Town lore held Madam Hodgkins to be a cougar. She lived in a large manor off the east end, surrounded by a tall fence with rusted fleur de lis atop every stoke that in some lights looked like an array of knives. Hodgkins lived by herself, they said, scrubbing the house once daily, hardly ever eating, or peering out the window at the high school boys who’d walk by. Or else she was writing letters to imaginary friends (her mailbox was always full of outgoing letters, but never incoming ones), tending to her twelve cats (which nobody saw, though she bought copious amounts of kitty litter every weekend), and doing what most single, unemployed ladies in their mid forties did, which for Bryant St. Martin didn’t amount to much.
So one morning when he received a brown-paper package on his front porch, addressed from Madam Hodgkins, he had no idea what to expect.
Bryant was sixteen now, and since his father was a truck driver often out of town and his mother worked third shift at a hospital two towns over, he was presently the only one awake. He carried the package inside, set it on the table, and after grabbing a glass of milk, he set about untying the bits of string wrapped around it. He’d finished his drink before the deed was done.
The brown paper unfolded itself from the package without any effort, revealing a modest wooden box, perhaps balsa wood for its incredible lightness, hinged at the back with a small strip of aluminum. Bryant wiped the milk from his upper lip and then opened the box.
Sitting atop a folded bit of paper, a red jewel the size of a plum sparkled and shone.
Bryant withdrew the rock, feeling a tinge of strangeness that it seemed heavier than the entire box had felt as he carried it inside, but its many facets continued to twist the morning sunlight and he could hardly look away. Some time had passed before he recalled the paper and pulled it out; it was a handwritten letter (purple ink with varying width and serifs, as though she wrote longhand in calligraphy), address to him as “Bryant, Number 4 Old Knob Road.”
I came across this bit of lapidarian craftsmanship while dusting the attic and recalled that red jacket you had worn to the town’s Hallowe’en festival last October. Perhaps you may find in it some usefulness.
P.S. Tiff the Tomcat says hello.
Bryant set the letter aside and continued turning the jewel about in his hand. It was brilliant, no doubt at all, but after a few moments of thoughts, he still found it utterly useless.
In fact, he almost felt like returning it.
In fact, given the rumors, perhaps he should return it.
He had always wondered what sort of woman she really was, and clearly she had noticed him at Halloween, so perhaps it was time to notice her.
So he delivered the box, brown paper and strings and all, to his room, got dressed in some plaid shorts appropriate for summer and a bright tee as soft to the touch as a chipmunk probably would be, though admittedly he had never petted a chipmunk before, and then, slipping the jewel into his pocket, he set out and pulled the door shut behind him.
The weather was warm, but still clung to a chill morning breeze that ruffled his hair and swept up his pants legs, making him shiver. But the sky was only spotted with clouds, the fluffy kind that children saw shapes in, and here and there he saw butterflies and dragonflies flitting about.
It wasn’t long, or at least it hadn’t felt as such, until he found himself at the towering gate surrounding Madam Hodgkins’ manor. Perhaps uncharacteristically, though he couldn’t be certain, the front gate was already opened, so in he went, following a driveway of pavers shaped like impossibly large river rocks that meandered up a small hill, to a brick patio before the manor’s massive door.
This, he found, was a richly colored wood, carved to exquisiteness, and adorned with a large iron knocker in the shape of a lioness’ head. He lifted the metal ring clasped between her teeth and then let it drop into the door. It resounded like thunder, making him glance again at the sky, only to find it as sparsely clouded as before and as blue as ever.
A few moments passed and he was inclined to knock again when the door opened. Madam Hodgkins stood on the other side, perhaps everything his imagination could conjure, or just tempered by reality but cast in a good glow from the morning light. Her face was painted with a smile and blush in her cheeks, only slightly starting to wrinkle, and soft lines accentuated her eyes. At present she wore a gown of some sort, burgundy and navy folds suggesting heaviness but falling softly about her ankles like feathers.
“Oh, Bryant, I hadn’t been expecting you.”
“I, um, I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Not at all–rise with the sun, I like to think, and the day will be won.” She flourished her hand as though revealing a letter on Wheel of Fortune. “Would you like to come in for some tea? I just put on another pot, actually, it should be ready soon.”
“Sounds nice,” Bryant said, and wondered if nice were too casual, too bland, a response. Nonetheless, he followed Madam Hodgkins inside and felt turned back by the lackluster house her manor became: Immaculately clean, of course, but lacking the mystical qualities the rumors in the town often attributed to it. It was a house not so unlike his own.
She led him to a sitting room, where he sat, and then went into the kitchen. She came back with a tray of tea, sugar, and cream. She set it on the coffee table (the irony went unnoticed) and began pouring a cup for Bryant.
“So what brings you this lovely day?”
“Well,” he said, and it took a moment for him to remember the rock, which he pulled out. “This is a generous gift, but I don’t think I can accept it.”
“Oh, very well,” she said, but her voice sounded upset. “It’s kind to return it in person, I suppose.” She handed him his tea and then settled down in a chair facing his without pouring herself a cup. “You know, my grandfather was a grand collector of all sorts of knickknacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if that had been one of his treasures at a time now long forgotten.”
It seemed a bit dramatic, but Bryant didn’t want to appear rude, so he made to keep talking as best as he could. “What did your grandfather do?”
“He was a seasoned explorer, traveled almost all of the known world. At least, that’s what my mother told me; she had probably been exaggerating. But then I come across small things like that jewel, and I think to myself, I have no children, who would I pass them onto? What use are they to me?”
Now Bryant felt especially bad. The rumors certainly couldn’t be true; Madam Hodgkins was just a lonely old woman with no one to talk to. How could anything the kids said be true?
“I had no idea,” he said. “If it means so much to you that I have this, I’d be happy to keep it.”
Madam Hodgkins smiled. “That would be very kind of you, Bryant.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands in her lap. “There is so much in this attic of mine I just haven’t torn through yet. Would you want to help me move some of it around?”
“I guess so,” Bryant said, and hearing how empty his words sounded, he quickly added, “I mean, I don’t think I have anything else happening today. I would be happy to help.”
“Thank you, Bryant–it means so much to me.” She stood up quickly, so Bryant set down his tea (it was still too hot to drink anyways) and followed her up the curling staircase, through a hallway, to a small ladder leading up through an opening in the ceiling. Being a gentleman, he climbed up first.
The attic, to his dismay, was about as typical an attic as could be imagined: There were boxes, the boxes were dusty, and only stray beams of sunlight from a window out of sight illuminated the place.
“I found the jewel over here, in a box I went through yesterday,” Madam Hodgkins said, pointing along the left-hand wall. “Would you be so kind as to help me move those boxes over there?” She pointed to an empty space along the far wall. Perhaps some of the rumors were true, and Madam Hodgkins, a few nuts lose upstairs, spent all her time moving boxes around her attic, only ever occasionally opening one, perhaps only if the box should open itself by accident.
So Bryant obliged, moving one box, then another. As the pile slowly moved across the attic, he uncovered a tall mirror standing against the wall, unusually clean and reflective relative to the attic’s age. He briefly thought he saw a man standing behind him, and he whirled around–instead he saw an orange cat, clearly old by its slowness, slinking across the attic.
“Oh, don’t be bothered by him,” said Madam Hodgkins from where she stood near the new pile of boxes, “that’s just Tiff, he couldn’t harm a fly if he tried–maybe in his youthful days, but certainly no longer.” She chuckled, and her chuckling faded away as Bryant looked back at the mirror.
There was something decidedly strange about it, like at any moment he should see his reflection change and his heart’s greatest desires played out before him, like in Harry Potter, and perhaps for the same thinking, he recalled the weight in his pocket. He moved his hand to reach in, saw his reflection move likewise, and then he withdrew the plum-sized jewel. It sat in his hand like, well, a ripe plum, and for a moment he was disappointed.
“Are you alright?” Madam Hodgkins said, and she seemed to stand up and take notice of Bryant’s odd behavior.
“I’m fine,” he said quickly, “just admiring this.”
“Let me see it, too,” Madam Bryant said. Bryant started toward her, but instead she stood up and walked to him. She placed her hands around his, tilted his palm ever so gently so the red jewel rolled back and forth, the dim attic light chasing all its many edges.
Bryant looked up at her face, those soft eyes, those full lips, and blushing, he turned back to the mirror. Except Madam Hodgkins wasn’t reflected in the mirror–instead it was a cougar, tan fur and round eyes and large paws clasping his hands. Though what he felt were human fingers.
He blinked to make the apparition disappear, but instead when he opened his eyes, the attic’s reflection was gone and he and the cougar stood atop the surface of a still lake.
Bryant turned slowly too look back at Madam Hodgkins. She was unchanged, as human as ever, but now her hands closed around his with greater force, and she was moving him toward the mirror, and if he tried to look away from her eyes, his found the jewel, and if he tried to turn away from the jewel, he found her eyes. He couldn’t stop his feet from moving. He couldn’t pull his hands away from hers. And when she stopped walking, he couldn’t resist as she pushed him into the mirror.
For a moment he expected the glass to shatter, but instead he toppled backward as though he had been pushed from a window, and he fell.
He hit the water like it were a wall, and unable to breathe, he sank.
When he surfaced, his body bruised and burning in pain, he stared upward, to that opening in the sky. A man stood behind Madam Hodgkins, petting the cougar. She purred, and then, smiling, the man turned away and the sky became a sky once again.