Dinner Along the Amazon


  She was—



  One morning, a month later, Bertha Millroy got up from the kitchen table, tucked the paper under her arm, picked up the breakfast tray and said:

  “You’re not to come no more.”

  Upon which she fled, under the protection of shock, into the newly forbidden reaches of the upper floor.

  So it was that later in the summer, when the heat came down into the city like a flood from the hills, Harper Dewey didn’t see his beautiful mother for days on end. And although it was obvious that she was still in the house (sometimes he would hear her call out, but never for him), her presence was not made visible to him.

  Sometimes at night he would be awake in bed when she came home—and he would listen to her clicking up the brick walk and turning the key in the front door. Then he would sit up on the edge of his bed and she would be heard talking downstairs in the front hall. He never caught the words, neither what they were, nor their significance—he surmised that she was alone because of the form of intonation. They had a hollow sound, as words do which are not caught in the shell of an immediate ear; and they seemed to have been cast adrift, like pieces of foam from the edge of the sea, and they had disintegrated and drowned long before they reached his bedroom.

  At night, his bedroom was his cave, where it was dark and he sat or slept like a secret unspoken in someone’s mouth.

  While she moved about in the lower regions of the house he would follow her footsteps as she went from room to room and through the passages between. This walking about lasted for a long time and he determined that she must do it in the dark because there was—on most evenings—a constant shuffle, which accompanied the wander, as though she were bumping into things, or only just avoiding them and stepping aside in that sudden startled way of people in the dark. And her voice would go with her through the dark, calling out when she fell and whispering in satisfaction when she cleared some obstacle which had been in her dark path and when she found what she sought (and he did not guess what this was) she would sigh and mutter and then be silent.

  It was the silence which followed each of these nightly preambles which frightened him and mystified him the most. Her very breathing and indeed his own as well, would appear to have stopped and in the whole house nothing would stir, not even Bertha Millroy in her attic room, not even she in the midst of all her dreams, would stir.

  In the silence Harper set his mind upon the repose of things in the dark and he would see the Lilliputian heads of the pearls strung on a gargantuan string and he would begin to cry at the sight of their ghostly faces.

  Finally he would lie down on his back and the silence would break, but no one would hear it break. He would be long asleep before she would turn out the lights below and climb the stairs and lock herself in her room.

  Summer became itself on the street where Harper Dewey lived with his mother and Bertha Millroy. There were elm trees on the boulevards on either side of the street and beyond the boulevards wide sidewalks bordered with fences and low stone walls. All of the homes had a Victorian flavour about them, which most of the residents had had the sense to disguise. Thus the houses were mostly of painted brick and refashioned facade—of fronts stripped bare of ornament but still retaining high pointed convergences of line and many had little turrets and false gables.

  All the houses were confronted with wide long lawns and most attempted to hide their Victorian manner behind screens of ivy vines and a profusion of trees and bushes, so that the whole length of the street was a vision of green mottle, relieved with floral colour and the rich red of the brick walks which, like the many courses of a maze, wove in and out of the gardens up and down either side of the street.

  The residents were of varied stamp but all within the category of what is known as the ‘professional’ world. There were doctors, and one of the city’s prominent lawyers; also an ex-mayor, a retired colonel, two university professors, a clergyman, an author, two widows (Mrs Dewey and Mrs Jamieson), also a Mr Robertson whom no one knew anything about except that he was enormously wealthy and drove about in a Rolls Royce car and that he had two boxer dogs of whom everyone stood in distant respect (Mr Robertson never spoke to a soul and no one ever spoke to him); there was also an architect and a witch. The witch was Miss Kennedy.

  She lived in a tall dark house at the end of the street, the one house that had not been stripped of its Victorian vestiges. It stood closer to the street than the rest, its tall facade looming darkly in the unrelenting shadow of the only oak tree on the whole street—a tree reputed to be two hundred years old, which meant, to Harper’s delight, that it had stood there in the days of the Indians. It was also said that in the early days of the city, when there was a stockade built about its periphery, renegades and witches (perhaps Miss Kennedy’s own forebears) were hung from this tree. In that time the burning of witches was forbidden, so that they were hung, as common criminals were, deprived of the dignity of a heretic’s martyrdom, traditionally fire.

  One day in early August Harper went down the street to speak to Miss Kennedy.

  He stood outside her gate, hesitant only for a moment, and then went into the shallow garden, in which nothing would grow because of the thick shadow of the oak tree.

  Miss Kennedy hovered in an upper window, dressed in a dark Victorian wrapper. Harper pulled the chain which rang the doorbell.

  Inside he could hear Miss Kennedy’s Pekinese dog snuffling excitedly at the space between the floor and the bottom of the door.

  There was the sound of steps within and a gentle admonition to the little dog before the door opened to reveal Miss Kennedy—wrapper clutched at the breast, her red hair piled high upon her thin bony head, her eyes snapping, her mouth pursed, her ears dragged down at the lobes by the weight of elaborately long earrings. She smiled.

  Harper was amazed. It had not occurred to him that a witch ever smiled. Leer, she might, but smile, never.

  “Well, Harper Dewey. Is that right? What is it?” she said.

  “I—I’d like to speak with you. I’d like to have—” he turned and looked back at the street, wondering if he should run off now while he could, but before he could remedy the situation, Miss Kennedy spoke.

  “Come inside,” she said, “I’ll fix some lemonade.”

  Harper imagined the contents of the lemonade and blanched.

  “Thank you m’am,” he gulped, and stepped inside, never, he was sure, to return.

  The Pekinese immediately flung itself at his toes.

  “Stop that!” squealed Miss Kennedy. “That’s Harper.”

  The dog wagged its tail and backed away, voicing a high pitched greeting.

  “Hello,” said Harper, nervously.

  “You sit in there, dear, while I fix the lemonade.”

  Miss Kennedy gestured, with a long arm, to a sitting room to the left of the dark hallway.

  Harper went in. It was cool in the sitting room and there was an organ in the corner, with dust on the keys.

  “Hasn’t she got a maid?” Harper asked the dog, touching the keys. There was a loud noise. Harper was so startled that he sat down on the horsehair sofa, the leather of which felt cold and comforting against the back of his legs.

  There were pictures on the wall of people who wore strangling, old costumes and who all looked as though life had been extremely painful for them. He concluded that they well might have been Miss Kennedy’s ‘victims.’ Not one of them smiled. Harper sat very near the edge of the seat.

  In a moment Miss Kennedy returned. She carried a tray on which she had placed two tall glasses with long-handled spoons in them and a squat cut-glass pitcher filled with lemonade.

  “Let’s sit outside, shall we? You take the tray.”

  With great relief Harper rose and bore the tray outside.

  They went onto the front porch where he set the tray on a table and Miss Kennedy sat down in a high-backed rocking ch
air. Harper stood facing her formally. Miss Kennedy pointed to a wicker chair and told him to sit down.

  She poured lemonade into the two glasses and pushed one of them towards Harper, and then, taking up her own glass, she sat back in the rocker and smiled. Harper left his lemonade on the tray, and watched it closely to see what would happen.

  “Here in my lap I have two Chinese fans,” said Miss Kennedy. “You may have one of them—but you must choose which one you like. I assure you, I’m equally fond of both of them, so you mustn’t worry about which one I like the best. Here.”

  She offered him two silver bars.

  “How do they open?” he asked.

  She opened one of the fans ceremoniously and demonstrated its use.

  “It’s very pretty,” remarked Harper.

  He opened the second fan himself with a little difficulty and imitated Miss Kennedy’s floating gesture perfectly.

  “You’re a born orientalist,” she said, obviously pleased with the grace with which Harper manipulated the Chinese fan.

  “Thank you,” said Harper, unaware of the meaning of orientalist. He wondered if it was another word for witch—perhaps a definition of ‘male witch.’

  He sipped at his lemonade delicately. It tasted fine.

  The Pekinese jumped into her mistress’s lap and sat with her tongue dangling out towards Harper.

  “What a funny face she has,” he thought.

  Miss Kennedy read his mind and said:

  “Her name is Ming Toy.”

  “That’s very pretty. Hello Ming Toy.”

  Ming Toy smiled and shook herself delightedly.

  For a moment they sat fanning themselves and drinking their lemonade. Miss Kennedy regarded Harper patiently and with pride. Children never came to call on her. In fact no one came to call on her, and it pleased her that someone, especially someone so fine as Harper Dewey, whom she regarded as the most interesting child on the street, should be her first summer visitor.

  “You said you wanted to speak to me, Harper. What is it, dear?”

  Harper blushed and set aside the sweating glass of lemonade.

  “Well, it’s about the oak tree.”

  “About the oak tree, Harper? What about it, dear?”

  “I want to live there,” said Harper bluntly.

  “You want to live there. Mercy me! Whatever for, dear?”

  “Only for one night, Miss Kennedy. Just for one night.” He began to lie. “You see, some of the other children—we had a sort of bet.”



  “About the oak tree?”

  “Yes. We bet that I was afraid to stay in the oak tree all night.”

  He waited vacantly for her reaction.

  “And of course you bet that you weren’t afraid at all.”

  “Yes’m. That’s it.”

  “And your mother? Does she know about this?”

  “Oh yes’m. She knows all about it. And she said ‘why certainly’ I was to go ahead and do it.”

  “I see, and so you want to have my permission to stay there. Well—so long as your mother says it’s all right I guess I can’t say no. When do you wish to do this? Tonight, I suppose.”

  “Yes. If I can stay there all night then I just have to say so in the morning.”

  “And do I have to say so in the morning?”

  “Oh no, m’am. That’s the point of my coming here now, you see. You aren’t supposed to know all this. But I sort of thought that, well, if you sort of heard me getting into the tree and all, well then it would be all off, unless you knew what I was doing there. But please, you’re not to say anything, not to anyone, no matter who asks. It’s meant all to be a secret.”

  Miss Kennedy pondered for a moment, her left hand poised on Ming Toy’s tiny head, her right hand gently motioning the fan through the air a few inches from her nose. Then she stopped fanning and bit the silver tip lightly with her teeth.

  Harper waited, apparently nonchalant, drinking his lemonade and looking out along the street.

  After a moment, Miss Kennedy said “You’ll want a blanket, I suppose. And how will you keep from falling out?”

  “Well, I figured I’d tie myself in.”

  “That’s wise. You know if you fall to sleep you’re liable to tumble down and we don’t want that.”

  “No m’am.”

  Miss Kennedy commenced to organize the whole thing.

  “And Miss Ming Toy will have to sleep at the back of the house so she won’t disturb you.”

  “Yes m’am.”

  “And I’ll leave a sandwich and a thermos of cocoa on the porch so’s you can sneak it off after it’s dark. When will you arrive, Harper?”

  “Well, I figured as soon’s it’s dark.”

  “Fine. And I’m not to say a word?”

  “No m’am, if you please.”

  “Very well then. I’ll expect you after dark.” She stood up.

  “This ought to be a great adventure,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing we do every day, is it?”

  “No m’am. Only once in a while.”

  “Yes. Only once in a while.”

  Miss Kennedy looked along the street. Sunlight fell amottle on her high red hair.

  “I have been waiting for adventure all my life,” she said distantly, “how lucky that you’re so young.”

  Harper did not understand this so he said nothing.

  “Perhaps it only comes to those who make it come. I’ve never been one to ask the world to enter my life—but oh—I’ve wanted, Harper, I’ve wanted and I’ve waited. Yes—it’s lucky that you’re so young.” She glanced at the oak tree. “But look how long he’s waited,” she said. “Ah well.” She sat down again with a sigh. “Thank heaven I can’t expect to wait that long.”

  It got dark at ten o’clock.

  Harper’s bedtime was at nine.

  At nine-thirty he crept from his bed and put on his shorts and a shirt and a heavy wool sweater, for in spite of the present heat he knew that by morning he would be cold. He put a flashlight into his pocket, together with his jackknife and twenty-five cents and then he put on his socks and a pair of running shoes.

  Harper had planned to leave the house by climbing out of his window and crossing the rooftop to the front, where there was a drainpipe which he had climbed many times.

  Bertha moved in the kitchen below his room. He crept to his door and locked it.

  At ten-thirty, after despairing of his mother’s arrival, and fearing that Bertha would soon return to the attic where she would certainly hear him crossing the roof, he went to his window and clambered out.

  The stars were out too, and for a moment he stopped and stared at them and then quickly climbed to the roofs crest and down the other side. He had one brief moment of panic when a car drew up across the street and he feared that it was his mother returning—but it disgorged whatever passenger it wished and drove away into the dark, music blaring from its radio.

  He went down, monkey fashion, to the ground, clutching the drainpipe with toes and fingers alternating his balance. At the bottom he waited, standing in the flowerbed, and then he ran quickly down the lawn and through the gate of the driveway and along the street.

  Once near Miss Kennedy’s he slowed his pace and soon stopped at her gate, where he heaved a loud sigh and crept inside.

  There was a light on in the upper floor and Harper guessed that Miss Kennedy had lain awake to make sure of his safe arrival. He was quite right, for at the sound of the gate clicking closed he saw her high-swept head appear in silhouette at the window and nod in his direction. To show her that he had seen her he gave a brief flash of his flashlight in her direction and a moment later her light went out.

  He went to the porch and found on the topmost step, just as she had promised, a packet of sandwiches and a thermos of cocoa. He stuffed all of these into his sweater front and approached the oak tree.

  In the dark it loomed huge and monster-like, hol
ding out its many arms toward him. He reached up and grasped gingerly, just within tiptoed reach, an arm that felt sturdy enough to support him.

  He swung up into the bowl of the tree and sat there, breathing hard, wondering how much higher he must climb to be safely out of view of anyone passing in the morning light.

  He clambered carefully inch by inch into the tree’s heart. A squirrel further up in the branches scampered away, giving him a moment of terror, but then everything settled into absolute quiet. On the whole street there wasn’t a sound.

  Harper suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to bring a rope to tie himself into his nest and he also remembered that Miss Kennedy had warned him to bring a blanket.

  “Oh well, I’ll just have to keep awake and forget about being cold,” he said to himself.

  He ate one of the sandwiches and listened for some sound on the street. There was, at first, nothing to be heard; but gradually, almost imperceptively he became aware of whatever strange noises the night made when he was usually asleep.

  Crickets and creakings, birds stirring in their nests and chirruping in their sleep; distant cars moving through the city on unknown missions; late streetcars electrically humming far away on the main street. Late walkers conversing seriously upon subjects utterly unknown to Harper; cats yowling in darkened yards; dogs dreaming of rabbit hunts; the poor, distantly arguing over money; a woman’s mysteriously rapturous scream; a telephone’s insistent ringing in one of the doctors’ houses; music, mice and the hum of telephone lines—the crackle of street lamps and once, he even imagined, the tinkle of stars.

  Eventually he began to doze and he dreamt that he was holding on to his father, who was carrying him across a field that was strewn with the bodies of the dead. His father was talking to him about a letter.

  It was a letter which Harper knew as his ‘Duty Letter’ which he kept in his top bureau drawer at home. His father had written it to him from England a week before the invasion of Europe, in which he knew he must partake and in which he must, perhaps, die. It was a very serious letter. In it his father spoke of Mrs Dewey and of Harper’s responsibility towards her—of his ‘Duty’ to obey his mother and always ‘to love her more dearly than all the earth.’ The letter also mentioned other things—some of which Harper understood had enormous importance: the future if his father lived—the future if he did not. But the main thing Harper clung to in the tree in front of Miss Kennedy’s house that night was the part about his mother—and his duty to love her. And the fact that his father had underlined the words that came at the letter’s end: “While I am gone you are all your mother has. She loves you. As do I.” Then it was signed: “Your Father.”

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