On the last Saturday of June, I heard the seventh whip-poor-will’s cry float up from the woods and into my bedroom window. I picked up the phone and called Meg and Laverne, and we planned to meet in the clover field at midnight.
Then I sat down beside the window and looked out at the night throbbing with the chirps and chants of crickets and frogs and katydids. I was turning twelve in August, and I guess I’d lived on a watermelon farm long enough for my blood to pump to the rhythm of all that sound. In fact, nights were so loud outside my bedroom window that every summer I forgot there was such a thing as silence.
But that night I heard another sound above and beyond all the racket. It was the faraway clatter and wail of a train passing by the Point at Sunny Brooke Acres and continuing on through downtown Jubilee. I stared out into the darkness of the fields, wondering where the train was coming from, where it was going.
Suddenly I sat up straighter. The sound of the horn had changed a little. Yes, there it was again. It was almost like a voice calling to me.
“Come … come,” the voice seemed to cry across the distance.
I stuck my head farther out into the shadows now pinpricked with stars and asked, “Where … where?”
Meg and Laverne were already waiting for me in the clover field when I arrived at midnight. Laverne turned on a batteryoperated lantern, and wordlessly we started toward the woods.
As we picked our way through briars and branches, Meg was the first to speak. “March Anne, I still don’t see why we didn’t have our first meeting two weeks ago. Laverne and I told you we’ve heard a whip-poor-will for two weeks straight at Sunny Brooke Acres.” Sunny Brooke was the subdivision of large houses where Meg and Laverne lived.
Meg, who always wears flip-flops—even in winter—was wearing them that night. And I have to admit that the steady slap-slap-slapping into all that dark was kind of comforting. The lantern light splashed onto her pale face, making it shine white like the moon, while her smooth black hair blended into the forest shadows.
“Meg, for the nine millionth time, we’ve got to have our meetings here,” I said, tossing my hair behind my shoulder. “These woods are where the Pseudonymphs started, so the seventh whip-poor-will that cries out in these woods in June is what signals our summer meeting. Whip-poor-wills are cryin’ out from here to Kalamazoo, but the only one that matters to us is the one that cries out here.”
“I’m sorry, Meg, but I think March Anne is right,” Laverne said. As she spoke, the light of the lantern gleamed in her tightly curled blond hair and glanced off the lenses of her glasses. “Besides, there are too many spying eyes in all those houses at Sunny Brooke. The Pseudonymphs would be ruined if one of those obnoxious boys saw us in ritual.”
Meg sighed her agreement and trudged on.
Right then we were passing near the cedar tree where a certain hummingbird was snoozing. But we didn’t know about the hummingbird then. All we were really thinking about was how dark it was under the canopy of forest leaves.
Finally, we reached the clearing by a special tulip poplar that we had named Maranatha. I’d discovered the tree years ago when I was playing in the woods and had introduced her to Meg and Laverne not long after. We’d immediately seen that she was a she, and that she was of royal lineage. We came here to talk and trade secrets or just to sit and think.
This was also our spot for our most solemn Pseudonymph rituals. As Meg’s flip-flops finally stopped flopping and flipping, something like quiet seemed to deepen around us despite the trickle of the nearby creek and the continuous chants and chirps.
Meg peered worriedly at the darkness and swatted at a mosquito that seemed to have a particular liking for her left ear.
“Well, Laverne,” she said, “can you at least take out the book so we can get started? It’s getting kind of creepy out here.”
I didn’t say anything then, but about that time I thought I saw a shadow move behind a tree about a stone’s throw away. I still don’t know for sure that there was a shadow. Of course, later that summer, when Daddy told me about the tomatoes and watermelons gone missing, I had my suspicions. But at the time I didn’t know any more about the shadow than I did about a great silent owl perched on an oak branch just above us, watching all that was taking place with his ancient, golden eyes. Just then all I knew was that Laverne was pulling the yellow paperback book from her knapsack.
“That’s enough of using real names,” I said. I was afraid that we might’ve already said them aloud too many times for the ritual to take.
Laverne placed the yellow book on her knapsack near the lantern. Then we each walked around it in a circle, reverentlike.
We were proud as pumpkins of our first purchase: Thirty Thousand Names from All Over the World. We’d sold nine dozen doughnuts at the church social and washed four cars in Sunny Brooke in the spring to raise the funds for it. We hoped to find names for our future children by studying the book throughout the next year.
“Now,” I said, stopping so suddenly that Meg stepped out of her left flip-flop and Laverne’s glasses jostled off the bridge of her nose. Then I spoke the words we’d memorized at the spring Pseudonymph meeting:
“The whip-poor-will cries into the darkness.”
“And the darkness gives it back its name,” answered Meg and Laverne.
“The whip-poor-will wakes up the katydids of summer.”
“Katydids that say their names into the darkness and the light.”
“The whip-poor-will wakes up the crickets and the frogs.”
“Which also sing their names into the night.”
“So we shall say our own names into this darkness. Not the names given us by family nor fate, but our true names, the names that find echo in our souls.”
We all three looked at the book again. Over the past two years, we’d been Juliet, Isabella, Beatrix, Lilliana, Rosa, and Marlena. Meg’s great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, and last summer we’d even tried out Native American names. This year we’d found names within our new book.
Meg was the first to approach the book. She placed her right hand upon the yellow cover and said, “My real name has been revealed to me: I am no longer Meg but Jeanette. Please take heed.” She removed her hand and moved back to her spot in the circle.
“My name,” Laverne said, holding one hand on the book and the other on her heart, “my true name shall henceforth be Camilla.”
When Laverne returned to the circle, I fixed my eyes on a spot where I imagined the whip-poor-will was perched in the darkness. I stepped toward the book and said, “As a Pseudonymph, I will now be called Millicent.”
I returned to my spot in the circle, which, because there were only three of us, was really more of a triangle. Across the darkness, we met eyes and nodded. Then Laverne shouted: “Laverne is now Camilla.”
Meg and I shouted back: “Camilla.”
“Meg is now Jeanette.”
Laverne and I shouted back: “Jeanette.”
“March Anne is now Millic——”
Before I could finish my name, the owl overhead decided to answer with its own shouting hoot of a reply, causing us to replace our calls with high-pitched screams.
I grabbed the lantern.
Meg snatched up the book and knapsack.
And all three of us ran as fast as we could through the dark, damp woods, not caring about twigs that slapped at our cheeks or briars that snatched at our shins.
I imagine it was only when we were out of sight and clear back to the farm that the shadow deep in the woods picked up its heavy burden and started toward home.