A 2017 Newbery Honor Book
New York Times Bestseller
A young girl's kindness, compassion, and honesty overcome bullying.
★ An NPR Best Book of the Year
★ A Booklist Best Book of the Year
★ An Entertainment Weekly Best Middle Grade Book of the Year
★ A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
★ A Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year
★ A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
★ A Wall Street Journal Best Children's Book of the Year
★ An ALA Notable Children's Book
“This exquisite debut confronts injustice and doesn’t flinch.” —People
“[A] powerful debut . . . beautifully written.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Wrenching and true. . . . comparisons to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird will abound. But Wolk gives us her own story—one full of grace and stark, brutal beauty.” —The New York Times Book Review
“When reviewers draw a parallel between Mockingbird and Lauren Wolk's Wolf Hollow, they are being neither hyperbolic, nor lazy. They are merely doing justice to Wolk's beautiful story.” — NPR, Best Books of 2016
Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.
Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience, strength, and compassion help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.
“The honesty of Wolf Hollow will just about shred your heart, but Annabelle’s courage and compassion will restore it to you, fuller than before. This book matters.” —Sara Pennypacker, New York Times bestselling author of Pax
“An evocative setting, memorable characters, a searing story: Wolf Hollow has stayed with me long after I closed the book. It has the feel of an instant classic." —Linda Sue Park, Newbery Medalist and New York Times bestselling author
Excerpt from Wolf Hollow
The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.
I don’t mean the small fibs that children tell. I mean real lies fed by real fears—things I said and did that took me out of the life I’d always known and put me down hard into a new one.
It was the autumn of 1943 when my steady life began to spin, not only because of the war that had drawn the whole world into a screaming brawl, but also because of the dark-hearted girl who came to our hills and changed everything.
At times, I was so confused that I felt like the stem of a pinwheel surrounded by whir and clatter, but through that whole unsettling time I knew that it simply would not do to hide in the barn with a book and an apple and let events plunge forward without me. It would not do to turn twelve without earning my keep, and by that I meant my place, my small authority, the possibility that I would amount to something.
But there was more to it than that.
The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and what I did mattered.
So much, sometimes, that I wasn’t sure I wanted such a burden.
But I took it anyway, and I carried it as best I could.
It began with the china piggy bank that my aunt Lily had given me for my fifth Christmas.
My mother was the one who noticed when it went missing.
“Are you hiding your piggy bank, Annabelle?” She was scrubbing down the baseboards in my bedroom while I put away my summer clothes. She must have noticed that the bank was missing because there was little else in my small room beyond the furniture itself and the windows, a comb and a brush and a book beside my bed. “Nobody’s going to take your things,” she said. “You don’t need to hide them.” She was on her hands and knees, her whole body wagging as she scrubbed, the soles of her black work shoes turned up for a change.
I was glad she couldn’t see my face. I was folding a too-pink church dress that I hoped to outgrow by next spring, and I imagined that my face was turning the same awful color.
When I’d come home from school that day, I had shaken the china pig to get out a penny and had dropped it by mistake, breaking it into bits and spilling out the coins that I’d been saving for years and which must have added up to nearly ten dollars by now. I had buried the pieces of broken china beyond the kitchen garden and gathered the coins in an old hankie, tied up the corners, and hidden the bundle in a winter boot under my bed along with the silver dollar that my grandfather had given to me on my last birthday, from his collection.
I had never put that silver dollar in my bank because I didn’t think of it as money. It was like a medal that I imagined wearing someday, so beautiful was the woman on it, so splendid and serious in her spiky crown.
And I determined that I would part with a penny, maybe even more, but I would not give up that silver dollar to the terrible girl waiting on the path that led into Wolf Hollow.
Every day, to get to school, I walked with my brothers—Henry, who was nine, and James, who was seven—down into Wolf Hollow and then back up out of it again to return home. And that was where a big, tough, older girl named Betty had said she’d be waiting for me after school.
She had been sent from the city to stay with her grandparents, the Glengarrys, who lived above the bank of Raccoon Creek, just past the end of the lane to our farm. I’d been afraid of her since the day she appeared at the schoolhouse three weeks earlier.
It was whispered that Betty had been sent to the country because she was incorrigible, a word I had to look up in the big dictionary at the schoolhouse. I didn’t know if living in the country with her grandparents was meant to be a punishment or a cure, but either way I didn’t think it was fair to inflict her on us who had not done anything so terribly wrong.
She arrived at our school one morning without any fanfare or much in the way of explanation. There were already nearly forty of us, more than the little school was meant to hold, so some had to double up at desks, two in a seat intended for one, two writing and doing sums on the slanted and deeply scarred desktop, two sets of books in the cubby under the lid.
I didn’t mind so much because I shared a seat with my friend Ruth, a dark-haired, red-lipped, pale girl with a quiet voice and perfectly ironed dresses. Ruth liked to read as much as I did, so we had that one big thing in common. And we were both skinny girls who took regular baths (which wasn’t true of all the students in Wolf Hollow School), so sitting tight together wasn’t a bad thing.
Our teacher, Mrs. Taylor, said, “Good morning,” when Betty arrived that day and stood at the back of the schoolroom. Betty didn’t say anything. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Children, this is Betty Glengarry.” Which sounded, to me, like a name from a song.
We were expected to say good morning, so we did. Betty looked at us without a word.
“We’re a little crowded, Betty, but we’ll find a seat for you. Hang up your coat and lunch pail.”
We all watched in silence to see where Mrs. Taylor would put Betty, but before she had a chance to assign a seat, a thin girl named Laura, apparently reading the writing on the wall, gathered up her books and wedged in next to her friend Emily, leaving a desk free.
This became Betty’s desk. It was in front of the one I shared with Ruth, close enough so that, within a couple of days, I had spitballs clinging to my hair and tiny red sores on my legs where Betty had reached back and poked me with her pencil. I wasn’t happy about the situation, but I was glad that Betty had chosen to devil me instead of Ruth, who was smaller than I was and dainty. And I had brothers who had inflicted far worse upon me, while Ruth had none. For the first week after Betty arrived, I decided to weather her minor attacks, expecting them to wane over time.
In a different kind of school, the teacher might have noticed such things, but Mrs. Taylor had to trust that what was going on behind her back wasn’t worth her attention.
Since she taught us all, the chairs clustered at the front of the room by the chalkboard were always occupied by whatever grade level was having a lesson while the rest of us sat at our desks and did our work until it was our turn at the front.
Some of the older boys slept through a good part of the day. When they woke up for their lessons at the chalkboard, they were so openly contemptuous of Mrs. Taylor that I believe the lessons she taught them were shorter than they might have been. They were all big boys who were useful on their farms and didn’t see the point of going to a school that wouldn’t teach them to sow or reap or herd anything. And they knew full well that if the war was still going on when they were old enough, school wouldn’t help them fight the Germans. Being the farmers and ranchers who fed the soldiers might save them from the war, or make them strong enough to fight, but school never would.
Still, in the coldest months, the work they might be asked to do at home was tedious and difficult: mending fences and barn roofs and wagon wheels. Given the choice to spend a day snoozing and, at recess, roughhousing with the other boys instead of working in the freezing wind, the boys generally chose school. If their fathers let them.
But when Betty arrived that October, the days were still warm, and so those awful boys were not regularly attending school. If not for her, the schoolhouse would have been a peaceful place, at least until everything fell to pieces that terrible November and I was called upon to tell my catalogue of lies.
Back then, I didn’t know a word that described Betty properly or what to call the thing that set her apart from the other children in that school. Before she’d been there a week, she’d taught us a dozen words we had no business knowing, poured a well of ink on Emily’s sweater, and told the little kids where babies came from, something I’d only just learned from my grandmother the spring before when the calves were born. For me, learning about babies was a gentle thing that my grandmother handled with the grace and humor of someone who had borne several of her own, every one of them on the bed where she still slept with my grandfather. But for the youngest of the children at my school, it was not gentle. Betty was cruel about it. She scared them to bits. Worst of all, she told them that if they tattled to their parents, she would follow them through the woods after school and beat them, as she later did me. Maybe kill them. And they believed her, just as I did.
I could threaten my brothers with death and dismemberment a dozen times a day and they would laugh at me and stick out their tongues, but when Betty merely looked at them they settled right down. So they might not have been much help had they been with me that day in Wolf Hollow when Betty stepped out from behind a tree and stood in the path ahead of me.
When I was smaller, I asked my grandfather how Wolf Hollow got its name.
“They used to dig deep pits there, for catching wolves,” he said.
He was one of the eight of us who lived together in the farmhouse that had been in our family for a hundred years, three generations tucked together under one roof after the Depression had tightened the whole country’s belt and made our farm the best of all places to live. Now, with a second world war raging, lots of people grew victory gardens to help feed themselves, but our whole farm was a giant victory garden that my grandfather had spent his whole life tending.
He was a serious man who always told me the truth, which I didn’t always want but sometimes asked for any-way. When I asked him how Wolf Hollow got its name, for instance, he told me, even though I was only eight at the time.
He was sitting in a chair near the stove in the kitchen, his elbows on his knees, hands hanging loose from his big wrists, pale feet ready for his boots. Different times of the year he looked like a younger man, open-eyed. That morning, even though it was only just June, he looked beat. The top of his forehead was as white as his feet, but his nose and cheeks were brown, like his hands and his arms, up to where he rolled his sleeves. I knew how weary he was, even though he spent a good part of every day sitting in the shade, doing small work.
“What did they want to catch wolves for?” You couldn’t milk a wolf. Or hitch it to a plow. Or eat it for dinner, I didn’t think.
“So there wouldn’t be as many running around here anymore.”
He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at his hands. Even though they were already tough as hide, he had a weeping blister at the base of each thumb, from helping my father with the planting.
“Eating the chickens?” I asked. Sometimes I woke up in the morning to my mother screaming at a fox that had dug its way into the henhouse. I wasn’t sure even my mother would go after a wolf that way.
“Among other things.” He sat up straight and rubbed his eyes. “Weren’t enough people hunting wolves anymore.
They were getting too brave and too many.” I thought about a pit full of wolves.
“Did they kill them after they got them in the pit?”
My grandfather sighed. “Shot ’em. Turned in their ears for the bounty. Three dollars a pair.”
“Their ears? If there were pups, did they keep them for pets?”
My grandfather didn’t make much noise when he laughed. It was a matter of his shoulders shaking a couple of times. “You think a wolf would get along with dogs?”
There were always plenty of dogs on the farm. I couldn’t imagine the place without six or seven running around. Once in a while one would disappear, but after a time another would show up to take its place.
“But they could have raised the pups right. Made dogs out of them.”
My grandfather pulled his suspenders up over his shoulders and began to put on his socks. “A wolf is not a dog and never will be,” he said, “no matter how you raise it.”
When he had his boots on and laced, he stood up and put one of his big hands on the top of my head. “They killed the pups, too, Annabelle. Probably didn’t give it much thought. Don’t forget you weren’t the least bit bothered when I mashed that young copperhead last spring.”
The snake had kept the imprint of his boot, like it was made of clay.
“Copperheads are poisonous,” I said. “That’s different.”
“Not to the snake, it isn’t,” he’d said. “Or to the God who made it.”
I thought about that snake as I stood on the path out of Wolf Hollow, Betty waiting ahead of me. The hair on the back of my neck rose up, and I felt a distant kinship with the wolves that had died here. Betty was wearing a gingham dress, and a blue sweater that matched her eyes, and black leather shoes. Her yellow hair was pulled back in a ponytail. On the whole, but for the expression on her face, she looked harmless.
I stopped when I was still ten feet away from her.
“Hey, Betty,” I said. I held tight to the book cradled in my right arm. It was a history book that was so old it didn’t even count Arizona as a state, but it had some good heft to it and I thought maybe I could throw it at her if she got too close. My lunch pail wasn’t heavy enough to be much good, but I gave it a little swing with my left hand so she’d see I wasn’t completely unarmed.
“What kind of a name is Annabelle?” She had a deep voice, almost boyish. She looked at me steadily, her head down like a dog’s when he’s thinking about whether or not to bite. She was half smiling, her arms limp at her sides.
She cocked her head to one side.
I shrugged. I didn’t know what kind of a name I had.
“You’re the rich girl,” she said. “It’s a rich girl name.”
I looked behind me to see if there was someone else on the path. Someone rich.
“You think I’m rich?” It had never occurred to me that I might be considered rich, although my family was an old one that had given land for the church and the school and still had enough left for a good-size farm. My ancestors lay beneath the finest headstones in the graveyard, and our house was, in fact, big enough for the three generations that now lived there, albeit cheek by jowl. We had running water. A couple of years earlier, Mr. Roosevelt had sent us the electric, and we’d had the wherewithal to wire up the house. We had a telephone mounted on our sitting room wall, which we still regarded as something of a miracle. Moreover, we did eat at Lancaster’s in Sewickley maybe twice a year. But most amazing of all was the indoor privy, which my parents had recently installed, now that my grandparents were old enough to deserve it. But we were not rich.
“You got a purple window,” Betty said.
I didn’t know what she was talking about until I remembered the lilac glass in our front hall window, one of the things I loved best about our house. That and the gables and the slate roof that looked like silver feathers. The big fireplaces in every room. And the windows tall as doors.
“My grandma told me about your purple window,” Betty said. “I never heard of a purple window before, ’cept in a church or a kingdom. Nobody has a purple window unless they’s rich.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I didn’t say anything.
Betty picked up a stick from along the path. It was dead wood, but I could tell from how she held it that it was still heavy.
“Tomorrow you bring me something or I’m going to beat you with this stick.”
She said it so calmly that I thought she was joking, but when she took a step toward me I went hot and felt my heart thumping.
“Like what?” I said. I imagined myself lugging the purple window through the woods.
“Like whatever you have.”
I didn’t have much. Just my piggy bank and the coins in it and my silver dollar and my books. A beaver muff my grandfather had once made for my grandmother and which she had given to me when it got ratty. A lace collar that I snapped onto my church dresses. A pair of white cotton gloves that were too small for me now. And a sweater frog that I had borrowed from my aunt Lily and she had not asked about since.
I catalogued these assets quickly in my head, but I was not convinced that I would give Betty anything until she said, “I’ll wait for your brothers if you don’t come.”
They were tough little boys, my brothers, but they were smaller than I was and they were mine to look after.
I didn’t say anything as Betty leaned the stick against a tree and continued up the path away from me. “And don’t tell nobody about it or I’ll use a rock on the little one.” James. She meant James. The little one.
I waited until she was out of sight and then I got my breath back and thought about what it would feel like to be hit with a stick.
A year earlier Henry had thrown a toadstool the size of a dinner plate at me and I’d stepped back out of the way and tripped over a dog and broken my arm. I’d burned myself a couple of times, stepped on a hoe blade and snapped the handle back into my forehead, sprained my ankle in a groundhog hole. Nothing much else had done me bodily harm in my eleven years on earth, but I’d been hurt enough to know that a whack with a branch wouldn’t kill me.
Still, as I passed it, I heaved the particular stick she had chosen as far as I could into the woods. There were plenty of other sticks around, but I felt a little better as I cast this one beyond her reach.
I decided, as I plodded slowly up the path, that Betty wouldn’t go after Henry or James until she tried me, so I’d wait to see if she was a barker or a biter before telling my parents anything that might make Betty a whole lot angrier than she already was. But I confessed to myself that I was afraid in a way I hadn’t known before.
I hadn’t felt very much true fear in my life, except about the war . . . that it might still be raging when my brothers grew old enough to fight the Nazis . . . even though farm boys were often spared. Even though by that time someone would surely have won. And I was afraid of that, too—who would win, who would lose.
We girls in the 4-H club had made a flag to hang in the church, adding a blue star every time someone from the township went off to fight. When one of them died, we changed the blue star to a gold one. Just two, so far, but I had been to their funerals, and I knew that there was no “just” about it.
I sometimes sat with the grown-ups and listened to the radio in the evenings after the supper dishes were done. Nobody said anything when the news came on. My mother listened with her head bowed, her hands nested and still in her mending. The talk was of concentration camps, which I thought at first meant places where people went to think hard thoughts.
“I do wish they were that,” my father said. “But they’re not, Annabelle. They’re prisons for people Hitler doesn’t like.”
I had a hard time imagining why Hitler disliked so many people.
“Who does he like?” I asked.
My father thought about his answer. “People with blond hair and blue eyes,” he said.
Which made me glad to have hair that was brown. Eyes, too.
We listened to news of bombs and submarines, smiled at the announcement that the Allies were close to retaking Italy, worried about everything else.
“No need to be afraid, Annabelle,” my mother said, running her hand down my back.
But I was.
I wasn’t afraid of my mother, though, despite how hard she could sometimes be. She had forgotten what it felt like to ride a swing up into the sky, to stop hoeing at the first sign of a blister, to expect anything to be easier than it was. She had been seventeen when she’d had me, was only twenty-eight the year I learned how to lie, not much more than a girl herself, in charge of three generations and a good bit of farmwork, too. But even when she was most impatient with me, I did not fear her.
Nor was I really afraid of my aunt Lily, though she could be alarming. A tall, thin, ugly woman who might have been handsome as a man, Aunt Lily spent her days working as a postmistress and her nights praying and reading from her Bible and practicing dance steps in the small patch of floor at the foot of her bed. She sometimes invited me into her bedroom to listen to Peter and the Wolf on the phonograph, and now and then she put a penny into the china pig she’d given me, but her big, square teeth and her feverish devotion to God frightened me.
And there were times when I was afraid of my grandmother’s ailing heart that forced her to go up the stairs backward, sitting down . . . how weak and gray she became sometimes, no longer the strong and able woman she’d once been. When we could, she and I sat on the porch swing, playing I Spy, remarking on the butterflies in the front garden, hoping for a pheasant to come hopping out of the woods to poach the seed that she scattered for the songbirds. She loved those birds. Loved them. Even the drab little ones. Especially the drab little ones. There was nothing about my grandmother that frightened me, except the thought that she’d be gone soon.
But I shared that fear with everyone in our house.
Betty was mine to fear, and I decided that she was mine to disarm. If I could. On my own.
But for now I was simply happy that she was gone, and I followed so slowly that Betty was nowhere to be seen by the time I cleared the trees and made my way onto the field that was empty but for her footprints, which were deep and sharp and suggested that she was more freighted than she could possibly be.
Lots of people crossed our farm to get from down the hollow to the houses on the other side of our fields instead of following the road from the school all the way around the hill. I’d never minded—we knew everyone for miles around—but I was sometimes startled by the vagabonds who passed through from time to time.
In those days, not so very long after the Clutch Plague, there were people who had taken up wandering and didn’t know how to stop—cut loose from their roots and their people—never stopping anywhere for very long. And then there were those who had come home from the first big war so shaken, so silent, that they didn’t seem to know who they were any longer or where they belonged.
One of them, a man named Toby, had stayed.
He wasn’t like the others.
He didn’t ask for food or money. He didn’t ask for anything at all. But instead of drifting through on his way to somewhere else like the others, he circled the hills endlessly, and I confess that I had been nervous about him in the beginning.
But that’s before I had come to know him.
I looked for him as I walked home that day, scanning the field that wrapped itself around the long, low hill like a nubby shawl. I often saw him away in the distance as I made my way to school and home again. He liked to stand at the edge of the woods, still as a tree. Or on the very top of the hill, clear against the sky.
We didn’t know where Toby had come from or much about him, except that he had been a foot soldier, fighting the Germans in France. Decades earlier. That much we’d heard, in passing, at church, at the market, and took it to be true.
His left hand, terribly scarred, seemed to confirm the story. But nobody knew for sure where he came from except that he might have stopped in these hills because they reminded him of home. Or maybe they were simply like a place where he’d always wanted to be.
A lot of people worried about Toby as he walked the woods and valleys in his long, black oilcloth coat and his black boots, long black hair and beard, and always three long guns slung across his back. They didn’t know what to make of this largely silent man who never seemed to stop walking, morning to night, his head down, plodding along neither faster nor slower than he had the day before.
I sometimes pictured him huddled in a trench while a thousand Germans ran around topside with bayonets fixed and spikes on their helmets and bloodlust in their eyes. Even though I was only eleven, I knew enough about fear to conclude that being completely afraid, body and soul, was probably enough to make a person strange forever after. And that’s what Toby was. Strange.
“Hard to know, but sometimes it’s more than fear or shell shock that makes a man like he is,” my grandmother said to me one day soon after Toby had first come to our hills. “He wouldn’t have been much more than a boy when he fought in that terrible war. But he must have seen and done things that would lay a strong man low.”
We’d heard that Toby was squatting in an old smokehouse in Cobb Hollow down below the Glengarry place, along where we grew potatoes and corn. Nobody owned that smokehouse anymore, not since Silas Cobb had died and his old house burned up from a lightning strike. The smokehouse was set back away from the burned-out foundation of the house, mostly hidden in the trees and brush that had grown up around it. It was a snug little place made of stone and wood with a metal roof. I’d come across it once when one of our cows went missing and we all scattered through the woods to bring her home.
I knew better than to go inside the old shacks beyond the borders of our farm, some of them built up around oil well pumps, some of them for curing meat, some for fowl, all of them apt to attract snakes. But I’d explored the old smokehouse before Toby took it for his own. Except for the smell of meat and smoke that was still strong inside, it seemed a nice enough place for a man like Toby to live. And the old well at the nearby Cobb place—though nothing more now than a hole in the earth, like the Cobb house itself—still meant water worth drinking when the nearby crick froze up.
I could imagine Toby warm inside the smokehouse, a fire in the spot where fires had once burned steadily. Perhaps he used the meat hooks dangling from the rafters overhead to hang his coat when he wasn’t in it, his guns when they weren’t slung across his back. On one, his black hat. On another, his camera.
We’d all been surprised when Toby had asked to borrow our camera, which was now his, more or less. It was amazing that he had spoken at all, that he had come close enough to any of us to make such a request, that he had suddenly seemed excited about something, especially something like photographs. But he had, and the whole thing had been an accident.
When I was seven and Henry five, James three, my mother had taken us to Horne’s, the big department store in Pittsburgh, to have our portrait done. My mother had one picture of herself, taken with her whole family shortly before her mother died. It was pressed in the family Bible, brown as summer dust. My father had many portraits of his forebears, a furious bunch of Scots: beetle-browed, mash-mouthed, goat-eyed. But nowhere in our house was there a simple picture of any of us smiling, arm in arm. My mother wanted such a thing, of her children, so she took the three of us to Horne’s and had us sit together for our portrait. The photographer told her that all portraits taken that month would be entered into a contest for a Kodak camera and a lifetime supply of film and processing.
“And when would I have time to take pictures of anything?” she said, smiling, as she paid the man.
Three weeks later, when a package arrived for my mother, we were astonished to find that it contained both our portrait, in which we all looked sweeter than we really were, and the news that we had won the camera. It was also enclosed, along with a dozen spools of film to get us started and some special envelopes for sending them in to be developed.
It was as if we had received a tiny spaceship or a time machine, so astounding was this gift.
Word soon spread, and before long our neighbors were dropping in on Sunday afternoons, still in their church clothes, angling for pictures. My mother was too busy to oblige them. Aunt Lily was willing to take the pictures, but she was so bossy and critical of her subjects that they always looked as if they’d had the flu in their pictures. When people saw the results, they asked for another round with another photographer, which was a waste of film and time.
I tried my hand at it, but I tended to lop off their heads.
So people stopped coming after a while and the camera gathered dust until one afternoon—when the peaches were in their brief blossom and the sun behind them made a rosy miasma of the orchard—I took the camera out to try to save the sight.
I stood at the top of the orchard and took one picture after another, lowering the camera in between to sigh and breathe the chill, pink air.
At some point I became aware of Toby standing off to one side near the outermost trees, watching me.
I’d never spoken to him, had always found myself at least a field away from him until now. And I’d never known him to watch a person the way he was watching me. To stand still for so long in one place.
I slowly pointed the camera in his direction, expecting him to shy from it as if it were a gun, but he didn’t. I took his picture, even though—through the lens, from such a distance—he looked like nothing but a smudge of darkness in a hat.
When he began to walk toward me I waited. It was full light out and I was on my own farm. There was no reason to be nervous. That’s what I told myself. But I was only nine back then, too young to be very brave. Toby was a tall man who never smiled. Seldom spoke. Had those terrible scars on his hand. And those guns.
I could hear someone hammering something in the distance, probably my father fixing siding on the barn. The sound kept me where I was as Toby walked up to me. When he was a dozen feet away I became aware of the smoke-and-meat smell coming off him, mixed with his own scent. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but it was overlaid with the stink of kerosene from his lamp. Whenever the dogs got near him, they’d shake their heads and sneeze.
He looked at the camera and then at me. “Is that yours?” he said.
“My mother’s.” I thought about it. “And mine.” It was, after all, my picture that had won the camera. Mine and James’s and Henry’s.
Toby hitched his gun belt higher on his shoulder. I’d held a gun before. Three must have been very heavy. His black coat, long and stiff, had a high collar that framed his neck and made him look bigger than he was. Like some animals will ruff up their fur for purposes of warfare.
“You taking pictures of the blossoms?”
I nodded. “And you. Just one of you. Do you want it when it comes in?”
Toby shook his head. “I know what I look like.”
I wondered how many years it had been since he’d seen himself in a mirror.
He was staring at the camera. I took the strap from around my neck. “You want to try?” I held the camera out toward him.
Toby glanced at me and then away. At me again. And away. At the blossoms, then back over his shoulder toward the fields just plowed for planting. At a line of blue spruce higher than anything else for a mile. He walked close, took the camera, stepped back.
“I’ll bring it back tomorrow, if that’s all right.”
I was a little startled. From saying nothing to me, ever, to now taking this liberty was surprising. But I didn’t know how to say no, not to an adult, and I didn’t think my mother would mind. She often made an extra loaf of bread or pot of jam for Toby. She wasn’t scared of him. I didn’t think she’d mind if he used the camera for a day.
And so that was the beginning of a change in our lives. Had we not won the Kodak, had the peach blossoms been less beautiful that year, had Toby been elsewhere on his walk that day, had I fled from the sight of him, had I said no, Toby would not have learned how to take the pictures he took and, eventually, been given the camera for his own. Nor would I have come to know him as I did; and he, me.
We would have been spared some trouble if we had not crossed paths that day. But it’s important to look at how everything ended and not just what happened along the way.