No, she could have said, or yes. What did it matter? What mattered was that she gave a response at all. In reality, she had meant to say no but nodded her head. That’s how confused she was. Naturally, they couldn’t understand what she meant. The crowd gathered around her, one by one, tried to lift her from the sidewalk where she had fallen, until someone had the good sense to say, “Maybe we should just let her be. She’s had the wind knocked out of her.” The crowd nodded its assent.
“Say something,” a young woman said, taking her hand. “Can you speak?”
The man who had given the good advice about leaving her on the ground knelt down and looked into her eyes. “Do you live around here?”
That was the kind of question that demanded a yes or no.
“Nyeh,” she said. They looked at each other.
“Was that a ‘no’?”
“Nyeh,” she said again, groaning, trying to lift one arm and then the other.
“I think that was a ‘yes,’” the young woman said.
Another one took up the cause.
“She lives around here,” the man said. “I’ll go inside the shop and ask if anyone recognizes her.” With this, he turned to go into the store. He now had a purpose.
To his disappearing feet, the woman said, “Nyeh,” and moved her head as if shaking herself awake.
“See?” an older woman said. “She’s happy with that. We’ll find out who she belongs to now. Where she lives.” They all nodded. The woman bent down, “Honey, can you say your name?” Honey, she said, acknowledging that the woman sprawled on the sidewalk before her was young enough to be her own daughter. The woman shook her head again.
“She must have been knocked out for a moment,” said one.
“Yes, I came around the corner and there she was,” said another.
As if this hadn’t been asked before, a man yelled, “Did anybody see what happened?”
By now the shopkeeper had looked her over and then the shopkeeper from the store next door. And then another, who was sure she had been in his shop many times.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Louise something. Leeann? Leigh? At any rate, sure, I know her. She buys from me all the time. Sweet little thing.” And once he said this, once he pegged her as being surely one of them, others spoke up. “Oh yes, now I remember!” “Of course, I’ve seen her, too.” And this from an old woman who happened by: “She’s a wonderful person. I dropped my change purse one day and couldn’t pick it up, and she was the only one who would help me. She insisted I stay put and gathered everything up. This was where I fell, too. They should fix this sidewalk.” Like one, the crowd glared at the shopkeeper. He went inside.
“I know her cousin,” a woman said, coming forward to cover her with her own coat. “He’s away on vacation. It’s a shame.”
By now they had created a name for her and a new reality, and by the time the police arrived, the people felt they had sorted it all out on their own. One couple was going to take her home with them. Dinner was almost ready. They had just gone out for a short walk, and how lucky they were to have found her. Several people promised to look in on her the next day. The shopkeeper came out again and offered her a job in his store, like a peace offering for the crack in the sidewalk that had obviously made her fall. “I won’t say it was the cause,” the man said, “and I won’t say it wasn’t, but it would make me feel better if you could come and work for me. Excellent wages.”
“Come,” said the young man, after the shopkeeper went back inside. “My father could help you. Don’t deal with that man. He is the cause of your misfortune.”
If only she would say something, several people remarked.
“No,” she blurted. No? No was unacceptable.
“I mean yes?” That was better. They were able to pull her to her feet now, astonished at how light she was, how fragile and yet full of life. Just as they remembered her when they saw her at her cousin’s house in the country. They would take care of her until his return.
For the rest of her time with them she said as little as possible. As with many things in life, she realized, that was all for the better.
Cathy Mellett’s short stories have been published in The Yale Review, The Literary Review, Confrontation, Greensboro Review, and Antietam Review, among others. She has received a Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Grant for Fiction as well as fellowships from Yaddo, Ragdale, and Villa Montalvo.