----- In which we meet Ernie, explore Dill and Derri's garden, and take a long short trip. --------
The call echoed through the house, overtones of 10-year-old impatience underlying it, an indignant resonation of The Prince's wishes not being instantly gratified, a complete obliviousness to the imperatives of other lesser mortals. Fairly typical 10-year old male stuff.
The second call, all of a full second after the first went unanswered, was interrupted before it could build up volume.
'Yes, Dear! What is it you want?'
Again undertones could be detected, but this time of a different sort - perhaps a patience being tried and found wanting, perhaps a slight disappointment that the first call of the day had not waited at least a few minutes longer, and yes, it must be said, perhaps even a little affection.
'Where's my black jeans with the tore knee? I wanna wear ‘em today to play in the garden! I got important stuff to do and I'm ina hurry!'
The owner of the second voice - Derri by name - walked patiently from the kitchen to the foot of the stairs so she wouldn't have to yell so loudly. Perhaps also counting to 10, or at least 4 or 5.
'Ernie,' she called, gripping the bannister (not too firmly, just a bit) and looking up the stairs, 'I took them to wash - they're awfully dirty, you know, and I am doing some other wash this morning. Surely you have something else you can wear?'
'Well ... sure - there's lots of stuff to wear,' said the little-but-growing person whose voice we heard who is, when necessary, known as Ernie, and who came to the top of the stairs dressed in nothing more than wrinkly green underwear with pictures of Walt Disney dinosaurs and mythical creatures emblazoned thereon, and one blue sock (a hole exposing three toes), with a still wet towel held by one hand loosely around his waist, 'but I had some - ah - special stuff in the pockets.'
He frowned a little as he looked down the stairs, not quite meeting Derri's eyes directly. 'Did you - ah - empty the pockets yet or anything, Derri?'
Derri saw the eyes not quite wanting to meet hers as this last exchange progressed, and, having been born sometime before yesterday, and having spent some time as a kid herself (a kid not unlike Ernie, truth be told, which she had not forgotten, and which went some way to explaining her affection and patience) immediately realised there was something going on with Ernie's pockets that he didn't really want her to know about. Having a busy day ahead of her, she wasn't all that sure she wanted to know either - he'd shown no signs of being interested in Russian machine guns or older girls that she had seen, and she couldn't think of much else that she really needed to know about. Ernie was a fairly typical 10 year old boy, interested in things like worms and snakes and other kind of slimy things that lived under rocks or in other dark places Derri tended to avoid herself, as she had found out to her surprise on more than one previous occasion. She could deal with stuff like that ok, nobody had ever called her a wimp or anything, but she didn't look for it the same way she might have some number of years ago. The things of Derri's secret life were hidden under other stones in other gardens.
'Ernie, I haven't done anything more yet than put them on the pile by the washing machine,' Derri replied, looking up at him. 'If there's something in the pockets you want, come and get it, ok?'
She thought she detected just a small look of relief on Ernie's face.
'Great!' he smiled down at her, 'I'll be down in just a minute!'
'Ernie!' she called, as he turned back towards his room.
He stopped momentarily, and turned back to look over the upstairs rail at Derri. 'Yea?'
'Ernie, put your pyjamas or something on before coming downstairs, ok?'
Derri was Ernie's aunt on his father's side. She lived with her husband Dill in a small town in a large province in Canada. Ernie had come to visit Dill and Derri every summer since he was about 4 years old, when his father and mother did their Summer Rejuvenation Tour, as they called it, which usually involved a long airplane trip somewhere and several weeks of slogging through jungles or climbing mountain peaks or trekking across deserts on camels. Ernie was always disappointed that they wouldn't take him, but they always said he was too young and it was too dangerous, but someday he would be old enough to join them. This year they were way off on the other side of the world riding elephants around jungles looking for tigers or something - usually he never really understood most of their plans until they got back home and showed him the pictures. Some of it looked pretty neat, and he was working on them a lot - he was pretty sure that the next year or no longer than the year after that he would be off doing stuff that so far he had only seen on television or in his daydreams.
Ernie slid in into his chair at the breakfast table a few minutes later, after spending a minute rustling around in the laundry room next to the kitchen - Derri had decided the laundry could wait a few minutes, until after Ernie had had his breakfast.
'What would you like this morning, Dear?' asked Derri, 'Cereal? Eggs and bacon? Grilled cheese sandwich? Bacon and tomato?'
'OK,' replied Ernie, pouring himself a glass of orange juice from a large pitcher on the table, looking over at Derri with that smile that still stopped her in her tracks sometimes - so sweet especially in the morning, fresh and a bit drowsy-eyed from sleep, unruly cowlick hanging over his forehead - yet he could be so infuriating at times.
There was a moment's silence as Derri lowered herself into a chair across from Ernie, and took a sip from a steaming coffee mug.
'I meant which, Ernie,' she said, 'not all.'
'Huh? But I'm really hungry this morning, Aunt Derri! Promise! '
'I'm sure you are,' answered Derri, 'but let's just go one at a time, ok? What first?'
Ernie's parents' trips weren't all bad - he got to do his own personal rejuvenation tour at Dill and Derri's every summer, which wasn't as bad as it might have been. Ernie and his parents lived in an apartment in a tall building in a big city - it was, of course, a pretty nice apartment and all, but still it was just that - an apartment - no yard, no garden, no woods or streams or pastures with animals nearby - all that stuff that kids love and need. Dill and Derri's house, on the other hand, was on the outskirts of the small town, and had a large garden - actually, most of the property was like one big, if slightly untended, garden, with apple trees and raspberry cane and a vegetable patch and lots of little nooks and crannies where an imaginative small person could pretend all sorts of fine and interesting things, and past all that it was not far to walk to several small woodlots with lots of interesting stuff, and fields with horses and cows, and farms and farmers - the whole bit, really. Ernie thought it all pretty cool, anyway, and was more than ready for his summer vacation in the country, as he thought of it, after months and months that seemed like years and years of school.
So Ernie rejuvenated in Dill and Derri's garden, those long summer days when his parents were canoeing down the Amazing or climbing Mount Humongous somewhere. He was usually alone, since there were no other children of his age in the area, and the few friends he had made in town usually were doing other things they found more interesting like watching TV.
But Ernie's days weren't all imagination by any means - being right by the country, there were lots of critters stopping by - rabbits and squirrels and snakes and mice and crows and just altogether lots of neat things.
On this day, in the year something-or-other, as Ernie had pulled on a frayed housecoat about 4 sizes too big for him (it belonged to Dilli, actually, who had lent it to Ernie when she found he didn't have one, and he had grown into it over the times he had stayed there), and yawned down the stairs to get his breakfast and whatever out of the pocket of his jeans, the world of Dill and Derri's garden was also performing its morning rituals, coming to life with the sound of bird songs and humming insects, farm machinery in the distance with the moo-ing of cows returning to the fields from the morning milking, and erudite voices discussing national issues on CBC radio coming faintly from an open window somewhere nearby. Dill and Derri's white, wooden house with blue trim (fading and peeling in places) sat close to the west side of the large property, with several assorted trees around it - most notably a middle-aged maple, maybe 40 feet tall, spreading over the west side of the yard with a wooden swing hanging from one low branch on old thick frayed hemp rope, two tall pines outside the east door with a couple of large patchy-red Adirondack lawn chairs in front of them, two large, gracious cedars straddling the front door, and assorted shrubs of varying sizes and degress of trim along the front and side walkways. A wooden picnic table with a small rusty barbecue beside it stood a few feet out from the side door, and there was a square hedge along the north side of the property along which ran a driveway on the far side, and a dark space between that hedge and the house which was dark and dank in the morning, before the sun overhead lit and warmed it up.
'Wow, Derri, that was great!' said Ernie, setting his empty milk glass on the table with a deep breath - he'd been so busy eating the last few minutes he had hardly had time to satisfy his body's oxygen demands at the same time which, for a growing kid exercising his arm and jaws and digestive capacity all at once, were substantial.
Derri looked over at him from where she was looking out the window while rinsing out the frying pan.
'So you think you'll get by without the grilled cheese sandwich then?' she asked with a smile.
'Oh - yea, I guess the cereal and bacon and eggs should hold me until lunch. But I might come in for one of them muffins later, if that's ok?'
The door slammed behind Ernie as he headed outside. The dirty black jeans with the torn knee had bee replaced by clean blue jeans with two torn knees, and the contents of the pockets transferred from one to the other. Ernie stumbled a bit as he went down the steps; thinking about the morning ahead, he got distracted by Chang, the large tiger-striped cat of Dill and Derri, which was crouching by the hedge with that hunting posture that cats have, ears forward, totally focused on whatever it is they're about to chase, one front paw lifted a bit off the ground - and as Ernie saw this and wondered what the cat had found, he missed the last step. His shoulder hit a large brass hanging flower pot, which then banged into the tree from which it was suspended with a loud bong, accompanying Ernie's 'ouch!'. As the cat flinched and then looked over at him with an annoyed expression, Derri's face appeared dimly through the screen window of the kitchen.
'Ernie? Are you ok? What happened?'
'Oh - nothing, Aunt Derri, just the flower pot - no problem,' answered Erie, rubbing his shoulder a bit.
'Ok, then,' said Derri through the window, 'don't get into any trouble, ok? I'll be downstairs in the laundry room for awhile if you need me.'
Ernie acknowledged Derri with a wave, as he headed out across the lawn. Normally he would take a slow stroll around the perimeter of the property, looking for anything new or interesting, but this day he had a destination in mind. At the furthest corner of the big lot was one of Ernie's favorite places, an old spring-fed pond that provided an endless changing variety of fascinating adventures for Ernie, both real and imagined. It wasn't a real big pond, or very deep, but it was big enough for Ernie to float a small raft on, and to have minnows and polliwogs in it most of the summer, thus attracting grass snakes for the small frogs, and other forms of life - once in the early morning Ernie had even seen a mother fox with two cubs drinking on the far shore. And such as the red-spotted salamander Ernie had found yesterday, and, after an exciting chase under stones by the mouth of the small stream that ran out of the pond down to the small river that eventually, a few miles away, ran into the not-very-small lake, put in his pocket to look at later in his room under the microscope that Dill had brought home one day from the university, one rainy day that Ernie seemed unable to find anything to do that wasn't somehow under Derri's busy feet. Which he forgot to do, and the salamander had died. And Ernie hadn't really wanted Derri to find it (he had been involved in more than one small 'discussion' about how looking and studying and being interested were really good, but needless killing was really bad), thus the small drama to begin the day. But now Ernie was going to put the salamander back in the pond - he had been reading an especially interesting book lately on the cycles of life, and he thought he would spend a bit of time today watching what other strange creatures he had read about would come along to use the body of the dead salamander for their own life purposes. A bit gruesome perhaps to you - but not so to Ernie. A bit impractical perhaps - he didn't yet understand that such processes moved rather slowly - but he was learning. And it was summer. And this was a good way to spend a day of it. If watching the decomposition of a salamander got boring, there were always other things happening around the pond.
As Ernie settled himself down on a stool-sized stone at the water's edge, and laid the salamander down on it's back, he wondered what he might see working on it - slime mould perhaps (the name fascinated him, but he had never seen it in action), or dung beetles (the Nature show he had seen had left him unaware that dung beetles were only found in Africa), or hordes of writhing maggots bursting from the small red belly - he could hardly wait.
As he sat there contemplating things - he did figure the decomposition wouldn't begin instantly, and he might have to wait awhile to see anything interesting - large grey furry body came up behind him, and bumped its head into his leg. He turned to see what it was.
'Oh, Hi, Chang,' he said, reaching down to rub the cat's head, 'what's happening, eh, Boy?'
Chang only meowed in response, then took a step towards the belly-up salamander and tentatively reached out her nose for s sniff.
'You don't like salamanders, Chang,' said Ernie, 'and anyway, you've been fed already today, haven't you?'
Ernie knew that Derri usually left a large bowl of dry cat food ouside the back door for Chang, and he was always hanging around the kitchen at mealtime, begging for fresh meat or a bowl of milk.
Chang wasn't paying any attention, however - a common sort of cat trait - and continued sniffing around the salamander, then reaching out a paw to give it a quick slap.
Ernie reached down to pick up the cat and hold her up by her front paws so he could look in her eyes.
'Chang! I said NO!' he said, giving her just the slightest of shakes (he really did love cats, and would never hurt her); 'you can't play with the salamander, ok? Now go ‘way!'
And her set her back down on the ground behind him, away from the salamander, with a final pat on her head. Chang sat down and, with only a small look at Ernie from the corner of her eye, began to lick her paw and wash her face, as cats often do when they want to appear cool.
Ernie went back to contemplating the universe, with dung beetles leading him to musical Beatles (way before his time, of course, but his parents had a wall full of kind of neat Beatles record covers and things, and played their music all the time and hey! - it was ok!) to yellow submarines to the yellowing lily pad in the middle of his small pond to the frog that was sitting on the lilly pad that jumped just as his eyes found it and thus made him jump - and as he jumped he noticed movement to his side - and there was Chang again reaching out a paw to see if the salamander would react.
'Chang!' said Ernie, 'I told you ...'
- but he never finished the sentence, as Chang was not about to be thwarted anymore in her desire to play with the dead salamander (or whatever she had in mind for it), and she quickly (as cats do so well) darted in and grabbed the salamander in her mouth and, avoiding Ernie's reaching hands, leaped from the edge of the pond to the lawn and dashed towards the house, hindquarters waving and tail high.
'Hey!' shouted Ernie, leaping to his feet and dashing off behind the cat, 'get back here!'
Chang disappeared around the corner of the house, and seconds later Ernie followed - only just in time to see her disappearing around the next corner - and so it went, once, twice and three times around the house, every now and then Ernie yelling for the cat to stop, which did no good whatsoever. In the basement laundry room, which was in a corner, Derri could see first the cat then a pair of legs going by two windows, as the laundry room was located in a corner - she just smiled and carried on with her work.
Finally, about the third time around the house, Ernie turned the corner - and Chang had disappeared for good - no sign of the cat or the salamander at all.
Ernie stoppe, and leaned over with hands on knees, panting a bit - three times around a house after a cat could be tiring even for a small person in good physical condition. He took off his baseball cap and fanned his face with it, looking around.
'Chang?' he called, 'Chang, where are you?'
No answer. Not surprisingly. Hiding cats do not normally reveal themselves so readily.
After a minute or so of careful perusal of the places a cat might be hiding - under or behind bushes, in dark corners of porches or tables or chairs, and seeing nothing, Ernie crept to the corner of the house, and stuck his head around to see if he could see the cat and his salamander.
Nothing under the picnic table. Nothing on the back door step where Chang often meowed to get in the house. Nothing in the first branch of the maple tree, where she occasionally liked to sit and watch lesser beings. Nothing - wait! yes - there was movement behind that weathered old statue-type thing that sat by the trellis gateway leading to the sidewalk in front of the house. It sat, actually, in a little cavern-type area formed by the base of the trellis and an untrimmed shrub, almost under the hedge itself. It was a little dark carved wooden figure, about a foot in height, although it might have at one time been taller, since it looked to be missing a couple of ears that might have stood over its head, to judge from the size of the remainder of them. It was not a human representation, but appeared to be some sort of troll, or dwarf, squatting on its haunches, hands curled on its knees, palms up. Its black eyes were large and open, and seemed to look at the ground in front of it with an air of resigned discomfort. It was well worn with age and damp and neglect. Had anyone asked, Derri would have said she had no idea where it came from, and as far as she knew it had always sat right in that very place. They had often talked about tossing it out at spring cleaning, but somehow never managed to do that. She had no idea if it had a name, and most of the time it just sat there by itself, pondering whatever such things ponder.
Anyways - sticking out from behind this statue Ernie had spotted the tail of Chang, slowly waving back and forth.
'Aha!' he thought (yes, kids really do say or think this sometimes), 'gotcha!' - and he started sneaking carefully down the sidewalk, aiming for the far side of the little statue, so he would surprise her headfirst where, he figured, she had his salamander. 'I wonder if eating counts as decomposing?' he thought, as he snuck, for no particular reason, except that thoughts like that do come into your head at odd times, as I'm sure you know.
As he came closer, he got down on his hands and knees, to be at her level, and so his hand would be ready to reach out and snatch back his salamander before Chang could grab it in her mouth and take off again.
In a couple of more seconds he was there, and, raising his hand in preparation to grab, quickly stuck his head around the edge of the statue, shouting 'Chang! Give me my salamander!'
He had done a good job of sneaking, and took the cat completely by surprise. Cats do not like to be taken completely by surprise, and Chang let out one of those sounds that house cats make that sounds something like a giant's fingernails scratching a blackboard, leaping to her feet with all her fur standing on end, yellow eyes wide.
This startled Ernie so much that he instinctively leapt backwards - and from a crouching position under something like a heavy statue with lots of pokey corners, leaping backwards without looking is not a good idea. Ernie banged his head hard on something, and after the flash of pain, the world started going black and whirly, and in slow motion. He saw, like something through a kaleidescopic fish-eye lens, the ground coming up to meet his face, and some kind of deep black tunnel opening up in that ground.
The angry hissing sound of Chang was the last thing his conscious mind registered.
Ernie wakes up somewhere on the other side of the world in a hot and rainy country called Siam that has real live elephants. He meets some new friends with funny names, gets lost in the jungle, rides a raft down a raging river, crosses the ocean to a tropical island, rescues an important treasure, and meets the King of Siam. Just another day in Dill and Derri's garden.
Ernie and the Prince of Siam © 2003 by Dave Patterson; work-in-progress; all rights negotiable
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