Prudency's Rubyfruit Meadow
On fair days, Prudency Avery began tours of the Marceline Woodcock House in the garden with a series of reenactments of epiphanic moments in Marceline's life. It was there that Marceline Woodcock had been hunting for a fresh piece of charcoal when the story that would become Margaret's Meadow flew into her head.
Eighty-five years later, Prudency's reenactment of the moment made a shivery experience for the visitors, and, once or twice after a particularly inspired evocation, Prudency had sensed the elliptical presence of Marceline Woodcock directing her little drama. The notion that Marceline was still in attendance had occurred to Prudency more than once. She never saw Marceline in a corporal form, however, nor did she find the household disturbed. But an original mind, such as Marceline's, would never stoop to funhouse pranks, even after death.
Both Marceline's house and her reputation had fallen on hard times. The Woodcock Trust's Board of Directors, a Dickensian trio of businessmen with only a fiduciary interest in the House, used the lion's portion of the receipts to pay Prudency her modest salary. At their last meeting, Prudency outlined her concerns, finishing with a substantial list of items in need of attention. She was always desperate at the meeting, never successful in her goal—i.e. to spend the Trust's principal rather than the paltry interest Hatboro National paid out.
The chairman, (of both the Trust and Hatboro National) Mr. Pershing, sat with closed eyes, his face dusty with powdered sugar from the plate of donuts near his elbow. “Dear Mrs. Avery,” he said finally, opening his heavy-lidded eyes, “to what do you attribute the precipitous fall-off in visitors?”
Speechless at this unexpected blow, Prudency watched as Mr. Pershing and his colleagues arose en mass, headed for the Old Mill Tavern where they dined lavishly on Marceline's dime every month. It was hard to distinguish one from the other as they moved amorphously down the lane, shoulder-to-shoulder in their charcoal suits. The group reminded her of a beached whale she saw once as a child in Beach Haven, New Jersey .
“Ineffectual as usual , Prudency , her husband, Tyson muttered in her ear despite his many years in the grave. Why didn't you tell them you have to spend money to make money?”
She had learned to live with Tyson's ghostly admonishments up to a point. Usually she ignored him and he went away, something he had never done in life.
But on this day, when her life's work was challenged, another voice chimed in with Tyson's. “ Why don't you just kill Mr. Pershing? That would put an end to this nonsense.”
After a moment, Prudency decided it was Marceline herself who'd come forward to offer succor to her faithful docent. The nattering continued and it quickly became difficult to separate Tyson's scolding tone from Marceline's urgent one and Prudency clapped her hands over her ears and ran away.
Prudency had first come to work at the Woodcock House soon after Tyson's death. That event had been a terrible shock since only moments before he had been energetically chastising her for an overcooked chop, dangling the offending piece of veal from his knife, where (she had to admit) it did resemble something “squashed by a dusty boot.”
At forty-five, Prudency had never worked. Nor did she have any useful skills to offer prospective employers. One after another, the town's shopkeepers turned down her applications. “Are you allergic?” a veterinarian asked as she sneezed her way through an interview a week after the funeral.
He lifted a dozing Persian off the examining table, scooting it out the door with a sneakered foot. Relegated to the cold tiles of the hallway, the cat hissed at Prudency, suggesting she'd have no rapport with his patients anyway.
“I don't really know,” she told him finally. “I've never spent much time around animals.” Her eyes fluttered briefly. “Except for Sweetie Pie, that is. My canary.”
Tyson had only approved of four-legged animals on his plate or under his rump, and it wouldn't have bothered him at all to have his favorite steed show up on the table should the price of beef rise precipitously. Sweetie Pie turned out to be noisier than the birds who sang in Woolworth's Pet Department, with his constant thrashing and mournful chirps. His feathers were nearly gone within a week, giving him the look of something born too soon or too late.
“You suit each other splendidly,” Tyson had said dyspeptically, flicking the bird experimentally. The parakeet didn't budge.
Prudency's mood improved after her failure with the vet, however, when she was interviewed by Mr. Oliphant, the man who ran the Marceline Woodcock House.
“I knew your husband back in grade school,” he told her, scowling. “He used to bend my fingers back until I cried.”
He thought for a moment, then added, “and he flicked my ears when the temperature fell.”
He demonstrated with a fat, index finger. Prudency flinched involuntarily, remembering Tyson's treatment of Sweetie Pie.
“If you gave him what he wanted, he sometimes stopped,” she finally offered.
Mr. Oliphant seemed unimpressed.
As the only applicant for the job, she was hired, and for the next eight years Mr. Oliphant and Prudency worked at the House together, immersing themselves in the minutiae of Marceline's life during a period when the house was reasonably popular. The two docents found a soothing of companionship there although it never went beyond that.
“ Ineffectual at romance, too ,” Tyson often told her then, seeming alternately pleased and disappointed with her failure to seduce Mr. Oliphant.
Perhaps such a romance would have brightened Tyson's days in the nether land he seemed to inhabit.
Marceline Woodcock's first book, Margaret's Meadow , was often compared to The Tales of Peter Rabbit. Both told a story about animals, featuring a liberal amount of water-colored illustrations. But, as Prudency told her tour groups, the similarities ended there. Marceline's story was livelier and could stand on its own, whereas the Beatrix Potter tale was entirely dependent on its illustrations. Marceline went on to write and illustrate thirteen more stories, though each was compared unfavorably to Margaret's Meadow.
When Mr. Oliphant died, Prudency continued on alone when the Board refused to hire a second docent. It was all Harry Potter and Lemony Snickett books at the bookstore nowadays. Or thick cardboard books where seemingly inanimate objects popped up, smelled, talked or farted.
The house itself didn't give up many clues to Marceline's personality and Prudency knew it to be much the same now as on the day Marceline died. Mr. Oliphant had referred to the problem, drawing her attention to the danger in purchasing the stray period piece that came up at auction.
“Take care with your artifacts, Prudency,” he had told her. “The Trust will try to smuggle counterfeit objects in to draw a crowd. But we'll have none of that.”
“There's so little to work with,” Prudency had noticed aloud more than once.
Where were the photo albums, the keepsakes, the greeting cards that every woman saved! Sometimes it seemed like she inhabited a set created by an indifferent designer for a play destined to close after a few performances. The lack of detail necessitated invention, which, in time, began to seem like fact. Marceline had remained stubbornly quiet for all those years, leaving it up to Prudency to invent whatever she chose. No, none of these issues had brought Marceline out of her imposed silence. It was the “trouble” that actually did it.
Prudency's “trouble” began when a rude, older man from that university in Philadelphia insisted in a loud voice that Marceline Woodcock was a lesbian and Miss Rose (the woman who assisted Marceline with her correspondence and business matters for twenty years) her lover. He went on to say a lot of other things too, calling it “queer theory” and suggesting Prudency should be “up” on it. He stood in the foyer with his hands on his hips and bellowed—or so it seemed. The word “up” was fired from his lips. Prudency stood frozen, too shocked to respond. The whispery voice she'd decided was Marceline's said, “ We really need to see to this one quickly, Prudency. Chin up.”
A slight smell of tea olives accompanied the words. Had tea olives been Marceline's scent? Prudency, at a loss, chose lavender when asked by visitors.
Miss Rose (her last name was uncertain) had always been a mysterious figure in the Woodcock legend. Mr. Oliphant had referred to her as an acolyte or a handmaiden. No one would have had the slightest idea about Rose's physical appearance had Marceline not confessed in a letter to a distant cousin that she used Rose as the model for Lucretia, a hedgehog in one of the lesser books. Marceline painted Lucretia as a shy, mousy sort with lank, light hair, large, moist eyes, and a gap-toothed smile. It was hard to know where Rose left off and the hedgehog began. The book ( Lucretia's Big Day ) was dedicated to Rose, although not with any amorous words that might have given a hint. For Rose , was all it said.
Indeed, many recent visitors had been professorial types and only last week, she caught hippies burning aromatic candles in Marceline's bedroom, not a foot from an original page of the Manuscript. “ You'll want to do something about that pair ,” Marceline observed, but in an amused voice that wasn't at all frightening.
Two weeks earlier, a British couple from the Lake District , tramping through in muddy wellies, bullied Prudency into declaring that Potter was an indifferent writer and a middling watercolorist. For once, she had spoken the truth and come across as too shrill.
“ Women are better-suited to clerical positions, ” Tyson commented after she finished her diatribe. “ Their cycles make them unreliable. ”
It was quite easy to separate Tyson's words from Marceline's, thank goodness.
Prudency's indiscretion that day drove the Brits into an apoplectic wordlessness as they gathered up their water bottles and umbrellas and left by the rear door.
Only Marceline seemed pleased with the outcome. “ Good going, old girl ,” she murmured warmly.
Prudency felt the air stir a second later as Marceline left the room. But the going didn't turn out to be good at all.
“Mrs Avery,” Mr. Pershing said, holding their letter in his hammy hands a few days later, “it doesn't do to squabble with our guests. Are you drifting toward dementia from too much time spent alone?”
Looking at the paper again, he snorted. “You don't really believe this rot, do you? That Woodcock is superior to Beatrix Potter?”
Before she could answer, he massaged his considerable chin and added. “Well I'm hardly qualified to make an assessment, but Beatrix Potter seems to have weathered the passage of time better than our girl.”
He looked at her piercingly. “My granddaughter, Julia, has her room decorated with the Potter characters. When's the last time you saw Margaret on a bed?”
For a second, she misunderstood his allusion and wondered if Margaret were a recent love interest, but after a moment, the bovine profile of Marceline's beloved cow popped into her head. And it was true, she supposed, Marceline's popularity had come and gone rather quickly, based as it was on the popularity of just one book.
She had turned to go when Mr. Pershing caught her arm. “Just a minute, Mrs. Avery, I've had two letters this week.”
His eyes narrowed to slits as he pulled the second one from his blue, plastic case and handed it to her. Hands shaking, she read it. That cocky professor from the university in Philadelphia suggested Prudency's dogmatic and possessive attitude toward Marceline was inappropriate when addressing scholars. Furthermore, he wrote, much of what Prudency had told him was incorrect.
The list of her inaccuracies was lengthy, and Prudency realized for the first time just how far she had drifted from the truth. She had invented lovers, fan clubs, multiple trips to Europe , a stunning wardrobe and numerous literary awards. The germ for some of these ideas came from her years under Mr. Oliphant's tutelage, but most of them, she had to admit, were her own invention, products of both a wish to impress and far too many dull days. The Marceline Woodcock she presented bore faint resemblance to the aloof, untraveled, rather simple woman who occupied this house. The professor suggested that Prudency should be replaced by a graduate student in literature, who would “disseminate more accurate information.”
Marceline, apparently reading the letter over Prudency's shoulder, made one of those archaic nineteenth century noises, “ Pshaw.”
Prudency hadn't realized till then that the “P” was actually pronounced.
“ They're just trying to replace you,” Marceline murmured . “We won't allow it. Why don't you kill him right now? He keeps a gun in his center drawer.”
“We're not about to replace you,” Mr. Pershing said quickly as if intuiting Marceline's words. “If the house stays open, things will remain the same.”
“I certainly appreciate your—” loyalty she had been about to say when Mr. Pershing interrupted.
“We can't have some cockamamie grad student telling visitors that Marceline was a dyke,” he said crudely. “If she's been in the closet for these many years, she can damned well stay there now.”
Prudency could feel Marceline wincing at his ill-chosen words. “Better to make things up—nice things just like you've been doing all these years. But you'd better get up to speed on some facts, Prudency. Why don't you give this professor a call?”
“ When cows fly,” Marceline remarked, her voice warm steam on Prudency's neck. “ Let's keep away from the pretentious prig .”
Mr. Pershing must have heard this comment too on some level because his tone grew gruff, “Just call him,” he interjected, interrupting the ghost. “It wouldn't hurt to hear what the fellow has to say.”
He turned to go, adding. “Revenues are continuing to decline, dear lady. If you mean to hold on to your job, you'd better make sure there's a job to hold on to.”
With less than two dozen words, he passed on to her the responsibility for the house's survival. The scent of tea olive dissipated as Marceline left his office too, apparently no more willing that Mr. Pershing to address the problem.
But would Professor Harold allow anything to remain as it was? Would she be permitted to present her tableaus vivant, the only aspect of the job that satisfied her creative urges? Really, if she excised everything not thoroughly documented, what would be left to say?
Professor Harold seemed pleased when she called. “I'd be happy to take you on,” he said, interrupting her stammering, half-hearted request.
He arrived the next Sunday, requesting that she take him through the house. “The last time I was listening with a different pair of ears,” he told her when she reminded him he had already heard her little talk.
The absence of rage improved his appearance immensely. Only his prominent ears and a bit of an overbite eliminated him from true handsomeness. He didn't interrupt her once during the tour, but every few seconds, he scribbled heatedly in a little notebook.
Even under the most inspired of circumstances, the tour lasted less than seventeen minutes. Today's finished in fourteen flat as she quickly excised a few of her more outrageous remarks. They returned to the parlor where he looked over his notes in silence.
“It's worse than I feared,” he finally said. “More than half of what you've said is inaccurate. Where, for instance, did you get the idea that Marceline's publisher didn't change a word of Margaret's Meadow ?”
He waited expectantly, his crossed leg bouncing like a metronome.
“I damned well did write every word of it myself,” Marceline insisted at her left ear. “My publisher couldn't have written the daily ditty in the Philadephia Bulletin much less a classic story.”
“We've always told it that way,” Prudency said faintly. “In fact, Mr. Oliphant used to read a lengthy testimonial from the publisher. I shortened it to just a few sentences over time.”
Professor Harold shook his head, making a tsk-tsk sound. “ Margaret's Meadow was severely edited by an assistant editor who published his memoirs a few years ago. He claims Marceline came to him with a few sentences scribbled on a piece of paper and several charming drawings. It was he who turned a rudimentary idea into a story.”
“ Lies, lies, lies,” Marceline cried silently, from the fireplace where she was pacing. “The story was an instant masterpiece. It's Potter, he's thinking of. She never had a sentient idea of her own.”
“I distinctly remember a letter from Marceline's editor relating how nearly perfect the story was the first time he read it,” Prudency shot back.
She felt Marceline nodding approvingly.
“What sounds better to readers, Prudency? That a naïve young woman wrote and illustrated her first book without aid, or that a lowly assistant took a few rough sketches from some bumpkin and made a classic storybook out of it.”
“My father was the mayor's legal council. My mother hosted a tea for the Governor's wife. Bumpkin, my eye.”
“Maybe visitors should be going to his house then,” Prudency interjected, getting a pat of approval from Marceline on her behind.
“Now, now,” the Professor said soothingly. “We don't want to destroy the myth. Just temper it with a bit of truth.” He patted her shoulder. “Certainly an anonymous assistant editor can't lay claim to more than editorial assistance.”
“And we only have his word for it.”
“We'll settle on that then.”
Over the next weeks, the professor revamped the information visitors to the house were given, designed a new brochure, suggested a different placement of the memorabilia, and took her to country auctions and flea markets to round out the decor. Unlike Mr. Oliphant, Professor Harold had no objection to filling out the house with local finds, reminding her that few Houses were totally authentic. He even asked her advice on several occasions, something Mr. Oliphant had never done. Charlie—that was Professor Harold's first name – next helped her to rewrite her tableaus vivant, adding details that made the little plays more dramatic. He quite approved of their continuation, noting that visitors remarked favorably in the guestbook.
They were quite compatible, it seemed, although Marceline kept whispering warnings into her ear. “ He's a charlatan, Prudency. Watch out.”
The only area where Prudency felt uneasy was with the “gay” thing. “Why is it necessary to tell people that? She was a children's writer, for heavens sake.”
“It's part of who she was,” he countered. “You can see it in the texts.”
It was always “texts” rather than books with him. “Where?” she demanded, racing through the cast of characters mentally. “Where in the texts?”
“Well, in Margaret's Meadow , for one,” he said, grabbing a copy of the book from the table. “Notice how Margaret's always in the company of other females. Her meadow bears more than a passing resemblance to the Isle of Sappho.”
He pointed to a field of cows.
The man knew nothing about farm life. “Bulls are always penned separately. They cause chaos when allowed to mix in.”
She looked at him pointedly and wondered if he got her meaning.
“But there are no calves in that meadow and it appears to be spring. It's a fellowship of women.”
“The calves are at school,” Prudency said, turning to a page where a schoolyard full of calves frolicked. “Look.”
“Old Lucretia Hedgehog seems more than a little interested in women, too.”
He quickly found an illustration where Lucretia did appear to be mooning over a goose in petticoats and a large straw hat.
“I think she just admires her couture,” Prudency guessed.
“ Yes, yes. See if he buys that.”
It was Marceline at her elbow again and Prudency nearly turned around to stare at air when she caught her meaning. Perhaps Marceline herself was the skeleton in the closet.
“Marceline didn't strike me as someone who cared about such things as couture.”
He paged through the book. “Look, here she is peeking at the bird's bare backside. What have they done with her skirts?”
“You really are uneducated. That look was in all children's books back then .” Marceline sounded amused now.
“Petticoats,” Prudency corrected. “Lucretia's very nearsighted. I think that illustration is meant to remind us of that.”
Then she repeated Marceline's words. “That look was in all children's books then.”
He shrugged and slammed the book shut. “We'll never agree on this, I suppose.”
“It must be difficult being gay—even in these more enlightened times.”
He blinked twice. “I'm not gay, Mrs. Avery. Marceline Woodcock was a lesbian. I just want to honor her with the truth.”
“I just assumed….”
“Well, don't! Why must I be gay to demand that a wrong be corrected?”
“What if she didn't want it corrected? What if she preferred that her sexual preferences remain private?”
Prudency would certainly prefer that hers would should she have one. Such revelations were bound to be hurtful. “Maybe she'd prefer to remain closeted.”
Now she was using his jargon.
“Yes, that's part of it,” Marceline whispered. “ And there was my father's position to consider, my mother's social standing . I never realized the illustrations were so revealing. Another age, I suppose…”
“But it isn't private, Prudency! Everyone assumes she's heterosexual. Where's the privacy in that?”
He paused and fidgeted with his notebook.
“Privacy comes with removing such questions from consideration. Besides, I doubt many of her readers have given the matter a second's thought. The average age of her audience is eight.”
“Eight year olds grow up!” His face was nearly purple. “And they bear the scars of early ostracism . I will have my way with this issue. It means too much to me to allow it to be submerged in deception again.”
He took a step toward her. “The entire world will know the truth about these texts and it will be me—or us if you wish—that reveal it.”
He gleamed with the idea of his prospective fame. Prudency sighed, unsure of what to do.
“Like hell,” Marceline said, after a considerable pause.
Prudency could feel rather than see her life's work—Marceline Woodcock— move across the room. A poker by the fireplace was suddenly lifted, one that Tyson had often waved at her. Seconds later, it was brought down heavily on the professor's head. Then again. And again. Marceline handled the weapon with considerable strength for someone dead these many years. Apparently death did not diminish the ferocity of anger at the prospect of being outed.
Prudency's heart jumped at the sudden movement and she watched aghast as their nemesis slid gracefully down the back of her desk and onto the floor. The gash from the poker extended from his battered skull to his severed nose. It wasn't necessary to check; he was clearly dead.
Marceline was finally, preternaturally silent. Even her scent was quite gone from the room. And although Prudency hadn't heard from Tyson in several weeks, he spoke again now.
“Is that my poker ?” he asked in that booming voice of his. “ You better get the blood off it if you know what's good for you.”