Crossing Guard

by Elizabeth Creith


I was crying by the side of the road when the donkey-cart pulled up  beside me. It was the sweet, equine smell that made me look up. Is there a  nine-year-old girl alive who doesn't love a horse, or anything like a  horse? In my mind I replaced the drab harness with gilded leather and silver buckles and planted an iridescent horn on the shaggy brow. Over the red-painted wheel, an old woman peered down at me.

"My dear child, whyever are you crying?" She sounded like a lady and looked like a wandering tinker. Three ragged skirts, layered one over another, barely covered her shins. Her blouse had once been royal blue, and someone with a bizarre notion of style had basted two mismatched  
antimacassars across the shoulders.

"I can't go home," I snuffled, "My Da will beat me 'cause I di'n't make dinner."

"Well, I never," she said, all indignation, "A little thing like you to have to put up with that. I've a mind to have a word with your father."

"Oh, no, missus, please!" I begged. I sniffed and smeared the back of my hand across my eyes. "He's on'y like this when he's been drinkin', and he's awful when someone turns up uninvited, truly he is. He'll pass out in  
a bit, an' I'll be all right."

"Nonsense!" Her tone said her mind was made up. "Hop up here, girl. I'll  take you home and have a word."

I took the bony hand she reached down to me and scrambled over the wheel and onto the seat of the cart. Close up, she smelled clean and warm, with a hint of some sweet spice in her clothes.

"We're just on th'other side, there," I pointed across the river. She clucked to the donkey and the cart jerked into motion. As we crossed the bridge, the donkey's hoofs clopped hollowly.

"You, know, my dear," said the old woman, "There are places for young  things like you to go if your people don't take care of you. You have some choice, you know, and you needn't stay with your family if -"

Her sentence ended in a short, wordless shriek as my father, the troll, snatched her over the side of the bridge with an impossibly long, hairy arm. There was a brief crunching sound.

"I don't have a choice," I said softly. I got down from the cart and went to the donkey's head to soothe and pet him.

Maybe, I thought, Da would let me keep the donkey for a while.

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