Cold terror

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"I didn't think it would work," Lou said, a touch of disgust in her voice that she was even trying to prove such a silly thing.

Standing on tiptoe, looking over her shoulder into the bowl where she was beating an egg, I agreed that it wasn't working.

We had been asked, "Didja know that if you beat an egg in one direction and then turn around and beat it in the other direction, it will go back to egg, yolk within the white?"

We fried the egg and ate it, putting a satisfactory end to that old wives' tale.

There were other "Didja knows?" Horse hairs left in creek water turned into little snakes? Snapping turtles, once they bite something they don't turn loose until it thunders? Tongues touched to ice-cold metal will stick to the metal? Some we had already disproved. Others awaited. The way we were knocking down old superstitions made us skeptical of things we hadn't proved for ourselves.

The day of our next experiment was super cold. The pump, barnyard watering trough, rivers, creeks and ponds were all frozen. Mama prepared us as best we could for the long, cold walk to school, seeing to it that coats, mufflers, caps, mittens, galoshes were all in place. At the doorway she kissed us goodbye and, as usual, gave us a Bible verse to memorize on our way.

We crossed the ice-covered swinging bridge and several footlogs without mishap, clambered up the steep banks of the railroad tracks. Here we stumbled over the ties we couldn't see because of the deep snow. However, the rail stood out, cold and sharp, clearly marking our path for this stretch of our way.

I saw Lou stumble and fall and started to help pick up her books and lunch box when I noticed she wasn't getting up. She was lying on her stomach, making funny sounding noises, feet kicking up and down backward as if in a temper tantrum. I bent down close to her face to better hear what she might be trying to say. Lou's tongue was stuck to the cold rail. Her astonished eyes rolled sideways and upward, pleading for help. "Oh, Lou," I muttered, "not this morning." I tried to pry her tongue loose with my finger and saw that my effort had left a little piece of bloody skin on the rail and Lou uttering louder and more fearful sounds.

I looked around distractedly. Was there anything except warmth that would release her tongue, or, like the rumored snapping turtle, did we have to wait for that? Certainly there wasn't anything warm about me. Even tears threatening to run down my cheeks seemed to freeze in place.

I knew we were about a mile away from any home where I might run to get help. Then, like a cold icicle being thrust through my skull, I realized we were at that place where each morning we had to get off the tracks to let the spur-line freight train pass. I thought to scream for help. Maybe someone was out somewhere near who could hear me, but panic had grabbed me by the throat. I heard myself whimpering and my weak call for help came out, "Oh, Mama, Mama."

Way up the tracks, around a bend, I heard the train whistle. I thought I could run back up the tracks, stand in the middle of the rails and wave my hands. That's the way folks got a trunk line train to stop, but I knew it took a long time for a train to stop once the engineer saw the flag person. I tried anyway, but terror had so weakened my legs, I could not get them to move except in some staggering, crazy circles. "Oh, Lou," I moaned. She had always been the one to lead us out of predicaments. Now, suddenly, I had been thrust into this role. I grabbed Lou's body and pulled mightily. Better no tongue than no head. She clung to the rail with both hands counteracting the strength of my pull and continued horrible sounds of pain.

I tried to think what Mama would do if she were there. I could see her standing in the doorway only a little while ago, waving goodbye. What was the verse she had given us to memorize? Slowly the words came to me, "God is a very present help in trouble."

I sat down beside Lou, put my hand on her shoulder and said in as calm a voice as I could, "All right, Lord. We're in trouble. Help."

The icicle in my head seemed to melt, letting my thoughts straighten out and run in logical order. I needed something warm to lay against Lou's tongue. I eye-inventoried all the surrounding frozen things and they came to rest on one of our lunch boxes. Was there anything still warm inside? I opened the box methodically as if I had lots of time. The sausage was cold. An orange rolled out and came to rest in front of me. Wrapped in its own skin, I thought, perhaps, it was not frozen. With cold-numbed fingers I tore it open. Juice squirted out. I put it down close to Lou's tongue and squeezed. As yet unseen, the train whistled again, more loudly. I mentally traced its approach. That whistle would be at the last crossing before it came around the bend into sight. I got the other orange and squeezed it into the same place. It worked! Maybe it was just the unfrozen wetness of it. Lou's tongue came away from the rail, bloody and bruised, but loose!

We somersaulted backward to hastily get off the tracks. The engineer who always waved and smiled at us in passing, sometimes even tossed a package of chewing gum, looked a bit puzzled seeing us there huddled in the snow. He released a little puff of the engine's steam as if he were going to stop, whereupon we laid back and made angel wings in the snow to indicate we were all right. We didn't want anyone to know what had just happened. He tweaked the train's whistle and went chugging on down the tracks.

"Well, that one is true," I said, as we got up, shook off the snow and continued our journey.

"It sure is," Lou managed to say with her impaired tongue, "But I didn't mean to try it this morning. I just fell and my mouth was open."

"No, I meant about the Lord being a very present help in time of trouble."

"Oh, I didn't know we were going to test that," Lou said.

"Neither did I," I replied, feeling a soft glow of warmth inside.


Jean Bell Mosley was a longtime columnist for the Southeast Missourian as well as a widely published author.

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