Sister Mary Ellen’s Black Umbrella
by Mary Brunini McArdle
part 1 of 2
“Something like this happened here in the seventies, but it never reached alarming levels,” Callista said.
“Here? Well... how did it resolve itself?”
“Just went away after a couple of weeks. And never came back — until now.”
“Damn,” Mort exclaimed. “I’ve been here ten years. You must have been just a kid.”
“I was five. The same age as the kids I teach.” Callista shrugged. “I never thought I’d end up back here, you know, Mort. It’s so isolated. I liked Birmingham.”
“Then what made you decide to come back? Or have I already asked you that?”
“We talked about it a little. The free housing was appealing. And a chance to help children. Becky and Roman are like my own.” Callista sighed. “I’d adopt them if I could, but their father won’t consent, even though he can’t take care of ‘em himself.”
“Yes. And now there’s you, Mort darling. How could I have known I’d find the love of my life in the middle of nowhere? I wouldn’t want to be in Birmingham now. I wouldn’t want to be away from you.”
“I’ll see you tonight.” Mort said. “I’m going to stay here a while and start cleaning out some of this stuff left in the school over the past few years.”
”And I’m off to get Becky and Roman from their father’s trailer.” Callista glanced up at the growing swarm overhead.
Shrugging, she began to trudge toward Dan Walker’s trailer. There was a wide circle in the middle of the swarm; it didn’t look like it was closing. Don’t worry about nothing, she told herself.
Leland, Alabama was on a side road running off a two-lane country highway between Tuscaloosa and Jasper. The town was so small it maintained only two groceries, a drugstore combined with post office, and a dry goods store. A doctor and nurse from Tuscaloosa held a clinic once a month at the school. Callista drove to Jasper every year to pick up a J. C. Penney catalog.
Her house, provided by a grateful community, was comfortable. Three little bedrooms, a living room with hardwood floors, an eat-in kitchen, and one and a half baths. The house even had air conditioning and central heat.
Callista taught the five- and six-year olds, moving some of them to first grade level, while Mort was in charge of a combined seventh and eighth grade. Total student population: forty-nine. Those who were able caught a bus to Jasper to the high school.
Mort’s a wonderful teacher, Callista thought. He’ll be a wonderful father too.
Six-year-old Becky and her eight-year-old brother Roman giggled and shoved all the way home. “Miss Callista, Daddy says them things are drunk bees.”
“’Those’ things, Becky. And they are not drunk bees. I’ve seen drunk bees, they are much bigger, like hornets.”
“Where, Miss Callista?” Roman asked, his eyes wide.
“In Huntsville, on a warm day in February. They think it’s time to come out because it’s warm, but they’re all confused because it’s really not spring. You can walk right through a bunch of them and they don’t even try to sting you.”
“Wow!” Roman exclaimed.
That swarm overhead is just like the one that came here when I was five, Callista thought. The same blank circle in the middle too. Nobody ever figured out what it was.
She smiled, remembering what Mort had told her at lunch. “Some of the old junk in the school was left by Sister Mary Ellen. She wouldn’t throw anything away. You would have liked her, Callista. She belonged to a declining order of nuns and came here to help out. She died about ten years ago.”
Leland was so tucked away few people knew the town existed, for which Callista was thankful. She hoped the media wouldn’t get wind of the strange swarm and ruin the peaceful atmosphere she had gotten used to. She doubted that would happen since there were only five high school students in Jasper this year, and they dismissed the swarm as “drunk bees” or just plain boring. Callista didn’t think teenagers would bother talking about anything going on in Leland that didn’t concern other kids the same age or what new fall clothes everybody was wearing.
It was October and still warm. The walk home was pleasant; Callista looked forward to cooking and sitting down to a good supper.
In the morning Callista couldn’t resist a covert glance at the sky. Is it my imagination, or is that empty circle smaller? she wondered. No, I think it’s probably my imagination.
She sent Roman to the third grade, took Becky along, and waited for the rest of the five- and six-year-olds. At noon she and Mort ate outdoors with the children. Callista was thankful they didn’t notice how filtered the sunlight was.
“That stuff up there is beginning to get on my nerves,” she said in an undertone.
“Oh, you mean that swarm or whatever? Didn’t you say it went away on its own before?”
“Yes, but it’s blocking some of the light, Mort. I hate to attract the media, but do you think we should tell somebody about it?”
“The Sheriff usually stops in the Post Office on Saturdays. Why don’t I speak to him then?”
“Yes, I think we can trust Sheriff Owens not to be an alarmist.”
“Don’t want anything interfering with our wedding, Callista.”
She and Mort planned to be married at Christmastime. They had gotten to know each other and had fallen in love when she came back to Leland to teach two years before. She looked down at the sapphire set in yellow gold with diamond chips on either side. There would be a plain gold band to go with it and a small wedding in the one and only church.
Callista’s dress was simple too; an ivory velvet tea length. Callista had freckles and light brown hair; she thought she looked washed out in stark white. She wanted a spray bouquet of red roses with green ribbon...
“Hey, baby, you’re getting dreamy. You haven’t finished your lunch.”
“Oh, just thinking about the wedding. I could stand to lose five pounds anyway.”
Callista crumpled up the rest of her sandwich and stood, holding out her other hand to Mort. The couple gathered up their respective charges, waved to Roman, and entered the schoolhouse.
* * *
“You know, Mort, back about twenty years there was a similar thing going on in eastern Georgia. Friend of mine over there told me about it. Went away after two or three weeks. I wouldn’t worry on it too much; we’ll keep a watch out and you let me know if it gets any bigger.”
“All right, Sheriff Owens. Callista said to tell you you’re welcome for lunch.”
“Thanks, anyway, Mort, but I promised to be back in Jasper by early afternoon.”
Mort hummed as he walked the short distance to Callista’s house. Our house, soon, he thought. It’ll do fine unless we have children of our own. Then I suppose we’ll need to think about building something larger since we want to keep Becky and Roman with us. Sometimes I miss Sister Mary Ellen. She was such a motherly woman herself.
Callista was wearing a midnight blue sweater and jeans. Mort loved her in blue. He paused halfway through the front door. “Was that thunder?” he asked. “Baby, you sure look nice.”
“Thanks. Hey, it just about never rains here in October, Mort. Don’t think that was thunder.”
She giggled. “I don’t know why I thought of this just now, but did I ever tell you I always got carsick in October when I lived in Birmingham?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing. Except I was talking about rain and I remain convinced my tendency to carsickness was associated with the weather. Cool mornings and evenings and warm sunny days with a high barometer. Never felt carsick in the summer or winter or when the humidity’s high. Now you have to admit that’s odd.”
“You look like you feel fine today.” Mort reached out and put his arms around her.
“I suppose I do, but don’t forget we can walk almost everywhere in Leland. Besides, it... it feels different this fall.” Callista buried her face in his shoulder.
Mort frowned. “What feels different?”
“The air. The weather. Maybe it has something to do with that swarm up there. It’s kind of scary, Mort.”
“That could be why I’m missing Sister Mary Ellen. We could use her help.”
“Would she pray them away?”
Mort laughed. “No, I think she would yell and shake her fist at them.”
* * *
The next week was uneventful. On Saturday Callista and the children awakened to an overcast sky. Roman and Becky were supposed to visit their father. Uneasy, Callista peered out her front door and up into the sky. She gasped; the blank circle overhead was half its previous size.
“How about pancakes, kids?” Callista closed the door, trying to conceal her growing fear from the children.
“Yes!” Roman said. “But don’t forget we’re supposed to visit Daddy, Miss Callista.”
“I haven’t forgotten, but I want to call Mort first. It looks like it might rain; maybe he could pick you up in his truck.”
When Mort didn’t answer his phone, Callista realized he might be at the Post Office talking with the Sheriff.
“No, Callista,” the clerk said. “Sheriff Owens didn’t come in today. Mort just left for your house a few minutes ago. He’s on foot, couldn’t crank up his truck.”
“Uh, oh,” Callista said. “Mort’s truck wouldn’t start.”
“But Daddy’s waiting for us,” Becky complained.
“And he don’t have a phone, Miss Callista.”
“‘Doesn’t’ have a phone, Roman. We’ll see what Mort says when he gets here.”
“What’s that noise?” Becky asked.
“I don’t know. Probably somebody’s car way off,” Callista said absently, hearing the faint humming for the first time herself.
She went to the kitchen and started on breakfast, fastening the sash of her robe as she went. Pouring herself a glass of orange juice, she took a couple of swallows and continued mixing the pancake batter. Becky twisted the pony tail of her favorite Barbie while Roman pranced around the kitchen eager for breakfast. Then the little group heard Mort coming in.
“It’s Mister Mort! Mister Mort!”
“Roman, would you ask Miss Callista to come in the living room for a moment?”
“Sure, Mister Mort. But if your truck isn’t working, how’re we getting to Daddy’s? Miss Callista said it’s going to rain.”
“In a minute, son.”
Callista pulled the hallway door shut, not wanting the kids to hear her talking to Mort. “Mort, did you see-”
“That circle’s completely closed, Callista. And look.” He pointed to her living room ceiling, where a small crack had appeared. “Callista, it’s not just my truck, now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean nobody’s cars at the Post Office are starting either. I think you should check your phone.”
“But I just called...” Callista frowned. She picked up her phone. Dismayed, she announced, “No dial tone. What’s happening, Mort?’
Mort stared at her as she put her hands over her ears. The humming sound she had heard earlier was increasing.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Mary Brunini McArdle