I only met her once. I remember thinking she looked like a witch. She looked a little bit like the plastic skeleton from my fifth grade classroom. She had long, gray, stringy hair that hung down in clumps and her teeth seemed gray too. Her clothes were torn and filthy. She called herself Emma.
She lived alone on Mount Hunger, high above where any roads led. My grandfather found her one autumn day when he was out digging for old bottles. She said only that she was from “away” and, as Mainers are wont to do, he happily left it at that.
She was preparing for winter, but he could see she was not going to be ready in time, with her handsaw and meager stash of canned foods. Not wondering if she was a lunatic or an escaped fugitive, as I would have, my grandfather returned the next day with several bundles of kindling and a chainsaw. He cut some trees and piled her firewood outside her tiny ill-constructed shack, hoping it would have time to dry out a little before the snow came.
The snow did come. Real snow. And my grandfather tied plastic bags full of groceries to his snowmobile and made the trip up to see her almost every weekend.
One day I accompanied him. I wanted to see this mysterious woman for myself. She was kind enough, but seemed remarkably sad. She told me to “be careful of the world out there. It is a scary place and will bring you pain and suffering.” Of course, at ten years old, I had no idea what she was talking about, was a little freaked out even, but I nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am.”
I couldn’t believe she was surviving in that one room shack. I could see daylight shining in through the cracks in her walls. I wondered if she’d built the shack herself. She sat only two feet from her wood stove and wore a jacket and scarf. She had a cot and a kitchen table. One chair. Piles of dusty books lay all over the floor. An old bicycle leaned against one wall.
I asked my grandfather why on earth a woman would do such a thing, climb up into the Maine woods with no idea how to survive on her own. He sighed and said, “Sometimes people just need to get away for a while.”
One day in the spring, he made the trip up Mount Hunger and Emma was gone. Her few belongings were gone as well. When he told me, I asked him, “Aren’t you kind of mad that she never thanked you?” He shook his head and said, “That’s not why we help people, honey. We help people because they need help.”
Robin Merrill is a mother, writer and teacher from Central Maine. Her work has recently appeared in Margie, Flint Hills Review and The Cafe Review and has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac. To learn more about her, visit www.robinmerrill.com.