"Come with me," she said. "Let's go into the farmhouse." She took my hand and pulled me up to the patio and through the screen door. It slammed behind us. The house was hotter than outside, the cookstove still burning low.
"Come sit here and let's read a book," she said.
"She's down at the pond."
"He's down there, too."
"Down at the pond."
"I want to go," I said.
"No, you have to stay here," she said.
"I want to go check on Heidi."
"No," she said. But after a while, it seemed I was alone.
I slipped onto the path toward the pond. I walked slowly. "By the time I get there, everything will be okay," I said to myself. Up through the path in the woods came the sound of Mama wailing Heidi's name.
Then I was behind the woodshed with Papa in the dusk of late afternoon. He was holding a blanketed shape in his arms and rocking back and forth, crying in a way I'd never seen before. The afternoon sun burned the tops of the pointed trees around the clearing.
"But Papa," I said. "But Papa, you've got to uncover her face. She can't breathe."
"Lissie," he said. "Heidi is dead."
But Heidi had to be okay.
I didn't mean it when I said she would die.
She had to be okay so I could help her up the ladder next time.
Around the farm the light began to fade, and the daylilies closed up like the fleshy fingers of praying hands.
When the inexplicable happens, everyone wants to find a culprit. Where was the mother? The father? Many blamed our lifestyle, hippies living on a communal farm. "It's because they were heathens, because they didn't abide—they had it coming, living like that," some said. The attending sheriff has since passed on, and the files from that year burned in a fire, so I don't know for sure what the law thought, but as if we didn't have enough pain, my parents were blamed for the accident by the moral world at large—especially Papa, he being the man in charge. Papa said it was the little red boat Heidi must have carried down to the pond and set afloat. One of our farm apprentices said she was the kind of child who wasn't afraid of anything. Another thought it was the black crow that hung around the farm that spring, a single crow being an omen of death in the family. Mama usually says it was the rain. She didn't worry about us girls playing by the pond because it wasn't that deep during the dry months of summer. But when it rained, the pond filled and turned black as the water caught in barrels under the eaves.
As for me, I was sure it was my fault. For days I sat in the loft repeating Heidi's names to myself in a litany, a song to call her back to me.
"Heds, Ho, Hi, Heidi-didi, Heidi-Ho, Hodie."
I sang and sang, but she never came to the foot of that ladder again.
It's said that on the Hebrew Day of Atonement, a goat was sent off to perish in the wilderness, carrying the sins of the people on its back. A scapegoat, and the thread tied around the goat's neck was red for sin and guilt, red like Heidi's boat.
We Hear You!