The last time Christine-Ann Corbin wore a dress was two months back, when she turned twelve. Her parents had a small birthday party and celebrated with a few friends and neighbors. The conversation quickly turned to the unrest in Europe.
Little Falls, Vermont, was exactly as its name revealed in the early summer of 1914—a small town of a few thousand inhabitants dependent on the many waterfalls to drive old flour mills. The waterfalls also powered Hadley’s Metal Fabrications, the biggest employer, where her father worked. Hadley’s built fenders for the automobile market, and earlier in the year won a contract to fabricate them for the Army.
On this particular day, Christine prepared herself for another “conversation” with her mother about her refusal to wear a dress—something her teachers were increasingly unsettled over.
“Child, you have to tell me what has gotten into you with these pants. My gosh, so many people talking about such a small issue while the world sits on the verge of war, is not what we are about. Now, please, once and for all, tell me why you refuse to wear a skirt?”
“I can’t, Mommy.”
Beverly Corbin exhaled loudly and crossed her arms over her chest. The child rarely referred to her as “Mommy.” There was nothing else wrong or strange going on with her daughter. She seemed happy and playful as ever, and had long ago been able to give as well as she got from her two older brothers.
“OK. But when I find out, and I will, it better be for a good reason. If I am going to fight for something you believe in, it better not be of little consequence.”
Christine gave her mother a faint kiss on her cheek, rushed up to her room, opened a ragged dictionary, and tracked down the definition of “consequence.”
Delighted with her mother’s support, Christine ran into the back yard, spotted a young robin crossing over her lawn, effortlessly heaved herself about fifteen feet in the air, plucked the little bird from flight with her teeth and gulped it down before her feet touched the ground.
A few feathers clung to her chin, which she swiped away with her tongue.
“Try that with a dress on,” she sang, as she jumped and danced across a nearby field.
“Dear God, help us all,” Beverly Corbin gasped in a whisper worthy of even the most sinister conspirators. “Oh, dear God, dear God, oh my Lord,” was all she could muster, careful not to tip the pan of muffins she’d just retrieved from the oven.
She watched her princess disappear beyond an outcropping of stone and down toward Cranberry Pond. Finally, she sat, clutched her face in her hands, and let out a whimper and a silent prayer. Had the devil already taken her princess?
“Now you go there, and you, swim away from those two,” Christine commanded the tiny perch as they flitted in a shallow pool along the edge of Cranberry Pond. “There, now isn’t that better?” she added, certain that without her intervention there would have been a terrible crash of perch.
Noticing that one of the perch was lagging behind, she bent closer to the creature. Deciding that it had been given a fair chance, she scooped up the wriggling creature from the water and swallowed it whole.
Beverly pounced on her husband the moment he came home from work. John Corbin took off his shirt, washed, and, stoking his grandfather’s meerschaum, patiently questioned his wife through her fright.
He reached out for her and she fell into his lap, and in his embrace settled herself back almost to the edge of calm. John Corbin delighted in his wife as a woman, as a doting and fiercely devoted mother, and as a partner lovelier than he’d ever expected to find.
“So, what should we do? We can’t let this go on. The little one gobbled down that poor bird as if it were a chocolate pastille! And she just jumped into the air like it was...was nothing.” Beverly continued, “It can’t be. It just can’t be.”
“But you saw it and walked me through it from beginning to end, so I would imagine it was exactly as you said.”
She dragged herself from his embrace, stalked the perimeter of their kitchen, and stared at her husband, hands on her hips, consumed with purposeful certainty, “Well, it just can’t be.”
He took a deliberate puff on his pipe and unfolded the Vermont Gazette. “Damn Councilman Hastings. Tax, tax, tax. Is that all he ever thinks about? Damnable Democrat is going to bury the State in debt we will never be able to pay back.”
“John, I saw it,” Beverly said, pulling away his newspaper.
“Yes, I believe you did. Can’t imagine how frightening that must have been for you, honey.”
“And, you’re just going to sit there and read your newspaper while that child is out there and, you know, gobbling down animals?”
“No, I’m going to sit here, read my newspaper, and have a few minutes of peace with my pipe and my wife before she comes home.”
“Impossible. Just absolutely and completely impossible.”
“You referring to me or that damn scoundrel Hastings?” he said.
John Corbin knew full well that his wife had witnessed something terrible and inexplicable. He also knew he had no idea what to do.
“Impossible,” Beverly muttered and went out back to gather the wash that had been hanging in the June sun all day. “The devil is walking among us, but by God, he will not have her. As God is my witness, he will never have my little girl.”
Christine-Ann sat patiently on a hillock overlooking the Cranberry waterfall at the head of the pond not far away from where she “saved” the perch.
“I don’t like the taste of birds, especially robins. And I don’t want to harm any creature, and I don’t want to wear a skirt and jump into the air and have everything hanging out for everyone to see. And Mommy is worried, which means my dad is worried. And when Bobby and Calvin get wind of this, they will make my life miserable, forever.”
On the other hand, they might never get wind of this, she thought, caught up as they were all summer with baseball.
“I was abducted by spacemen and they made me able to jump high….”
“They taught you to eat birds too?” her mother questioned after Christine-Ann returned and explained about dresses and the robin, which she knew her mother had spotted from the kitchen window. And she wanted to get it out before Calvin got home from baseball practice.
“Ah, that was an accident.”
“Go on,” her father urged, testing his own patience and trying to judge just how long his wife was going to put up with Christine-Ann’s creative confession.
“Honey,” he said, “your mother and I are upset for you so, now, please just tell us the truth, start to finish—and without the spacemen—what started all this?”
Christine-Ann adored her mother, but the way her father trusted, admired, and loved her, was the spark of her life—something she leaned on and clung to and would never compromise.
“I think I maybe know what happened,” she said, reluctant and exhausted. “I was in the school playground a few months ago and fell. I got a pretty bad scrape and Mom bandaged me when I got home. My back and head hurt and my knees were stiff the next day. It hurt for a while. Then, a few days later down near Wallaby’s Bakery, I wanted to jump over a puddle of water and, I don’t know, I just went up higher than I had ever been. I came down, looked around to see if anyone noticed, and came home and fell into bed. I was...scared.”
“I remember. Your knees were badly scraped,” her mother added, already relieved that the spacemens had disappeared. “The bump on the back of her head still bothers her,” she said to her husband.
“Oh, no. Not anymore,” Christine injected, quickly measuring the scope of her lie.
“And the next day, out back after Mom went into town, I tried to jump again and went up almost as high as our roof. I came down OK. I looked around. I was alone. I looked at my legs. I didn’t hurt or anything, but my dress was all tangled up around my chest and I was...I was embarrassed.”
“So no more dresses?”
“So, no more dresses. But I still like them,” she confessed to her father.
“And the bird?”
Christine-Ann shook nervously, wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “I don’t know about the bird.”
“You don’t understand why you ate the bird?”
She burst into tears. “I love birds. I love the little things.” She sobbed openly.
Her father came to her side. “How many have you eaten?”
“Yes, we will understand, but just how many have you eaten?”
“This was my first! It flew right at my mouth. I don’t know what happened. I just gulped it down.”
Beverly and John Corbin studied their daughter and let the silence ease the fear that had gripped them both, though it was clear that Beverly remained suspicious.
“Can you still jump so high?”
Christine-Ann had hoped she wasn’t going to be asked this question. She had hoped this since leaving Cranberry Ridge and all the way home after deciding to tell her parents the story about the spacemen.
“I don’t think so,” she heaved out as though lifting a terrible weight from her body. “I jumped higher than today a couple of days ago.”
Beverly came to her side. “How are your knees and back?” she said, clasping her child’s hands in hers.
“They’re OK. A little stiff at times,” she said, and started to sob again. “I ate a bird today, Mommy.”
John Corbin knew they needed to get her to Doc Kennecott, and maybe drive to Montpelier General for a full workup. There was gas in the car, but not enough to go that far. Doc Kennecott first. Let him decide.
“It’s OK. We just need to let Doc Kennecott look you over, especially that bump, and you will be better in no time.” He planted a kiss on his daughter’s right cheek and waited for her to return with two to his left cheek. It was their way of soothing each other. Beverly loved it, and had always wanted to be a part of their ritual.
Robert and Calvin arrived home, arguing about how badly they had lost to Connaught High School. They were caught up in their world of bad pitching and worse fielding.
Shaken and fearful, and needing some soothing herself, Beverly Corbin began preparing an extra special dinner. She didn’t know exactly where her daughter was, but thought she was close by and safe.
And she was partly right.
Christine-Ann Corbin was in the basement rummaging through her father’s old tool chest. She was looking for a file. And not any old file, like the clunky one her dad used on the wooden cabinets. No. Christine-Ann was looking for something different. She was searching for a small file, a strong and flexible one that she could use to sharpen her teeth before going hunting again.
The voices that had haunted her since the schoolyard fall filled her dreams with the excitement of the gift she had been granted—the glory of flying—and warned her not to tell anyone, especially her parents, or she would quickly fall from the heavens.
“Don’t want to fall from the heavens. Don’t want to fall. Don’t want to fall,” she repeated over and over. She found the file, cleaned it, and wiped clean the antique full-length mirror her mom had left down there long ago.
“Christine-Ann,” her mother called from the top of the stairs, but there was no answer. “Christine-Ann, time for dinner.”
Beverly Corbin mumbled a curse she hadn’t used in years. Between what she’d seen Christine-Ann do and the dread she had of taking the child to Doc Kennecott, she was in no mood for more drama.
She went down to the basement where she thought her daughter was, and caught her own reflection in the antique mirror her mother-in-law had given her years ago. The film of dust had been brushed away, and a dozen files of various sizes were scattered nearby.
The small window that bled light into the basement was propped open. A white shred of Christine-Ann’s shirtsleeve was caught on the window’s rusted hinge. In a flash of reality and sorrow, Beverly-Jane Corbin fell to her knees and howled, bringing her husband to her side.
As he held her close, she pointed to the open window. “She’s gone,” she whispered. “I just know it.”
And they never did see the child again.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain's investigating committee on boxing reform, and appeared as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Since 2012, over seventy stories have been published, he was featured in a quarterly, single author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received Honorable Mention in Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories 2017.