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If you followed Fretter’s Creek all the way through town to the west side of the valley, just before the foothills take small steps up to the mountains beyond, there sat a lonely brick house on a hundred acres or so of fallow farmland and woodlots. The Kerchner’s place marked the west edge of civilized Fretter’s Creek. Clare Kerchner was the last of her family in the valley, unmarried and childless.
Clare was famous in town for her love of animals. She rescued cats and dogs, rats and squirrels, crow chicks and sparrows – any creature in need of food or medicine or kindness. Little outbuildings surrounded her home, cages and sheds and the like, and most of these were occupied by her animal patients most of the time. The boys at school – Henry included – called her the Witch of the West End, a nickname Harriet thought was as unimaginative as it was untrue. Clare Kerchner was, in fact, an old friend of the Ashbaugh family, a former classmate of Henry and Harriet’s grandmother, Josephus’ ex-wife. Every holiday she sent jars of pear preserves to her friends in the church tied with a pretty blue ribbon. For weeks after Christmas, Easter and Independence Day, Harriet would eat cottage cheese and pears for breakfast, making sure to parcel out just enough of the sweet syrup to last with each helping of fruit. With the Fourth of July come and long gone, Anna packed up Clare’s empty jars in the kitchen along with the reddest of her beefcake tomatoes from the back yard.
Sullen, Henry watched his mother crunch up the top of the paper bag and hand it to Harriet.
“Take the Old Road over, okay?” said Anna. “Neither one of you have any money, so there’s no reason to stop at the Dairy Bar on the way, right?”
“Yes, mom,” they said in unison.
“Why can’t Hettie just go?” said Henry. “It’s a long ride and I don’t feel like it.”
“Henry Ashbaugh,” said Anna. “Your little friends at school are dead wrong about Clare. She’s a lovely woman with a big heart. And she likes when you two go to visit. She’s probably spent all day cooking up something special for you for dinner and you wouldn’t want to spoil that for her would you? Think about how your mother would feel if you did that.”
Henry grumbled something and picked himself up from the kitchen table. Harriet dumped the bag in his arms. “Grow up.”
“You grow up.”
Henry backed into the screen door and kicked it open. It swung back on Harriet. He took off down the front steps.
“Knock it off,” said Anna. “Oh and tell Clare that the rector wants to talk about the bake sale for next month. Don’t forget!”
It was a typical July day in Fretter’s Creek. The sky was clear and the sun was hot, but a cool breeze blew in off the mountains that made the weather feel just right. Harriet walked her bike down the road toward the old road. Henry split off toward town.
“Hey, where are you going?” said Harriet.
“The Dairy Bar.” Henry stopped. He jangled change in his pockets. “Want a swirl?”
“Where’d you get that?”
“From my shoebox. I’ve been saving my nickels and dimes up. Come on, it’ll just be a few minutes out of the way.”
“No way, Hank. Someone will see us and tell mom. Come on. It’s getting late as it is.”
Henry secured the bag of jars and tomatoes in his basket. “Fine. Fine! You guys are no fun.”
People had traveled the Old Road through the valley for centuries. It was paved eventually, like the rest of the roads, but old habits die hard: over the years, bicycles and feet had worn a path into the shoulder and the old Old Road lived on.
Henry and Harriet sped along. Gravel spat under their tires and rattled the jars in Henry’s basket. He scowled at the bag the entire way. It was distracting.
In the distance, a dozen enormous spruce trees rose on the horizon, jutting from the flat farmland. At the feet of those trees, hidden from the road, was Clare’s house. The children pair their way up the driveway as the sun dipped behind the mountaintops.
Clare was nowhere to be seen, but they were greeted by a big lumbering sheepdog and his three-legged friend, a fat little beagle who hopped along beside him. A racket erupted from the cages and sheds behind the house: caws and squeals and yips and growls. Henry pulled the bag from his bike and rolled the bike up next to his sister’s. The children walked up the short stone staircase and knocked on the screen door. The front door was open. It smelled like baked bread and gravy inside.
“Come in!” said a voice.
Clare Kerchner waved them into the kitchen. She hunched over a sizzling pan on the stove, shaking it back and forth across the flame. Clare wore a flowery white sundress with black buckle shoes. Her silver hair was tied up into a loose knot with a long pin. She let go of the pan handle, wiped her hands on a lacy apron and beckoned the children to her. She hugged them one after another.
“You look real pretty, Mrs. Kerchner,” said Harriet. “I love your pin.”
“Yeah,” said Henry. “Me too.”
“Oh, you two are too sweet. Henry, you look very handsome. More and more like your grandfather every day. And you, Harriet, just like my dear friend Elizabeth! My how I miss her. Take a seat. Dinner will be ready shortly.”
Henry and Harriet sat at the yellow Formica table under the kitchen window. Clare had laid out the same daisy place mats and heavy ceramic plates as always. The salt and pepper shakers were in the shape of a dog holding his food bowl in his mouth and a black cat licking its paw. Harriet poked Henry and nodded to the bag.
“Oh yeah,” said Henry. “Mrs. Kerchner, mom sent back your jars. She put some tomatoes in here too.”
Clare turned off the stove and moved the bag from the table to the counter next to the refrigerator. She peeked inside. “Oh, your mother. I tell her every time she can keep those jars. Lovely tomatoes. We’ve had such a nice summer, wouldn’t you say?”
“Very much,” said Harriet. “Where did you find the poor little doggy missing a leg?”
“Oh, Little John.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t you let him fool you. He’s a rascal. He’s got ten times the energy of that oaf.” Clare gestured to the backdoor. The sheepdog stood on the stoop looking in, panting and wagging his tail.
“Now, I hope you kids like mushrooms. My father used to get up early during the mushroom season and go picking in the forests all along the edge of the valley. Now, I’m a little too old to be picking around in the woods, so these I bought at the grocer.”
Clare pulled out a pan from the oven. Arranged on the pan were three pot pies, golden grown and piping hot. She slid the pan on the stove top, swished a little brush in the cast iron skillet and painted the crusts with butter.
“Can we help, Ms. Kerchner?” said Harriet.
Clare smiled. “Well, you can bring me your plates.”
Henry ate hungrily despite himself. They were packed with mushrooms and little pearl onions and smothered with thick brown gravy. The buttered crust melted in his mouth.
Mrs. Kerchner asked them about school and what they’d done over the summer. Harriet remembered to mention the bake sale, and Clare said she might have some leftover pears after putting together her tarts. Harriet grinned.
With a full stomach, Henry’s mood improved. He finished his last bite of pie, flopped his napkin on the table and leaned back, hands behind his head. “Delicious,” he said. “That was as good as any beef gravy mom’s ever made.” Henry’s face turned pale. “Don’t tell her I said that.” Mrs. Kerchner and Harriet laughed.
“High praise, Mr. Ashbaugh. Thank you. Only, it wasn’t beef gravy.”
“It’s a special recipe. No meat at all.”
Henry frowned. He remembered Steve talking about people in the city who didn’t eat meat, but Henry had never met one.
“Mrs. Kerchner, where did you find the dogs?” said Harriet. “I don’t remember them from the last time we were here.”
Clare put her fork down and dabbed her lips with a napkin. “I found Olaf there wandering around town by himself. Mangy and dirty. And the three legged one, Little John, well, he was John Bushnell’s dog. Hit by a car late at night. Heard at church they were going to put him down and I couldn’t have it.”
“Wait,” said Henry. “Jake’s dad?”
She nodded. “Jake’s the one who brought him here. Poor thing looked worse than the dog. Limp and hopeless.”
Harriet grinned at Henry. Jake was often the leader of the Crazy Clare Chorus at school. Henry shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
Clare chuckled. “Ah. Yes. Well, that’s nothing new, kids. Jake’s just saying the things that his daddy said when he was Jake’s age. The Witch of the West End has been around a lot longer than you two. Horribly unimaginative, though. I’d hoped the newer generations could come up with something more original.”
Harriet punched her brother in the arm. “I’ll bet Jake won’t be so eager to shoot off his mouth this year.”
Clare shrugged. “If not him, then someone else. I do have a backyard full of wild animals, after all. Not exactly normal.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Harriet. “I wish mom would let me do it.”
“You have too much to do, young lady. Your best years are yet ahead. Maybe when you know where you’re going and who with, you’ll find time to help in your own way. Now, let’s have some tea and some desert. How’s that sound?”
Henry shot up from his seat and started collecting the dishes. “Let me do the dishes, Mrs. Kerchner.”
“Oh, no, Henry. You’re my guest. Sit and relax.”
“No,” said Henry. “Please, let me.”
While Henry scrubbed every inch of every spoon, knife, fork and plate, Harriet helped Clare fill tart shells with pastry cream and slices of preserved pears. Over dessert, Mrs. Kerchner told the kids about a fox kit she once raised.
When the light had disappeared from the window and the crickets began to sing, Mrs. Kerchner sighed. “Let’s get you kids packed up and ready. Your mother will be here soon to get you.”
Henry and Harriet hugged Mrs. Kerchner goodbye. They wheeled their bikes down the driveway toward the road. The stars twinkled above in the night sky.
“I told you she was nice. I hope you learned something tonight.”
“I did,” said Henry. “I didn’t know you could make gravy without meat.”
Harriet rolled her eyes. The sound of a porch door slapping the jamb echoed down the driveway. A light flicked on from behind the house. Clare dragged a burlap bag behind her toward the outbuildings. The animals within whooped and hollered and Little John and Olaf pranced around her happily. After ten minutes or so, Clare waved to the children and Harriet and Henry waved back. Clare went inside.
“Where’s mom?” said Henry.
Harriet gasped and clawed at her brother’s arm. “Henry, look!”
In the darkness, under the giant spruce, a thin blue mist gathered. The mist coalesced into smaller and denser clouds, and the clouds took shape. A ghostly bear sat on its haunches, chewing its pads. Dogs tromped with one another among the trees. Squirrels ran up their trunks. A phantom fox skulked along the side of the house. A light flicked on in the upstairs window. A dozen birds of all shapes and sizes – wrens, sparrows, crows, cardinals and others – sat on a crooked limb outside the window, preening and pecking and stretching their wings.
“What are they doing?” said Henry.
Harriet shook her head. “Do you think she knows?”
Beep! Beep! Along the road, their mother Anna waved from the truck. When they looked back at the house, the animals were gone.
Harriet walked her bike to the truck. Henry helped her muscle it in the bed, then they did the same for his bike.
“They’re protecting her, Hank. I’ll put money on it,” said Harriet.
“Protecting her from what?”
“I don’t know.”
Next week, back to the Beard Brothers to meet Brother Eared.