The following chapter is not from my work in progress, but it’s a happy place I like to visit, and I am inviting you.
A lonely cottage lay half-hidden on Larkspur Lane behind stone walls, drowning in ivy and thorns. It had a name, certainly—most cottages did in the village of Kington on the border of England and Wales—but its wooden sign was weathered past legibility.
The woman who lived was rarely seen. The village folk said she had a sister, now in America with her husband and children, and a cantankerous uncle somewhere in Scotland with his even more cantankerous wife. She had no friends, appeared at no village meetings, fetes, or holiday parties, and though she attended Sunday service, she only entered after it had begun, sat in the darkest corner of the empty balcony, and left during the final prayer.
The grocer’s boy delivered her orders to her gate and never laid eyes on her. When interrogated about the lady, he said she only bought basic supplies: sugar, flour, eggs, and milk, nothing made or baked, not even bread. Some said she walked the town in the dark of night with a little dog, making their way so silently one only heard the patting of their feet and the panting of the dog’s breath.
Children dared one another to scale her garden wall and spy her out. None made it to the top, however, wounded beyond bearing by thorns and jutting stones, as if they did battle on her behalf. The most they ever saw was the peak of a monstrous blue-glass house, but even that was so frosted none could not see inside.
One blustery Autumn day, Emund, a ten-year-old shaggy-haired boy, skulked past her gate. All through grammar school, he had avoided detection, cheated, and lied to hide the truth, but yesterday heralded his undoing. A standardized test. Five monitors had prowled the village schoolhouse, watching the test-takers like hawks. He hadn’t a chance.
Today, Miss Milainy, his teacher, plodded up and down the aisles, smelling of onions and chalk dust, and returned the tests one by one. Emund noticed that the dumbest of them, Murphey and Catrin, received an envelope as well as their results, presumably a letter to their parents. Emund held his breath when Miss Milainy reached him. His test… and a letter on top. His throat felt punched. The teacher motioned him to walk to the front with her.
Everyone’s eyes were on him, and he could feel them thinking: Emund? Stupid? Can you believe it? Miss Milainy asked him how this was. He had always tested well before. He mumbled unintelligibly and avoided Miss Milainy’s eyes until she became flummoxed. “I don’t understand it, Emund. It’s as if you can’t even read!”
Whispers hissed around the room like asps. No, he could not read. Not well, in any case. At five and six years old, Emund preferred to daydream than incessantly repeat, ‘A is for Apple.’ He got on alright. He piggybacked on his desk partner’s worksheets and side-stepped reading aloud by claiming sore throats, cavities, and urgent runs to the bathroom. At seven and eight, he’d cared more about playing games and football than catching up with Janet and John. By the time he was nine, Emund realized he was in a pickle, but then it seemed too late. He was too far behind.
His parents never knew. Then Father died at the end of the war, two years before, and Emund could not confess his shame to a grieving Mother. Sadly, she knew very little about him and his siblings. Of course, it wasn’t her fault. She worked three jobs since Papa passed. There was a small break between her shifts, just as they were let out of school. He and his siblings usually clambered home for a few precious minutes when she’d stroke their cheeks and ask after their day, though her eyes sagged, and her hands jittered with caffeine.
Today, however, Emund took a long way home, desirous to miss her. That was when he passed the cottage with no name. He stared at the gated door embedded in the stone wall. The place was steeped in mystery and gossip, uttlerly closed off. An impulse gripped him. If Mother never saw the test results or letter, it would be like scuffing out a bad tic-tac-toe move before your opponent saw. Like it never happened Like it wasn’t true.
Unimpeded by rationality, Emund wadded up the papers and tossed them over the wall. Fists on his hips, he stared at vines and textured lichen, pleased with himself. But his grey matter soon caught up, calling him all sorts of names. He hadn’t erased anything; he had dumped gasoline on a trash heap. He might have postponed the lighting of the match, but oh, when it caught, he’d get burned worse than before. His mother would ground him for months, years maybe. He’d do all the dishes and sweep the floors and never be allowed to play again. What a dummy.
He had to get them back, that was what. He studied the wall, paced back, forth, and around trying to find a place that wasn’t as brambly, and began his climb. His first handhold was easy. His fingers slid into a deep crack where the gritty mortar had crumbled away. Next, he had to grasp a thorny branch, and he was glad he’d worn gloves today, though Gregory, his older brother by a year, had teased him, saying it wasn’t cold enough for gloves.
Bullies, that’s what he would tell Mother. Bullies snatched his papers and balled them up. Then, they had shoved the ball into a hole in the schoolhouse foundation; that’s how come they were dirty.
Edmund’s gloves had holes in them and thorns bit through the wool. When he neared the top, the tangle of vines under his left foot gave way, and he almost fell, busting his knee against a protruding stone. The skin throbbed and stung worse than his tongue when he’d eaten a tablespoon of pepper on a dare.
At last, he made it to the top but couldn’t even straddle the wall for a rest, due to all the thorns. As it was, he got prickled in embarrassing places. He swung over his second leg, and his shoelaces caught on a twig. He waved his foot to free it, then jerked it back and forth. It would not let go. He tried again more violently. The plants supporting his other hands and foot tore away. He fell backward, pinwheeling his arms, and landed on his back with a whomp.
For five horrible seconds, he stared at the clouded sky, unable to move, unable to breathe. Then he gasped like a fish out of water. With a groan, he rolled to his stomach on the… not grass, moss. All around him, the courtyard garden was thick with dark green moss, rich and musty. His wrist smarted, knee throbbed, and everything else ached, but nothing seemed broken. Eumund pushed to his hand and knees and crawled around, looking for his letter. It couldn’t have gone far. He hadn’t that good of a throwing arm, and it was paper, after all, not rock.
Something chirped in a nearby hedge. Emund ignored it at first, but when the twittering intensified, he looked up. It was a robin with a bright orange breast and clever black eyes, and in his beak was Emund’s crumpled letter.
“Whatcha?!” Emund shouted, “Give here! Ya, blinkin’ bird!”
The fowl certainly would not come here, thanks all the same. He hopped from branch to branch, and when Emund dived for him, he glided several meters away, where he hopped from foot to foot, tauntingly. Emund gave chase. The mischievous bird easily kept one jump ahead, always out of reach, its titter and tweet as infuriating as his sister’s mocking giggles. Emund rounded the tumble-down cottage, darting and snatching at the bird, unaware that he approached the rumored blue-glass house.
Again, he swiped at the bird, when CLANK! The door to the glass house clattered open against a stack of metal buckets.
Emund froze. Swallowed. Slowly, slowly, he lifted his eyes. Mucky wellington boots. A frayed skirt fringe. A dirt-smudged apron over a bulky jumper. And below an exhausted men’s cap and crazy mop of chestnut hair, a stern, startled face looked back at him. It was a round face with too many freckles, a pointy nose, and wide searching eyes.
Emund gawped. The woman. The one no one ever saw. Blimey, when the others heard about this! But now, what to do, what to say? The robin, with his papers still in its beak, flapped and landed on her shoulder. Witchery! Would she cook Emund and eat him like Hansel and Gretel? Curse or beat him?
This wouldn’t do, kneeling, staring at her like she was a ghost, and he chinless wonder. “Erm… dreadful sorry ‘bout all this, ma’am.” He stuttered, “Bird’s got something o’ mine.”
He rubbed his sore wrist, and the woman’s doe eyes fell on his torn knickers and bloody knee.
Her brows twitched. She turned to re-enter the glass house and gestured for him to follow, she and her robin taking his papers with them.
Follow the troll to his bone-filled cave.
Follow the witch to her baking room.
Follow the ghost to its sepulcher
Follow them, follow them to your doom.