The dead crow lay in the yard of
an elegant old Tudor, a splotch of jet black on a bed of fallen
As I looked away from the unappetizing
sight, a scrawny brown and white collie emerged from the thin
woods behind the house. She stopped to sniff curiously at
the bird, pressing her nose to its limp chest.
"Leave it!" I said. "Shoo!"
The dog looked up from her revolting
find and stared at me, ears at high alert. Then apparently
spying something more interesting across the street, she ran
past me, zigzagging into the path of a fast-moving white convertible
The angry blast of a horn broke the
afternoon silence, drowning out the squealing of tires. Without
stopping to think, I dashed after her, while the driver, a
red-haired man in a royal blue sweater, braked and veered
onto the curb, brushing the collie's fur with his fender.
She scampered safely back to the sidewalk with an indignant
yelp. The man glowered at me and shouted, "Keep your dog on
a leash or I'll run it over, lady!"
Before I could protest that the collie
didn't belong to me, he straightened the car and accelerated
in a cloud of blue smoke, leaving the stench of hot rubber
lingering in the air. The dog lay down on the leaves, panting
and wagging her tail slowly. I unclenched my fists and felt
my heartbeat slow to a normal rate. I might have been hurt
or even killed attempting to snatch her out of danger. We
were both lucky.
In spite of the happy outcome of the
episode, I bristled. The red-haired man didn't have to be
so rude. Where was that small town friendliness the realtor
had told me to expect?
"You could have been dead like that
crow, girl," I said, glancing at the black splotch. "Go on
With the excitement over and tragedy
averted, except for the crow, I walked on. This was the day
of Maple Creek's annual Apple Fair and no time for ominous
death symbols. I refused to think of the dead crow, the dog's
narrow escape, and the surly driver as omens shadowing my
new life. Today was a celebration of the harvest and patriotism.
Most of the stately old houses in
my view were flying America's colors, while smaller flags
fluttered in window boxes and clay planters, replacing summer
flowers. They were color in motion, red and white stripes
and blue star-sprinkled squares waving in the warm October
wind. I stood at the corner of Walnut and Cherrywood admiring
their beauty while I waited to cross the intersection.
I didn't imagine that anyone, even
the apple growers, objected to the theme of the Apple Fair.
A person could either drown in the tide of national fervor
that had gripped the country or ride along with it. Like the
rest of the town, I chose to ride. After a four-year stint
teaching English on overseas army bases, I was back in the
United States, glad to be home, and vulnerable to patriotic
displays of any kind.
At the same time, I was also slightly
uneasy. Being on the faculty of a rural high school would
be a new experience for me, almost like starting my career
all over again. Still, I felt that I'd made the right choice.
After all, I couldn't stay in Europe indefinitely, and I'd
discovered that good teaching positions in Michigan had grown
scarce in my absence. I'd been lucky to find the opening in
The Apple Fair was a welcome distraction
from my lingering doubts. I couldn't possibly stay indoors
unpacking endless boxes while the strains of "America the
Beautiful" drifted in through the windows. I had weeks to
finish settling in. The Fair was a one-day event, and I wanted
to meet as many of my new neighbors as possible. So I'd changed
into a red rayon dress, slipped my wallet and house key into
my pocket, and set out for Main Street.
I crossed the intersection and found
that I was no longer walking alone. The collie followed me
now, occasionally nudging my hand as if to say, 'We're together.'
She wasn't wearing a collar.
When we reached Main Street, the dog
melted into the crowd in pursuit of new company and fresh
scents, and I followed the music to the heart of the Fair.
In the center of town at least three hundred people milled
around, munching on apples in various forms and shopping for
country crafts. Grouped in front of the Blue Lion Inn, the
high school band played "Yankee Doodle", giving the affair
the sound of a patriotic rally.
As I scanned the crowd looking for
a friendly face, I noticed the tall, lean policeman who stood
under a traffic light directing vehicles onto a side street.
With his grim expression, he appeared to be anything but friendly.
In his dark uniform, he was unusually handsome, though, and
well worth a second look - or even a third.
He raised his muscular arm and turned
his head slightly to wave a red Taurus to the left. His face
was as lean as his body, chiseled in sharp attractive angles,
and his smooth dark brown hair gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.
One strand fell forward on his forehead from a center part,
brushing the top of his eyebrow.
The officer reminded me of a larger-than-life
figure, perhaps a mythological hero misplaced in time, but
he was only a traffic cop in a small Michigan town who looked
bored with his present assignment. At the end of the day,
he'd probably go home to an ordinary life and microwave a
As I would be doing myself.
Aware that I had come to a standstill
on the corner for no legitimate reason, I strolled past the
officer and turned my attention to the collection of stands
set up around the municipal park to promote the apple orchards
and Maple Creek Cider Mill, the town's major industries.
Along with the traditional cider and
doughnuts, vendors offered a variety of apple pastries and
pies. Swags decorated with dried apple slices shared space
with candles, prints, and bushels filled to the top with McIntoshes,
Jonathans, and Red Romes. Everywhere I turned, I saw the colors
of the flag swirling through handmade pillar candles, winding
their way around grapevine wreaths, and decorating harvest
Bedecked in autumn finery, Maple Creek
was as charming as any small European city. I would be happy
here. I'd keep telling myself that until it was true.
For almost an hour I wandered through
the Fair, trying to decide which of the many wreaths would
look best on my front door and whether I should take home
a whole pie or cider and doughnuts. Finally I came to a hotdog
stand set up next to a lawn decoration display of scarecrows
and witches. Here I saw the stray collie again, sitting and
watching franks turn on the grill. She must be hungry, and
now that I thought about it, so was I, but not for a hot dog.
For me, the most tempting of the Fair's
offerings were the glossy caramel apples. Like the flags,
they were everywhere. Pie, doughnuts or caramel apples? I
couldn't decide. In the end, I settled on a cup of cider and
a doughnut. Whatever else I wanted, I could buy later when
I was ready to leave.
As I glanced around, looking for a
place to sit down, I noticed a pair of black iron benches
in the densely shaded yard of the house across from the park
entrance. Of all the vintage dwellings in the town, this lavender
Victorian with the purple trim was the prettiest. Strictly
speaking, it wasn't a private residence but a business, Sky
and MacKay Title, according to the sign under the porch light.
It didn't look as if the company was open today. Surely the
owners wouldn't mind if I borrowed their yard for the few
minutes it would take me to eat my doughnut.
Someone else had the same idea. A
brawny man with a neatly trimmed black beard sat on one of
the benches tossing pieces of a foot long hot dog high into
the air for a large black dog to catch.
I crossed the lawn, crushing down
the crisp red maple leaves that layered the ground, and sank
onto the other bench. Giving the man a quick smile, I set
my doughnut in my lap and took a sip of cider - a long sip.
It was the best drink I'd ever had.
Holding a chunk of bun in mid-air,
the man turned to me and said, "There's a good crowd here
today. Not like last year. Warm weather always helps."
His hands were darkly tanned, and
he wore a large silver ring with black stones and diamonds
that glittered in the sun. His camel vest, forest green shirt,
and high riding boots suggested 'Country.' Here was the friendly
face I'd been searching for.
"It's a perfect day for a festival,"
I said. "You never know what the weather is going to be like
He threw the last tidbit for the dog
and wiped a speck of mustard off his fingers. "They're predicting
a rain-snow mix for later in the week."
"I hope not. That's a gorgeous dog.
Is he a German shepherd?"
The dog sat at his master's feet,
a bundle of energy waiting for the next activity. His owner
slapped him lightly on the rib cage and said, "You're close.
Tac is a Belgian Shepherd. He's the best dog I ever had, but
nobody ever called him gorgeous before." Pointing to the lavender
house, he added, "My name's Garth MacKay. As in Sky and MacKay
"Oh - " I was on his property, then,
sitting on his bench without asking if he minded. "I'm Katherine
Before I could apologize for intruding,
he said, "I don't think I've seen you around town before.
Did you come in from downstate for the Fair?"
"No, I'm a local now,' I said. "I
bought the blue Victorian on Walnut." I was about to add that
I'd only lived in Maple Creek since last night when he smiled
"I know that house. You sure turned
it into a showplace. It's been rundown for years. Sometimes
I thought about buying it myself and fixing it up, but you
beat me to it."
Garth was confusing me with the previous
owners. They were the ones who had renovated and repainted
the Victorian. Then for some reason, they had promptly listed
the property and moved. That same day I'd driven through Maple
Creek on my way to visit my new school and seen the picturesque
blue house with the 'For Sale' sign in the yard. I liked the
town, loved the house, and lost no time in making an offer
for it. I'd never met the sellers.
I frowned uneasily at the memory of
that afternoon. Usually I didn't make hasty decisions. Why
had I responded so quickly and completely to the blue Victorian?
Because it was beautiful and reasonably close to Capac High
School, where I'd just signed a contract, and relatively inexpensive
for a historic house in the present market?
All good reasons, but I couldn't explain
the instant attraction and my impulsive purchase. A relatively
inexpensive selling price was still a major financial commitment
for a single teacher. I could easily have bought a one-story
What did it matter? Even if I didn't
know why the blue Victorian had called to me so strongly,
it was mine.
"The realtor told me that the people
who owned the house before me did that," I said. "All I have
to do is furnish the rooms and do some landscaping. They didn't
get around to working in the yard. I've been wondering why
they sold the house - if anything was wrong with it."
Garth paused and looked down at Tac.
"Now that I think about it, I met the last owners once. They
planned to sell that place all along. That's how they make
their living, buying rundown properties and fixing them up.
I heard they bought a rare octagonal mansion for their next
"That's what the realtor said, but
I thought she was protesting too much. I wonder why they left
the landscaping undone. Curb appeal is so important when you're
trying to sell a house."
Garth gave Tac a few rough pats on
his head. "They were in a hurry to move on, I guess."
"Still it's strange," I said.
He paused and looked up, his hand
now on Tac's strong neck. "Speaking of strange, I remember
they thought there was something unusual about the house."
I sensed that, like the realtor, Garth
knew more about the blue Victorian than he was saying. "Unusual
in what way?"
"Something uncomfortable about it,
I think they said. Maybe the floor plan."
That didn't sound right. The rooms
flowed smoothly into one another, making the layout one of
the house's most appealing features. "I don't think so."
"That's all I know, Katherine." Garth
smiled again. His eyes were a blend of blue and green. The
darkness of his tan emphasized their light color. I supposed
that he spent a fair amount of time outside when he wasn't
working at his title business, whatever that was.
"You'll like Maple Creek," he said.
"Maybe I can help you out with something sometime."
"Maybe. Thank you. Do you live in
"No, not here . . ."
He broke off, his face brightening
at the sight of the slender young girl who had just turned
onto the walk. She was plainly dressed in blue jeans and an
oversized white shirt, and she wore her honey blonde hair
in a long thick braid. The black shepherd trotted over to
meet her, his eyes fixed on the hotdog in her hand. He licked
his chops in a manner that would alarm anyone who was unfamiliar
"Hi, Garth. I brought you something
to eat and a ginger ale," she said.
"Thanks, honey. I'm hungry. Tac, Sit!"
The dog obeyed instantly, and the
girl joined Garth on the bench, leaning back against the wrought
I broke my doughnut in two and ate
it slowly. It was fresh and crunchy, good enough, but the
cider was spectacular. As I drained the cup, I listened to
the conversation that was taking place on the neighboring
"Where are you working now?" Garth
"Still at the yard sale. It's dead
over there. Everybody's staying close to the Fair, and Miss
Valentine keeps leaving me alone. She says she has to find
somebody. Why don't you come visit me?"
"I might do that."
"All we sold all morning was a box
"Miss Valentine is asking too much
for that old stuff," Garth said. "If she isn't around, you'd
better get back there before someone steals something."
"That'll never happen. Who would want
it?" But the girl got up and gave Tac a casual pat on the
head. "As soon as she gets back or Judy shows up, I'm leaving.
I'll be at the Cider Mill stand the rest of the day."
"I'll come by there then. Save me
a caramel apple," Garth said.
As she walked back to the sidewalk,
Garth unwrapped the hot dog and ate it enthusiastically as
if he was indeed hungry. But then why had he fed the foot
long to the shepherd instead of eating it himself? Maybe he
was one of those people who took care of their animals' needs
before their own.
Between bites he said, "That's my
little sister, Taryn. She's helping out at the Bell House
"Where they're having a yard sale?"
"Yes. Half a block down." He pointed
east. "The Bell House is the oldest residence in town. Miss
Valentine wants to restore it and turn it into a museum. She
pestered everyone to contribute something for the sale. I
gave her an old rocking chair."
I got up, brushed crumbs from my dress,
and stuffed the napkin into the empty paper cup. "I think
I'll check it out. I have a whole house to furnish."
He chuckled. "You'd spend less money
in Grand Rapids, but Miss Valentine did get some nice furniture
together, if you like antiques. She has a lot of fancy glass,
too, the kind that breaks if you look at it"
"I'll be careful," I said.
"Have fun at the Fair, Katherine.
I'll see you around."
I left Garth sitting on the bench
with the black dog lying placidly at his feet and headed east.
The winds were picking up, making it feel cooler. I was glad
my dress had long sleeves. Leaves swirled around in the air,
trying to find a landing place. They blew against my ankles
and flew across the street ahead of me as if they were alive.
I hoped that Garth was wrong about
the change in weather, but I knew that these brief golden
days of autumn were always short-lived. I vowed to make the
most of them. When winter weather came, I wanted to be settled
in my new house and acquainted with the town and the people
who lived here. Meeting Garth MacKay and looking for furniture
at the yard sale were two steps in the right direction.
* * * *
The Bell House was a white frame structure
with clean, classic lines and gingerbread-trimmed gables.
Its only decoration, an American flag, swayed gently in the
Mahogany and maple furniture, mostly
chests and tables, were arranged in the front yard in rows,
giving customers ample room to navigate between them. On the
lawn, a green wicker table set with pink dishes gave the impression
that the mistress of the house would appear at any moment
bearing an invitation for lunch or afternoon tea. Lamps, crystal
candleholders, and china covered every visible surface, often
displayed on crocheted doilies or scarves.
The woman who presided over this elegant
yard sale sat in a gold Queen Anne chair on the lawn reading
a book. Her blue shirtwaist dress and rows of pearls were
reminiscent of the fifties, while the straw hat with its long
blue ribbon dated from an earlier era. Light brown hair streaked
with gray framed her face, and the soft pink color of her
nail polish matched her bracelet.
She rose to greet me, saying in a
soft voice, "Welcome to the Bell House. I'm Cora Valentine.
Please help yourself to a glass of cider as you look around.
It's from our local mill. The sandwiches will be ready in
a few minutes."
The cider, already poured, gleamed
in tumblers that encircled a punch bowl set on a shining maple
"Everything out here is for sale,"
she said. "We have vintage clothing and jewelry inside and
old storybooks, the kind your great-grandmother used to read.
I'm especially proud of our antique hat collection." She twirled
the long blue ribbon on her hat. "The one I'm wearing belonged
to my own grandmother. Let me know if you see anything you
like. Chances are I can tell you a little bit about its history.
Please keep in mind that all profits are going into a fund
to restore and maintain this wonderful old house."
Probably Miss Valentine gave a variation
of this speech to everyone who came to the yard sale, but
the warmth in her voice and her obvious love for her project
made her words seem like a personal welcome.
She returned to her reading, and I
surveyed the outside area. I decided to look at furniture
first because once I began to wander among vintage clothing
and jewelry, I would get lost in time.
At present, I was the only customer.
Garth's sister was nowhere in sight. She must have returned
to find the sale in capable hands and hurried back to the
Fair, taking an alternate route. Another blonde girl, wearing
a short flapper's skirt, came out of the house with a tray
of sandwiches and began to add them to the sideboard.
As I moved past her en route to an
arrangement of side tables, I saw an exquisite parlor lamp
on top of a tall lingerie chest. Like a glowing jewel, it
seemed to beckon to me. The ruby and white cabbage roses on
the creamy milk glass globes evoked the graciousness of another
era. I could already see the lamp shining in the bay window
of my living room. Here was the one object I had to have.
Once I owned this treasure, I would have pure mellow light
for all the dark winter evenings to come.
Reverently I touched the sun-warmed
surface of the globes, looking for a price tag. With the instinct
of a skilled antique dealer, Miss Valentine appeared quickly
at my side.
"Now there's a rare find," she said.
"The owner inherited that lamp from her Great-Great Aunt Elsbeth
and had it converted from oil to electricity. It works too.
If you'd like, we can test it in the house."
"It's so beautiful," I said.
"And a real bargain for only seven
I had a hard time removing my hand
from the globe. "Well, that's a little - pricey."
"But you'll be buying a genuine piece
of history, not a reproduction from a catalog."
The temptation was great, almost too
much to resist. I had my credit card with me, but I also had
a mortgage payment to make and furniture to buy. I wouldn't
get a paycheck until I had worked for two weeks. That translated
into the beginning of December. But if I didn't buy the lamp,
I knew that I wouldn't be able to forget about it.
"Don't wait too long," Miss Valentine
said. "Someone else is sure to snatch it up. I'm expecting
a crowd after lunch."
Garth's comment about Miss Valentine
pricing the sale items too high came back to me. In spite
of her optimism, I didn't think eager customers would overrun
the yard sale soon, all of them descending on this one antique
She said, "If you really want it,
I could come down on the price a little. Say six hundred and
"That's better, but I'll have to think
"Certainly, but not too long. My motto
has always been, 'When you see something you want, take it
before somebody else does.'"
I was amused at the thought of this
gracious, soft-spoken lady going through life grabbing whatever
she desired. Was she talking about things or people? And had
she ever lost something because she hesitated, as I was doing
It didn't matter. If ever I'd had
an irrelevant thought, it was that one. "I may be back for
it," I said and returned to looking at furniture.
As it turned out, I didn't make a
single purchase, although I seriously considered the lingerie
chest and a glass-topped maple coffee table with an elaborate
scrolled design carved into the wood. Finally I decided that
the scratches on the table went beyond the fashionable distressed
look. And I didn't need the chest yet, although the whimsical
wildflowers painted on the drawers were almost as tempting
as the lamp.
I left the Bell House knowing that
I was going to return. I'd walk back to the Fair, look around
a little longer, and maybe have an early dinner at the Blue
Lion. While I was doing this, I'd weigh the pros and cons
of making the extravagant purchase. Then I'd return to the
Bell House and hope nobody else had bought my lamp. It was
a simple and sensible plan. I never expected anything to interfere