Name: Kimberly C. Stickrath
Genre: Middle-Grade Fantasy
AGGIE WINKUM AND THE SNOOTAGUS
Once upon a time in the land of Ifanwhen, there lived a little girl named Aggie Winkum. She had bright blue eyes that twinkled like happy sapphires, and long wavy red hair that she wore in two plaits tied with the softest red yarn her mother could make. More often than not, her hair tried to escape the braids, and so it always appeared as though she had a little halo about her head, and she frequently wore dandelion and daisy-chains on her brow, so that when she came skipping over a hill in her crisp red dress and soft leather shoes (that her dear Daddy made e-special for her), she looked like a fairy child, all golden and made shining by the sun. She had the cheeriest disposition you could imagine, and a laugh that was so bright and full of joy that just hearing it once could leave your heart feeling warm and smiling for days afterward. She also had the most perfect dusting of freckles on her nose and cheeks, but perhaps the most magical thing about her was that she had a really and truly, genuinely good heart. She had a rare gift of knowing, somehow, that with a little work on her part, and maybe a little more faith, everything would turn out just fine.
Aggie spent her days helping her mother and grandmother hang the clean, starched linen on the line and learning the important differences between just cleaning a house and making a home. Her most favorite thing to do was dart between the pure white, waving sheets as the wind caught them and tossed them up – as she chased, and was being chased by her bestest-friend-in-the-whole-entire-world, Billy Brown. He was an uncommonly smart little boy himself, determined and strong, with a ready laugh, and gentle eyes, and best of all, he alsohad freckles (and though Aggie didn’t know it yet, when he was two years old and saw her for the first time, he promised himself then and there that he would marry her someday). His father was a World Traveler, and had taught Billy ever so many interesting things… even a little magic…and there was no question that they were truly the greatest of friends.
Aggie’s second most favorite thing to do was to pick flowers…and when the spring came, she would find the biggest basket she could carry and bring home the most beautiful blooms the hills could offer. She’d spend hours in the fields and frequently brought back so many daffodils or brown-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace that her mother and her grandmother filled every vase, pitcher, cup, and glass 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, but 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 home that smelled of fresh flowers was always a welcome place to be.
For Aggie, life was filled with laughter and love and security, and the constant scent of blooming flowers…and until the Awful Spring, she 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. Rain that was cold and creeping, finding its way down the back of one’s neck or the front of one’s shirt. 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, with her long, silver hair clinging to her poor, tired face and her bright eyes dimming like lamps when the wick went down. And Mommy had to sit behind Gramma’s thin body, and thump her back with the side of her hands, just so’s Gramma Winkum could breathe, and Daddy would watch them with tight, worried eyes without ever a word, and Aggie was required to be very, very quiet so as not to be disturbing them. There was always a steam kettle going in Gramma Winkum’s room now, and the weather wouldn’t turn so that Aggie could replace the wilted flowers that drooped and mourned over Gramma Winkum’s wedding-ring quilt. And if that weren’t enough, Billy’s father had decided that his family needed to pay a visit to a cousin over-the-hills-away, and there was nothing for it but for Billy to go along. He didn’t even know when he would get back!
Aggie had never known such misery, and crept about the house like a mouse in the baseboards. Her open, smiling face took on a serious, pale aspect, and her bright eyes became 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. 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 and the only sound was Gramma Winkum’s rough cough and Mommy’s whispered prayers, and Aggie could do little but worry in silence. As the weeks rolled by, and poor Gramma Winkum got weaker and weaker, Aggie became quieter and quieter.
And then one day, 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 the best flowers she could find.
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 closer to