Me and Penny were out on the back porch resting our bones when it happened, and truth be told, if we’d still been in the kitchen putting up them sweet Elberta peaches, we would’ve plumb missed it. It was that unspectacular.
It came down out of the dusky sky on a glimmer of light and a whooshing whisper of sound, a thin trail of dark smoke whipping the air behind it like a pissed-off sidewinder, and landed somewhere on yon side of the corn patch. A bit of a rumble followed, vibrating the boards under my bare feet and Penny’s white belly.
Penny raised her head off her paws, her yellow ears perking up. I leaned forward and eyed the deepening shadows amongst the drying cornstalks t’other side of the back-yard fence, wondering what might’ve come down.
An August-sticky breeze ruffled the stringy brown tassels hanging on the few remaining corn ears, and fanned out over the porch, bringing with it the acrid smell of something burning. Not wood. Not dead grass. Not old tires. It was a burn I didn’t know.
I squinted harder into that dark nest of corn, a tad-bit of unease settling inside my gut. I wondered what might be hidden by that corn patch. Little gray men or some such aliens? Pshaw—most likely, just one of them there space rocks had come down.
I reached down and ran my hand over Penny’s back. “Now ain’t we a sight, two squirrely old gals skeert of a rock.”
Penny’s head came up a couple more notches. She flicked her ears. Then with a grunt that sounded a whole lot like me when I rolled out of bed of a morning, she got to her feet and walked over to the edge of the porch. And whined.
Knees popping, I pushed out of the cane-back rocker and shuffled up beside her. “Something out there, gal?” Though Penny was older than me in dog years, her hearing still beat mine any day of the week. Why, she could hear Isabelle’s car when it was still more than a mile off. Yep, when I saw Penny crawling up under the bed, I knew that in a few minutes I’d see my granddaughter’s black Explorer come bouncing around the curve out by the mailbox, bringing groceries and her two rambunctious boys for their weekly visit.
Penny looked up at me and chuffed softly. A milky film covered her blind eye, but the good one was as clear as it’d been when she was a pup, and every bit of her smarts still shined bright in it. And it was telling me there was something out there all right, but it weren’t nothing to be skeert of.
Now, I’d always been a curious sort–that’s how come I’d ended up having Josh six months after me and Pap had gotten hitched up–and Penny too, so I figured neither one of us would rest easy till we’d seen what was out there.
“Well, I reckon we’d best go have a look before it gets dark.” I went back inside the peach-smelling kitchen, rounded up a flashlight and my cane, then pulled on the stiff boots that’d belonged to Pap before he’d passed.
Penny was waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. It took me a while to maneuver my way down them, but she sat there like she had all the time in the world, that whatever lay on the other side of the corn patch would still be there when we got there. And if it weren’t, well, most likely it wasn’t worth seeing anyway.
The sunbaked grass crunched under Pap’s boots. If something had been stomping this a’way through the corn, I couldn’t have heard it for all the racket I was making. Made me kind of nervous, the not hearing. But Penny didn’t look nervous, just curious, so I did my best not to be nervous either.
It was darker in the corn. I flipped on the flashlight so I could see where I put my feet. I didn’t want snake-bit, and for sure I didn’t want no broken hip. That’d be all the excuse Isabelle’d need to pack me up and move me into town.
Penny’s four arthritic legs moved her along a little faster than my two stiff ones did me, and she pulled ahead. “Be careful, old gal,” I said to her rear end. She looked back at me, a big grin stretching her face. Why, she was enjoying herself–‘course I reckon I was too. We hadn’t had this much excitement in a coon’s age.
She gave a sharp little bark, turned back ahead, then with a rustle was through the corn patch. And a minute later, I stepped out on the other side too.
Right off the bat, my eyes lit on the unnatural thing resting on the ground about ten feet away: a smoking, gray blob of something-or-other not much bigger than a good-sized turkey. It didn’t look like no rock, space or otherwise; it looked more like a hunk of wadded up tinfoil than anything else I could think of. And as I studied it, danged if it didn’t crumple in on itself, getting smaller and smaller till it folded into nothing. Nothing at all. One second a bit of it was there. The next it was gone.
Well, didn’t that beat all…
Tail wagging, Penny ambled over to where it’d been.
“You be careful, old gal.” I set my cane to the ground and picked my way through the rocks and weeds towards her. She looked up when I reached her side, the grin still busting out all over her face, looking for all the word like a frisky pup.
Her nose wriggled; her head turned this way and that. Then down went her grizzled muzzle to the spot where the tinfoil-thing had been. She snuffed the dirt. From nose to tail, her whole body quivered. She grumbled deep in her throat, then nose to the ground, began sniffing her way across the open stretch of land that lay between the corn patch and woods.
I did my best to keep up, but before I was halfway there, Penny had disappeared into the woods.
When I reached the tree-line, I stopped and listened. All I heard was the crackling of dry leaves and Penny’s occasional yip. Sounded like she was on the trail of a rabbit. And I thought…well, I didn’t know what I thought. Maybe that she was after something a little more uncommon than a rabbit.
And just what would I do if it weren’t no rabbit? Cane it to death?
I snorted. Foolish old woman, wishing for something you ain’t got no business wishing for. A rabbit is about all you and Penny have any business tangling with. Why, if it–
Penny set in to barking and I knew she’d sighted what she’d been tracking. From the fair to middling sounds of her yipping and yapping, I figured she’d most likely run down a rabbit. Or mayhaps even a squirrel. No little gray men with big, black eyes.
But then, there had been that tinfoil-thing. What if something had come out of it and hightailed it into the woods before me and Penny got to it? What if–
Penny’s barking stopped. Bushes rattled and twigs snapped. And before I even had a chance to get skeert, before I had a chance to turn and run if I’d had a mind to, Penny crashed out of the woods pret’near on top of me. She looked at me and woofed, then turned back into the woods.
There was something in there the old gal wanted me to see.
With just a hint of daylight at my back, I pointed the flashlight’s beam into the trees and followed Penny into darkness.
The going was slow. Creepers and vines and bristly briars matted the ground, making every step a trial. The overgrowth didn’t hinder Penny none, though; she high-stepped through it all, looking back every so often to make sure I followed. And she still looked to be grinning.
What in blue blazes had gotten the old gal’s spirits up? What had her behaving more like a curious pup than a mossy-headed old dog?
She angled a little to the left, then hunkered down on her belly, and as I watched and wondered what she was up to, she stuck her head into a rabbit-run tunneled into a thick tangle of blackberry vines. She gave a sharp little bark. Her tail swished the ground. She pulled her head out of the leafy hole and looked up at me. And barked again.
Whatever she’d brought me here to see was in there.
It wasn’t none too easy, but I got down on my knees next to Penny, bent over and shined the light into the rabbit-run, and looked inside.
And something moved.
“Oh!” I jerked back. Penny nosed in beside me, and again stuck her head into the hollowed-out place. Then she pulled it out and looked at me as if to say: It ain’t gonna hurt you none, Aggie.
So I took another look.
Something was in there, all right. Something pale and roundish, and no bigger than a cantaloupe. And it was moving. Sort of quivering, really.
Back when I was still a young gal and Pap was still tall and lean and hard-muscled, we’d gone down to the Gulf of Mexico one summer. We’d walked the beach, little Josh running ahead, his blue flip-flops slinging up sand. He was a good distance off when he’d stopped and squatted down, his eyes on the ground. Then his chubby hands had reached out.
Me, I figured he’d found a pretty shell or some such, but Pap had been to the Gulf before and knew that everything a body finds in the sand ain’t pretty. He turned loose of my hand and took off running toward our boy for all he was worth yelling: “Josh! Josh! Josh!” So skeert I pret’near peed my bathing suit, I ran too, catching up just as Pap snatched Josh up in his arms.
And now, as I peered into the briar patch, what I saw jiggling around up inside it looked to me like the thing Josh had been fixing to pick up that long-ago day: a jellyfish.
Well, not exactly a jellyfish ’cause a jellyfish didn’t have eyes that stared back at you.
Penny whimpered softly. I could tell from the sound of it that the old gal was concerned. For the jellyfish? Maybe so. After all, the thing was as naked as a plucked bird. And what I took to be jiggling…maybe shivering?
The jellyfish’s eyes blinked, and lord, they were the prettiest shade of blue.
I’ve always been partial to blue eyes. When I first got a gander of Pap, I’d noticed his eyes, as clear and bright and blue as the sky after a spring thundershower had washed it clean. The rest of him was just icing on the cake.
Thinking there weren’t no fool like an old fool, I laid down the flashlight and reached inside the blackberry thicket and put my hand on the jellyfish. It didn’t feel like I expected it to, not slick or sticky or gummy; it felt soft and smooth and…young.
But it was cold. And shivering.
I couldn’t get a proper grip on it so I kind of rolled it out of the hole. And when Penny saw it she gave a happy little bark and swiped it with her tongue making the thing jiggle around like a lump of Jello.
Then it settled down.
To be continued…