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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.”
“You mean the deer.”
“And bears and foxes and other things.”
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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!