A continuation of "Footsteps and Candles" following the discoveries of Rennia Croskey.
|The hinge creaked almost imperceptibly as Rennia brushed the spider webs off the hundred year old record player. The sturdy oak had worn the years with a quiet grace, though its glossy finish was long gone. Rennia stared with mounting curiosity at this relic of a forgotten time. Gliding above the hypnotic pulse of rain rapping against the windows, the hesitant strains of an old guitar shook the monotony out of the dim parlor. Rennia twirled silently across the floorboards, half expecting a tall older gentleman to waltz in at any moment and tip off his hat.
A light tap on the door snapped Rennia back to the present. “In the Garden…ah, one of my favorites.” She turned toward her Nana’s voice, warm and earnest with a slight quaver. “Just thought I’d let you know that supper’s almost ready and I’ve put some tea on to boil. Oh, dear, when was the last time I played this old thing?” She stood for a moment transfixed by the rise and fall of the trailing melody, her thin figure a bit shorter than it was nearly four months ago on Christmas Eve, when Rennia had followed the candlelit path to her cottage.
“My goodness, I almost forgot we’re having company tonight”, Nana muttered with a start as she withdrew to the kitchen and began fussing with the silverware.
“Who’s coming?!” Rennia sprang into hostess mode, charmed at the prospect of a new face at the table.
“Oh, just an old friend who called the other day and invited himself over for dinner”, she said with a hidden grin. “The nerve of that man. It’s been ages since we talked and if I remember correctly, he used to pull all sorts of rubbish on me, always splashing me in the pond, dropping frogs down my shirt, chasing me with cheese, the nasty stuff. It’s a wonder I never pushed him over a cliff. Anyways, I suppose he kind of liked me, just had a funny way of showing it.” She sighed softly. “I always wondered what that boy made of himself. Now help me get the tablecloth out of the cupboard, will you, the one with the daisies on it. And call your brothers in, too, will you?”
Rennia stifled a giggle as she inhaled the exquisite blend of roast chicken and apple pie infusing the tiny cottage with a snug cheeriness. It delighted her to see Nana’s lively wit, which had rarely surfaced during the time Rennia had grown to know her. She glanced up at her mother’s picture on the mantle, with the eyes that seemed to jump out of the frame. Mom couldn’t have been more than a couple of months old when Nana had given her away. Rennia yearned to ask a million questions since had Nana told her in low voice that meant she wouldn’t say anything more.
When the white porcelain dishes edged with tiny bluets were carefully placed on the table, Rennia flung open the door to a vigorous handshake and a laugh that jiggled the front steps.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a cornered rabbit. Aren’t you gonna let me in?” His voice rumbled and his eyes gleamed in the moonlight.
Rennia met his gaze with a timid smile. “You must be my Nana’s friend. Come on inside; she never delays supper for a minute.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, he said taking off his cowboy hat. “I’m Ash Brunklewood, the greatest farmer, woodworker, and adventurer in all of Wildwood Crossing. And you must be the lovely Rennia Croskey. Let me get a closer look at you. The way your Nana talked, I reckon I already know you.
“Lovely? Are you sure you’re talking about my sister”, called a familiar voice behind him.
“Oh, by the way, do you recognize either of these two troublemakers? I found them out building a fort and figured they might belong to you.”
Rennia nodded and grinned. “Jack and Max are always up to some wild adventure.” Just then a distant bark grew full and boisterous as an indistinct figure bounded up the blackened path.
“Hey, old girl, you made it”, Ash said gently to the breathless beagle that trotted into the kitchen. Rennia tentatively patted her long, lustrous coat.
“This here’s Chickadee”, Ash explained. “She can’t seem to get enough of those darned birds”. He looked up at Nana as she took the roast out of the oven. “Oh, Leilinia… just as radiant as I remember. How many years has it been? You were just Rennia’s age, now were you?”
“It’s real good to see you, Ash”, she said with a hint of reserve. “You’ve got a beautiful animal there.”
“She’s awesome for tracking deer and rabbits, isn’t she, Mr. Brunklewood?” piped Max. “Can we go out with you soon?”
“Sure thing, little buddy”, Ash said as he rumpled Max’s hair. “Well, I for one won’t let Leili’s famous cooking get cold, how about you?”
The uneven little table had never looked wider than it did in the damp twilight nearing the height of spring, with the five of them settled in and Chickadee underfoot. Ash abruptly broke the contented hum of dinnertime.
“So, Leili, do you happen to remember the time I was over here, must have been 40 years ago, and I snuck a bit of goat cheese into your soup? It was funny as anything.”
“How could I possibly forget?” She tried to suppress a smile. “It spoiled the whole darned thing”.
“Actually, you didn’t even notice until I told you.” His laughter boomed through the roof. “You always were a stubborn gal.”
“Now I see where Rennia gets it”, Jack shot in. Rennia gave him a good-natured kick.
“You haven’t changed one speck, have you?” Nana said with a playful glint in her eyes. Rennia thought she caught a peek of the girl Nana had been all those years ago.
“Hey, now, where’s these kids’ mother at?” Ash said suddenly. “I was getting anxious to see that pretty child all grown up with munchkins of her own.” Nana stared down at her feet with the faraway look that Rennia often noticed when she was quiet for too long.
“She’s just away for a while”, Nana said quickly to cover her uneasiness. “She’s got her own life, you know.”
Ash stood up and cleared his plate. “I’m awful sorry if I said something I shouldn’t. You know me, always blurting stuff out before I think.”
“Oh, never mind that”, Nana said weakly. “Anyways, it’s getting late and these kids have a good walk ahead of them. Take care crossing that river this time of year.”
Ash turned and waved to Rennia and her brothers. “Pleasure meeting you, delightful kids. See you around, Leili.”
“Well, you kids best be getting on home. Wouldn’t want Mom and Dad to worry. I’ll get to work on the dishes.” Part of Rennia screamed at herself for not asking why Nana didn’t want to see Mom, but she knew it wouldn’t work. She determined to find out where Ash Brunklewood lived tomorrow and see if he’d help her understand what Nana had been like and what made her guard her thoughts.
The sun was already lowering beneath the flushed maple buds when Rennia scurried out the door, painting shadows on the stubby grass that was just beginning to wear its color. Remembering Nana mentioning the river, she turned left at the crossroads. The unchanging gurgle had imprinted itself in Rennia’s mind, never submitting to the fickleness of the rest of the world. She was trying to catch her reflection between the half-covered stones when a giddy laugh broke the rhythm. She almost skidded into the still icy water when two figures started towards her.
“Hey, Rennia!” Ash’s voice rang up the brook. “What brings you out this way?” Squeezing his calloused hand nearly tight enough to break it stood a boy who looked to be about 2 years old. “Bear, I’d like you to meet Rennia. She lives a ways up the hill.” The child tugged at Rennia’s braid and giggled.
“He’s a tough, sturdy little guy”, Ash went on. “He and I have been best buds for more or less a year now. He’s just learned to walk on his own, and I’ve been teaching him to catch himself when he starts to stumble.”
Rennia scooped him up and patted his ash blond curls. He reminded her startlingly of Max at that age. “Where do his parents live?”
“Sickness took them a while back when I was fixing their house he said in a low hush. Since then it’s just him and me. He puts that extra jump in my feet that’s been missing a long time. I had my neighbors keep an eye on him last night. I wasn’t sure how Leili would react given that she never got to care for a baby long enough.” Ash’s face grew at once molded by the years and rekindled with a vitality that sprang from his spirit. “I swore I wouldn’t speak a word about Leili and your Mom, but I’ve got something that may give her some peace. Why don’t you follow us on home?”
Thickets of blueberry bushes spilled onto the trail as they neared a log cabin smaller than Nana’s with ivy tangled over the doorway. The kitchen, living room, and bedroom were unadorned, save for a worn teddy bear and a splintered record player the same model that Nana kept and never touched.
“Why don’t you put a song on for us, my girl?” Ash said with a smile. “I’m teaching Bear to dance, just in case he ever wants a girlfriend someday.” Rennia took the boy’s tiny hands as if they were made of glass, and spun him under her arm.
“He’s so good it’s easy to forget how much he needs looking after”, Ash said watching from the corner. “My own children…well, it’s a wonder they turned out as well as they did. I promised the good Lord I’d do it differently this time… that I would sit down with him and do a puzzle, or let him smear blueberries all over my shirt…that I’d hold his hand walking across the log so he’d know I’d always be there to steady his steps, just as Jesus does for me every minute of my life. Who would have guessed that everything I’d prided myself on would turn to rust the second I looked in the face of this child’s utter, unflinching trust.”
Ash gently broke up the dance. “Come here, my boy. I want you to go get my secret treasure on the table by my bed.”
Bear returned holding a plain square box that couldn’t hold more than a few coins and handed it to Rennia. Inside, a golden key caught the last fleck of sunlight.
“This belonged to your Papa. He gave it to me before he ran off, told me to keep it safe. It goes to a box buried in the thicket behind your Nana’s house.
“Why are there so many secrets?” Rennia pleaded. “What’s Nana hiding from me?”
“I can’t say. For some reason, he didn’t want her to find it until your Mom grew up. Take it to her. God has a peculiar, marvelous way of making everything beautiful in its time.
“I can’t begin to thank you”, she murmured breathlessly. “I’ll be back to see you and Bear as often as I can”.
As the old hymn “In the Garden” sounded its ageless refrain, the harmonies climbed and dropped along with the wavering remnants of that April afternoon. Rennia lifted Bear up to the window to see the robins dance away the sunset.
Rennia could feel her heart fly out into the night as she raced up the path and rattled the door. Nana took the box and lightly fingered the key and said nothing.
“All these years…” she sighed at last. “Never a word or sign from him. What can it mean?”
“Maybe he needs to tell you something that he could never say. We’d touch the stars before we could understand God’s plans, but we do know that He holds our hand as long as we let Him and makes our steps steady and our paths straight.” Rennia closed the door behind her and felt her way back home in the soundless, wordless night.