Rumours about old Ivy May Henderson abounded. Most people said she was a widow, but nobody remembered a Mr. Henderson. Some people said she’d been a missionary or a teacher, and there was even a story about her being an exiled princess from an obscure and obsolete European country. Nobody knew, and of course, nobody asked her.
On Saturday mornings, she would walk to the grocer with nary a glance right or left. She would make her return trip twenty minutes later, always carrying two sacks of groceries. My friends and I would pull our bikes onto the grassy verge out of her way. We had our own stories about Ivy May Henderson and lived in mortal fear of her.
One Saturday afternoon, my friends and I were sitting on the curb in front of the grocer, squabbling over what penny candy to buy with the thirty-one cents we’d pooled together. They liked licorice whips and peppermints, but I was partial to sour balls. I shouldn’t have given my seven cents to the candy pool, because we were clearly going to have a peppermint majority again. I sighed and amused myself by watching the cars at Marty’s gas station across the street.
Suddenly, the door of the grocery store slapped open, and the grocer came out onto the sidewalk.
“Smitty, you live by Ivy May Henderson, don’t you?” I nodded. He handed me a small paper sack. “I forgot part of her grocery order. Run it over to her, would you?”
I took the paper sack from him and then stood there speechless.
Now, one thing has to be understood. It wasn’t just that Ivy May Henderson was mysterious, but her house was strange, too. No one knew what Ivy May’s house really looked like because, for years, vines had grown up and around the entire house until it looked like something from a scary fairy tale. Bizarre. Just like Ivy May Henderson.
“Hey, Smitty, whatcha gonna do? You takin’ that sack to Miz Henderson? Or are you a scaredy-cat?”
“’Course, I’m gonna take it to her. You think I won’t?”
“No, we think you’re yeller. Throw that sack in the bushes and let’s go fishin’.”
But my mother had taught me well. No matter what, I would deliver the sack. The boys smirked and shoved at each other, then went into the store to buy their fool peppermints.
I pedalled homeward. The vine-covered house was at the end of our road. I slowed down until I finally had to get off the bike and push it instead.
I couldn’t see Ivy May’s front door since the porch was covered with vines. I parted the green swags and peered into the gloomy shadow. What if she kept wild animals or mutant servants hidden in here? What if Ivy May was a witch? My imagination was running wild.
“You looking for something?”
I screeched and dropped the paper sack. Ivy May Henderson was standing right behind me. I was staring into the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen.
I snatched up the sack and handed it to her, blubbering as I did so.
“You forgot this. I mean, the grocer forgot it.”
“Thank you,” she said graciously. “You thirsty?”
I had to admit my mouth was mighty dry, after being scared spitless and all. She led the way around the back to a verandah, cool on account of the vines, and she indicated that I should sit down while she went inside.
She returned with a pitcher of lemonade, still toting that paper sack.
“Now, tell me your name,” she said as she poured.
“Smithfield. But everyone calls me Smitty.”
“Well, Smitty, I’m sure you know my name. And you’d like to know all about me, wouldn’t you?” A hint of a smile played on her lips, and suddenly she winked. “I’m not a witch, you know.”
“I know,” I stammered.
“My husband and I were botanists. We travelled all over, studying plants. That’s what botanists do.”
“The vine that covers the house was our favourite. It’s very hardy, as you can tell, and such a lovely shade of green, don’t you think? It reminds me of the wonderful life we had together, working and exploring, so I like to let it grow.
“Enough foolishness from an old woman,” she said abruptly. She began to rummage in the paper sack.
“Would you like a sour ball?” she asked.
And so a friendship began.
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