Friends: For this holiday season I'm sending you a short story. When you have a cup of hot cocoa in your hand and some minutes to relax, I hope you'll read it and enjoy this tale that's made of memories from my own childhood.
By Darby Lee Patterson©
The white, wood-frame house stood on the knoll of a hill at the end of steep and winding dirt road that washed out with every spring thaw. For Trish and Mark, it was an adventure to ride up the slippery mud with Gramma clutching the padded armrest of the Buick until her knuckles turned white.
"Take it easy Frank. Frank! Be careful, or we'll go right off the road," she'd cry, and Papa Frank would just remain silent and pilot the 1958 two-toned grey coupe around the slick hairpin turns through the ruts and gullies until the car humped over the last crest and onto the farm. The kids and their mother sat in the back seat, the grandparents in the front. Trish favored the window on the driver's side, wanting to be fully informed should the car one day slide off the road and down the grassy hill into unseen, imagined horrors of the shadowy landscape.
The ride to Aunt Mary and Uncle Felix's farm deep in the hills of Wisconsin was a departure from life in nearby Winona, Minnesota. Since her father had been gone, Trish and her little brother, Mark, a curly-headed three-year-old, lived with her grandparents and her mother in the Mississippi River town where every other kid had a dad, and divorce was as uncommon as sunshine in February. It was necessarily a conservative family life, where no one took chances or called unnecessary attention to themselves. A half dozen times or so a year, they left the river town behind and spent the day where the calendar seemed to have stopped somewhere around 1925.
Aunt Mary was her grandmother's older sister - a religious woman who practiced her own brand of Catholicism and who Trish never saw without an apron wrapped around her broad waist. She and Uncle Felix lived like people from a history book— no electricity, running water, or plumbing. Aunt Mary cooked on an old cast iron wood stove, food was stored in an underground pantry, a chamber pot was tucked under the bed, and a wooden barrel for churning butter sat in the corner of the kitchen.
The wild ride up the rutted road was the only portal to this place from the past, with an atmosphere that made life in Winona seem boring in comparison. Trish felt anticipation and fear the minute she jumped from the car and looked at the old farm with its out-buildings surrounded by forestland that grew poison ivy and other evil weeds that could make children sick or, according to her Gramma, dead.
She and Mark were not allowed to penetrate the border of the overgrown hillsides. Safe territory was limited to where the adults could keep an eye on them. Which is precisely why Trish loved to explore the leaning clapboard buildings that housed machinery, tools, animals, and, she supposed, ghosts.
In the chicken coop, she particularly felt danger. There, among the boxes of warm eggs and feathers that drifted on the slightest breeze, with sunlight streaming through the cracks in the walls and the smell of chickens, she was wary. Nervous. Constantly looking over her shoulder. If a hen for no good reason - because chickens, Uncle Felix said, were very, very stupid - should be suddenly startled and spring into the air squawking and screeching, Trish would jump and run from the coop straight into the bright kitchen of the farmhouse. No matter that Uncle Felix also told them never to run around Shep, the great collie who protected the farm and its living things. The danger that hung in the atmosphere inside the chicken coop was more terrifying than Shep's pointy teeth.
Trish preferred to play outside because the adults were hugely uninteresting with their talk of relatives and how poorly some of them were doing down in the city. And, if they were talking about something that just might be interesting, her grandmother and great Aunt lapsed quickly into Polish, leaving the rest of the family to only imagine what scandal they might be airing.
A simple white, clapboard house dominated the hilltop, seeming much larger than it was, with a grand front porch, a root cellar with double doors that were latched shut to keep children out, and, Trish imagined, the cellar monsters in. A respectable distance from the home was the outhouse, an ancient barn that leaned to one side and threatened to collapse at the slightest urging from man or nature, and the teeming chicken coop surrounded by a platoon of flying insects. There was also a small, deteriorating garage that housed a rusting Model T pickup truck that her uncle, on rare occasions, drove down the hill to the nearest town.
The outhouse smelled terrible and was filled with noisy flies the size of bumblebees. Trish once held her breath, peeked down the hole, and saw no bottom at all. Perhaps, she thought, it led to Hell or a den of snakes. The outhouse wasn't an option for adventure, and Uncle Felix had forbidden her to go inside the cavernous rust-red barn that housed two milk cows. The cows, he said, could kill a child with one kick and were about as dumb as chickens. Besides, the barn wasn't safe. The timbers were old and leaning. The loft hung down like an open jaw, spilling bales of hay onto the dirt floor.
Not too far from the house was a water well with a long-handled pump. The water was always cold and tasted crisp and alive. But for some unknown reason, the well was declared dangerous, and an adult had to be outside when Trish went to draw a ladle of water. More than once, she tried to discover what was so perilous about the pump and well but had quickly been herded indoors by an adult.
The best outdoor place was the front porch or, more specifically, under the front porch, where passels of kittens were produced like a seasonal crop. Born of wild mothers who hid them deep beneath the house, it was a perennial challenge to catch a kitten and quiet its instinctual fears. Most often, they bared their needle-sharp baby fangs and struck out with virgin claws that left bleeding red welts on Trish's arms. Nonetheless, the consistent result of kitten-catching did not deter Trish from the hunt.
Trish managed to stay away from the sloping hillside where other animals waited to catch an unwary child. There were snakes. Water moccasins and rattlers. She could picture them striking out at her bare legs, locking down, and never letting go. There were also giant poison mushrooms on the hill. She believed that just touching them was enough to send a child into fits that ended in a feverish death. Aunt Mary assured her this was true.
Indeed, most outdoor adventures ended with her bolting into the house where the air was hot and dry and smelled of baking bread. There, she felt safer, not because of the house itself, but because the adults were nearby. But the house presented its own problems that were, in some ways, more frightening than crazed chickens or cows that wanted to kill children. Trish could never identify exactly what was wrong because she realized it was something that couldn't be seen.
There was the dining room where the adults sat and gossiped, her mother bouncing little Mark on her knee. There was nothing frightening about the massive wooden table or sideboard where delicate china cups were displayed around a set of silver salt and pepper shakers shaped like pheasants. And the framed prints of the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the Last Supper, and Pope Pius XII that hung on the walls along with palm fronds twisted into a dry braid should have been comforting but were not.
There was also the bowl of Holy Water that sat on a little stand near the entry to her aunt's bedroom, which was drenched in inviting afternoon sunlight. The room was small and crowded with massive furniture. A feather-filled quilt was piled high on a brass bed so tall, Trish could barely see over the top. There was a towering wooden chest where Aunt Mary hung her clothes, and Trish sometimes hid when she wanted to play tricks on the adults. On another ornate wooden dresser was a kerosene lamp, and dozens of Holy Cards propped up against a statue of the Virgin Mary. A large, carved crucifix hung on the wall opposite the bed with more palm fronds tucked artfully behind. At the foot of the bed was a cedar chest holding an old picture album with a ruby red velvet cover. Inside were black and white photos of men with beards and women wearing bustles and high necked, dark dresses. There was also a picture of a baby lying in a coffin. Trish held her breath each time she turned a page in fear of coming across the photo, which she did on every visit to the farm.
Around the corner from the bedroom there was a narrow and dark hallway. Aunt Mary had a treadle sewing machine tucked in the corner and baskets of sewing on the floor. At the far doorway sat a small table with another dish of Holy Water and a rosary lovingly waiting for someone's prayers. Trish always stopped at this dish, touched the water with her index and middle fingers, and made the Sign of the Cross on her body before moving to pass and then pause in front of the stairs to the attic - a place that both frightened and attracted her. The Holy Water, she felt, gave her protection from something unknown and potentially dangerous that lived up there. She sometimes dashed purposely past the stairs and straight into the kitchen with its black cast-iron cookstove, and bright yellow walls. The kitchen felt entirely safe even though the entrance to the root cellar was right under a small braided rug in the middle of the floor. It was another place she was forbidden to go.
The attic was also off-limits to children. She had been sternly warned away from the stairs. There had been no explanation, just a finger-wagging at the end of Mother's arm while the other adults looked on and nodded their heads in agreement. "Don't climb up those stairs. There is nothing up there for you. Do you understand me? If I catch you disobeying, you know what will happen."
Yes, and no. Trish knew it would be something really unpleasant, but she'd never pushed far enough to find out what "what" actually was. So, she wasn't thinking about the possible repercussions when she paused at the foot of the stairs and let her eyes climb them, one by one, up to a gaping rectangle where silvery specks of dust danced about in thin beams of sunlight coming from somewhere in the attic. Trish stood as still as the statue of the Virgin Mary on her Aunt's dresser and lifted a foot to the bottom stair.
At first, she felt an urge to run but stood fast, and a new sensation flowed through her body. It was as if a draft of warm air was pulling upwards into the place children should never go. To where adults hid secrets and monsters stood guard. Trish knew this, and still, she placed her foot with its red canvas tennis shoe on the second step. She let her right hand touch the rough wall and made a tight fist with her left. Eyes locked on the envelope of light at the top of the stairs, she slowly climbed, pausing on each step to listen. Midway, one of the steps groaned beneath her weight, and she froze, thinking that someone in the dining room would hear and come storming around the corner. She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut until it was clear the adults hadn't noticed.
She carefully lifted herself to the next step, which creaked like a high-pitched scream, not unlike the sound of a captured wild kitten. Again, she held her breath and waited. She gingerly tested the next step and found that it, too, was waiting to release an unearthly sound. Caught in the middle of an ancient keyboard, Trish thought about backing down the stairs. But, she risked making the same noises again on the way down, and the attic opening was only four more steps away.
Filling her lungs with air, she breathed out like an athlete, sending floating specks of dust into a whirlwind that spiraled up into the attic. Trish watched the particles rise and made her decision. She catapulted up the remaining stairs like a frightened animal bolting to safety, though she had no idea whether shelter or peril awaited her there.
Trish landed on her hands and knees, quickly surveyed the forbidden room. Afternoon sunlight poured in from square windows at each end of the peaked roof and through the many cracks in the walls where the weathered boards were split and twisted. Cobwebs hung like lace from dark wooden rafters. There were sharp angles where the roof met the floor that no light penetrated. Where shadowy, indiscernible objects stared back at Trish.
She looked to the peak of the ceiling rafters and examined the odd shapes that seemed to be glued to the beam. Slowly it dawned on her that bats had claimed the attic for daylight sleeping, and she unconsciously ducked. (She lived with the nightmare of having a mad bat stuck in her hair, wildly flapping and biting. Rabid bats that, her grandmother told her, would cause a person to have painful shots right in the stomach before they died foaming at the mouth). But Trish figured that bats only flew at night and, chances were, she'd be safe so long as the sun shone in the windows.
At the far end of the attic was a pile covered with a white sheet. This, she thought, was what children were not supposed to see, and it drew her like a powerful magnet. She quickly calculated the risks of making the trek across the broken floorboards. One wrong step, and she could fall through the ceiling, maybe directly onto the dining room table and into the adult conversation. Even without that happening, the old floor was bound to moan beneath her weight.
Trish moved onto her hands and knees and slowly, carefully began to crawl. Moving like a mud turtle, she heard only the tiniest of creaks from the boards beneath her. It was near the end of the afternoon, and the heat from the day had risen to the attic making it hard to breathe. She felt trapped in a triangle of stillness shared with bats and spiders and, yes, something else. She looked back to find the opening to the stairs, half afraid it may have disappeared, and, reassured, crept forward the final few feet.
The covered pile was about the size of a dog house, with irregular shapes making the contour of the sheet take on a form that obscured the nature of things beneath it. She touched a rounded portion. It was soft like a pillow. Feeling the rest with her open hands, she forgot about escaping or falling into the laps of adults. The collection under the sheet absorbed her attention as she tried to guess what secret might be hidden beneath it.
Trish leaned her head down and lifted the frayed corner of the sheet, which, she noticed, had been embroidered like other linens in Aunt Mary's house. She saw wooden rockers and something else that appeared to be made of fur. Unable to resist any longer, she lifted the sheet and raised up on her knees. There in the shadow of the tent she'd made, was a stuffed bear with glass eyes that gleamed, even in the dim light. She reached out and picked it up. Soft, softer than any stuffed toy she'd ever touched. Trish petted it like a kitten and looked more closely at the rocking cradle.
It took a moment or two for what she saw to register. There, in the cradle, was a baby-sized bundle completely swathed in a tight, yellowed wrap. Trish felt it, and through the fabric, the object inside yielded to her touch. A baby, a real baby, she knew and was paralyzed with the realization. She let the sheet drop from her hand and hovered helplessly over the horrible secret.
Suddenly, information came together in an awful realization. Aunt Mary had stolen a baby and was keeping it in the attic. Then, she remembered the photo of the baby in the album. The extra-softness of the bear in her arms became clear to her in the very same moment. To keep the baby company, her aunt had skinned wild kittens and made a stuffed toy.
Trish tried to gather her wits. If she was caught with such dark knowledge, her life would be over. Repulsed and horrified, she put the bear back beside the baby and smoothed out the sheet. Unwilling to turn her back on the mound, she began a slow and sometimes painful backward crawl toward the stairs, toward the kitchen and porch and barnyard that would never again feel the same.
At the edge of the opening, she stopped and listened. There were voices coming from below. "Trish, Trish?" her mother was calling. "Trish, where are you? We're getting ready to go!"
Aunt Mary joined her mother in the kitchen. "I thought I saw her walking around here like she always does," Auntie said. "She didn't crawl under my bed, did she? You know how that girl likes to play tricks." Footsteps moved into the bedroom, where no child was found under the bed.
"Maybe she went back outside," her mother said. "She's forever chasing those kittens."
"I'll check the chicken coop," Uncle Felix was saying. "I think she's a lil' afraid of those critters, but seems to me she can't stay away from 'em."
Trish heard the screen door slam shut and started to inch her way down the stairs. Suddenly there were sounds in the kitchen. Aunt Mary must have stayed inside to fire up the woodstove for dinner. Trish backed up the stairs, out of sight. The sun had started to sink behind the hill, and it was quickly getting darker. Soon, she knew, the bats would awaken. She would be entombed in the pitch-black night with dangers too awful to contemplate.
Mother and Uncle Felix came back inside. Concern entered their voices. "I don't see her out there," Uncle said.
"She's not under the porch. I got on my hands and knees and looked," Mother was saying. "Do you think she could have gone to the barn?"
By then, the rest of the family was also in the kitchen, venturing guesses about where Trish could have gone. "I checked the well," Uncle Felix said somberly. "I always worry about that. Nobody's been messin' with it."
"Maybe she went to see the cows," Grandma offered. "She just loves animals."
"Just so she didn't wander out on the hillside," Grampa Frank said.
"Maybe she's shut herself in the outhouse," Aunt Mary suggested.
"Oh, dear," Mother sighed. Trish could imagine how her mom was probably standing bolt upright and covering her mouth with her hand like she always did when she was worried.
If it hadn't been for the extreme awfulness of the discovery, if Trish had only found boxes of bad magazines or whiskey bottles in the attic, she would have given herself up. Instead, she kneeled where she was, put her hands together, and said a Hail Mary, silently moving her lips with the words.
"Let's all go look for her," Grampa was saying. "Felix, you go to the barn and be sure to check up in the loft. That girl loves to climb. I'll head down the road, and the women can walk around the yard, check that outhouse."
Trish heard Aunt Mary replacing the cast iron burner on the stove, and soon the screen doors in the kitchen slammed shut. She bolted from her perch and ran down the stairs. Trish knew it would cause trouble, but she picked another forbidden spot for hiding. She quickly raised the door to the root cellar and sat on the crooked cement steps. In the momentary light from above, she saw that her uncle had killed a couple of chickens and hung them from the rafters. A bloody hatchet leaned against the dirt wall. Trish inched the rug over the opening as best she could from below and let the hatch slam shut. She crouched on the cold step and started to recite the Act of Contrition that could save a person's soul should they die unexpectedly. The chickens dangled behind her.
It seemed like hours before the search party returned. "Where can she be?" her mother nearly cried. "I'm just so worried!"
Trish made her entrance as boldly as possible for a girl who had just faced death. She popped open the hatch on the floor and said, "Here I am! I bet you couldn't find me!" She plastered a weak smile on her face as Grampa hauled her out of the hole by one arm.
"You had us worried sick," he barked. Since Grampa Frank was always a soft-spoken gentleman, Trish knew serious trouble was ahead.
"What do you think you're doing?!" Mother demanded, holding Marky on her hip and drawing Trish to her side. "I told you the cellar is off-limits!"
"Don't be too hard on her," Aunt Mary said. "She looks a little scared to me. Did you get frightened down there, honey?" Trish sunk further into the folds of her mother's dress to avoid her aunt's caress.
"Surprised she'd stay down there, what with those hens and all," Uncle Felix said with a thin grin on his face.
"Well, this won't be forgotten! I told you what would happen if you disobeyed," Mother said a little less harshly.
The sun was beginning to set, and the family headed for the car. It was the custom for Aunt Mary to get a goodbye hug from the children. She leaned down and looked deeply into Trish's eyes.
"You know, honey, I had a dream about you and your little brother," she said, breathing warmly on Trish. "I dreamed you both were with Jesus. You were on his right side, and Marky was on his left. You're such little angels." She squeezed Trish's arm extra hard and hugged her tight to her pillowy bosom. Trish stiffened her body and squeezed her eyes shut.
The Buick wound safely down the dirt driveway and onto the one-lane blacktop road. Trish looked out the back window to the top of the hill. As usual, Aunt Mary stood at the edge of the ridge and waved a white handkerchief over her head as the family car headed back down the winding road to home. Trish fought back tears and stared at the floor.
The ride was quiet. No one had much to say. Trish's punishment began with the news that she would not be able to play outside for an entire week. There would be more to come, her mother threatened. It didn't matter to Trish because, after today, life would never be the same anyway.
At school that September, Trish became quieter than she had been in the past. Her teachers commented on how nice the change was. Trish just wasn't any trouble for them. She wasn't repeatedly talking or breaking rules. She'd stopped bothering her classmates and seemed to be a more serious student. "She appears to have matured over the summer," her teacher, Sister Audrey, said.
Soon, the first snow came, and it was again impossible to make the trip into the country and up the road to visit Aunt Mary. It would be late spring when the family could pile into the car and head for the hills. By then, Trish figured she would have run away from home. Maybe with the Ringling Brothers Circus, whose trains ran on the rails across the street from her house. She could no longer visit Aunt Mary and, since refusing to make a family excursion was out of the question, leaving home was the only choice.
Trish made her plans as winter descended upon the town and buried the street and railroad tracks in mounds of deep, white snow. By Christmas vacation, the first blizzard had come, and families were trapped inside their living rooms with Ed Sullivan filling Sunday nights with visions of faraway cities and laughing, dancing people with sparkling eyes. Snowbound and living with a dark secret, Trish imagined disappearing behind the black and white TV screen.
She sat down for supper at five o'clock each night and faced her family silently. Mark was the only one she played with or really talked to, and after all, he didn't understand a thing she was saying. He was like the baby doll she'd once wanted for Christmas. The soft, realistic doll she'd seen in the Sears Catalogue. Her very own baby to love. But that was before the attic. Before the responsibility she now carried like a sack of black coal.
Christmas Eve, she cried again, as she had done so many nights since August. And again, she put herself to sleep by inventing a beautiful story in her head. She dreamed of meeting a young man at the circus. He took her atop the swinging rope ladder onto a narrow platform, and there she fearlessly grasped the metal bar of the trapeze and flew effortlessly into space. She arched her back and looked ahead. The young man (he had no name) was there, reaching out to catch her. Trusting him, she let go of the trapeze and flew to his outstretched hands. Back and forth they flew, Trish doing somersaults in the air. The crowd cheering. And she would fall asleep with visions far away from Aunt Mary's attic.
Christmas morning dawned like no other before or after. Ordinarily, Trish would have tried to remain awake the night before so that she could peek out her bedroom door in the hope of catching sight of the adults hauling presents down from the attic. This year she lacked the motivation to get out of bed at all.
Trish heard her mother calling. "Trish, it's Christmas. Come see what Santa left you! Trish, come on! What's the matter with you?"
Trish slipped on her pink robe and fuzzy slippers and put on the best face she could. In the living room, her little brother was already ripping away at a package. "Wait, Marky," her mother was saying. "We have to do this in order. Just wait your turn. Trish, just look what Santa brought for some good little girl."
There, unwrapped and centered under the tree, was a wooden cradle holding a baby doll and a silky brown teddy bear. The doll that Trish had asked for so many months before - soft to the touch like a real baby. "The bear is very, very special too," Trish's mom was saying. "It's made of genuine rabbit fur. Now you be careful with it. It's not to be taken outside."
Rabbit fur, Trish thought, as she hugged the doll and buried her face in the softness of the bear. Not kitten fur. She started to cry into the bear's big silky tummy. "Trish, don't do that. You'll ruin the fur!" her mother said. "Trish, what in the world is wrong with you? Aren't you happy?"
Thank you for reading my blog, for passing it along to friends and for writing to me about your own thoughts experiences. I look forward to your emails and hope you are finding some peace and joy that overshadow the challenges we all face this holiday season. You've all given a treasured gift to me - your time and attention!
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