The Smell of Pawpaws
For the rest of her life Esther would hate the smell of pawpaws. And it was months after the secret of her haunted "fern table" was discovered, before she could hold up her head in town.
Now this old table was a family antique Esther had inherited from an aunt who lived in a small town on the other side of the ridge. In her will, after the bequest of the table, the old lady had added the cryptic words "because Esther has a daughter, and my other niece has only sons. "Esther did indeed have a ten year old tomboy named Abby, but could not see what that had to do with a piece of furniture obviously meant to be a fern table.
As she directed her husband Sam in placing the table in front of a parlor window where her Boston fern would get just the right amount of sunlight, she said suddenly, "Odd, I vaguely recall that these used to be called Young Ladies' Tables, hereabouts. Why? Nothing dainty about that thick oblong slab of a tabletop, except for the little spray of flowers carved here. Those old craftsmen hated to make any two pieces of furniture exactly alike, you know. This table has a spray of lily-of-the-valley, others would have bluebells or a rose carved on the side at the front, right where you'd expect a knob if the table had a drawer beneath. Does it, do you suppose? A hidden one?"
Sam drummed with his knuckles on the tabletop. "Sounds solid to me. And I don't see any seams or joints on the side around the flower carving. Is that the side you want to have facing the room?"
"Of course." Esther was already holding the big pot of ferns. "In the valley where my family used to live, there used to be a half dozen of these tables, made by a wandering furniture maker from the Old Country who stayed a while, then moved on. Some of the tables were taken out West on covered wagons, others sold at auctions to dealers from the city, and I'll bet this is the only Young Lady's Table left in the hills now. There used to be some secret about it, as I said, but I never knew what it was."
But Sam, a lawyer and town councilman was checking his watch. "I'd best be going now, Es. See you tonight.
It wasn't long before mysterious things started happening.
The first time Esther moved the table while cleaning, she heard a slight rustling sound under it. Puzzled, she lifted the table up and set it down again two or three times, but did not hear the rustling again. Next, she began noticing damage to the fern. If the tip of a growing frond is bumped, the tip dies; that frond remains short and blunted, without a tapered end. Esther removed several such unsightly fronds from the fem in the next few weeks. Oddly, the damage was not on the side of the plant that faced the room, where people might brush against it, but on the side nearest the window. When she turned the plant around, damaged fronds began to appear on the other side too.
Now that window was always open, since it was hot summer weather. In those days nobody had screened windows, so someone could be reaching in from outside to touch the sensitive fem tips. But why? If the idea was to hurt the fem, a more wicked job could have been done with a knife or scissors.
A third perplexing thing was that the table itself was moved about sometimes, at night. Scrape marks on the carpet showed that one side of the table had been pulled away from the window for several inches, then shoved back in place, or nearly so. Once the fern table was sitting almost sideways, one corner of its top actually touching the windowsill, the other jutting into the room.
Worst of all was the squeaking noise, when the room was empty. Esther first heard this noise one night when Sam was at a political rally, that being an election year. The children were in their beds asleep, their small breathing sounds clearly audible, as was the snuffling of Towser, who slept at the foot of 12 year old Buddy's bed. The old dog was quite deaf, and Esther suddenly wished they had a young dog too, one that could hear prowlers and bark.
Outside, a night bird called. Then, clear as can be, there came a sound from downstairs, exactly like the squealing of a rusty hinge. (None of the doors had rusty hinges, of course; Esther's older brother always attended to such things on his visits, since Sam wasn't very handy, with tools.)
Astonished and fearful, Esther made her way downstairs in the dark. In the hallway she stopped at the parlor door. Inside, by the light of the moon, she could see the fern table. It was not in its usual place, but now stood at a marked angle to the window. And in the moonlight the fern's fronds could be seen waving slowly up and down, as if the table had just been moved. By unseen hands. Or had moved by itself?
Well, Esther had heard of haunted houses, haunted closets, attics, stables and the like, but never of a haunted table. That was silly. Nevertheless, she was glad just then to hear Sam's key in the lock-so glad that she didn't even mind the smell of whiskey on his breath as he kissed her cheek. At a political rally, some drinking was customary; as long as he didn't break his promise and bring a bottle home, Esther was content. For some reason, though, she hesitated about telling him of the haunted table. Perhaps he would laugh at her, or accuse her of making up things to keep him home in the evenings.
The next day, Esther went to call on Miss Lucy. This was a sweet, dithering old maid whose family had once owned a Young ly's Table. As a girl Miss Lucy had suffered a broken heart, then had fallen ill with a fever that left gaps in her memory. It was disappointing that Lucy could not remember just what the secret of the table was. She recalled the table itself, though. It had a design of Canterbury bells carved on one side, and her aunts used to giggle over the secret. That reassured Esther somewhat, for there did not seem to be anything sinister about the secret itself.
That same afternoon the haunting took on new dimensions. Esther was dropping handsful of peas into the stew for supper when she heard again the squealing of rusty hinges. Running down the hallway, she collided with her daughter at the parlor door. Abby's face wore a strange look, half scared, half guilty.
"Did you hear that noise?" gasped her mother. "What was it?"
But Abby only shook her head. The story she finally stammered out was that she too heard a squeal, while coming downstairs. On looking into the parlor she had seen a tall girl in an old fashioned gown crossing the room. The apparition had walked straight to the fern table, pushed it aside to squeeze past, then had stood for a moment at the window. Then she had vanished.
When pressed, Abby recalled that the gown had been blue silk with a round neckline that revealed a gold locket on a chain. The girl's hair had been piled up on her head, with several tiny curls dangling over her forehead and above each ear.
"Why, that sounds like my Ma's Aunt Hattie," Esther marveled. "Do you remember, we saw her oil portrait that time we visited Grandma's house? She was wearing a blue gown in that painting, too." But Abby denied having seen any pictures on the wall, she had been too busy playing with the other children. And she had been quite small at the time, too.
Esther was more mystified than ever. But finding that the ghost in her parlor was only Great-Aunt Hattie came as a relief. True, that lady had been jilted by her young lover. But she had then married a wealthy older man who became a state senator. A girl could meet worse fates than that.
So Esther was pleasantly excited when she told the story of the haunted fern table to the Busy Bee Quilters, a group of ladies who met at each others' houses monthly to catch up on their sewing and gossip. Being hostess that month, Esther proudly displayed her little table. There were some flaws in her pleasure, though. One was the faint smell of pawpaws that lingered in the parlor ever since the ghost had appeared there.
Now some people-and almost all children, especially little Abby-love those sugary wild fruits of the hedgerows and fence corers. Others, like Esther, find their heavy sweet odor cloying, and won't have them in their houses. One of the Busy Bees claimed the very smell of pawpaws gave her a headache. So Esther had aired her house, fumigated, and burnt sugar on the stove, in vain. Somehow the odor of pawpaws remained.
She had other troubles too. Her daughter had taken to staying away all day, playing in the woods with neighbor kids. And her son Buddy, according to friends, had charged a fee to guide visiting tourists through Fowler's Cave, where a young man had been killed once by a rockslide. Since the cave was dangerous, Esther had forbidden her son to go near it. Finally, her husband's breath now smelled of whiskey quite often when he was around the house, especially if Esther had gone outside for a while to gather vegetables in the garden, or take a walk. She had searched Buddy's room for coins, and ransacked the house for any hidden bottle of whiskey, but in vain.
No sooner had Esther told her tale of the haunting to the Busy Bees that day, when Miss Lucy glided over to touch the table. "Why, I just now remembered the secret! It's really called a Young Lady's Writing Table, and has a secret drawer. The design for the first one was given to the craftsman by a young baron in the Old Country. The baron had lost his true love tragically. She had been writing him a letter when her cruel father entered the room, grabbed the letter and read it. Then he locked her up, and she died soon of a broken heart. All because she hadn't any place to hide her love letter that day. So all these tables have a secret compartment."
"Not mine," said Esther placidly. "That tabletop's solid. Sam checked."
"Oh," smiled Lucy, "of course it has. The drawer's underneath. You'll have to move out the table from the window, first. The flower ornament faces the room, right. The girl would be sitting with the back of her chair against the wall, behind the table and facing the room, so that if anyone entered she could slip the letter down onto her lap, then up into a drawer, and appear just to be writing some verses of poetry. You can open and shut the drawer with your knee, see? I'll just reach my hand underneath, lift up and back this way..."
"No, don't!" called Esther, suddenly afraid. Too late, though. With a creak of the rusty hinge the bottom of the tabletop swung down and out to reveal the hidden compartment. The ladies of the sewing club leaned over it, highly excited. Inside the drawer they saw four ripe pawpaws, a pint bottle of corn likker, a handful of coins lying atop a crude pencil-drawn map labeled "Fowler's Cave," and a bit of severed fern frond.
There was something else in the drawer too, way back, which made a rustling sound. Reaching back, Lucy drew out a yellowed sheet of paper upon which several lines had been scrawled. It read:
"But," said Lucy when she had read this aloud, "how could her lover have known that she had changed their meeting place, if she overlooked this last sheet of her letter to him? Poor girl, she must have waited in vain, and cried....
The Busy Bees, however, were more interested just now in new scandals than in old romances. They wanted to get away and talk things over among themselves. No, they didn't think Esther had taken a to drink, or had lied about not caring for pawpaws. At one glance those shrewd women had realized that poor Esther's whole family had been using the secret drawer as a cache.
Now a hill woman, especially in those days, usually kept better track of her family than that. If there was a ghost around, she saw it first. If her kids tried to get a conspiracy going, she knew the shape of it before it hatched. As for her husband developing unseemly habits, and deceiving her about anything ... Clearly, Esther was slipping badly.
It turned out that Sam had known the table's secret from the beginning, and had been using it as a place to stash his bottle, reaching in through the window from the outside before he entered the house. The boy had seen him having a nip while Esther had been away one day, and had told his sister the secret. For a hill woman to be fooled by her whole family was ridiculous.
Strangely enough the tale of the child Abby about the ghost in the blue gown was believed, soon became a local legend. Today that little table stands in a grownup Abby's own living room under the painting of Great-Aunt Hattie in her blue gown, retrieved at an auction. The smell of pawpaws has long since dissipated, of course, and the table now gives off the fragrance of the old fashioned lavender sachet by Abby keeps inside the drawer, which now opens noiselessly and also contains the yellowed last page of the old love letter, framed under glass.
When she tells the story of the tall girl in the blue gown that she saw as a child, Abby looks quite serious. And she admits that ever since, she too cannot stand the cloying scent of pawpaws.
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