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Beyond the River's Bend
A fog thick as pea soup hung low in the air and the stench of death clung to the village like a sticky web. Everywhere you turned there where the ghastly reminders of dreadful, endless suffering. The town square was falling apart, weeds sprouting up between the cracks in the barren streets. The small, identical cottages’ windows were mostly boarded up, their lawns almost miniature forests themselves.
Anyone who would have come to visit the village probably would have taken it for abandoned, not that anyone ever came. It was likely that no one on the face of the globe, except for those who lived there, even knew the town existed.
Living on the verge of poverty was anything but simple. To make matters worse, the influenza was spreading fast as the blink of an eye.
Mia Codden gathered the remaining healing herbs from their once lively garden and prepared to return to her family’s disease-filled cottage. They had both gotten the flu only days before, and were becoming sicker by the minute. It was a miracle that Mia had managed to not catch the virus herself, being in close contact with it almost all the time.
“Sweetheart, please run over to Dr. Mangle’s and ask her if she discovered any new treatments,” Mrs. Codden requested, her voice rough as the sandpaper from Mia’s father’s woodshop, “I don’t think I can stand to drink anymore of this dreadful stuff.” She grimaced, wrinkling her nose at the empty cup beside her.
“Yes, Mother,” she replied, grateful to escape. Once outside, Mia inhaled a deep breath of the crisp mountain air.
Living but a mile from the great Ozark Mountains gave Mia’s village not only a breath- taking view, but also the privilege of fresh, cool air and water. Mia strode down the small hill that brushed the property around her home. Absently, she picked up smooth, round pebbles and tossed them into the beautiful rushing river before her.
Her village had once been quite a sight; full to the brim with friendly people and glorious shops. Mia could picture those glorious days as if they had occurred only a moment ago…
“But those days have long passed,” Mia whispered, snapping back into the reality of the situation. She tossed one last stone and watched it until it entered the river with a satisfying plunk.
Mia trudged back up the slope and to the hauntingly silent streets. She arrived shortly at the Mangle’s cottage just as the sky turned a threatening black.
“Just what we need,” she mumbled, “more rain to spread this horrid virus faster.” Mia shuffled around to the rear of the cottage to find that the door was ajar, revealing the flickering candle light from inside. Hushed voices drew her nearer. Tiptoeing closer, Mia strained her ears to make out what they were saying.
“I can’t bear to live this way forever, Scott.” Dr. Mangle sounded close to tears as she spoke to her eldest son.
After her husband died last year, a new widow, Dr. Mangle studied long and hard to become a doctor and support her four children alone. With all the recent illness, she and the other village doctor, Mr. Roberto, were pushed to the limit. When they weren’t making medicines, they were tending to the sick or reporting to the regular demands of their own families. Mia felt awful for them. If only there was a way she could help. Then again, how much help can a plain young girl be? Besides, Mia had the health of her parents to concern herself with.
“I totally agree,” answered Scott, “and I think that we should do something about it.” His usually playful eyes were filled with determination; his bravado blanketing the fear in his voice.
At that moment a gust of powerful wind burst into the cottage through the open door and it shut with a loud slam. Mia quickly reopened it and darted back outside, embarrassed for eavesdropping. She sprinted home, reaching her door as the clouds erupted and rain drenched the village.
“Mother! Father! I’m so sorry! There were no new medicines.” She hated lying to her parents; it caused a huge knot of guilt to form in her stomach.
“I’ll go back and check again in the morning, once this hurricane of a storm has passed.” Mia added, truthfully. The knot did not loosen. The walls of the cottage rattled as the storm howled outside.
As a dull light broke through their cottage window, Mia quietly stirred. She rose to her feet and swept gracefully across her small room to gather her sketchpad and pencil. Both were quite rare and Mia’s most prized possessions. Grabbing her dusty overcoat, Mia hurried outside to squeeze in a few sketches before her parents woke. Beads of dew clung to the leaves of the great willow, and the waterfall from the Buffalo National River sung its usual roaring welcome.
Mia settled at the foot of a pine tree and let her eyes swallow up the scene. Then, turning to a clean page of her notebook, Mia began to draw. The pencil navigated its way across the page, as if it had a mind of its own.
“MIA!” Her mother’s urgent and fearful voice rang through the trees. Jumping to her feet, she sprinted to her mother’s aid. Not even the worst could have prepared her for what she saw before her.
Her father’s pale skin was abnormal for him. “Daddy?” she whispered softly. There was no reply. Mia tried again.
“It’s no use. He’s gone.” Crystal like tears streamed down her mother’s pale face.
“It’s not possible. He can’t be dead. Maybe he’s just too weak to speak. I’ll run to Dr. Mangle’s to retrieve some pills or something. We’ll worry about paying for them later. That should help him.” Mia denied the possibility that her father had passed on. Wasn’t it just last week that she had walked with him through the pine forest to gather firewood?
Mia stepped outside, and for the first time that day, she noticed the pungent smell of pine needles and river water. Quickly, she took the path to Dr. Mangle’s cottage. Mia raced to their door and knocked loudly. Dr. Mangle handed her a week’s worth of pills that she had just finished making. Thanking her, Mia ran home, determined to heal her mother before she met the same fate as Mr. Codden; before it was too late.
Mia burst through the door, taking her grief-stricken mother by surprise. Quickly, she shoved the pills at her. All of the memories that Mia had of her father poured into her mind, like a stream with a broken dam. Crumbling to her knees, she wailed, desperately trying to escape the pain that now suffocated her body.
“It’s not fair!” screamed Mia, furious with the world and more importantly, God, “How could God have let this happen?” Her temper smoldered, ready to flare up again at any second, like the hot remains of a fire, waiting for more wood.
“Life is not always fair, Mia, but we must remain faithful that God has a plan for us,” replied Mrs. Codden weakly.
“We should gather the town tomorrow, and hold a funeral,” her mother continued, reaching up to blot Mia’s puffy eyes. Mia nodded sullenly. Tucking a blanket over her father, Mia stalked off to bed. It was not until her head touched the pillow that Mia realized she was exhausted beyond measure. Immediately, she fell into a fitful, restless sleep.
The morning arrived in the blink of an eye, and Mia reluctantly woke. The day of her father’s funeral had dawned muggy and overcast. Mia groaned, wishing that she could escape from this nightmare to find her parents well and alive and everything back to normal. She dragged her feet to the kitchen where she warmed some bland porridge.
“Morning, Mother!” she called when her mother stirred. Her voice sounded much more cheery than she felt. Taking a small bite of the cereal, Mia inspected her mother’s appearance. She looked much healthier than the days before, despite what seemed like permanent purple bags under her beautiful hazel eyes.
After clearing her place, Mia left for her room to dress. Heaving a great sigh of dread, she dug in her chest of clothes for the plain, black dress that she had worn to Walter Mangle’s funeral last month. Quickly slipping it over her head, Mia left the room to start telling the town of the funeral to be held that afternoon.
“I killed him. By not getting the medicine in time, I killed him,” resounded over and over. By the end of the funeral, Mia was so upset that she could not say one word; only hiccup and sob. Tearing through the crowd, she sprinted to the pine forest and flung herself against the needle-covered ground.
Mia lay there for hours, bawling until no more tears would come, absorbed in her own depressed thoughts. She had eavesdropped, lied, and even killed her father! Mia could only see how awful things were until a small voice inside her said, clear and confidant, “No.”
It was at that moment that Mia knew what she must do. She would apologize, and if all went well, save her village. Anxiously, she sped back to town to share her plan, hope a new in her heart.
“…And so Dr. Mangle I’m really sorry I eavesdropped, but I think that I might have a way to help you.” Mia confided to Dr. Mangle minutes later, “You see, ever since the Flu hit our town, everything’s been falling apart. No one can work, and kids can’t go to school, so there’s really nothing left for us here.”
“Are you suggesting that we leave, Mia?” Dr. Mangle raised her eyebrows.
“Well… sort of. Yes. I think that we should take some of the healthy village children and adults to hike along the river in search of another town. There, we can ask for another doctor to come to our village and help us. Who knows, we’ve been isolated in our town for so long, that there might even be a cure for the Flu somewhere else!” Mia grinned, pleased to have thought of such an excellent plan.
“How do you know that there will be another town along the river?” questioned Scott, skeptically, who had just joined them around the Mangle’s oak dining table.
“The river is the only source of water in the Ozarks for miles; it only makes sense that there would be another mountain village along it. I mean, look at us; we depend on the river for water.”
“She has a good point, Scott,” his mother commented, “and I think that you have thought the idea through very well Mia. I’ll help in any way I can. Now, when to leave? Shall we say a week and a half then?”
Mia’s mother’s recovery over the next week was as miraculous as the suddenly frigid air. Winter was approaching fast; signs of the long months to come were everywhere, including that the scarlet leaves dropped from the trees faster than you could say ‘November.’
“Brrr… Can you believe how could it got?” asked Mia, briskly rubbing her hands together as she and Ryan Mangle, Dr. Mangle’s thirteen-year-old son, boiled and bottled river water for their journey to take place in just four days.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing you’re such an experienced fire-builder, Mia,” Ryan complemented shyly.
Mia blushed profusely, but managed to stutter, “My…My Father taught me when I was but a small girl.” A cold prickle danced up her back. Mia was quite sure that it had nothing to do with the freezing weather.
“So you’re thirteen now, too, right?” inquired Ryan politely.
“Um…yes,” Mia stuttered, observing that Ryan’s eyes were the same shade of blue as the river.
“Ryan…Mia… Dinner!” called Mrs. Codden in a singsong tone from up the hill, cutting the awkward conversation short. Sighing, the pair gathered their work and trudged up the riverbank. Piling the bottles of water on the ground, she joined Scott and Ryan at their table with the other Mangle boys, Tommy and James. As she waited, Mia admired the wool sweaters that Dr. Mangle and her mother had been knitting for the travelers earlier that day.
Happy chatter erupted when the meal was served. Anxious voices discussed the adventure planned. Just as everyone was finishing, there was a loud rap on the front door.
“Come in!” cried Mia’s mother cheerfully. Obeying, the door swung open and the Frowder family trounced in. They would be joining them on the coming journey.
“We brought you a pumpkin pie!” exclaimed Nina, their youngest daughter. She raced over to Mia and set it on the table.
“Why don’t you stay for a cup of tea as we cut your delicious-looking pie,” offered Dr. Mangle.
For the rest of the night, the three families discussed the details of the trip, sipping on tea and munching on the exquisite pumpkin pie.
“Are you sure we have everything?” Mia questioned her mother for the thousandth time. “Water… Salted meat… Grains for porridge… Potatoes…First aid kit… Blankets… Sweaters…?”
“It’s all here, honey,” answered her mother calmly.
As Mia observed her surroundings, she noted that all of the traveling families were present, including Mr. Edwards. “I think everyone’s here,” she whispered to Dr. Mangle.
“Alright! If I could have everyone’s attention please!” shouted Dr. Mangle. “We are just about ready to leave” A cheer erupted from the crowd as they set off, following the river.
The group traveled until their feet ached and they tired to the bone. All was silent later that day when they stopped for the night. The light was fading fast and campfire would have to be made quickly. The children trooped off into the spiny brush to gather kindling, while the strong young boys and men grabbed their axes to bring down a tree.
By the time the moon shone bright, everyone was huddled around a glowing bonfire, watching the steak and potatoes be fried. Every so often the fire would let out a raging burst of sparks.
“Mother?” whispered Mia after everyone had curled up with warm blankets and full stomachs to turn in for the night.
“Yes, sweetheart?” her mother answered in a hushed voice.
“On the night that Father died, when I told you there were no new medicines, I lied. I never got to ask Dr. Mangle; some things came up, like the storm and all. I’m really sorry.”
“That’s alright, Mia. We all make mistakes.”
“Do you believe that we will really find another town along the river?” Mia asked hopefully.
“I do. Now say your prayers and go to sleep, Mia. We have a long day of hiking again tomorrow.” Mia silently thanked God for healing her mother, and then drifted off into a deep sleep.
“Mia! Mia! Wake up!” Mia opened her eyes to find Nina staring down at her.
“Good Morning, Nina!” Mia smiled and stood up to stretch.
“You missed it earlier this morning! A huge Black Bear was trying to steal our food, but I chased him away!” Nina jumped up and down, her fists flailing. Mia laughed, grateful that they had tied their food up in a tree last night.
“That’s not really what happened!” exclaimed Wendy, striding over to Mia and Nina. “You were so scared that you hid under all the blankets!”
“I did not!” shrieked Nina sticking out her bottom lip in a pout.
“You did. And you only came out after the bear got frustrated and left!” finished Wendy, laughing so hard that tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“Sounds like I missed quite a party! Come on you two, let’s see what’s for breakfast,” Mia yawned, taking both of their hands, and for the first time since her father’s death, Mia laughed. Laughing made her feel as if the weight of the world had been lifted off her shoulders, and more importantly, it made Mia happy. Maybe things would be alright after all.