Things change so quickly that sometimes a person has barely a moment to breath before realizing that change has not only come to pass but is permanent. Such change weighs heavy on the human heart and calls for strength some people simply don’t feel they have.
Emily knew such change… such a demand on the human heart. She’d experienced it before. She knew to get beyond it, it was a matter of inhaling and exhaling slowly. She knew you had to find a place to focus your thoughts while the brain processed everything else in the background.
The young woman was trying to remember that process as she dealt with the current changes in her life. One moment she was healing and happily living with her father and the next she was at her aunt’s house watching a circle of women she barely knew trying to pick out an appropriate dress for her to wear to her father’s funeral. It all seemed so inappropriate to her. She’d been allowed to pick out her own dress when her mother had died and she had been far younger then.
The funeral came and went. The dress they’d told her to wear was somewhere hours away, crumpled at the bottom of a laundry hamper at her aunt’s apartment. Emily now sat in the passenger seat of her aunt’s SUV with all the boxes and suitcases that signified the young woman’s belongings crammed into the back of the vehicle. Aunt and niece were heading to a destination mostly unknown and quite far away.
The situation already felt bleak but the unbearably long drive she was on made it quite worse. There were so many trees and so much road and few other distractions to draw the eye’s attention in-between; few other car rides the young woman had made were so torturous in their repetitive scenery.
It wasn’t like Emily hadn’t known long car rides most of her life. The first long ride was from her mother’s new home in the city to her father’s old home in the country. She remembered little of those early drives; she was just a little spit of a human then. A few years later she would ride from her mother’s old home in the city to her father’s new home in a bigger city. Those were nice rides though; eventful and with rituals. Rituals were good. Emily had a need for rituals and thankfully her father knew this.
The nature of ritual in a long car ride was to offer diversions to the often easily bored young mind: Emily’s father realized this very quickly as his daughter began to grow older. It was all about distraction, misdirection and the presentation of well liked things. And when those things were established they became the rule of the trip; the things she looked forward to.
Emily’s father established his rituals quite quickly with this much longer route to his new home. His daughter was only five years old and finally starting to remember just how badly she disliked that drive to his old home. So he did a little research. Through the use of tourist maps and suggestions here and there, he was able to plan a path that would give his daughter something to enjoy; something to look forward to.
The first time he picked up his daughter from his ex-wife’s home he saw how excited she was to not be making that boring trip to the backwoods of their state. He had imagined that in her mind this new home in the city meant they were finally in the same city, no matter how many times her mother told her this wasn’t the case. Little girls will wish for something to be true and hold to that wish unto the death of it.
Little Emily was full of hopeful chatter as she was buckled into the backseat of her father’s car and the ride began. Her father had to smile a little to himself as he heard his daughter’s irritated groan as the car turned onto the highway on-ramp. “You said you lived in the city!” her little voice protested. It was almost as if you could hear the death rattle coming from her dying wish.
The father assured his daughter she would like his new home and that it was in a far bigger city than the one she lived in; there was so much they’d be able to do there. He explained that he knew she’d been hoping for a place that wasn’t at the end of a long drive though. He asked her to just trust him a little bit. The tiny noises of irritation she made were enough to show the father the trust he sought was a lot to ask from the little girl.
He ignored her irritation and let her sit and stew a little bit in silence until they’d traveled twenty miles and he steered them towards an off-ramp.
“Are we there?!” Emily had chirped so excitedly.
Her father looked at her from the rear view mirror and gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid not honey, we have two more hours to go. But I have a few special things for you along the way. The first one is this.”
He made several quick turns and pulled the car into the parking lot of a very large and very over the top just-off-the-highway tourist type attraction. It was a restaurant but one of those types that had animated mascots throughout the building and big colorful things on the walls or hanging from the ceiling. It was the exact type of place his second wife would sum up as a tacky Midwestern hell on earth. For his daughter, however, he knew it would be a grand distraction from the road. His hopes were confirmed when Emily squealed with delight. All she’d needed to see was the giant panda bear waving at her from the front porch of the restaurant.
The father and daughter had a nice lunch in this place. They ate finger foods out of baskets that had wax paper linings. Emily was especially taken by the warm peanuts that she could open, eat and toss the empty shells to the floor. Her father had been thoughtful enough to bring many quarters so she could run back and forth from the table to the assortment of flashy game-like machines that offered cheap but child friendly toys as prizes. And once she finished the last of her coke with cherry syrup and got one more panda bear hug, they were back on the road.
The prizes from the restaurant kept the little girl quite content for the next half hour. When she started to get fidgety (just after passing the border into her father’s new home state) he brought the car off the highway again into the state’s welcome station. Emily was able to get rid of some of that cherry coke and stretch her legs. Her father let her collect post cards from the gift shop and stood with her and pointed out their remaining route on a giant map on the wall. Then they were back in the car.
Now that the little girl was older and reading, her father was able to add a few license plate games into their repertoire of road games. He was also able to point out landmarks he’d familiarized himself with before coming to get her for the first time. And when they were less than a half hour away from his new home he introduced her to the last attraction on this new journey: The drawbridge.
The drawbridge was smack dab in the middle of a little town. The town itself was very old fashioned and looked like something out of a turn of the century postcard. It hadn’t changed for years and prided itself on its vintage appeal. The drawbridge was rather vintage too.
They arrived just in time to have to stop and watch the bridge go up so a very large shipping boat could pass through. Emily was mesmerized. She bounced up and down in her seat as far as her seat belt would allow. She asked her father a dozen different questions about the drawbridge and the boat passing through it.
Just on the other side of the bridge her father had to stop to fill his car’s gas tank. Inside the gas station he happened to see they had an old fashioned style of malted in a cup that you ate with a wooden spoon -something he’d enjoyed as a kid. He bought one for his daughter and was pleased to find she enjoyed it just as much as he had.
The final thrill of this new ride was how the Midwestern scenery slowly gave way to the towering buildings of the city. All noise from the backseat became silent as the first skyscraper passed by. Little Emily stared out her window in awe. “Do you live in one of those daddy?” she had asked. Her father had nodded. “Yes Emmers, I live in a very tall building a lot like that. It’s not quite as tall but it has a wonderful view of the city.”
As the car pulled into the parking ramp of the father’s new home, the little girl had barely noticed the hours that had passed. Emily had forgotten all about how she hated those old, boring drives to the country.
That first car ride to Emily’s father’s new home was a great start to a nice drive with rituals. The landmarks changed over time as did the car games, but their lunch together and that beautiful old drawbridge with a malted waiting on the other side of it were a constant. It was something only her and her father had. Not only did Emily not mind that long drive, she grew to look forward to it.
This was not that drive though and her father was not beside her at the wheel. There was no over-the-top touristy restaurant to get a cherry coke and cheap prizes at. There was just her uptight aunt, all her boxes and suitcases making noise when the vehicle hit road bumps and an older Emily hating every moment of this offensive drive.
Emily watched the bland scenery pass by. She hadn’t seen a body of water in hours. There was something about that fact alone that made her uneasy.
“Don’t they have any lakes around here? Or even a freaking pond?”
Emily’s aunt didn’t look away from the road. She shrugged her shoulders by way of reply.
The lack of water made Emily feel dry and itchy. She’d always fancied herself a wanna-be mermaid or perhaps the reincarnation of a selkie. Water was essential to her life in more ways than just needing to drink it. She could feel the lack of moisture all around. She wanted to be free of the car so she could immerse herself in a warm bath and get her moisture back.
These things she kept to herself. The woman driving was doing her very best to keep her red eyes from leaking. There was a lot about this long drive she didn’t like either. Emily knew the thing she disliked about it the most was it was a trip that was meant to deposit her niece somewhere very far away where she didn’t want her to go. The tension coming off of her aunt was like its own force field.
Emily’s hand went for the radio and tried again to find a radio station that reached them in their current location. The radio crackled and popped and every now and then let the sounds of something faintly religious or country sneaked in for a moment. Neither of them were particularly fans of either genre of radio but they were both getting desperate for the company of voices that weren’t their own. Finally, and with some pomp and circumstance, a station whined and hissed its way into clarity from the static.
“This is radio India! Come in Bangkok!” [inspired by]
The woman’s voice was very tense and British. The whole nature of the broadcast sounded old; as if somehow they’d been able to tune into and pick up a radio signal that had been bouncing around the heavens for decades.
Slowly the woman’s voice faded and the very pleasing and melodic sound of an instrumental piece began to fill the car. It was something unfamiliar but Emily would always remember it as the first thing that took away some of her dread and gave her a feeling of potential hope. It was a strange sensation to have after all those hours of driving and the reasons for the drive in the first place.
Forty minutes slipped by as Emily and her aunt talked about the discovery of this strange radio station instead of their brief and strained conversations of earlier. Eventually the G.P.S. was instructing them off the two lane highway they’d been on for hours and onto a much narrower road that cut straight through the trees. The crossroad was so small and nested into the forest that they almost flew right by it. Thankfully the G.P.S. kept pinging at them to turn.
As they turned down the road Emily noticed the directional signs. She found a smile crossing her lips. Memories of Selkie Waters twenty miles. Orange Moon Downs thirty miles. Emily looked at the G.P.S. and sure enough when she pulled away from the close-up of their route there was a nice sized lake to their left. There were several smaller bodies of water doting the surrounding areas.
“Thank god…” she whispered to herself.
“What the hell is a selkie?” her aunt muttered.
“Something magical aunt Jen, something magical…”
Their turn into the woods also put them into the direction of a small but dark looking storm cloud. A crack of lighting lit up the scene as thunder rumbled at them. Soon after the rain followed.
Emily let her head rest against the cool window glass. She never had minded thunderstorms –especially those that came in the middle of a beautiful summer day. She liked the way the trees seemed that much more green and alive when they had those angry bruised skies behind them. And the smell of it! The smell of that fresh rain mingling with the scent of the trees and grass; it was the type of fragrance that could never be truly captured and reproduced. It was a thing that needed to be experienced first hand.
Her aunt groaned. “I feel like we’ve left the whole world behind.”
Emily cracked open her window just enough to let a wisp of that fresh smelling air in along with mist from the rain. She inhaled deeply and smiled for the first time in days. The moisture was getting back into her skin.
“Perhaps we have.” The young woman looked over at her aunt hoping she could benefit from the younger woman’s smile. “I’m not sure that’s really such a bad thing right now… is it? The world has been weighing pretty heavy on me lately.”
A shadow passed over her aunt’s face. It was far quicker moving than the swift dark clouds passing outside, but it looked just as dark all the same.
The smile faded from Emily’s lips. Once again she was reminded that this was a trip made by necessity and her aunt didn’t approve. No amount of fresh air or a smiling niece was going to change that fact for her.
The G.P.S. told the car to turn right again and the car wheels left the smoothness of the paved road and began along a bumpy dirt road. The car bounced up and down and with each harsh bump her aunt’s language got a little more course.
“Damned country roads!” She barked.
Emily had ceased to pay attention. Her mood so briefly lightened had fallen flat again. Her mind was forced back into acknowledgment of the long ride and the unknown destination. Then… something quite magical happened.
The trees suddenly parted and the dirt road became more of a worn path through a very wide field of tall grass and vibrantly colored wild flowers. Emily was reminded of the surprises her father always had for her during their long drives. She felt tears welling up. For a moment it felt like her father was looking down on her and gifting her with one more of those beloved surprises.
“It figures they wouldn’t even have a proper road out here.”
Despite the approaching tears, there was a hint of a smile returning to Emily’s lips. As the wild flowers passed around them, she just couldn’t allow her aunt’s sour mood to make her sad again. “I think it’s actually quite beautiful.” And it was.
Her aunt made a dismissive noise in response and continued to berate the lack of paved roads. She was tuned out to the flowers… tuned out to the changing mood of her niece sitting next to her.
Eventually a large, Victorian style house became visible in the distance. Even from this far away it was a beautiful example of creative construction, like one of those remarkable places that she used to read about in the travel magazines her father bought her to read along the road. There were rounded towers along the back and a series of open and glassed in porches circling both the first and second floors. There were peaks and stained glass windows. It was an atypical design even though it was clearly Victorian. Someone with a better knowledge and vocabulary for the genre might have better words to describe it; Emily could only say she found it as beautiful as it was eclectic.
The tall grass and wild flowers gave way to a neatly trimmed and rich green lawn of grass. As the road curved Emily could just make out what looked like an impressive sized greenhouse around the back of the Victorian house. To the right of both these structures was a massive weeping willow tree that almost looked like a sentinel guarding the house from the forest in the distance. The forest was tall and old looking and circled the property. It was like nature provided its own privacy wall around this place.
The road curved back one more time and pointed them towards a square of land where a few cars were parked well away from the house. A large directional sign stood at the front of the parking space and offered different directions. At the top of the pole was a large sign declaring Auto resting place. Please leave your autos here for a snooze and walk to the house. House is allergic to auto fumes. Beneath this were pointer signs.
At the bottom a sign pointed back and to the left and again mentioned Memories of Selkie Waters. Above this a sign pointed forward and to the left and showed brief instructions on how to get to Orange Moon Downs. Next up was a sign pointing to the right and made Emily giggle. It read: Enchanted Forest. Yep… we ain’t kidding. Enter at your own risk. The next sign pointed up and to the right directing them towards Talbot Estate and stressing private property.
Finally a sign pointed towards the house in the distance and labeled it as: Hathor Boarding House. Beneath the big letters, in small print it read: Prospective tenants please note: Must bring with you joy and your favorite tea. Our occupants (dead and living) like stories. Our brownies like honey. Our bees like to whisper. And our remaining Jack o’ the bowl will see your room right if you leave him a bowl of cream at the end of the night. Beware of Quantum’erks.
And very last was a small sign just above the boarding house one that simply said U.F.R.L. and directed visitors to go past the boarding house and then keep on walking.
Emily couldn’t stop her grinning as she read each marker.
Her aunt was not entertained by any of this. She pulled the car to a stop and made indignant remarks under her breath about having to park so far away from the house.
“This is it then?” Emily asked as she tried to hide her irritation of her aunt’s grumblings. As far as she was concerned the house was interesting enough to give her hope that this trip wasn’t going to be as miserable as her aunt had made her expect.
“Yes, this is it. This is your great aunt Emma’s boarding house.”
There was no getting around Emily’s new found curiosity. Emma was her mother’s aunt. Her mother loved her dearly and often told wonderful stories about spending summers with her in this boarding house that she ran. Despite their differences in opinions in all things, Emily’s father actually agreed with his ex-wife about her aunt: She was a kind heart-ed and interesting creature. These were the sentiments Emily had grown up with even though she couldn’t personally remember meeting her.
Her father’s sister and their family disagreed with these sentiments passionately. Few things could bring her father’s family to find common ground then how much they disliked the remaining family of the ex-sister-in-law. This opinion had been force fed to Emily so much since her father’s death that she’d been foolish enough to wonder if she should believe it. Now she felt a little ashamed that she had so quickly forgotten all of her mother’s tales. It was making Emily feel less sympathetic to her aunt’s disgruntled display.
“I get it. You don’t like great aunt Emma. Do you have a reason?” She snapped.
Emily’s aunt sighed wearily and slumped in her seat. She closed her eyes and remained silent long enough for her niece to start feeling uncomfortable. It was enough to make Emily feel bad for snapping at her.
“Aunt Jen? What’s so wrong with this person?”
Her aunt’s face was becoming red again. She was on the brink of another crying fit and it was obvious she was trying to hold it back but losing the fight. When she finally looked at her niece the tears were overflowing and her lips were trembling.
“Emily… I petitioned to get custody of you but the court wasn’t willing to override the wishes of your parents’ individual wills. In the case of something happening to either of them where the other one wasn’t able to take over custody, they wanted your great aunt to have custody of you. But Emily…” her voice started to quiver, “this is not the place for a girl to grow up! These people…” she caught herself before saying something that might upset her niece. She went back to her original objection. “It’s not right of them to rip you away from your family and force you to live so far away! You’ve been with us for years now. You don’t even know this woman!”
There was something more to her aunt’s argument like -why was this a place she shouldn’t grow up in? She had no faith in getting that answer out of her aunt. Instead the two of them fell into silence and Emily thought a lot about her situation.
It was a funny thing being a kid but not quite a kid. Emily was on the cusp of turning fourteen. She thought she’d hit a major milestone in life turning thirteen, but she was realizing that with every year that she grew closer to that magic number that said she was an adult, the politics of the adult world became harder for her to understand.
The people around her expected very different things from her. As she grew older she was supposed to be more responsible; more trustworthy. At the same time no one trusted her enough to really talk to her. This situation was a very good example of that fact. Her aunt cried and got angry and gave her half truths about why she didn’t want her niece here, but she never really cut to the chase and got honest about it. It was like her aunt didn’t trust her to understand her true feelings.
Emily on the other hand… Emily trusted her parents absolutely. If they wanted her to pack up all her things and travel this far away to live with a great aunt she didn’t know… not only would she do that, she was doing it. She hadn’t let any of her aunt’s complaints get in the way. Now she just wanted a little bit of the truth.
“Aunt Jen… it’s not like I won’t be able to visit you. I’m not moving to another planet. But it’s like this: This is where mom and dad wanted me so that’s where I belong -unless you can give me a better reason for why you don’t want me here? I mean… you got in a car with me and went this far.”
“I don’t know Emily… I don’t know! It’s just… I never thought we’d get this far. I really thought my brother would call me while we were on the road and tell me to turn around. I really thought those stupid case workers and judges would come to their senses and realize you belong with family!”
Emily looked from her sobbing aunt to the large house. She was empathetic to her aunt but the crying was getting old. Her reasoning was getting old. There was this incredible place around them and Emily wanted to at least get a chance to explore it. She was tired of sitting in the car.
“Aunt Jen look –I know a lot of the family talk crap about this aunt Emma person, but my mom loved her. And my mom and dad couldn’t agree on anything, but my dad agreed with my mom on how he felt about aunt Emma. I mean…” Emily was at a loss of words for a moment. She was starting to feel really erked. “Aunt Emma is my mother’s aunt -I understand why my mom would love her. But my dad -your brother- he loved her too. He really liked her. They trusted her to look after me. She’s my family too. I’ve never heard anyone talk crap about her except for your family, you know? If my parents both wanted me to come here if something happened to them, then why are you against it? Why really? Cuz if you can’t come up with something more than crying and telling me just because I’m really done talking about this. It’s not like anyone asked you to take care of me in the first place.”
That last sentence was a mistake. Emily knew that even as the words passed over her lips. Her mom had been gone for five years now and that still stung. But her dad had only been gone for six weeks. Her head was still thoroughly caught in that place between being numb and denying anything had happened to him. She was still very much trying to use her method of processing to get by. This didn’t mean she wasn’t aware of how painful this was for her aunt. It was her brother who had died after all. It never occurred to her how it would feel to lose two family members because of one death.
She wanted to apologize but didn’t know what words to do that with.
“No… no! It’s fine Emily. You haven’t asked anything of any of us. We’re the people responsible for you though and we don’t agree with what your mom and dad wanted. You should remain with the family you know. We shouldn’t be forced to drive you into the middle of nowhere and dump you off on someone you don’t even know! But hey… no one asked me to give a damn or take care of you in the first place, right?”
The vehicle became very quiet. Emily realized the snottiness of her age had taken over and it had instantly cured her aunt of the tears. Now she was set to anger. It was time to move things along.
Off in the distance a door opened at the front of the boarding house. No one came out and Emily couldn’t see through the darkness of the doorway to whoever was standing there. She could feel them looking at her and her aunt though. Their presence was now known.
“They know we’re here aunt Jen. We should probably go up to the house.” Emily replied very timidly.
The older woman used her coat sleeve to wipe the moisture from her face as she nodded her head. “Yeah…” she reached for the door handle and let herself out of the car.
Emily was glad to be free of the car. The rain had calmed itself to a dull mist. It felt incredible on her face. She imagined it smelled like some of the scent of the wild flowers had somehow gotten infused with the clouds above. She was sure every tiny rain droplet had a hint of violet to it.
As the pair moved towards the front door of the house a voice somewhere off to the side of it called out to them. The voice was small and old but still carried with it an underlining degree of strength. It easily carried over the distance. It was beckoning the two of them to come around the side of the house to one of the glass windowed porches. The pair changed their direction and moved towards the voice leaving the unseen people at the front door to watch them.
A beautifully ornate glass door opened and an incredibly tiny and aged woman stepped through it onto the steps. She took each step carefully. Her poor body looked like it had seen quite a few summers in its day and now was more than fragile. But the smile on her face was strong and it cut through the age. She looked ready to step happily through many summers to come.
“Hello! I’m so glad to see you both!”
The old woman opened her arms and motioned for them to hurry and come closer.
She first came up to aunt Jen and gave her a warm but respectful hug. “It’s so nice to see you again Jen. And so good of you to come this far. I hope the drive wasn’t too unpleasant.”
Aunt Jen said nothing in way of response. She tried to force a smile out but there was nothing but tension, anger and tight lips on her face.
The old woman turned to Emily and it was like a powerful sunbeam was directed at her. The young woman could almost feel the warmth of it flowing over her entire body. It was a good feeling. It was something that made her want to beam with equal light.
“And you…” the old woman’s voice became almost a whisper. “My precious girl! It is so incredible to finally see you again! And out of diapers! You’ve grown so much!”
Her arms reached towards Emily and scooped her up into an embrace that seemed far too powerful for a creature that looked so frail. Emily found herself happily returning the embrace as if she had known this woman her entire life.
Aunt Jen interrupted the old woman, shutting down the happy scene before either of the other two were ready for it to be over.
“Miss Emma… I have to speak to you before this goes any farther. Privately.” She looked at her niece and very stiffly told her she could wait there while the two aunts spoke.
Emily wanted to voice her complaints. She didn’t know this old woman but in those very few moments in her presence she’d felt more at home than she’d felt since losing either of her parents. This was a conversation she had every right to be apart of but she could see in her aunt’s face she would shut down any attempt for her to do so. This was to be a private aunt fight.
As if her great aunt knew this, she smiled sweetly and gently touched her great niece’s shoulder as if to reassure her and let her know she was not intimidated by an aunt fight.
“Of course Jen. Emily can go wait on the east porch and have some tea while you and I talk.” She looked back at Emily. “Just go on in dear. Miss Mox will look after you till we get back.”
With that the two aunts moved off in a direction where Emily was not meant to follow. The young woman didn’t move towards the porch though. She stood there almost dumbstruck by the whole situation. Her mind was racing but very few points were being touched upon. The strange reality of everything was finally starting to settle in.
A rough voice from somewhere within the porch called out to her and broke her spell.
“Come on now girl! The nice little old lady told you to get your arse in here and have some tea.”
Emily looked towards the door dumbfounded for a moment. It wasn’t the brute nature of the voice addressing her, it was the strangeness of this voice’s tone. It wasn’t something Emily could put her finger on.
Slowly she approached the steps and began to ascend them. Strangely she almost felt like a potential victim in a horror movie approaching her final scene. The only thing helping stave off this sensation was the colorful containers full of flowers at the edges of each step. There was too much beauty around her for there to be something completely dreadful waiting behind the porch door. At least this is what she thought.
The porch door pulled back to reveal a beautiful room existing around a very dark creature. This thing made of Halloween and dusty attic features was not as old as Miss Emma, but she certainly looked as though she’d traveled a long and hard road through life. It brought her to this place where she now looked like a Charles Addams caricature with a touch of old Victorian widow. Emily had to admit she was quite impressed with the massive bun of white hair atop the old woman’s head that had more insect accented hair-sticks stuck into it than she could honestly say she’d seen in her life; and that included simply seeing such items on display for sale.
“What’s the matter? Never seen a grumpy old bat before?” the dark creature barked.
Emily wanted to laugh but she was caught off guard. All she could do was try and smile and shrug her shoulders stupidly as she stood there.
She was met with a mimic of the shoulder shrugging. “Whatever girl. Your auntie told you to get in here and have some tea. So move your skinny butt in here and pour yourself some tea already. I don’t like repeating myself.”
This was enough to prompt the young woman into the room. And the room… it was a sight.
Emily passed through the doorway and was silent as she looked in awe at the room around her. When her great aunt called this the east porch she must have been referring to the overall Eastern theme to it. There was a simplicity to it that mingled with serene beauty. This was a matter of Asian plants and styles of décor. It was quite simple and graceful at the same time. It was the type of place one might meditate in, except perhaps the old woman actually sitting in the middle of it. She didn’t look like she was too into meditating.
The old woman nodded her head towards something across from her. “Over there girl.”
Emily looked from the strange creature towards a small table just across from her where a very elegant tea scene had been set up. The young woman moved towards this well displayed scene and slowly, as delicately as possible, attempted to pour tea for herself.
“I’m Emily” she offered as she made her tea. She wasn’t quite sure why the woman in the room with her felt so strange, beyond her appearance or her demeanor that is. The young woman tended to be drawn to a stranger crowd so the old woman’s general look didn’t make her stand out so much. There was just something… not quite right about her. Emily was trying to decide if it was a good not right or a bad not right. Maybe it was the fact that she was looking at an obviously old woman who didn’t actually seem that old. She honestly felt like she was looking at a young soul playing old woman dress-up.
This enigma of a creature was smiling as she held her tea cup close to her lips. She sipped her tea and relaxed back into her seat. If Emily had to wager a guess, she’d say the old woman liked this type of puzzled scrutiny over her.
“Hello Emily. My name is Minerva Mox. I’m a good friend of your aunt Emma’s. Do you like the tea?”
Emily looked at her tea cup as she brought it to her lips. She took a sip of it and nodded absently. “Yes… quite exotic.”
Minerva scoffed. “I don’t know about exotic… it has a lot of flower to it. I’m not a fan of flowery teas personally. But your aunt Emma decided it was important to create something unique for the arrival of her great niece to the household. So she took your mother’s favorite flowers and made something unique of it using a little hibiscus. Does the tea taste like the family you knew?”
This seemed like a rather brutal and hard question to be asking a young woman who was sipping tea with a strange woman under these circumstances. Emily had no real answer for her.
“I don’t know what family is supposed to taste like.”
The old woman smiled. “Neither do I love. It’s one of those things. Care to know what the special flower in it is? It gives it no real flavor, more a bit of decoration really -but it was your mother’s favorite and gives this tea a name.”
Emily looked over her shoulder at the old woman. That was actually a question worth replying to. She remembered many things about her mother but given her age at her death there were plenty of things she didn’t know simply because they hadn’t come up yet.
“Sure” she replied simply. “What flower? What do you call my mother’s tea?”
The old woman… this Minerva Mox -a thing of all visual cues and back-story misleads- smiled so warmly as she replied. “Snapdragon Tea. Your aunt Emma has a special tea for everyone in your family and your mother’s is Snapdragon Tea. It’s good. It’s your mum.”
“Did you know my mom?”
Minerva nodded her head slowly, the heavy bun on her head jutting back and forth a little with her movements. This slight movement caused an optical illusion: It looked like the wings on the metal insects in her hair were fluttering.
“I did… briefly. My condition has a great many irritations to it that few can completely sooth or heal. Your mother was a miracle worker with the soaps and lotions. She made me my own little assortment of products to help calm my angry skin. It was wonderful. I so miss them. Others try to duplicate her recipes but… I don’t know. I think your mother just had a gift for it because she so badly wanted her potions to be helpful. Sometimes the want proceeds the recipe.”
“My mom made soaps?”
“Oh yes my dear. I imagine much of your family in their time were modern day medicine women in one form or another. I’m excited to see what talents are to be found in your fingertips.”
Emily felt herself finally warming to the old woman. She stood and cautiously took a seat nearer to her, finding herself sincerely smiling.
“May I ask what she helped you with?”
Minerva nodded her head saying, matter-of-fact: “Old age my dear… old age. It came to me far too soon.”
Emily caught herself before she laughed at this. “Oh. I thought old age to be at the end of young age. Of course middle age is in there somewhere… but you have to decide the middle.”
Minerva smiled somewhat deviously. “Oh you do sound like your mum. Old age, by the natural progression of things, is just a process of life moving forward towards its end. I didn’t have that luxury. It’s a sad and tragic tale, I assure you. But for another day perhaps. I imagine this day has already been a pretty stressful bit of cake. And perhaps a cherry is still left to be put on top of that stressful cake.” Minerva said this as she looked towards the porch door.
A moment later the door opened and Emily’s aunt Jen was angrily demanding she come outside. She was up and out the door, drained tea cup still in hand, and immediately faced with the night and the day.
Her younger aunt’s face was red and hostile. Her older aunt’s face was calm and serene, but there was a note of underlining sadness to it. It was obvious their conversation had been a volatile one.
The younger aunt wiped the drying tears from her face and attempted to look composed. “We’ll need to get your things from the car and get you settled in before I leave.”
Great aunt Emma reached out to the younger aunt. “Please Jen… don’t leave like this. Stay over, at least for this evening and help little Emily get settled here. We were planning on having a nice welcome dinner for you both. We don’t have to part like this.”
Jen said nothing. She turned away from the older woman and began walking back to her car. She paused only long enough to tell Emily to hurry up and follow her.
Emily quickly caught up to her aunt and they walked the rest of the way in silence. When they got to the car her aunt turned to her and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Emily, I want you to get in the car and we’re going to go. I’m going to take you back home and we can have you stay with Mark and Sara for a little bit. They’re friends of mine and the courts don’t know them. It’ll give us a little time to think things out.”
Emily stared at her aunt. She knew where her aunt was coming from but she was seeming more and more to be the bad person in this equation. The great aunt she just met seemed nothing but sweet and compassionate. Emily had no desire to leave this place now. She could understand why her parents would want her here if they were no longer there for her.
“No! My parents wanted me to be here with great aunt Emma. And I trust what my parents want for me. You can’t tell me why you don’t like that woman. You can’t even trust me enough to tell me that. I want to stay here aunt Jen. I’ll visit you often. But right now… I want to be here.”
Jen shook her head rapidly as she opened the SUV door and grabbed the young woman by the arm. She was actually trying to force her into the car.
“No! I won’t allow you to stay here. Your mother hardly ever had a damned clue and even after she divorced your dad he still listened to her nonsense like it was gospel. He didn’t know better. I know what’s right for you though! You belong with your family! This isn’t your family. Your mother was always an odd one and she turned my brother just as strange. I will not leave you to be turned into the same thing!”
“Don’t talk about my parents that way!” Emily pulled away from her aunt and looked at her as though she was finally seeing the other woman for the first time. She didn’t like what she was looking at.
The young woman turned away from her aunt and stomped towards the back of the car. She pulled the back hatch up and started pulling her bags and boxes from the car. Her aunt followed behind her.
“Emily! I’m doing this for your own good. Your mother… her family… they’re all weirdos. Your dad got taken in by all their bullshit. I’m not about to stand by and let you get pulled into this nonsense. Your parents are gone. I’m sorry Emily, but they are. I don’t care what any will says! You need to come home with me and be with the family who loves you and will raise you right!”
Back at the house there were people coming from the front door. A woman and two men were approaching the aunt and niece. The woman looked like a gypsy with long hair and clothed in a long skirt and many strings of beads. The two men looked quite normal -one older and one not too far from Emily’s age. They were barely to the car when Emily’s aunt began yelling at them to go away.
“Can you help me carry my things?” Emily calmly asked the approaching trio, hoping they would ignore her aunt. As the older male came near her she picked up one of her heaviest boxes and handed it to him. He took the box and also grabbed a suitcase and turned back towards the house. The other two did the same thing.
Emily paused, turning back to her aunt. Ever after all that had been said she didn’t want this parting of ways to be ugly like this.
“Aunt Jen… you brought me here because this is what my mom and dad wanted. I’m sorry you disagree with their decision but this is what they wanted so this is what I’m going to do. It hurts me deeply to hear you say those things about my mom and then accuse her of making my dad somehow faulty in your eyes. It’s not a fair thing to say to me just to try and get me to come home with you. Nothing in my life has been fair. Just trust me enough to make up my own mind. I want to stay here. At least for a little while. If it gets weird or I don’t like it here, I can always call you right? You can come get me.”
The pair were silent as they looked at one another. Eventually her aunt reached for her, wrapping her arms around her niece. She whispered her fears in her niece’s ear and her niece tried to not hear them. Finally she pulled away and seemed to resign herself to the situation.
“Look at you… not quite fourteen yet and already starting to sound like a mini adult.”
Emily smiled. “Maybe. Will you stay the night? Stay with me?”
Her aunt paused, maybe fighting with herself over her decision or just trying to keep her anger and sadness in check. She shook her head slowly.
“I’m sorry Emily, I can’t. I’m sure you’ll be fine here but I just don’t get along with your mother’s people. But I know your aunt Emma will look after you. Just don’t let her fill your head up with too much nonsense, ok? You’ve got a wonderful imagination but sometimes you have to remember to keep your feet on the ground.”
It was an awkward scene after that. The three residents of the house made trips back and forth to bring all of Emily’s belongings up to the boarding house. When the SUV was empty they didn’t return. They left Emily standing alone with her aunt Jen going over who could be called in case of an emergency, when they expected her to come back home for a visit and other things the young woman was not terribly interested in that moment. This was all being done for the sake of her aunt Jen.
Eventually goodbyes were spoken. Last hugs were hugged. The dark clouds had passed and the sun was just starting to set off in the distance. Emily watched her aunt’s SUV disappear back into the tall grass and wild flowers. She waited several minutes till all noise, movement and anything that might represent her aunt’s vehicle was gone. Only then did she turn around and move back to the house.
Emily wasn’t sure what to expect from the boarding house. All of her belongings had been swept inside and were lurking someplace unknown. As she moved up to the front door she realized she was still clutching an empty tea cup in her hand. She wasn’t prepared to give it back either. At this point she was ready to declare it either a talisman or a security blanket in good china form.
On first looks the outside of the house had been very overwhelming. Emily was quite prepared for the inside of the house to be just as overwhelming. She imagined the outside and inside had to be of equal awe inducing power. This is where she realized the flaw in her logic. The outside of the house was just its shell. The true magic was stepping inside and seeing its guts.
“Sweet Jesus” she whispered as she crossed the threshold into the boarding house’s front parlor. It was from a different age… era… universe. It was beauty incarnate and all of those fantastical worlds she’d ever read about made real. She had a good mind to plunk herself down in that first room and stay there a good while. Great aunt Emma had different plans though.
“Oh it’s interesting, I know -but it’s about to get really hectic in here and I’m not sure you’re ready for what the boarding house considers hectic.”
Emily grinned like a loon, so happy just as she was so overwhelmed. “Oh I don’t know great aunt Emma. I think I’d like hectic.”
Her aunt laughed, slipping an arm around the young woman’s waist as she gently coaxed her forward. She was aiming them away from the main doors into the house and towards a much smaller side door off the right of the parlor.
“Sweet girl I understand. I was born in this house. I’ve been here for decades helping add to the mystic of it all. But trust me when I tell you that the House of Janus is one to ease into –especially on nights like tonight. And please… either just aunt Emma or Miss Emma. I don’t mean to sound impersonal but the great part makes me remember my age and not necessarily that I’m wonderful. And honestly… all those people I know and love simply call me Miss Emma. It’s just a thing.”
Emily found her arm mimicking her great aunt’s arm and sliding around her waist letting them walk arm in arm through the doorway. She at first thought it weird to think of calling this woman anything other than aunt, but then realized she didn’t actually know this woman honestly as an aunt. Minerva had called her Miss Emma and now that she thought about it, it sounded right.
“Miss Emma it is then. What’s going on tonight? I mean… why is the house hectic?”
“Too many events in one night, that’s what’s making it hectic. You’ll find a lot of interesting country around here but it’s also rather small country. At times it’s easy to think we’re our own little world set a drift from everything else. Tonight makes that seem especially so.
“You’ve arrived on a very special night. I didn’t tell your aunt this because I was worried she wouldn’t bring you here if she knew this. Tonight is the summer solstice so you have people here going every which way. A few up to Talbot estate. Some into the town… a few are going down to the lake. There will be fireworks and a festival. It’s a very big night for the locals.”
“Do we get to go?!”
It was obvious her aunt didn’t want to disappoint her, but there was also a strong look about her that said all excitement aside, this was a time to take things in baby steps. Emily knew the answer before her aunt even replied.
“I’m afraid not Emily. Not this time. I wanted you to come here tonight so we could have an evening of reunion. So that…” Miss Emma’s face grew very solemn. There was the weight of a world behind her expression. “So that you could go with me into the night and light a candle for your mother and father and show them the way into the next world.”
Emily felt the sincerity and love coming from her aunt. This was a woman she had only known from stories. And even though when they first met she claimed they had seen one another some time before, Emily couldn’t remember any such occasion –she was probably too little to remember, especially if diapers were involved. But she trusted her. It was strange for her to so easily feel at ease in such an alien place but she did.
“Ok” she said simply, trustingly.
Miss Emma took a moment to wrap her arms around her niece once again and give her the proper hug the other aunt had cut short.
Emily found herself folding into her great aunt and in that comforting space everything she’d held back by her processing finally let go. The tears came on hard. Hard enough to rack her body. But through it all this seemingly fragile old woman held her tightly and never let her go. It was everything Emily had been needing.
When all of the tears had finally been exhausted there was nothing more than sadness and an acceptance of what was going on. She pulled away from her great aunt and managed to offer a lop-sided smile in an effort to show her she was going to be fine.
“Okay… you said something to aunt Jen about a special dinner for us?”
Miss Emma beamed. “Oh yes! It may not have all the pomp and circumstance of local events, but it will be as special as I can make it.
“I refuse to believe that!”
“Oh no? He talked a good game but when all was said and done he was just a momma’s boy with a decent mastery of the language. I kid you not!”
“Oh you so wish you fibber!”
Emily happily forked mouthfuls of some exotic Indian dish she had no name for into her mouth. She sat at an intimate table of three on a second floor patio. They were out in the open with the breathtaking starry sky spreading out over their heads. There were next to no city lights for miles and miles so there was no pollution (debris or lights) to obstruct their view. The heavens were infinite above.
The best part for Emily was that her dinner companions had allowed her a glass of wine. She felt quite fancy and scandalous though she was quite sure they’d just given her some suped up grape juice.
She was being entertained by the conversation taking place between Minerva Mox and great aunt Emma –who she had officially decided to call Miss Emma. Their wine was quite genuine and they were far from drunk, but each was feeling cozy in their own old skin.
The conversation at hand was about turn of the century love affairs. Thankfully the details they were offering were quite shallow and properly rated for their young company. Emily found it hard to believe the tales were true anyway. They were speaking of Paris during its cultural heyday –something Emily was vaguely familiar with through movies like Moulin Rouge and what few school studies she’d had about the authors and artists of that era. As old as the pair appeared she couldn’t imagine them being remotely old enough to have been there at that time. That was the stuff of time machines or old age drugs. It was entertaining nonetheless. She was especially tickled by the fact that neither woman would outright call the other one a liar. They both relied heavily on the word fibber.
“Meh.” Minerva growled. She turned her attention to the younger female between them. “And lookit you! I brought that pitcher of milk out all for you. Miss Emma and I have had a century to grind our boring old taste-buds down so these spices don’t destroy our tongues. And you’re not even breaking a sweat! You are your mother’s daughter.”
Miss Emma smiled proudly and reached over and gently wound a lock of her great niece’s amber hair around her finger to form a curl. “Oh yes. I see the very best of Eva in this one. I see the very best of Stuart hiding out in there too.”
Emily said nothing, she just smiled back. Even if the wine in her glass was real she’d never feel as light and tipsy as she felt naturally in that moment. As much as she cherished every moment she’d ever spent with her mom and dad she still felt she’d been cheated out of too much time she could have had with them. Feeling that –this didn’t bring her parents back, but this was still the first moment were she felt both loved and in a good place since losing them. It was a start. This led to Emily’s first over-share in months.
“Part of my early trips with my dad when he moved into the city was he’d take me to this Mexican restaurant and we’d make bets who could eat the spicy dishes. Dad always won at first. I got better at it. Then I was beating him! It was a mixed victory though. I could stand the spices but I’d get the wicked farts at the end of the night.”
For a moment there was silence at the small table and Emily immediately felt very stupid and wished she could take back every word. Then nearly at the same time both of the old women started laughing with such intensity Emily thought they might shake their old skins off.
The laughter crept in and Emily found herself laughing just as hard. It had been so long. So very long since she felt she had a right to laugh about anything when she should be feeling so very sad.
“Thanks for the head’s up girlie. I’m glad Miss Emma put you in her side of the house!”
Minerva leaned over and gave the young woman a good natured wink.
“On that note –I’m going to excuse myself for a moment to take care of some business. I can’t tempt my body with gas. It might propel me out of this mortal coil.”
Minerva stood up from her chair and with a brisk walk belying her age moved off the patio for destinations unknown to Emily.
Emily sighed, still feeling the giggles just at the corners of everything.
“What’s wrong with Minerva Miss Emma? She’s old but not old. I can’t figure her out.”
This question sparked a surprised but pleased reaction in her great aunt. She looked thoughtful for a moment –as though she was really thinking about the question. It probably came down more to a question of what was appropriate to offer about the other old woman at this point. The situation was very new and very little had been talked about really.
“Hmm… Minerva is a very interesting story. Perhaps not a story for tonight. I’d really prefer for her to tell it. And if she’s excusing herself to save her soul from mortal coil expulsion she won’t be back soon!” Miss Emma made a funny face as though she were smelling onions and laughed. “So we’ll save that for another night. Right now… why don’t you and I go to my garden for a moment and light those candles for our family. Then I can show you to your new room and get you all tucked in. Today has been all stress and sudden things. Tomorrow can be about new things and adventure.”
Miss Emma led her great niece quickly through the boarding house. At nearly every turn the young woman wanted to stop and have a look around but her great aunt kept her moving. They only stopped when they’d left the house and moved out a little ways to a small but tall and flourishing flower garden that sat before a very large greenhouse. There were several other small gardens situated around it.
“Everyone at my boarding house is offered a bit of land here to do with as they please. Vegetables, statures, ponds… flowers –whatever they want. This is my garden. I planted it long ago and placed within it a seed for every member of my family I’ve ever come across –whether I knew them or not. Whether they were blood or not.
“Over there is a small lilac bush for my sister. Over here are sunflowers for your father. And this…” she pointed towards beautifully robust and colorful flowers growing in columns upwards. “These are your mother’s snapdragons.”
She handed her great niece two candles. “We’ll put these in the earth near your parents’ flowers and let them know you’re safe. I welcome them to visit you often but hope they’ll trust me enough so that they can rest knowing I’m looking out for you.”
The day had been so long and Emily was so very tired. The lighting of the candles didn’t seem like such a heavy ritual honestly but something about it and her great aunt’s demeanor suggested to her it was. So she took the candles very solemnly and was silent as she dug small holes in the earth near her parents flowers. She set the candles in the earth and tightly packed it back in around them.
Miss Emma offered her matches. With great care she took a new match out for each of her parents and lit the candles. “Sleep well momma… sleep well daddy…” she whispered as the flames sparked. Then without warning sleep overcame the exhausted young woman. There were no more thoughts. Just sleep and the stars overhead.
Daylight. The next memory Emily had after lighting candles for her parents was daylight. She was laying in a very comfortable sleigh bed with sheets softer than anything she’d ever slept on. The room around her was nice but undecorated. It was just enough of a finished space with the suggestion that a new occupant could move in and make it their own. To add to this suggestion Emily sat up and saw that her boxes neatly lined one of the walls and her suitcases had been set closer for easier access.
Emily laid back down and rolled over in bed. There beside her was a side table with a beautiful bouquet of sunflowers and snapdragons. Just in front of the flowers was a note.
“Sweet Emily I hope you slept well! You went out like a light! I wanted very much to be here when you woke up to treat you to a good Hathor boarding house breakfast, but alas the summer solstice plays out in different ways for everybody and I have to go sooth some ruffled feathers this morning.
“You have your own private bath with everything you might need to start off your day. Please take your time getting up. When you’re ready come downstairs. Everyone in the house knows you’re here and will gladly look after you. And if you choose to explore alone please be mindful of the woods to the east and know that the town to the west is also a bit of a trek for us. There are quite a few things to discover within the boarding house and around it. I will be back before sundown. I’m so sorry I’m not here for your first true day.”
It finished with love your Miss Emma.
Emily took her time getting up. This place was not her aunt Jen’s cramped apartment. This was a spacious room with large windows and the possibility of putting some character in it. Even as Emily thought this she felt guilty. In all of her huffing and (what she considered justified) puffing, she didn’t think about that long and defeated ride her aunt took back home alone.
“Best to not think about it right now” she whispered to herself. Today was today. Yesterday was the past. This was a lesson of her mother’s.
Emily dragged herself from her comfortable bed and went to the suitcase that held her most comforting and familiar items. She took it into the bathroom with her and spent the next thirty minutes righting herself for the world around her.
The trip downstairs was a minor maze. The outside of the boarding house looked large but it failed to give scope to just how large it could be inside when a crafty architect was able to add hallways and strange directions to a grand structure. When she finally found the kitchen on the first floor she was almost grateful to be in a place where she could at least request food. Thankfully there was someone to request such things from.
There was a mother and daughter duo in the kitchen. The mother was stirring a pot of cream of wheat and her daughter was jumping up and down wanting to know if she could go to the back door yet. The mother added a handful of blueberries to her pot and stirred. She finally found her breakfast stew complete and set it to the side. Only then did she turn towards her hyper daughter.
“Yes. But be quick. And bring the bowl back one way or another.”
The little girl squealed and darted out of the kitchen. Emily couldn’t be sure but it barely felt like moment had passed before the little girl returned to the kitchen with an empty bowl in hand.
“He took it! He took it!” The little girl chanted as she jumped up and down.
The mother smiled. “Wonderful! Do you think a little cream will get him to clean up the play room you refuse to neaten up?”
“Mom!” The little girl protested.
The mother shrugged her shoulders. “What? Dusting is one thing. Let him smell that homemade
rotting play-dough you have hidden in your play room and see if a bowl of cream is enough. I mean really Sigrid… haven’t I taught you the value of fair trade?”
The little girl looked put off, but clearly what her mother was telling her made sense. When she noticed Emily looking on her demeanor seemed to change though. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked defiant.
“Joao would do anything for me, cream or not!”
The mother looked up and noticed Emily as well. Her eyebrow arched as she looked down at her little girl and gave her a crocked smile.
“Let’s not play things up for the new person in the room.” She poured cream of wheat into a bowl and handed it to the little girl. “No more Joao talk. Now go sit and eat your breakfast –and mind your manners! We have a new guest to the house.”
The woman turned to Emily and motioned for her to come closer. “Come on in and have a seat. This is my daughter Sigrid. My name’s Sonja. Would you like something to eat?”
Emily smiled, slowly moving into the room and realizing she was unsure if her stomach was ready for new food after last night’s spicy meal. She finally decided no. “A glass of milk maybe?” she asked nervously. She didn’t want to offend Sonja by refusing her kind gesture.
The woman nodded her head and moved to a massive refrigerator. She hefted one of the big doors open and reached in for milk. Emily was just able to glimpse a shelf that held a large cardboard sign taped over it. It read Absolutely no one is to touch the contents of this shelf under penalty of death! It caught the young woman off guard.
Sonja filled up a glass of milk and set it on the table opposite her daughter. “Come sit!” She motioned towards a chair.
Emily was by nature a shy girl. She was slow to warm up to adults and often awkward around children younger than herself. Her shyness was especially bad around kids her own age. She was hyper sensitive to embarrassing herself around them before they’d had a chance to get to know her. She felt a mixture of all these things as she took a seat at the table.
Sonja took a bowl of cream of wheat for herself and joined her daughter and the new comer. The mother daughter duo were both quiet at first as they tucked right into eating their breakfast. It left Emily feeling the odd person out as she sipped her milk and wondered if she was supposed to be the one filling in the conversation. Thankfully the tension was broke when the little girl suddenly squealed “Ta dah!” and offered her empty bowl to her mother.
“All done! Can I talk now?”
Sonja nodded as she continued to eat her own food quietly.
Sigrid’s eyes were now on the new person in the room. There was a bit of mischievousness to her expression. Emily had no doubt this child had the potential to cause mischief equal to three of her child counterparts. There was just something about her demeanor that screamed this.
“Who are you?” she asked bluntly after staring the young woman up and down.
“I’m Emily. I’m Miss Emma’s great niece. I got here last night.”
“Okay Emily, here’s a question for you: Do you believe in fairies, sprites, kabouters, mermaids, tree spirits, ghosts, daemons, John Lennon, gnomes, grouchy old immortal men, that my mom should let me have a dog, and that grape soda is the best soda there ever was and will be?”
Emily stared blankly at the little girl. “Pardon?”
“Oh Sigrid. Let the poor girl have a few days to get settled in before you start your nonsense.”
Sigrid gave her mom an exacerbated look. “But mom! These things are important! We need to know these things right from the start.” She looked back at Emily to further impress upon her point. “Seriously! We have to get this stuff hashed out otherwise this is going to be a really strange place for you to live.”
Sonja began to scold her daughter again but Emily interrupted her. She liked the little girl’s bluntness. “I believe in selkies.” she said very softly.
Sigrid’s face lit up and she smacked the table excitedly with both hands. “It’s a start!” She turned towards her mother and gave her a snotty stare. “See mom –she gets it.”
The mother shook her head slowly but she was smiling. There was a sternness about the woman but perhaps she needed it to manage a child that seemed more than a bit thoughtful for her tender age. She couldn’t have been more than five years old.
“Selkies are sadly the only thing we don’t have here.” The mother offered sheepishly.
“Only because Anya forgot where she hid her skin.” The daughter chirped back.
This caused the mother to snap her finger sharply and point at her daughter. “Enough of that Sigrid. This is a new guest to the house. You keep your stories in check and give her some time to get settled in.”
Being reprimanded in front of a stranger was too much for the little girl. Her lips set into an impossibly deep and tragic looking little pout. She was up and running out of the kitchen a moment later.
Sonja shook her head slowly as she gently slid her empty breakfast bowl to the side. She looked towards Emily and offered her a smile that cut through the sternness of her features.
“I’m sorry about that. Sometimes you have to cut Sigrid off before you let her get a full head of steam worked up. Once she gets there she becomes a train that cannot be stopped or derailed. You’ll get the benefit of steam-train Sigrid soon enough.”
Emily nodded her head and sipped her milk. Honestly she didn’t know what to say in response to this. Her eyes drifted around the kitchen and came back to the refrigerator.
“So um… what’s up with the death shelf in the fridge?”
Sonja scoffed. “Oh yes, the shelf of doom. That belongs to the General. He occupies rooms in the attic that were meant for storage. A bit of a nutter that one. Don’t let him catch you stealing peanut butter fluffs from his private shelf. He’ll have your head… or at least berate you until you wish he’d just take your ears.”
“Why would anyone want to live in an attic?”
“A man who –no matter the discomfort his surroundings bring- must maintain a position where he can literally look down upon all those around him. In the case of this boarding house that place is the attic.” Sonja smirked. “Plus –I did mention he was a nutter didn’t I?”
Emily found herself laughing and relaxing. She finished her milk but remained in the kitchen for the next half hour getting to know the mother a little bit.
Sonja offered a very no nonsense overview of the boarding house. Everything about her seemed very no nonsense. She spoke in a very matter-of-fact way no matter the topic. At that moment such a personality trait wasn’t such a big deal. But as the conversation eventually dipped into more eccentric things this matter-of-fact tone would become a little disconcerting.
The single mother of one worked for a tailor in town. This was apparently a very busy job for her. She claimed most of the people who lived in the area were almost from a different era and didn’t go about things in a modern way. Like in the good old days of Sears & Roebuck, if a town’s person couldn’t find what they needed locally they ordered it out of a catalog. This left a lot of room for clothing alterations since catalog purchasing was apparently far from an exact science. Sonja was a confessed wizard with scissors and a sewing needle. This kept her in high demand.
She tried to describe the local area to Emily. Orange Moon Downs was apparently the only town in the immediate area. It consisted of a very long and prominent main street with a maze-like series of streets and alleys that branched off from this central hub. Much of the area was built when it was first settled around 1692. The history books say it was founded by two families fleeing their home village but historians of the time felt no need to explain what they were fleeing from.
Murky beginnings aside, the founding families were well known for their love of great architecture and most of their homes were built to be as beautiful to look at as they were designed to be thoughtful on the inside; not to mention meaningful. Sonja explained there was supposed to be a purpose behind the placement of every house, structure, park, landmark, and eventually buildings of government and even the main street. This purpose was not readily known to newcomers though. As Sonja said “Everything in town is supposed to be mapped out the way conspirators say the Masons mapped out everything in the country’s capital. Problem is from our vantage point on the ground it just sort of looks chaotic. I imagine you have to get high enough above to make out any order. And that’s all well and good but it still means navigating the town outside of the main street is a pain. The locals are used to it. As for me, well, I can still get lost taking Sigrid to day camp if I forget my turn.”
Speaking of Sigrid, the little girl darted in and out of the kitchen as the mother and newcomer talked. The imp moved and talked so fast she was like a little cornsilk colored wind breezing through the room. Most of the things she grabbed were food. Emily couldn’t quite catch much of what the little girl said as she blazed through but the general gist seemed to involve feeding a variety of local wildlife. This reminded Emily of the navigation signs by the parked cars.
“So the forest next to us is enchanted?” She asked, trying to maintain a serious face.
Sonja nodded her head and didn’t even skip a beat as she answered. “It is. I don’t recommend venturing into it without one of the locals to escort you. The local fae are relatively alright if you treat them properly and with respect to their nature. Some of the rehabilitated fae are a little angsty though. They tend to be revenge driven for their first few months back in nature.”
Emily sat there smiling stupidly waiting for Sonja to offer the punchline to her joke. It never came though. The woman had cautioned her daughter to give the newcomer time to get used to things before she told her tales, but she sat here and very earnestly spoke of things far more unsettling.
The mother, after realizing the time, stood and began clearing the table of empty bowls and silverware. As she did this she offered the young woman a quick outline of where everything was in the kitchen cupboards and what things were boarding house foods in the fridge and available to her to eat. Finally Emily had to speak up.
“You were kidding about the forest right? That’s a joke?”
Sonja looked up, her face somewhat quizzical as if she were thinking over everything she’d just said to find anything she might have not been clear about. Eventually she decided there was nothing. She shook her head –again, in that matter-of-fact way.
“No. I’m quite serious. There’s quite a few beautiful things to see in the forest and I do recommend you get to know it at some point when you’re more settled in. But always go with someone who knows it well. In fact…” she looked out the kitchen window to see if she could find her daughter. Little Sigrid was playing out in the lawn underneath the massive weeping willow tree. “If you don’t have anything you have to do right away, I suggest you go ask Sigrid to introduce you to Mab. She can give you an outline of the area.”
Emily had more questions but the mother had no time. She politely excused herself and moved through a door to the back of the kitchen that let out into a small mud room. She took a bag and hat from hooks on the wall before moving out into the yard to say goodbye to her daughter.
The young woman was left alone in the kitchen wondering what the heck just happened. The conversation had been quite mundane until that last bit.
Slowly Emily got to her feet and followed the path Sonja had walked. She moved into the mud room and noticed mostly shoes and coats that must belong to the little girl. There were also roller-skates and the random doll thrown carelessly among the shoes.
Outside the fresh country air was like its own entity. It rushed around Emily’s face and kissed her cheeks. It slid its warm, fragrant arms around her waist and pulled her close. Every little intimate detail about it was perfection. Emily could have stood there in the doorway forever just drinking it down.
The little girl Sigrid was still playing under the weeping willow tree. There was something unseen that she was talking to. She almost looked like she was scolding it. Emily moved towards her.
“You’re supposed to be helping her out! She doesn’t have any friends here. There’s no one like her.” She paused, listening to something Emily couldn’t hear. Whatever was said it upset the little girl. “I don’t care about that. You don’t need to be their messenger all the time!”
Sigrid’s face was set into a deep pout when Emily interrupted her conversation. “Someone up there giving you a hard time?”
Sigrid looked up and immediately the irritation was gone. A wide smile drew her face up into deep dimples and narrow eyes. She clapped her hands, obviously very excited to have Emily there. There was no mother to keep her tales in check. There didn’t seemed to be a babysitter either. Emily assumed she was watched over by others in the house.
Sigrid pointed towards the tree branches. “Rata is being a little jerk. I asked him to do one thing and he won’t do it. I promised him an extra bag of nuts if he helped me but he’s not being very helpful aaand he took the nuts anyway.”
Emily moved over to the spot where Sigrid stood and looked up into the tree. On one of the lower branches was a very cute little squirrel enthusiastically chewing on a nut. Next to him was a small pouch of mixed nuts. Emily assumed this was Rata. Though seeing a squirrel was not strange, this one seemed out of place. He didn’t look anything like the Eastern squirrels she was used to. It looked more like one of those disturbingly cute Asian squirrels she’d seen in books –the kind that almost looked like they were meant to be in an anime.
“What won’t he do?” Emily asked.
“I found Bauda in the forest. The forest fae didn’t think she belonged there so they were being mean to her. I brought her here so she could be friends with Rata, but Rata is too busy being a jerk and stealing nuts he didn’t earn.”
Almost on queue a full walnut dropped from the tree and bounced off the little girl’s head. She squealed “Hey!” and kicked the tree trunk with her little foot.
Emily had to chuckle. She didn’t imagine the squirrel was carrying on too much of this conversation but it seemed to have brilliant timing or perhaps it did understand her words.
“What’s Bauda like? Is she a squirrel too?”
Sigrid thought about this a moment and shrugged her shoulders. “Sort of. I don’t know what she is. She’s kind of like Rata though so I thought they could be friends.”
Emily looked around the tree branches. “I don’t see Bauda.”
“She’s hiding. She doesn’t like when the top and bottom are fighting. I think Rata’s up and down makes her nervous.”
“Top and bottom? Who are they?”
Sigrid got real quiet and stepped closer to the young woman. She motioned for Emily to kneel down so she could whisper in her ear. Emily dipped down to meet her.
“I can’t say the names of the top or the bottom. I’m not allowed to. If I say their names they may notice me. If they notice me they might realize this isn’t their tree.”
“Where is their tree?”
“It’s hidden right now. Miss Emma says we’re looking after the top and bottom until their tree isn’t hidden anymore.”
It was a strange conversation but Emily was young enough to remember the weird things little girls could come up with. She was curious though, over something else Sigird had said.
“You found Bauda in the forest… are you allowed to go in the forest?”
Sigrid’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, but only with Mab or KeeKee. Sometimes I help them in the glass house. And then I get to go with them to the forest to say goodbye to the little ones! I like doing that.”
“Is Mab in the glass house? Your mom said you would introduce me to her.”
This was all the little girl needed to hear. She squealed in excitement and grabbed Emily’s hand and began pulling her along. They went around the side of the house and the backyard came into view.
Emily would have stopped and sat gasping if little Sigrid wasn’t so enthusiastically leading her. Much of the backyard was dedicated to the small gardens Miss Emma had pointed out the previous evening. It was something to see them in the light though -Emily wanted to take a moment and look around. The little girl had a mission though and there were no stops for sightseeing allowed.
Set a little ways beyond the back of the house past the gardens was a very large greenhouse –or glass house as the little girl had called it. The glass was frosted so she could only make out the greenish shadows of the tall plants growing inside.
Sigrid stopped at the front door and put her finger to her lips. “We have to be very quiet. Some of the fae get startled if you get too loud. And Mab doesn’t like anyone startling her peepers.”
Emily nodded that she understood. She watched little Sigrid go to the door and gently rap on the front door. Very carefully she turned the door knob and pulled the door open. She motioned for Emily to follow her. Emily did as instructed and found herself almost mimicking the cartoonish way the little girl was tip-toeing into the green house.
Inside the green house was everything a Victorian garden was meant to be. There were small showers above that were letting off a very fine mist to replicate the somewhat cool and moist conditions of a London day. The floor below was a very beautiful, decorative marble that spread out in a checker pattern of sepia and pearl. Short, matching marble walls curved around outlining the edge of all the gardens. There was every type of plant and flower spreading through these neatly laid out scenes.
“It’s beautiful” Emily whispered breathlessly.
“Isn’t it?” Sigrid agreed as she moved over to an ornate little sculpture. The sculpture looked like a little art deco woman carved out of mother of pearl. It turned out it was actually a small bell. Sigrid tapped the sculpture’s little hand and a small bell hidden within it jingled.
There was a noise coming from deep within the green house. As the noise grew closer it seemed to bring all the life of the greenhouse with it. As if to announce the arrival of the noise-maker a little line of chickadees bounced towards them over the marble floor. Butterflies fluttered from the plants and came to rest on lily sculptures that doubled as butterfly feeding stations. Behind them was an older, friendly looking woman dressed in an outfit Emily would describe as autumn’s aunt.
“Sigrid!” She exclaimed. “Come over here and give your ole’ Mab a hug!”
The little girl raced over and threw her arms around the woman’s waist and bear hugged her.
“And who is this you’ve brought with you?”
“This is Emily but I heard Miss Emma call her Emmers. She’s Miss Emma’s great niece. She’s going to be staying with us and I like her a lot! She didn’t call me silly when I was talking to Rata.”
Mab nodded her head approvingly. “This is good. Maybe she can help you get Rata to be more friendly to Bauda.”
The prospect delighted Sigrid and she squealed yet again –only this time it was a muted sound like the world had turned the volume down on the rather loud child.
Then the room became very quiet. Sigird stood along side of this woman with a sense of calmness that seemed quite foreign to her personality as far as Emily could tell. As for Mab she was standing there silently observing the young woman. It was an intense sensation to stand there with this woman’s amber colored eyes staring intently and being so quiet. Emily wanted to say something to break up the tension but she realized there was probably a test being taken here. Judgments being made. The young woman felt it was best to remain polite and quiet until the keeper of the glass house was ready to address her again.
Eventually Mab looked away from Emily and focused on Sigrid once more. She knelt down next to the little girl and very softly asked her if she wanted to show her new friend the peeper she’d been helping rehab. Sigrid’s head bobbed up and down excitedly.
She skipped back over to Emily and took her hand again. Gently she pulled the young woman across the marble floor until they came to the edge of one of the garden beds. Sigrid took a seat on the short marble wall and motioned for Emily to do the same. Once they were both sitting Emily asked the little girl what a peeper was. She was expecting to be told this was a pet name for a chickadee or something similar.
“Peepers are fae. My peeper is a fairy. She came in really sick but I talk to her a lot and she’s been getting better.”
Emily found herself grinning ear to ear at the idea and wondered what type of pet this Mab had offered the little girl as a fairy.
Very quietly Sigrid said “This is how you call to her.” She leaned over and very softly began to whistle a little tune. Not long afterward something was moving through the small garden of gardenias approaching the little girl.
“There you are!” Sigrid put her hand out and something climbed into it.
Emily was trying to get a good look at the creature but only saw the wings at first. “Aww, what is that, a lunar moth?”
Sigrid carefully brought her hand back and offered her peeper for a better look. Emily just stared at it trying to take in exactly what she was seeing. The wings, the shape of the body… the little outfit made of dried flowers that covered it.
“What the hell…” Emily whispered as she reached out towards the creature in the little girl’s hand. When the fairies little hand reached back and touched the young woman’s finger all conclusions finally came together and there was a sudden mental block that overcame all her senses as she looked on in disbelief.
“It’s a… it’s a fairy…” she stammered. Then the lights went down and a very overwhelmed Emily tipped over and fell to the checkered marble below. The young woman fainted.
Snapdragon Tea, Chapter I copyright (c) 2014-2016 Bethalynne Bajema. All Rights Reserved. Published by Ver Sacrum Books. Reprinted here by permission. Reproduction of this content except for purposes of review are prohibited without written permission of the author and publisher. You can view more of Bethalynne’s writing portfolio here.