The Girl Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie

by Edward Ahern

Once, not so long ago, there lived a girl named Laurel.  Until she was four Laurel grew up like every other girl, learning to walk and learning to talk. Once she could talk Laurel loved to ask questions, and her mother and father and sister and brother and uncles and aunts and grandparents all smiled fondly at Laurel and answered her questions, even when she asked them over and over again.

But one relative was not friendly to Laurel. Actually no one really knew whose relative Hesperata was. Hesperata scared the whole family but she was always invited to birthdays and holidays and sometimes even for Sunday dinner so that she wouldn’t get mad at them.

Laurel asked her grandmother and grandfather about Hesperata. They looked frightened, but finally her grandmother said, “Little Laurel, Hesperata is just a real witch, don’t go near her.”

And when Laurel asked her mother about Hesperata she looked afraid too, but said, ”Hesperata, my darling Laurel, is your father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law.” Really though,   no one in the family could say who had been willing to marry Hesperata.

Laurel always saw Hesperata at the food table, where her father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law would be stuffing food in her mouth with both hands. Laurel, who was as curious as she was friendly, finally, walked up to Hesperata and began asking questions.

“Aunt Hesperata, you look so skinny, are you well”

Hesperata glared at her but continued chewing.

“Auntie Hes, you’re eating so much, aren’t you afraid you’ll get sick?”

“Silence little brat, don’t make me angry.”

Laurel stepped closer.

“Aunt Hesperata, you smell funny, are you sure you’re not sick?”

Hesperata threw down her food and started waving her arms and chanting, “Haruub Brummel Sucketink Pharallos.” She repeated this three times and touched Laurel on the nose.  “Snotty nosed urchin. So you like asking questions do you? All right then, hear how you’ve been cursed. You’ll answer every question with harsh honesty, and will never tell a lie. Now begone!”

Laurel’s mom pulled her away from Hesperata and told her never to go near the old woman again, but it was too late. From that day onward Laurel could not tell a lie, and answered every question with painful truth.

This was not so terrible when she was four and five, but as Laurel got older she made more and more people mad at her, even her mom and dad.

Once for example, Laurel’s teacher walked up to Laurel in class and asked, “Laurel, did you read the story I assigned you?”

“No, Mrs. Hutchison.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a boring story and I wanted to watch television.”

“You’re going to stay after school young lady.”

Another time, Cynthia, who wanted to be Laurel’s friend, asked her, “Laurel, do you like my new dress?”

“No Cynthia, I have to tell you it looks like left over spaghetti.”

And when Megan asked her, “My mom braided my hair this morning, isn’t it nice?

Laurel heard herself reply, “No Megan, you’re pretty, but your hair looks like soggy shredded wheat.”

Her mother tried to explain that sometimes it was better to say nothing or to say something kind rather than telling the truth if the truth was hurtful. And Laurel knew this, and wanted to be kind, but every time she opened her mouth out popped an ugly truth..

Poor Laurel. Her mom and dad were often mad at her, her teacher barely talked to her, and she had no friends, not even to say hello to. She would sit in her back yard reading and every now and then would cry because she was lonely and really didn’t want to be hurtful to the people she liked.

And then, one summer afternoon, through her tears, Laurel looked across the meadow next to their house and saw a young girl walking out of the woods and straight toward her. The stranger stepped right into her yard and stopped in front of Laurel.

The two girls were similar but not alike. Laurel’s hair was the color of an ocean beach, but the strange girl’s hair was the color of a wedding ring. Laurel’s eyes were powder blue, but the strange girl’s eyes were leaf green. Other than that they were much of a much.

“Hello Laurel,” said the strange girl,”my name is Lethea and we’re going to be friends.”

Laurel sighed. “Lethea, please go away.  I’ll only tell you something painfully honest, and you’ll just go away hurt and angry.”

Lethea sat on the grass next to Laurel. “Poor Laurel. Aunt Hesperata went too far.”

“Do you know my aunt?”

“Ah. Well. The woman everyone says is your father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law? Once we get to be friends I’ll tell you all about her.”

Laurel bit her tongue but the truth fell off it anyway. “No one is my friend. You won’t be either. Just go away.”

But Lethea stayed sitting on the grass next to her. And they talked. No matter what awful, honest things Laurel said in reply to Lethea’s questions, Lethea just smiled and kept talking.

Lethea came back, not every day, but often, walking out of the woods.  She would never tell Laurel where she lived or who her family was, but they told each other everything else. Laurel began smiling again, and she had a very nice smile, with a dimple on each cheek.

Finally, one day as the oak and beech leaves were starting to fall, Lethea told Laurel about  Hesperata.

“She really isn’t.”

“Isn’t what?”

“Your father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law.”

“But everyone says so.”

“No, Hesperata just scared your mother’s father-in-law’s sister’s husband into saying that. She hates to cook, and accepts every possible invitation to eat at other people’s houses. She has two other big families that she imposes on. When she can’t gorge herself at other people’s parties she just starves, which is why she is so skinny and bad tempered.”

“How could you know this?”

“Ah. Well. I don’t normally admit this, but Hesperata really is my aunt, the sister of my mother.”

“But Hesperata is an evil, bad smelling witch!”

“And what would that make me?”

Laurel’s tongue lashed out. “You’re another evil witch!”

But Lethea just smiled. “Not all witches are evil Laurel, you have to judge them one by one.

“Now here’s how we’re going to get rid of your problem. At your next party, tell Hesperata that you’re coming to visit her-”

“But I never go near her, let alone talk to her.”

“Why not? You’re already cursed, there’s nothing more Hesperata can do to you. And you’re going to make her undo that curse.”

“No I’m not.”

“Oh yes you are, it’s fated. And here’s how you do it.” Lethea leaned toward Laurel and began whispering.

The next party was for the birthday of Laurel’s mother’s brother’s grandson. Laurel marched right up to Hesperata.

“Auntie Hes, I hope you’re well, although you’re still very skinny, I’m coming to visit you tomorrow.”

“ Get away from me you friendless sniveler or I’ll curse you again!”

“You won’t, you can’t, you can only curse me once. If you’re not there in the afternoon I’ll tell everyone where you live and invite them over for dinner.”

“You’d better stay afraid of me, vermin. Besides, you don’t know where I live.”

“Ah. Well. I’m told you live like a beggar four miles away on Mushroom Lane near Boiling Springs Road, in a dumpy shack that used to be yellow before the paint peeled away.”

Hesperata screamed and stormed out of the house before she even finished devouring her third plate of food from the buffet table. Laurel’s mother ran over.

“Laurel, what happened? Please tell me you didn’t make Hesperata mad again- did you?”

Her mother tried not to ask Laurel many questions, but she was so excited and worried that she forgot. And Laurel answered with her usual tartness. “Mom don’t ask the obvious. Of course I made her mad. That’s why she ran out screaming.”

“But she’ll hurt you somehow!”

“Ah. Well. This time I don’t think so.”

That next afternoon, right after lunch, Laurel rode her bicycle to the grocery store, and then over to Hesperata’s house.  And a pretty horrible house it was. Some of the window panes were cracked and broken, the lawn was all bare dirt and weeds, and the dried out house wood looked gray under the peeled off yellow paint.

Laurel was afraid, for skinny as she was Hesperata was still a lot bigger than she. But she remembered what Lethea had told her. “Aunt Hesperata is in a trap. You’re already cursed, so she can’t curse you again. Just tell her what I’m telling you.”

She pushed the door bell button, but it was broken, so she clanked on the door knocker, softly at first, and then louder and louder. “Auntie Hesperata, you stubborn old woman, I know you’re not gone, open up or I’ll keep knocking.”

Hesperata was not heard, and so Laurel knocked even harder.  “Áunt Hesperata! Aunt Hesperata!”

And from behind the door came a scream, “Leave now Laurel before I lay another curse on you.”

But Laurel knew better.  “You can’t curse me again you crone. Let me in and remove the curse or I’m going to invite every one of your neighbors over for a visit.”

“So what, small slug, I’ll just shoo them away.”

“Ah. Well. Then I’ll tell everyone in my family that you’re not really my father’s grandmother’s niece’s  cousin in-law, and I’ll tell the Abbots that you’re not their grandmother’s nephew’s  third cousin’s adopted step child, and I’ll tell the Weatherlys that you’re not their  father-in-law’s great uncle’s sister’s cousin by marriage. And you’ll never have another free meal!”

Hesperata screamed shrilly. “Evil child, how could you know this?”

Hesperata had  asked a question, and Laurel was obliged to rasp out an honest answer. “You gnarly old woman your real family has fingered you.”

Hesperata kept screaming, for she feared the loss of her food.

“Aunt Hesperata, let me in, and I’ll heop you to keep getting free meals.”

“No! No! Never.”

“Ah. Well.” Laurel reached inside her back pack. “Auntie Hes I brought a honey ham with me. Let me in and you can eat it while we talk.”

It had been over a week since Hesperata had dined at other people’s dinners, and she was horribly hungry. “A whole ham?”

“All six pounds of it, honey flecked and fatty, you glutton.”

Her hunger overwhelmed her anger and Hesperata opened the door. Laurel looked around.

There were old newspapers and magazines laying on tables and chairs and the floor. Dust kitties had billowed into tom cats. Cob webs had been knit onto cob webs.

“Aunt Hesperata, your house is a mess.”

“Just hand me the ham girl.”

Hesperata grabbed the ham by its hock, pulled off the plastic and began to gnaw.

Laurel dumped several magazines off a lounge chair and sat down.“Aunt Hesperata, here’s what will happen. You will remove my curse right now.  I will never tell my family or the Abbots or the Weatherlys that you are no kin at all. If you don’t cure me of the curse, remember that I have to tell the truth, and sooner or later will rat you out. But if you do remove the curse I’ll come over with another ham whenever you get really hungry.”

While Laurel was talking Hesperata had chewed her way through over half of the ham. Less hungry, she was in a better mood.

“Ah. Well. Laurel. Perhaps I went too far.” She walked up to Laurel, switching the ham from her right to her left hand, and began waving her arms and chanting.

“Pharallos, Sucketink, Brummel, Haruub

She said this three times and touched Laurel’s nose with the greasy fingers of her right hand.

“Your curse should be cancelled. Is it?”

Laurel waited for her tongue to unroll barbed wire, but instead only said, ”I think so Hesperata. Should I still call you aunt?”

“Yes child. But remember that I’m still going to be nasty and mean and hungry. It’s harder for old people to change.”

Laurel rode her bike home. Her mother saw her.”Where have you been Laurel?”

“Riding my bike.” Both Laurel and her mother shivered. Laurel because she had just told a lie, although a little one. Her mother because Laurel had not said anything hurtful in answering her. They both started crying, and then stopped and smiled at each other.

At first Laurel was afraid to say much, but slowly her silence changed to shy answers and then to smiling talk. Lethea still came to visit her from time to time, but never when Megan and Cynthia were playing at the house. Hesperata was still invited to everyone’s birthdays and holidays and weddings, and Laurel made sure that Hesperata’s plate was always overflowing with food.

She would often apologize to strangers for Hesperata’s bad manners, saying that her father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in law was having a hard time and asking for their understanding.  Hesperata would sometimes overhear Laurel saying this and would wink at her. It was, after all, only a small lie.

end

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