Today’s Cautionary Tale concerns a problem that all loving parents will face sooner than later. Hoffman writes of it in the mid-nineteenth century, and young mothers of my acquaintance tell me nothing much has changed.
I offer my best wishes to Celia the Cry-Baby and anyone who can relate.
Thump. Thump. Thump thump thump!
Rose lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. It was only her third night in her new bedroom with its yellow walls and the rectangle of light that slipped through her curtains from the street lamp outside and fell across her blanket. The little house was only a block from the hump at Potomac Yards, and now that her parents were asleep, she could hear the yardmaster calling to his switchmen as he sorted freight cars into new strings that would head on south in the morning. It was a ghostly, friendly sort of sound.
But this was louder, and closer. It sounded like footsteps, erratic footsteps in the attic over her head. She opened her mouth to call her mother, but paused. She was eight years old now, not a baby. Next week was Hallowe’en, and she had asked to go trick-or-treating on her own for the first time. How would it look if she was frightened now, in her own house?
She listened again – nothing. Had she really heard them? She turned onto her side and threw her arm around Mr. Bear, her constant, stolid companion. Nestling down, she closed her eyes. Then thump. Thump rattle ssshhht! Eyes wide, she rolled onto her back and held her breath. Something was being slowly dragged across the attic toward the trap door in her closet. Ruby bit her lip and pulled the covers over her head.
At breakfast the next morning, her parents watched her stare into her oatmeal as she moved her spoon in slow circles. Her mother caught her father’s attention and raised an eyebrow. He shrugged.
“Okay, Rosie, what’s on your mind?” her mother asked.
“Something wrong with your oatmeal?”
“No. It’s just…. Well, I heard something in the attic last night. Footsteps.”
Her father nodded.
“That’s just the leg,“ he said, “looking for its owner.”
He went on to tell the story of a boy, the son of the previous owner of the house, who had lost his leg jumping freight trains coming out of Potomac Yards and passing through their neighborhood.
“Nothing to worry about – as long as you have both of your legs.”
Ruby didn’t hear the leg every night, but it returned often enough to keep it in her mind. On a sunny afternoon months later, she gathered her courage and pulled a dining chair into her closet. She climbed up and pushed open the trap door into the attic, and there in the loose insulation between the rafters was a footprint. One footprint.
She pulled the trap door shut, put the chair back at the table and never went up there again.
Today I am submitting for inspection a little piece called Conrad and the Tailor, the first in a collection of “Cautionary Tales.” I was inspired by my memories of a slender volume of poems given me by my grandmother when I was three years old. Slovenly Peter first appeared in Germany as Der Struwwelpeter, an 1845 children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman.
Hoffman was, among other things, the doctor at a lunatic asylum in Frankfurt, where he considered himself to be “the sunshine in the life of his miserable patients.” I will let my readers judge the level of his success.
Have I mentioned that my family specialized in dark humor?
Originally posted on Truth and Tolerance:
Love in the Ruins, an apocalyptic comedy, was published in 1971 and takes place in what then would have been the “near future” of the…
I had the good fortune to participate in a workshop at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library led by the talented Claudia Ricci. What a relief to leave behind research and early twentieth century America for a few hours!
I sit in the summer house at the back of my garden while the red squirrel cuts half-ripe cones from the spruce tree high overhead. In the distance, I hear the first calls of the geese taking this year’s brood for a practice flight. The sound brings with it the smell of golden leaves lit by low sunlight.
The plants that surround me are pushing out their last flowers in a rush to make seed before a frost cuts short their leafy lives. All this beauty underlain with desperate determination – all life writ small.
I hear a rustle in the viburnums. Suddenly, she’s there, still as a statue. Only her ears move. She takes a step, then another, and then behind her are this year’s fawns.
I stay so still, so quiet, and the doe begins to move along the border, delicately snipping flowerheads one by one, thoughtfully masticating. The fawns are less discriminating, trying plant after plant.
“Deer resistant!” they seem to say. “Take that, allium, and that, you prickly holly!”
Enough, I think, and sit up straight. A startled look, a quick retreat, and I am alone again.
Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.
– Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent, New York, Scribner, 2010.