(Okay, I didn’t have time to take a pic of Muck Duck Pond. But the wary distrust of this duck gives you an idea of how the mallards felt today when I disturbed them…)
Have you ever read The Family Circus?
Growing up, it was one of my must-read comic strips in the Daily Harvest’s funny pages (FoxTrot, Far Side, Garfield, and Blondie, were the others I read religiously – in case you’re wondering).
One of my favorite reoccurring bits? When Billy takes five-thousand steps to complete a five-hundred step chore.
Meaning? When asked by an adult to complete a simple task, like gather firewood. He would wander hither, thither, and yon before finally finishing. (He didn’t lollygag per se, but felt following a straight line the least exciting accomplish anything). To demonstrate Billy’s meanderings, the illustrator, Bill Keane, would draw a dotted line highlighting the roundabout route, Billy took to complete his errand.
My original path from the house to the family plot would’ve made Billy proud, full of zigzags, backtracking, and detours. It was delightfully circuitous. The way Ina Von Haeville chose for my return trip was its’ complete antithesis. With a single-minded determination (to thwart the three sisters from finding IT, whatever IT is), she strode in an unswerving straight line thru the garden without heeding a single one of my pleas or curses.
Which explains how three-ish hours after breaking free of the walled garden, I stood staring at that forking fourteen-inch gap between the gate and its post again – decorated with muck well past to my knees and missing a shoe – angry as an adder whose naps been disturbed.
Tossing my tattered coat, sweaty scarf, and mud smudged backpack thru the gate first, I slithered thru the slender gap after them.
Ina Von Haeville (pacing at the door): “Took you long enough.”
Ignoring her waspish stare, I concentrated on reassembling my ensemble.
Ina Von Haeville (shepherding me towards the door): “IT’s just on the other side…”
Me (taking a deep breath): “Fantastic, the door’s locked.”
Emitting a derisive laugh, she pointed to a gap in the eave just above my head.
Ina Von Haeville (tapping the woodwork to emphasize her point): “There’s a spare key right here. My grandmother Lily hid one here because she kept locking herself out, those girls never listened to my stories, I’m sure it’s still there.”
Me (staring at decades worth of spider webs clogging the opening): “No. Absolutely not. I’m not reaching blindly into a dirty, spider filled hidey-hole for a key which may or may not be there.”
Ina Von Haeville (wrinkling her nose): “I don’t think anyone will notice the extra dirt.”
Me (exhaling very slowly): “I got filthy following you.”
Ina Von Haeville (eyeing me): “Really? I just thought this was your normal state.”
Seriously? Who did she know that sported this much mud spread about their person? Did she miss my swearing a blue streak while leading me thru Muck Duck Pond? (Yes, with real-life ducks, Mallards if I’m not mistaken.)
Me (taking a deep breath): “I’m going to try a window.”
I studied the back of the house while putting some space between us striving to reign in my annoyance. Why didn’t I think of this plan previously? With the number of panes missing from the windows, there must be a gap near a latch.
Ina Von Haeville (chillily): “We don’t have time for this.”
Me (flipping open my pocket knife while approaching the most likely candidate): “Black Widow bites may not bother you, but they do me.”
Ina Von Haeville: “Fine.”
A second later, goosebumps swept across my skin, followed by the sound of metal tinkling against stone.
Ina Von Haeville (pointing to walk): “The key was right where I said it was.”
Me (out of the corner of my eye, I spied it lying on the pavement): “So it was.”
Pulling a hankie from my pocket, I poured half of the tin of hand-cut sea salt into the center. Then, I placed the grungy key into the mound and started rubbing the grime away. Unhappy with the pause in our progress, Ina Von Haeville pushed past me into the kitchen, where she resumed her pacing.
Eventually, I followed her inside. Keeping my ears peeled for any telltale sounds of the search party’s presence, I met her in the middle of the floor.
Ina Von Haeville: “Do you promise never to allow any of those girls to lay a finger on what I’m going to give you?”
Me (shivering in the cold despite myself): “I promise.”
Ina Von Haeville (weighing my words): “Over there is the broom closet, open the door. On the left-hand side of the top shelf, there’s small knothole missing its center, hook your little finger through it, and pull down.”
Standing on my tiptoes, I groped around until I discovered the aforementioned knot and yanked – fighting the unoiled hinge – it finally gave way with one protracted squeak (which I’m ninety percent certain didn’t come from catching a mouse’s tail in the mechanism).
Revealing…a secret nook?
I suppose every old house has at least one – a removable baseboard, hollow stair, a hidden closet shelf – why not a secret compartment in a broom closet?
Question is what’s inside? Coins, stamps, needles, buttons, or a tarot card collection – the possibilities abound…
Ina Von Haeville: “IT’s three inches to your left.”
The answer? A dense film of dust (which only enhanced my current spot-on impression of Pigpen from Peanuts – another of my funny pages faves) and one small wooden box.
Not what I was expecting, but it makes sense. Aunt Pearl gave me something similar the day I moved into Nevermore’s Caretaker’s Cottage – only mine is made of tin.
Ina Von Haeville (trumpeting): “The last Von Haeville tradition left.”
After using my slightly soiled hankie to wipe away as much of the grime as it would hold, I opened it up, much to my companion’s delight.
Ina Von Haeville: “The Von Haeville secret family recipes! Lily’s blue ribbon winning quince jelly, Herman’s famous mornay sauce, all of them. Even the apple pie recipe that won me first place at the state fair! Every Von Haeville is given a box on their sixteenth birthday, this is the last copy, and I’m giving it to you.”
Me (quietly): “Thank you, but why me?”
Ina Von Haeville (wreathed in her first genuine smile): There isn’t any other way of keeping our recipes out of the dustheap; either the girls would toss them like they did David’s or the wreckers will destroy them when they pull down the house. I’d rather they get used by someone who obviously enjoys eating…
The last part of her sentence was lost under what sounded like a herd of turtles heading our way.
Ina Von Haeville: “They must have taken the back stairs! Quick, hide It!”
Without a word, I slipped her secret family recipe box into my pack and zipped it closed. Then did a quick scan of the kitchen – an unmistakable muddy line lead the eye to the closet.
Well, that won’t due….
Ina Von Haeville (flabbergasted): “What on earth are you doing?”
Ignoring her, I continued to channel my inner Billy and ran around the kitchen like a chicken with its’ head cut off – leaving a dotted line in my wake – as my shoe and sock were still sopping from my trek thru Muck Duck Pond.
Obfuscation complete, I waited for Beatrice and her search party to join us.