Story and illustrations by Pat Garber
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Mary Jane. She was born the year before World War II ended. Two years later her parents were killed in a car accident. Now an orphan, Mary Jane was sent to live with her mother’s brother and his wife in Raleigh, the capitol of North Carolina.
Her Uncle Rob had an important job in the state government, and he and Aunt Rita had a big elegant house in the finest part of town. They had expensive antique furniture, two servants, and the best of everything. They had not wanted a little girl, however, and they did not spend much time with her. They bought her the most expensive toys and clothes to make up for it, and they hired a third servant to look after her and do her bidding.
The servant would help her dress in her very fine clothes and take her for walks through town so that the other children could admire her. She never really played with the children, but they “oohed” and “aahed” with envy when they saw her, so she thought she was popular. The little girl didn’t have any real friends and she was rather imperious with the servants, whom she had been taught were beneath her. She spent most of her time alone gazing at her expensive things. Since she had never had anyone to play with or to love her, she did not know that she was lonely.
When Mary Jane was six, her aunt enrolled her in a private school where she met other girls whose parents were wealthy. She did not know how to talk to them or play with the other children, however, so she watched from a distance. She did not think that they liked her, so she did not like them and hated being there.
One day when Mary Jane was eight years old, her aunt and uncle decided to take an extended vacation in Europe. Mary Jane could not go because she had to go to school, or at least that is what they told her. They were secretly relieved to have an excuse to get away by themselves. They called up another relative, whom they said was her Uncle Ned, who lived far away in a place Mary Jane had never heard of. They told him it was his turn to look after her. They put her on a bus headed east to a little town called Atlantic with a suitcase and instructions on how to catch a boat called the Aleta.
There were a few other people on the bus, including three children, none of them dressed as well as she. They looked at her curiously and one seemed about to speak, but Mary Jane turned away with an imperious lift of her chin. She found a seat by herself near the back.
She was nervous about being on her own like this, and wished she could have brought her servant, but that, she was told, was out of the question. She was excited to be going to a new place and riding on a boat which, she imagined, would resemble the cruise ships she saw in magazine pictures. She watched out the bus window with interest. She saw the city disappear and fields and trees and rivers come into view instead. She fell asleep as the bus lumbered down bumpy narrow roads.
Eventually they arrived at a rustic little town and the bus pulled up at a dock. The driver announced that they were in Atlantic and that the Aleta was waiting for them. Everyone got off the bus, so Mary Jane followed. She looked up and down the waterline, looking for the fine boat she would be taking. There was no such boat in sight.
She watched her fellow passengers line up in front of an old boat which was rather drab and already crowded. That couldn’t be the Aleta! She turned to question the bus driver, but he was already driving away. She was disturbed people, whom she thought shabby, on the bus were to be her fellow passengers, but her surprise turned to horror when she saw that there was also a pig on board!
Seized with panic, she looked around for someone to help her. She wanted to go back to Raleigh! But there was no one to help her except the captain, who was watching her expectantly and holding out a hand to take her suitcase.
“Hello young lady,” he said with a strange accent. “Welcome to the Aleta.” She had no choice but to step up on the deck and into the boat.
Four hours later the boat sailed into a small harbor and pulled up at a dock. There were all kinds of people standing there, getting their mail and greeting the passengers as they stepped off the boat. Most of them spoke the same strange way as the captain. Mary Jane looked around, expecting to see a dignified, well-dressed gentleman, but she did not see anyone like that. A grizzled old woman came for the pig, leading it away on a leash. A strange woman smiled at her and spoke.
“You must be Ned’s niece come to live with him,” but Mary Jane turned away.
She stared around her at this different world which would be her home. Neat little houses meandered along a shoreline where boats were tied up at docks and piers. She saw a few cats stretched out on porches and a pony tied to a picket fence.
Then she heard a voice.
“Mary Jane?” She turned. The man approaching her wore old pants and a ragged shirt with suspenders and–she stared in disbelief–he was barefooted!
“I am your Uncle Ned. Sorry if I smell like fish, but I didn’t have time to change clothes,” he apologized. “I was fishing my nets, and my skiff ran aground on a shoal. I didn’t want to be late, so I rushed over.” He reached out to give her a welcoming hug, but she backed away, staring in horror. She was not used to being hugged by anyone and she certainly did not want this man to touch her.
Uncle Ned was older than Mary Jane’s uncle and aunt in Raleigh. When he was young, he told her, he had been in the Life Saving Service and had been stationed at Ocracoke. He had met an island girl and they fell in love. They got married and he stayed on the island, becoming a fisherman. His wife had died a few years before. They had wanted a child but that was not to be.
Uncle Ned was quiet and shy, but he had been looking forward to having a little girl in the house.
He picked up her suitcase and carried it to an old, faded blue pickup truck, where he laid it in the back amidst fishing nets and crab pots. Her eyes widened, but she did not say anything. As she climbed up on the seat, however, she had to try hard to fight back tears.
They drove down a sandy narrow lane lined with twisted trees, nothing like the stately elms in her Raleigh neighborhood, to the edge of the village. Mary Jane’s uncle pulled up in front of a small wooden house with a picket fence around the yard. The yard backed up to a salt marsh, and on one side was a pen where grey and white chickens clucked about. Nearby a couple ponies were munching contentedly on marsh grass.
The house had a porch out front with a rocking chair and a gray and white cat sitting on the railing. Mary Jane was appalled when the cat walked inside behind her uncle. Uncle Ned showed her to a small clean room with a window that looked over the marsh went to the kitchen to fix dinner.
The next few weeks passed like a nightmare; at least, that’s what Mary Jane thought. At first Uncle Ned tried to talk to her but he finally gave up. He walked with her to the small school and introduced her to a lady who would be her teacher, but Mary Jane just pouted. The other children thought that she spoke strangely, and she could hardly understand them when they tried to talk to her. She had nothing in common with them, she told herself. She thought them poor and uneducated and most had never even been to a big city.
It was March and the grass was just beginning to turn green. New buds were opening on the fig and pecan trees and saucy red-breasted robins were beginning to arrive. Little marsh cottontail rabbits came out of the meadow to taste the tender new sprouts of grass. But Mary Jane never went outside to see these things. She sat in her room and sulked, wishing for her expensive toys and fine house.
Easter time came, and Mary Jane was unhappier than ever. This was one of the occasions when she would, in the past, walk through town dressed in her finery to be admired. Now, however, she had no expensive dress, no fine bonnet, no unique toy to carry in her arms.
She told Uncle Ned that she would not go to church next day, and she decided to stay at home all day long.
Early Easter morning, at about the time the sunrise service was beginning, Mary Jane woke up from a deep sleep. She felt as if someone was in the room with her, but she could see no one. Then she saw a movement near the window, and she stared as she saw a form appear. With wide eyes she saw the form take the shape of a fairy–an Easter bunny fairy! The fairy spoke to her.
“Why are you so unhappy, Mary Jane, when you are surrounded by such riches?”
“Riches!” cried Mary Jane. “There is nothing here but poverty and ugliness!”
“Come with me, then, and I will show you more riches than you ever had in your fancy house in the city.”
They walked outside and down to the marsh, where the fairy picked handfuls of spartina grass and wove the strands into a long, burnished-gold skirt. From the nearby meadow she gathered bright green pennywort leaves and pink morning glory blossoms and stitched them into a colorful blouse, and she made a collar using mint-green leaves from Uncle Ned’s fig tree. Terns and robins flew down from the sky and allowed her to pluck soft downy feathers, and she made a lovely multi-colored cape. A snowy egret even dropped one of its elegant plumes for her to decorate the front.
Then they stopped by the little pond in the pony pasture, where the fairy gathered primroses and rose mallow blossoms for a bonnet. Out of nowhere, a group of lovely yellow butterflies appeared and lit upon the bonnet, perching there calmly. Mary Jane donned her new clothes and the fairy beckoned Mary Jane to look down into the pond. The water acted as a mirror, and the little girl saw that she looked far more beautiful than she ever had in her expensive clothes in the city.
Now the fairy called the ponies and the otters and the rabbits to her. Even a diamondback terrapin popped its head up out of the creek to say good morning. They made friends with Mary Jane and she saw that they were more fun than all her expensive toys.
The fairy waved her wand and Mary Jane’s eyes opened suddenly and she saw the island with new eyes. She realized that it was much more beautiful than the fancy house she had lived at in the city.
“Last of all,” said the fairy, “we will weave a basket from the grasses in the marsh. But the basket will not be for you. It will be a gift for your Uncle Ned, to thank him for all he has done for you.” She showed Mary Jane how to pluck stiff spines of black needle rush and weave through them the soft strands of cattail leaves, and they tied a few pretty shells on top. Then they filled it with eggs they gathered in the henhouse.
Mary Jane placed a handful of wildflowers on top and then took it to Uncle Ned, who was sitting in the old rocker on the porch. He was delighted and smiled happily at his niece. She started to introduce the Easter bunny fairy to him, but when she turned around, the Easter bunny fairy was gone. All Mary Jane saw was a little cottontail rabbit hopping away across the yard.
Mary Jane decided that she loved the little island of Ocracoke, and she and her uncle lived happily ever after.
Pat Garber is the author of Ocracoke Wild (Down Home Press, 1995) and Ocracoke Odyssey (Down Home Press, 1999) both collections of nature essays, and the children’s book Little Sea Horse and The Story of the Ocracoke Ponies (Ocracoke Preservation Museum, 2006). Her book, Heart like a River: the story Sergeant Major Newsom Edward Jenkins 14th North Carolina Infantry, 1861-1865 (Schroeder Publications 2011) is based on a diary written by her great grandfather’s time fighting for the South in the Civil War. Her latest book, Paws and Tales (Schroeder Publications), is a work of fiction; a novel narrated by Kali, a sailor cat and Harvey, an island dog.