I am happy to be a part of N.D. Wilson's blog tour celebrating the release of The Chestnut King, the third book in the 100 Cupboards series. Please also visit these tour stops Eva's Book Addiction and Fireside Musings.
My mother was (and occasionally is) an English teacher. This story starts with her enthusiasm.
She was making (forcing? obligating? mandating?) us to watch a little documentary called The Story of English. (When I say us, I mean my two sisters and my own self.) All good and noble. Huzzah for English. Huzzah for its story.
But I wasn’t interested. Which is why I was grateful when the house burned down.
If I recall, the key moment in the film came when an old man was wheedling around on his bicycle (carrying baguettes in a basket I believe). Nothing against him or his white beard or his cap or his bicycle wheedling. Good on him. Well wheedled. Well Englished and well storied. But I yawned on.
Until the lights in the kitchen flicked off.
Being eternally helpful, I hopped up to see what had happened. (I think my mom even paused the film so I wouldn’t miss anything.)
Once in the kitchen, I looked around. Yep. The lights were indeed off. I looked up at the beamed cedar ceiling. I cocked an ear. And at that moment, our little movie afternoon became interesting. The ceiling was crackling and popping like a campfire.
“Mom,” I said, and I’m sure that I was smiling. “The house is on fire.”
There was a great deal of “What?” and sisterly excitement and yelling for my dad and running into the kitchen and everybody trying to be quiet to hear the alleged crackling.
Vindicated. We were definitely on fire.
Mom practically threw us out of the house. And our phone line was dead, so she continued her running right over to the neighbors’ house. Dad fired up the garden hose, climbed a ladder, and tried to spritz the thing dead through the attic vent.
My sisters and I, well, I don’t really remember whether or not there was any negative emotion going on with them, but we pretty much kept ourselves busy dancing on the lawn until the firemen arrived.
Men scrambled onto our roof with axes. Holes were chopped. As evening fell, towers of flame suddenly roared free of the attic, converting our little house into heat energy, and releasing it generously into the atmosphere.
Okay, so the house didn’t burn down. It would be more accurate to say that the roof burned off. We didn’t lose everything (like many others have). But we did have to move out.
First, some friends (who were house-sitting themselves) offered us their lower floor. The backyard was a pond. Literally. The patio ended in an iron rail. On the other side of the rail, there was a long expanse of water. Tied to the rail, there was a row-boat.
How could I have regretted that fire? An ancient willow tree wept over that black water, enclosing a secret portion of pond and bank to itself—giving me my own willow world, and material for Leepike Ridge. Mud hens hollered to each other. Cat-tails browned and rattled in the summer wind. Red-wing blackbirds monitored me in my little boat.
Many, many turtles were captured. (Tip: when dealing with a large turtle population and a strict catch and release policy, labeling is helpful. Pink fingernail polish is ideal as it glows well even when the turtle is fully camouflaged against a muddy bottom. A particularly close family friend was always easy for us to spot—the words THIS IS TIM would suddenly appear and ghost past.)
Our time in the pond house expired with the summer. Our house was repaired, and then sold. But we had no place to go. At least no place with a house. My father bought raw land from a farmer, and we dreamed of building. His parents threw open their doors.
For one entire school year, I lived in my grandparents’ attic. The ceiling was baggy. The walls were coved. The pine floorboards squealed like pinched kittens. My younger sister and I shared the attic with piles of the mysterious and archaic. A WWII Navy recruitment poster winked at us. A brick chimney loomed. A swamp cooler throbbed in the window, trying to keep is from stifling. Along the walls, just beneath the cove, there were (and are) small doors, that led into tight crawl spaces, that led to . . .
We explored, my two sisters and I. (Penelope, Henrietta, Anastasia, Henry, and I.) We slid around in the dust, down the ceilings above stairwells, and behind built-in bookshelves. We sneezed. We splintered. We bled.
How could I have known that I was researching, or how much that house fire—that defunct, sparking doorbell wire—would give me?
And I never even had to finish watching the movie.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews