She crushed my heart.
It was pink, like the ones Ruby Gillis adored, the ones she requested from her many beaux. Once I counted myself among them.
But that had all been before I saw the new girl with red hair as glorious as carrots on a sunny afternoon.
I had been gone for about a year, taking care of Father’s cough in Alberta. The doctor said the mountain air would be good for him, so Mother packed up our trunks and covered the furniture with white linens and we headed west.
Before I left Avonlea I used to tease the girls and they had loved it. Loved me for it.
I had a special trick for each of them: pin Ruby’s long blond braid to the desk so she wouldn’t be able to move her head; call Diana Barry “crow” after her raven black hair; and wink at Josie Pye while she was advising Jane Andrews on how to properly wear a pinafore.
As a reward, each fell madly in love with me.
Ruby joined me at the Harvest Festival hayride; Diana made me cucumber sandwiches for a special Sunday School picnic; and Josie added me three times to her dance card at the Founder’s Day Dance.
My chums, Charlie Sloan, Fred Wright, and Moody Spurgeon McPherson, envied my talents with the women and tried to follow my example. Strangely, they didn’t have the same luck. When Charlie pulled on Ruby’s braid, she pushed him to the ground. When Moody “serenaded” Josie on his fiddle, she remarked that it reminded her of crows cawing. FredWright had slightly better luck when he complimented Diana on her raspberry cordial—she rewarded him with another glass. Encouraged, he asked for a third, which she gave to me instead because “I wasn’t so greedy.”
I must have whatever girls want. It is both a blessing and curse.
When I had left Avonlea Ruby wrote a letter sealed with her mother’s perfume, Diana baked my favorite, chocolate chip cookies, and Josie wept (when she thought no one was looking). They all said they would write and they all did, long letters about Avonlea, how school was not the same without me, how Charlie, Fred, and Moody couldn’t compare to me in looks or in intelligence, how they couldn’t wait for me to return.
Of course a fellow likes knowing he is admired. And it helped with the loneliness of being so far away. The mountain air was excellent for Father’s lungs and his health improved. He and I spent many afternoons discussing my plans for the future. Assisting mother made me wonder if I could be a good doctor and I confided to Father that I thought I might make a good one. Women liked my bedside manner after all. Father patted my arm and told me it was a worthy endeavor. However, he did advise that I would have to stop “dallying with the girls” if I was to succeed.
I honestly wasn’t sure that would be a problem. After almost a year being away, it was clear that my skills with girls didn’t translate out west, as those girls I did meet thought I was too much of an Island boy to take seriously. It was letters from the Island girls that reminded me that there was something to come home to.
* * *
It was Josie who first informed me about the new girl. “The old Cuthbert siblings had adopted the queerest soul you ever saw,” she wrote. “Some sort of mix up at the orphanage. They had requested a boy and the got her instead…And what’s more she’s from away!”
The “from away” made me take notice. Not only because Josie had written it in italics, but also because it was so unusual to have a new girl in school, and to have her from away. Not of the Island. I had known Ruby, Charlie and the rest of my school chums all my life, and our families went back generations. According to Josie the girl had “no family, no people or history.” It was like she was dropped onto the Island from the heavens.
I couldn’t wait to meet her.
When I returned to the Avonlea on the second day of school, all of the girls gathered around me like I was Odysseus returning from a long journey. They chattered all once about the new girl and how she had come to church that past week with flowers on her head. I was happy to play the role. After a year of the quiet and solitude of the mountains, it was soothing to be the centre of their admiration.
But the new girl and Diana stood apart, engaged in their own conversation, a conversation most likely about me. I shifted my trousers and concentrated on something Ruby was saying about the Harvest Festival.
“That’s the new girl.” Charlie informed me as we walked by them. “She and Diana are inseparable.”
I had once heard Diana tell Jane that she thought me “aw’fully handsome.” It meant that the new girl would have a good opinion of me, making her part of my admirers would be simple.
So when our eyes met and I saw the flecks of green in her hazel eyes, I winked. Her cheeks went as red as her hair and she pulled Diana away.
Good. I had made an impression.
In class Mr. Philips assigned mathematics equations and then helped Prissy Andrews with hers. He was always paying very close to Prissy and her sums. I did my classic, “pin Ruby’s braid routine,” so when she tried to stand up, she swung her hands around like a mermaid trying to swim against the tide and cried out.
Annoyed, Mr. Philips marched over and gave me a warning. Ruby pretended to be cross and told me I was a “dreadful, dreadful boy!” But I knew she was only teasing and by the afternoon she would be sweet on me again.
But throughout the whole ordeal the new girl never even glanced my way. Not once! My trick didn’t bring her any kind of amusement; she didn’t laugh along with others. Nothing. And it wasn’t like she was sitting far away from me. She was just in front to my right, so close I could reach out and touch her carrot-red hair.
This wouldn’t do. I had a reputation among the fellows of being talented with the girls. If I couldn’t get the new girl to like me, what hope would there be for any of them? No, I had to get the new girl to notice me. And right away.
I found a scrap piece of notebook paper, crumpled it up and tossed it at her. It whizzed by her and hit Josie in the head. She stood up to shout, but when she saw it was me, she closed her mouth, straightened her pinafore, and sat back down. Charlie, Fred, and Moody slapped me on the back.
“I don’t know how you do it, Gil,” Charlie said. “When I did that last year, Josie threw the paper back and it hit me in the head.”
I shrugged noncommittedly, but was secretly pleased that my trick had garnered some success, because as the paper had passed, the new girl’s long red braid did a quick flip behind her shoulder and she flashed her hazel eyes. So, of course, I took the opportunity to wink in her direction. Again she blushed!
I was making excellent progress this afternoon.
But when I looked across the aisle again the new girl had her cheek against the palm of her hand gazing out the window, the sun glinted off her hair, reminding me of Mother’s carrot stew.
This called for dramatic action. I decided that by giving her a special nickname, like calling Diana “crow,” the new girl would see how…how special she was. I didn’t even have to think about it, I knew exactly what her special pet name would be.
“Carrots,” I whispered.
She turned around. Diana, too. Encouraged I did it again.
When the new girl stood up she gave me another opportunity to gaze into her hazel, green specked eyes, but instead of faerie dust, I saw a summer storm.
With a strength of a thousand suns, the new girl threw down her slate upon my head. The room spun, stars sprung and the everything slanted. A large bump was forming on the top of my head and broken black pieces surrounding me on the floor. I rubbed the back of my head, and shook it to stop the room from moving. Philips put his hand on the new girl’s shoulder and asked her what happened.
Diana held her friend’s hand and squeezed, but the new girl wouldn’t speak. I needed to defend her. It was the chivalrous thing to do.
Holding myself steady, I stood up and said, “It was my fault, Mr. Philips. I-I was teasing her.”
Mr. Philips went into one of his rants about controlling one’s temper and made her stand in front of the blackboard where he wrote:
Ann Shirley has a very bad temper.
I wondered if Mr. Phillips had spelled her name wrong on purpose or if he didn’t remember that she had specifically told him during roll call that she spelled her name with an “e.” She was definitely an Anne with an “e.”
I watched her at the board and wondered if she would ever look at me again.
After school, Anne grabbed her books and Diana’s arm, and pushed past me to the main road. I ignored Josie and Ruby and ran after them, practically stumbling on a tree trunk in my haste to catch up.
“Gil, what are you doing?” Charlie called behind me. “She’s just a girl.”
I finally caught up to them, standing in front of Anne and Diana, who were holding hands, so they were forced to stop.
“Anne … I—I’m so sorry I made fun of your hair,” I said. “Honestly I am. Don’t be mad for keeps now.”
She refused to even acknowledge I had said anything.
Please look at me again I implored. If she could see how truly sorry I was, she would have to forgive me.
“Gilbert, she’s quite upset,” Diana said. “Maybe try again tomorrow?”
I stuck my hands in my pockets and mumbled something incomprehensible as I watched them walk down through the woods.
Anne didn’t even look back.
As the months went on, Anne acted as if I didn’t exist. None of the things that worked before brought me the same joy; not pinning Ruby’s braid or walking Josie home. As a show of loyalty to her bosom friend, Diana had even stopped speaking to me.
When I asked Anne during the school’s Halloween costume party if her short hair was her way of winning the costume contest, she clenched her fists and then told Diana she needed to get more punch. I didn’t even get a chance to tell Anne how I had admired the way it caressed the back of her neck.
When, during the Christmas Concert, Anne gave the most splendid recitation of “Lady of Shallot,” and I led the standing ovation, I overheard her tell Diana that my way of clapping was “undignified.” And, when we both got the highest grade in English, I stuck out my hand in a form of congratulations, and she pushed past me.
Anne shone. But not for me.
“Might as well face it, Gil,” Charlie said. “This is one girl who you can’t get. It will leave room for the rest of us.”
In early February, I overheard Ruby tell Josie that she couldn’t wait to see what the boys would be doing on Valentine’s Day to show their affection. In previous years she had excepted many handmade and store bought cards and candies from every boy in our class, including me.
Charlie informed me, “I plan to give every girl in class a Valentine because at least one will like me.”
For once I didn’t want all of the girls to like me, I just wanted one.
After school I hurried over to town before any of my school friends could discover where I went. This was something that needed to be done on my own. Besides my reputation was at risk.
In Mr. Andrews’ General Store, I found the nicest piece of candy, a pink heart with the words, “You are sweet.”
It was perfect. It was pink and girls love pink. It also had the perfect balance between sweetness and sincerity. It was also a pun and I suspected that being a wordsmith, Anne appreciated a good pun.
I wrapped the candy in a tissue and waited all morning for the perfect time to present my gift to my Valentine. Ruby was thrilled with the card Charlie bought for her and said he could take her to the Sunday School picnic the following weekend; Diana was amused by Fred’s attempt at a homemade Valentine’s card and said he could walk her home from school; Josie showed off the Valentine she received from a boyfriend in Charlottetown. I had to wonder who he was as we had never heard of him before.
But Anne…Anne was kind as she received Charlie’s card with grace, and was even nice to Moody, who fiddled her a tune he had “written just for her.” I couldn’t do it when others, like Josie, would see. I had a reputation to uphold after all.
I held my fragile heart in my sweaty palms, soaking the tissue paper it was wrapped in. I waited until Mr. Philips was busy helping Prissy with her mathematics and gingerly leaned over my desk so that I was inches away from Anne’s sleeve, but I couldn’t reach.
I casually stood and sauntered past her, slipping the heart under the curve of her arm, turned around and sat down back at my desk, pretending to be very interested in my sums.
Burying my head down under my hand, I glanced between the triangle in the crook of my arm and watched her rise and search around the room to solve the mystery of the sweet pink heart.
I gathered my nerve, raised my head and gave her what I knew was my most charming grin. And, for the briefest of moments, her hazel-green speckled eyes flickered on me. She would see me now.
Anne took the pink heart between her fingertips and dropped it, cracked it with the heel of her boot, grinding it into a fresh powder, crushing my heart.
I smiled. At least I had gotten her to look at me again. It was a start.
Melanie J. Fishbane’s YA novel Maud: A Novel Based on the Teen Life of L. M. Montgomery will be released in May 2017. Her essay “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt” is included in L. M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942.