Friar Garden, Mister Samuel, and the Jilly Jally Butter Mints
by Carole Lanham
To understand the altogether unbelievable and sometimes perfectly dreadful power of a Jilly Jally Butter Mint, one must first understand my sister, Estrella Calliope June bug Padora. She sounds odd, I know, especially the June bug part, which she made up and gave herself as her middle middle name.
The important thing to know is this: Estrella is not an idiot and she is not an imbecile. We had her tested a few years ago and, good news! Estrella is a moron. Dr. Clumpette says she has the brain of an eight year old but that’s not so awful, is it? Clumpette has seen worse.
My name is Esme Padora, plain and simple. No middle. No middle middle. I like it that way. I’ve been related to Estrella since I was born but even so, I didn’t have much interest in her until the day she reached in her pocket and tossed a fistful of Lady’s Mantle pips into mine and Sam Bell’s face. Flower seeds aren’t supposed to twinkle but these did and we both itched our noses and sneezed and sneezed as though the seeds were part ordinary and part something else entirely.
“Caught you!” Estrella said, blowing one last improbable sparkle straight for our heads. After that, Sam and I didn’t go anywhere without her.
Sam, I should say, was Miss Judith’s son and Miss Judith was Mum’s nurse. He and I were great friends. Estrella wished to be friends too so she pushed him up against the hazel tree and began separating sparkles from the freckles on his nose with the tip of a wet finger. “Just like Breezy Boy!” she said of Sam’s hair, Breezy-Boy being the palomino pony our father should never have bought her.
Sam was one of those people with tell-tale ears and his tell-tale ears were a hot, wild red the day Estrella caught him. I always thought they were a real hindrance but, it turns out, the ears were nothing. In due time it would be shown that Sam Bell’s single greatest misfortune was the fact that he was a boy.
“Would you like to smoke?” Estrella asked us, after she grew tired of rubbing slobber around on Sam’s face.
I could scarcely believe my ears. Estrella was a lot of things but she was not usually a rule-breaker.
“Sure,” we said, quick as you please, because Sam and I were a lot of things and rule-breaker was at the tip top of the list.
“Goody,” Estrella said. “We’re going to catch Dragon Hornets today!” With that, she pulled a canning jar out of mid-air.
“Dragon Hornets?” Sam said.
Estrella opened the jar and pivoted on one toe. In seconds, the whole garden reeked of damson jam. “They only come round the first time someone eats a Jilly Jally so we mustn’t miss our chance.”
Sam looked to me for an explanation. “She’s special,” I said.
“Very,” Sam agreed.
Then Estrella brought out the mints.
Sam and I were fourteen back then; that summer marking the first of many that Mum would be on her death bed. Estrella was sixteen.
Which brings me to this: My father once said that if three friends stand under an umbrella together, one of them is sure to get wet. He and I tend to think alike when it comes to being suspicious but if I had the chance to it do all over again, I’d change all that. “Ignore the umbrella blither blather,” I’d say to me, and that’s just one of many things I’d tell myself, if only I could go back.
Here are some others:
- Never catch a Dragon Hornet with your bare hands.
- Avoid sleeping with Spartans and/or elephants at all costs.
- This goes double for mermaids.
- Most important of all, if someone should ever happen to offer you a Jilly Jally Butter Mint, say “No thank you!” Run away and don’t ever look back. Keep on running until the day you die.
“Would you like a mint?” Estrella said.
Sam looked at me and I shrugged.
We both held out our hands. “Yes please.”
His was green and mine was pink and we counted to three and kicked them back at the very same second.
“Buttery,” Sam said.
“Minty,” I said.
“Stick out your tongues,” my sister said, and she pushed our faces over Epiphany Pool until our hair dipped in the water.
Sam had eaten a green mint yet his reflection revealed a tongue pink as a rose. My tongue was green all the way down my throat.
“How can that be?” I wanted to know.
Estrella said: “Don’t ask.”
We were in Friar Garden, I forgot to say. Friars used to pray there so that’s the reason for the name. It was a brambly, knotty, tangled-up place full of all sorts of little hand-painted signs telling you how to find Vesper Rock and Rock of Ages Rock and Testimonial Trail. Epiphany Pool had a sign too except it was so old, Sam and I had no trouble at all scraping off the “l” one afternoon when there was nothing better to do.
It was commonly believed that the birds in the garden built their nests with the old Cincture knots the friars wore to remind themselves of their commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience. Not a very comfortable bed, if you ask me, but everyone thought it a sacred place. From the start, Sam Bell and I had delighted in defiling Friar Garden, carving perverse words on tree trunks with his Wharncliffe whittler, and practicing a made-up form of witchery that involved mixing wizard spells with DeLaMano’s magic tricks. It’s fitting the Dragon Hornets came to us there.
Estrella said; “Before we begin, you have to say one thing that’s a problem for you and promise to turn it into something good. Otherwise there can be no magic.”
Picking one thing that was a problem for me was a test all by itself. In the interest of getting the ball rolling, however, I dug down deep. I came up with a good one too. “I’m hopeless when it comes to sharing.”
Estrella nodded because she knew it was true. I’d broken a Pete the Pup doll once rather than let her have it for an hour. A penny bank as well.
“Sometimes,” Sam admitted, “I’m too sneaky for my own good.”
I patted him on the back. “Nice choice! I’d have gone with fibber for you but you really are a dreadful sneak.”
“And I should not drink Moxie soda pop,” Estrella declared, slipping her finger inside her nose and pulling out a sparkle. “It makes me burp.”
So there they were; our spiritual tests (some more spiritual than others), a string of sins laid out like knots tied around a friar’s girth. Our own Rule of St. Francis, if you will, as stated on the mossy Rule of St. Francis Stone that I leaned my hip against.
A stern Christian always remembers...
The necessity of penance.
The danger and punishment for vice.
The honor and reward of virtue.
Never mind that Sam and I had long-since scratched his favorite curse ball-licker over Christian with a stolen salad fork. The mints would lead the way, or so my sister promised. We would enter the garden like our holy brothers before us, and seek to change ourselves.
See how noble it all was?
The word “burp” acted as a signal. After that the hornets came. They were about the size of a walnut and scaly with four sets of wings and they flew very very fast. The first hornet zipped past Sam’s ear and I reached up with my hand at the same moment that Estrella scooped in with her jar.
“Caught you!” Estrella said, slamming on the lid.
“Ouch!” I said. A blister popped up on the hill of my first knuckle. “It stung me.”
“Oh dear,” Estrella said. “That will never go away either.” She gave the wound a kiss. “Better?”
Somehow it was.
“Catch them with this,” she said, giving me her jar.
Sam and I fogged up the glass, looking at the angry bug.
“What’s coming out of its mouth?” Sam asked.
“Fire,” Estrella said, rolling her eyes like we were the ones with feeble minds. “Tonight Mister Samuel will put the jar by his bed and he’ll have a funny surprise in the morning.” Mister Samuel is what my sister called Sam.
The little beasts proved irresistible. Once I managed to snag one, Sam had to snag one too. You have to be fast though when there’s fire involved. More than once, we splashed into Epiphany to put out our smoking sleeves. Estrella singed off part of her hair.
Daddy liked to say, “If you play with fire, expect to get burned.” I wish I’d listened to that one. Soon the jar was too hot to touch and whirling with little clouds of steam. After an hour of jumping around, we’d only caught one hornet a piece. Still, it seemed like those few were enough to burn up their little glass world.
Estrella wrapped a muslin pleat around the jar and carried it back to the porch with her dirty knee showing. My hand throbbed like the devil.
“I’m going to look them up in Bailey’s Guide tonight,” Sam said.
Estrella smiled at that.
Earlier that afternoon, we’d been wallowing in self-pity, sure the whole day was doomed to be as dull as the day before. Now Sam’s shoe laces had been turned to cinders and I had a hole in my new apron.
“Isn’t smoking fun?” Estrella said, dousing her own smoldering apron with a mouthful of spit.
We both agreed it was wonderful. Fantastic! Better than tobacco - which, incidentally, is exactly what dragon fire smells like.
“Thanks,” Sam told Estrella, scratching his golden head. Like me, he was shocked to realize that Estrella had potential.
“Don’t thank me, Mister Samuel. Thank the Jilly Jallys.”
That night, Sam Bell went to bed in his little room in the muggy belvedere on top of our house; the three Dragon Hornets huffing and puffing away on the wardrobe trunk by his bed. He’d looked and looked, he told me later, but there was nothing on fire-breathing hornets in Bailey’s Guide or The Exciting World of Insects.
At breakfast the next morning, he passed me something under the table that I could only explore within the confines of my fist until every bite of my roly-poly had been chewed up and swallowed down. It was smooth like a rock, whatever it was. Bumpy. Molten. It made my blister heat up and sting all over again, yet I didn’t drop it. I wanted it, despite the pain. I held it tight inside my palm.
Come what may.
“Could I be excused, Daddy?” I said when my plate was clean.
“Mum?” Sam said.
“Go on then, but don’t forget the chimneys.”
Washing the chimneys on the kerosene lamps was Sam’s most dreaded chore but he didn’t even grumble. We ran out the door so fast, Miss Judith and Daddy actually noticed one another, which was not normal, if you must know, seeing as Daddy read the Wilt Dailey Reporter each morning and Miss Judith was just the nurse.
Out in the yard, I opened my hand and looked at the little rock. “What is it?” I whispered.
Sam took his treasure back and held it up to the sun.
Inside the bubbly lump of glass, the three little fire-breathers looked back at me like mosquitoes trapped in a drop of amber, their tiny wings melted to goo.
Oddly enough, the day before was already fading to a furry blur and we got headaches just thinking about Estrella Calliope June bug Padora. It felt as though someone had peeled open our skulls and stuffed them like pillows until our fool brains got lost in the fluff. Sam and I spent the better part of the morning checking the undersides of wormy stones, kicking the petals off snowdrops, and furiously mashing anything that turned out to be a toadstool.
“I don’t understand it,” Sam whined. “There must have been ten hornets here yesterday.”
Over and over again we reminded ourselves what Estrella said about the hornets coming only once. Still, it put us in a foul mood to find the magic gone.
“Do you think it’s because of me?” Sam asked. “I’m prowling for dragons when I should be cleaning chimneys.”
“That’s probably it,” I said.
At noon, my father yelled for me. Sam’s mum yelled too. I was sure he was in a fix for neglecting the chimneys but when we ran inside, my father held up my apron and wiggled his finger through the hole. “Explain.”
Miss Judith had taken to doing the laundry and she said our clothes stunk of Dill’s Best Cut and what did we have to say about that?
Well! I looked my father right in the eye and Sam looked his mother right in the eye and together we proceeded to unreel one whopping fish-tale of a fib. They let us get all twisted up in it too before Daddy slapped his briar pipe down on the table and put an end to that. “I found this in your sister’s pocket.”
Sam and I, it should be said, had the ability to communicate without so much as a word, a nod, or a scratch of the arse passing in between us. This being the case, I opened my hand behind my back and, just like that, Sam slid something into my fingers.
“Have a look at this,” I said.
Blister juice ran down my knuckles as Daddy held it up to the window. “What am I looking at?”
“Dragon Hornets, sir.”
Sam and I exchanged a proud look, waiting to be congratulated on our big discovery. Daddy was a botanist. He had a winter propagator named after him; the wholly inedible, spiky-balled Padora Bramble Nut. Maybe they would name the hornets after Sam and me? I knew exactly what we would call them...
“Horse shit!” Daddy declared. “Must you always lie, Esme?” No matter how he held the glass, the dragons looked like dirt to him. Consequently, he bent me over the sideboard for a strapping, and Miss Judith let him bend Sam over too.
To block the pain of what was about to come, I made myself focus on the badminton scar that weaved along the curve of Sam’s chin as we stood there shoulder to shoulder, waiting. You could scarcely see the scar by this point, unless you wanted to. I thought of the way it bled in a criss-cross pattern all over his shirt the day our class backhanded him with their rackets. Even Ralph Smallwood gave Sam a whack, and Ralph was one to know about the sting of such things. Before this, Sam and I had been strangers eating at the same breakfast table but when the mob ran off and I saw him there with his checkerboard chin and his cold angry eyes, I gave him a hand up.
“Ball-lickers,” he said.
I peeled the WHORE SPAWN sign off his back, plucked a shuttlecock from his hair, and decided Sam Bell was my kind of boy. From then on, he was all mine.
When the strap came for me, Sam licked his lips, gave a nod, and grit through the blows right along with me. Then it was his turn. Sweat broke out all over his checkerboard. He clenched his teeth. I gave him the same nod. The crack of leather that followed hurt more than my own whipping.
You might think we’d never be dumb enough to eat Jilly Jallys again.
You’d be wrong.
The next day, Sam and I found Estrella picking a bouquet of Wake Robins by the workshop. When I say workshop, you probably picture an old shed full of mud-caked trowels and dusty jars of rat poison. Daddy’s workshop was a gingerbread cottage. Star jasmine tendriled through the fretwork and a snowy cloud of Bristol Fairy kept the path a secret so that the only regular visitors were the White Woods and the moorhens. From the outside, you’d never guess it was the headquarters of Brother Paul’s Triply Blessed Liver Suppositories.
Other such enterprises might have been guarded over by a full-time watchman or a half-dozen snapping hounds. My father entrusted his life’s work to a nodding batch of cup and saucer flowers and an ancient stable door. With the exception of Friar Garden, it was the only part of Sheepsfold left intact from the priory days.
Somewhere within those cobbled walls lie the cure for soft heads and aching bones, Daddy was sure of it. “One of these days, I’ll fix them both,” he vowed. This was why we’d moved to Sheepsfold in the first place; to save my sister and my mother from their afflictions. But don’t let the flowers and the moorhens fool you. Peeking in the window was crime enough to make Daddy rip off his belt.
“We’d best keep away from here,” I warned Estrella.
In actuality, there was little danger. Daddy was off to Chipping Norton for the day to meet with Edgar Carey, the face behind Brother Paul. On weekdays, Mr. Carey put on a scapular and rosary and went about laying hands on people, touting Holy Vinegar for the Hopeful. “It’s good on cod too!” Mr. Carey liked to say. Daddy thought him a buffoon but sales were up. On this particular day, he was bringing Brother Paul a fresh supply of vinegar so the “ministry” might be expanded to Cubitt Town.
Estrella slid a bloom behind my ear and reached into her pocket. Somehow my simple-minded sister had managed to get her hands on the key to Daddy’s workshop. Before I could grab the thing, however, she shut it in her fist. “First we have to eat a mint.”
“No thank you, dear. Give me the key.”
“Don’t worry, Esme. The Dragon Hornets won’t be back. This time we’ll just float around.”
I laughed at that.
The cups and saucers froze on their stalks.
Estrella opened the door, and raced inside. Sam and I followed.
“Gosh,” Sam said, spinning in circles as he looked around the place. Electrical wires spanned the room, looping doorknobs and curtain rods before diving frayed-head first into a cloudy pickle jar; a jar which, upon closer inspection, contained a pickled fetus. “That’s not fair,” Sam said, because we didn’t have electric in the house.
On the shelves, medical books flopped open beside Ridley’s Work on Herbs. Honeysuckle shared a dish with mouse droppings. Mason jars were home to “Female Complaints”, “Venereal Warts”, and “Diarrhea”.
I must warn you not to confuse Dr. Pierce and his nasal douches with what my father was doing. Daddy truly believed in better living through medicine. He bought Sheepsfold for Friar Garden after he learned it was the only place in the world where Hogswallow grew. Mum had yet to come down with the sore joints that would send her to bed screaming, but Daddy was sure he could cure Estrella. He sold his remedies to fund his work, choosing the name Brother Paul after discovering that medicines like Fast Back-Fixer failed to pull in the business.
Daddy didn’t care about Brother Paul and his interests ran well beyond the normal ailments Dr. Pierce targeted. My father sold something called Blessed Peace of Mind, a concoction of Solomon’s Seal and prune juice that, when taken twice daily for a week, could help a man make difficult decisions. The only thing phony about Peace of Mind from Daddy’s point of view was the “blessed” part. His most popular nostrum that year was a pill that made your nose bleed if your lover was being untrue.
“Look up,” Estrella said.
We looked up at the rafters two stories above. A ratty cobweb waved at us.
“I wrote my name by that nest up there.”
“That could be an ‘E’,” Sam allowed.
“Or bird doot,” I said.
Estrella held out the mints. “Float up and see for yourself.”
It was impossible, of course. The ceiling was ridiculously high.
This time around, I took the green and Sam took the pink, but when we stuck out our tongues afterward, I was still the green one.
“I don’t seem to be floating,” I told Estrella.
“You have to wait for the blackbirds.”
Then it started.
“Wheee!” Estrella cried. At first, I only saw her pink toes wiggling as they lifted off the floor. Her arms were out, but dangling at the elbows, and a long curl of hair was sticking up off the top of her head. She smiled like an angel as she went. I held up my arms and waited.
“Ow!” Sam hissed, but he was going up too, and now I could see why. Two birds clipped him like clothespins, pinching separate tufts of hair on opposite sides of his head. I should have died laughing if I weren’t so horrified. Another bird swooped in and pecked up a shoulder seam. Still another went for the seat of his britches. Bottom out, Sam rose and rose, whisked heavenward by his horns.
“I don’t like this,” Sam said.
“Make it stop, Estrella!” I demanded. I grabbed for Sam’s foot as he swung by but he was already beyond my reach.
“Relax,” Estrella said. By now, the birds had made a maypole of her head, circling with ribbons of hair. A bird fluttered up the bell of her dress and bit down on one of the beads Estrella wore around her ankle. It flew aloft, anklet in beak, drawing her foot up as it went.
You’ve never seen such grace.
Birds gathered at her elbows, her buttons, a bow at her waist, and here’s the strangest part of all: Every blackbird was white.
“Close your eyes, Mister Samuel, and hold out your hand.”
Sam was still kicking but he did as she said. Damned if his birds didn’t fly over to Estrella’s birds and deliver his hand to hers. “Don’t be afraid,” she said.
The birds seemed too busy to bother about me and I wasn’t completely sorry. “Does it hurt?’ I asked, wanting to hear that it did.
“I’m okay,” Sam said.
“We need more birds,” Estrella called down. “I’ll eat another mint.”
I was never one to miss out but I might have been willing this time had there not been so much laughter going on up there. In Sam’s effort to hold on to Estrella, he’d scratched her arm and yanked the buttons off her sleeve, sending them raining down on my head. The way those two carried on, you’d think they’d never seen anything so funny as buttons bouncing off my face.
Estrella ate another mint and the birds came for me at last, appearing as if such creatures could squeeze up through floorboards or rise from a petri dish - albino blackbirds with gold rings around their eyes and jaws as strong as hedge-clippers.
To properly picture this, you need to know that my sister had been born with hair like no other. Mermaid hair that yielded gifts from within like lost paperclips or pebbles that glitter when you hold them in the sun. Fig Newtons had been known to pile up in there. Once, she shook her head and a little brown toad tumbled out. Sometimes Estrella’s tresses seemed to writhe of their own accord, like octopi, and it was a known fact that certain pale strands were green all summer long and turned pumpkin orange in November.
I do not have mermaid hair. It is not green or orange. It holds no hidden treasure. Should birds decide to pluck at it, there’s every chance I’d go bald. I mention this to show what a brave soul I am.
Fortunately, I was bound upward by a cuff, an apron string, and both of my boot laces. It could not have been pretty, but I got to keep my hair. There was no enjoying the ride up, however, until Estrella and Sam each grabbed a wrist and drew me into the circle.
“Look!” Estrella said, jerking her head at the doves nest. “I told you I wrote my name up here.”
Estrella had written more than her name.
ESTRELAH CALOWPEE JUN BUG PADOORAH LUVS MESTER SAMULE
“She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Sam reminded me later when we were doing the chimneys. The Franciscan order had left behind an aviary and this was where we did the job. We’d pluck a dirty lamp from the seed hopper, give it a quick scouring, and leave it on a nest box to dry.
“You better be careful, Sam.” I’d seen his ears when he read my sister’s misspelled declaration. “You’re flattered that she likes you.”
“Don’t be stupid.” He reached in the neck of a chimney, grunting as he scrubbed.
“She doesn’t call you Bastard Boy like all of the other kids do so maybe you like her too?”
Some towns, I should think, have plenty of bastards to go around but Wilt had only one and Sam was it. Poor Sam. Everyone liked him perfectly fine until word got out that he had no father. God as my witness, if there had been an easier way to make friends, I should never have whispered the truth to a big mouth like Ralph Smallwood.
“Go to Hell,” Sam said. He had a smudge on his nose, but I didn’t tell him that. Let him walk around all day with a dirty nose. It would serve him right for dropping buttons on my head!
The reason Sam loathed the chimneys was this: He hated how people would walk out of a room and leave a lamp burning, the insides growing scorched and black for no practical purpose. The mess was worth it, Sam said, if you were burning it to see. Otherwise, you were just dirtying things up for nothing.
I thought of Sam twirling through the rafters with Estrella and I worried he was going to burn up all for nothing.
“Where do you get the Jilly Jallys?” I asked my sister after I’d washed my hands of Sam for the day. Estrella was swinging on the garden swing and I was pushing. Sam had stalked off to his room to paint.
It was Sam’s dream to go to art school someday. He had a tray of Winsor and Newton tubes and four sable brushes and that was all, so he painted the walls in his room over and over again. The belvedere was his Sistine Chapel. As I pushed Estrella high into the cherry leaves, I pictured Sam painting knives in my eyes across the dome of his Sistine Chapel.
“Come on. I’ll show you,” Estrella said, kicking the branches and leaping off. Pink blooms settled in her hair. A startled butterfly emerged on sulfur wings.
Estrella skipped all the way to Froggiedale, which is what we called her room. She collected every kind of frog there is; carved frogs, stuffed animal frogs, porcelain frogs. I had to step on frogs to get to her bed. At that particular moment, the night table was peppered with Jilly Jally Butter mints. They rolled under the frog lamp. They spilled on the frog rug. “All I have to do is ask for them when I say my prayers and I wake up with more on my table,” she said.
I reached out my hand to take one. “Not now, Esme," Estrella said. "It isn’t proper without Mister Samuel."
We ate an awful lot of mints that summer and yet, my memories crack like a broken mirror whenever I try to get a peek at them. Only fractured pieces remain. Often, I would come into myself with grass in my hair or my feet scratched up, and I wouldn’t remember where the scratches came from. Though only a single hour may have passed, I would be left with broken shards instead of whole memories: a cricket crawling across my forehead, a talon on my arm, my face under water. There were more odd creatures too but sometimes only the look in their beady eyes stayed clear in my head. Once, I thought I remembered feeling Sam’s tongue in my mouth. He tasted like pears. When I woke up the next morning, there was an empty bottle of perry by my bed. “Did you kiss me yesterday?” I asked Sam.
“I’d remember that,” he said.
I don’t know how many times I turned those words around, poking at them like puzzle pieces you don’t know what to do with.
When school started, we were jittery, distracted students. People still called Sam Bastard Boy, but this year a lot of girls were starting to look sorry for him. Estrella was sent off to Miss Litton’s School for Educable Morons to learn how to keep out of the workhouse. We missed her more than I can say. Sometimes we tried praying for butter mints but they never showed up. In October, we turned fifteen.
That same month, Daddy enjoyed a kind of hero-status around town after coming up with a brew of cotton lavender for Constable Langtry who nearly died from a spider bite. Serpent’s Bane, Mr. Carey was calling it, and it was flying off the shelves. For all Daddy’s efforts though, my mother stayed in her sickroom, growing no better or worse. “Give me another cup of my elixir,” she would say, her pupils big as Black Beauty marbles. Looking at her was like looking into a pit. I didn’t know my mum anymore and she didn’t know me. Worst of all, she didn’t seem to care. I cared but, whenever I got to thinking about it too much, I made Sam go steal a Dairy Milk with me or set a bush on fire.
Shortly before Estrella was due back, I went up to Sam’s room and saw the mermaid on his wall. At the time, he was in the corner painting a pool of yellow blood around a crushed beetle, but I didn’t give two cents about the blood. I was jealous of Sam’s mermaid.
If you’d seen it, this might not sound half so silly as it does when you write it down. It was different than Sam’s other stuff. All of his best work was grim. Persians flung themselves on Spartan spathas around his sagging bookshelves. Redtail hawks devoured snakes on his floor. His specialty was bloody teeth. The mermaid swam amid the carnage, her pale flesh glistening with droplets that sparkled like Lady’s Mantle pip. There was a secret concealed in her right hand too. It was amazing work. A green tail rippled across two walls. Rainbow hair fanned the dome. Two wet lips blew a kiss at his pillow, aiming for the empty imprint left by his big head. This was his Mona Lisa. His Hamlet. His Ninth Symphony!
“You pig,” I said. “You’ve painted Estrella.”
“I am looking, you pig.”
Sam sighed. “Remember when I asked if I could paint you?”
“Don’t change the subject.” I had tried letting Sam paint me once but it was just too miserably dull. He got mad because I wouldn’t sit still and I got mad because he got mad. That’s usually how it worked with us. I shouldn’t have cared who he painted on his walls but it was hard to see my sister wiggling her tail across his bedroom when I was used to having Sam all to myself.
“I’d paint you if you’d let me,” he said.
“Did Estrella let you?” I growled.
“No, but Sara Moody did.”
"Sara Moody?" I took a closer look. “I should have recognized that bosom.”
“It is nice,” Sam said, looking up at Sara’s bosom.
“You’re in love with Sara Moody now?”
“She let me kiss her.”
“So you had to paint her big as the sky all over your ceiling?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. It was fun.”
“What’s in her hand?”
“She brought me a periwinkle from Birkenhead. They went there on holiday.”
“The last I knew, she was still calling you Bastard Boy.”
He dabbed blood on a mandible. “Well she likes me now.”
I sat on his bed. My eyes teared up. Sam looked at me like I was crazier than Estrella. He rubbed his eyebrow. He rubbed his chin. His ears lit up. “There,” he said, stabbing at my nose with his paintbrush, marking me with a stripe of Cadmium Lemon.
“What are you doing?”
“Painting you.” He ran his wet brush across my cheek.
I jumped away.
“Sit still,” he said, pressing down on my shoulder hard enough to hurt. The tip of his tongue glided over his lip as he painted ticklish strokes around my mouth. He leaned back to observe the results. “Beautiful,” Sam said. He gave me a quick kiss.
Except for maybe, possibly, the time we mixed our mints with perry, Sam had never kissed me before.
“What about Sara Moody?”
His smile was smeared with my mouth paint. “I like her a lot.”
“I like you better. We’re not kids anymore, Esme.”
His ears were really fired up now. “When I asked if I could paint you, I had this whole big plan, but you wouldn’t sit still. I thought I’d never figure out a way to kiss you, so I gave up. Then Sara started writing me notes on her Emily Dickinson stationary.”
“My river runs to thee. That’s what it said. Anyway, I thought maybe I’d kiss her instead.”
“You gave up that easily?”
“Does your river run to me?”
“Sara’s brain is the size of a pea.”
“Do you want to kiss me or not, Esme?”
I rubbed the lemon off his lips. “Let’s see.” I kissed him. “It’s very weird.” I tried again. “It feels funny.” One more time...
This was a long one.
“I want you to do something for me before we go any farther, Sam.”
“Name it,” he said.
“Paint my head on that mermaid.”
“Leave the bosom. It’ll give me something to strive for.”
That’s how Sam and I started kissing. I loved him more than anything. I always had. Kissing him was weird, funny, and wonderful. By the time Estrella came home, we were doing it a lot and she had to throw more sparkles on us to get a moment of our attention.
The next time I ate a mint, I was surprised to realize how much smaller it looked in my hand. Beneath its melty minty taste, there was a slight flavor of turned cream that I’d never noticed before. Had the mints changed over the last year? Or was it my tongue? I thought of all the wonderful daydreams I’d been having about dragon hornets and tried to swallow the bitterness away.
We were sitting in the honeyberries behind the barn. Inside the barn was an empty bridle hook and an unused tin of saddle soap. I found myself wondering if Estrella even remembered about that saddle soap. Or what happened the day Daddy let her ride her new pony to town.
“Be gentle with the Mama Mias,” Estrella instructed. “They hurt easily.”
“What are Mama Mias?” we asked.
Something touched my ankle and I laughed because I thought it was Sam. A vine, red as my burn, began slithering up my shin.
“Mama Mia!” Estrella exclaimed, petting my vine. A red shoot wrapped around Sam’s leg too and he tried to kick it off. Estrella put her hand on his knee. “Don’t fight it, Mister Samuel. It feels good.”
Vines were slinking up my skirt, around my waist, and under my arms, to tickle me. My instinct was to fight them but they moved so sinuously, I quickly lost the will. An hour passed. I remember nothing but the caress of those vines. They stroked shyly. Cleverly. Like human fingers. They covered my eyes with leaves. I lost track of Sam and my sister, but I could hear them murmuring to the vines.
Later, I stumbled from the Mama Mia’s, dizzy and on fire. This was not like the dragon hornets at all. I wanted to be fourteen again, staring into a jar with my mouth dropped open. But I was not fourteen.
“Come here,” Sam said, appearing suddenly, one vine still twisting around his foot. He shook it free, pulled me into the barn, and kicked the door shut. Usually he was a nervous kisser, working away at my mouth until the inside was raw for days after, torn up from our teeth. After the vines, he groped me blindly, kissing everywhere. I couldn’t see him in the hot black barn, but I could feel him. Somewhere, a horse snorted. Or maybe that was Sam.
Estrella knocked on the door. “I want to come in too!”
Sam froze for a moment.
"Forget her," I said. We hit one wall, and then another, rattling the soap tin to the ground. I bumped my head on something sharp and Sam kissed the spot as if he knew exactly where I hurt. He breathed my name. Esme. I held on tight.
"Don’t let her in," I said as I undid his buckle.
“Open up!" a man’s voice ordered.
“We were looking for the potato riddle,” I told my father.
"Well leave the door open next time.”
I smiled because I thought I was off the hook.
Daddy jerked me by the arm. “Don’t make me fire his mother, Esme. Mum needs her too badly.”
And, as he stormed away: “I’ll expect mashers for supper tonight.”
We were done with the mints. We both agreed. If Daddy saw us together for any reason at all, he scowled until we each went to opposite sides of Wilt. The vines had made us lose our heads. Sam and I were a lot of things but we weren’t that crazy.
“Maybe next summer,” I said, with respect to going crazy.
“Or this winter,” Sam said.
“But not now,” I told him.
“No, not now,” Sam agreed. “Maybe in July.”
Sad to say; Once you’ve experienced the Mama Mia’s, you can’t un-experience them.
Estrella followed like a puppy everywhere we went. “Shall we have the Jilly Jallys now?” she always asked. We always said no but some days were harder than others.
One day she followed us into Five Choirs Vineyard where ancient grapevines soldiered on amid wild bands of rabbits and weeds. Sam picked a black Barbera and wiped it clean on his shirt. “Eat these instead, Estrella. They’re better for you.” She ate right from his fingers and licked the juice off his thumb.
“Mister Samuel is yummy,” Estrella said. “You should taste him, Esme.”
Sam held a grape to my lips. “Taste me, Esme.”
The grape was a mix of flavors. Licorice. Plums. Sam. “Delicious,” I said.
“He’d go well with a mint,” my sister pointed out.
“Let’s do it," said Sam. "We could use a little fun.”
“No,” I insisted. Someone had to be strong. It had been eight days since Daddy caught us in the barn.
“Maybe Sam and I will have one then?” Estrella proposed, and she wasn’t even being tricky.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “Just because you’re a party pooper, that doesn’t mean we have to miss out.”
All winter, we had longed for Estrella to return and liven up our lives. We’d dreamt of the mints. Now I edged up to the boy with the delicious fingers and said: “Don’t you dare, Sam Bell.”
Before Daddy found out that the nurse he’d hired was bringing along her bastard, the belvedere on the roof was just an open look-out. To make it habitable, he’d put rippled cylinder glass into the windows and cleaned out the dead leaves. Sam could see to Christ’s Cross if he squinted hard enough. Best of all, his floor was my ceiling and he could stomp messages to me. I had to climb up on Grammy Fogg’s old chain-stitcher and use my church shoe in order to reply, but it worked. Six stomps meant, “I’m bored.” Four meant, “Come quickly.”
The night after the grapes, I was asleep in bed when I heard: Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
I wasn’t to visit Sam’s room anymore, but the clock read two a.m. so I decided to risk it. Up the rickety ladder I crept; creak creak creak. Through the creaky door.
Sam ran at me.
My feet left the floor as he twirled me around, giving me a deep kiss. “I can’t sleep,” he said.
Moonbeams filtered through Daddy’s cheap panes, smearing the room like a watercolor. The stiff-spined Spartan on the wall melted into a peaceful Athenian and his sword became a lyre.
“Look what I’ve got,” Sam said, opening his hand.
You might well guess what was in there.
“Did you pray for them?” I asked.
Sam laughed. “Sure I did. Then I reached in Estrella’s pocket and grabbed some.”
In the old days, I might have appreciated his ingenuity more, but the mints scared me. “I think you ought to toss them out the window this instant.”
“No way,” Sam said crossly. He sat on the bed and popped one in his mouth. “If you don’t want yours, I’ll eat them both.”
“No!” Good heavens. "When Estrella ate two, we got double the birds." I raised the candy to my mouth. “What if it goes badly without her?”
“We’re in my room. It’s safe enough.”
I doubted that. I ate mine anyway. “Estrella always seems to know what’s coming,” I said.
“I know what’s coming,” Sam said, and he gave me another kiss. “Wasn’t that nice?”
It was. We did it some more.
“The mints aren’t working,” I said.
Sam kissed my neck while I looked for white blackbirds.
“I don’t feel anything. Do you feel anything?”
His lips paused on my throat. “I feel a little something.”
I smacked him. “I mean the mints.”
Sam touched the button on my nightgown and looked into my eyes. “In case you didn’t know it: I love you, Esme.”
Hm. Actually I didn’t know it. He’d never said so before.
“Do you think we’ll get married?” he asked.
“Mints have a funny effect on you.”
“It’s not the mints,” he said. Then he knocked me on the floor.
At first, I only heard the swoosh of the Spartan’s sword. Previously that sword had been stuck in an Athenian helmet. Now it dripped blood and brains as it hacked the wardrobe trunk in half. But for that last minute shove from Sam, the sword would have chopped off my head rather than the pineapple on his bedpost.
“Under here,” Sam called, pulling me beneath the bed. But there were other evils down there.
A stampede of miniature elephants was taking place across the floorboards. To avoid the little buggers, I had to squeeze up next to a corpse with really nice bloody teeth. Meantime, the spatha was decimating the rest of the room. Flat on our bellies beside the dust bunnies and the corpse, I completely lost my temper, “You should paint nicer things, Sam.”
“I didn’t know!”
“You should never have taken those mints from Estrella.”
The elephants hurt, even if they were small, and I couldn’t quite get away from them. They pounded across my shoulder blades, trampling over each other and landing on their tusks. Just when I thought I couldn’t take one more horn in my flesh, a voice spoke to us from beyond the mattress.
“Climb on my tail,” it said. Shiny green hair reached under the bed and scooped us up like a giant hand.
“Return to your homes, you beasts,” the mermaid said, and amazingly, the “beasts” obeyed.
Clinging to her paint-chip scales, we shuddered with relief. One heartbeat later, the room was still.
“Be good,” she said, setting us on the bed and swimming back up to the ceiling.
“Help me, Esme!” Sam said, grabbing a paintbrush and turning the Spartan’s face into a messy Cobalt splotch. “Get the beetle.”
But I was staring at the mermaid. “I knew it,” I said. “It’s Estrella.”
Learn! Learn! Learn! I told myself. The mints were bad news! If our run-in with those paintings was not lesson enough, Sam and I had a huge fight afterward.
“Why do you see Estrella’s face instead of your own?” Sam shouted at me.
“Why don’t you see Estrella’s face?” I’d shouted back.
He’d painted the mermaid’s eyes green and given her big ears but that didn’t make the mermaid me.
“You know what you are, Esme? A jealous, black-hearted ball-licker.”
“Sometimes I could really kill you, Sam.”
He rammed my face against the shaving mirror. “Stick out your tongue.”
He squeezed my cheeks until I tasted mirror. “Green,” he said. “Always green.”
“It’s the Jilly Jallys.”
“You sleep with Estrella over your bed!”
“Go away,” Sam said, pointing at the door. “I don’t want to marry you anymore.”
Without saying so, we decided never to speak to one another again.
“Tell Sam those chimneys better be done by noon or, I swear, I’ll skin him alive," Miss Judith said.
It had been four days. It had been forever. I was tempted to tell Miss Judith that I couldn’t tell Sam anything because we were never going to speak again. I was also tempted to keep her threat to myself and let her skin him alive. For a whole ten seconds, I considered doing the chimneys for him. Where was he these days anyway? Except for the mermaid swimming around in blue blotches, his room was utterly empty. He was not in the barn, the privy, or cleaning the chimneys. He was not floating around the workshop.
That left the garden.
Two sets of footprints led me to the vineyard. Maybe it was only the whoosh of moon daisies whipping past my knees, but I thought I heard a ghostly friar warning me to turn back. Then the vines started to giggle. “Mister Samuel is yummy,” they said. I peeked through the grape leaves and there they were, my sister and Sam.
He was on his back with his shirt flung open, lying on a bed of pincushion flowers. The tip of his tongue was pinker than the pincushions. Estrella was on her knees beside him. “Mmm,” my sister said. She touched her wiggling tongue to his nipple. “Yummy yummy yummy.”
To what degree Sam was yummy; I did not wait and see. Fiery tears poured down my cheeks as I tore through the garden. Daisy petals flew in my wake; He loves me. He loves me not... “I warned you,” the friar said.
It was all ruined now. Sam Bell, the only thing I loved, had been eating mints without me.
He wrapped the dragon hornets in Christmas paper and left them on my bed.
I gave them back.
He followed me into the privy.
I slammed the door in his face.
He slid a note in my lap at breakfast.
I burned it unread.
“Talk to me,” he begged and begged. “I miss you, Esme. I need you!”
I was a cyclone of fury, whipping around the house. Try as I might, I could not stop blowing. Sam had to physically pin me up against the barn one day, and even then, I continued to roar. “I saw you in the vineyard with Estrella!” I cried, my voice a Herculean wind.
He dropped my wrists, he was so surprised. He thought I hated him because of the elephants.
“What did you see?”
“As if you don’t know!” I sneered, wanting him to think the worst.
“I don’t know, Esme.” He slumped in the honeyberries and threw his head against the wall. “I can’t remember anything.”
“Anything?” I asked skeptically.
He rubbed his eyes. “There are bits and pieces, of course. There always is. We ate some grapes. Estrella tied flowers in my hair.”
“You remember more than that because you look scared out of your wits.”
“I don’t know what I did with her, Esme. That’s the truth. There were grape juice stains all over my stomach afterward but that doesn’t mean I touched her.” He held up a palm inked with honeyberry guts to make his point. I smacked his hand away.
“You stupid pig," I said, slumping down beside him.
“You know how it is with the mints, Esme. You know!”
“That’s the worst part about it, Sam. You know how it is too, yet you ate one with her anyway.”
He stroked my arm with a shaky blue fingertip. “Can you ever forgive me?”
I was no better at forgiving than I was at sharing. I pulled my arm away.
When you have a moron for a sister, your father has to like her better and give her a horse whether she deserves one or not, but the sneaky boy you’re in love with should not give her anything. Maybe not even friendship. I had to know the truth, one way or another so I went to Estrella.
“He touched my heart,” she told me cupping one hand over her breast.
“I’ll bet he did.”
Things were growing more wretched by the day. Mum was drinking her “elixir” every chance she got. Estrella was wishing for more mints than she could use. Sam and I couldn’t look at each other. The garden teemed with fruit and butterflies but in my mind, the peaches all became Sam’s skin and the Wood Nymphs were Estrella’s tongue.
Most days, Sam hid in the belvedere, stomping out messages that I ignored. Some days, I saw them together. Once, he laced her boots for her. Another time, she helped him do the chimneys.
I gave him the cold shoulder for weeks. Months. It was easy when I saw him kneeling at her feet. I read books instead of kissing Sam. I even read to Mum. I’d think of Estrella in the aviary wiping his smudges with her hair, and my soul would wither all the more. Share my beloved Sam with Estrella? Never! I’d rather not have him at all.
One thought kept running through my head. If only there was some way to get to the bottom of what really happened that day in the vineyard.
Then, one morning when school was about to begin, Estrella floated into my room on tiptoe and woke me with a kiss. She stretched and yawned, the buttons on her nightgown straining to reveal little pink ovals of flesh sticking out in between. I ran my hand over her belly. It was hard and small and a little bit round. “Tummy doesn’t feel good," she said.
“What’s in there, Estrella?”
She poked her bellybutton with her index finger. “Gas bubbles that won’t pop.”
Sure, it looked like an ordinary case of gas, and yet I felt betrayed. When I thought of what else it might be, the feral patter of something cold and dark crept into my head.
For years I’d been curing Estrella’s stomach aches with two spoonfuls of Brother Paul’s Amazing Miraculous Release yet I didn’t reach for miracles this time. Instead, I sat Estrella down on my quilt and gave her the velvet pouch of marbles that she so loved to dig through. While Cat Eyes and Aggies clinked together in her hands, I thought about that stupid vow the three of us had made in the garden over mints.
It seemed a long time ago to me now and yet, some things remained unchanged. Sam, the dirty little louse, had made no progress at all. Lord knows, he was as sneaky as ever. Estrella was still bringing gas bubbles on too. I was the only one who to make a proper attempt at improving myself. I’d tried sharing Sam with Estrella and look where it got me.
“Thank you for sharing,” Estrella said. She poured the marbles out onto her aproned lap and ran her fingers through them. “You never let me play with your things.”
All right. So maybe I was still as selfish as ever. Maybe I only let Estrella come around when it suited my purpose to do so. The three of us were equally pathetic, I decided. No wonder the magic disappeared. I gave myself a hard rap on the head for not trying harder.
Estrella scooped a shiny Oxblood from the pile and held it to her eye. “Pretty!” she said. Quick as that, she popped it into her mouth, hiding it from me on the right side of her jaw.
“Stupid vows,” I said out loud. “Who needs magic anyway?”
I led her into the kitchen where my father was reading his Dailey Reporter and Sam’s mum was cooking our breakfast. I took his hand off the newspaper and put it on Estrella’s stomach. "We should have this checked," I said innocently, fully aware of how bloated Estrella’s stomach could get.
My father was not a calm man but he looked into my sister’s eyes and blinked ten times and spoke as kindly as I’d ever heard him speak. "Has a man come into your life, Estrella?"
"Oh yes," she said, thrilled as can be.
Daddy took a very deep breath but still he was calm and kind. "Who is he, June bug?"
My sister grinned and clapped her hands. "Mister Samuel," she said.
Daddy slammed his fist down on the table and made the dishes dance. “Fetch me Dr. Clumpette!” he roared.
After that, things happened in a Jilly Jally way. Sam’s mum burned herself on the frying pan and I felt the pain in my own knuckle and sucked on it to cool it.
It wouldn’t cool.
To look at him, you’d think someone had smashed my father with a mallet. “Did he hurt you?” he whispered.
Estrella tapped her finger against her lip as if she were trying to remember. “One time he pulled off all my buttons but it only bled a little.”
The dishes did another dance.
“Bring the constable, Esme.”
Like buttons showering on my face, the magnitude of what I’d done hit me all at once. A year before, there was a man in Wilt accused of raping a girl. He “beat himself to death” in his cell with a baton. At the time, Constable Langtry had called it an unfortunate but inevitable outcome, given the circumstances.
I climbed on top of the chain-stitcher and pounded my church shoe against the ceiling. I wasn’t at all sure if he would come, but he did. “He’s sending me for the Constable, Sam. You have to run away.”
I licked my lips and grit my teeth, waiting for the strap. My strap. His strap. "I’m sorry," I said.
Without a word, a nod, or a scratch of the arse, Sam Bell pulled something from his pocket and put it into mine.
Then he ran.
Twenty minutes later, Constable Langtry creaked up the stairs holding his baton. “You might want to see this,” he called down, and we all hurried up the ladder to join him in Sam’s room.
That the bedpost was still pineapple-less did not surprise me in the least, nor did the crack in the trunk. What hurt my heart were the blotched walls of the once glorious Sistine Chapel.
Langtry wore a big handlebar mustache that drooped in a permanent frown. He pointed his stick at the ceiling and frowned. “He painted her picture over his bed.”
“Look closer,” I said. “That’s me up there.”
Imagine that. In the end, I was the only one who could see my face on Sam Bell’s ceiling. Maybe this was because I wanted it to be my face. Or maybe this was because it was mine all along.
You can’t diddle a girl who has the brain of an eight year old. That’s what Langtry told my father. Estrella was not responsible. Regardless of what happened, my father must press charges.
Watching his furry frown twitch with indignation, I felt certain Langtry wouldn’t give a rip about the mysterious powers of Jilly Jally Butter Mints, nor would he care that it was my sister who fed them to us in the first place. At any rate, the constable assured my father, it was no bother to hunt the boy down. “After all,” Langtry said. “I owe you my life.”
As the constable set off sniffing after Sam, Dr. Clumpette rode up on his mare.
I took my sister to her room. “The doctor wants to have a look at you,” I told her, helping her into bed. I gave her Greenie Frog to hug and she drank down two teaspoons of Miraculous Release and smiled a milky smile.
When the doctor was done, he called my father back into the room. “This girl is innocent as the day she was born. There are no signs of violation.”
“What?” my father said.
“Pop!” Estrella said.
At that same moment, a gun fired. Twice. We ran to the window just in time to see the constable dragging Sam from the garden. Red leaves covered his dirty clothes and one looked bigger and redder than the rest. I cranked open the window. The big leaf was blood.
Instead of seeing Sam lying on the ground, I saw broken banks and dolls with faces cracked by a foolish girl’s tantrums. I shook my head hard and it was only then that I saw the boy I loved again. As I watched, the constable bent down to wipe something off Sam’s cheek with the tip of his glove. He blew on it and it spiraled away, drifting skyward in a whirlwind of sparkles. Then it disappeared.
“There now,” my sister said, knocking over a bottle of Moxie on the table. “My gas bubbles are all gone.”
I slid my hand into my apron pocket, expecting to discover Dragon Hornets, but finding a hole instead.