He swung a right, at what was left of an old barn foundation and slowed, winding down the faded ribbon of Ol’ Ginny Combs Road, as it laced its way to the house where he and his would live out their days in the shadow of that fine oak tree- Where local yarn would have it, Ginny herself had spent many a warm summer’s day, on an old tire swing, knotted to a low branch- long before life became a ligature, and she found herself a dangling at the end of her own rope….
Gunther Combs strode heavy footed on to the plank wood porch that ran the length of the house his son built for his wife and child the year before they’d lost him. He did so because he wanted his daughter in law to know he was there. He’d been making his presence known before he entered a room with her in it for nearly eighteen years. Far as he was concerned, if she got to heaven before him, he’d “clomp his boots through them pearly gates”.
“Ginny! Come on down. Yer papaws here.” Mama called up before Gunther even hit the door.
When Ginny’s daddy was alive, the way Gunther entered a room used to bother Mabel Marie. It bothered her plenty. He made no bones about the reason he did it. In fact for years, he’d tell anyone that asked.
“I seen my son Lester and Mabel Marie a headed to the barn after dark, and I follered ‘em in there to see if they was a doin’ what I thought they was a doin’. And sure enough they was. So I run Mabel Marie off my land, and whooped Lester within an inch of his life. But none of that stopped Mabel Marie from showin’ up late one night, knocked up and beat up, an a marrying my only boy three months later.”
“Where’s my baby girl at?” Gunther grunted at Mabel Marie as he helped himself to a still warm biscuit and took a seat at the kitchen table.
“Up yonder.” Mabel Marie motioned toward the stairs, her weathered hand covered in flour and bits of bread dough.
No matter how Gunther felt about the way she had come about getting into this world, little Ginny Combes was his baby girl. From the moment he laid eyes on her- she was his heart. Some said she was the spittin’ image of her mamaw, Gunther’s first and only love, who had died birthing a stillborn girl not quite a year after Ginny’s daddy, Lester had been born. Still others said it was because he longed for that dead baby. Said she was the daughter he never had the chance to know.
But Gunther- he knew it was because he had wished her dead so many times before she was born. He knew it was because he had gone so far as to petition the Lord God above “to remove that bastard child from that harlot’s womb”- to “take the mama if he had to”, but please “don’t sentence my boy to a lifetime a chasin’ around behind a loose woman”.
Ginny was barely a year old, the summer Gunther hooked an old tire to a length of strong rope and secured it to a low branch on the oak tree that set between his barn and the house Lester was busy building. He knew that as soon as Lester finished that house and moved his family in, he was gonna need to make special, the time he spent with his baby girl, as she would no longer be living under his roof and available to him every moment he could steal away from the neverending work that was a farmers life.
Starting the first morning he woke up alone, Gunther got up at 3am just to get a foothold on his chores so he could spend an hour or so out on that tire swing with his baby girl right after breakfast.
She’d swing and he’d spin yarns. Tales, half fact- half fiction about his own youth, her daddy coming up, the mamaw she never knew.
“Don’t you know no stories ’bout my Mama?” Ginny had asked him more than once.
Gunther always answered the same way. “Yes, baby girl, that I do. But some stories just ain’t a fittin’ to be told.”
Even as a small child, Ginny could sense there was something just not right between her papaw and her mama. Not anything she could put a name to, just something that felt like distance. Even when they were all in the same room, Ginny felt like she had to travel miles to carry on a conversation with both of them at the same time.
As she grew older, she heard pieces of conversation here and there. At first mostly hushed words between old women- that always came to an abrupt halt as soon as she came within earshot.
When she got to school however, she learned what it was- the hard way. The sordid, ugly way only mean spirited children could tell it. They said her Mama was a whore. They said if it wasn’t for Gunther Combs forcing her Daddy to marry her Mama, that Ginny Combs herself would have been a bastard. Even before she knew the meaning of either of those hurtful words, she knew she had reason to be ashamed.
That shame is what drew Ginny to the old tire swing all alone on warm summer days, when all the other kids were playing hide-n-seek in hay lofts, swimming buck naked in the creek, and spitting watermelon seeds at each other.
When she’d slip her legs through the hole in that old tire swing, she’d be transported. Sometimes she would be a fairy princess, waiting for a handsome prince to come marry her and carry her off into the sunset. More often though, as she got older, her handsome prince whittled down to some boy, any boy, that would either not know- or not care about all those things that made her very existence shameful. A boy that would fall in love with her, and she with him. The ending of the story, either way she dreamed it was always the same though, together they would ride up out of here, and live happily ever after.
But some days, especially when the sun was just right, she would catch a glimpse of the old barn, with its remnants of charred wood siding and black smoke stained foundation stones- and the story she would tell herself, wouldn’t be a story at all. It would be the truth. The truth as she and the people she loved remembered it. It would be the story of the day she lost her father.
That day hadn’t started out a day like any other day. That day, her daddy rose earlier than usual. By the time Mama got Ginny up for chores, her daddy was already gone. Breakfast would be late, her mama said.
“Yer daddy went to the Newsoms to pick up that bailer. Can’t drive that big ol’ thang on the road when peoples a tryin’ to go ‘bout their bidness.” Mabel Marie was in the middle of explaining when the unmistakable thumping of Gunthers heavy muck boots hitting the porch interrupted her.
“Ginny Combes!” Gunther called through the screen door, as knowing Lester was probably on his way back with the bailer by now, and Ginny’s breakfast would be delayed till he returned- there wasn’t any reason for him to go in.
“Y’all two go play. I got work to do.” Mabel Marie huffed as she shooed Ginny out her kitchen and turned her attention to snapping beans.
Before the screen door slammed, Gunther had snatched little Ginny up and threw her on his back. “We’ll be at the tree.” he said matter of factly to Mabel Marie before he reared up and whinnied on down the porch steps..
Just as he was clearing the front of the house, he heard a loud pop followed by the sound of broken glass. Behind that, thick roils of black smoke and lapping tongues of fire burst out where the milking window had been only a moment before.
Gunther swung five year old Ginny down off his back and cried out, “Go tell yer Mama we got fire, Ginny! Run!” Then, broke out into a run himself.
He was just short of the barn when he saw Lester lifting himself, soaking wet out of the water trough, and running full on into the smoke filled, inferno that was now his barn.
Gunther could hear himself screaming Lesters name, yelling for him to “Stay Back!” but with the terrorized cries from the livestock as the flames engulfed them, even through his panic- he was pretty sure Lester never heard a word.
The last thing Gunther remembered hearing before the main rafter collapsed and the whole barn exploded into flames, was gunshots. Gunther’s only son died trying to spare the livestock the horror of being consumed by the very same flames that cut him down.
“Ginny Combs!” Gunther called out at the top of his voice, “I don’t give a hoot if you are seventeen year old, you got a date with an ol’ man and a tire swing. Now git cher butt down here afor I come up after ye!”
“Gunther,” Mabel Marie said in a low tone, partly because she rarely spoke to him directly, and partly to make sure Ginny couldn’t overhear. “Ginny’s been a seein’ a lot of that Hames boy. See if you can’t find out his intentions. She won’t tell me nary a thing.”
“Hames boy? Who the hell..” Gunther crowed before he cut himself off mid sentence due to some commotion out front of the house.
It was that Hames boy. He was running toward the house, flailing his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs:
“Miz Combes! Miz Combes! Come quick. It’s Ginny….”
Written in response to Sue Vincent’s Thursday Photo Prompt #writephoto