The crumbling Victorian of claret bricks, turrets and lace-edged porches reigned from a hilltop with a commanding view of the curving Ohio River and the town of Caleb's Crossing. The grounds, consisting of three and one quarter acres of rambling gardens and hedges, had once been neatly trimmed; had once been surrounded by wrought iron fences that gleamed black with fresh paint as soon as the last winter's snow melted into the spring.
The house had once been the finest in Caleb's Crossing; that was before the arrival of the Grambargers and before the grounds had deteriorated into a mass of overgrown thorns, weeds and leaves that piled along the sidewalks, and before the bricks began to crumble, the paint began to peel, and the house settled under a ragged blanket of neglect.
The entire matter was a constant source of irritation to Wanda Burdine, town spinster, gossip and president of Caleb's Crossing Historic Society. The Grambargers should have been arrested for letting such a fine house deteriorate into something that resembled a bricked version of Mrs. Haversham's rotting wedding cake. And it had happened so quickly. The house seemed to have aged a hundred years in the space of one.
It was a scandal, to be sure, because the Grambargers had appeared one day, seemingly from nowhere, and laid claim to the house. Where did the Millstone sisters go?
The Millstones had been fine upstanding members of the community who belonged to the Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Society and regularly attended Calvary Methodist Church. The Millstone sisters had entertained the town's members with summer picnics laid on white clothed tables that were over-burdened with lemonade pitchers and rows of sandwiches with a separate table just for desserts and cakes.
Christmas time at the Victorian mansion during the Millstone's occupancy, arrived with colored light strings spanning roof to ground. Anybody, stranger or friend, who called at the festooned mansion would be welcomed with piles of warm ginger bread and mugs of mulled cider.
But all that had changed when the Grambarger family had arrived in the old Ford pick-up that looked like it had been hurled from a dust bowl.
The home had never boasted a For Sale sign. The Millstones had even been at church the previous Sunday, and then suddenly they were gone.
Of course the town was in an uproar. Sheriff Wilcox called on the new occupants and flat-out demanded an explanation. A deed was produced which assigned the property to the Grambargers.
But what had become of the Millstones?
Not a post card, not a phone call, not an inquiry was ever lodged for or by the Millstones.
They had simply vanished into thin air.
The Grambarger family never issued invitations, nor did they answer any. They lived as recluses with locked doors and closed windows while the tiny community below was left to wonder if the Grambargers were really Caleb's Crossing material.
But the town had other things to worry about besides the Grambargers. The Founder's Festival consumed most of the first part of the year and the Candlelight Home's Tour at Christmas took up most of the latter.
Before the Grambargers, or BG as the town referred to it, the Victorian had always been the last stop on the Candlelight Christmas tour. And that was another irritation to Wanda Burdine, since she was chairman of the committee and wanted desperately to include the stately house, Grambargers or not.
But it hadn't begun there. It had begun earlier, Wanda Burdine's near obsession with the Grambarger family. It began at the quilt judging at the Founder's Festival that summer.
Wanda had worked most of the winter tracing delicate stitches on the patchwork pattern she called Bridal Wreath. She had ordered the fabrics all the way from Louisville, she had cut them with scissors sharp enough to slice paper, and Wanda had embroidered each square with tiny birds or bells or flowers. It was destined to win a blue ribbon for Wanda Burdine.
At least that was what Wanda believed.
The day of the judging came; the town council was lined up on the courthouse steps overseeing row upon row of craft-laden tables while the artists milled nervously and compared one another's handiwork.
Sausages were grilled, ice cream cups were passed, the school band played, and finally the winners were announced.
Wanda was halfway through the crowd, halfway to the steps to make her modest and rehearsed speech of gratitude.
"First Place, Quilt Competition goes to Grania Grambarger."
Wanda felt as if she had been blasted with a bucket of ice water. In fact, she fainted dead away into the crowd.
After she had been given first aid at the medical tent, Wanda escaped, needing to see the quilt that had lost her a place in Caleb's Crossing history.
The quilt was now displayed for the whole town to see, hung by clips from a clothesline right by the American flag! Wanda was incensed, but she moved closer to examine the rival craftsmanship.
"It is the most lovely thing I've ever seen." Clarinda Pettibone reached out to touch the crocheted quilt that was patterned like a spider's web full of little faces and unicorns and fairy-like creatures.
Wanda was green with envy because the quilt was exquisite.
"Where is she?" Wanda looked at Clarinda.
"She didn't come." Clarinda said. "Must have sent it down by someone."
So Wanda had seemed to accept her fate, she went to church, she hosted her bridge club, she collected for charities and she cooked meals for shut-ins. But she did not forget.
When December rolled around Wanda was unable to focus on good will toward men, not when she was having such awful thoughts that centered around the Victorian house.
Finally, able to stand it no more, Wanda prepared a batch of her finest sugar sprinkled cookies, loaded them into a cloth draped basket and marched to the red Victorian house atop the hill.
The house was silent as she approached the lace-trimmed veranda. There was not the squeak of a board, not one motion of the porch swing, nor sound of animal or bird. The house appeared to be suspended in a vacuum, an invisible cocoon that forced even the winds to seek alternate flight patterns.
Wanda felt tiny hairs standing at attention on the back of her neck, felt her spine tingle, as she rapped on the door and waited in the hush of the winter afternoon. The sound of her own knuckles reverberated noisily and echoed like the sounds of drumbeats. Minutes passed but nobody came. The door remained closed.
There was definitely something wrong about the Grambargers. What self-respecting people would leave a guest stranded on the front porch? And she had cookies, for goodness sakes! Everybody knew that when someone came calling with goodies, it was just plain bad manners not to invite them inside.
Wanda wiped the grime of a lead-paned window and pressed her nose and one eye against the cold glass. Oil lamps belched smoky spirals of blackened soot onto the floral wallpaper, dimly lighting the room on the other side. Furniture was upturned, the room was in total disarray and looked as if wild animals might have arrived and claimed it as a den. Oh, the Millstone sisters would be furious when they returned. If they ever did return, Wanda, couldn't help but thinking.
"What's in the basket, girly." A voice said behind Wanda. The unexpected sound caused Wanda to jump and bump her nose against the glass. Wanda had not heard nor sensed the approach and as far as she was concerned the voice just appeared from nowhere. Along with the figure of an old woman who Wanda suspected was Grania Grambarger, herself.
Grania Grambarger was about four feet ten inches tall with the face of a dried apple-carved doll. She was wearing a long floral print dress a gingham apron, button-topped shoes, and a heavy wool jacket. In her mouth was a pipe stem that ended with a bowl of glowing coals and a spiral of smoke. She had hair that looked like burgundy silks torn from cornhusks tied neatly into a bun.
"I brought cookies." Wanda stammered. There was something disquieting about Grania Grambarger even though her appearance was less threatening than Wanda's Granny Burdine who drooled oatmeal and had been consigned to Shady Elms Nursing Home. Something about the eyes of Grania Grambarger was not human.
"Then I guess I better put the kettle on." Grania took her pipe from her mouth and thumped the bowl against the porch rail. Then she floated-or appeared to float-across the porch. Suddenly the untouched door flew open and banged against the casing.
Wanda suddenly felt regret. Maybe it had been a mistake to come; maybe some things were better left alone. But then she remembered the shame and humiliation of the quilt festival; remembered the Millstone sisters. She crossed herself and followed Grania Grambarger into the dimly lit house.
"You've made a few changes." Wanda remarked as she sat in the kitchen watching Grania Grambarger search under a cabinet for the kettle. The room was covered in dust, the walls looked greasy, and the furniture appeared to have been chewed in places. Mice scurried about under table and chairs.
"Homey, wouldn't you agree?" Grania stood up, spat into the kettle and rubbed circles in the bottom with her apron.
"The mice are a nice touch." Wanda said pulling her feet up onto the chair.
"You think so?" Grania grabbed one of the furry creatures by the tail and let it hang in the air with tiny legs dangling. "Never cared much for them, myself." She opened the door and flung the rodent outside. "Only keep them around to feed the snakes."
Snakes? Wanda had definitely made a mistake in coming. She looked at her watch and furrowed her brows. "It's getting late." She said. "I should probably be getting home."
"After tea." Grania Grambarger sloshed water into the kettle. "And then there's the matter of seeing the quilt."
"The quilt?" Wanda feigned surprise.
"That is why you came." Grania removed pinches of herbs from a row of crockery, flung them into the kettle, placed the mixture on the stove and lit the burner.
"I hadn't given it a thought. I only wanted to bring the cookies; sort of a delayed welcome to Caleb's Crossing. Just being neighborly." Wanda stammered.
"If you say so." Grania sat down in a chair across from Wanda and lit her pipe. There are poker players around the world who have learned to read signals, a motion of the hand, a tremble of the lip, a raise of the eyebrow to signal whether their opponent is holding a flush or a pair of deuces. If you put any one of them up against Grania Grambarger they would leave the game only with a pair of boxer shorts and the horse they rode in on. Well, maybe not the horse. Grania didn't have to read signals. Grania had a much better method. She just commenced to read minds. And that is exactly what Grania had done the minute she had first seen Wanda Burdine peering into the front window of her porch.
"That's quite an unusual aroma." Wanda remarked as the kettle started to whistle. Was it getting warmer, she thought. Was the room starting to dance?
"My own special brew." Grania got up from the table and took two cups from the pantry.
"What do you call it?" Wanda's voice was slurred. My, my, the room was spinning like a Merry-Go-Round. And when did the elves chasing the unicorn around the room arrive?
"It's a secret blend." Grania smiled and placed a cup in front of Wanda. "Sugar?"
Wanda tasted the hot, bitter tea. "What is this?" Was that an elf under the table removing her shoe and counting her toes?
"The usual. Wolf's bane, eye of newt, troll droppings, and a touch of cinnamon." Grania took a swig from her own cup and rubbed her mouth.
The cup dropped to the floor. "If you think I'm drinking this, you're crazy, you old witch." Wanda stood up and tried to focus on the swirling mass of multiple doors, one of which led out of the house and to freedom. If regret could have materialized at that moment it would have shaken a finger and thumbed its nose at the trembling figure of Wanda Burdine.
"Not thinking of leaving, are we?" Grania took Wanda by the shoulders. "Not without getting what you came for."
"I only came to deluver a casket of bookies." Wanda slurred as she floated out of the kitchen and down a hallway that led to a back study.
"It's in here, dearie." The study door flew open.
Wanda could have sworn that she heard voices coming from the dimly lit room. Whispers and cries that echoed against cobwebbed corners of a room that was furnished only with a spinning wheel and a mass of shimmering fabric.
"It is so fruitifal." Wanda staggered across the room and lifted a corner of the quilt. "Spooktacular." Suddenly Wanda pulled her hand away. "Shomething mooved."
"Nothing to worry about." Grania said in a soothing voice. "Everything will be as sweet as peaches."
"I'm not reeling so wood." Wanda felt herself sinking to the floor.
"They never do, I'm afraid." Grania said as she produced a paper from thin air. "'I took the liberty of preparing a deed to your property, what with you not needing it anymore and all."
"My froperty?" Wanda
"You won't get the hay wish this." Wanda felt darkness creep into her skull and settle in for a long winter's nap.
"Go to sleep, now, child." Grania took a draw from the pipe and blew smoke rings into the air. "This won't hurt a bit." As Wanda's slumbering figure crumbled to the floor, Grania sat down on a stool, pulled a strand from Wanda's hair and started to spin. Slowly and gradually Wanda just disappeared into a fine thread that ran round and round the wheel.
From inside the shimmery magic of the quilt, Wanda looked out at the room. It could have been in another world, a mirror world that was only a reflection of reality. Then beside her--a hand--a figure stirred, and fingers interlaced with her own. Wanda shifted the corners of her eyes to the side.
Wanda finally knew what had happened to the Millstone sisters.