When I left the long field I went between the four apple trees we called our orchard, and along the path toward the creek. My box of silver dollars buried by the creek was safe. Near the creek, well hidden, was one of my hiding places, which I had made carefully and used often. I had torn away two or three low bushes and smoothed the ground; all around were more bushes and tree branches, and the entrance was covered by a branch which almost touched the ground. It was not really necessary to be so secret, since no one ever came looking for me here, but I liked to lie inside with Jonas and know that I could never be found. I used leaves and branches for a bed, and Constance had given me a blanket. The trees around and overhead were so thick that it was always dry inside and on Sunday morning I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this,” and I lay with my head close to Jonas and listened. There was no change coming, I thought here, only spring; I was wrong to be so frightened. The days would get warmer, and Uncle Julian would sit in the sun, and Constance would laugh when she worked in the garden, and it would always be the same. Jonas went on and on (“And then we sang! And then we sang!”) and the leaves moved overhead and it would always be the same.
I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to. I was on my way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst. My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down. I decided that the nail had rusted away and the bookâit was a little notebook of our father's, where he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favors for himâwas useless now as protection. I had wrapped it very thoroughly in heavy paper before nailing it to the tree, but the nail had rusted and it had fallen. I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mother's, or a glove. It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house. By the time I found the book he had probably already left his suitcase in the post office and was asking directions. All Jonas and I knew then was that we were hungry, and we ran together back to the house, and came with the breeze into the kitchen.
“Did you really forget your boots?” Constance said. She tried to frown and then laughed. “Silly Merricat.”
“Jonas had no boots. It's a wonderful day.”
“Perhaps tomorrow we'll go to gather mushrooms.”
“Jonas and I are hungry
By then he was already walking through the village toward the black rock, with all of them watching him and wondering and whispering as he passed.
It was the last of our slow lovely days, although, as Uncle Julian would have pointed out, we never suspected it then. Constance and I had lunch, giggling and never knowing that while we were happy he was trying the locked gate, and peering down the path, and wandering the woods, shut out for a time by our father's fence. The rain started while we sat in the kitchen, and we left the kitchen door open so we could watch the rain slanting past the doorway and washing the garden; Constance was pleased, the way any good gardener is pleased with rain. “We'll see color out there soon,” she said.
“We'll always be here together, won't we, Constance?”
“Don't you ever want to leave here, Merricat?”
“Where could we go?” I asked her. “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.”
“I wonder sometimes.” She was very serious for a minute, and then she turned and smiled at me. “Don't you worry, my Merricat. Nothing bad will happen.”
That must have been just about the minute he found the entrance and started up the driveway, hurrying in the rain, because I had only a minute or two left before I saw him. I might have used that minute or two for so many things: I might have warned Constance, somehow, or I might have thought of a new, safer, magic word, or I might have pushed the table across the kitchen doorway; as it happened, I played with my spoon, and looked at Jonas, and when Constance shivered I said, “I'll get your sweater for you.” That was what brought me into the hall as he was coming up the steps. I saw him through the dining-room window and for a minute, chilled, I could not breathe. I knew the front door was locked; I thought of that first. “Constance,” I said softly, not moving, “there's one outside. The kitchen door, quickly.” I thought she had heard me, because I heard her move in the kitchen, but Uncle Julian had called at that moment, and she went in to him, leaving the heart of our house unguarded. I ran to the front door and leaned against it and heard his steps outside. He knocked, quietly at first and then firmly, and I leaned against the door, feeling the knocks hit at me, knowing how close he was. I knew already that he was one of the bad ones; I had seen his face briefly and he was one of the bad ones, who go around and around the house, trying to get in, looking in the windows, pulling and poking and stealing souvenirs.
He knocked again, and then called out, “Constance? Constance?”
Well, they always knew her name. They knew her name and Uncle Julian's name and how she wore her hair and the color of the three dresses she had to wear in court and how old she was and how she talked and moved and when they could they looked close in her face to see if she was crying. “I want to talk to Constance,” he said outside, the way they always did.
It had been a long time since any of them came, but I had not forgotten how they made me feel. At first, they were always there, waiting for Constance, just wanting to see her. “Look,” they said, nudging each other and pointing, “there she is, that one, that's the one, Constance.” “Doesn't
like a murderess, does she?” they told each other; “listen, see if you can get a picture of her when she shows again.” “Let's just take some of these flowers,” they said comfortably to each other; “get a rock or something out of the garden, we can take it home to show the kids.”
“Constance?” he said outside. “Constance?” He knocked again. “I want to talk to Constance,” he said, “I have something important to say to her.”
They always had something important they wanted to tell Constance, whether they were pushing at the door or yelling outside or calling on the telephone or writing the terrible terrible letters. Sometimes they wanted Julian Blackwood, but they never asked for me. I had been sent to bed without my supper, I had not been allowed in the courtroom, no one had taken my picture. While they were looking at Constance in the courtroom I had been lying on the cot at the orphanage, staring at the ceiling, wishing they were all dead, waiting for Constance to come and take me home.
you hear me?” he called outside. “Please listen for just a minute.”
I wondered if he could hear me breathing on the inside of the door; I knew what he would do next. First he would back away from the house, sheltering his eyes from the rain, and look up at the windows upstairs, hoping to see a face looking down. Then he would start toward the side of the house, following the walk which was only supposed to be used by Constance and me. When he found the side door, which we never opened, he would knock there, calling Constance. Sometimes they went away when no one answered at either the front door or the side; the ones who were faintly embarrassed at being here at all and wished they had not bothered to come in the first place because there was really nothing to see and they could have saved their time or gone somewhere elseâthey usually hurried off when they found they were not going to get in to see Constance, but the stubborn ones, the ones I wished would die and lie there dead on the driveway, went around and around the house, trying every door and tapping on the windows. “We got a
to see her,” they used to shout, “she killed all those people, didn't she?” They drove cars up to the steps and parked there. Most of them locked their cars carefully, making sure all the windows were shut, before they came to pound at the house and call to Constance. They had picnics on the lawn and took pictures of each other standing in front of the house and let their dogs run in the garden. They wrote their names on the walls and on the front door.
“Look,” he said outside, “you've
to let me in.”
I heard him go down the steps and knew he was looking up. The windows were all locked. The side door was locked. I knew better than to try to look out through the narrow glass panels on either side of the door; they always noticed even the slightest movement, and if I had even barely touched the dining-room drapes he would have been running at the house, shouting, “There she is, there she is.” I leaned against the front door and thought about opening it and finding him dead on the driveway.
He was looking up at a blank face of a house looking down because we always kept the shades drawn on the upstairs windows; he would get no answer there and I had to find Constance a sweater before she shivered any more. It was safe to go upstairs, but I wanted to be back with Constance while he was waiting outside, so I ran up the stairs and snatched a sweater from the chair in Constance's room and ran downstairs and down the hall into the kitchen and he was sitting at the table in my chair.
“I had three magic words,” I said, holding the sweater. “Their names were MELODY GLOUCESTER PEGASUS, and we were safe until they were said out loud.”
“Merricat,” Constance said; she turned and looked at me, smiling. “It's our cousin, our cousin Charles Blackwood. I knew him at once; he looks like Father.”
“Well, Mary,” he said. He stood up; he was taller now that he was inside, bigger and bigger as he came closer to me. “Got a kiss for your cousin Charles?”
Behind him the kitchen door was open wide; he was the first one who had ever gotten inside and Constance had let him in. Constance stood up; she knew better than to touch me but she said “Merricat, Merricat” gently and held out her arms to me. I was held tight, wound round with wire, I couldn't breathe, and I had to run. I threw the sweater on the floor and went out the door and down to the creek where I always went. Jonas found me after a while and we lay there together, protected from the rain by the trees crowding overhead, dim and rich in the kind of knowing, possessive way trees have of pressing closer. I looked back at the trees and listened to the soft sound of the water. There was no cousin, no Charles Blackwood, no intruder inside. It was because the book had fallen from the tree; I had neglected to replace it at once and our wall of safety had cracked. Tomorrow I would find some powerful thing and nail it to the tree. I fell asleep listening to Jonas, just as the shadows were coming down. Sometime during the night Jonas left me to go hunting, and I woke a little when he came back, pressing against me to get warm. “Jonas,” I said, and he purred comfortably. When I woke up the early morning mists were wandering lightly along the creek, curling around my face and touching me. I lay there laughing, feeling the almost imaginary brush of the mist across my eyes, and looking up into the trees.
When I came into the kitchen, still trailing mist from the creek, Constance was arranging Uncle Julian's breakfast tray. Uncle Julian was clearly feeling well this morning, since Constance was giving him tea instead of hot milk; he must have awakened early and asked for tea. I went to her and put my arms around her and she turned and hugged me.
“Good morning, my Merricat,” she said.
“Good morning, my Constance. Is Uncle Julian better today?”
“Much, much better. And the sun is going to shine after yesterday's rain. And I am going to make a chocolate mousse for your dinner, my Merricat.”
“I love you, Constance.”
“And I love you. Now what will you have for breakfast?”
“Pancakes. Little tiny hot ones. And two fried eggs. Today my winged horse is coming and I am carrying you off to the moon and on the moon we will eat rose petals.”
“Some rose petals are poisonous.”
“Not on the moon. Is it true that you can plant a leaf?”
“Some leaves. Furred leaves. You can put them in water and they grow roots and then you plant them and they grow into a plant. The kind of a plant they were when they started, of course, not just any plant.”
“I'm sorry about that. Good morning, Jonas. You are a furred leaf, I think.”
“I like a leaf that grows into a different plant. All furry.”
Constance was laughing. “Uncle Julian will never get his breakfast if I listen to you,” she said. She took up the tray and went into Uncle Julian's room. “Hot tea coming,” she said.
“Constance, my dear. A glorious morning, I think. A splendid day to work.”
“And to sit in the sun.”
Jonas sat in the sunlit doorway, washing his face. I was hungry; perhaps it would be kind to Uncle Julian today if I put a feather on the lawn at the spot where Uncle Julian's chair would go; I was not allowed to bury things in the lawn. On the moon we wore feathers in our hair, and rubies on our hands. On the moon we had gold spoons.
“Perhaps today is a good day to begin a new chapter. Constance?”
“Yes, Uncle Julian?”
“Do you think I should begin chapter forty-four today?”
“Some of the early pages need a little brushing up. A work like this is never done.”
“Shall I brush your hair?”
“I think I will brush it myself this morning, thank you. A man's head should be his own responsibility, after all. I have no jam.”