Name: Kimberly C. Stickrath
Genre: Middle-Grade Fantasy
AGGIE WINKUM AND THE SNOOTAGUS
Until the Awful Spring, Aggie Winkum had never known a day of true sadness in her life...but The Sadness, when it came, crept in like a shamed wet dog, head low and tail down, and it brought with it the rain. Rain that clung to mud with the desperation of a drowning child. Rain that ate the blue right out of the sky and left only thick walls of grey behind. Cold, relentless rain that took hold of you and shook you in its teeth and would not let go…rain that soon gave Gramma Winkum a fever and The Newmoania. Instead of bustling and tutting and being fierce and feisty, she became weak and fragile. Gramma Winkum’s long, silver hair clung to her poor, tired face and her bright eyes dimmed like lamps when the wick went down.
It was bedtime, and Aggie was only a pale shadow flickering uncertainly in the doorway of her grandmother’s room. “Mommy? Mommy, can I help?”
She watched, wincing, as Mommy thumped Gramma’s frail back with the sides of her hands, just so’s Gramma Winkum could breathe. Daddy was watching them behind the mist of the steam kettle with tight, worried eyes, never saying around a word.
“Mommy?” This time Aggie more mouthed the word than whispered it, but her mother seemed to hear. Mrs. Winkum looked over Gramma’s thin shoulders and frowned sadly, shaking her head. The message was clear. Aggie was to be very, very quiet so as not to be disturbing them. [i] Gramma coughed and coughed and gasped for breath. And Aggie tiptoed away, wishing she hadn’t seen her grandmother’s backbones poking through the cotton shift, or that she hadn’t seen the way Gramma’s coughs racked through her body.
Before the rains, Mommy and Gramma Winkum had taken in laundry and made the sheets snap and gleam with brightness. Now, the lovely sheets and linens hung like shrouds on ropes inside the house, and she was forever leaving behind the temporary water-shadows caused by the little pads of her feet as she tiptoed around the puddles beneath the sheets. Outside smelled of mold, and inside smelled of sickness and damp. The only sound was Gramma Winkum’s rough cough and Mommy’s whispered prayers. And all Aggie could do was worry in silence.
As the weeks rolled by, and poor Gramma Winkum got weaker and weaker, Aggie became quieter and quieter.
Aggie watched the rain racing down the pane of her bedroom window. She had never known such misery, and crept about the house like a mouse in the baseboards. Her open, smiling face had taken on a serious, pale aspect, and her bright eyes had become watchful and sad. Her lovely hair remained unbound and fretful, for even plaiting her braids took too much of Mommy’s precious attention from Gramma Winkum. And if that weren’t enough, her best friend, Billy Brown (who knew all kinds of wonderful, useful things, including a little magic), was visiting a cousin over-the-hills-away, and he didn’t even know when he would get back!
She thought about the wilted flowers that drooped and mourned over Gramma Winkum’s wedding-ring quilt, and wished for the hundredth time that the weather would just turn long enough for her to replace them. It didn’t seem right.
It used to be that when the spring came, Aggie would march out with the biggest basket she could find and bring home the most beautiful blooms the hills could offer. More often than not, Aggie found so many daffodils brown-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace that her mother and her grandmother had to use every vase, pitcher, and cup in the house. Sometimes, Aggie’s flowers even took over the bathtub, and petals and leaves seemed to be growing over the sides as the blooms spilled out over the edges. Her mother would sigh, and her grandmother would flutter about tutting to herself that they would soon have a honey-hive in the best cupboard. However, her father would ruffle Aggie’s hair and smile and remind them that there were worse things in the world than a little girl and her flowers…and that a house that smelled of fresh flowers was always a welcome place to be.
That night, as she had for so many nights since Gramma got sick, Aggie crept into bed, with an unkissed forehead and no soft whisper for pleasant dreams.
But the next morning, Aggie awoke to sunshine!
It was as though all the world had been forgiven, and the sunlight glowed upon the raindrops as though they were diamonds. The air was fresh once more, and the blue sky beamed and beamed as though it had never once been gone. The grass was stiff and straight, like thousands of soldiers in their brand-new green uniforms, and as Aggie crept from her bed, she felt it, like a wondrous, brilliant blanket wrapping about her. Expectation. Anticipation. Certainty. Her toes danced against the moist earth. “Yes!” the world was telling her, “THIS is a day when wonderful things will happen!”
And without another thought, she got dressed and tied her hair back with a piece of Mommy’s softest red yarn, and crept out of the house without waking anyone else up. She stopped to pick up her mother’s apple basket, and with the comforting weight of the deep basket on her hip, she marched out to her favorite flower fields and began to pick flowers.
As she picked and set her flowers carefully in the basket, she found herself edging closer and closer to the Dark Woods. Children were not supposed to go into the Dark Woods, for there were many fearsome creatures living in its shadows, and there were many reasons it was not safe…but Aggie had always been curious about the lovely green darkness under the Dark Wood’s trees…and though she really was a very good little girl, she did, sometimes, try to dare herself a little