All on a Summer’s Day
by Heidi Eisenmann-Jones
“How are your pancake flipping skills?”
Merton looked down at the strange little man standing in front of him to make sure he wasn’t joking. Apparently not.
“Ah…adequate.” He’d never flipped a pancake in is life. But how hard could it be?
“You’re hired. That is, if you can start today? Right now, actually.”
The man, Gherkin, (wasn’t that a pickle?) began explaining the pancake procedure while Merton tried to look knowledgeable about batter and spatulas. But pickles kept intruding. Gherkin’s face was full of warts and his hair curled over his forehead in wiry ringlets, sort of like tendrils on a cucumber vine.
“Only use the spatula for loosening, mind you. Each cake has to be tossed into the air from the skillet. I aim for two and a half to three feet. It’s part of the fluffing process. The king is very particular about the loft in his cakes.”
Merton nodded as if this made perfect sense, then frowned. “Wait a minute. You said the king?”
“Of course the king,” said Gherkin. “Who did you think you’d be flipping for?”
“Well, look,” said Mert. “I only just saw your help wanted sign on the gate and stopped in. I had no idea – king of what, exactly?”
Gherkin looked at him as if he were a dunce. “The King of Hearts, of course.”
Merton tittered, then quickly raised a hand to cover his mouth as Gherkin’s dark eyes bored into him coldly. He turned his attention to the immense tub of bubbling batter on the counter.
“I see. And, um, how many pancakes does the king eat?”
“Oh, a dozen or so, but there are his courtiers to feed as well, and Prince Rupert, who has a very healthy appetite. Growing boys, you know.”
The King of Hearts. Mert shrugged. He hadn’t quite planned on landing in the middle of someone’s nursery rhyme fantasy when he’d left the house this morning, let alone taking a job flipping pancakes. But a job was a job, right? Especially when you were desperate for work. His previous job as a reporter had ended three weeks ago when the newspaper he’d worked for had down-sized, and his meager savings were about used up.
Funny how Mert had never noticed this place before. He must have jogged past it dozens of times on his morning runs, but this morning his shoelace had come untied, and when he’d straightened up from tying it, a bird had swooped across the road in front of him, landing on an old wrought iron gate listing creakily on its hinges. Lichen encrusted stone gargoyles crouched on either side, and tacked to the gate was a sign that read, “Help Wanted, Apply Within”. He’d dithered a few moments, jogging in place, thinking it was probably a joke, since the twisted little lane leading back into a grove of oak trees looked like it hadn’t been traveled in a hundred years. But curiosity got the better of him, plus there was the job factor.
His first sight of the house had been a shocker. It was a castle, for Pete’s sake, complete with grey stone towers, crumbling turrets and wheeling pigeons. Black smoke roiled out of several chimneys, so the place was occupied, though why would you want fires in the middle of summer?
Another sign had led him around back past a bubbling fountain surrounded by stone statues of cavorting ladies. Behind it was a maze of shrubbery and a large garden. He had entered the kitchen door and found Gherkin laboriously beating up batter.
Now he stared at the batter dubiously. Was he really going to do this?
“Well, if you think you can manage, I’ll leave you to it. They like to start eating at nine.” Gherkin removed his apron, revealing a belted white smock with a large red heart sewn onto the chest and clusters of keys jingling on his belt. It all went rather well with the pickle-green tights and pointy gold shoes. Mert couldn’t wait to see the king’s outfit.
“The serving maid will be along soon. I’ll be out in the gardens.” Gherkin picked up a bow leaning against the wall and slung a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. “There’s been some thievery going on.” The door slammed and Mert was on his own.
Thievery? In the garden? He turned his attention to the batter, making up headlines to keep himself amused. “Thief Shot in Garden by Bowman While Stealing King of Heart’s Tarts”. But would there be tarts in the garden? “Thief Wheels Cart of Tarts Through Garden, Eluding King of Hearts”.
The stove top ran half the length of the kitchen and was lined up with twenty or so iron skillets. You ladled batter into each one, moving down the line, and by the time the last skillet was filled, the first cake was ready to flip. It took Mert a few tries to get the tossing technique down. He was scraping a mangled cake off the floor when the door slammed again and a young woman came in. She had a red, pimply face, pale blue eyes and dirty blond hair pulled tightly back onto her neck. Her long brown dress and dingy white apron did nothing to improve her appearance. Mert felt a flash of sympathy for her, having acne scarred cheeks and a scrawny physique himself.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Merton, the new pancake guy.”
The woman walked over to him and thrust something into his hand. “Wear this,” she said in a hoarse whisper. “It’ll keep you protected. Although he won’t be much interested in you since you’re a man. Still, it’s better to be safe.”
Merton stared at the thing in his hand: a crude lump of clay with a green pebble poked into the center and a few dark hairs sprouting from the edges. It was fastened to a thin cord.
“Ah…” he began, but the girl grabbed the charm impatiently and thrust the cord over his head. “Wear it under your shirt.” She slapped it into place. “There. No one will know. I’m Heddy. Your cakes are burning.”
Mert lunged for the stove and spent the next few minutes in a frenzy of tossing. Sweat dripped from his brow and his cheeks grew rosy from the heat of the coal-fired stove. Some of the pancakes didn’t get tossed properly, others were a bit burned. Mert put these on the bottom of the platter. Heddy bustled in and out of the swinging door that led to the dining hall with plates and mugs, a large dish of sausages, pitchers of syrup, slabs of butter, bowls of cherry preserves. Mert’s first platter of pancakes followed. He waited nervously, but heard no complaints, only a steady drone of voices and the clink of silverware each time Heddy passed through the door.
“Exactly why am I wearing this charm?” Mert asked her when she went by.
“Because of…” She thrust her chin towards the swinging door.
“The king,” she hissed.
“And why do I need protection from the king?”
“Shhh! Keep your voice down. So you won’t end up like…” The chin swiveled toward the window.
Mert looked out but saw only the bubbling fountain with the stone ladies dancing around it. He started to ask another question but a loud call for “More pancakes!” sent them both scrambling.
Two exhausting hours later Mert finally got his first look at the king.
“Help me clear plates,” said Heddy, pulling him through the door.
Mert had a picture in his mind of an Old King Cole type, fat and boisterous, with a fur lined robe and a pipe; an aging, wealthy eccentric playing the country aristocrat. But nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Five long tables spanned the dining room, seating men and women in elaborate costumes. The men sported large mustaches, feathered hats and pointed shoes like Gherkin’s. The women wore voluminous dresses and had towering hairdos with ribbons fluttering out of them. The king (Pritchert was his name, Heddy whispered) was youngish, very tall with curling blond hair, hooded blue eyes, an aquiline nose and a long, square jaw. His lower lip was full and sensuous, but the upper lip curled over it in a thin, petulant line. He lounged in a huge ornate chair, wearing a white shirt, a red embroidered vest and a gold crown set with crimson stones. Mert couldn’t help but stare. The king’s eyes were half closed and his mouth curved into an odd little smile as one hand played with a necklace of ruby red glass hearts lying against his chest. There was something creepy about the way he was fingering those hearts. Over and over his long fingers stroked them, circling around each one in turn while his lips twitched and made little kissing motions. It made Mert queasy.
Prince Rupert was nothing like his father. Short and plump, about twelve or so, he looked…well…off, somehow. His small, close-set eyes stared vacantly and he kept working his cheeks like a bellows, in and out, chewing on – what? Air?
“He’s a little, you know,” Heddy’s finger circled around her ear. “About the only thing he likes to do is eat.”
He wore an embroidered vest like the king’s, and a necklace sporting one large glass heart.
What a pair of weirdos, Mert thought. “Is there a queen?” he whispered to Heddy, stacking plates onto a tray.
“Dead,” she said. “The plague.”
Mert swallowed, wondering how long plague germs survived. He gingerly lifted a fork by the end of its handle.
A young man began playing the flute and some of the courtiers got up to dance. Bawdy jokes and shrill laughter followed. Several young girls hovered around the king, vying for his attention. The hooded eyes moved over them dreamily, the long fingers fluttered, touching a curl here, a shoulder there. His magnetism was overwhelming. Mert could feel its pull halfway across the room.
“Fools,” said Heddy. “They all want to be the next queen.”
One black-haired beauty had captured his fancy, and Heddy watched them flirting with a dark expression. “She won’t last long.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mert.
Heddy motioned towards the kitchen door, and Mert followed her though it.
“Do you know what happened to the last pancake flipper?”
“No,” Mert said, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“It was my sister, Margaret. She was pretty, you see, and she’s gone the way of the other pretty girls around here. I’ve come to try and get her back.”
“Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Mert.
Heddy grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the window. “Look,” she said, pointing to the fountain. “The second statue from the left, with one hand on her waist. Do you see?”
“He steals their hearts and turns them into stone!”
She was mad. This whole place was mad. What was he doing here? Mert suddenly couldn’t wait to get away. Jingling pickle-men, plague germs, creepy kings wearing glass hearts, a paranoid schizophrenic maid, it was more than a man could take.
Heddy seized his arm and he almost jumped out of his skin. “He’s put everyone under a spell and they can’t see what’s happening. I’m ugly so he pays no attention to me, but the others… Please, Merton, you’ve got to help me.” Her blue eyes were brimming with tears. “There’s no one else I can ask.”
Oh God. “What do you want me to do?”
“Steal his necklace. Distract him somehow and get it off his neck. I’ll get the hearts back to the women. There are holes in the statues, right under the left breast, I’ve seen them.”
This was absolute insanity. “I don’t think it would work,” said Mert, playing along. “How would you know which heart belonged to which statue?”
“It would be like a puzzle, I think. Only one would fit. We’d just have to keep trying till we got it right.”
We? “Do you honestly think he’d stand around while we, that is, you, did all this?”
“If he thought you had the necklace, he wouldn’t bother me. You could lead him off.”
Mert’s thoughts raced at lightning speed as he tried to weasel out of this mad scheme.
“Even if it worked, what’s to keep him from doing it again?”
Heddy flashed him a dark look. “He’ll never capture another heart, I can promise you that. I have a plan.” She pulled a glass vial out of her apron pocket and held it up to the light. “Pickle juice with toadflax. I raided Gherkin’s herb garden.”
Mert eyed the green liquid. “What’s it supposed to do?”
“You’ll see,” she said. “Gherkin’s pickles have some peculiar properties. So will you help me?”
“Let me think about it.” Mert, grabbed a plate and scrubbed it vigorously in the tub of hot water sitting on the stove.
Several more women came in and began preparations for dinner. One started beating slabs of meat with a mallet, others peeled turnips, another lined tart pans with pastry and filled them with cherry preserves.
Mert kept looking out of the window at the statues while he washed dishes. King Pritchert walked by with the black-haired girl on his arm, disappearing into the garden.
After he’d finished cleaning up, Mert went to look for Gherkin, hoping to collect his pay and sneak off before Heddy could talk him into stealing the king’s necklace.
Gherkin was out near the fountain struggling to move a statue. “Give me a hand, here, Merton,” he said. “The king’s gotten a new figure for the fountain.”
Mert stared. It looked just like the black-haired girl. Under the left breast was a heart shaped hole. His own heart began to pound and his hands felt clammy. He couldn’t bring himself to touch the thing.
“Could I get my wages, please?”
“Just hold on,” Gherkin said crossly. “I can’t do ten things at once. Keeping the thieves out of my herb garden, hiring the help, moving statues, and now I’ve got to saddle up the king’s horse for his daily ride. Good God, why don’t those worthless soldiers bestir themselves instead of playing blackjack in the barn all day long.”
Mert tagged along to the stables, passing Heddy near the kitchen door. She sent him a pleading look, clasping her hands together and mouthing “Please!”, then pointing to the stone figures.
Mert made the mistake of looking at them. They seemed to be pleading as well, their mouths open, their hands outstretched in silent supplication. He sighed deeply. “Stay here,” he said as he passed Heddy. “I’ll see what I can do.” And under his breath he muttered, “Crazed King Strangles Pancake Chef with Necklace of Fossilized Hearts. Nursery Rhyme Theme Park Scene of Heinous Crime: Missing Reporter Found Groveling in Dungeon, Forced to Eat Rats After Stealing King’s Jewelry.”
The king’s horse was a big black stallion with a roman nose and a bad temper. Gherkin had to stand on a stool to get the saddle on, nimbly avoiding hooves and teeth while the horse danced and lunged against the tie rope. Prince Rupert’s pony was also black, but sluggish and stubborn. It took three tail twists and a switch just to get him out of the stall.
While Gherkin was saddling the horses, Mert heard voices and wandered down the aisle, peering into a tack room. King Pritchert was lounging on a bale of straw while a groom knelt in front of him, struggling to get the king’s boots on. Prince Rupert stood next to him, chewing on a weed. They both had their backs to Mert. If ever there was a perfect time to steal the necklace, this was it. The king had his shoes off and one boot halfway on. He was as good as hobbled. A pair of hoof cutters hung on the wall. They were big and awkward, but sharp. Before he had time to talk himself out of it, Mert grabbed them, leaned over and snipped the clasp on the king’s necklace. It was in his hands before Pritchert knew what had happened. And then, just for good measure, Mert snipped the Prince’s necklace as well, grabbing hold of the big red heart as it fell. He dropped the cutters and fled.
“Knave!” roared the king. “After him! Quick!”
Merton had never excelled at sports in school. He was skinny and awkward with big feet that often tripped him up. He wasn’t competitive, nor was he keen on getting tackled, pinned or hit with balls. But when he needed to, he could run. Fast. Now his long legs and large feet served him well as he flew out of the stables and across the lawn, dodging through the garden and around the corner of the castle. Hopefully the soldiers were far enough behind that they couldn’t see him dart through the open kitchen door.
Heddy was just about to put a tray of tarts in the oven. Mert tossed her the necklace, glancing around to make sure the other cooks hadn’t noticed.
“They’re so cold,” she said, fingering the hearts. “He’s frozen them. We’ve got to warm then up. Quick, put them into the tarts!”
Footsteps pounded past the door and shouts followed. Merton, his hands shaking, helped Heddy slip the hearts off the cord, hurriedly poking each one into the center of a tart. He was about to remove Prince Rupert’s glass heart from its cord when King Pritchert strode in, his face purple with rage.
“Where are my hearts? What have you done with them?”
Heddy slipped the tray of tarts into the oven with a guilty, stricken look on her face, but the king didn’t notice. His eyes were on Mert, caught red handed holding Rupert’s necklace. The king lunged at him, his long fingers reaching out like talons. Mert spun around and bolted through the swinging doors into the dining room. Frantically he looked for an escape route. He dared not run down any of the dark passageways leading off in all directions. The place would be crawling with guards. There was only one alternative. He dove headlong through an open window, narrowly avoiding the king’s grasping hands. He landed hard in a mass of prickly shrubs, thorns tearing his clothes and skin.
The king shouted out the window, alerting the soldiers, and an arrow whizzed past Merton’s ear as he rolled and tumbled and propelled himself into the shrubbery maze, crashing through thick walls of grasping greenery, going deeper and deeper until he had to stop for breath.
He could hear them searching, beating the bushes, shouting to one another. The king’s voice rose over the others, sputtering incoherently in his rage. Or was it incoherent? Mert felt a terrible tugging pressure under his rib. The king was uttering spells to steal his heart and turn him into stone! Heddy’s charm necklace was not going to save him.
“Oh no, no no no!” he chanted breathlessly, limping feebly through the maze, clutching his chest.
“Petrified Reporter Found in Garden of Lunatic Asylum,” he wheezed, his voice coming out in squeaks and gasps. “Insane King Suspected in Gruesome Crimes Involving Hearts, Stones and Tarts.”
How long he wandered he couldn’t say, but after some time he started hearing a commotion outside the maze and walked toward the noise. He found a small break in the hedge and peered through.
The king, Prince Rupert and a group of soldiers were clustered around the fountain where unbelievable things were happening. The stone statues were coming to life! Mert watched Heddy embrace her recovered sister Margaret, then toss something at the king, who howled and clawed at his face. The women began pummeling him with their fists and tearing his clothes while the soldiers stood watching, clearly dazed and confused. Prince Rupert was scooping up handfuls of smashed tarts and cramming them into his mouth, his cheeks bulging.
As Mert watched, a very large, ugly wart sprouted on King Pritchert’s nose, followed by two more on his chin. Heddy’s pickle juice.
It was time for Merton to make his escape. Gherkin was standing nearby with a bewildered look on his face, still holding the reins of the king’s horse.
Merton had ridden a bit years ago at summer camp. He hoped it would be like riding a bicycle; once you learned how you never forgot. With a war cry, he forced his way through the hedge, ran to the horse and vaulted up into the saddle, wrenching the reins away from Gherkin. The startled horse lunged forward, and down the lane they thundered. A few more arrows flew past and Merton struggled to control the beast. Almost to the gate, Mert discovered Prince Rupert’s necklace tangled in the horse’s mane, the red heart gleaming in the sunlight. Too late; no way was he going back. He urged the horse forward, then swore, his stomach lurching. Someone had closed the gate leading to the road. But the stallion was not going to stop. Mert leaned down against the sweaty neck, gripped the saddle with his knees and prayed. The big legs bunched, then sprang, and they soared up and over, landing with a bone-jarring thud.
Mert must have blacked out for a second, because he opened his eyes to see two girls walking down the street, pointing and giggling at him.
“Mert! Hey, Mert!” A familiar voice made him look around. It was his best friend Barry.
“Hey, Mert where have you been? I’ve been trying to call you all day. I got a lead on some jobs.” Barry came up beside him and snickered. “What the hell are you doing, Mert? Who’s your friend?”
Mert looked down. He was mounted on a black hobby horse, gripping the stick with his legs. His hand was closed around something wet and sticky. Prince Rupert’s necklace! He opened his palm, fearing what he might see. But it wasn’t a bleeding heart after all. It was a pastry tart, the cherry filling oozing out between his fingers like blood.