The thirteenth unicorn, p.7
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.7

           W. D. Newman


  Ben and Casey straightened their clothes, tried to look relaxed and somewhat interested in what was on TV. They heard their Grandma come up the steps and, a moment later, she bustled through the screen door smiling.

  “Tomorrow, I want you two to come up to the goat house and see my new babies. I’ve got two new little goats. They were born last week. These are Annabel’s first kids. Usually they only have one baby the first time, but she delivered two and they are so precious.”

  Louise had fifteen goats and every one of them had a name. She would keep the babies until they were old enough to wean from their mothers and then take them to the flea market to sell. The flea market, or the Jockey Lot as all the locals called it, was a crazy maze of pole buildings with tin roofs located a couple of miles outside of town, on a long flat stretch of land, beside the Twelve Mile River. In the center of the market, you could find people selling pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, goats, kittens, and puppies. The crazy thing about the Jockey Lot was that it was only open on Wednesday mornings. And every Wednesday morning it was jammed packed with people buying and selling. And then by lunch time, it would all be over.

  “We’ll have to go see them when we get back from the Jockey Lot, though. Tomorrow’s Wednesday, you know,” said Louise, with a wink. “Let me wash up and change clothes, then we’ll head to town. You guys like strawberry ice cream?”

  Ben and Casey nodded. “Strawberry is my favorite,” Casey replied with a smile.

  “Wonderful,” said Louise. “I’ll just be a minute, then we’ll be on our way.” As soon as their grandma disappeared into the back of the house, Ben leaned over and whispered to Casey, “Do we talk to her on the way there or on the way back?”

  “Let’s wait until we are on the way back,” Casey said.

  “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Let’s wait until we’ve already got the stuff to make the ice cream before we hit her up with some questions.”

  The ‘town,’ where they were going, was only five or six minutes away from the farm. The name of the town was Pickens, named after the famous revolutionary war hero, General Andrew Pickens. The town was originally located on the Keowee River, but after the Civil War, when the Pickens district was split into counties, the town was pulled down and physically moved to its current site. Main Street had four lanes lined with old two story brick buildings. Most of the oldest buildings had been renovated and were now occupied by attorneys or quaint little antique shops. Though, some of the businesses had been there for years. There was the West Main Barber Shop, that was owned and operated by Sam Carter and George Albertson, both of whom had been cutting hair for over thirty years now. And there was Burdett’s Hardware, where you could still buy wood burning cook stoves and tin wash boards. Although a small town, Pickens had two supermarkets for your grocery shopping convenience. Today, however, they were not going to either of the supermarkets. As a matter of fact, Louise had told them she never went to the supermarkets. They were too big and it was hard to find what you were looking for. Since most of what they ate came from their own farm, Louise shopped at a place located on the outskirts of town called The Community Grocery. The store was established in 1911 and Louise had been buying things like coffee and sugar here for as long as she could remember.

  When Louise arrived at the grocery, she crept to the front of the small parking lot and eased her old Galaxy 500 into an open space, near the store’s entrance. The grocery store looked like a building that belonged on Main Street in some western town, like Dodge City. The store front was a tall gray clapboard structure, with a tin awning that overhung a wooden boardwalk. The double doors leading into the building were propped open on the inside, and identical screen doors, with Sunbeam Bread labels painted on the screens, kept the flies at bay. With hardwood floors beneath their feet and the punched tin ceiling over their head, Ben felt as if he had just stepped backward in time. Louise introduced Ben and Casey to Mr. Evatt, the grocer. He was a tall thin man, with balding hair and spectacles and a friendly smile. Then, she pulled a list from her purse and handed it to him and Ben and Casey set off to explore the store while he filled the order. Fifteen minutes later, they were pulling out of the parking lot with a box of Morton Rock Salt, a couple of cans of Carnation Condensed Milk, and a bag of fresh peaches and strawberries stowed safely in the back seat. All three of them were sitting in the front seat. Ben had called shotgun on the way to the store, so Casey had it on the way home. That was one of the unspoken rules of shotgun – you could never have the window seat both going and coming. Ben, sitting between his grandma and his sister, was looking forward to home made ice cream so much, that he momentarily forgot about their scary adventure earlier today. Or at least until Casey poked him in the side. Louise had been rattling on about the proper way to make home-made ice cream and about how George always had to have strawberry ice cream any time they made it. Casey wanted to ask her now, before she got off on another subject and another story.

  “Grandma,” Casey prompted.

  “Yes, dear?” Louise replied.

  Casey swallowed the lump in her throat. “Ben and I did some exploring this afternoon while you were up at the goat house. We went into the bamboo patch behind the house.”

  “Well, why on earth did you do that child? I’ve been after your Grandpa to cut that nasty old patch down for years. It’s nothing but a breeding ground for snakes. George says we’ve got to have it for the chickens though. He says it gives them a place to hide from hawks and owls.”

  Ben and Casey watched her closely. She was smiling, looking straight ahead, eyes on the road.

  Boy, she’s good, Ben thought. Let’s drop a bomb on her now and see what she does.

  “Grandma,” Ben said, “there’s a funny looking tree in that bamboo patch; a dead tree with a big hole right through the center. The hole is big enough to walk through.”

  Louise’s smile faltered for just a moment. “Hmmm. Do you mind telling me what you were doing in the bamboo? Of all the places on this farm to explore, I can’t imagine why you would ever want to go inside of that nasty, old, bug infested bamboo patch.”

  “Well, I saw you go in,” Ben told her, “and I wanted to find out what you were doing in there.”

  “Were you spying on me, Benjamin Alderman?” Louise asked.

  “Oh no, I wasn’t spying on you Grandma, I promise.”

  Whenever someone called him Benjamin that usually meant he was in trouble. Whenever someone called him Benjamin and used his last name, that meant serious trouble.

  “You see,” Ben explained, “I had gone into the kitchen to get me and Casey a soda and whenever I drink a soda from a can I wash the top of the can first; and that’s what I was doing when I saw you go into the bamboo. I was just washing the tops of the cans at the kitchen sink… and so we were just curious, that’s all.”

  Louise’s smiled was completely gone now and her knuckles were white on the steering wheel.

  “Grandma,” Casey said, “there’s more to the story than that. We went through the hole in the tree. We know.”

  Louise flipped on her turn signal and veered off into a roadside parking lot of a small Baptist church. She drove to the rear of the parking lot and parked the car under one of the sodium arc lamps that illuminated the lot at night with an eerie orange glow. The lamp had just come on, and when Louise switched the engine off, they could hear the light on the tall wooden pole humming as it slowly came to life in the gray evening twilight. Louise stared straight ahead and no one spoke for several seconds. Then, she turned in her seat to look at her grandkids.

  “I am going to tell you what happened to you today and then you are going to promise me that you will never, ever go back into that bamboo. Okay?”

  Ben and Casey nodded.

  “The bamboo patch was there when we first moved in back in, oh... 1948. We didn’t know anything about it; it was jus
t a bamboo patch. We cut a few canes off the edge to make fishing poles and tomato stakes every summer, but we never went into the patch. Not until the summer of 1957. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was June, hot and humid. It must have been ninety-five degrees in the shade that day. I had a hen, setting on a nest of eggs, somewhere inside the bamboo patch. I wanted to catch the little dibbies when they hatched and put them in a brooder, because we had been having trouble with foxes eating them before they were old enough to fly to roost. Anyway, I worked my way into the bamboo. It took me a while to get in there. It was almost like the bamboo was trying to keep me out.”

  “I know what you mean,” said Casey. Ben nodded in agreement.

  “Well, I finally got into the center of the patch and it opened up in there enough so I could move around. I searched for that chicken’s nest all over the center of that patch, but I couldn’t find it. And, I guess at some point during my search, I had walked through the Merlin Tree because when I came out of the bamboo, I was in Camelot.”

  “A Merlin Tree?” Casey asked, “Camelot?”

  “Yes,” Louise answered. “The tree is named after Merlin, a powerful wizard who conjured it. It is the opening of a pathway between Earth and Camelot, a world he discovered and named after a valley, where he lived on his home world of Zorn.”

  “Merlin and Camelot!” Casey exclaimed. “Like King Authur’s Merlin and Camelot?”

  “Wait a minute,” Ben interrupted. “If Merlin’s home world is Zorn, and Merlin discovered Camelot, then why is the Merlin Tree here on Earth?”

  “There have been five Merlin Trees on Camelot,” Louise answered. “The first tree was the original one that connected Camelot to Zorn, the wizard’s home world. Later, the Earth Tree, the Faerie Tree, and the Crag Tree were created. The Zorn Tree and the Crag Tree have since been destroyed, so there are only three left.”

  Ben and Casey stared at Louise with puzzled expressions.

  “Faerie and Crag are the home world of elves and dwarves,” Louise explained.

  The kids continued to stare at their grandmother, though now, as if she’d lost her mind.

  “Listen, I’ll explain all of this tomorrow in great detail. We’ll hit the Jockey Lot early and then go to Mario’s for lunch. We’ll order one of their big greasy pepperoni pizzas, I’ll tell you everything I know, and then we are going to lay down some ground rules for your stay here over the summer.”

  “Grandma, you said there are only three trees left,” Ben noted, “but you’ve only named two. What’s the third tree?”

  Louise turned away from the children and stared out the window, across the empty parking lot. It was several seconds before she answered.

  “That would be the Pluton Tree,” she replied, turning back to the kids. “Do not ask me anything about it. Now, before we leave, tell me what happened while you were in Camelot.”

  Both kids began talking at once. Louise held up her hand and pointed to Casey. Ben glared at his sister, but respectfully sat back while Casey told about their brief visit and the crazy man who chased them back into the bamboo. They learned that the crazy man was named Amos and that he was not crazy at all. As a matter of fact, he happened to be very good friends with their Grandma. They also learned that he was the guardian of the Earth Tree, and that was the reason he was chasing them.

  “Next time I’m there I’ll tell Amos what happened. Right now let's get home and make some ice cream before your Grandpa comes looking for us. And speaking of your Grandpa, DO NOT mention any of this to George, okay?”

  “What would we say anyway?” Ben asked, “Hey Grandpa, did you know that Grandma has been traveling through a wormhole, created by a wizard named Merlin, to another world called Camelot, behind your back?”

  Louise stared at Ben for a few seconds, trying to look stern and serious. Then Casey, trying her best not to laugh, snickered and Louise’s countenance cracked. Everyone felt the stress and tension melt away as they began to howl with laughter.

  The peach ice cream was the best Ben ever had. George and Louise had finally upgraded to an electric churn and they all sat on the front porch watching the fireflies twinkle in the pasture, while the churn was freezing up a batch of strawberry. When the strawberry ice cream was ready, everyone ate a bowlful. Louise took the rest inside to put in the freezer for later. George stood and stretched.

  “It’s way past my bedtime. You kids going to the Jockey Lot tomorrow?”

  “Yes,” said Casey. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

  “Well, you’d better hit the hay too. Your Grandma likes to get there early.”

  Ben and Casey gave their Grandpa a hug and headed upstairs to their bedrooms. A few minutes later, Louise came upstairs to tuck them in and kiss them goodnight. Ben snuggled into the freshly washed, sun dried sheets. After all the excitement that happened today, with a portal to another world just a stones throw away, Ben did not think he would ever be able to go to sleep. But as he lay there in bed, with his imagination in overdrive, a cool night breeze danced with the curtains and tickled his back, and the insects in the fresh mown pastures serenaded him into a deep, peaceful sleep.


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