The sun shone over the trees and sparkled on the river. Emily squinted and shaded her face.
“Come on, Emily!” Hannah exclaimed, tugging on Emily’s elbow, “Mrs. Harris says the tour’s about to start.”
Down the sloping riverbank road, a green dragon clattered and smoked towards the school group as Emily’s class gathered around Mrs. Harris and prepared to board. Well, it wasn’t really a dragon, but as the trolley lurched to a stop in front of Emily, she thought the diesel fumes and throaty engine were dragonish.
Emily mounted the tall trolley steps behind Ben and Hannah. The steps weren’t built for short legs, but Emily managed to struggle up. She followed Hannah past Mrs. Harris, who was perched on the front seat, and plopped down on a bench. The trolley shifted into motion, and a costumed girl stood up at the front, swaying and clutching papers in one hand and a handlebar in the other.
“Hello, my name is Elizabeth—” the girl’s next words were drowned out as the trolley struggled uphill and onto Front Street.
The girl smiled and spoke even louder, “Although we live in a small town, Natchitoches is brimming with 300 years of history and people, places, and stories which make it special, and I’m going to tell you about one particularly extraordinary person.
“Do you see the building on the right? At one time this was the art studio of Mary Belle deVargas. Miss deVargas was born without arms, yet she was extremely talented. Not only could she paint and draw, but she could also feed herself, type letters, play the piano, thread a needle, and embroider. Because Miss deVargas did all this with her feet and toes, she wore pumps so she could quickly slip her shoes off and use her toes like we use our fingers.
“As a child, Miss deVargas attended—”
Hannah nudged Emily and whispered, “I know a family whose last name is deVargas. Maybe they’re related.”
“Ssshh! I’m trying to listen.”
“—then earned a degree from Louisiana State Normal, which is now Northwestern State University. As an art teacher and as a person, Miss deVargas impacted everyone around her. Even those who didn’t know her personally remember her. One Natchitoches resident saw Miss deVargas at many concerts at the college and recalls observing Miss DeVargas retrieve money from her shoe.
“Throughout her life, Miss deVargas’ family cared for her, and it seems likely that family and community support helped her overcome her handicaps and become the inspiration she is today.”
Smiling, the speaker finished her story and handed Mrs. Harris two papers to pass around.
When the papers reached Hannah and Emily, they saw the pages contained black-and-white photos of a smiling lady surrounded by artwork.
Emily spotted something in one of the photos as she turned around to pass them on. “Look, Hannah! The lady is only wearing one shoe like the girl said. I wonder what she was doing when the photo was taken.”
Emily didn’t have time to take another look, for just then the trolley slowed to a stop, and Mrs. Harris said, “Time to go, everyone!”
Once all the children had disembarked, they followed Mrs. Harris and a costumed stranger along the sidewalk. The sun had risen even further, and the cool morning was quickly turning muggy.
“Where do you think we’re going next?” Hannah asked, peering up at the old buildings that loomed over them.
“I don’t know, but I hope it has air conditioning,” Emily replied, fanning her face, “It’s hot.”
“It’s not hot,” Hannah said.
“Well, it’s going to be, and I’m already sweating.”
“I must be a bit coldblooded,” Hannah mused, eyeing the ground and hopping over the cracks in the pavement.
“You can’t be coldblooded. Only snakes and things like that are—” Emily began to explain, but broke off as her class passed through the creaking wooden doors of a castle! No—it was just an old church. Emily’s sudden excitement was extinguished.
If only the trolley really was a dragon, and this church really was a castle, Emily wished.
The story about the armless lady had been interesting, but Emily doubted if her town could hold enough stories to justify a half-day historic tour for children. Still, it was fun to be out of school with her friends.
Emily gazed into the gloomy church. A high ceiling peaked over dark, squeaking floors which vibrated as a bell tolled in the church tower.
Mrs. Harris led the class to the front of the nave where a group of costumed children told stories about ghosts and dead people, but Emily wasn’t really paying attention, because her glance had been caught by a large object in a corner of the church. It was dark brown, upright, and curved, with a giant space in its center crossed by dozens of parallel lines. A girl in a long red dress sat on a bench behind it.
When the ghost stories had finished, Emily was glad to see that Mrs. Harris and the tour guide were leading her class to the interesting object.
The girl stood up and welcomed the class, and the children sat down. Emily was absorbed in gazing at the object, which she now realized looked like a musical instrument.
“This is a harp,” the speaker said as she motioned to the instrument beside her, “The harp has many parts. These are the column, the soundboard, the strings, and the pedals.” As she named each part, the girl pointed it out.
“The harp is most often associated with the glissando.” The harpist ran her thumb down the strings and then pulled back up with her forefinger.
Emily gasped at the lovely sound, as did Hannah and most of the other girls.
“I am now going to play a piece for you called ‘Angelus’ by Henriette Renie. Listen for the six bell tolls that repeat throughout the song.”
Sitting down behind the harp, the girl thumped on the pedals for a moment, and then pulled the instrument back to rest on her shoulder. She began to play, and the notes sounded like fairy music to Emily.
When the song was over, the girl stood up again and said, “I hope you have enjoyed learning about the harp. Are there any questions?”
“How many strings does the harp have?” Mrs. Harris asked.
“My harp has 44, but some harps have 47 strings.”
Ben’s hand shot up, and he asked, “Does your finger bleed when you play and have a cut on your finger?”
“I don’t actually know. I’ve never had that happen before,” the girl replied with a smile.
Then it was time to go, and as Mrs. Harris rounded up her class, Emily slipped nearer the harpist, and looking up, asked timidly, “Could you teach me how to play?”
The girl looked surprised and a little amused, but said, “I don’t know. You would have to ask your parents first.”
Before the class crowded out the door, Mrs. Harris turned around, and she and the class thanked the harpist. Then Emily was blinking once more in hot sunshine, headed towards the next tour stop, and wondering what her parents would say about harp lessons.
Swinging the screen door shut with a bang and slipping off her shoes as she hopped into the hall, Emily rushed into the kitchen where her mother was chopping onions.
“How was your school trip today, Emily?” Mama inquired.
“It was lots of fun! Have you heard of a harp before? I saw one this morning, and there was this girl who talked about it and played it. I want to learn how to play the harp. May I? Oh, and did you know an artist named Miss deVargas who didn’t have arms lived here? She painted with her feet!”
Emily’s mother laughed and said as she wiped her hands off, “I never would’ve guessed Natchitoches had a harp teacher.”
“Now,” Mama continued, sitting Emily down, “I want to hear all about your day from the very beginning. We can have lemonade and sugar cookies while you talk.”
As Emily began describing the dragon trolley, Mama poured lemonade, piled sugar cookies on a plate, and sat down at the table. They sipped, snacked, and chatted for a while, and supper may have been a little late that evening, and Emily might have described her day a second time to her two older brothers and her sister and a third time when Daddy came home, but no one was bored, and no one went hungry.
When Mama came to tuck Emily into bed that night, Emily whispered, “I’m glad I have arms, ‘cause otherwise I couldn’t hug you.”
“I’m glad, too,” Mama smiled as she turned out the light.
Falling asleep, Emily realized she was worn out with excitement and happiness—and plans! Maybe tomorrow she would try painting with her feet, and maybe soon she could learn to play the harp.