The Old Lady in the Ditch

March 17, 2013 § 6 Comments


starsAnd now, our first place winner (out of more than 200 entrants) in the Mystery and Memory Contest.

By Candace Opper

We found her on a sunny Saturday in March, the kind that hints toward spring except for the wind, which still makes your ears glow red. Neck to ankle in corduroy, I moved in my mother’s shadow. Armed with canvas gloves and garden clogs she dragged fallen branches toward a rotting pile behind the garage. The road hung behind us like a backdrop, its soft swish of cars heading toward somewhere more rural.

And in between: the ditch, a suburban trench for rainwater and litter where a piece of blue stole my attention. It was the kind of blue a child would have chosen to crayon the ocean. My mother re-tucked her long blond hair into her scarf and wandered off to collect another branch. I studied this blue, knowing there should have only been winter brown and the occasional bright green of early onion grass. Sunlight scattered through naked trees. Sneakers sank into the earth.

My family tells her like a ghost story: “the old lady in the ditch,” as though in some timeline she still lay there with her hands folded at the waist, dry ditch grass sneaking up between her legs, orthopedics splayed toward the earth. I was lifted from the armpits and quarantined to the living room. Sirens arrived in minutes, crescendoing until they reached our driveway where my mother stood, a soft hand pressed against her mouth, the other still gloved. Paramedics circled around the blue—a silk dress filled with a woman’s body. Cars slowed to collect stories for dinner.

A hit and run, they might have guessed, but the old woman was not dead, only asleep. A somnambulistic afternoon stroll had led her to a nap at the edge of our land. A sister was phoned, the ambulance backed out, a few police remained. I watched from the window, both knees wedged into a velveteen couch cushion. She would be remembered as an almost-death, a near tragedy from which my delicate four-year-old life may have pivoted.

My mother stood by the old woman, who clutched a pillow she had thoughtfully brought along on her journey. Someone had wrapped a heavy brown blanket around her shoulders. March rippled the hem of her blue dress, in like a lion. A good find, one of the cops would say. She could have frozen to death tonight. All the mouths moved but hers. She looked newly lost, the way a misplaced child might look at a carnival. I didn’t notice the sun had gone until the streetlights blinked on.

Candace Opper has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Portland State University. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Full Stop, and various publications put forth by the American Association of Suicidology. She is the managing editor for Late Night Library, and is currently working on her first book.

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