Author’s note: Wherein the young hoosier Pansy introduces the jeune gamin français Auguste to the flora and fauna of southern Indiana, culminating in a potentially dramatic entry into the cult-village of the Church of Solemn, where pleasure is forbidden.

Pansy led Auguste into the trees. She stepped quickly, eager to prove her familiarity with the place. The ground was layered with deciduous decay, snails crawled upon moist plants, birds made racket in the cool air. 

Although the trees were different from those in Sanvisa, they were still trees. Although the birds sang different songs, they still sang.

Pansy looked around as if she were trying to place herself. “This way,” she said.

They came to a path and they followed it. The land sloped downward. The trees opened up to reveal a sunlit river, slow-moving, wider than a tossed rock. Pansy grabbed a woody vine that dangled from one of the overhanging limbs and ran and jumped so she swung out over the stream. Pendulating, she shouted, “There’s lots of streams and brooks and so forth. This here is a crick. Push, please.”


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Auguste placed his hands upon the middle of her back. Her spine and ribs were just under the skin under her dress. He gave a nudge, careful not to slip on the bank’s loose soil. As she swung out over the water, Pansy said, “Again. Harder.”

Auguste pushed Pansy into a wide arc. She squealed with unsolemn delight. 

A geodesic reptile was sunning upon a log that rose and fell with the slow pulse of the water. The creature’s beak was chipped, its shell peeling. 

“That’s a snapping turtle,” said Pansy. “It’ll rip your arm off.”

“Have we much further?” said Auguste.

“Are you tired?”

“Not a bit. I like this.” He waved his hand to indicate the entirety of the outdoors. 

“You know,” said Pansy, “things will be very solemn after we get to town, what with the mourning of Sister Gravity.”

Auguste ceased walking. “What we did was horrible.”

Pansy inhaled as if to speak. But she could only offer a weak nod.

“Will they be angry at us, Pansy?”

“Oh, no. The people of Solemn are gentle folk. He who casts the first stone, and so forth.”

“Sister Gravity was the nicest person I ever met.”

“Obviously. She saved your life.”

“And yours. Don’t you feel guilty?”

“I feel sad,” said Pansy. “But Solemnites are taught not to punish ourselves for our sins. Like Captain De Saune said, guilt will eat you up.”

“I’m still awfully sad.” The boy raised a finger, as if he’d had a thought. “Do you mind, Pansy, if we cry for a bit?”

“Yes, but only a little.”

After they’d cried for a bit, Pansy said, “I have to pee.”

“So do I,” said Auguste. 

“You go that way and I’ll go this way and we’ll meet back here.”

Auguste made note of their spot and he walked until he could no longer see Pansy’s retreating form. He untied his rope belt and emptied his bladder on the soft soil. As he was re-tying his britches, a footstep snapped a branch behind him. 

“Sister Liberty”


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He turned to discover a lad, roughly his age, dressed in clothes more ragged than his own, bare feet, leaves in his hair. A long-barreled musket leaned upon his shoulder, a string of dead squirrels hung from a rope strung around his waist.

Moments ago, these woods had seemed empty, as if they’d existed solely to welcome Auguste into this new world. And now there was a lad with a musket, and Auguste understood that it was himself who had no business here.

The lad remained still. His eyes and freckled face and shirtless overalls and the dead squirrels and the gun were uniformly uninviting. 

A stomping, a flash of yellow fabric, and then Pansy’s voice, “Hello, Delmar.” She stepped behind the lad and flicked the barrel of his gun.

The lad spun around.

“I’m Pansy. You’re a Methodist, you probably don’t know me. But I know you. Your grandma and my mamma used to snap beans together.”

The lad eased up a little.

“You got yourself some squirrels.”

Delmar ran a finger along the heads of the five corpses hanging from his waist. “I set out for the bair, but all’s I’ve shot is these’uns.”

“You say ‘the bair’, as if it is a well-known creature.”

“It’s a downright notorious oppugner of man and beast. Where you been?”

“I’ve been missioning on a whole ‘nother continent. It’s where I found him.”

Auguste felt the conversation turn his direction. As spoken by Delmar, English words had grown new syllables and attained vowels that his mouth had never formed and his ears had never heard. And Pansy was mimicking him.

“This here’s Auguste. He’s French. Maybe you don’t know where France is. That’s a country all the way on the other side of the world. That’s where I’ve been for the last year. Auguste is dressed like French person. In his country, those little britches of his are called a pantalon—singular, not plural. He spoke a whole different language of what we do. Say hello, Auguste.” 

Out of the corner of his mouth, Auguste murmured to Pansy, “Je ne comprends rien.” 

Dis-lui hello. N’aies pas peur.”

Auguste said to Delmar, “I em Auguste Lestables. I em much pleased to meet you.”

Delmar said to Pansy, “You was amongst those who waint on that train last year.”

“Indeed, I was.”

“That boy thar talks lack a sissy.”

Pansy said, “You said you were hunting a bear. What sort of a bear?”

“They say she’s a female. No one knows for shore. She sorta lurks around. Only a few’s seen her. You’uns never haired about her? This bair, she’s got hersuf three airs and she can hair you coming from a long ways. And when she hairs you, she don’t flee off; she comes to. So they say. Goodbye now.” 

Delmar walked away into the trees. The squirrels had oozed some droplets of blood on the ground.

Pansy said, “Don’t pay attention to Delmar.” 

Auguste said, “I didn’t understand very much of his words.”

Pansy switched to French and explained that Delmar claimed he’d been hunting a three-eared bear sow. Back to English, she said, “There is no three-eared bear. Delmar is an onerous rascal with a primitive accent.” 

She led on, naming wildflowers, pawpaws, raspberries, the clouds, and warning of the dangers of copperhead snakes. For a boy who had been learning English for less than four weeks, Auguste had achieved quite a lot. But Pansy’s monologue far exceeded his comprehension, and he soon tuned her out. Instead, he imagined that he was stalking a three-eared bear. 

As they crossed a low spot, Auguste, deep into his ursine fantasy, dropped his gaze to the muddy ground and saw two eyes open up, as if the mud itself were alive. He gave a start. Pansy plunged her hands into the mud and pulled forth the largest frog Auguste had ever seen. The thing was bigger than his porridge bowl. 

Pansy said, “It’s called a bullfrog. You’ll see more of these than you will bears.” 

The frog spasmed its legs and sprung from Pansy’s fingers. It landed with a splat at Auguste’s feet. 

“Come. We’re almost there,” said Pansy. 

They walked a little farther, and, suddenly, there they were.

“As you can see,” said Pansy, “Solemn was designed very deliberately.”

“It’s more round than I imagined,” said Auguste.

The village was laid out in concentric circles; as if it had been designed so that, when viewed from the lofty heights of heaven, it would provide a conspicuous target upon which the Lord could fling his darts of righteous glory.

A ring of buildings—two dozen-odd houses, a cobblehouse, a smithy, a feed store, a pantry, and the chapel—faced inward to a large common space where chickens and geese roamed freely. In the center of the open space—the bullseye—was an expansive garden of pole beans, squash, potato, corn, rye, and so forth.

Virtually all of the buildings were unpainted clapboard, oozing sap from the dimples of square-headed nails. On the far side of town, set off by a hundred yards, was a great red barn. Next to it, a split-rail fence hemmed a pasture of braying donkeys. 

Milling about the town were various Solemnites, men in wide hats, women in plain dresses, all of them whistling. They waved to Pansy as the children approached. No one smiled. 

Auguste said to Pansy, “Where is our mothers?”

“Where are. I expect they’re at Sister Gravity’s house.” She pointed to a tidy domicile in the outer ring. “Oh, it’s wonderful to be home!” 

Pansy took a few jaunty steps and then froze, for the bells of the Chapel of Solemn had begun to ring.

Gregory Hill lives on the High Plains of eastern Colorado. His previous works include the Strattford County Series, which has received the Colorado Book Award, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and the American BookFest Award for Literary Fiction.