Posts Categorized: Fretter’s Creek

Fretter’s Creek: “The refuge”

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In the darkness, under the giant spruce, a thin blue mist gathered.

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.”

“No?”

“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?”

Henry shrugged.

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.

 

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Fretter’s Creek: “Jeffery’s Liturgy”

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“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” said Henry. He grabbed another handful of chaff from the edge of the wheat field and sifted it through his fingers.

Harriet crossed her arms in front of her face. “Don’t do that again. My eyes are still itchy from the last time.” She ran her fingers over the foxed pages of an open book on her lap. “And you got it all over my book.”

“Dusty old thing. I’ll throw it behind us this time. Like I can predict the wind, Hettie, jeez.”

Harriet scowled at her brother. His brand new blue sweatshirt from the Thresherman’s Jubilee was covered with dirt and flecks of dried cellulose. Mom would be mad. Again.

Henry held his arm behind him, and as another breeze blew over the empty field, he opened his hand, scattering the chaff and a cloud of dust over the ridge. The children watched. The sun crept down behind the mountains.

“It’s getting dark,” said Harriet.

“And I still don’t want to go.”

Harriet fiddled with her shoelaces. “Yeah, me neither. Nothing yet.”

“Ten more minutes?”

“Sure.”

The road that wound between Pop Heb’s fields was quiet, and had been for the past hour. A handful of crickets chirped, hidden in the yellowing grass, The peepers began their evening song by a nearby pond.

“What do you think Steve and Mr. Grayson talked about?” said Henry.

“Work stuff I guess.”

“He said he might have to go to the city.”

Harriet nodded. “For a little bit. Like last year.”

“What do you think it’s like? The city? I’d like to see it sometime.”

“Noisy. You’ve been there before.”

“Yeah,” Henry scoffed. “I know. When we were young though. Do you remember any of it?”

“I remember it smelled weird.”

Boom! A sound like thunder echoed through the valley. Startled, the children scanned the sky.

“Thunder?” said Henry. “I don’t see any storm clouds.”

“Not thunder,” said Harriet with a smile. She pointed. “Look!”

An orange glow pulsed under the mists atop Jeffery’s Mountain. The mist thinned. The light burned against the twilit sky and disappeared. The mists gathered once more.

Foom! Like a rushing wind, the light ignited once more and the mists scattered. Dark shapes, twisting and flailing, appeared silhouetted against the blaze until the mists settled again, obscured the figures and extinguished the light.

Henry laughed. “Wow!” He slapped his sister on the arm. “What was that?”

Harriet hit him back. “I told you,” she said. “Jeffery’s Liturgy. Just like the book said.”

“Whatever that is,” said Henry. “Fine, okay. The book was right this time.”

Harriet slapped the book closed. The title read, “The Settlement of Fretter’s Creek: A History, by John Archibald Daniels” in faded gold leaf over a woven red cover.

“They thought Mr. Daniels was crazy,” said Harriet.

Henry pulled himself up and stretched. “If he’s crazy, then we are too I guess.”

Under a purple autumn sky, the children headed home, pondering the fresh scolding they’d get for being out so late on a weekday. The stars were out by the time they reached the front porch. Anna stood like a shadow at the screen door, hands on her hips.

Next week Red Panda and Crow continue their adventures in DC. Stayed tuned!

 

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Fretter’s Creek: “The corn maze”

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“Clover? What are you doing here?”

Every year, Josephus Applebaugh gave Harriet and Henry first crack at his corn maze.

“You kids keep me on my toes.” Josephus adjusted his worn red cap and jammed his thumbs in his work overalls. “Every year, me and Sally here have to, well, innovate I guess. I think this year we’ve outdone ourselves, ain’t that right Sally?”

Sally flopped her thick black tail in the grass. She was the biggest black lab anyone had seen this side of Uphills, and Josephus was the biggest man in all of Fretter’s Creek, towering over the kids, a full head higher than anyone they’d ever seen stand next to him. Sally panted and blinked in the warm autumn sunshine.

Henry put his hands on his hips, peering into the entrance of the maze. “Grandpa, we were in and out in ten minutes last year.”

Josephus removed his cap. “Well, your grandfather isn’t perfect, boy.” He sniffed. “Lord knows I’m getting older and, well, I try my best to keep it together, but…”

Harriet punched Henry in the arm.

“Ow,” said Henry. “He’s faking it, Hattie. Look at him.”

Josephus grinned. He dangled a silver pocketwatch from a long chain. “Now then, are we ready?”

“Wait,” said Harriet. “Can we take Sally?”

“Now that’d be cheating. She knows the way,” said Josephus. “Now get ready, the two of you.”

A slight breeze rustled the corn husks tied in two tall bundles on either side of the maze entrance.

Josephus held up the watch. “Set. Go!”

Henry was off at once. He immediately turned to the left and around the corner. Harriet sprinted after him.

“Wait, Henry,” she said. “We should have a plan.”

Henry waited for her around the corner, holding a ball of red yarn in his hand. “Just like last year,” he whispered.

“Not again,” she said. “We can do without it.”

“Come on, it’s more fun this way.” And without another word, Henry unwound the yarn behind him as they went. They came to the first intersection. The left path led them to a dead end, so they followed the yarn back and took the right path instead. Another dead end, this one with an old stuffed scarecrow dangling from a wooden frame. He wore a hat just like grandpa’s. So Henry and Harriet tried the other two paths and found two more dead ends.

Henry stood in the last empty alley. “That’s it? Where’s the little flag to bring back?”

“It can’t be it. We missed something,” said Harriet.

“Let’s go back to the beginning.”

They followed the yarn back to where they started. Henry gathered the yarn and Harriet followed him down a long, winding pathway where the wall of corn husks was twisted into spiral towers with thick knotted rope. The sky above darkened. Henry stopped. He held the ball of yarn up to Harriet.

“Look,” he said.

“At what?”

“The yarn ball.”

“What about it?”

“It’s bigger than when we started.”

“Stop it, Henry.”

“No, look.” Henry tried to stuff the ball into his pants pocket. It wouldn’t fit. “Hattie, I want to go back.”

“Back where? I didn’t recognize it back there and I don’t recognize it now. Let’s just keep going in one direction. Grandpa’s field is only so big anyway.”

The corridor walls seemed to shrink a little, but the sky remained dark and overcast. The yarn led to a break in the maze.

“There. See? There’s the entrance,” said Harriet.

Relieved, the children ran to the opening. But instead of Josephus and Sally and the farm, a withering meadow stretched out beyond the maze, ending at the banks of a trickling creek. Beyond the creek, a dark wood loomed, gnarled and ancient. In the wood, a single ghostly light flickered in the window of a dilapidated farm house.

A cold wind swept over the meadow and into the maze. Henry and Harriet shivered in unison.

Henry looked at his feet. The yarn led back into the maze. He grabbed his sister’s arm and ran.

“We follow the yarn, no matter what,” he said, panting.

“What was that place?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”

The children darted this way and that, around corners and down narrow alleys, following the single thread of bright red yarn. On a sharp left, they stumbled to a halt. Harriet gasped.

“What on earth?” said Henry.

It grunted and stamped the ground with its front right foot, but the bull only took a moment to consider the two of them. He was squat and fat, chestnut brown with white patches around his eyes. His horns were crooked and his left eye was a bit lazy.

“Clover? What are you doing here?” said Henry.

Clover snorted and took another mouthful of hay.

The sun returned. The walls of corn husks looked normal again: a man’s height at most, tied tight with brown twine. Harriet walked up to Clover and stroked the bridge of his nose. She fiddled with something around his collar.

“What is it Hattie?”

Harriet held up a little orange towel that read “Trick or Treat!” in the teeth of a Jack-o-Lantern. “The end,” she said. The yarn wound behind Clover and out the way they came in. Henry wound up the yarn. The ball was too big now to carry with one hand much less put it back in his pocket. He tossed it aside.

Josephus was waiting for them when they returned. He sat on an old patchwork quilt with Sally, spreading apple butter on a thick slice of white bread.

He checked his watch. “Forty-five minutes. Well, that’s no record, but you’ll forgive me if I take a little pride in providing a challenge to my sharp little grandkids. Did you have fun? Sit with me. Eat. Where’s the yarn?”

Henry and Harriet looked at one another. “You knew?”

“Sally told me,” he said with a wink.

The pair flopped down with their grandfather. He handed them each a slice of buttered bread. “Got some cider too if you want.”

Henry stared at Josephus intently. “How’d you get Clover in there?”

“Clover? He was in there, eh? I’ll be damned. He roams. Honest to God truth, I didn’t. That bull just sorta ends up places. Old Man Keller called me the other day, told me Clover was in his fishing hole. Damned if he wasn’t standing right smack on the swimming platform nibbling muck from the surface. That was an ordeal. I’ll have to do a sweep tomorrow before the kids show up. Don’t want any moms having a heart attack on me.”

Harriet devoured her bread and asked for another. “What about the woods, grandpa? The dark woods. On the other side.”

Josephus’ smile faded. He slathered another piece of bread and took a bite. He chewed and swallowed. “Did it look like a place for little boys and girls to go?”

“No.”

“No, grandpa.”

“Did the yarn lead there?”

“No, grandpa.”

“Then you listen to your grandpa when he says you trust your gut when it tells you something.”

“But what was it?”

“A bad place. A mistake.”

The four sat in silence for a time. Sally rolled over and let Harriet rub her belly.

“There now. The sunshine’s warm on a fall afternoon, we have homemade bread and sweets and best of all, my little labyrinth was a success, more or less. All in all a good day so far, how bout it?”

“What’s for dinner?” said Henry with a mouthful of bread.

Josephus grabbed the children’s hands and drew them close to him, kissing the tops of their heads.

“Let’s go have a look at the cupboards.”

Josephus gathered the quilt and his picnic basket and walked on stiff legs back to the house. Henry and Harriet and Sally followed behind.

“What was it?” whispered Henry.

“I don’t know. Grandpa looked scared.”

Henry scoffed. “He didn’t look scared.”

“Fine then. Worried.”

Henry hesitated. He shrugged helplessly. “I was scared.”

“Me too, Hank.”

Next week we visit Oscar and Francine in “The Rescue”. Oscar gets a haircut!

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Fretter’s Creek: “The blueberry patch”

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They shouldn’t have been walking on Helen Yeoman’s property without permission, but the shortcut up Slider’s Hill let Henry and Harriet cut about thirty minutes from the trek down to the blueberry patch. Their mother Anna had reminded them that Helen strapped cameras all over her property for tracking game. “Besides,” she’d said. “There isn’t much left in that patch, kids. It hasn’t been pruned since I was a little girl.”

Henry and Harriet both wore the bright orange fluorescent hats their pop had given them for Christmas. They walked along the ridge of Slider’s Hill, looking for the deer trail down the incline.

“I don’t see any cameras,” said Henry.

Harriet stopped walking. “That’s the point, Hank. You don’t see them. They see you.”

kids3

“You mean the deer.”

“And bears and foxes and other things.”

“Porcupines.”

“Maybe. Raccoons.”

“No one hunts raccoons.”

“Maybe not to eat,” said Harriet. “Mom says pop used to shoot at raccoons rummaging in his trash cans on the back patio.”

“Shoot at,” said Henry. “Not shoot.”

Harriet pulled up on the straps of her bookbag. “Help me a sec. This thing is heavy.”

“There. That’s tighter,” he said.

“Still heavy.”

Henry rolled his eyes. “This is a good idea.”

A shallow rut wound its way down from the ridge, and Henry and Harriet hopped over a moldy log to follow it. The deer path was steep in places, and the pair did more sliding than hiking overall. Eventually, the slope eased. The wood ended abruptly in a wide pasture. Across the pasture was a dirt road called SR-2598. Across that road and up another hill was the blueberry patch. Henry squinted across the pasture.

“Think she’s got cameras out there?”

“I doubt it. She might be out there somewhere. Might be able to see us from the house.”

“Damn,” said Henry. “Sorry. We could turn back I guess. Go around the long way.”

“For Pete’s sake, Hank.” Harriet stepped out into the open, bowed her shoulders and walked briskly toward the road. Henry swallowed. After a few seconds he sprinted to catch her.

“You sounded just like mom back there.” Henry was out of breath.

“Good. Now keep moving and be quiet.”

Henry couldn’t help but look to his left. Just over a windbreak of pine trees, smoke poured from the brick chimney of Helen Yeoman’s house. “What does Mrs. Yeoman do anyway, Hettie?”

“Dunno. Keep walking.”

The pasture ended at a thin stretch of brush, which had grown over rusted strands of barbed wire still clinging to lopsided wooden fenceposts.

“There’s an open spot here,” said Harriet.

Through a hole in the tangle of wire and weeds, Harriet and Henry skidded down to the dirt road, brushed off and moved on. Half a mile down the road, a thin path through the rhododendron was marked by a wooden sign. It used to read “Holmes Stead,” but only the “H” and the “Ste” was legible now, about as intact as the Holmes family themselves, who left the mountains long before the sign lost most of its letters.

Henry and Harriet pushed through the leathery evergreen grove. In May and June, the laurel and rhododendron bloomed pink and white. Withered flower petals were pasted together in wet mats around the base of each plant.

The woods opened up into a wide clearing. In the center, a dozen rows of blueberry bushes – man-high after years of neglect – grew in long, straight lines, a stark contrast to the haphazard forest.

Harriet dropped her bag at the head of the first row. She unzipped it and dumped the contents on the ground: a thick red book, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of pruning shears, two bottles of water and two ham sandwiches. Henry squinted in the sunlight, hands on his hips, surveying the patch.

“Here.” Harriet poked Henry’s leg with the handle of one of the pairs of shears. Henry took the shears and shoved them in his pants pocket. He hefted the book, “A Complete Guide to Orchard Growth and Maintenance,” paged to the back and ran his fingers down the index.

“Blueberries, blueberries,” he said, sifting the pages with his thumb. Harriet grabbed a sandwich and took a big bite.

Henry frowned at her. “We gotta pace ourselves, Hettie.”

“Mm-hm,” said Harriet.

Henry frowned over the book. “Says we cut down the green parts to about six inches.”

“Won’t that kill them?”

“I don’t think. I hope not. The books says it won’t.”

“It does not.”

“Well, it doesn’t say it, I guess.” Henry slapped the page. “But it’s not giving instructions on how to kill the things. It says how to prune them.”

Harriet took the shears, scrambled to her feet and started clipping the first bush in the first row. Henry sighed. His hair was warm from the sunlight and his feet were sore. He wondered what mom was making for dinner.

“C’mere,” Harriet called. She gestured to the bush, half of which she’d cut back as the book said. “I hope the book is right. Poor thing looks terrible.

Henry nodded slowly. “I’ll get started on the other.”

They worked through the afternoon, took a break around three. Henry stretched out for a while, soaking up the sun and dozing off for a few minutes before Harriet called him back to work.

When the sun passed just below the treeline, its light oozing through high needle and leaf, half of the patch was finished. Henry and Harriet were losing steam. They sat down on the opposite side of the trailhead.

“We could come back tomorrow,” said Henry.

Harriet shook her head. “Can’t. Mom wants us home tomorrow early.”

“I’m tired.”

“Me too.”

Something rustled in the blueberry patch. A twig cracked. One of the bushes two rows from where they sat shook back and forth. Metal shears snapped open and closed.

Henry grabbed Harriet’s arm and Harriet held his hand. She held a finger to her mouth and crept around the outside of patch. Henry followed close behind.
A young man worked over one of the remaining bushes with a rusty pair of shears. Harriet blushed, thrusting her hands into her denim pockets. The young man looked up, straight at the pair, then shrugged and went back to work.

“Excuse me, sir?” said Henry.

The man continued working as if he hadn’t heard them.

kids3manpruning

“What’s wrong with him, Hettie?”

“I don’t think he can see us, Hank.” Harriet tilted her head, watching him work. “Gosh he’s pretty.” Henry rolled his eyes.

They watched him. The man worked with a precision and speed that put Henry and Harriet to shame. In another hour, the patch was completed. He wiped his brow with an old rag, shoved it in his back pocket and made his way through the patch to the forest, shears resting on his shoulder. Henry and Harriet followed him.

The man walked into the woods opposite of the trailhead. To the right lay the remains of an old wooden gate. Henry walked with Harriet behind him about thirty yards into the woods and the man looked behind him. Henry stopped cold. The man seemed to look right through them.

Henry kicked at the dead leaves on the ground until the dirt below was exposed. Embedded in the dirt were the very tops of smooth cobblestones. Henry bent down to touch them.

“This was a road,” he mumbled.

They watched the man move ahead. Harriet gasped. “Hank, listen.”

“What?”

“Shh.”

Henry heard nothing but the wind through the trees. Somehow, the man walked in complete silence through inches of dry leaves. He turned to the right, toward a stand of hemlocks. Among the hemlocks stood a shed. The man fumbled with the handle and stepped inside. The door closed behind him.

Harriet and Henry crept to the shed and crouched below the window. Harriet rose up and peeked inside. Henry held his breath.

kids3tool shed

“Nothing,” said Harriet. “Old rusted tools. He’s not in there.”

“A ghost,” said Henry. He shivered.

“A man,” said Harriet. She smiled.

The walk home was chilly, but Anna had beef stew and biscuits ready for dinner. She tossed her apron on the kitchen counter and sat down. Steve grumbled about work for a while. The wind kicked up, rattling the shutters of the dining room windows.

“Mom,” said Henry. “Who owns the blueberry patch?”

“No one now I don’t think,” said Anna. “A family called Holmes did once upon a time. Is that where you two were today?”

Harriet nodded. “What were they like?”

Anna laughed. “I’m not that old. Your Pop Joe could tell you. Yous haven’t gone to see him in a couple weeks. You should go say hi. You can bring him that shovel that Steve borrowed last year.”

Steve glowered. “Why, what did you kids find?”

“Nothing. We pruned the field, just like you said, mom.” said Henry.

“The whole thing?” said Anna, incredulous.

“Yeah.”

“That’s a lot of work for two kids,” said Steve.

“Well, we had help,” said Henry. Harriet pinched him. “Ow. We did. There was a man there, mom. He was pruning the bushes just like us. We tried to talk to him and he didn’t answer and then he walked back into the woods and we followed him and then he went into an old shed and we looked in and he was gone. Just vanished. I think he was a ghost!”

Steve and Anna looked at Harriet. “What’d you tell your brother?” said Anna.

“Nothing.” Harriet crossed her arms. “It’s all true.”

Steve leaned back in his chair. “Strange place, isn’t it, Anna?”

“Very strange.” Anna pointed her fork at the kids. “Don’t you go mouthing off at school about this. They already think the Applebaugh’s are a little touched.”

“Is that hereditary?” said Steve.

Henry and Harriet watched their mother’s worried expression melt into a smile. “Seems so. Ask your pop about the Holmes’s sometime. And eat your succotash, the both of you.”

Next week we meet Brother Weird, the foodie third of The Beard Brothers! 

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Fretter’s Creek: “Mr. Holsopple”

mr.Holsopple
Mr. Holsopple swayed back and forth among the wildflowers as the late afternoon breeze swept down the valley. He had a faint smile on his blue lips up one side and the other side drooped down to his chin. Henry cleared his throat.

“Didn’t Mom say they buried Mr. Holsopple last week?” he said.

“Mr. Holsopple?” said Harriet. “They got someone else running the pharmacy now. I think they thought you were dead.”

Mr. Holsopple didn’t answer. His arms hung limp at his sides. He wore a nice blue suit with a red plaid tie, but his white button-down was muddied with handprints. He looked past the children, same distant smile on his face.

“He is dead, Hattie,” said Henry. “Still dead. Just… out and about.”

“You think we oughta let Mrs. Holsopple know he’s running loose?” said Harriet.

Henry shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe this is where he wants to be.”

“You know someone somewhere is gonna have a some kind of problem with Mr. Holsopple not being where he ought.”

“No one but us comes this far out. Besides, look at him. He looks happy. Takin’ a breather. He should loosen his tie up a bit.”

“He doesn’t breathe, Hank.”

Henry twisted his mouth up in thought. “Wonder if he misses that.”

A strong wind whipped the ballcap right off Harriet’s head and carried it, tumbling, back down the path. They chased it into a copse of pine trees where Henry caught it with his foot. He brushed the cap off and squashed it on Harriet’s head. When they returned to the field, Mr. Holsopple was nowhere to be seen. The summer wind had stopped all together. Crickets began their evening song.

“See? He’s on his way someplace,” said Henry. “He just needed a break.”

Harriet nodded. “I guess you’re right.” She looked at her watch. “Dinnertime soon. Should we head back?”

“Let’s swing by the cemetery on the way back, see if he digs himself back in.”

“I hate cold soup.”

Henry rolled his eyes. “Fine. Tomorrow then.”

The sun lingered on the treeline. Henry and Harriet ducked into the woods and headed home.

The breeze picked up again. Mr. Holsopple rose up from the patch of wildflowers. He swayed to and fro. A half smile crept up the side of his face.

mr.Holsopple2

Next week: Red Panda and Crow begin their escape from DC! This time we mean it. Someone, who’s name begins with a “J”, mixed up the schedule…

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