Miss Plackie and Naomi had invested a fair amount of thought and time into planning the picnic supper but, as mentioned, it had gotten dark sooner than expected so Miss Plackie agreed to let the men escape to the river to fish for a while before supper.
“Don’t stay out all night,” she admonished Axel. “Bring our guest back in an hour—no later—so we can all have supper together as planned. Okay?” Axel promised they would only fish an hour.
At the river, Axel followed his normal routine of preparing to fish, except he set up two fishing rigs instead of one. He gave his newer pole to Hunter and took the old one for himself because he was used to its quirks. The newer rig was easier to use, though Axel had caught several thousand fish with the old rig over the years. But he figured Hunter would do better with the newer pole and reel.
Axel asked Hunter if he was familiar with the type of setup he had given him and was he able to cast with it; Hunter said yes, he was familiar with this type of reel and it would do just fine. But to make sure, Axel showed Hunter a sidearm cast which he said would eliminate snares in weeds and overhanging branches and allow Hunter to drop the bobber into the holes with better control. Axel had Hunter practice the cast and realized from Hunter’s form that he was no novice; apparently, he had done more fishing than he’d let on.
Axel also showed Hunter his normal way of threading a worm onto the hook by baiting both of their hooks, and showed him also where to set the bobber. At last, it was time to begin.
“So you see the head of that rock, there, poking above the surface?” Axel pointed at the rock with the tip of his fishing pole. It appeared as only a weak shimmer above the surface of the river in the dim lantern light.
“Yes,” said Hunter.
“Well, from the back of that rock all the way down to about there,” again Axel indicated with the tip of his pole, “that’s one of my favorite holes, and most productive. They’re just waiting in there for you to catch them. I’m going to fish another hole upstream a little ways. And if I happen to spook any fish, they will run your way and settle down here. After we fish these out, and if we still have time, we’ll head further upstream: there are plenty more holes on this stretch of river.”
“Sounds great,” said Hunter.
“I hope you can forgive an old fisherman his superstitions, but I always say a little prayer before I begin,” said Axel.
“I’ve never known a fisherman or a ball player who wasn’t superstitious. So please, do keep your routine. I for one could use the luck,” said Hunter.
“Well, first thing I do is give the fish an offering. Three or four nice worms is enough.”
Axel gathered three wriggling worms from the bait box and tossed them into the hole where Hunter was going to fish.
“Enjoy these, my friends,” he said, addressing the fish as he tossed them in, “they’re free, no strings attached.”
He took an equal number and tossed them farther out, into the middle of the river where he himself planned to fish.
“I only do this at the beginning,” explained Axel, “not everywhere I go. If I did, we’d run out of worms before midnight and would have to go home. And the fish would learn to only go for the freebies.”
Hunter chuckled. Then Axel turned, facing the river, and looked at the stars and stood silently searching the heavens for a minute, as if looking for God, before beginning his prayer.
“With humility we come, oh Gentle Father,” he said quietly, “and ask that you bless this night. Let our catch equal our bellies. Thank you, Good Fish, in advance for your sacrifice. Thank you, Wise River, for your provision for the fish and all other living creatures, those who depend on you, including us humans. And thank you, Heaven, for your love that enlivens us. Have mercy and guide our feet on the right path—Amen.
“And now—Fish beware! The worms have hooks and we are hungry men,” declared Axel. “Okay, that’s it. I’ve warned them so they have no excuses,” said Axel. “You should take a couple of nice ones from this hole here in no time. Good luck, my friend. I’ll be right over there should you need anything and I’ll leave the worm here: I’ve got a couple extra in my pocket.”
Then Axel took his pole and walked some fifty feet upstream from Hunter where he began casting far out into a restless pool that rolled beneath the branches of an ancient tree which stood on the opposite bank.
In about fifteen minutes Axel had caught three fish. Hunter had caught nothing. Axel returned to his partner to see how he had done.
“How’s it going?” Axel asked.
“Not so well,” said Hunter.
“Let’s see here,” said Axel as he checked Hunter’s rig.
“Looks okay. Worm’s all right.”
With Hunter’s rig Axel cast into the hole, the worm landing just behind the rock. The tip of the pole immediately jerked downward and the drag sang.
“Oops! Looks like you’ve got one. Here, you reel him in,” said Axel, handing Hunter the pole.
“Wow! Feels big!” said Hunter.
“Probably a bass,” said Axel. “They fight bigger than they are, but that one does feel pretty good.”
With a bit of coaching from Axel, Hunter landed a large bass: a close to three-and-a-half-pounder by Axel’s estimation.
“Haven’t caught one that big in a while,” said Axel, admiring the fish. “Say, are you hungry?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m starved,” said Hunter.
Axel produced two bologna sandwiches from his pockets and gave one to Hunter. After finding boulders to sit on, Axel muttered a quick prayer of thanks for the food, then both men began bolting their sandwiches. They did not converse while eating. After finishing his sandwich, Axel excused himself and slipped back into camp where he found the women holed-up in the tent, chatting happily. Without disturbing them, he looted cans of iced soda from the cooler, snagged a bag of potato chips, and restocked his pockets with sandwiches. Back at the river, Axel offered Hunter another sandwich, chips, and a soda which his hungry companion gladly accepted.
“I suppose you remember me from the bridge the night I almost jumped off?” said Hunter as they popped opened a soda.
“I remember,” said Axel.
“I’m truly sorry for all of the trouble I caused that night.”
“It was no trouble to me.”
“Well, I still feel ashamed of myself.”
The stars blazed in the moonless sky as the men sipped their beverages and stared out at the river.
“I have to confess something,” said Hunter.
Axel turned a stoic expression on his friend.
“In my experience,” said Axel, “confessions do the most good when left unsaid.”
“I know. But this is something I can’t not tell you—more for my own sake than yours, really.”
“Well, then, do your worst,” said Axel.
Hunter took a deep breath.
“I have to tell you—I’m the sonofabitch who ran over your dog and killed him,” Hunter confessed. “And I’m ashamed of myself, too, for not stopping to see if you were all right or if I could assist you or your dog in some way. I made the connection of who you were the first time we met, on the bridge, and should have told you then what I’m telling you now. But I didn’t because I’m a coward. But now, it seems that to not tell you would only perpetuate a lie and make me feel more ashamed of myself. Axel, I’m truly sorry I killed your friend and didn’t stop to offer help.”
Axel said nothing so Hunter continued.
“I think about that night all the time. It was the same night I drowned in the swimming pool. It was the night my whole life changed. I don’t expect you to forgive me and I wouldn’t blame you if you told me to ‘get the hell out of here,’ which I’m prepared to do. And I’m sorry if confessing this now causes you more pain by having to think about it again; that wasn’t my intention. You’re a good man and I just can’t hide behind the lie any longer. What I did was unforgivable. But if you can, please, do forgive me.” Hunter offered his hand, hoping Axel would accept his apology.
Axel shook Hunter’s hand.
“It’s not unforgivable,” said Axel. “And it was probably a smart decision not to stop after hitting Dixie because I would have probably broken your nose, given the chance.” Axel laughed. “But that wouldn’t have done Dixie any good and, even if you had stopped, you couldn’t have helped her.” Axel looked Hunter in the eye. “I do forgive you and I know Dixie would, too. So don’t worry yourself about it anymore. I sincerely mean that.”
“Your dog’s name was Dixie?” Hunter asked.
“Yep, she was a true-blue friend. I think she was actually trying to protect me from getting hit when she ran in front of the vehicle. I think she leaped to push me out of the way. But without having her feet on the ground, she couldn’t switch directions in time when the car swerved back the other way and caught her midair. But she died quickly and that was good; she only suffered a little. So again, don’t worry about Dixie; she’s all right, now. She came back to tell me that very thing, too. That’s how I know it’s true.”
“You’re saying she appeared to you after she died?” said Hunter.
“Yes,” said Axel pensively, “about a month after. I was on my way home from fishing one morning; it hadn’t been a good night, only caught one fish. Anyway, it happened on the dirt road, north of the tracks, where the road turns west. The sun had just come up. And its rays were dusty gold as they are sometimes. They lit up the landscape brightly and threw my shadow, down the road, stretched out ahead of me.
“I was just walking, kind of staring at my toes, when suddenly I heard her bark, up the road ahead. I recognized her voice immediately. So I looked up and saw her, oh, I’d say about thirty yards ahead. She was turning circles and dancing in the road, excited about something. It was Dixie all right; I knew it was her, just as sure as I’m talking to you.
“So I whistled at her and she stopped for a minute, like she wanted me to catch up, all the while wagging her tail to beat the band. Then she barked a couple of times, telling me: ’hurry up, old man.’ She danced around some more until she couldn’t contain her excitement any longer.”
Axel’s voice broke with emotion.
“Then she ran into the tall grass beside the road, trailing whatever it was she was chasing. I ran down the road, calling her, and found the place where the weeds parted and she’d gone in. But that was it. That was the last I saw her.”
Axel paused, smiling to himself, rehearsing the scene in his mind.
“I know she came back for my sake, to tell me not to worry; I know that’s what she did. She wanted me to know she was having fun and doing her thing in the place where she’d gone. So—I’ll tell you the same thing: Dixie’s okay; you shouldn’t worry about her. But knowing it doesn’t stop me from missing her. She was true-blue.”
“I’m so sorry, man,” said Hunter. “I wish there was something more I could say or do.”
“What’s there to say? It was her time. I’ll see her again one of these days. And you know something?”
“What’s that?” asked Hunter.
“I believe your confession really did help. Damn, if I don’t feel better. Thank you,” said Axel.
Then from the campsite—
“Aaa!” “Aah!” “Aaaa!” “Aa!” “Help!”
A series of short, emphatic screams erupted.
“What on earth?” exclaimed Axel.
Instinctively, he threw down his fishing pole, grabbed the lantern, and loped up to camp where the women were. Hunter followed. In the camp, Axel frantically searched the grounds, expecting to find a raccoon, perhaps, or a skunk or possibly even a rat robbing foodstuffs and menacing the women. He knew it wouldn’t be a snake because they were all in hibernation. But he found nothing in the camp, not even the women. All he saw was the campfire which had burned down considerably. Everything else was exactly were it had been before, undisturbed, except the women were missing.
“It’s Axel! Where are you?” he shouted.
The tent was dark and silent and zipped up tight. But then, a flashlight suddenly lit up its insides and Axel could make out a considerable amount of movement in the tent.
“We’re in the tent. Oh, thank god!” It was Miss Plackie’s voice. “We thought you guys were probably a mile away.”
“What’s wrong?” said Axel.
“There’s something out there,” she answered.
“What is it? A raccoon?”
“No! Something worse!”
There followed a pregnant pause.
“Well?” said Axel impatiently. “You’ll have to give me more than that.”
“It was a ghost,” said Naomi.
“It looked like a ghost,” added Miss Plackie. “It was a person—a woman in a dress. But she was lit up; kind of blue color.”
“Axel?” whispered Hunter who, at the same time, tugged at his sleeve. “What’s that over there?”
He pointed into the woods.
Yes, there she was, visible and glowing like a hologram: the Blue Lady of Painters Point.
“Yes, I see her. It’s the Blue Lady,” said Axel, loudly enough for the women to hear.
“Is she a ghost?” asked Miss Plackie, still zipped inside the tent.
“Yes, a ghost or spirit. But it’s okay; she won’t hurt us. I’ve seen her here before, many times. She’ll mind her own business. She doesn’t even know we’re here.”
“No, no! Don’t go out there!” protested Miss Plackie.
Naomi excitedly unzipped the tent’s entrance and let herself out.
“I want to see her,” said Naomi as she emerged from the tent, ran to Axel, and clutched his arm for protection. “Where is she?” she whispered. Axel pointed.
Miss Plackie quickly zipped up the tent again.
“Is she still here?” Miss Plackie called in a frightened voice.
“Yes, and she’s beautiful,” answered Naomi.
The Blue Lady was only fifteen yards from where Axel, Naomi, and Hunter stood. Age-wise she looked to be in her mid-thirties. She wore a flowing dress of light fabric that fell to her mid-calves. It was impossible, however, to make out the colors of the dress’s floral pattern because the Blue Lady glowed, all over, with a pale-blue light. She also wore a short, angora sweater which appeared powder blue in color but, of course, could have been pastel pink or green instead.
She showed no awareness of the cold air surrounding her and was barefoot. Her hair was loose and long, combed but not styled, and held back from her comely forehead on one side with a comb. On one arm she carried a large basket and was, in fact, searching the forest floor for twigs. Those she found she placed in the basket.
“What’s she doing?” whispered Naomi.
“Gathering tinder, it looks like,” said Axel.
“I’ve heard stories about her,” said Naomi, “at school. But I’ve never believed them. Some people at school who party out here claim they’ve seen her naked, touched her, even.”
“We shouldn’t bother her. It’s best not to interfere in her world,” said Axel.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that if she looks at you, you’ll die within one year,” said Naomi.
“That’s an old wives’ tale,” said Axel. “Besides, she probably doesn’t even know we exist. But I need to add some wood to the fire before it burns down too far.”
“Maybe you should wait till she leaves,” suggested Naomi.
“It’s okay,” said Axel, “she’s oblivious to us.”
Axel replenished the fire with wood and stirred it up so that it blazed. For the time it took to restore the fire, Axel had his back to the Blue Lady and could not see her. But Naomi and Hunter continued watching the silent apparition from near the tent as she moved about, stooping now and then to collect twigs.
Axel viewed the fire with satisfaction as it sprang back to life with renewed radiance and warmth and spat sparks into the cold night air. He decided to throw one extra pinewood bough onto the exuberant fire. And when he did, the pitchy bough caught fire immediately and burst into rapid popping as if Axel had thrown a wallet of firecrackers into the flames.
Somehow this attracted the attention of the Blue Lady. She turned and looked at Axel and the roaring fire, though Axel himself did not see this because he was looking at the fire and not at the ghost. But Naomi saw what happened and gasped in surprise and horror. And although legend was unspecific about whether or not the person being looked at by the Blue Lady had to make eye contact with her to induce the fatal curse, Naomi still shuddered with fear. The fact alone that the Blue Lady stopped and looked directly at Axel was enough to pain Naomi with anxiety that Axel might have received a death sentence.
“She looked at Axel. She looked at Axel,” whispered Naomi to Hunter. “He might die! Oh my god!”
But it was only that one glance and immediately afterward the lovely apparition turned and floated obliviously into the woods and undergrowth. Naomi shivered with fear and foreboding about Axel’s future which Hunter quietly, but with little effect, tried to dispel. When Axel finished stocking the fire, he returned to where Naomi and Hunter stood, near the tent.
“What’s wrong?” he asked when he saw Naomi pale and shivering under Hunter’s protective arm.
“She got cold,” said Hunter.
“Stand near the fire!” said Axel, “that’ll warm you. It’s good and hot now. I’d better fetch a little more wood, though. You both wait here by the fire; I won’t be a minute.” Axel took the lantern and strode off into the woods.
Hunter led Naomi to a place where the warmth of the fire was comfortable and whispered to her not to mention anything to Axel about what she saw. “Axel said the story was an old wives’ tale so he won’t believe it anyway,” Hunter told Naomi. “I hope he’s right,” she said.
“What happened? What happened?” said Miss Plackie. She had by then emerged from the tent to join Naomi and Hunter.
“The Blue Lady looked at Axel!” blurted Naomi.
“I’m not sure she did,” said Hunter.
“Looked at Axel? So what?” replied Miss Plackie’s. “Is she gone? I’m getting in the car and going home if she’s not.”
“She’s gone,” said Naomi, beginning to regain her composure. “That was so weird. I’ve never seen a ghost before. Have you?” she asked Hunter. Hunter shook his head.
Axel returned with two or three dead branches under one arm and dropped them on the ground a safe distance from the fire.
“What’s wrong?” said Axel jovially. “You all look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Axel, I’ve never been so frightened in my entire life,” said Miss Plackie.
“Well, really, the Blue Lady is no more frightening than hearing a hoot owl hoot. It might startle you at first but as soon as you know what it is you realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“But she looked at you!” said Naomi. “Axel, you might die.”
“No, my young friend, I will die. But only when the Good Lord needs me for some other chore. No ghost, including the Blue Lady, can shorten anyone’s life so I’m not worried about that. And neither should you. No, you should feel blessed that she was comfortable enough to let us see her tonight. She’s here almost every night but only once in a while does she allow herself to be seen. Tonight just happened to be one of those nights.”
“How do you know she’s here every night?” asked Miss Plackie skeptically.
“I feel her. I hear her,” said Axel matter-of-factly. “In fact, I like having her around. Her presence comforts me when I’m out here all alone.”
“Axel Browne! If you aren’t the strangest man I’ve ever met,” declared Miss Plackie. “And you never cease to surprise me with your—uncanny ideas.”
“Say, is anyone else hungry?” added Miss Plackie.
“I am,” chimed the others.
“Then let’s have supper! And maybe after that, we’ll play Truth or Dare. What do you say?”
“Oh, no thank you.” “No way!” “I don’t think so,” said the others in sequence.
“Ahh, come on you guys. Don’t be party poopers,” said Miss Plackie.