Chapter Sixteen: Marilee
"She's come to stay with us, at least for a while," Ken explained as he worked, fluffing a pelt that he was getting ready for a mount.
"She" was a shy, almost fearful girl about a year younger than Graydon who was now living with Ken Granger and his wife at their home with the rolling lawns and huge tree-lined pond.
"She's so frightened. I tried to introduce myself and she ran into the house, crying."
"She's not much better with Helen and me. It's hard for her right now. She's been through a pretty rough time, I'm afraid. She ran away from her parents and she refuses to go back. She's agreed to stay here, but only because she has nowhere else to go. We talked to Frank, my brother-in-law, and Helen's sister Madeline, and they're not happy about this. But they've agreed to go along with her wishes. And that, young fellow, has me very puzzled. Frank is not a man to give in to something like this, so easily. I can't get him or Madeline to talk about it, either. They can't—or won't—explain what's behind all this, except they've agree to let Marilee say here. They admit that it's probably for the best that she won't go back to Kansas City."
"How did she get here?"
"Greyhound bus to Wenatchee. She called us from there. I drove down to pick her up. All she had with her was a suitcase and her purse."
Ken's shop was lined with shelves holding an array of taxidermy stuff: plaster molds which he'd carved for laying up paper-mache heads and bodies for his animal mounts, boxes of chemicals and fittings, racks of hand tools, jars filled with glass eyes of all sizes and molded claws, partially finished paper heads for jobs in progress. A huge bear skull, pinkish and mottled gray paper maché glued up from torn paper strips formed in a plaster mold, stared down at Graydon through a pair of glass eyes set in clay that filled its eye sockets. It was the skull form for an Alaskan Kodiak brown bear mount. A Chicago executive ordered it mounted as a head and pelt to fill a wall in his upstate Michigan hunting lodge. The raw pelt, huge and frost covered, had arrived by air freight direct from Juneau several weeks earlier. Ken's skillful work attracted a wide following, especially among the Alaska hunters.
"Give her a few days. We'll let her settle in. Then I'd like you to come Saturday to spend the day. We'll have a picnic and you two can get better acquainted. She's going to need a friend her own age who she can trust. It will be hard for her, starting over in a new school here, so different from her big city home."
"Sure, no problem. I'll be here mid-morning. What can I bring?"
"Just yourself and a good appetite. We're planning a big picnic feed for the four of us."
Ken briskly combed the heavy pelt, fluffing around the scruff of its neck, down the sides of both cheeks and the jaw, then between the ears and eyes. He'd already set the ear formers in place, glued inside the delicate skin. He had opened each ear, removed its cartilage and very gently scraped the interior lining. This one detail, forming and shaping the ears, was an essential part of creating a life-like mount. Ears are an important part of an animal's "gesture," Ken had explained, just as facial expressions are an important part of human expression. Ken had an magic touch with his mounts. They looked alive.
Saturday was warm and brilliant, a perfect day. Gentle breezes riffled the pond where a pair of white swans glided along its birch-sheltered banks. A gaudy peacock strutted about while a flock of busy-body Guinea fowl chattered and chased down insects along the sagebrush fringe of the upper lawn by the tool shed.
Ken, Graydon, and the girl, Marilee, sat in lawn chairs on the patio, enjoying the view and relaxing after a bountiful picnic lunch. Helen was inside making tea.
She had loosened up a little since her arrival the week before, but Graydon could count on one hand the words she'd said to him today. He sensed great turmoil and hurt in her but she was otherwise closed off, her mood dark and frightened.
He felt a small presence in the grassy fringe bordering the flower beds. He focused his mind and called. A shy cottontail rabbit appeared, unafraid, peering directly at the girl, swinging its small ears forward, taking small hops toward her.
"Be still; don't move. It wants to visit for a moment," Graydon whispered to her as she watched, wide-eyed, looking from the rabbit to Graydon and back. Ken watched. A grin twitched the corners of his mouth.
The rabbit moved in small hops, steadily and directly to her feet, and arriving there, sat up on its hind legs and peered directly up at her, its inquisitive nose twitching, ears standing straight up from its head. Its brilliant dark eyes sparkled and looked directly up at her in greeting, welcoming her. Marilee raised her hand to her mouth in a surprised gesture, suppressing a nervous giggle.
"Don't try to pick him up. Just smile and say 'hello,'" Graydon cautioned.
Marilee glanced at him, her eyes wide. She looked down: "Hello," she whispered.
The rabbit stretched up a little taller, twitched its tiny nose several times, waved its ears forward and back, then dashed away back to the grass verge.
"Oh!," she gasped.
"Be still a moment longer. I think you'll be surprised," Graydon said softly, barely above a murmur. Ken sat silently, his mouth now wide in a knowing smile. His eyes stayed on the girl, watching her reaction.
Graydon closed his eyes for a moment, focused on the small wild spirits he could sense around the borders of the house and in the covering growth along the pond's edge. In another moment the rabbit came hopping back, but it was not alone.
Marilee gasped, softly this time, in delighted surprise. There were two rabbits, then a third and a fourth and a fifth came hopping from several directions, some from the flower bed, some from the pond border, and a larger one from behind the woodshed, scattering the fussing Guinea hens as it hopped in a straight line to join the others.
"Oh, my. Oh! Look at them all," she whispered in amazed delight. A semi-circle of small gray bodies stood at her feet, each small animal upright on its back legs, ears pointing straight up, noses twitching and eyes brightly focused up at her. She looked down in joy, scarcely believing what she was seeing.
The first rabbit jumped up and sideways, right over the back of its companion, which instantly hopped the other way, over the back of another. In an instant, the small circle of rabbits was hopping and jumping and doing backflips, coming up to stand straight, front paws raised, ears forward, then each in turn doing a backflip and a jump.
Marilee sat stunned, her eyes and mouth gaping open, a blush of color flooding her cheeks. Graydon focused in grateful communion with his small friends, and Ken sat quietly, grinning. Helen stood behind the glass patio door with a steaming teapot and cups on a tray in her hands, watching and amazed at the wild circus on the grass around her niece's feet.
The cottontail brigade hopped among themselves for a moment longer, two of them actually running across Marilee's feet. They gathered themselves in a tight bunch, raised up to peer at her again, and then as quickly as they'd come, they scampered away across the lawn and disappeared in the sheltering cover at ponds edge.
Marilee sat astonished, her delighted eyes and mouth agape. "Oh... Oh, my... what, how...?" She was truly at a loss for words.
"Everyone likes you. We all wanted to welcome you to our valley. They wanted to say 'hello,' Graydon quietly explained to her. "Someone else is here, and would like to introduce herself."
At that moment a dusky mule deer and her twin fawns emerged from the birch thicket at the far end of the pond. The trio stepped delicately a few paces onto the grass and stopped, the doe peering intently towards Marilee with her fawns on each side. Marilee sat frozen, looking back. The two, the girl and the wild mother, seemed to exchange a silent message between them. They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment. No one moved or spoke; Helen stood transfixed behind the glass door.
The doe wheeled, her twins scampering behind her, and disappeared into the birches.
Marilee sat still, her face composed and thoughtful, her eyes steady on the thicket and her mouth set in a reassured line. Graydon and Ken were silent. Time passed, the warmth of the moment flooding around them.
"She said I am safe, there is nothing to fear. She said I am where I belong, among friends." Marilee smiled, her face relaxed, and a small tear rolled from her eye, down her cheek and dropped onto her hands clasped in her lap. For the first time since Graydon had met her, he sensed that the darkness burdening her spirit had lightened. He could see a few rays of joy shining through.