Saturday, March 31, 2018

All on a Summer's Day


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.
            “Who?  What?”
            “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?”
            Mert nodded.
            “That’s Margaret.”
            “What?”
            “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.





           
           



           
           


Friday, March 2, 2018

The Pocket Man


The Pocket Man
by
Heidi Eisenmann-Jones


            “Miss Hazel! Tom and Marla saw the Pocket Man!  He went into the woods.  Will you help us find him?”
            It’s Heather, the youngest of the Ross brood, one of the children I’ve been reading to at the library every Saturday morning.
            “I don’t think so, Heather,” I say.  “You know the Pocket Man is only a make-believe character in a story.”
            He carries treasures in the pockets of his cape; dreams wrapped in gossamer silk, stolen from the snores of sleeping dragons, plucked from the blushing red cheeks of young maidens, lifted gently from the lips of lovers as they prepare to kiss...
            “No he’s not,” insists Heather.  Tom and Marla saw him.  He had a long black cape with treasures inside.  Come on!”  She grabs my hand and pulls.
            I’m on my way home after a trip to the bank’s ATM to deposit my paycheck from the Brownsville Public Library.  I’ve already had a brisk walk and am looking forward to a quiet Sunday afternoon with a pot of tea and a good book.  But I let Heather pull me along, captured


by the look of excitement in her eyes and the stain of color across her cheekbones whipped by the chilly November wind.  It’s a dark and gloomy afternoon, perfect for chasing fantasy characters through the woods.  What the heck, I think, all the exercise will make me sleep well tonight.
             It isn’t really a woods, just a long stretch of wild land owned by a city man who uses it to hunt.  There are small copses of Osage orange, wickedly thorny, thickets of blackberries, equally thorny, and sumacs, their leaves flame-red against the barren stalks of goldenrod and queen anne’s lace.
             We hurry after the sounds of Tom and Marlas’ voices up ahead, following the narrow footpath that winds over hills, around boulders and through lonely little dells where the wind lifts dead leaves and sends them swirling around our ankles.
            If you manage to steal up on him and touch the folds of his cape, he’s obliged to open it and let you choose one of his treasures...
            We skirt a large cedar tree, Heather’s coat brushing the branches and releasing its clean, sharp scent.  Up ahead Marla and Tom come into view, running toward a cluster of twisted little trees.
            “Wait!cries Heather, “Tom, wait!”
            Tom turns, waves impatiently, and Marla calls out, “Look!  There he is!  Quick, Tom!”
            I look in the direction she’s pointing and see a shadowy figure disappearing around a bend.  A swirl of black material trails behind him.
            Intrigued, a little alarmed, I hurry to catch up with the other children.  Again we glimpse our quarry up ahead, closer now.  He glances back over his shoulder, then rushes on.  He’s definitely wearing a cape and tight black pants with strange-looking shoes.  High tops, with buttons.  He has an odd, bow-legged stride.
            “What in the world,” I mutter, again feeling alarm.  But the children renew their efforts, sensing the chase is nearing its end.
            “Kids, I don’t think - ”
            I break off as the man leaps out from behind a boulder, growling, bent over with his hands outstretched.  The children shriek and fall back.  Heather runs behind me and peers around my skirt.
            The man’s blue eyes are opened wide, his dark hair is long and tangled, his cheeks ruddy.  He snarls and laughs maniacally, flexing his fingers as if to grab us.
            Marla, the oldest, sees through his playacting and rushes forward, tugging on his cape.
            “Oh ho,” he says, putting his hands on his hips, glaring down at her.  “So you want treasures, do you?”
            “Yes!  Yes!” they shout.
            “All right, then.  You’ve caught me fair and square.  Only one apiece now.”  He spreads his cape open to reveal dozens of pockets sewn into the lining, each one bulging with odd-shaped lumps.
            Tom goes first.  He reaches into a pocket and pulls out something crisp and blue that expands in his hands to become a long-tailed kite.  Marla gets a necklace of sparkling stones, and Heather, after some encouragement from her sister, shyly reaches into a pocket and pulls out a clown doll with a fancy silk costume.
            They all rush away, eager to show off their gifts, remembering to call out “thank you” as they race home.
            I eye the man curiously.  “Did the library hire you?”
            He looks back intently.  “Hazel, don’t you want a gift too?”
            I frown.  “How do you know my name?”
            But he only smiles, lifting the folds of his cape so the pockets are exposed once more.
            “Come on, Hazel,” he coaxes, “I’ve something for you, too.”
            I blush.  “I’m too old for this.”
            Decisions, decisions, all of them enticing, but remember as you choose, some dreams lead you forward, others hold you back...
            There’s a pocket high up under his arm that looks flatter than the others, as if it’s empty.  My eye is drawn to it again and again.  My hand reaches out and slides into its silky depths.  The Pocket Man stands very still.  I fancy I can feel his heart beating inside the pocket.  My fingers close over a small, hard shape and I pull out a skeleton key, old and rusty.
            “Well,” I say, foolishly disappointed, (what had I expected, gold dust?  Rubies and emeralds?)  “I suppose this is the key to a long forgotten magic kingdom in need of a princess, if only I can find it.”
            The man still stares at me and I grow uncomfortable.  What does he see?  A thin girl with pale hair, grey eyes and a pointed chin, nothing remarkable.  Suddenly he lets his cape fall and bows low.  “Good day to you, Hazel, and good luck.”  He turns and strides off, leaving me utterly mystified.

            Monday at the library I ask Sylvia, the head librarian, if she knows anything about the Pocket Man.
            “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says, peering over her reading glasses.  “Hazel, you should report him.  He could be a pervert or something.”
            But I don’t, even though he was quite bizarre.
            At lunchtime I sit in the back room eating my sandwich with Maxine, my co-worker and best friend.
            “So, have you gone out with Larry yet?”  She raises an eyebrow and waggles her head, her short brown curls bobbing.
            “Larry who?”
            Maxine snorts.  “Hazel, the man’s been in here five times in the last four days, and it’s not to see me or Sylvia.  He’s a nice guy.  You should get to know him.  You’re too young to waste your life away in the library.”  She stirs sugar into her coffee.  “What are you, thirty-one?  Sheesh!”
            “Only a year older than you, and you’re not married”, I point out.
            “But I’m looking!  You’re not.”
            “Why do people always think you’re wasting your life if you don’t get married?  I like living alone.”
            “Bullshit!” says Maxine, a little too loudly.  A mother herding her children past the doorway glares in at her.
            “One day you’re going to wake up and be seventy years old and realize life has passed you by.”
            She bites into an apple and eyes me thoughtfully.  “Seriously, Hazel, don’t you want a family of your own?  A husband?  Children?”
I sigh.  “It’s not that.”
“Then what?  You’ve dated two really nice guys since I’ve known you and you dropped them both.  Now Larry’s dying to take you out and you’re ignoring him.”
“I just don’t feel the magic, Max.  There’s something missing.”  My turkey sandwich suddenly tastes flat.  How can I explain?  I don’t even understand it myself.
“You spend too much time reading about the past.”  Maxine looks pointedly at the book lying beside me on the table.  It’s a historical novel set in medieval England.
“Get with the 21st century.  There are no knights in shining armor anymore.  And you should change your hairstyle.  Let it loose!”
I poke at my pale, swept up hair, tucking in a few wisps.  “You may as well give up on me, Max.  I’m the quintessential spinster librarian.”
Maxine shakes her head in exasperation.  She crumples her lunch bag and tosses it in the trash.   “But you don’t have to be.  Take my advice: go out with Larry before he gives up and moves on.”
“Maybe,” I say, but I know I won’t.
Do you long for something unknown?  Longing is a mournful dove that forever flutters out of reach.  Her feathers are fashioned from lost hopes and forgotten dreams.  These the Pocket Man gathers as they fall, weaving them into new beginnings, and tucks them into his cape.  There they wait, shimmering faintly in the dark folds, till the right person comes along and sets them free again.
           
            All week the key lies in a small scalloped dish on my dresser, totally incongruous with the delicate porcelain.  I should throw it out.  Maxine is right.  I live in a dream world, waiting for the magic door to open.  I know there are no such doors, no fairy tale princes, but time and again when I reach out to pick up the key and toss it in the trash I can’t bring myself to do it.
            And then I start seeing keyholes everywhere I go.  I see them in knotty tree trunks, in public restrooms, in picture frames.  Tiny slits, large cracks, round or ragged or only vague outlines, they appear like magic in floor boards and ceilings and in the backs of chairs at the movie theater.  I find myself staring at people’s briefcases, grandfather clocks, car doors, post office boxes, dresser drawers, wind-up toys.  I dream about them.  Over and over I fit the key inside a keyhole, breathless with anticipation, and then wake up before the lock turns.  It’s driving me nuts.  I’ve got to get rid of the key.
            On Saturday morning during story hour the Ross children are full of talk about the Pocket Man.  But their parents have forbidden them to look for him again.
            “Will you find him, Miss Hazel?  Tell him to come to the library so we can all have more presents.”
            I smile and change the subject.  “Today we’re reading about a platypus named Alvin.  Does anyone know what a platypus is?”
             When I get home I go straight to my dresser and get the key, fastening it to a cord around my neck.  I’ll walk downtown and throw it in the dumpster behind the grocery store.  That way I won’t be able to retrieve it.  I feel relieved.  It will soon be over and I can get back to normal.
            The day is gloomy and overcast again.  I leave my little old weather-beaten house which sits on a hill above town and enter the back garden. I bought this place three years ago because it was the only house I could afford, and because of this secret little garden, surrounded by a high wooden fence covered in ivy.  In the center is a stone statue of a young girl holding a bowl.  The birds perch on her head and shoulders and drink out of the bowl, which I keep filled with water.
            I open the back gate and pause, eyeing the stone steps that lead down to Myrtle Street.  The vines have grown over and through the fence and have begun covering the steps.  I really must do something about them.  I lift a cluster of vines beside the gate and see a keyhole.  My heart starts to hammer.  Slowly and carefully I lift away more ivy and uncover a square cut into the fence, about waist high, fastened with old, rusty hinges.  It looks like it hasn’t been opened for ages.  Centuries, maybe.  I have to try the key.  If I don’t, I’ll forever wonder.  My hands tremble as I lift the string from around my neck and fit the key into the lock.  I take a deep breath.  It won’t open, of course.  I turn it, and there is an audible click.  The little door opens with a creak and a shower of rust as the old hinges labor.
            I look into a garden, but not mine.  Night is falling.   There’s a pathway leading to an arbor with vines growing over it, weeping willows on either side, and in the distance I see a house with lighted windows.  Under the arbor is a stone bench, and on it sits a woman with long red hair, wearing a filmy green dress, a short jacket with puffed sleeves and silk shoes.
            She’s crying, and her sadness seems deep and old and without hope.  I feel the pain of it stirring my heart.  Tears well up in my own eyes until the scene grows blurry and indistinct.
            A shadow appears in the picture.  I blink hard and the shadow becomes a man walking up the path, dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a black coat.  He has a head of dark curls and a smile on his face.
            “Cara,” he calls, and the woman looks up.  Her face registers shock and disbelief, then wonder, then shining joy.
            “Oh, Charles!” she says, “Charles, it’s been so long!”  She reaches out her arms and he moves into them.
            I slam the door shut.  My breath is ragged and my emotions raw.  This is someone else’s dream, not mine.  I have to give it back.  My feet fly through the garden to the front of the house, across Pine Street to the wild stretch of land where the Pocket Man appeared.  He’s got to be here.  I have to find him.  For an hour or more I wander up and down the lonely path, looking behind rocks, hoping for a glimpse of the billowing black cape.  Finally I give up and start for home, and there he is, leaning against a tree, watching me with those intent blue eyes.  He still wears the cape, the black pants, the buttoned shoes.  His hair is still a mess, long and tangled, stuck with bits of dried leaves.
            I hold out the key.  “This was meant for someone else.  I can’t keep it.”
            He scrutinizes me, taking in my wispy hair falling out of its bun, my heavy old sweater with the baggy sleeves, my long wool skirt, my scuffed boots.  “Why have you never married, Hazel?” he asks, ignoring the key.
            I’m suddenly angry.  “Look, I don’t know who you are or how you know my name, or what gives you the right to ask me personal questions, but I’m tired of it.  Take the key back and I’ll be on my way.”
            “I can’t,” he says.  “Once a gift is given it can’t be taken back.  It’s yours, Hazel.  Do with it what you will.”
            “I don’t want it,” I say, my lips stiff from the wind and from a sudden coldness deep inside.  I throw the key down on the ground in front of him.  He picks it up slowly and comes close to me, slipping the cord over my head.
            “Why don’t you want it, Hazel?  What are you afraid of?” 
            I start to say “nothing”, but I know it’s not the truth.  I am afraid.
            The Pocket Man is an illusive fellow, always disappearing just around the bend.  But muster your courage and follow if you dare, for treasures await at the end of the chase!
            “Who are you?” I ask. 
            “My name is Jack.”  He bows and walks away, and for some reason the sight of his bow-legged stride makes me smile.

            But I don’t smile much in the next week.  I keep bursting into tears at the oddest times.  It’s as if a dam has let loose in me and I can’t shore it up.  Maxine catches me crying in the library.
        “What’s wrong?” she asks with concern.
            “I have no idea,” I blubber, swiping at the teardrops on the new mystery novel I’m unpacking.  I shove it onto the shelf and reach for another book but I have to stop to blow my nose.
            “Maybe you need to talk.  You could come over after work.”
             But talking isn’t what I need.  I have to go back to the window in the fence.  There’s unfinished business behind it, something I need to learn.  Finally, on Thursday, I screw up my courage and go out to the garden gate, lifting the strands of ivy.  The window is still there.  Slowly, carefully I turn the key in the lock and push the window open.   The same scene appears: the arbor, the trees, the bench, the woman sitting on it.  She looks like a flaming candle in the dusk, crying wearily while the willows sigh in sympathy.
            This time I’m watching for the man.  Charles.  I mouth the name as I watch him come up the path.  He sees the woman and smiles.  I can feel his joy.  His heart overflows with love for her.
            Oh, to be loved like that!  It’s unimaginable, almost too much to bear.
            I notice a little mole on his chin as he walks by.  My finger wants to reach out and touch it.  I know how it will feel.
            “Cara,” he calls out.
            She looks up, gasping.  Her face goes through its transformation.  “Oh, Charles!  Charles, it’s been so long!”
            They embrace, and I close the window.  I can’t bear it.  I slide down the fence and crouch on the cold ground. Deep sobs tear out of my chest.  I’m shattering into a thousand pieces, gripped by something I don’t understand and don’t want to face.  I stay there till it’s almost dark, then stumble inside, numb with cold, hardly able to breathe from crying.  I go to bed and stay there all night and all the next day, calling in sick at the library.  Finally, late in the day I get up, shower and eat a little.  I feel calm and empty.  When it’s dusk, I take the key and go back to the window in the ivy.  This time the bench is empty.  I grasp the edge of the window and vault over it, into the garden.  My long red hair tumbles over my shoulders.  My green dress rustles as I hurry to the bench and sit down.  As soon as I do, everything is clear.  I’m in a lifetime long past, sitting here as I’ve done every evening for three years, mourning the loss of my husband, Charles.  I wait, fighting back the tears, until I see a shadow appear on the path, emerging out of the mists of time.  The shadow becomes a figure, and I know it is my own dear husband, a fisherman, swept away long ago by a storm at sea.
            I had gone with him to the harbor that morning to see him off.  I clung to his jacket, begging him not to go, for I had a bad feeling.
            “Please, Charles, don’t go out today.  What if you don’t come back?  I couldn’t bear it.  I couldn’t live without you.”
            “Cara, don’t be afraid.  I’ll always come back to you.”  He kissed my face over and over.  “Even if the boat were to go down I would find you again.”
            “Promise me,” I said fiercely.  “Promise you’ll come back no matter what.  Say the words.”
            “I promise you,” he whispered against my hair.  “Our love is so strong it will last through all the ages to come.  We’ll always be together.”
Now I watch as the shadow figure approaches through the dusk.  All I have to do is call out and he will see me.  We’ll be together again, and live the life we were meant to, in the house behind the garden with the welcoming glow in its windows.  Love blossoms in my heart.  I open my mouth to call out, bursting with joy.  But the sound dies on my lips.  Something is wrong.  I can’t do it!  I am Hazel now, not Cara.  Yes, I could go back and pull him to me.  But at what cost?  The past and the future are not mine.  Only this moment.  The rest belongs to a Whole shaped not by sadness or joy or the tug of desire, but things far beyond our ken. 
With one last look at his beloved face I walk back to the window and climb through, softly pulling it shut.  The hinges creak one last time, then crumble and disappear.  The seam in the wood closes up.  The key falls out of my hand and becomes a shower of rust, trickling into the ivy.  The dream and the promise that bound Charles and me is gone, setting us both free.  I swallow the lump in my throat and wander aimlessly back through my garden, dropping bobby pins as I go and shaking my head loose from its bun.  Couldn’t I at least have kept the beautiful red hair? 
            I find myself on the path through the wild land across the road from my house.  It’s almost dark.  A shadow appears in front of me, emerging out of the trees.  The shadow becomes a figure in a long black cape, walking with a bow-legged gait.  The Pocket Man comes quite close before he sees me.  Finally his head jerks up and his blue eyes widen.  There is a tiny mole on his chin.  My fingers itch to touch it.  Love is blossoming in my heart.
            “Oh, Jack,” I sigh through the tightness in my throat, “It’s been so long, so long.”
            He smiles and opens his arms.  I move into the folds of his cape and the treasure-filled pockets close tightly around us both.