Maggie Fanny sat on the porch of her small strange house looking down its lawn to the twisty dusty road running past. Well, technically the road itself wasn’t running, hadn’t run in many years, in fact. But people still crossed it, kicking up fanfares of dust as they shuffled along. She waited patiently, pushing her feet against the warped wooden boards of the porch and gumming her willow bark pipe. Maggie Fanny knew that he would be the next to pass by and she would wait.
Like all the others before him Maggie Fanny knew this man would shuffle up the small rise in the twisty dusty road, his feet hidden behind a little cloud of dust that would dwindle behind him and finally disappear, the dust motes settling down exhausted back onto the road, waiting for another person who maybe, just maybe, might take them away from here.
Over the rise in the twisty dusty road the man would come, he’d pause at the top and maybe he’d drag and arm across his sweaty brow, or maybe he was the type to bend down and rest his hands on his knees for a breath or two. Either way, he’d eventually look up to get his bearings and he would see the house. The small strange house, more ivy and moss than grey stone at this point in its life. Set back aways from the twisty dusty road, with a cheerful wooden gate beckoning passersby with its smooth, golden planks. Didn’t it just look like the top of the gate had a perfectly smooth imprint of where a hand might go? Didn’t it just look soft as butter? And didn’t the path of mossy stones look comfortable and damp, such a pleasant change from the twisty dusty road? And didn’t the small strange house crouching back aways in a lacuna of dim dark forest look like it just might have a well-full of cold crisp water just waiting to be bucketed up and enjoyed by the ladleful?
Didn’t it just?
Maggie Fanny rocked some more and watched the sun climb its way up the faded blue sky. She puffed on her pipe and rubbed her large knuckled hands against the arms of Aunt River’s old rocking chair. She supposed it was her rocker now, Maggie Fanny’s rocker, now that Aunt River had been dead for so many years. And it was true, the rocker had put up a fight, the whole house had, in fact. Houses such as these don’t take easily to new inhabitants, even if they had known them since they were a small child.
A small child! Maggie Fanny chuckled at that notion. The liver spots on her hands had liver spots themselves, and her hair had given up the fight to even be grey long ago, and had now faded away to puffs as pale and fragile as the clumps of jimsonweed that hung around into autumn, useless and moldering. Had Maggie Fanny ever truly been that child who used to spring herself up over the gate and fly carelessly across its border? Had she ever really dashed headlong across the moss-wet stones of the path and chased butterflies and deer down the long green lawn? Was she really the child who had laughed and gamboled like apup, all gangly legs and panting breath, all those summers years ago as Aunt River had watched from the cool quiet of the porch of the small strange house? And if Maggie Fanny had truly been that child, what had become of her?
Whatever the years had wrought, Maggie Fanny could at least say one thing truly: she was the one who lived in the small strange house. The bed now knew her shape and when she lay her head on the pillow every night at half nine it was she who dreamed the dreams of dark things and hollow places. And every morning when she woke it was she who put the black dented kettle into the mouth of the hungry fireplace. It was she who stoked the night-diminished fire back to life and it was she who knew where to sit to drink her chicory coffee and best feel the first rays of sun that crept hesitantly into the house from the easterly window.
When Maggie Fanny had first come to live in the small strange house she hadn’t known if she really belonged, but she had been wise not to let on that she felt any doubts. A dark cloud passed along the sunny expanse of her mind, or perhaps it was a real cloud in the sky? Either way, she heaved a great sigh and pushed it out of her mind and over the horizon. She had put on a stern face when she moved in, imitating the grizzled toad face she had seen on Aunt River so many times. And little by little, the house had relented. Maybe it had realized she was a worthy successor to Aunt River, who had lived so long and so well in the small strange house. Or maybe, after seeing so many of them come and go over the stretching expanse of years the house was just as tired as Maggie Fanny now felt. Maybe the small strange house had realized that giving in was sometimes as powerful as putting up a fight.
Maggie Fanny rocked some more and wormed her thin old lips against her pipe. When she wasn’t peering intently at the twisty dusty road she was peeking into the deep dark of the Forest Beside. She was looking for Fogthorn the cat. She had placed his bowl of fish heads outside as soon as she woke that morning, setting aside the ones with the shiniest scales as those were his favorite. She had even poured him a little chipped saucer of sweet cream as a special treat. But he still hadn’t appeared from between the gloom of the trees to take his meal. Not that that was unusual. Fogthorn was a cat as strange as the house and lived according to his own unfathomable rhythms. Days and weeks and sometimes even months would pass before he would appear, and at other times he wouldn’t venture beyond the porch for many moons. It was also true that during his long absences his appearance would sometimes ebb and flow, changing like the seasons, so that sometimes he would appear as a fat orange tabby and at other times like a sleek grey shadow. Sometimes he would have a few more spots than usual, and one time he reappeared after a very harsh winter without a tail. His most recent reappearance had seen Fogthorn emerge from the woods with a cocky set to his whiskered face and a sleek black coat. An old wedge of not-ear, which had been missing since a particularly nasty fight with a raccoon, had grown back, and Fogthorn seemed pleased. With a much used sigh Maggie Fanny cursed Fogthorn and settled in for more rocking when –
Someone approached along the twisty dusty road. The small strange house grew still and Maggie Fanny took a deep breath – quiet now! Quiet! – and laid her pipe down on the arm of her rocking chair. The twisty dusty path shone with trembling anticipation, it’s clots of dust kicked into the sun glinting like gold dust, spinning and catching and holding the light – look what I have! Look what I’ve brought you!- and then, over the rise in the road, the shining sun ferociously obscuring the view of the approaching man, the dust was thick, too thick! The house could hold it’s breath no longer and Maggie Fanny growled in frustration. Let me see him! Who would it be? She squinted down the long green lawn and stared angrily at the twisty dusty road. The man finally came close enough, or perhaps the twisty dusty road didn’t want to risk the wrath of Maggie Fanny, who truly was a good successor to the mighty and vindictive Aunt River, and the man appeared.
He was small, very small. And walked with tiny mincing steps. His silhouette was slender against the roar of the sun and his clothes seemed unusual. With an odd swing of his little arms, he spun around, twirling the dust into scudding cumulus formations around his….skirt?
Maggie Fanny stood up, knocking her willow bark pipe to the ground. She stared down the expanse of long green lawn and snarled. The man who had come up the twisty dusty road….was a little girl!