An homage to Edward Gorey.
Their dad was running errands in town and insisted that the kids come along. They had been to the dry cleaner to drop off Wraddey’s dragon suit to see what could be done about the ink stains. They’d been to the butcher for sausage, the hardware for tacks, and the place that sold glow-in-the-dark soda. It wasn’t that their dad wanted their company, Wraddey thought, so much as that he remembered what a mess they’d made last time they’d stayed home unattended. Weeks later their father complained he still found marshmallow in crevices about the house, and he wasn’t happy that Wraddey had pasted over every reachable inch of her room with the funnies.
In the backseat of the station wagon, Wraddey felt so bored that she might disappear into the seat, that’s how sick of things she was. Her big brother Egor elbowed her to get her attention. As she reeled back to sock him for touching her she saw the stranger wading through the high piles of snow. Wraddey liked to fight her brother, but it had been a long and relentlessly dull winter. Both children were so hungry for something out of the ordinary to happen that the fight melted away.
“Do you see…?” Wraddey started to say.
“But who…?” Egor asked.
Wraddey shushed him.
Teetering through the dirty snow on the side of the road, whoever-it-was wasn’t wearing a coat or boots, but was cocooned in yards and yards of fabric. Every bit of the person was wrapped up, and except for a purplish brown velvet, most of the wrappings were clashing patterns. No nose or wrist or eyeball, no feature to be seen. As the car passed, the kids turned to keep looking.
“Huh,” Egor said.
“Wow,” Wraddey said.
“Huh?” said their father from the driver’s seat.
The person grew smaller through their wide rear window. Then they turned into a parking lot and the strange person was out of sight.
Their dad ran in to check on a watch he was having fixed. The kids waited in the car, admiring the neon line drawings of jewels in the window of the tiny shop, and listened to the radio. From her seat in the back, Wraddey put her feet up on the center console. Egor kicked Wraddey’s boot and started to scold her.
“Dad wouldn’t let you–“
“Shut up. Look!.”
“I’ll tell him you’re putting your – “
“Shut up and look, Eeg. Who is that?”
The stiff figure crossed the jeweler’s parking lot. Wraddey wondered out loud if they were walking backwards, the way she did when it was windy at the bus stop. Maybe that’s why they were going so slowly, why their knees didn’t bend.
She waved but the figure didn’t respond. It wasn’t possible for Wraddey to tell if she was unseen or being ignored. But you know how being ignored can stoke your interest.
Their dad returned, satisfied and whistling. He was old-fashioned even as far as fathers went – he wore a watch, their car didn’t drive itself, he whistled to an actual FM radio station. Then he whistled a song that wasn’t the song on the radio, then he whistled through the people asking for donations to the radio station. At one point Egor started whistling, then Wraddey tried too though she’d never quite got the knack of whistling (she was only eight) and their father told them to cut out all that racket.
They passed the strange person up ahead one last time. Even from a distance, the scraps and scarves and sheets covering the covered up person didn’t look homeless. From elsewhere, maybe, but not weathered.
Then their always steady, never-impulsive father was in such a good mood that he impulsively swerved over to the side of the road, rolled down the window, and offered that fascinating bundled-up person a lift.
The person was tall, and bent sideways to peer into the open window. The head, scarves on top and scarves on bottom sandwiching huge blue blocker sunglasses in between, seemed to nod. Their father leaned across the passenger seat, opening the door from the inside so the person could climb in.
They lived near a prison and never picked up hitchhikers, let alone wobbly mysterious persons wrapped up like fragile treasure with no single centimeter of skin to be seen.
The figure sat tall in the passenger seat, head skimming the roof, looking forward. Winter air flooded the car, for the person hadn’t closed the door after climbing in. Dad stared at the person. The person stared ahead, making no moves toward the door or otherwise.
“Um, allow me, I guess,” their father said, exiting and going around to close the door.
Wraddey giggled. Her brother belted her for it, but their father’s guest didn’t seem to notice.
The car filled up with the smell of an apple orchard past its season and also of mothballs like at their aunts’ house and wet wool and something like cheap warm cheese.
Dad asked “So where can we drop you off?” but the person only looked forward, so Dad filled the car with chit chat.
“Cold enough for ya?”
“Been a hell of a winter.”
It was a chattering sort of aimless talk, their dad was filling silence and gaining no answers. The children kept a very close eye on the stranger, but they offered no response. Not a word.
“Where’d you say you’re headed?”
Their father was unsettled. He couldn’t tell if the person was stupid or deaf or dangerous, or scariest of all – silently judging him to be not worth a response.
“Are we, uh, headed in the right direction for ya?”
From the backseat, Wraddey thought she heard a faint scratching sound.
“Well, uh, say, we’re close to home. We can drop you off there, or, uh…” He paused for a moment, then finally said “Would you like to come in and warm up?”
The person’s head fell violently downward. The one harsh nod sent a puff of that rotten apple smell into the cold air of the backseat.
Impressive! Wraddey thought. By ignoring their father, the stranger had bullied him into an invitation inside. They hardly ever had a visitor. If someone did come over, it was in sensible parkas and those visitors had faces.
In the driveway the person sat stone still again, so that father told Egor to go around and open the passenger side door and let “their friend” out.
“I can do it!” Wraddey yelled.
She was closest, but moreover she wanted to be the one to do it.
While father went ahead with the dry cleaning bags to unlock the door, Wraddey opened the passenger side door to let the stranger out. Both feet swung out together like the tines of a tuning fork, then they found purchase on the snowy drive and the whole body lurched up and out. Wraddey said “follow them,” pointing to the guys, followed, watching closely. Wraddey followed the tiny footprints in the snow that looked more like a deer’s than a person’s.
In the house, the stranger clomped over to the davenport and sat, imperiously, down.
“Make yourself at home,” father said with some sarcasm.
The stranger didn’t even look at him.
“Maybe I’ll, uh, put a snack together then?”
The figure nodded that violent nod.
Feeling he was being had, the children’s father disappeared into the kitchen, searching for some unstale crackers for their silent guest. Wraddey thought that she was going to try the stranger’s approach the next time she wanted something.
Egor stood shuffling by the door in his thick winter socks.
Wraddey sat down on the couch next to their guest.
“Hello,” she said, in her soft voice.
It was only when she reached out and laid a hand on its leg that the figure jerked around and pointed its head at her. When it raised its arm, Egor knew it was going to pull his sister’s brain out through her nose, but the arm stopped short. It didn’t strike Wraddey but hung in front of her, inviting a shake.
She accepted, taking the end of the arm in her own hand. Around where a wrist should be, she felt a tassel. She felt it between her thumb and forefinger. She couldn’t help it. She pulled.
It was the end of a scarf, which came off the stranger’s arm in a great spiral, like the curly paper wrapper of a China marker. Under the scarf was a folded blanket, which Wraddey unfolded, the stranger oddly kicking one leg out but not moving the rest of its body at all as its arm was revealed to be not an arm really but two thumb-thick sticks stabbed into a withered apple where an elbow would be. When Wraddey peeled off another layer, leading to the abdomen, the smell of rotten apple grew stronger.
Then when she pulled a hank of Pendleton plaid from under the collarbones, two shocking things happened. First, the head, still pointed at her, tipped clean off and landed on the floor with a thump. At the neck was a pair of broken sticks, and when she wrenched one out it uncovered the chest.
There sat a large rat, in a wicker sort of ribcage, concentrating hard and pulling at the levers of its failing body with all four feet and tail.
“Oh!” Egor yelled in disgust, for he was becoming adult enough to be wary of rats.
“Oh!” Wraddey repeated, in a different way, because she was a lover of animals and it wasn’t the ugliest rat ever, not really, and it was so clever.
“Oh?” Their father said, coming from the kitchen with a platter of finger foods. Then he bellowed, and dropped his cargo, dehydrated apricots and wheels of sliced summer sausage bouncing on the heirloom carpet.
“Tssss!” Shrieked the rat, pointing his ratty face this way and that.
Then it leaped out of its seat in the rib cage, neatly landing on its hind legs.
Another ancient apple fell out of the body, landing with a muffled plop in the piles of shed fabrics.
The rat looked directly into Wraddey’s eyes. It cocked its pointy head toward the door, and Wraddey nodded.
Wraddey took the rat by the paw, helping it out of its wrecked body. She slipped her feet into her boots, grabbed her coat, opened the door and vanished with him out into the cold bright day.
Her family watched from the big picture window, the girl and the large rat, running through the high snow, past the station wagon, down the driveway, down the road, never to return. Over their years together Wraddey and the Rat travelled and saw amazing things. They rebuilt it’s human body better than ever, using common kitchen implements Wraddey was able to produce a more convincing gait and her fingers could tie much sturdier knots that an animal could. What the rat lacked in terms of getting its protegee into college it made up for with adventure. With it’s keen sense of smell the two never went hungry, and after a year of trust building the rat would give up its wrappings on cold nights so that Wraddey could use the fabric as blankets and the rat would cozy up into her chest, it’s fast rodent heart beating twice for every single beat of hers.
Meredith Counts has an MFA from the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Now she’s studying archives at the University of Michigan. She’s had work in Traverse, Portage Magazine and Quail Bell Magazine. Her story on poet Jim Gustafson and Detroit Tigers baseball, originally published in the Detroit Metro Times, was named notable by Best American Sports Writing 2018. She’s always loved Edward Gorey.
Artwork: also by Meredith Counts