A CURIOUS HOUSE
The worst christmas break ever. That’s what Ethan Moseby was thinking as he looked out of the car window at the bare, rolling countryside. An ancient oak tree stood alone on a hill, its skeletal black branches in stark contrast to the overcast gray sky. His parents were dumping him and his sister somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere. He shook his head and returned to the comforts of his video game.
His younger sister, Jynx, was doing a search on her iPad. “Listen to this—he lives in Deadmoor, Virginia. That’s a creepy-sounding name for a town, don’t ya think? It says he’s a famous artist.”
“His art looks as if it were painted by a baboon.” Their father, Reginald Moseby, checked his hair in the rearview mirror. As always, there was not a blond hair out of place. “Ethan, look at his picture. He looks freaky,” Jynx whispered, holding the tablet so he could see.
A MESSAGE IN THE DARK
There was no explanation for the unusual happenings in the house. The house seemed to listen to them.
When they entered the dining room, Socrates was the only person in the room; a plate of steaming food sat in front of him, and he was licking his fingers. “Oh, just sneaked a little smackeral. Sorry for my rudeness.”
“Excuse me,” Jynx said, “but you have a big blob of yellow paint on your, um, beard.” She pointed her pinky.
Socrates laughed. “Jynx, thanks, but unfortunately, it’s not paint; it’s scrambled egg.”
The room was quiet for a few seconds, and then Jynx couldn’t help but laugh, and Socrates and Ethan joined in.
THE THREE- COOKIE PROBLEM
That evening at dinner, Jynx was excited about her after- noon with Mrs. Gooch and told everyone about changing the carburetor in Socrates’ station wagon. Ethan noticed the bandages on Mrs. Gooch’s arms and saw her grimacing in pain during dinner—she must have had injuries from Jynx’s legendary clumsiness.
Mrs. Gooch said, “Jynx was enthusiastic. A body’s got to learn somehow.”
As the children feasted on steak and french fries, Socrates was happily gobbling up toast with jelly. He would look up from his plate every few minutes and tell a corny joke, laughing harder than anyone.
Ethan didn’t mention meeting Amos because he didn’t want to tell Socrates that the boy had been spying on him. His thoughts were focused on finding the entrance to the maze. He was thinking of a plan for the next day when the grandfather clock in the hall started chiming. In a sleepy daze, he counted ten deep bongs. Ten o’clock? What time had they eaten dinner?
THE THIRD EYE
Standing at the library window, Ethan watched Amos climb over the ivy-covered wall beside Gramarye House. Then he saw Scafell Crag with his shotgun. Ethan moved to put his shoes on. What he heard next through the glass chilled him.
“You’re trespassin’! I got my gun; you been warned!” Crag shouted.
His shoes now on, Ethan peeked out the window again and saw Amos running toward the rear of Gramarye House. His friend’s feet slipped in the snow as he made his way around the back of the house to the porch. Reaching the top of the porch steps, Amos opened the door to his right and flung himself into the mudroom.
Ethan knew he had to reach Amos before Crag did. Feet flying and heart pounding, he clattered down the hall and through the kitchen. When he reached the mudroom, he found Amos gasping for air on the floor like a dying fish. Seconds later the outside door burst open, and Crag was holding a shotgun, panting heavily with hatred in his eyes.
“I’ll skin ya alive,” Crag said.
“You’re a drooler.”
“Huh?” Ethan stretched.
“You drool when you sleep. It’s really gross. Anyway, let’s go.”
“No grosser than watching someone sleep,” Ethan muttered, struggling to wake up. “What time is it?”
“It’s two o’clock and time we headed to Tom’s grave.” Amos slung his backpack over his shoulders.
Before leaving the cave, they kicked dirt on the smoldering coals from their fire.
It was dead still when they scaled the wall to the rear lawn of the house. Careful to step in their old tracks, they slipped on the frozen footprints. The windows of Gramarye were black sheets, except for the yellow glow of the solar’s side windows. Ethan motioned Amos forward.
Ethan sat on Jynx’s bed and waited as she changed into her pajamas in the bathroom.
“I want to call Phoebe and Reginald,” Jynx said, entering the bedroom.
“You know they won’t come home early.”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, sniffling and blowing her nose. “They’d say it was just a nightmare.”
Ethan wondered if it had been a bad dream. What if none of it was real? What if he was back at Brinkley and hadn’t left for Christmas break?
Knowing what he was thinking, Jynx reached over and pulled a black feather from under the hood of Ethan’s parka.
“No dream,” she said.
THE SHADOW’S SHADOW
Small glowing worms floated in the air all around Morgause’s tower chamber, casting a dim light. A scraggly cat was licking off pieces of lard from the bed-sized slab that stuck out into the room. Over the fire bubbled a large copper pot, the source of the reeking smell.
“I require the dying gasp of the waning crescent.”
She looked at the small crack in the sealed window. Concentrating, she stared at a single beam of moonlight, as thin as a strand of hair, shining through it. The sharp snap of two bone-white fingers produced a floating prism that trapped the beam. She waved her hand, and the prism floated across the room and fell into the boiling copper pot.
“He should have sealed that!” she sang.
“Well, pick a spot and just do it, then,” Amos said. “I can’t figure this thing out.”
Ethan walked to the painting slowly, scared of making the wrong choice. As he reached his hand toward the sham- rock, the boys were startled by the loud flapping of wings. Shooting toward them was the raven they’d seen in the maze earlier. They dived to the floor as the bird screeched above them. The raven turned in midair to avoid crash- ing into the painting and flew back to the front of the mausoleum.
Their relief was short-lived. The raven made another pass and repeated his earlier maneuver. The boys stayed down, covering their heads as it flew at the painting again.
“I hate that stupid bird!” Ethan shouted.
“We need to get to the door. Stay low,” Amos said.
As the boys crawled, the raven swooped down at them, barring their progress. Wherever they turned, the bird’s sorties steered them back to the painting. During one lull, Amos rested on an elbow and stared at the bird. His eyes widened.
Ethan lay back, his hands cradling his head, and wondered what tomorrow would be like. Remembering the painting and the riddle, he decided to ask Amos about it tomorrow when they were back in the sick-bay cabin. Boy, he dreaded going back in there. But he enjoyed every minute on the main deck. With the sweet air and gently rocking ship, he fell asleep.
The last of six bells sounded as puffy clouds cast faint shadows across the spar deck. The ship’s quartermaster, Essex Hynde, basked in the early morning sun. From habit, he surveyed the horizon and abruptly stopped when a strange sight popped into his field of vision —a turkey buzzard was perched on the gig’s stern! The bird flapped its wings wildly. “Hynde, me lad, what make ye o’ that, do you reckon?” Hynde asked himself.
I conjured powerful magic to contact the Admiral, and nothing— no response. Socrates glanced at Puck and Badger sprawled on the rug in front of the fire. The animals lightened his mood; his smile pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“My good friends, it’s been a riveting evening, but alas, it’s time for bed. Oh, please, don’t get up,” he teased as snores gurgled from the sleeping animals. I’ll check the tele- vision before I turn in.
Once again, he turned on the old television set; its tubes glowed orange through the ventilation slots of the plastic case. Nothing on the boys or the Admiral. Next it was time to check the house; one by one, Gramarye’s rooms materialized on the tiny screen. He stopped when the library came into focus. A small blond-haired girl crawled on the floor.
What’s Jynx up to? Tenacious critter, isn’t she? Socrates thought.
“Where’s Jynx? Perspective,” he said to the television. The angle of view changed, and he saw Jynx hiding behind a chair.
Lancaster and the boys hid behind the cannon and talked about their plan. They discovered a serious flaw; making it across the deck unseen would be nearly impossible.
Ethan said, “If only we could become invisible.”
“Yes, like the stories my mother used to tell,” Lancaster said. Ethan and Amos looked at each other; they’d never thought of pirates as having mothers. Ethan felt bad for Lancaster. He’d left home when he was young and probably never saw his mother again.
“I think I have a way for us to be invisible,” Lancaster said, motioning for them to stay behind the cannon before he left.
“Ethan, where’s he going? I can’t believe he’d leave now.”
“He hasn’t let us down yet,” Ethan said. “He’ll be back.”
THE HIDDEN MAZE
Ethan and Amos started back down the path that had brought them to their camp, and soon they came to a clear- ing to the left of the trail. Standing on a high boulder, they could see the glow of a campfire in the distance. Just below them, another trail led down the mountainside.
Ethan said, “Let’s take this trail. I think it leads to the pirate’s camp. I bet anything they’ve got Lancaster.”
“You’re crazy—we don’t know for sure where it leads, and we don’t really know the pirates have Lancaster.”
“Where else could he be, Amos?”
“I guess you’re right, but we could get lost,” Amos replied.
“Yeah, and we could go the long way, and the pirates could kill Lancaster. Remember him—the guy who got us off that cruddy ship and saved our lives?”
Amos said, “I know, but if we get lost, we may be too late to help him.”
“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” said Ethan.
The sky had turned yellow, peach, and then red, all in matter of minutes. Socrates stood at the library window, staring at the beautiful sunset. Admiral Benbow hadn’t returned, and Socrates had seen nothing of the loyal bird in his enchanted television. He watched the shadows slowly withdraw into the hedgerow maze behind the house.
Socrates swallowed, struggling to stay hopeful. Bleise had always been devilishly tricky, but he always had a good reason for the things he did. Jynx and Ethan had come to stay at Gramarye, and now Ethan was time traveling. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Puck woke up, stretched, and joined Socrates.
“Puck, Bleise thinks it’s time for the Ceithir to be together again.”
The dog raised his eyebrows.
Socrates continued, “You’re wise to be concerned. Bleise has chosen Ethan, Jynx, and Amos to retrieve them, whether for good or for evil. Speaking of evil, Morgause is aware of Bleise’s steps to obtain the Ceithir.”
At the sound of Morgause’s name, the dog hurried behind the sofa and scampered underneath.
Sweat beaded on Amos’s forehead. They sat behind the oak tree for a long while without coming up with a plan to help Lancaster. Amos couldn’t think of a thing—not a single strategy. Ethan wanted to run into the camp with swords and fight the pirates, but since neither knew how to fight with a sword, Amos didn’t think much of that plan.
“This is inexplicable, intolerable, grotesque,” Amos whispered.
“Hold on. I think I’ve got this one—you’re bummed because you can’t come up with anything?”
“I think that’s fairly obvious,” Amos said sarcastically.
“Sometimes you just have to wing it. I do it all the time.”
“Amos Sprunt never just wings it,” he whispered.
Scafell Crag emerged from between two of the huge stones, stopped, and whistled. From the other side of the stone ring, Silas bounded over to the yew tree in the center. At its base lay the body of Socrates Maupin. Crag nodded his head when he saw Socrates’s chest gently rise in the beam of his flashlight. Silas stopped his sniffing and licked Socrates’s nose.
“No more lickin’ now, ya crazy hound. You leave him be— back to the cottage with ya. . . . Go on now. It’s all right. . . .I’ll be around shortly; that’s a good boy.”
It’s been a while since he’s done this. Crag searched the woods surrounding the garden. Seeing what he had been looking for, he followed his eyes to the spot and start- ed working. A few minutes later, he laid Socrates on the improvised stretcher made from two small trees, a belt, and his coat.
“Maupin, how much longer am I going to have to do this?” he said, lifting the end of the stretcher. After struggling with the briars and snow, he reached Gramarye’s side porch, where Mrs. Gooch stood.
“Sakes alive, he hasn’t been there in a long time,” she said, throwing her shawl over him. “Best fetch Fergus. It’ll take both of you to get him into the house thanks to all that breakfast food he eats. I’ll wait here with Mr. Maupin.”
After moving him inside, Mrs. Gooch settled Socrates comfortably near the conservatory fire. When she had finished spreading the quilt evenly over him, she felt his forehead and, satisfied with her work, left the room.
A GRAND LADY
The news report called it the “Blizzard of the Century.” Thirteen inches of snow fell during the night alone. The next morning, the world outside was a smooth, brilliant white. Ethan woke up in the morning and closed the heavy drapes in his room; an intense sunbeam was stubbornly hitting his eyes. It felt good to snuggle back under the thick quilts. Rolling over, he heard a strange noise and mumbled at it, “Please go away.”
It didn’t, and he soon realized it was a breathing noise. He opened his eyes slowly and found Fergus’s face a few inches from his own.
“Merry Christmas Eve, Ethan!” he said.
“What?” Ethan asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Whaddya mean ‘what’? It’s Christmas Eve, biggest day of the year around here. You been sleepin’ through it. Come on—I’ll meet you downstairs,” Fergus said, shutting Ethan’s door.
He sat up in bed. Ethan had forgotten that Christmas was so close; he had lost track of time while they’d been away.
Time—now that’s funny.
THE FORBIDDEN ROOM
Socrates Maupin climbed the stairs to the front porch. The kids watched him enter the foyer. They could see he was tired, but also happy.
Then they heard Socrates say, “Mrs. Gooch, thank you for everything. The party was wonderful. The kids and I will be heading upstairs. I told them I’d give them a tour of the solar.”
Socrates grinned as he left the hallway and entered the dining room. The kids sat at the table and tried to act like they weren’t excited.
“Y’all take the stairs and I’ll take the elevator—it only has room for one, and y’all’s legs are better than mine.” He winked at them.
The kids were off like a shot and took the stairs two at a time. For once, Amos and Jynx were able to keep up with Ethan.
Ethan thought about the house’s elevator. How could he have missed an elevator?
“Captain Lancaster Brown, founder and operator of the Black Diamond Trading Company, Nassau, Bahamas. Died 15 February 1763, believed to be aged 82 years. Survived by his wife and four children.”
Amos put down the copy of Lancaster Brown’s obituary he’d printed at the library.
“Where’d you find this?” Ethan asked. Jynx put down her book.
“Local library. Being at home with my parents was driving me nuts—I had to get out. I couldn’t stop thinking about Lancaster. I did some searches on Lancaster Browneighteenth century and found his obituary. When I searched on Black Diamond Trading Company, I found out more. He had six ships, and his son took over the company after he died; this article said his ships were rated as a ‘one’ in Lloyd’s Register, whatever that is, but it must be important.”
“So, Lancaster Brown was a rich man and had a family!” Ethan said happily, passing a plate of Mrs. Gooch’s Christmas cookies to Jynx and Amos.
Amos said, “Here’s the really cool part. The article said that Lancaster bought his first frigate with money he got for selling a huge, rare diamond—a black diamond given to him by two mysterious friends.”
Stacked in a dark corner of my garden, supporting the Buddha, are three flat stones. One of them is a gravestone. My father and I took it from a country church graveyard, about a mile away from the little white frame house he’d been born in some seventy-five years ago. He and my aunt called the place Leatherwood. It’s not on a map and I’ve never seen a sign for it. It’s where the Minter’s come from.
My father had lived most of his life in Martinsville. The tragic death of his father made him an orphan. He left the country and lived with his uncle in the small mill town. He had been six years old. My father wasn’t a “talker” and never spoke of his childhood.
One late fall afternoon, we were having a drink together. After a wonderful silence, he said, “I want to show you where our people are buried.” The quest to reconnect and forgive began.
The next day we stood in front of his father’s grave. The sixteen by twenty-four inch marble gravestone was weathered and parts of it where blueish-green from lichen. We couldn’t read the epitaph.
When I moved the black crayon back and forth across the surface of the paper, the worn edges of carved letters introduced themselves to us. Putting the crayon in my pocket, we read the inscription.
Show him, O Lord, Thy mercy.
For a few minutes, neither spoke. Being a talker, I had to say something. “What a crappy thing to put on someone’s headstone. That’s horrible.”
My father remained silent. He continued to stare at the epitaph. He turned and began walking back to my car, the frozen grass and brown leaves crunching under his feet. All I could hear on the drive back to his house was the car’s engine and the tires on the road. Then he said, “His brothers were self- righteous. Judgmental too it seems. That marker is a shame. No one deserves that.”
Midway through Once Upon a Time in the West, a thought came to me. That inscription had stayed in my brain, the arrogance, the attitude. “Let’s get rid of it and put up a new one.”
“Can we do that?”
“No one’s taking care of that graveyard. Who’s going by? Is there anyone left from his family?”
“Hell yeah, let’s do it. I’ll write a new epitaph.”
The only monument company I could find that could match the marble, style and dimensions of the original gravestone was in Rock Hill, SC. My father produced the new epitaph, and we ordered the new stone. It was a cold, late February afternoon when we returned to the church.
Clarence, my father’s good friend, could make and fix anything. He was with us. Removing the old stone was harder than we thought. After much hard work and sweat, the new stone was in place. The three of us admired the new, bright white gravestone and its crisp new inscription. Then Clarence broke the silence, “February 28, 1936. Well, don’t that beat all.”
“How’s that?” asked my father.
“Y’all know what today is don’t ya?”
No one said a word.
Clarence said, “February 28th .”
He sowed with a strong hand.
I see my little ghosts every now and then. They appear and vanish as I walk through our house, the house we’ve lived in for twenty-four years. There, in the corner of the dining room that was time out. Then the five-year old sneaks out of time out as I watch him reflected in the foyer mirror.
I see my little ghosts being pulled across the hardwood floors as they sit giggling on the old comforter. Walking past the bathroom at the end of the hall, I see the blond-haired girl dropping a wriggling kitten into the bathtub as my son takes his bath. “She needs a bath.”
When our house became quiet, being in it by myself fueled my melancholy. My imagination, of which I am so proud and grateful, became a curse. Memories are unearthed like greedy miners searching for diamonds.
My ghosts followed me on evening walks on the streets of our neighborhood. A perfect Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers and James Bond leaving me for a buddy on Halloween. The three of us piled on a sled, sliding down the longest steep street in the cold, still night. While missing my children’s childhoods, was I missing my own?
Then, a miracle happened. My little ghosts became friends, visitors to lighten a stressful day, to heal an injury. I guess my imagination decided to give me a break or become a friend. Now, I remember reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Harry Potter to them before bed. I remember the tiny little girl splashing in the large washtub on a hot summer day. Her laughing puts a smile on my face. Or maybe, just maybe, my little ghosts are blessings reminding me of how lucky I’ve been.
- Owen R. Minter
Owen R. Minter was inspired to write The Shrouded Sword, a fantasy story filled with ancient magic and time travel, after creating a drawing based on Arthurian legend. The Shrouded Sword is the first book in the Gramarye Cycle series. When he’s not writing, Owen makes paintings with a leaf blower, reads, and enjoys coaching Special Olympics Athletics.
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