Tales from the Alcove
Annabel and Thomas kicked off their wet galoshes just inside the doorway of grandma Julia’s consignment shop, a delightful old Victorian named Village Treasures, and raced to the top of the staircase in their stocking feet—thumpity, thumpity, thump, thump, thump—to do what they typically did on rainy days while Ruth, their mother, went to work. The well-matched siblings habitually spent the entire time playing within the cozy confines of the bay window bench seat on the second-floor landing. Although their rock sacks were packed full of books, toys, colored paper and pencils, they usually preferred to look out at the rain. The gray watery backdrop served them well as a blank canvas for their imaginations to paint far more elaborate scenes upon than their limited artistic abilities could possibly have drawn. Ann often remarked, “It’s a shame no one else can see this.” Thomas would follow up her remark by either nodding and frowning or shaking his head and smiling depending on which make-believe game they were playing.
At times they would picture themselves adrift in a lifeboat after some grave mishap befell their ship. On some days the ship was a naval vessel while on other days it had a commercial purpose, but at no time was it ever a sail boat or cruise liner as the pair disliked pleasure crafts. Sometimes the children were to blame for these incidents whether accidental or as the result of sabotage, although outright mutiny required a more expanded background story. Ofttimes they merely followed orders to abandon ship, which was where the adventures began. Their captain never opted to join them. Stuffed animals served as fellow shipmates who had little to say about their predicament; most likely still in shock. Rather than suffer from starvation or thirst, the two leaders of these perilous voyages always packed plenty of sandwiches, snacks and drinks to help them survive their long ordeals at sea. Soft pillows and blankets stored within the bench seat were standard issue for the comfort and warmth of castaways and the overhead drapes were really sails.
Julia was reluctant at first to have them there. The idea of young children in her shop seemed unwise, but she approved of them using their imaginations and playing in one spot where she could still hear them. “The only time they ever move from that alcove is when they need to use the upstairs bathroom,” she told Ruth, “which I insist stays clean and tidy. So far we have had no problems.” Since much of the merchandise in her shop downstairs was vintage, breakable or handmade it was best if they did not come down. And Julia was quite sure her customers appreciated not having children running about while they browsed the shop’s labyrinth of rooms and shelving for just the right item. “Now I hardly notice they’re even here.” She meant that. Their grandmother did virtually nothing to look after them nor did they require her to. Customers would chuckle upon hearing the children’s voices as they acted out their outlandishly creative dramas. Julia noticed the more people were amused the more they lingered in order to eavesdrop on the two silly characters upstairs, which often resulted in sales. Her whimsical grandchildren not only added charm to an already charming shop but also profits. Since they seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves without complaints or fights it was a win/win.
“Where are they off to this time?” Julia’s neighbor, Leonard, asked while dropping by for tea.
She had anticipated his arrival. Already a fire glowed warmly in the gas stove of her guest parlor to ward off a lingering April chill. Her eyes turned upward as if she could actually see her grandchildren at play. “They’re snowed in a remote mountain cabin, I believe,” she replied “Would you prefer lemon or honey in your tea?”
“Rum?” Leonard quickly implored. Being one of those people with extreme features he sat in his usual highbacked chair that fit his long torso perfectly. Leonard’s beaklike nose tipped forward then backwards three times as he unraveled the mile-long scarf that enveloped his giraffe-like neck. Another neighbor lady had thoughtfully knitted it for him in all his favorite colors: blue, gray and white with silver highlights. It matched his hair and blue eyes perfectly.
Presuming business would be slow on a Monday afternoon Julia saw fit to oblige her friend with a splash of rum in his tea. She then poured herself a tea and contemplated her choice of additives. She had switched from sugar to honey then from honey to lemon when her dresses became too snug, however, it did little to change that fact. She thought it only polite to also have a splash of rum in her tea. “It occurred to me that you are one of the only persons on our block who have actually met my little mountaineers. Most everyone else have only heard them.”
“Oh?” and “Really?” were all he got out between hot sips.
“Let it cool off for heaven’s sake. Yes, so I invited Bethany and Wallace to pop by.”
“Splendid,” he replied then settled back in his chair, using a cinnamon stick to stir his tea.
Bethany was the neighbor lady who knitted and baked for everyone she knew. She always smelled like vanilla, apple crisp or molasses and wheedled people into telling her what their favorite cookies were. Leonard liked hermits best. Bethany made the most molasses laden hermit cookies he had ever tasted. He liked her a lot. Wallace was the newcomer. An odd fellow who, for a brief time, volunteered to put everyone’s trash barrels out by the curb on Wednesdays then bring them all back on Thursdays. At first, they all appreciated his help. He also offered to get everyone’s daily mail but that seemed a tad too helpful so he got a “no thank you” from everyone on the block. They later discovered that he was talking about their habits to the few friends he had based on the items he had found in their trash. After that they insisted on putting out their own trash barrels and for Wallace to stop lifting the lids. Leonard did not like him much.
Bethany came in with a large tin full of assorted homemade cookies neatly wrapped in groups of two with wax paper. “Can I call them down?” she asked Julia who simply shrugged her shoulders. Once the tin was pried open the aroma of her ‘enchanted cookies’ as Leonard called them quickly wafted through the shop. Their magic worked in minutes on the children, who came clamoring down the stairs. Bethany loved it whenever she got an enthusiastic response to her baked goods. She greeted them both with a warm smile and held out the cookie tin to their eager little hands. “Hello there, I’m Bethany.”
“Chocolate chip,” cried Thomas. His eyes lit up at his cookies. “I mean I’m Thomas. Tom.”
“Sugar cookies with pink sprinkles,” squeaked Ann. “Hello, Bethany, I’m Annabel. Ann.”
“Thank you,” they both said sweetly and sat on the small deacon bench awaiting their cups of tea. Their fine blonde hair was tucked underneath impressively made hats using brown paper bags cut into long strips and layered like house siding. The snipped bottom edges of each strip simulated fur and they even added broad flat beaver tails in back. Their mountaineer outfits took all morning to make at basecamp. Later they imagined themselves hiking through deep blizzard snow into the high country in order to rescue a family of stuffed animal homesteaders.
Everyone was admiring their hats when Wallace came into the shop wearing his electrician’s uniform despite the fact that he had been retired for years. Dickies brand shirts and pants were all he ever bought, so they were a least new and clean, not his actual old work clothes. Julia introduced him to her grandchildren. He nodded at each of them pleasantly enough but then poured his own tea, which was a most improper thing to do and went on to open three sets of cookies before settling on oatmeal raisin. “Why are they wrapped like this?” he asked.
Bethany smirked at his lack of etiquette, “So the flavors don’t get all squashed together.”
He thought about that. “Why not just put them in separate tins?” he asked.
She laughed. “Then I would have to juggle six tins of cookies,” she replied.
“Well not if you put them in one tote bag,” he suggested thinking he was clever.
This made Bethany laugh even harder. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Who brings six tins of cookies with them to a tea party?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Alright then just bring one,” Wallace replied.
Bethany’s jaw dropped. “One flavor of cookie? Seriously? But what if not everyone likes it?”
“Then they can go without, I suppose,” he reckoned.
This made Bethany wince. “Just sit there, you mean, while others are eating?”
“Yes, why not?” He was gobbling down each cookie in two bites, barely even chewing them.
Julia was mortified by the man’s ignorance. She could see he was upsetting Bethany who would never offer just one flavor of anything and expected her creations to be savored and not inhaled. Leonard must have rolled his eyes at least three times before Wallace had even taken his hat off.
The children thought Wallace and Bethany were both interesting characters. They neither laughed nor rolled their eyes at them. They decided with a secret wink to change the subject.
Thomas began. “Well we were just having a serious debate about habits people share. People who don’t necessarily know one another. Some of it we attributed to superstitions which quickly spread by word of mouth. We left off with common beliefs about rain—"
Annabel recalled, “And I said that is why children always stomp their feet in puddles.”
“Why?” asked Leonard holding out his empty tea cup to Julia. “Why do they stomp in puddles?”
“Yes why,” echoed Bethany.
Thomas looked surprised at them both. “Most children nowadays don’t remember how that got started. Ann and I know because we are over three hundred years old.” He allowed for a dramatic pause here. “It’s so that the evil witch can’t see them, of course. She needs the water to be perfectly still or it won’t act as a two-way mirror for spying on children with.”
“And what would be the point of that?” asked Wallace of all people. The irony of it did not go unnoted by the other adults in the room who were still relieved he never handled their mail.
Ann explained, “If the witch can get a child to stand still within a puddle she can snatch them for her dinner. It is probably she who is making it rain now. You can tell by its metallic smell.”
Thomas clarified, “Yes, but children must stare long enough into the witch’s mirror for her spell to work. Once they fall into a trance she can reach out and grab their ankles—whoosh—gone.”
“Gone,” Ann added morbidly. Her lovely pale face darkened right on cue into a stone-cold glare. Everyone trembled at the sudden and chilling transformation. She could also cry real tears on demand. Truly this one was destined to become a great actress.
“Oh, my heavens,” gasped Bethany who seemed genuinely concerned for their safety.
“How do you know? How can you know that she eats them?” Wallace asked.
This stopped Ann and Thomas in their tracks. The creative tempo and general suspension of disbelief had been derailed. They conferred privately behind their floppy beaver tails for several minutes but came up with no feasible answer.
Wallace laughed at their inability to explain it. “You can’t know what happens to them, can you?” he declared triumphantly. Everyone including the children shot him simultaneous glances of annoyance. He never chose the right things to say. Ever the socially inept clod in the room Wallace showed up when invited but ate and drank without really tasting anything and interacted with people without actually making a connection.
“Perhaps the ancient ones should stay indoors today,” Leonard suggested.
“We’re not ancient, just quite old,” Ann corrected him politely. “And we need to get to the carriage house in grandma’s backyard.”
“But we counted seventeen puddles between here and there,” Thomas reported.
“Seventeen potential witch’s mirrors you mean,” Ann pointed out. “So many mirrors. We can’t afford to wait for the rain to stop. We must go now Thomas.”
“Yes. Quickly grandma, give us a list of things you wanted us to bring back” Thomas said to Julia as if she had asked them to run an errand for her.
Thinking he had caught her off guard she promised to write it all down while they got their raingear on. “Aren’t they brave to go out there for me,” Julia said to the others while jotting down random supplies on the notepad she kept in her apron pocket.
“Rubbish,” grumbled Wallace while brushing cookie crumbs off his barrel-chested frontage and onto Julia’s Persian rug.
The man’s talent for inconsideration generated another groupwide look of annoyance from the adults who often wondered if he did such things on purpose. Probably, was what they decided.
“Yes, indeed they are so very brave,” Bethany assured her hostess—a coveted title she herself never held as her studio apartment was far too small for entertaining guests in, especially once one saw how much space her bins of yarn and baking materials took up. Poor Bethany, always a welcomed guest but never a hostess. “Want another cookie anyone?” She only had singles left beneath the wrapped sets.
Leonard and Wallace reached simultaneously for the hermit. Leonard settled on oatmeal raisin. He alone thanked Bethany for her thoughtfulness and for being such a marvelous cook. He meant that. Most days he ate nothing but fried egg and bologna sandwiches and her baked goods. Julia feared for her ever-expanding waistline and respectfully declined the offer. Two of Bethany’s large fluffy macaroons were more than sufficient for any lover of coconut.
The children quickly returned to the guest parlor dressed for their next adventure. Julia handed young Thomas her note and liked the fact that he could read it even though it was written in cursive. He scanned the list and saw that the objects were all fairly small but numerous. Julia handed each of them shopping bags to place her much needed supplies in. “Good luck.”
Leonard opened the side door of the shop for the intrepid duo. The long brick pathway running between the picket fence and the shop was slick but had good drainage—no puddles—right up to where it turned right and headed toward the back gate. That was how Leonard and the others came in. Annabel and Thomas followed it cautiously at first but needed to turn left at the bend in order to get to the carriage house. It started raining harder so off they ran into what was certain to be treacherous lands full of ravenous beasts, although Julia’s backyard was completely fenced in. Even still the old oak trees out there held secrets, poisonous acorns and peculiar tenants.
“Do you smell that, Tommy?” Ann shouted from behind her brother.
“Yes, I know. The rain smells metallic,” he replied.
“It must have been sent by a witch. She must be hungry,” Ann said.
They hesitated at first once they came upon the gauntlet of puddles leading up to the carriage house, their target destination. Thomas assessed the terrain ahead. “There’s no point in trying to pick our way around them Annie. We have no choice but to go through them,” he declared.
Annabel nodded in agreement. “No way ‘round. They started connecting while we were eating cookies. Instead of seventeen little puddles we now have six big ones. Look, Tommy, the water goes right up the tree trunks. Good thing we’re both wearing our high boots.”
“Don’t be scared, Annie. It’s not that far. Just stomp your feet if the rain stops suddenly.”
The two attempted to press on despite the danger, but Ann quickly fell behind her brother as the rain came down even harder. It also blew sideways, which made her disoriented. She could hardly hang onto her shopping bag or her rain bonnet as the wind whipped around her, tugging at her from all directions. Thomas could hear her screams of desperation just as he reached the dryer end of the dirt driveway. A few yards beyond that was the carriage house. He wanted to get inside where it was warm and dry but instead swung back around and ran towards Ann . . .
Wallace became a hero in the eyes of Annabel and Thomas who welcomed him into their adventures. He never told them about all the exposed tree roots along the driveway that first day they met, or that they had simply gotten their boots wedged under them. Unable to see the hazard beneath the surface of the deep puddles they were convinced he had saved them from an evil witch. It was clear that their frantic struggling was not helping to free them. They only knew that something, or someone, was holding of their feet and would not let go. Their screams managed to reach the inside of Julia’s shop. Only Wallace came running to their rescue, lifting them both out of their boots and carrying them safely inside the shop one hysterical child in each arm. He even went back for their boots while their grandmother, Leonard and Bethany attempted to calm them down. So carried away were they by their own made-up tale that they panicked. Both Annabel and Thomas actually believed a witch was trying to pull them through her mirror and that she would eat them for her dinner. They cried themselves to sleep by the fire in the guest parlor that afternoon. That happened several days ago. Since then they have undertaken a new challenge.
Captain Wallace sat at one end of the bench seat wearing his handmade H.M.S. paper hat, a good attempt considering how unpracticed he was at arts and crafts. He stared out of the bay window at the pouring rain and tried to imagine watching his ship sink into the cold and black north Atlantic. His young officers waited at the other end to hear him react appropriately to their situation. “Thank you for helping everyone get off the ship,” he said while waving his hand over the heads of his ragtag crew of stuffed animals. Lieutenants Annabel and Thomas approved of his words of appreciation. It was assumed that the crew were also grateful for the chance to get away, although the midshipman monkey was still unconscious. “And, of course, I am especially indebted to you both for helping my good wife, Mary, get into the life boat,” he added while looking down tenderly at the porcelain doll cradled under one of his strong arms. Again, the children approved of his choice of words and gestures. He had gotten much better at expressing more suitable emotions. This time their captain had opted to join his crew for Mary’s sake and to insure they would all get back to their families. He then pulled a real compass and world map out of his jacket to the delight of his fellow castaways, took a firm hold of the broom tiller and said, “Let’s go home.”
With the patient guidance of his new friends, Annabel and Thomas, it would seem that the odd fellow on the block, Wallace, was well on his way to becoming a highly regarded and agreeable member of the neighborhood—a village treasure in his own right. As more tales from the alcove followed he would take great pleasure in recounting them to everyone he knew.
© 2020 by Andrée Gendron