but more so the children.
"I know how hard you worked on the little box for your Grandmother. I found this tissue paper and thought you might like to wrap it up for her".
This kindness almost overwhelmed Mattie. "Thank you," she said as she took the tissue paper. The sea shell box she made lay nestled in her desk among her papers and books. Miss Heath, who spent every summer vacation on Sanibel Island with her parents, brought back several boxes of brightly colored shells for the children. She taught the them how to cover the little wooden boxes with the shells to give as gifts at Christmas. This made Mattie especially happy because her Grandmother loved sea shells.  

That afternoon, as the winter sun warmed the air, Mattie got off the school bus. She looked for Luther. As her eyes scanned the road and surrounding woods, her heart pounded in her chest. She couldn't find Luther. She hugged the little box to her as she ran like a yearling deer down the sand road. It felt as though her shoes were stuck in thick syrup. Her mind raced ahead to the cypress cabin and to her grandmother. Granny Hop would know why Luther wasn't waiting for her. Maybe she tied him up for some reason, although Mattie couldn't think of one. Luther wouldn't hurt anything. He even allowed the kittens to sleep curled against his chest.
Mattie stumbled up the steps of the cabin and charged through the front door.
"Granny Hop," she yelled as she headed for the kitchen. "Where's Luther."
Arminda Hopkins, standing at the rough deal table mixing a pan of cornbread, was startled by the commotion. Her eyes took Mattie by surprise. Her grandmother's eyes were as sharp and bright as sunlight twinkling on spring water.  
"I know your gonna plumb hate it child, but that old dog is purely ailing. I made him a bed in my room so's I could tend him." He won't take a bite of food from me nor water neither. Maybe you could get him to take it from you."
Mattie did not hear this for she was already in her grandmother's room kneeling beside Luther. He seemed comfortable enough on the crocus sack bed and his tail thumped a greeting on the pine floor. Mattie stroked his head.
"You gone be alright Luther, It'll be Christmas soon and we'll have the best dinner you ever ate."  
Arminda Hopkins stood at the doorway and watched the child talk to and soothe the old dog. She ran her hands through her thick gray hair. Her lean wiry body bent from years of hard work in the scrub. Lordy she thought, it'll be the devil himself to pay does something happen to that old hound.
That evening, after Mattie had hidden the little box in the old shiffarobe in her room, she sat in front of the fireplace with her Grandmother. The fire made a warm glow and caused shadows to dance like eerie ghosts on the walls. The crackling fire brought comfort and familiarity to the little cabin.
"Tell me again how I come to be here, Granny Hop."
"You done heard this story Mattie," But Arminda was already forming the words for the child.
"I seem to recollect it were about six years ago when your daddy brought you to my door. He said, you got to take her Ma. She's a puny little thing and I cain't do for her like her Ma could. I got to find work he says. They's a ship in Jacksonville will take me but I got to find a place for Mattie."
"What happened to my Ma?" Mattie asked.
"She were taken by the influenza. I never laid eyes on her. When your daddy left this place, he went up to Brunswick Georgia to work on a boat. He married your Ma there. He wanted to bring her, but there seemed no time he wasn't workin'. When you was two years old, your Ma took sick and died. Your daddy's work run out and I reckon he figgered the best place for you was here."
When Arminda paused to put more wood on the fire, Mattie tried not to be impatient. Although she knew the story by heart, every time her grandmother told it, she made some new discovery, a bit here and there that helped her learn about herself.
"Was my Grandpa here then?"
"Yes, he were here. He was mighty happy to have you too. We only had one youngun, that was Benjamin, your daddy. Your Grandpa took you ever where he went. You and him went fishin' about ever evening after he was done with his chores."
Mattie vaguely remembered her Grandfather and her father not at all.
"Tell me about the mule," Mattie asked with a child's insensitivity.
"You gettin' way ahead of me child." Arminda gazed at the fire as though she could see through it to another time. Her heart pulled when she thought of Silas Hopkins and the nearly forty years they had spent on this little worn out farm. His clear soft voice and 
 calloused hands the mark of a good hardworking man.
"That mule were crazy from the first day he come here. He didn't take to plow and he were just plumb mean. One day your Grandpa just got tired of that mule's shenanigans and whopped him between the ears with a hoe handle. That old mule laid up for your Grandpa. When he turned his back, that mule kicked so high he laid both hooves on the back of your Grandpa's head and kilt him right there in the lot. After he kilt your Grandpa, he went over and stood by the fence with real a satisfied look on his silly mule face. I seen it happen and warn't nothing to do but shoot that mule. I went right in the house and got the shotgun. I laid that shotgun up side that mule's head and squeezed the trigger real easy like. That mule just fell where he stood. I buried Silas in the glen under that old magnolia tree. Jim Beecher come got that mule. I couldn't even look at the sorry thing."
At the mention of Jim Beecher, Mattie frowned.
"I hate old man Beecher," she said.
"I'll not have you saying that Mattie, he's helped us through some mighty hard times."
Mattie got up to check on Luther. She knew the storytelling was over and she knew she could only blame herself. Jim Beecher frightened her so she stayed away from him. His long white beard and raspy voice gave her nightmares. Besides, she thought he was mean to tell on her just because she was picking blackberries on his property. He just couldn't wait to tell Arminda. It wasn't because the rattlesnakes were crawling like he said, he did it for meanness.

Mattie stayed with Luther for awhile. She pulled his head into her lap and scratched his ears. He whined every now and then as though in pain. Mattie ignored it.
After Mattie went to bed, Arminda sat alone in the front room. She got out the calico material she had bought especially for Mattie. As her fingers stitched along the fabric she thought about the years since Mattie came to live with her. She looked back at the intense loneliness she felt after Ben left.
When the child came, it was as though a floodgate had opened in her heart. She hated anything that might hurt Mattie, but she knew she couldn't protect the child from all of life's failings and hurts.  
Luther began life on the little farm as a working dog. When he was young and quick, he spent many nights with Silas, hunting in the scrub. Arminda counted back and figured that Luther must have been about eight years old when Mattie was brought to the cabin.  
The day Silas died, Luther disappeared. When he came dragging back three days later, lean and hungry, Arminda fed him, gave him water then ignored him. He began tagging after Mattie, sleeping in her room, sharing her food. The little girl and the old dog spent nearly every moment together until she started school. The hound got slower with each passing year. The once sleek coat now mottled with gray, was scarred and rough. He survived on cornbread mixed with clabber. He no longer chased rabbits in his sleep but occasionally whined with phantom pain. 
The next morning, Arminda got up early to do the chores. She did the milking, fed the chickens, gathered eggs and had breakfast cooked before she woke Mattie.
After Mattie tried in vain to get Luther to eat, she went to the table. Arminda made eggs, bacon, and biscuits for Mattie's breakfast. She opened the last jar of the guava jelly she canned in the summer. It seemed she couldn't keep jellies and jams with Mattie around. The child loved all of the good things her grandmother made from the wild fruits and berries they collected.
"I thought we would go to the store at Orange Springs this mornin' and see to the things we need for Christmas dinner."
Mattie smiled. She loved to go to Mr. Wimberly's store at the Springs. Mainly because Mr. Wimberly's twins, Rosie and Sandy, happened to be her best friends. In the summer, she spent whole days swimming in the spring with them while Arminda visited with their grandmother. 
"I'll be ready soon as I check on Luther".
"Well, hurry up then cause I hear Jim's truck comin' up the road."
Mattie frowned as she climbed in the front seat of the truck beside her Grandmother. She looked out the window and did not even say howdy to Mr. Beecher. Arminda talked to Jim as the old truck bounced it's way toward the Springs. Not just her neighbor and friend, Jim Beecher was her link to the outside world. For all his looks and ways, Jim was a well read man and kept up with the world through his many newspaper subscriptions.
"Things shore are changin' fast Arminda. Looks like that new Governor Sholtz done made a lot of changes here in Flarda. He's done started a new state patrol and is makin' us pore folks pay a tax on our automobiles. Seems it gets harder and harder for a man to make a livin in the scrub. A man scratches and scratches to save enough to buy an old truck and here comes a governor wants to tax it. Don't seem right do it?"
"Shore don't. If it warn't for the money Ben sends ever month, I don't know what Mattie and me would do."
"Ary time you need a hand Arminda, you know you can call on me. I ain't got much in the way o' things, but you and Mattie are shore welcome to share em'."
I'm much obliged Jim, but we make out alright with what we got."
Mattie continued to stare out the window as her grandmother and Jim Beecher chatted. She did not hear the conversation. Luther's illness occupied her thoughts. He coughed up blood in the night and her grandmother cleaned it up. Mattie saw the stains on the pine floor and knew in her heart where it came from. She began to think of all the times she and Luther had wandered in the scrub, collecting flowers and rocks and anything that looked interesting. She never got lost because Luther always knew the way home. She remembered the time she startled a mama bear and her cubs feeding in the blackberry patch by the old sinkhole. She stood petrified as the bear charged. Luther dashed in between her and the bear. He growled and attacked so fierce the bear ran back into the woods. She was so scared, she sat down and bawled like a baby. Luther licked her face and wagged his tail so hard she finally started to laugh. She never told Granny Hop about that. She knew she would not be allowed back in the woods again.
"Here we are." said Jim as the old truck rattled to a stop in front of the store. 
Mattie edged in the door and looked around. She loved the smell. Oranges and spices mixed with tobacco and leather.  
"Are the twins here Mr. Wimberly?"
Will Wimberly looked down at the little girl. "Sandy has gone to Ocala with his Mama, but Rosies back here."
He took her by the hand and led her to the back of the store. She and Rosie sat on orange crates and ate hot ginger snap cookies. While she told Rosie about Luther being sick, her grandmother did the shopping.
While most of the things she would need came from the farm, Arminda had to buy a few things like cinnamon, cornmeal and salt. Mr. Wimberly kept his store well stocked. It always did her good to visit the Springs.
When they returned to the farm that afternoon, Arminda went about gathering all she would need for Christmas dinner the next day. She had already killed and dressed the wild turkey Jim had given her. She shelled pecans for pies and baked cornbread for dressing. Usually Mattie helped, but this time, she stayed with Luther. Arminda could hear her talking softly to the old dog. It grieved her.
After a light supper of collards, cornbread and buttermilk, she and Mattie went to bed. The wind blew cold from the north. The old cabin rattled and groaned but stood firm. It had seen worse. Arminda got up many times in the night to stoke the fire and look after Luther. He coughed and moved around on the crocus sacks. It kept her awake most of the night.
When dawn finally broke over the clearing, Arminda, sitting up in the rocking chair, came wide awake from a deep sleep. It was as though a cold hand passed over her face. She shivered and got up. When she looked at Luther's lifeless form on the floor, she fought back the urge to scream. The moment she dreaded and felt coming, arrived with a shock. She cared more for the old hound than she wanted to admit. She sat back down and tried to from the words to tell Mattie. She would rather face down a bull gator in the swamp.
When Mattie woke up, she washed her face, dressed and went to the kitchen. She made herself a cup of coffee, more cream and sugar than coffee, then started for her grandmother's bedroom to see Luther. Her grandmother met her at the door.  
"I got it to tell Mattie, and it ain't easy. Old Luther died in his sleep last night. He warn't alone, I was with him all the time. He didn't suffer none."
The words poured from Arminda. If she could keep talking, maybe she could ease the terror in the girls face. Mattie stood frozen to the spot. The cup of coffee hit the floor, the sound shattered the stillness. A long keening wail came from the little girl as she pushed past her grandmother into the room. She fell in a heap beside Luther's still body. As she cried and hugged the old dog to her, Arminda pulled her away. Mattie beat her fists against her grandmothers arms as she dragged her to her room.
"You got to get aholt of yourself girl. I cain't take care of you and Luther if you gone carry on so. I know this is a hard thing Mattie, but we cain't stop old death from takin' what we love most. It's gone happen no matter what we do. Now you got to stop cryin' so."
"She got Mattie to lie down on the bed and soon heard the child snuffling in her sleep. Arminda knew the brief respite would not last. She put on Silas' old coat and her boots and went to the barn for the shovel. Just as she began digging a hole under the pecan tree, Jim Beecher drove up.
  "You got trouble here? I heard a whailin' and it didn't sound like no wind. You alright?"
"Hit's Luther. He died in the night, it was Mattie you heard screamin."
Jim took the shovel from her.
"You go on inside the house, I'll finish here."
When he finished digging, Jim and Arminda wrapped Luther's body in an old blanket and Jim carried it to the grave. Mattie woke up and as she looked out the window, she saw Jim Beecher lower Luther's body in the hole. She ran out the back door, arms flailing like windmills, no sound coming from her. Only a determination to stop what was happening to Luther. Her Grandmother caught her in a firm grip and held the small struggling body. Mattie went limp as the last shovelful of dirt was patted smooth over Luther's grave.
Mattie glared at Jim Beecher, hatred burning in her eyes like coals.
"You was glad to bury Luther, I'll hate you till the day I die." With that, Mattie ran back to the cabin and flung herself across the bed in her room. She sobbed into her pillow.
Arminda was mortified. "I'm awful sorry Jim, and I truly appreciate your help. Mattie ain't meant none of what she said. She's just all tore up about Luther and it being Christmas day."
Jim didn't say a word. He turned on his heel and walked back to his truck. Arminda heard ice crackling as the old truck pulled away.
The cold went clear to the bone. After she warmed herself by the fire, she went to Mattie's room.
"I'm plumb ashamed of you Mattie. What you said was mean. It warn't Jim's fault Luther died and you took on as though it was. You ain't the only one knows what sorrow is, why Jim Beecher has known more of in his life than any of us is likely to ever know."
"How can he know how I feel about Luther?" He ain't got nobody nor no dog to lose like I done."
Arminda's eyes clouded. " He's done lost a wife to the fever
and then all five of his sons in the big war. All five of em Mattie. He didn't talk to no person for a whole year. Just stayed out here by hisself till he got so's he could be around people. You ain't lost but one dog you loved. It ain't the same neither. It was a grief beyond measure he suffered. That's all I got to say."
Arminda went to the front yard to throw some the leftover cornbread to the chickens when she saw Jim's truck come flying past the house as though the devil himself was after it. Where can he be going in such an all fired hurry this early on Christmas day she thought?
As the morning wore on, Arminda kept herself busy in the kitchen, mostly to keep her mind off what had happened. Every once in while, she heard Mattie crying. She hummed softly to herself as she scrubbed the sweet potatoes she planned to make into a pie.
As the sun reached it's zenith, the turkey was baked, the pies were cooling on the window sill and the collards were still bubbling in the pot. She didn't have the heart to even put the food on the table, much less call Mattie to eat. She sat down in front of the fireplace and closed her eyes.
With a great scrunching and scraping, Jim Beecher's truck wheezed into the front yard. Arminda got to the door just as Jim bounded up the steps. His ruddy face red from the cold, his breath making clouds of icy air as he breathed.
"How's Mattie holdin' up?"
"Ain't seen much of her today. Hit looks to be a fine Christmas around here. I reckon Mattie'll be greivin' that old dog from now on".
"Well," Jim said, "I got a Christmas present for her."
Arminda eyed Jim warily. She knew Mattie well. The child would be in no mood for trinkets this day.
"I'll go get her."
She found Mattie asleep. One arm thrown over her face as if to ward off the blow that had already struck. She awakened her gently.
"Mattie, Jim's here and he says he's got something for you. I want you to go in there and act like I taught you some manners. You shame me and I'll take a bresh to your backside." Her old eyes softened. "I know this is hard child, but you got to know this is how life is and you got to get over it, time will heal this, it may not seem so now, but it will."
Mattie vowed not to shame Granny Hop, no matter how she felt. She got up and followed Arminda into the living room.
As Jim stood by the fireplace, his old ragged coat began to move around on his chest. Mattie stared at the strange sight.
 He reached in, and to her surprise, pulled out a tiny yellow puppy. Mattie felt an ache in her heart. Before she could stop herself, the words rolled from her tongue.
"I don't want no puppy. It cain't take Luther's place."
Arminda looked crushed. Jim put the puppy on the floor. He ignored Mattie and said to Arminda,
"Shore smells good in here, you'all gone eat all that turkey by yourselves."
"Course not, Jim, and we'd be mighty proud did you stay and have Christmas dinner with us.
Mattie scowled but went to help her grandmother set another place at the table. The yellow puppy explored the little house and try as she might, Mattie could not ignore it.
Mattie picked at her food, but Jim lit right in. He enjoyed Arminda's cooking and he ate more than anyone Mattie had ever seen. After they finished eating, Arminda poured coffee for the three of them and cut the sweet potato pie.  
"Where'd you get that puppy?" Mattie asked.
Jim leaned back in his chair, lit his pipe and seemed to carefully consider what he would say. "Sometime back, I done some work for Doc Lorimer in Ocala. He never paid me for it. I remembered he had some fine huntin' dogs he was breedin'. I figgered the time was about right so I went to his house this mornin'. He were just leavin' for Gainesville when I got there. Told him I wanted one o' them pups for what he owed me. He said them pups was worth a site more but I just told him I got to have me one of em'. Told him it was for a special little gal for Christmas. He said, 'Jim, you shore do beat all', but he gave me the pup anyhow".
Mattie looked at Jim in wonder. She did not realize he thought she was special. Her feelings puzzled her. To hide her discomfort, she went to feed the puppy. She picked it up, held it to her face. It had a faint familiar smell. She stroked the soft yellow fur. It was as soft as a goose down pillow, and the little wet tongue felt cold and rough against her cheek. She felt her heart open and accept the tiny dog. It eased the loneliest she already felt.
She heard the front door shut. She wanted thank Jim Beecher for his kindness. She put the puppy down and ran to the front room.  
"Granny Hop," she called, "Is Mr. Beecher gone? I got something to tell him."
"No, said he had something else and went to the truck to get it."
When he came back, he had a package under his arm.
"I stopped by Mr. Johnson's store, he said this package come for you and Mattie last week. Said you never come to get it and would I give it to you."
Arminda took the package. It looked as though it had weathered a storm. Spidery writing crisscrossed the front, and the colorful foreign stamps on the crinkled paper added to it's mystery. She knew it must be from her son, but her mind found it hard to accept. There had been no word from him in four years, just money in a brown envelope about once a month, but no written word.
As Mattie and Jim looked on, she unwrapped the package. The paper fell open to reveal a treasure of things. An exotic oriental shawl unfolded itself gracefully, the silk soft and warm to the touch. A carved brush and mirror of deep mahogany with inlaid mother of pearl caught Mattie's eye. Best of all, the package included a letter. The envelope held more money than Arminda saw in a year. She carefully unfolded the paper and read the short note. "Dear Ma and Mattie, by the time you read this I will be on my way home. Hope you like the presents. Ben."
That was all it said, but the words brought a new light to her eyes. After six years Ben was coming home to the scrub.
Mattie remembered the shell box wrapped in tissue paper. Arminda would treasure the little shell box and told Mattie so. The child was pleased.
Arminda then gave Mattie the dress she had made for her. Mattie carefully hung it in her room. She would wear it the first day back to school. The yellow puppy bounded around Mattie's feet.
"Got to get a name for you," she said.
As she put the brush set on the dresser, it came to her. "I'll call her China". 
When she went to tell her grandmother and Jim, she found her grandmother coming up the steps and Jim's truck rattling down the sand road. She had forgotten to thank him for the puppy.
That night, she smuggled China in bed with her. The puppy snuggled up under her chin and went to sleep. As Mattie's eyes closed, just before sleep overtook her, she heard the distant baying of an old coon hound deep in the pineywoods.


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