Lest anyone forget, Lisa is not her real name. I just wanted to get that out of the way before I remembered her for you.
Lisa was a neighbor and one of my few playmates as a child. Either I'd go her her house or she'd come to mine; or, more often than not, we'd just meet out in a field, ditch, or other play area. Even though most of my childhood was taken up by school, it's the summers and the evenings that stand out---the times spent at play.
We lived on a sort of ridge, a plateau if you will. To the east and west it stretched on out of sight, but to the north it dropped down level by level, like huge prehistorical steps. The first was broad and gentle, followed by a few miles more of flat ground. This gave way to a more sudden drop, and then to yet another one or two until you were finally in the river basin. Down south though, it just emptied into one big valley; the slope was steep but steady. Our ridge was miles wide I suppose; it was big enough for farmers to have large stretches of land in all directions.
The ridge was where we lived and played, and while growing up it was home. I'm not repeating myself; many people live in places that are not home, but as a child, the ridge was the only home I knew. At most once a week I'd hop in the car with momma and go to town. Our Oldsmobile station wagon---sort of baby blue in color, with real steel (not the the fiberglass or plastic that covers today's vehicles), chrome that had been worn off long ago, and tires that were balder than grandpa Flemming---was the type of car you came to love. It had one of those long windshield wipers across the back window and sort of gray-blue vinal upholstry.
Every few weeks momma would go to town to go grocery shopping and the like, and on such occasions I usually went along. That was about the only time I'd go to town. The store was one of those big chain deals, with thirty or so aisles of canned foods, boxed foods, toilet paper, and cat litter. While momma was off shopping I'd have a go at the toy aisle, home to action figures and blocks and those little sketch pads---the ones with the plastic sheet you could lift up to erase your drawing so you could use it again.
What made the ridge so special was that even though there were mountains to the north and mountains to the south, from up on the ridge they didn't seem to tower above you. Instead, the mountains met you on equal footing. The ridge was far from flat; there were little rises and depressions, ditches here and there, a few canals along the way, and even a few tree-shaded ravines.
One windy winter morning down in one of the drainage ditches---which were v-shaped and narrow and not broad like the normal canals and ditches---when dad was off feeding the horses, I met Lisa. Frosty ice cracked as the tips of my shoes---velcro, no laces---ventured out from the edge of the ditch; I could see steel-blue water well up over the icy surface and a little of it seeped into the fabric of my footware. It was then, to my right, that she crawled out of a metal pipe though which the ditch flowed. At first I thought it might be an animal---a dog or coyote---but as soon as I saw the cropped blonde hair I knew better.
We just stared at each other a bit. Then we'd look away, and then steal another glance. Long bangs covered her eyes as she moved from the pipe onto the opposite side of the ditch, looking down at the ice the whole time. I, too, pretended not to pay attention to her, and we went on like this for some time. The only kids I ever really saw were at school during the week, and at the occasional birthday party for one of my classmates---not on the edge of our property.
After a while I moved a bit further from the pipe down to where there were better rocks, and in so doing, I moved further away from her. I got to my new position amidst the gravel, rocks, and frozen brown grass and looked in her direction. My eyes met hers for a second, and then she jumped across the ice to my side of the ditch. She landed on one foot and gracefully brought the other to the ground behind it; a look of innocent yet strong pride crossed her face as she held her triumphant pose for a second. Whipping her bangs, she turned her attention to the clumps of dirt, dried up weeds, and fragile ice around her, once again making herself unaware of me.
Almost every day after school we met at the ditch; sometimes I would watch as she stepped out from the pipe, and other times she was already there carrying out her own business when I showed up. Only weeks after our first encounter did we settle on speaking terms; she was Lisa, she one day told me from across the ice.
She lived with her parents down the road; they had moved in recently, inheriting the farm from her grandfather, Old Bob Warren. She was new to the school and her mother drove her down the road every morning; perhaps in the spring she'd start taking the bus. After a while I began to notice her on the playground as well, on the swings and the balance beams, and occasionally going into or coming out of the library.
The ice melted, the ditch dried up, and sprouts of green broke through the earth as winter moved on. As the days lengthened, the winds warmed and the sky grew even more blue. Our playtimes increased as well, and the range over which we could freely roam expanded; both our fields and those of her family were fair game, and all we had to do was watch out for old rusty farm equipment and discarded barbed-wire.
Once while chasing each other in a game of tag, Lisa's shirt snagged on several barbs of the fence. At first I laughed since she would be ``it'', but then I carefully helped to her pull herself free from the fence, without accidently contacting the two rows of electric fencing. Much more entertaining than the fields, however, were the barns.
Jumping around bales of hay and picking strands of dried of alfalfa from our clothing and hair became a ritual event, as did building the next great space ship, boat, or house from spare pieces of wood and nails. Crawling in dark places and exploring under houses provided hours of merriment until the black widows finally nested, and by then we were more interested in climbing the old trees near the ditch.
All was not play, however, as both of us rose early to help with chores. For me that meant feeding the livestock; for her it included grooming the horses. We were both only children, and we became more and more like siblings. Arguments and fights were rare but not unheard of, and usually over petty things. As the years wore on we grew together, not apart.
Then her father died. One minute he was working in the field, fixing some piece of equipment or clearing away some obstruction, and the next he was grasping his chest, asking Lisa and me to run for help. We turned to go. I had Lisa's hand in mine and was pulling when she called my name; I halted and spun back around while she tore herself loose from me and ran back to her father, who was now prone on the ground, his skin pale, his eyes closed. The funeral was simple and solemn, and both I and my family attended. The cemetary, which still stands today, sits upon a high rise of land on the ridge, overlooking the valley to the south. Her father's gravestone stood beside that of his father, with a plot for Lisa's mother next to that one. The stone was wine-red granite, but the engraving was clear, deep, and unadorned.
Lisa began to work in a determined fashion, taking upon herself both her chores and the duties of her father. Rising before dawn every morning, she often stayed out beyond sunset to finish the tasks that needed to be done. During the day her mother took over, while Lisa was at school, but it was clearly the daughter who assumed the greatest burden. The look on her face was growing hard and set; if only she could work through this trial, she would exit this nightmare and go on to better things. Her bangs no longer blew in the breeze, and when we found time to sit under the trees near the ditch just to be alone, those rare smiles that now graced her still-young lips were almost forced. She no longer rode her Morgan, even though she kept the mare in show condition.
A rift appeared---small at first, but widening as the months wore on. I earned my licence and began driving to town where I could meet with other schoolmates; Lisa stayed behind to work, dropping out of whatever activities in which she had previously participated.
Always a good student, Lisa spent what free time she had on keeping up her grades, but to no avail. One day I approached her mother and in passing expressed concern. She agreed with a nod, her face now deeply lined, her hair grey and her shoulders defiant but fragile. I offered to help whenever and wherever I could. As I exited the house and turned towards the barn, Lisa confronted me. Anger danced in her eyes; she had heard me talking to her mother, and she insisted she would and could continue without my help. There was no reason for either me or her mother to worry. She stormed off to the workshed. I felt a sinking in my chest---a great constricting as I looked after her, her fierce form disappearing into shadows---but instead of following, I turned for home, my head lowered. I stared at the ground the whole way back.
In the spring as the water flowed once again through the canals and the crops sprouted from the earth, Lisa stopped coming to school. For a week she didn't appear, but the teachers expressed no worry; her mother called in to have her absenses excused. I knew she couldn't be sick; she must simply be working extra hard to get everything ready for the new season, I thought. Lisa returned the next week, but the difference struck us all with great clarity. Her cheeks were sunken, her skin shone pale, and her attention remained unfocused. A mere stick figure among people, she seemed to be a zombie, unconscious of her surroundings.
I went to her house that evening to speak with her, but she wasn't around the house, and her mother couldn't tell me her location. I wandered through the fields and stopped just short of calling her name. She had to be around somewhere. I spotted the great tree near the ditch, the one we had climbed so often as children, the one where we had on more than one occasion tried to construct a treehouse, only to give up, satisfied with something to crawl all over. I started off for the tree, itself merely a silhouette as the sun slipped lower and lower in the evening sky.
More carefully than I had done as a child, I worked my way down the bank of the ditch, run-off from the fields already filling its body. Down near the pipe, on the other side, I saw Lisa sitting, her arms on her knees, her chin on her arms, and her eyes staring down at the silvery reflection of the moon in the water. Jumping across the ditch, I caught only a bit of water as I landed; I then focused my attention on my friend. I sat beside her, and at first looked to the water for answers, but its gentle ripples could not sooth the feelings in my chest. Slowly I turned my head to face her, but she just stared ahead, not acknowledging my presence. Not knowing what to do, I put my left arm around her shoulder; it was spring, but still chilly at night, and she was wearing only a work shirt. I could feel her shiver, but whether due to the cold or out of fear, I could not tell.
A sigh escaped her lips. In that moment it was as if a barrier between us broke down, but not out of her own free will. She closed her eyes and a single, sparkling tear hung on her cheek, shimmering in the moonlight. The rigidity of her body gave way and she leaned closer. Still not looking at me, she whispered, ``I can't do it anymore.''
Finally her eyes met mine, but instead of sorrow, fear, or confusion I saw only exhaustion and resignation. Lisa said no more, and I held her tight until at last darkness set in and only the moon's argent illumination provided any guidance at all. An almost pleading look came across her face. I caught it and felt as if I understood. I asked if she wanted to be alone for a while, and she nodded, so I stood, glancing helplessly down at her. I turned away and started back towards our place, determined to talk with her mother in the morning after chores. This couldn't go on.
After dawn her mother and I talked. It was not a mere chat, and the feelings we expressed were grim; only then did I realize how much Lisa meant to me and all that I had become over the years. She called up to Lisa, but there was no response from her room. The doors on the barn were closed and the garage had not been opened. Only then did we really begin to fear.
Later that morning we found Lisa. Facedown in the ditch, her shirt floating around her like a lilypad, her hair lingering freely on the water and reflecting the light of the sun, we found her.
Notes: There was a ``historical'' Lisa who served as a catalyst for this story, but her name was T., not Lisa. In the first grade my two best friends at school were T. and L. (also not Lisa). Somewhat later in elementary school T. moved away. My father played softball for a while at a field next to the rink where I had previously played hockey. One day, when he was playing ball, I was bored, and wandered around the lot, and ended up at an empty canal. In this canal I encountered T., whom I hadn't seen in years; at the time, though, I wasn't sure it was she, and on that occasion we didn't talk. The memory stayed with me, and I saw her again only later, in high school. The rest of the story is pure fiction.