Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl (7 page)

BOOK: Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl
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"I've worked up an appetite chasing that house," he said. "Who'd like apple fritters and coffee?"

"Good idea," Molly said.

"Good idea," I said. "Something real that we can get our hands on."

"It's the girls! And the professor!" Clarinda Quackenboss said brightly. Then she bellowed, "Apple fritters?"

"But of course," the professor said. "And keep them coming."

"Clarinda," I asked. "Did you know that if you try to approach the old house out back, it moves away from you?"

"There's an old house out back? I never noticed."

"What? You've never seen it?"

"I've never looked. I am interested in apple fritters, and serving my customers. That's the way to run a successful business."

When Clarinda went into the kitchen to make our apple fritters I whispered to the professor, "She isn't a ghost, is she?"

"No, not a ghost. I'm not sure what she is, but she may not be an ordinary human. I suspect you will never see her anywhere but in this fritter shop. Very perceptive of you to notice."

"I'm going to ask her if she knows where Chicken Nancy lives," Molly whispered.

"Why bother?" I whispered back. "She'll just tell you all she pays attention to are apple fritters."

"It will do no harm," Molly said. Clarinda came out of the kitchen with fritters. "Clarinda, do you know where Chicken Nancy lives?"

"You go down the road about a quarter of a mile, and go right at the corner. Then go along that road for almost a mile. You'll see a Christmas tree farm on the right, and a long driveway. Go all the way along the driveway, past the Christmas tree farm. There's an orchard on the left—just keep going until the driveway turns into a footpath through the woods.
Continue on that until you come to a little house, and that's it."

"How come you know that?" I asked.

"I buy apples from the orchard."

CHAPTER 15
She's Very, Very, Very Old

There is the city of Poughkeepsie, and surrounding it is the town of Poughkeepsie, which is bigger and more rural. Still, it is possible to look out certain apartment windows or schoolroom windows in the city of Poughkeepsie and see cows, or fields under cultivation. A Christmas tree farm, and an orchard, and woods are within the city—and there are streetcar tracks that go right out into the country, so a farmer can walk a little way from his house, step onto a trolley, and go into the city and see a movie, or buy something in a store, or go to the dentist. And a city person who lives in a building with an elevator can get out where there are things growing, and forests, and visit the loony bin or maybe see bunnies or deer. It's a very good way to
have a city, though I'm sure in time all the fields and pastures will be paved over or built on and it won't be as nice.

We followed the road Clarinda had told us about and found the Christmas tree farm and the driveway. It smelled nice with the fir trees on one side and the apple trees on the other. Then the driveway narrowed into a little path that we followed into the woods. We had to walk single-file until we came to a clearing. The sun was shining down through the trees on a little cottage with a pointy roof. There was a neat vegetable garden beside the cottage, and flowers in pots on the little porch. Also on the porch, sitting on a straight chair, was an old lady. Her skin was brown, her hair was white, and her eyes were very clear and bright. She was wearing a gray old-fashioned-looking dress.

There was a dog, gray and shaggy, lying beside the old lady. As we approached, the dog stood up and we saw that he was very big and very tall. He stood with his head down and looked at us with yellow-brown eyes. The eyes were kind and intelligent. But I could tell this dog was not one to mess with. Anyone who found his way to this little house with bad intentions would soon wish he had never come.

"But you have nothing to worry about, girl from far away," the old lady said. "I will speak to the dog. Weer,
this cat-whiskered girl and the two crazy people, one a lot crazier than the other, are just looking for information. They mean us no harm." Weer sank down beside the old lady's chair, but kept an eye on us. "By the way, I know you didn't come seeking it, but I can cure you of being insane while you're here—if you wish."

"I am Professor Tag," Professor Tag said.

"I know all about you," the old lady said. "You go cuckoo every spring, and your students love you."

"You are Chicken Nancy, I presume?" the professor said.

The old lady nodded.

"This is Molly," the professor said.

"You are welcome, Molly," Chicken Nancy said. Her voice was clear and nice to listen to. She had a slight accent, which the professor later told me was Dutch. "You are a fairly long way from the mountains where your ancient dwergish people live. I will make you a cup of tea and remove the slight confusion from your head. Would you like that?"

Molly said she would like it very much.

"And this is Audrey," the professor said.

"Audrey. It's been nearly a hundred years since I saw anyone like you. Come into the house, all of you, and we will have a nice visit."

The inside of the house was even tidier and neater than the outside. The floor was made of brick, the walls were whitewashed, the furniture was wooden, simple and primitive, there were bunches of dried herbs and flowers hanging from the rafters, and there was an iron kettle hanging from a hook in a little stone fireplace and making steam.

Chicken Nancy was quite tall when she stood up. "The kettle is just boiling. I will make tea for all of us, and special tea for this crazy girl. You, Professor, prefer to remain crazy, I believe."

"Yes, I am quite accustomed to it," the professor said. "And I was not as happy when I was sane."

"I understand," Chicken Nancy said. "I was crazy myself for twenty-five or thirty years. It can be pleasant if you have the right kind."

"I have the wrong kind," Molly said.

"Hush. It will be taken care of," Chicken Nancy said. "Now, you came to ask me about something. Please sit at my table, and I will help you if I can."

"We wanted to know about the Vliegende-Schotel mansion," I said.

"I know everything about it. What did you want to know?"

"Everything."

"Fine. I will tell you everything. First, its right name is not the Vliegende-Schotel mansion."

"It's not?" the professor asked. "I thought it was so named because the Vliegende and Schotel families lived there."

"There were no such families," Chicken Nancy said. "The family that built the house was called Van Vreemdeling."

"Van Vreemdeling?"

"Van Vreemdeling.
Vliegende
and
schotel
are Dutch words meaning 'flying saucer.'"

"What? There were flying saucers back then?" I asked.

"Why not?" Chicken Nancy asked. "I am going to guess you have seen them landing behind the old stone barn."

"Yes, we have," Molly said.

"Well, they have been doing that for much longer than I have been alive, and I have been alive a hundred and fourteen years."

"You're a hundred and fourteen years old?"

"Approximately. Records weren't kept very carefully for black people."

"It's remarkable," Professor Tag said. "You don't look a day over ninety. To what do you attribute your youthfulness and vigor?"

"I come from a long-lived family, and I never touch fried food," Chicken Nancy said.

"You were saying, the family was called Van Vreemdeling. And you know this because...?"

"Because I was born on the property—the house was Schiksal-Nanie, which is the proper way of saying my name. It means 'dirge of fate,' or 'elegy of destiny.' And my mother was born on the property. She was owned by the Van Vreemdelings."

"'Owned'? How do you mean 'owned'?" I asked.

"She was a slave. My mother was a slave, and I am the child of a slave."

"How is that possible?" Molly asked. "This is New York. Slavery was in the Southern states."

"Slavery was in the Southern states until the end of the Civil War in 1865," Chicken Nancy said. "There was slavery in New York until about 1827, and even after that fugitive slaves from the South could be pursued and caught here—legally—and sent back south."

"So you were born when your mother was only ten or fifteen years out of slavery," Professor Tag said.

"Yes, and of course she remembered it quite well, and told me all about it. It feels odd to think how recent and how close to home it was, doesn't it?"

"It does indeed," the professor said.

"Sojourner Truth, who was born just across the
river, as a slave, lived until 1883, by which time the electric light and the telephone had been invented and were coming into general use, and she probably saw an early automobile or even took a ride in one."

"Who was Sojourner Truth?" I asked.

"Oh, you had better read up on her," Chicken Nancy said. "She was one of the smartest women of her century, and did important things. I met her more than once. And she began as a slave like my mother. But you want to know about the house and the Van Vreemdelings, and what happened there.

"Cornelius Van Vreemdeling had a brassworks, the first one in the colonies. They spun and stamped things out of brass, especially the popular Van Vreemdeling kwispedor."

"What was that?"

"A cuspidor, a spittoon, thing you spit in—they had them everywhere in those days, and Van Vreemdeling got rich selling them, and bought the big piece of land, and built the big house, and became a member of the aristocracy. He was a patroon spittoon tycoon, and later made another fortune importing pineapples.

"But the Van Vreemdelings were strange, and kept to themselves. The people were uneasy about them, and told strange stories about the things that went on at Spookhuizen."

"The lights in the sky?" I asked.

"Yes, those. And the family had an unusual appearance. I have a portrait of Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling, who was Cornelius's granddaughter and was a friend of my mother's."

Chicken Nancy went to an old bureau, opened a drawer, and took out a very small painting in a frame. She handed it to me. It was a portrait of a girl about my age, wearing old-fashioned clothes.

She had cat whiskers just like mine!

CHAPTER 16
Tea for Three

I was surprised, amazed, and curious. While I was being all those things, and thinking of what I wanted to ask first, Chicken Nancy said, "The water is boiling. I will make the tea. This pot is for all of us, Audrey and Professor Tag—and this little pot is for Molly. This will make you sane."

"What's in it?" Molly asked.

"Mint leaves. I grow them myself."

"And what is in the other tea?"

"Mint also, but yours is a special kind. Take a sip."

"Mint leaves will cure madness?" Molly asked.

"How does it taste?"

"It's good."

"Drink it all up."

"How do you know this will work?" Molly asked.

"I am a one-hundred-and-fourteen-year-old wise woman," Chicken Nancy said. "If I didn't know about things like this, who would?"

"How long until I'm sane?" Molly asked.

"Have you finished your tea?"

"Yes."

"It will have worked by now."

"I feel about the same."

"You weren't all that crazy."

"So I'm cured?"

"Yes."

"Imagine that," Molly said.

"Um, this other tea..." Professor Tag began.

"It won't do a thing. Enjoy it. You'll be as crazy as ever," Chicken Nancy said.

"Thank you," Professor Tag said. "It's just that I wouldn't want to do anything to upset the delicate balance of my mind."

"I understand completely," Chicken Nancy said.

Weer had placed his great shaggy head on Molly's knee, and she was scratching him behind the ears.

"Would you like to stay here with Weer and me while you get used to no longer being a nutbar?" Chicken Nancy asked Molly.

"Well, if I am no longer insane, there is no point
going back to the mental hospital," Molly said. "And I don't know how long I can continue imposing on Audrey's employers—I've been sleeping on a cot in her room."

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