Houses lined only one side of the street where the road widened and began its ascent. The opposite side opened onto the athletic fields of Butler University. A high chain-linked fence captured the towering hillside that spilled down into a narrow flat field, which stopped abruptly at the south fence.
My brother and I had gone sledding there last winter. Kids snuck under the fence where a hole had been dug behind some shrubbery. I got up enough nerve to sled down that snow-covered mountain—encouraged by the invitation from my brother to ride with him on his sled. He was nine. I was eleven, and we were nervous about the steep slope. So we agreed to forge the hill together.
Every day as I walked to and from school, carrying my books and violin, I would pause and look up at that old house. It seemed out of place, so far back from the road, different from the other modern-looking houses that stood closer to the sidewalk. The way the ivy crept across its windows and red-bricked A-frame doorway made it seem alive. It moved, it changed, like it was breathing. The yard was unkempt. My view of the fortress was obscured due to the overgrowth, like shadows that dance in the middle of the forest, hiding the sunlight. Its structure seemed stable enough, but I never saw anyone living there—no cars, no people. I got this strange feeling every time I passed by. For two years I hadn't seen a soul come in or out. But secretly I just kept hoping.
Momentarily mesmerized, I would look up at its windows. Like eyes, they stared back at me. Reverently I'd imagine what could be behind the glossy reflections in the dark-paned glass. In the spring, the green umbrage almost completely curtained the property itself, but it never stopped me from feeling the house. So many times I wanted to turn up the dirt driveway. And then, one cold day, before winter had plucked all life from the secretive trees, I found my courage.
At first I looked to see if anyone had noticed me duck into the driveway. Once hidden behind the line of camouflage around the first curve, I turned back one more time and caught a glimpse of Butler Hill, where I had laid on top of my brother riding on his wooden, red-bladed sled. I had dared to break the barriers of a quiet, internal safety within me that day. I remembered how our sled had left the ground, my brother and I racing down the hill so fast we couldn't help but scream with ecstatic laughter, so fast I peed my pants. I giggled to myself now, hearing the echo of my brother's voice, pleading, "Get off me, get off me!" I had mischievously revealed to him halfway down the hill that I was wetting myself, all the while knowing neither one of us would dare maneuver off the speeding sled, as we would kill ourselves if we did. We had to just let the mountain take us. It didn't matter that the biting wind had chapped my cheeks and stung my ears, I was free.
The house called me back again. Today, on my twelfth birthday, it called me. It peered at me through the arbor of trees, always protected somehow. Even in the dead of winter, when all the leaves had fallen into piles on the ground, the house seemed protected—more visible, and yet still not seen.
Today I was Nancy Drew. The house held a secret, one in which, if the mystery could be revealed, it could unlock the key to everything. I slowly walked up the driveway—dauntless—disappearing behind a spray of autumn leaves, my violin case dangling from my cold fingers. I tried to think of what I would say if I saw anyone. My heart thumped to the rhythm of the squeaky handle as my violin case kept getting caught by the breeze. Then suddenly a cold wind whooshed all around me, straightening the last wave of my upturned curls. Believe it or not, this made my heartbeat calm.
I stood at the front door now, knowing exactly what I would say.
I reached up and tapped the iron doorknocker twice. The sound of it echoed to the distant street, where traffic noise had all but disappeared. I heard the click of the door; it creaked slowly open. I looked across at an old woman peering back at me, her face level with mine—a very old woman. She had soft, wispy gray hair, and eyes the color of the ocean at Daytona Beach on a sunny day. They glistened at me, and she smiled.
"Hello Ma'am," I said. "I just wanted to tell you that I really love your house. There's something about it, well ...uh... I just always admire it when I walk by. I say to myself, I would even like to live here."
"I’ve put on the teakettle. Would you like to come in and have a cup of hot tea?"
"Okay. But I can't stay long, or my parents will be worried." More than that, they would be angry.
"Okay, dear one."
As I entered the dark foyer of the house, I could see into the living room. Two antique chairs, red velvet with gold trim, faced each other, a round three-legged mahogany table between them, a lamp with beige fringe placed in the center. At my feet lay a beautiful carpet of burgundy, green and beige. It looked like a giant tapestry. The colors were so vivid, it was as if they dripped with fresh paint.
Then I noticed the wall-to-wall shelves of seashells. I gasped. "You collect shells."
In a hushed voice she said, "These are my guardians, my protectors. I've been collecting them for longer than you could imagine. Each one has its own particular meaning for me, and each has a unique story to tell."
"Wow!" I moved into the room, gazing at the beautiful shellssome very tiny, others as big as watermelons.
"They come from far away places, from lands forgotten, civilizations lost, islands in the sea."
I set my violin on the floor next to one of the antique chairs and sat down. I sipped the most wonderful brew, the taste of cinnamon and honey. The old woman asked my name, then told me hers was Hannah. She seemed to know exactly what I was feeling, what it was like not having any close friends, being alone and on my own a lotfeeling like I didn't measure up to what was expected of me, and feeling strange most of the time.
I will never forget something she told me that day: "Someday, honey, you're going to solve many mysteries. You have a gift of sight. Sometimes it's hard because you know things when you're not supposed to, and sometimes it gets you in trouble, and sometimes it just hurts. But one day, you will understand what it means, and why it is a gift."
Even though I didn’t understand, for some reason her words made me feel better.
She went on, talking more about her seashells: "These are like magical wands from the ocean. They are what drew you here. I am their keeper. One day they will be in your hands, perhaps not these, but the memories and stories they hold."
I sure didn't know what she was saying, and I was starting to worry that I would get in trouble if I tarried any longer, so I bid her farewell and thanked her for the tea.
It was a few months later when I strolled up the driveway again, but when I looked into the diamond-paned windows, there were no curtains, no furniture, no shelves of seashells. The house was empty. I turned, confused and sad, and walked back to the street. A new friend I had been walking to school with saw me exit the driveway. She snickered at me, saying, "You know, that house has been empty for years. My mom says no one wants to buy it because it's haunted. You should probably just leave well enough alone."
I kept my mouth shut, as I didn't want my new friend to think I was weird, but I never forgot Hannah. One day I would find the treasures in her words, and I would write this story down, giving it to her as a gifta gift to the one who let me feel mystery for the first time.
© 2002 Wild Coyotes...a music & story company