The Twilight Girl appeared the summer I was nine. I called her that because I saw her only in that breathless time between sunset and full dark.
We lived on the outskirts of town; only a cornfield stood between us and Raccoon Creek. “Ruthann, you stay away from that creek, you hear?” my parents cautioned.
I nodded solemnly, but my friends and I spent many stolen hours dabbling in the shallow silver waters, trying to float homemade rafts and catch the minnows that darted through the pools. Crawdads lived in holes in the mud, nipping toes that got too close. Sometimes an otter flipped down the bank and streaked through the water like an imp escaping Hell.
We weren’t afraid of anything back then, except snakes. Copperheads thrived in the damp undergrowth, and you never knew when you might stumble across one. No one I knew had ever seen the mottled copper and chestnut brown snake. We’d only heard stories, passed down from our grandparents, about a little boy, or sometimes a little girl, depending on who was telling the tale, who’d stumbled and fallen face-first onto a copperhead back in the ’20s. When his folks found the body, it was swelled up so bad they could hardly tell it was their child. My folks told me that story again and again, warning me to stay away from the creek or die. I half believed them.
One evening the Davises came over to play bridge with Mom and Dad. The only good thing that ever came out of that game, as far as I was concerned, was the leftover mixed nuts and chocolate-covered raisins that I sneaked downstairs to eat before breakfast the next morning. As I munched, the stale smell of ashtrays filled with Camel butts reminded me of old, wet ashes. I moved the glasses half-filled with melted ice around the card table, making designs with overlapping wet circles. I fingered the cards as I chewed, feeling like a lady instead of a tomboy.
On this particular night, my folks and the Davises were so intent on the game and the latest gossip that I knew they’d never miss me, so I slipped out into the summer evening, to the cornfield.
I pushed through the stalks, the scratchy green swords scraping my legs and arms as I wove in and out. I was breathless by the time I reached the far edge of the field, where a dirt levee loomed fifteen feet above the corn. During floods the creek lapped at the top of the berm, but so far had never spilled into town. I sat down on the narrow path that ran along the top and looked out over the countryside. Our house nestled in its little grove of elms and maples; the roof of Patty Frazier’s house peeked through the trees near the park. Patty was my sometimes best friend, but she and her family were vacationing in California. Otherwise I would have brought her along on the adventure.
I scrambled down the other side of the levee, following the trail that generations of feet had worn in the sweet clover and cheatgrass. No wind stirred the woods between the levee and the creek. Dusk gathered under the old trees. I passed through a cold spot on my way to the water and I shivered. Dad said that dew settling or air currents caused them, but my friends and I knew that such spots were places where spirits could break through from the other side. I’d never seen a spirit, but I was always careful to chant, “Angel bright, life and death, get off the path, don’t suck my breath” whenever I passed through one. Maybe that’s why I’d never seen a spook.
I had just slipped off my sandals, ready to wade into the creek, when I saw the Twilight Girl. She appeared to be about my age, a little shorter, her light hair flowing down her back. I envied her hair. I wanted long hair but my dark curls blew in my face and tangled when they got too long. In summer, my hair was misery, so Mom cut it short.
“Hey,” I said.
She didn’t answer, just looked at me for a moment. Then she crouched down by the water and trailed a stick through the current, letting the water flow around it in a V. I shrugged. If she didn’t want to be friends, I didn’t care. At least that’s what I told myself. I caught her looking at me and tried again.
“What’s your name?”
She touched her lips and shook her head. I figured out that that was her way of telling me that she couldn’t talk. I felt sorry for her and decided that I’d keep on talking, even though she couldn’t. Maybe nobody ever talked to her because she couldn’t talk back.
“My name’s Ruthann. This is my favorite place,” I said. “My folks don’t want me to come here, but they’re busy tonight, too busy to worry about me. As long as I’m home by dark.”
She looked at me and nodded.
“You come here a lot?”
She stirred the water and stood up. She gave me a long, sad look and turned to go.
The shadows had deepened. Lightning bugs flared like tiny lanterns among the trees. I realized full dark was almost here.
“See you later,” I called to the girl as she moved deeper into the trees. She waved a pale hand and vanished. I blinked. A chill touched me, and I scrambled through the ferns and bushes, intent on escaping from the night.
By the time I got home, I was panting and sweaty. Through the living room window I could see that the card game was still going on. I knew that if I went in now, Mom would shoo me to the bathtub, so I lay down on the porch swing and stirred it with one foot, thinking about the girl at the creek. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask her, but if she couldn’t talk, I’d never get answers. I decided to take a pencil and paper the next time. Maybe she could write her answers.
Mom’s voice interrupted my musings. “Ruthann! Time for your bath!” I straggled inside to endure the nightly torture.
I didn’t see the Twilight Girl again until two weeks later. I sneaked away while Mom and Dad watched summer reruns of the Ed Sullivan show. I never could understand why someone would watch a TV show more than once, especially one as boring as Ed Sullivan. It would be a few years until the Beatles and my hormones would coincide.
The Twilight Girl was waiting as I reached the top of the levee. The sun had just set, and lavender and gold spread in clouds across the evening sky. “Hi,” I gasped, flopping down on the flat top of the embankment.
She nodded and smiled, a wistful smile, like she was glad I’d come back and sad that she couldn’t talk to me. I took a nub of pencil and a scrap of paper out of my shorts pocket and held them out. “Can you write?”
Her hand crept toward them. Then she jerked it back, shaking her head. I wondered why she lied. Before I could question her, she drifted away from me along the levee crest. I know that sounds weird, but she moved so quietly and carefully that I couldn’t tell if her feet even touched the ground.
“Hey! I’m going to the creek,” I called after her. “Wanna come?”
She turned. Her eyebrows drew together and her mouth turned down. She motioned me to come with her. Stubbornness kept me rooted where I was. She could fib and act mysterious all she wanted to. I was going to the creek. I stood up and started down the levee toward the woods. There was still enough light in the sky to see the trail clearly.
Suddenly she was on the path in front of me. I hadn’t heard her run through the weeds and brush. Her face looked awful, frightened and miserable. She spread her arms out, blocking my way.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. She put a finger to her lips. I held my breath, listening. She pointed to the vines that twined around the base of the oak next to the path. I squinted through the dusk, trying to see what she warned me about. Then I saw the hour-glass shapes scattered along a thick, scaled tube. I screamed and took a step back. The snake raised its triangular head and seemed to glare at me.
I spun around and darted back up the path. I don’t remember reaching the levee or fighting my way through the obstructive corn stalks. I came to myself as I thudded up the front steps onto the porch and flung myself through the screen door.
“Ruthann! What on earth’s the matter?” Dad jumped up from the couch. Laughter blared from the TV. I collapsed in his arms, weeping.
I never did tell my folks exactly what had happened. By the time I’d calmed down, I realized I’d be grounded for life if they found out I’d encountered a copperhead. “A big dog chased me all the way home from Patty’s house,” I sobbed.
From then on, when the other kids nagged me to go to the creek, I told them I had to take a library book back or clean out my closet or some other story. The snake was scary enough but the more I thought about the Twilight Girl, the more I began to wonder if she was real. Or had she been one of those spirits whom I tried to magic away with my chant?
The older I got, the more things there were to keep me from the creek. Drill team practice, dates, mountains of homework. They all conspired to move me beyond the place where I’d met danger and the supernatural.
I took one last trip to the creek, just before I went away to college. It was a warm evening in early September. The sun drifted toward the horizon, wreathed with pink and purple thunderheads as I climbed up the levee and paused at the top. The corn ears hung heavy and full on the thick stalks; the forest caught the last golden rays of sunset in its branches. Hints of autumn touched the woodbine with maroon as I followed the path toward the water
The warm air swayed around me, driven by an errant breeze. Then a cooler wisp enveloped me. Under my breath I chanted the old charm: “Angel bright, life and death…” I looked up from the path and saw her, the Twilight Girl. She was still nine, still slender, still sad. Her eyes met mine; I stopped dead. We looked at each other for a long, long moment. Then a smile touched her lips. She raised a hand, the fingers bent in a child’s farewell wave. I lifted my hand. We reached toward each other, communion in our grasp. But my fingers passed through hers. She shivered and pulled back.
“Goodbye, little girl,” I whispered. She nodded and turned away. I watched her thin and vanish into the shadows.