By Steve Carr
Mrs. Chattam’s tendency toward exaggerated worries and anxieties led her to view the man outside the cottage on the other side of the pond with a great deal of apprehension. The only things she saw him take out of the back of his car were several fishing poles and a shiny red tackle box. A rowboat sat on a trailer hitch that he had already detached from his car and pulled to the bank of the pond. She cursed under her breath for not coming out onto her back screened-in porch earlier to witness the potential catastrophe occurring right before her eyes.
She had no clue that the cottage that had set empty for a long time had been purchased, especially by a man who fished. The pond was to be looked at, viewed like a painting, or to collect reeds that grew around its banks for making baskets. The lily pads that floated on the dark green water was as lovely as the paintings by Monet. The pond wasn’t meant to be invaded by a boat and someone out to decimate the pond’s small fish population. She was so preoccupied with watching the man, she let out a startled gasp when her cat, Biscuit, rubbed against her leg. She pushed Biscuit aside with her foot and went out the screen door.
The path from the back of her house to the door of the screened-in porch of Mrs. Buxley’s house had been paved with cobblestone and lined with flower pots. Spring had just arrived, a few weeks late weather-wise, so the tips of the tulips planted in the pots had barely broken through the dirt. The grass in the yards, all the way to the edge of the pond was a bright green, the leaves as shiny as plastic. Crocus and daffodils would be sprouting up soon, the entire landscape becoming dotted with yellow flowers. The white paint on her cottage, that of Mrs. Buxley’s, and just beyond that, Mrs. Haworth’s, gleamed brightly in the morning sunlight. The differences between the cottages lay only in the color of the shutters on the windows from one cottage to the next: red, yellow, and green.
When she reached Mrs. Buckley’s back porch she peered through the screen door, and seeing Mrs. Buxley sitting at a small table and calmly having tea and toast, she was immediately vexed. “On my word, Mrs. Buxley,” she proclaimed loudly as she slapped her hand against the door, “don’t you see what is occurring on the other side of the pond?”
Startled, Mrs. Buxley dropped her toast and knocked over her tea, soaking one of her favorite linen tablecloths, one that she had hand embroidered with daisies. She jumped up and upon opening the door looked into the distraught eyes of her friend. “Oh my dear, isn’t it awful, that man and his boat, I saw him when he first arrived very early this morning and carried several bags of groceries into that cottage, but what can be done about it?” She pushed open the door. “Please do come in so that we can console one another.”
Mrs. Chattam plopped down on a chair at the table and fanned her face with a napkin as Mrs. Buxley busied herself with removing the tea set and tablecloth from the table.
“We should have made inquiries about what kind of personage the man moving into the cottage was as soon as we heard he had purchased it,” Mrs. Chattam declared.
“Who would have even suspected such a thing,” Mrs. Buxley replied. “A fisherman!”
Quickly losing her temper with Mrs. Buxley not giving her full attention to the crisis at hand, Mrs. Chattam snapped. “Mrs. Buxley, please do sit down so that we can discuss what is to be done.”
Feeling chastised and her face reddened with embarrassment, Mrs. Buxley quickly sat down. Without giving Mrs. Buxley time to regain her composure, Mrs. Chattam jumped up.
“Mrs. Haworth must be apprised of and consulted with about this situation immediately,” she said, turning to go out the door.
“She already knows about the man and his boat,” Mrs. Buxley said, demurely. “She returned home from the grocery store at the same time he did. She said she met him in the olives and pickles aisle.”
Mrs. Chattam spun around. “And neither of you thought to come and tell me about his arrival?” she said. “With a boat, no less?”
“Mrs. Haworth is working on particularly difficult basket pattern and wanted to get to it, and you know me well, my friend. I have no stomach for prolonged agitation or confrontation.”
“But the man has fishing poles,” Mrs. Chattam said. “He intends to disturb the serenity of the pond.”
“Please do sit down, Mrs. Chattam, and let me get more tea and we can discuss this further until we see Mrs. Haworth come out her back door for her daily walk around the pond.”
Mrs. Chattam returned to the table and sat down. “If you could, do make the tea less hot and bitter. Your tea always scolds my mouth and causes my tongue to curl.”
The two women had tea and then lunch in Mrs. Buxby’s screened-in porch before Mrs. Haworth came out her back porch door wearing wading boots and holding an umbrella over her head to shield out the the rays of the sun. She got only a few yards away from her house, following the path that encircled the pond, when Mrs. Chattam and Mrs. Buxley ran up beside her, one on each side, both short of breath.
“Oh ladies, this morning I found the most wonderful reeds at the florist . . .” Mrs. Haworth started.
“You met him, that awful man who plans to destroy our beloved pond,” Mrs. Chattam cut in. “Why didn’t you come tell me first thing?”
Mrs. Haworth shifted the umbrella so that the handle rested on her shoulder. Her face now exposed to the harsh sunlight, she squinted at Mrs. Chattam. “You know that every morning the first thing I do upon returning from the market and florist shop is to work on my baskets. I thought you
might be doing the same.”
“Baskets!” Mrs. Chattam screeched. “Did you not hear me? He plans to go fishing. In our pond!”
Mrs. Haworth smiled reassuringly. “He’s a rather nice gentleman,” she said, “and neither the pond or the fish in it belong to us.”
Mrs. Chattam gasped and put the back of her hand to her forehead as if about to faint.
“Oh, Mrs. Chattam, you are always so dramatic,” Mrs. Haworth said to a stunned Mrs. Chattam, and turned to continue on.
“Where are you going, Mrs. Haworth?” Mrs. Buxley asked holding up Mrs. Chattam who leaned against her like a wounded animal.
“Mr. Garner has offered to take me riding in his boat.”
“But you’re a widow of ten years,” Mrs. Buxley said.
Mrs. Haworth raised her umbrella high above her head and with a swagger in her step, she called out over her shoulder, “Exactly, my dear!”
Sitting across a small table from Mrs. Buxley, Mrs. Chattham separated out a small pile of spokes from a much larger one, and began to count them, mentally calculating how many spokes it would take for each of the miniature baskets she intended to make. She didn’t like making the small baskets since they usually sat unseen or unused on a bookshelf, but the head of the Ladies League at the church said they would bring in lots of money at the Summer bazaar. She offered to just make a donation instead. A comment that was met with an icy glare by the Ladies League head.
“This isn’t basket weaving. It’s arts and crafts,” she grumbled under her breath.
Mrs. Buxley turned away from the porch screen through which she had been watching Mr. Garner slowly rowing across the pond. Mrs. Haworth sat in the bow of the rowboat, holding her umbrella high above her head. “Did you say something?”
Forgetting how many spokes she had counted, Mrs. Chattam let out an irritated sigh. “Please, Mrs. Buxley, do forget about Mrs. Haworth. She chose the company of that horrid man to row that boat during the time she used to join us in the afternoons over three weeks ago and for all I know she hasn’t
completed a single basket since.”
“He’s not so horrid,” Mrs. Buxley replied, demurely.
Biscuit leapt into Mrs. Chattham’s lap, but was immediately pushed off. “He has the effrontery to tip his hat to me every time we cross paths in town.”
A sudden gust of warm, damp air made the porch door rattle. It filled the porch with the perfumed air of spring, full of honeysuckle and violets.
“When I moved here right after my beloved Henry’s sudden passing six years ago I thought I was too old and too heartbroken to ever think of love again, but seeing them . . .” Mrs. Buxley started.
She was cut off by Mrs. Chattam. “That’s not love, it’s an assault on what was once the pristine environment of our pond.” She swept her arm across her side of the table, shoving the spokes into a large paper bag, and then stood up. “I’ve been nothing but a bundle of nerves from the day he arrived.”
Mrs. Buxley stood and gathered in her arms her half-completed basket and a pile of reeds, and went to the door. “You will forgive me for saying this, Mrs. Chattam, but I’ve never known you to be any other way.” She went out.
Mouth agape, Mrs. Chattam watched Mrs. Buxley walk the pathway to her house.
A splash coming from the pond made her snap her head that direction. Her heart thudded against her chest. Maybe he’s fallen in and will drown, she wished. But no, he had just tossed in the rowboat’s anchor. With a loud harrumph she went into her house, leaving Biscuit to quickly discover the screen door was unlatched and open.
At the church bazaar, Mrs. Chattam stared in silent astonishment at the large trophy that sat on the table next to Mrs. Haworth’s basket. She hated to admit it, but the trophy was well-deserved. The basket was a work of art, made of a combination of wicker, bundles of twisted straw, and pond reeds, and hand painted with images of fairies, nymphs and sprites. The top of the lid was adorned with a spiraled knob, painted in shades of white and light blue, that arose from the middle like a twisted cloud. The placard that was placed in front of it, had the word “Magic” written on it, and to Mrs. Chattam’s eye, it was indeed magical.
On the next table a stack of her miniature baskets sat, untouched, with the price tags on them lowered from their original price.
The church hall where the bazaar was held was stuffy, where large floor fans did little other than to circulate the hot air. A dozen individuals milled about, going from table to table. She recognized most of them but spoke to no one. She fanned her face with a bamboo fan as she walked away from the tables with the baskets and went outdoors. It was cooler, but not by much. She looked about the church grounds, hoping to see Biscuit, who neither she, Mrs. Buxley or Mrs. Haworth had seen since the day the cat had escaped from the porch.
Mrs. Haworth, accompanied by Mr. Garner, approached her, holding hands.
“You are to the first to be told,” Mrs. Haworth said without hesitancy. “Mr. Garner and I are betrothed. He has just proposed and I accepted.”
Scowling, Mrs. Chattam looked first at her friend’s beaming face and then at Mr. Garner.
Despite his tanned skin and silvery white hair, she still found the very sight of him unappealing. “I assume the wedding will be held on a tugboat crossing the pond,” she said with as much venom as she could muster.
“Your lack of a generous spirit will be your downfall,” Mrs. Haworth replied, “but you have been one of my oldest friends and if you wish to attend the ceremony it will be held here at the church at the beginning of September. That will give you time to apologize for your rudeness.” She turned, pulling Mr. Garner along with her as she stomped off.
Mrs. Chattam’s hand trembled as she fanned her face. Her mind was filled with consternation. My downfall indeed!
Mrs. Buxley walked up to her, holding a larger basket filled with Mrs. Chattam’s miniature ones and handed them to her. “The bazaar is closing,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful that Mrs. Haworth won such an impressive trophy?”
“Must you always come along like a party balloon after the air has been let out of it?” Mrs. Chattam replied before turning to go to her car.
To Mrs. Chattam the remainder of the summer dragged on with unbearable slowness. From her screened-in porch she watched as every afternoon, rain or shine, Mrs. Haworth was rowed about the pond by Mr. Garner. Mrs. Buxley stopped visiting as often, often saying that she was thinking about quitting basket weaving to take up working with clay. “I’d like to make a few clay pots before I die,” she would say. The three of them got together infrequently, usually having tea and cake at one house or
another, but never to weave baskets. Mrs. Chattam kept watch out for Biscuit, who had completely vanished. It was an old cat, and like all cats, could have easily found its way home if it had wandered
away, which led Mrs. Chattam to say to Mrs. Buxley, “It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that Mr.
Garner drowned poor Biscuit in the pond. where its body now lay at the bottom, weighted down by
In the middle of August Mrs. Chattam received the invitation to attend the marriage ceremony of Mrs. Hawthorn and Mr. Garner. The lettering on the card was embossed in silver and the images of golden baskets filled silver-petaled flowers lined the rim.
“Garish and offensive,” Mrs. Chattam said to Mrs. Buxley when she showed her the card.
“Baskets on her wedding invitation! She hasn’t shown us a finished basket in weeks.”
“Nevertheless, it should be a lovely ceremony,” Mrs. Buxley replied. “I’ve bought a kiln so that I can make them a vase.”
“You never told me you had actually taken up working with clay,” Mrs. Chattam responded with surprise.
“You don’t handle change very well.”
A couple of weeks before the wedding, while the three women were having tea on Mrs. Chattam’s screened-in porch, Mrs. Hawthorn announced she would be selling her cottage and that she and her new husband would be moving to the city, keeping his cottage so that they could use it as a summer home which would allow him to continue fishing in the pond.
Mrs. Chattam had a very bad feeling about it all – a premonition of sorts – but for once in her life, reined in her natural inclination to unload her anxieties on everyone around her, and kept her mouth shut.
The day the marriage was to take place, Mrs. Chattam awoke before sunrise, just as the sky was turning to dusky gray and heard Biscuit meowing at the porch door. She hastily got out of bed, threw on a bathrobe, and hurried to the door. Thinner and slightly dirty, the cat was sitting on the stoop and looked up at Mrs. Chattam with a pitiful expression on its long-whiskered face. She picked the cat up, stroked its fur, and nuzzled its neck. It was then she looked across the pond to see Mr. Garner get in his car and drive off, pulling the rowboat along on the trailer hitch. Without hesitating she sat Biscuit down inside the porch, and then ran to awake Mrs. Buxley and bring her along to Mrs. Hawthorn’s house. Certain that they would find Mrs. Hawthorn dead in her bed, murdered, they hesitantly opened her back porch door and started to enter when Mrs. Hawthorn opened the door leading from the house to the porch.
“I found out just in time,” Mrs. Hawthorn said. “Mr. Garner intended to swindle me of my money and leave for parts unknown. He didn’t own that cottage and was living in it illegally – a squatter they call it – and he would have gotten away with it had at the last moment my bank not matched his signature to records that revealed his history as a con man and serial polygamist, and called me last night.” She then burst into tears.
Mrs. Chattam and Mrs. Buxley enveloped her in their arms.
“Biscuit came home,” Mrs. Chattam said in an unusual attempt to lighten the mood. “Perhaps Mrs. Buxley will allow me to use her kiln to make him a new food bowl.”
“Not on your life,” Mrs. Buxley replied. “You’re much too persnickety.”
“I can change.”
There was a momentary silence, then all three women broke into laughter.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 500 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977