Peter and Susie were walking along the weird, overgrown path, wondering at the purple plants and all the other strange things arrayed about them.
Since they had come to this enchanted place, this Valley of Kirk-Havens, or whatever the sign back there had said precisely (the letters seemed to keep shifting as they had tried to read them), they had seen no end to strange and unusual things; so many, in fact that, at one point, Susie had turned to Peter and said, “I do wish the rabbits wouldn’t babbit, and the snabbits wouldn’t crabbit, and the plants weren’t purple, and the grass would stand in one spot under your feet. For, the way everything around here is always shifting and snoozling, and sneezingly oozling, it fairly gives one a tummy ache trying to keep up with it all!”
Peter, who, under different circumstances, might have scolded his sister for coming up with nonsense words like “snoozling” and “oozling”, let the matter lie, as the world they had awoken to find themselves wandering (After falling asleep in the meadow reading a smashing great book of stories, all about knights and the like) seemed to be just the appropriate place for sneezing out a mouthful of nonsense words (like “snizzlepickle,” “snatbrat,” or “scrumcuddlyrumptious”…all of which, thought Peter, sounded like perfectly delicious words to him).
“It’s okay Sue. I suppose it’s something you just have to get use to if you find yourself lost here.”
Susan looked frightened suddenly.
“Then we are lost! Oh, whatever shall we do? It will be getting dark soon, and we’ll be hungry and cold, and Mother will miss us and be terribly worried and afraid!”
Peter frowned, leapt forward in front of her path, and wagged his finger.
“Don’t you go losing your head on me, Sue!”, he exclaimed, and then said, “We’ll find our way back out of this, soon. That is, if we aren’t simply having a huge, fantastic dream!” He stopped, put his finger to his bottom lip, and considered.
“Why, for all we know, right now, you or I are back home, cuddled up in bed, with visions of sugar plums and sweets taking a little break dancing around in our heads, waiting for Christmas morning and all the sugar plum cookies we ate last night to wear off. Pretty soon, we’ll be dreaming something merry and cheery, and forget all about this place, and it will be time to open our eyes–”
“And our presents?” Sue suddenly asked, brightening. Peter didn’t know if anything he just told his sister was true or not, but he thought it was better to have her cheery and smiling than gloomy and crying, and so he said, “Why, of course! You don’t think a bad dream can last forever, do you!”
Sue said, “Of course not!
And Peter replied, “Of course not!”
And then, as the wind shifted, and the woods grew darker, and the breeze seemed to carry odd laughter and tinkling music up and down the dark, twisting path, Peter peeped up and said, “Sue? Do you smell that?”
Sue raised her nose to the air and sniffed.
“Jam cake!” She said, her dark blue eyes brightening. “Why, I smell jam cake!”
Peter nodded his head, and agreed, saying, “Yea, and hot baked cross buns! And buttered scones!”
And Sue quickly added, “And lemon tarts!”
And Peter replied “And peach ice cream!”
And the children (who, if they weren’t merely dreaming, realized they had not had any food for hours) raced forward, following their noses.
Soon, they found themselves standing on the crest of a little hill, looking down into a hollow. At the bottom of the hollow nestled a little cottage.
“Hey, look! I bet you that’s where the delicious smell is coming from, Sue!”
And Sue said, “Sure enough! Why, I can smell it coming out in delicious waves of smell! I bet they’re cooking up a feast fit for a king inside. Say, Peter: do you think they would overmind so very much if we happened in on them, two little kids like us, and maybe, well, we COULD do the dishes or something in exchange for whatever we eat…”
Peter looked at his sister, half annoyed, and half frightened at the prospect of going up to a strange door, in a strange land, and begging to be let in for dinner. Plus, “overmind” was another of the little words she was always making up, so that following what she said often became a spot of bother. Little wonder her nickname was “Miss Malaprops.”
“Well, well I suppose you’re right, Sue! But, at any rate, if we don’t at least ask them, we’ll starve to death out here! Of course, they could be crazy people, or even hideous trolls or monsters–”
And Sue, upon hearing this, put her hands to her mouth and exclaimed, “Oh no, don’t say that!”
Peter frowned. “Well,” he stated matter-of-factly, “it’s true. We don’t know that they are, but they COULD be!” He paused for a moment, shuffled his feet, puffed out his lower lip, and said, “Well, I guess since I’m the oldest one, and a boy, it falls on me to go up and knock! You wait here, just in case–”
And Sue almost squeaked out, “Just in case WHAT?” in mounting fear and terror; but, somehow, she found her voice catching in her throat.
Peter went up to the door, his little heart hammering in his throat. He was amused to note that the door was perfectly round, and green, with all sorts of lovely and weird flowers painted on it in bright colors. In the center, of course, was a little round brass knob.
Above this was a knocker, designed to look like a ring in a boar’s snout. He put his fingers to it (they were shaking a bit, to be perfectly honest), and he made three stout raps and then waited. It seemed as if he waited there a long, long time, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
Finally, after what seemed like a terribly long, long period of time, he could hear some shuffling and wheezing from behind the door. His heart began to race a little in anticipation. Then, the wooden door began to squeak and squeal open, with a shuddering shriek of rusted hinges and creaking wood, and, standing there, half hidden in the dark, was the form of a bent, crooked old crone, with a long crooked nose. (And, of course, with a wart on the tip.)
She stood in the doorway wheezing and puffing for awhile, her seamed, wrinkled and warty face working in consternation and puzzlement. Hoarsely, she spat out, “Well? What in the world do you want?”
Peter fidgeted, his hands in his pockets. Behind him, Sue looked as if she might burst out bawling. Peter then worked up the courage to speak.
“Oh, Missus, you must help us! My sister and I have taken a wrong turn somewhere, and gotten ever-so-lost in this strange, wonderful country. We smelled the delicious smell of tea and blackberry jam as we were walking past, and we thought that you might see fit to give a slice of bread and jam to us!”
At this, the old woman fidgeted and fadgeted, and scratched her noggin, and shook her head a little warily, rolling her eyes and twisting her face up into a look that rendered it almost inscrutable. (And, as ugly as it was, it was a darn hard thing to try and make out, really, just what in the world was going on beneath the flowing mop of greyish hair atop her head, to be perfectly honest.)
“Oh, well, come on in, the both of you! But, be quick about it! It’s sundown, soon…”
Peter didn’t know what she meant by that, but he and Susie went, a little cautiously, through the round little door and into the kitchen, which was rather clean and neat, but which, weirdly seemed to lean one way, and then another, the walls seeming…off somehow. In fact, a person really couldn’t tell, exactly, just how the walls intersected or held together.
“Oh Missus,” said Peter, his thumb on his lower lip. “These walls are so very peculiar!”
And the old woman said, “Why, what on earth could you possibly mean?”
And Peter scratched his head, and fidgeted around, tossing the weight of his body on one foot and then the other. Finally he said, “Well, Missus, it’s just that the walls seem…funny to me. It seems they are off, somehow.”
“Off,” said the old woman, her voice a rasping croak. “How do you mean off?”
“Well,” said Peter, scratching his chin, “it’s just that, they don’t seem to join together at proper angles, and it confuses the eyes. I mean, one wall seems to join up with the other over here, which is ALL wrong, and then when you blink or get a different perspective, it seems to join up with that one over there. And, at first, it seems to lean this-a-way, and that wall, fer instance, seems to lean that-a-way; but then you blink again, or shift around a bit and find out that you were completely wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
And Peter thrust his hands into his pockets with a little “humph” of consternation.
The old woman considered a moment, casting her gaze about the crazily leaning walls and doors, and the dipping and rolling ceiling, before blowing air through her puffed-up cheeks and exclaiming, “Stuffin’ nonsense!”
Susie came up behind Peter cautiously, but then, sliding one of the kitchen chairs across the rickety, uneven wooden floor, she exclaimed, “Oh, whatever you’re baking smells so frightfully, frightfully good, Missus! Why, it smells like gooseberry pie! Why, it’s been so dreadfully long since we’ve had supper, and it’s almost time for tea, and, my gosh!” Susie scrunched her little face up into a pitiful state, managed a tear or two, and said, “Might we not have a taste of your so-delicious pie?”
The ugly old woman cogitated a moment before slapping her open palms against her apron, smiling a toothless smile, and exclaiming, “Oh, my yes! Missy! My, where are my manners! Here, I’ll just be a moment.”
And, before either of them knew it, the old woman had opened a creaking round door into the kitchen, revealing a quaint little sideboard stacked with tea kettle, saucers and cups, and a truly MASSIVE iron stove, so big it seemed to almost fill the entire little room. The front of the stove looked, for all the world, like an angry iron face.
The old woman rustled around a few moments, her bum stuck in the air, before emerging again with a silver tea service and setting it carefully on the table.
Then, she went back through the creaking door. Peter and Susie could hear her huff and puff and strain, but, soon, she emerged from the kitchen with the most ENORMOUS gooseberry pie either Peter or Susie had EVER seen in their lives. The two kids goggled at each other in stupefied wonderment.
The old woman carried the thing over her head with two hands, heaving and straining and sweating before setting it down on the little table (which, on the whole didn’t look large enough to hold it, or even sturdy enough); she then took out two comically little plates and forks, asking Peter and Sue if they wanted a slice of cheese on top–but then, putting her finger to her chin in a quizzical manner, she said to herself, “Oh, oh my no. I guess not. I fed it all to the mouse of the house. He gets so dreadfully hungry and fed-up just nibbling away at the cheese crumbs, old bits of stale bread and the woodwork and whatnot, I felt rather bad for him. So I gave him some of the smelly cheese. Oh, never fear: you wouldn’t have liked it anyway; it stank to high heaven…Phew!”
And, as if to demonstrate, the old woman put her fingertips to her nose and squeezed. Peter and Sue both began to devour their square sections of gooseberry pie, ravenously hungry both.
The two kids both tried to fill their tea cups. But, to their shock and amazement, the little things quite quickly took legs and skittered up the wall! The tea itself went gushing after, trying as best as it could to land its wet bottom in the terrified porcelain cups. Peter and Sue looked at the old woman quizzically.
She laughed, and waved her hand as if to shoo away their doubts and wonder.
“Oh, don’t mind them, children. Happens around here all the time. Why, them cups is scared half to death of that hot burbling tea! Afraid it will burn them good and proper. And it would!
“So the tea kettle and tea goes chasing the cups, and the saucers join in because they must, simply MUST have someone sit on them to keep them company.
Don’t you pay it no nevermind!” Lacking anything to say to that, Sue and Peter looked at each other like baffled little orphans before turning to their food again.
It was not long after that a weird, snorting and scuffling sound could be heard coming from the overgrown yard outside.
Sue looked up from her plate through one of the weird, crooked windows that looked out on the dark, weed-choked backyard. She patted brother Peter on the arm.
“Oh Peter! Lookity-look-look-look!”
There were a troop of weird little men marching, single file, across the wide expanse of yard. Each seemed to be wearing an identical little suit, each had their perfectly slicked, black hair parted down the middle and combed over side to side, and each had a terribly ugly, gnome-like little face. As a matter of fact, thought Susie to herself, they quite look like gnomes if one gets right down to it!
These were the sounds that seemed to be emerging from outside, as the strange little line of dwarfs came up to the crazily-leaning backdoor. The door was then thrust open (it seemed to hang precariously from the hinges), and the little troop of strange men came pounding in with their terrible heavy-soled, hobnailed boots banging on the floor.
“Hi Ma!” said the first.
“Hi Ma!” croaked the second.
“Hi Ma!” wheezed the third, and on and on as they entered.
There were maybe two dozen of them, all remarkably similar, all very small and grunting and wheezing and stamping and snorting as they went. They all came through the door, still single-file, like a troupe of overgrown infants; and, as each of them entered, they all said, in the same croaking grunt, “Hi Ma!” one after another.
Ma nodded pleasently, a toothless smile crossing her face. Seemingly from out of nowhere, a huge table and chairs was produced, and the place where Sue and Peter was sitting eating was swept out of sight. The boys, all of them, sat down their grubby mits at the table, while Ma went around, scolding them, calling them “Damned little piglets!” and wiping behind their ears with a damp sponge.
“Look at them! Will you just look at them? D-mned little piglets every one! Think they’d bother washing their filthy little hands before they come in to dinner? Think so? Why, of course they don’t! D-mned little oinkers!”
Suddenly, Ma threw up her hands in the air, causing her apron to flutter up to her surprised face. “Oh! The soup is burning!” she exclaimed.
As she rushed into the kitchen. her strange little sons soon began to pass out the plates from a strange little cupboard which Peter and Sue hadn’t seen before. They set the table, and Ma set the huge soup kettle on the table, which sent the plates and spoons rattle-clattering, and the table skittering a bit.
She ladled out heaping hot bowls full, passing each bowl back across the line of her weird, dwarfish little troupe. She then went to retrieve a loaf. Peter and Sue were also offered a bowl, but Peter was woozy and full from all the gooseberry pie, and Sue didn’t quite like the smell of the stuff. So they both said no.
The piggish sons bent their noses into their bowls, and each began to slurp and slurp, with soup running down their chins, and some snorted as they sucked soup up through their nostrils occasionally; and some stopped to belch, long and loud and free, and rather rudely, considering they were all still sitting at the table.
The old woman bounded back into the kitchen for the bread and jam. She brought both out, heaving and puffing and huffing under the weight of the heaviest and largest jam pot either Peter or Susie had ever seen.
“There, you little piggies,” she said, wiping her greasy jam hands, dripping with butter, on her apron. “Now, I hope you and your filthy fingers are all satisfied!”
The boys fell upon the bread, not bothering to use the knife, but pulling sweet handfuls of the huge loaf (Peter and Sue could not yet see how such an immense pot of jam, loaf of bread, and kettle of soup could all fit on such a tiny table; but, as the walls and floors also seemed curiously out-of-whack, they should probably not have wondered too much.) out and stuffing it in their gobs.
Soon, the boys were belching and rubbing their big bellies in contentment. One boy piped up, “Shnat! Shnat! do something what entertains us as we let our food crawl around our guts!”
To which was replied: “Shprat, I’m too derned stuffed to even get up out of my seat! Bolger, Bolger ain’t there a song ye keed sing, or a tune whistle, to keep us all entertained while the soup sloshes around in out bellies?”
To which Bolger replied: “Nah, Molger! Tis too early for whistling and too late to sing! Anyway, I’m fair fit to be tied! Fit to be tied, I tells ya! Duffle, can’t you come up with something to keeps our guesteses entertained?”
To which Duffle replied, “Aye, Fluffle, I think I’ve got just the thing. Oh, Willwee! Williewee, my dear…”
And he approached the littlest brother, and put his arm on his back, and said, “Why don’t you show ’em that gooseberry pie trick you showed us at three-thirty on the a and ’em yesterday? Fair kept us in stitches for forty-five minutes, twelve seconds…” and, considering a moment, he raised one finger and added, “and a hair and a click!”
And with that Williwee got up, and, dusting off his trousers, swooped over to Sue’s half full plate of gooseberry pie; and, greasing his hands and feet down with the delicious filling, and blossoming up his puffy cheeks with the stuff, began to skate around on the wooden floor, trailing a slug trail of black gooseberry filling behind him.
He’d skate by on one foot, and skate by on another, holding his leg behind him as he went, doing circles and somersaults and leaving a sluggish gooseberry trail of slime in his wake. This spectacle was greeted by shouts and claps and cheers from the other sons, and wonderment from Peter and Sue, who each stared at the spectacle other with faces agoggle.
“Why it gets madder and madder every minute here!” exclaimed Sue.
“Yes, most curious, isn’t it? As if we’ve really fallen down the rabbit hole, like Alice.” Peter tsk-tsked like a grownup, almost in disapproval.
“Yes,” retorted Sue again. “A real life, Alice in Wonderland hole in the ground!”
Ma came blundering, with her big, huffy bulk, out of the kitchen; and, when she saw the sort of mess that Williewee was making of the floor, threw her hands in the air and exclaimed, “Tarnations, boy, look what you’re doing to my nice clean floors! Why, I’ve a mind to make you scrub it all up with your tie! Now, stop that! Stop it right now!”
But no sooner had she taken a step forward when, her heavy feet caught in the slug-like trail of gooseberry innards, she began to slip and slide.
She jerked this-a-way, and that-a-way, flailing her arms out and sending black splatters of gooseberry all over everything, and saying to herself, “Oh dear!”
and “Oh my!”, and even, “How arfully, bleedin’ undignified!” But, wonder of wonders, the woman and her great bulk managed to keep their balance (although, truth be told, a few of her sons surrounded her, their arms out thrust, in terror of her falling and not being able to get back up!).
Soon, she righted herself, and managed to say, “Well, it’s too messy is all. Going to take all day and night to clean these floors!” And she snapped her fingers imperiously.
“You, Fadget! Fetch the mop! And you, Dadget! get the bucket!”
She held her old crooked fingers out, then turned her attention back to Peter and Sue.
“As for you two…well…” She rubbed her hairy chin. “I suppose we DO have to make sure you’re nice and entertained until it is time for you to leave. Now, anyone have any idea how we should go about doing that?”
The sons ambled around for a moment, muttering amongst themselves, scratching their oily headed, slicked-down hair, seemingly without a solid idea of how this could be done. Finally, one of them piped up, exclaiming, “I know, I know!”
Ma put her fists on her hips and, leaning over to meet his gaze, asked, “What?”
“Well gussie up the gander and lay claim of the goose!”
And Ma considered this a moment, her face twisting up into a pretzel of consternation. After a few moments, she replied: “No. No, I don’t think that will do at all.”
Another son then piped up, “We’ll mollify the Mock Turtle as it meanders in the mire!”
To which Ma retorted: “Oh! Do come on! Can’t any of you think of any better ideas than that?”
And then yet another son piped up and said, “We’ll scrutinize the scrutable! We’ll dutify the dutiful! We’ll magnify the beautiful! We’ll multiply the fruitable! We’ll…”
Ma threw up her hands in exasperation, her apron fluttering upaward as she did so.
“Oh, now I’ve heard everything! None of these darned ideas are worth a plug nickel in a brass bucket. Oh, my, I thought I raised all of you better than that!”
Then she considered, putting one knobby old finger to her chin. She turned to Peter and Sue, who were sitting at table still, a little sleepy, but quite amused for all of that.
“I suppose we’ll ask you two. Now, Petey and Susie, what sort of things do you two like to do? What do you think of as fun?”
And Sue and Peter both scrunched up their faces in consideration. Why, they seemed to say to each other with their eyes, we enjoy all sorts of things and find them to be fun; but, seeing as how we don’t have our jump rope, or toy soldiers, our jacks or badmitton set handy, we certainly are at a loss as to how we could manage to have fun right here, right now.
And then Peter said, “Well, Sue and I, sometimes, when we’re alone in the treehouse, and the wind is blowing, and the sky is darkling, and the lark is larkling, we like to…we like to…”
“Tell fairy tales!” Sue suddenly chimed in.
Peter’s face brightened.
“Yeah, that’s the ticket! Why, Sue and I just love to tell those old stories. ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Cinderella.’ Mum use to lull us to sleep with them when we were wee little tots!”
A huge grin stretched across Ma’s face at hearing this, and she clasped her gnarled old hands together and exclaimed, “Why, what a wonderful Idea! And, you know: my boys are just chock-full of old tales to tell, great stories they share with each other on those long, hot days when they are down in the peppermint mines!”
Sue exclaimed, “Peppermint mines?”
“Yes,” answered Ma. “They’re very near the butterscotch lakes. Now, all of my boys know a tale or two, so if you’ll just settle in by the fire…”
And, before Peter or Sue could even be surprised by this, they saw, as if by magic, a crackling fire and a pleasant hearth in the far wall of that very strange house; though, said Sue later, she was certain it had not been there before.
Regardless, everyone settled around the fire, and Ma said:
“Now, I’m off to the kitchen to make tea and scones. You chaps keep our little guests entertained while I’m away. Ahem.”
And with that she disappeared. There was a long moment of silence, as if, silently, the sons were communicating who was to go first at storytelling. Then, one slowly opened his mouth and began to speak.