Friday, August 26, 2011

The Clover Patch: Chapter 3

That afternoon Auntie Mia was in excellent spirits, even for her. She had brought with her an old, beat-up looking ukulele that she had bought from an old mole last week.

Proudly, she held it up for Herbert and Matthew to see. “I’ve been practicing,” she announced, plucking on the strings and beginning a less-than-tuneful song. Matthew covered his ears and Herbert winced as Auntie Mia warbled along:

            Grandma got run over by a Reindeer
            Walking home from our house Christmas Eve.
            You can say there’s no such thing as Santa,
            But as for me and Grandpa, we believe.

“What’s a reindeer?” Herbert whispered to Matthew.

Matthew took his fingers out of his ears. “What?”

“What’s a reindeer?”

Matthew shook his head and put his fingers back in his ears. “I don’t know. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.”

She'd been drinkin' too much egg nog,
And we'd begged her not to go.
But she'd forgot her medication,
And she staggered out the door into the snow

Auntie Mia belted out in a voice so atrocious that only the very strongest of stomachs could stand to listen to it for long. 

“Auntie Mia,” called Herbert, but she was singly too loudly to hear him. “Auntie Mia!” Herbert yelled.

She jumped a little bit to hear Herbert yell, but turned to him and said in a voice as sweet as sugar, “Yes?”

“Do you think maybe we could do something else?”

Auntie Mia straightened out her dress and chewed on her bottom link as if she were taking very seriously his suggestion. “What did you have in mind?”

Until Mother returned home, Herbert, Matthew, and Auntie Mia played a dice game that Matthew won twice, a card game that Herbert won once and Auntie Mia won twice, and then hula-hooped.

Mother laughed as she entered the house. What a sight the three of them were! Shaking their hips back and forth, back and forth. They were having such a good time, they didn’t even hear her enter. “Hello!” she called out, putting a heavy paper bag down on the counter.

Herbert immediately dropped his hula-hoop and ran to her. “Mother!” he exclaimed, grabbing at her leg. “I had the best day at school!”

Mother leaned down and picked up Herbert. “Well, I can’t wait to hear about it at dinner. First, will you help me put these groceries away?”

Herbert and Matthew dug through the paper bag and put away different items that Mother had picked up that day while she and Auntie Mia talked quietly a few feet away.

“Lima beans,” said Matthew, making a face and holding out the bag of beans at arm’s length.

“Strawberries!” said Herbert.

“I’ll take those instead.” Matthew turned to where Mother and Auntie Mia were speaking. “Mother, is this the big errand you had to run?”

Mother glanced at Auntie Mia. “Part of it,” she said.

“What was the other part?” asked Herbert.

Mother sighed. “Oh, you know, lots of boring grown up stuff.”

“Like what?” Matthew pressed.

Mother sighed again and a look of worry crossed Auntie Mia’s face.

“Mother,” asked Herbert, “where’s the basket you left with this morning?”

“I had to drop some goodies off with an older lady who lives on the outskirts of town. I must have left it there.” She hastily finished putting the groceries away with her sons. “Now, really, I’d much rather hear about your day and, if you give me just a minute, I’ll have dinner heated up for you.”

“What is it?”

“It’s macaroni and cheese.”

“When did you have time to make that?” asked Matthew.

“I didn’t. The lady I brought the goodies to had made too much, so she sent me home with some. I figured you two wouldn’t complain.”

“No way!” exclaimed Herbert.  “Are there peas in it?” Mother nodded. “Onions?” Mother nodded again. “Alright!” Without even being asked, Herbert grabbed out dishes to set the table.

“Auntie Mia, will you stay for dinner?” Mother asked.

But Auntie Mia shook her head. “No, thank you, Bea. It’s getting dark and I’d best be headed home.”

Mother nodded as if she understood, though neither Herbert nor Matthew noticed. “Yes, you’d probably best. Come say goodbye to Auntie Mia.” Herbert and Matthew ran over to Auntie Mia to give her hugs and thank her for a fun afternoon. Mother walked her to the door while Herbert finished setting the table and Matthew stole small bites of macaroni and cheese.

“Be well,” said Auntie Mia, grabbing Mother’s hand.

“Be safe,” said Mother back, and watched as Auntie Mia walked into the almost-darkness, then bolted the door shut.

When the small family sat down to dinner, Mother seemed distracted as Herbert told her all about his class, what he’d done that day, his tablemates, Ron and Emma, and especially about his new friend, Lily. Herbert chattered on about all that he was going to learn this year and about how wonderful Mr. Honeywise was and about how fun Lily was and about how he couldn’t wait to go to school tomorrow, and Mother smiled, but barely responded.

“That’s nice,” she said, once in a while. Also, “I’m glad for you.”

At first Herbert didn’t notice as he was so wrapped up in the excitement of his day, but he began to wonder why Mother wasn’t more excited, why Mother wasn’t asking questions, why Mother hadn’t suggested that he bring Lily over to the house sometime. So, he asked, “Mother, can I invite Lily over afterschool?”

“Tomorrow?” asked Mother.

Herbert shrugged. “Or the next day.”

Mother nodded slowly. “Tomorrow is good.”

Herbert beamed from ear to ear. “I can’t wait to invite her! You’re going to like her a lot!”

Mother smiled. “I’m sure I will.”

That night, both Herbert and Matthew fell asleep quickly, and Mother sat up in her rocking chair, trying to read, but her mind was elsewhere.

It had been a long journey through the forest today and she was tired, but she couldn’t sleep. The conversation she’d had with the old lady kept playing in her head.

Hazel was a very old mouse with wrinkles around her eyes and her mouth, and a dark, wooden cane she used to help her walk. Hazel had lost her husband and two sons in the first war and seemed to know everything there was to know about any unrest in the forest.

“Is it true?” Mother had asked Hazel. They were sitting in old chairs that had lost most of their stuffing, drinking some tea and eating shortbread that Mother had made.

Hazel shrugged. “True or false is often an incorrect assessment.”

“What have you heard?”

Hazel looked around the room, checking to see that no one could see her and then leaned in closer to Mother. “Beatrice,” she said in a hushed tone, “I have heard so many things that I could fill pages and pages with nonsensical stories about deceit, war, famine, and any other horrible thing you can imagine. If you’re asking me if I believe any of the rumors, that’s a different question.”

Mother sighed. Hazel was always like this: rarely clear and often puzzling. “What rumors do you believe?”

Maintaining her hushed tone, Hazel told Mother, “I’m fairly certain that there are rats advancing on the borders.” Mother sucked her breath in. “They’re not in yet, but rumors say our guards have spotted a handful scouting out the area.”

“Do you think they’re dangerous?” Mother asked, already knowing the answer to her question but hoping for a different one.

“All rats are dangerous,” hissed Hazel. “They’re treacherous vermin and not to be trusted.”

Now, the small fired warmed Mother’s hands and face and, although her mind was quite troubled, her body felt comfortable. She put her book down, closed her eyes, and drifted into a fitful sleep.

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