Donald Shephard

Hazel Corylus moved into the cottage set apart by half a mile of narrow lane from its contemporaries in the village. She told herself that she entered a period of rebuilding her life at the halfway mark rather than hiding from it, yet a year later, few of the villagers knew much about her. She lived alone, rarely left the village, attended no religious rites, and kept her lights on into the small hours. The local biddies of the Women’s International Tautological Society, the WITS, came to their wits end.

She paid her rent at the local store, clothing emporium and post office, a single room operated by the intrepid entrepreneur, Mabel Goodbody. The biddies’ curiosity about Hazel paralleled her own interest in the locked room on the west end of the upper story of her rental. Mabel, normally a fountain of useful local color, became a mistress of obfuscation worthy of a constipated budget analyst. Hazel resorted to questioning Quercus, the man who tended the garden and “came with the house except on Wednesdays” as Mabel put it.

“But I don’t want a man. I am perfectly able to look after the flowers myself,” she complained.

“No Quercus: no house,” Mabel Goodbody crossed her arms over the concave chest that belied her name.

He turned out to be a reticent soul in his middle years, stocky with bony, angular joints, bushy grey hair, black eyebrows and ear tufts, and with no more desire for company than Hazel. For months, when they met they exchanged minimal comments on the weather or the garden while they stood well apart and aloof, but she weakened first and broke their unspoken code of silence. He habitually took a break for a sandwich and a bottle of cold tea at noon so, one day, she wandered down to his bench at the end of the garden in the shade of an oak and sat at the far end from him. Mrs. Gotobed, past president for life of the WITS, peeked over the hedge and saw two people sitting together and apart in the world.

“Afternoon, Mrs. Gotobed,” called Quercus. “How are your bunions?”

“As well as can be expected, thank you, doct … um…, Quercus.”

Mrs. Gotobed scurried away on feet made nimble by the infusion of a morsel of gossip, which she disseminated into the midst of the WITS by declaring, “That witch Hazel is after our Quercus, planning to lop his branches, harvest his acorns, and haul him away, she is, you mark my words.”

The benchwarmers watched the old woman waddle, with more lateral than forward motion, down the lane before Hazel approached her subject in a wide, nautilus arc anchored in the common ground beneath them.

“What kind of oak has such gnarly roots?”

“This?” said Quercus looking high into the branches of leaves and acorns, “this is an English or Royal Oak, Quercus robur.”

“Your namesake?”

“My namesake,” he paused and parried, “and are you named for the shrub?”

“My father, a petty bureaucrat during the day, embraced botany at night and insisted on calling his children Filbert and Hazel.”

“Did you inherit your interest in flowers from this horticultural nut?”

The gardener’s gentle questions and sly humor moved the conversation away from her subject until he rose and returned to weeding among the tree peonies. She clung to her mission to find the meaning of the locked room and followed him toward the house. He knelt, lifted the blossom-laden branches, and removed tufts of annual meadow-grass. She stood near him on the garden path looking at the second story and the window of the locked room.

“I call this tree peony ‘Oprah’,” he cupped a burgundy bloom in his hand and looked at her. She caught herself staring at his eyes, one violet, the other hazel, and heard the echo of his pun in her head. To compose herself she smiled and walked away without unlocking the secrets of the spare room.

When twilight cast its pastel glow on the spines of the books in the library that evening, Hazel caught glimpses of his eye colors. She took down her encyclopedia of medical anomalies and discovered that doctors call two eye colors in one person, “heterochromia” and consider it a symptom of a chimera. She read on to learn, that a chimera is an animal with two or more different populations of genetically distinct cells, and that some chimera are hermaphrodites. The condition, the article continued, resulted from two fertilized ova merging into one embryo. If the two, as yet uncombined, ova were originally identical twins, then all the cells of the embryo contained the same DNA giving them the same sex with both eyes the same color. If the ova comes from fraternal twins half of the cases resulted in an embryo with some male organs and some female, including the sex organs, hence the hermaphrodites. The other half of the cases of fraternal twins combining in the womb resulted in an embryo with either male or female organs but not both. These individuals, like the others, had organs with varying DNA and may manifest heterochromia in their eyes. The condition is extremely rare in humans.

She reread the article and put some facts together in her mind. Quercus absorbed his fraternal twin at the very beginning of his life. That twin may have been a female, in which case Quercus may be an hermaphrodite, but, if he absorbed a twin brother, Quercus is all male.

“A rare man, indeed,” remarked Hazel to the library, “perhaps that’s the reason behind the locked room.”

One Wednesday, when Quercus gardened elsewhere, Hazel bribed a local boy to help her carry a relic of a wooden extension ladder from its hooks under the potting shed eaves to the house. Together they persuaded it to a vertical position and the boy pulled the rope to raise the extension. When the ladder reached maximum height, the last fray of the rope gave way and the top section of rungs crashed down. They both let go and the accursed implement fell back onto the compost heap. The boy installed a new rope and they began again.

“Climb up and tell me what you see.”

“Why, no miss, I daresn’t look in that window.”

“Then hold the ladder and I will.”

“Well … alright but...”

Hazel gripped the side rails and stepped onto the ladder. At a quarter of the way up, the rungs, dried and shrunken by years of neglect, twisted in their tenons. She adjusted her feet to keep her weight pressing directly down and inched higher.

“What are you doing?” she asked herself, “Looking for another accident, tempting fate to take you as well as your husband and child. Get down, let it go,” but she persisted, her curiosity piqued by the proximity of the room and its mysterious contents. Midway up, with little stability in its joints, the ladder curved sideways, perpendicular to the wall. She managed not to look earthward until spiders trailed down the rail towards her hands, which she raised in horror.

The boy, young, thoughtless and agile, leapt out of her way as she fell into the blossoms of the tree peony “Oprah”. He stood blank-faced looking at her crumpled body before running for the doctor. She returned to consciousness as Quercus and the boy lowered her onto her bed.

“Go brew tea, son.”

“Hazel, you have a bad sprain of the left ankle, but no broken bones, you have some interesting contusions that I’m sure the boy will remember longer than you. We will watch you for signs of concussion so rest until Mabel comes to make your supper. No more ladder climbing for you.”

She watched dumbfounded as he picked up his Gladstone bag and left. Mrs. Gotobed’s words came back to her, “As well as can be expected, thank you doct … um…, Quercus.”

Disjointed thoughts drifted through her befogged mind. Quercus… the spiders…the gardener…a violet eye…an hazel eye…falling…falling… a doctor.

Hazel slept, dreaming of a carpeted bedroom with a quilt-covered bed and matching walnut armoire, both decorated with carved cupids. Light, dappled by the oak leaves, and further filtered by net curtains, patterned the family sepia prints hanging from the picture rail. A couple sat reading in bed, his right hand covering her left. The man’s face switched back and forth from that of her late husband to that of Quercus, while a lace-bordered bonnet obscured the woman’s features. Hazel’s husband, looking as mangled as when she last saw him in the coroner’s morgue, rose from Quercus’s body, smiled and left the room. The woman got out of bed, folded back the bedclothes, patted the sheets as she smiled at Hazel and followed the battered corpse from the bedroom. Only Quercus remained and Hazel watched herself climb into bed with him as if participating in a recognized routine. The warm blankets cocooned her yet she heard the tut-tutting of the WITS and Mabel saying, “Well done, well done, indeed,” as Mrs. Gotobed scowled her disapproval.

When Hazel hobbled to the village to buy groceries, she queried Mabel about the mystery room.

“You’ll have to ask Quercus about it. That’ll be three sixty.”

“What did the landlord tell you of it?” Hazel persisted.

“You just ask Quercus. If he wants to tell you, he will. If he don’t, he won’t. There’s nothing else to do.” Mabel looked over Hazel’s shoulder, “Yes, Mrs. Gotobed, what will it be today?”

A thorough, even obsessive, search of the house including the basement revealed no hidden key, only a paint-splattered screwdriver. Hazel used it in an attempt to pry open the locked door, but stopped short when she damaged the strawberry-colored paint of the jamb.

“Let it go,” she told herself, “it’s a beautiful house, perfect for your return to a full life, leave the damn room alone.” She went downstairs to replace the screwdriver, tried to conceal the weapon from the gardener, but his heterochromic eyes spotted it.

“Do you need help? Better use a good tool, not that worn out old thing.”

“Do you know the landlord?” she said.

“I do, only too well.” She studied him as he lowered his eyes and retreated into his oaken heartwood, his face as deeply lined as oak tree bark.

“Perhaps he will tell me about the locked room,” she blurted before he escaped again.

“Perhaps not, I doubt he likes the subject.”

“What can you tell me?”

“It’s locked for a reason that nobody in this village talks about.”

“Not even Mrs. Gotobed?”

“No, not even her,” the corners of his mouth raised slightly and the crows feet besides his eyes deepened enough to encourage her to say, “Come and have tea, there are the best strawberries in three counties, you know for you grew them, and I have some clotted cream that will make a match from heaven.”

He entered the kitchen and, as if by habit, hung his battered hat on the cuckoo clock.

“What…?” Hazel began.

“Excuse me. That was thoughtless, you see, I used to live here.”

“You rented this lovely old place? Why did you give it up? How could you give it up? Financial considerations? I mean…” she trailed off.

“The answers to that string of questions are, ‘No’, ‘Grief’, ‘Necessity’, and ‘Hardly’. I suppose I must tell you.”

Hazel’s throat constricted as she sensed the import of the moment so she distracted her troubled mind by catering to him.

“Have some tea. Here, take the strawberries, help yourself to cream,” she fussed over him, poured herself a cup and, finding nothing better to do, she finally sat. When the tea calmed her, Quercus explained.

“I own this lovely old place as you call it. When Violet, my wife fell asleep at the wheel and collided with a truck, her surgeons failed to save her. She died six weeks later. Medical science became abhorrent to me, useless to save the one person in the world who mattered. I sealed the room to contain my grief. A failed plan to be sure, so I moved out and my grief moved with me, yet I cannot give it up, nor can I open the room.”

They sipped their tea and ate in mutually agreeable silence. The cuckoo thrust from its nest in the clock dislodging his hat, which Quercus deftly caught in midair, and returned to his garden. She sat thinking of his grief and his wife. He married, she thought, so perhaps he absorbed a brother in the womb, but not necessarily. In any case, he is pleasant company. How do I unravel the mystery? I shall make his tea every day and see what happens.

On a Wednesday of the following year, when the tree peony Oprah bloomed again, Quercus tapped on the kitchen door.

“Are you still fussed about the locked room?” he asked.

“Fussed? No. Curious, yes.”

“I’m ready to open the door to the bedroom Violet and I shared. Perhaps you’ll help me clean it out?”

“Violet,” she repeated looking first at his right violet eye and next at his left hazel one.

“Quercus, you’re like that oak tree. You have a strong heart, with thick defenses but, are you sure you want to open the room?”

“And you, my dear Hazel, were well named by your botanist nut of a father for you hide behind a multitude of twigs tangled together, but I intend to see through your defenses to your past, if you will look in Violet’s room at mine.” With that, he took her hand for the climb up the stairs to the locked bedroom.

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