“Why did the human being cross the road?” Anna said to Peter, repeating what he had just asked her. “What kind of a question is that?”
“It’s a riddle,” Peter replied. “While I was in the chicken house this morning collecting eggs, I overheard one of the hens telling it. It sent them all into hysterics.”
Peter and Anna Wensleydale were sitting at their dining room table enjoying a mid-morning tea break with toasted homemade English muffins nearly swimming in butter churned from Cream n’ Sugar’s milk topped with their own wild strawberry jam.
The Wensleydales cherish these long moments together, particularly after having spent almost a decade in a fast-paced, urban, professional environment in which it seemed that Peter worked as many hours as there were in the day, as many days as there were in the week, with the result that the few minutes they had been able to steal, he was either too tired to share or too distracted to enjoy. During that period, both of them were aware of the increasing strain and the decreasing rewards, but neither of them knew just what to do about it.
Of the two, Anna might have had a better feel for it, as she had the time to consider the matter; but what she didn’t know was how to do what had to be done. She had been afraid even to draw attention to the obvious fact of it for fear of alienating Peter, which she did not want to do because she dearly loved him and infinitely cherished their relationship, and besides, she naturally assumed, as women are raised to assume, that whatever was wrong in the home was her fault, as the wife and homemaker, and that what went on “at the office” was his business as the provider and not for her to question.
Peter, meanwhile, was caught in a trap that seemed equally escape proof. He had been taught all his life (subliminally, to be sure, but nonetheless effectively) that his primary responsibility in the world was to enable and ensure the proper functioning of everything and the happy fulfillment of everyone, and so even to recognize the existence of problems anywhere, whatever their source or nature, amounted to an admission of personal failure.
That both of these perspectives were untenable, not to mention ridiculous, did not make them any the less real, and until the Wensleydales could sit still long enough to observe each other and themselves, neither Peter nor Anna was consciously aware that they even held them. But now, the growing realization that nothing in life is more important than simply but truly being alive, and the freedom (and the ability, for this was something both of them had to learn, or, one might suggest, to relearn) to stop doing whatever they are doing whenever they want to and take a break, for no particular reason, are among the happiest and healthiest aspects of their new life in Maine. Thus, now, at any hour of the day, one of them will say to the other, “Let’s have a cup of tea,” and they will, just like that.
“Okay, Peter, then tell me,” Anna said, “Why did the human being cross the road?”
“Because,” Peter replied, completing the riddle he had learned from the hens, “the sign at the intersection said WALK.”
Anna smiled, but did not laugh. “And you say the chickens split a gut over that?”
“Several guts,” Peter answered. “They told me it’s about not doing anything until we’re told,” Peter explained, “and then only what we’re told. So, the joke is that the human being crossed the road because the sign said to, not because she wanted to. The hens find that very amusing.”
“Yes, I see it now. And I guess it is kind of funny,” Anna replied, “at least as funny as ‘to get to the other side’. And, anyway, we’ve earned it. After all, remember the Elihu Hyssop affair.”
Elihu Hyssop, one of the Wensleydale’s neighbors, is a man as gentle and as kind as he is huge. “One of the most remarkable things about Elihu,” Anna once observed, quite rightly, “is that when you speak to him, he listens,” which observation ought to prompt the rest of us to wonder why it is remarkable.
The Hyssop family lives several miles down the road from the Wensleydales in an old farmhouse with an attached barn and shed. Scattered about out front are a big tractor and a little tractor, a couple of trucks and trailers, an upright heavy duty four-foot log splitter, several snowmobiles, and various other pieces of equipment. Along the road frontage are a dozen or so large sugar maples, which, the first spring Peter and Anna were in Maine, the Hyssops tapped for syrup.
And, that first spring, driving by each day on the way to and from their construction site, Peter and Anna noticed the buckets hanging off the Hyssop maples, and they remarked to one another that the following spring they would harvest syrup from the maples on their property. And so, toward the end of the following winter, by which time they were fully and comfortably moved into their new home, the Wensleydales borrowed and studied books from the public library to teach themselves everything there was to know about mapling. They acquired the necessary drill bit, taps, and buckets; they prepared a rig and a spot outdoors for the wood fire on which to heat and boil down the sap; they collected jars and bottles in which to store the coming sweet harvest; and then they waited for the proper moment. And they waited. The books said the optimal time to tap the trees is during the cusp between winter and spring when the days are warm but the nights still freeze. The Wensleydales, however, still unaccustomed to going it alone, and inclined to look externally for permission to act, chose to keep their eyes on Elihu Hyssop’s trees, and follow his example.
“Did you notice whether Elihu’s got his buckets out?” Peter would ask Anna, or Anna would ask Peter, as one or the other returned from a trip into town, and the reply was always the same, “No, not yet.”
The days, and then the weeks, went by, and still they waited.
“Everything we’ve read suggests we really ought to be tapping by now,” one them finally observed.
“Perhaps we’d better talk to Elihu,” the other agreed.
And so they did. “We’re all set to tap our maples,” Peter said, with enthusiasm, “and we’re waiting on you. When are you going to put your buckets out?”
The three of them were standing in the Hyssop’s front yard, next to the trees in question. For some moments, Elihu said nothing. Finally, kicking a shoe in the grass beneath his feet, he said, simply, “I’m not tapping my trees this year.”
That first year in Maine, the Wensleydales did not tap their maple trees either, because by then, Elihu told them, the right time had long since passed by. But Peter and Anna do not consider the experience a loss, for they learned an obvious lesson that has served them well: When you’ve done your homework, and you know the right thing to do, don’t be afraid to do it. They call it the Elihu Hyssop Mapling Assertiveness Principle.
Anyway, as Peter and Anna cleared their tea dishes, the telephone rang.
“Who can that be?” Anna said, a little gruffly.
Anna Wensleydale does not like the telephone. Actually, it is a little more intense than that, for Anna very nearly hates the telephone. To this day, she is not sure why. “I think it’s because you can’t see a person’s face, their eyes, their body language,” she sometimes suggests. Or, “It could be that the ring is so unexpected and so jarring, and always at the caller’s convenience, never at mine.” Or, “Maybe my mother was frightened by a telephone.” Or, simply, “Perhaps I’m just not a telephone person.” Most likely, it has something to do with the fact that in their old life in “the world,” as the Wensleydales refer to everything before and outside their lives in Cranberry County, many of the few moments she and Peter were able to set aside for themselves were interrupted and, often, curtailed, by a telephone call from his office, and Anna, now in Maine, jealously guarding their new independence, still distrusts the device. So, there has developed an unspoken agreement between them that Peter answers the telephone.
“Peter Wensleydale speaking,” he said into the handset.
“Who is it?” Anna asked almost immediately.
Peter shrugged his shoulders and made a face indicating he didn’t know yet. Anna left the room. She particularly does not like unidentified callers.
After several minutes of listening on the phone, Peter signaled to Anna to return.
“What is it?” Anna whispered, when she had come to his side.
“The French dictionary,” he whispered back to her, his hand covering the mouthpiece, “could you get it for me, please.”
“The French dictionary?” Anna repeated, a little surprised. She retrieved the book from the shelf in Peter’s office, and brought it to him.
“Thanks,” Peter said, adding, “This fellow is speaking French. Something about …” Peter interrupted himself as he flipped through the pages of the dictionary Anna had given him, “… yes, here it is.”
“Here what is?” Anna asked, looking over his shoulder into the open book, trying to divine which word he was focusing on.
Peter spoke into the telephone. “Merci beaucoup,” he said, a little haltingly. “S’il vous plait, telephonez encore une fois apres une heure. Je doit parler avec ma faim.”
It had been years since Peter had spoken French, and even then he had not been very good at it. But he was pleased to find he still had enough of a command to carry on this conversation. As he hung up the telephone, Peter turned to Anna. “He’s going to call back in an hour. I told him I needed to talk with my wife.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t ‘my hunger’?” asked Anna, whose knowledge of French is about the same as Peter’s. “I think you said hunger not wife. But what’s this about, anyway?”
“Well, if I’m understanding him correctly, and that’s a big if,” Peter replied, flipping again through the French-to-English portion of the dictionary, “the fellow is calling from Quebec to inform us that our daughter has been selected to participate in some kind of beauty contest. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.”
“Beauty contest?” Anna asked, incredulously, “What kind of beauty contest?”
But Peter’s attention had reverted to the dictionary. “You’re right,” he said, “faim is hunger. Wife is femme. So, I did just tell him I had to talk to my hunger! What an idiot!”
“Peter,” Anna reminded him, “about this beauty contest? Does the man understand that we don’t have a daughter?”
“Actually, I didn’t mention that,” Peter allowed. “After all, I thought it might be fun to visit Quebec. We haven’t been anywhere in a long while, and if they want to invite us …”
“The man is obviously selling something,” Anna said, flatly, interrupting him. “When he calls back, ask him who he’s representing, and tell him we don’t want any.”
Peter looked up from the dictionary. “I think he’s already told me that. He said the company is Le Chat Rieur, which seems a strange name, because, according to the dictionary, ‘rieur’ means laughing, and …”
“And ‘chat’ means cat,” Anna said, finishing his sentence, “the laughing cat.” With that, the expression on Anna’s face changed from confusion to understanding. She had deciphered the puzzle, or at least a key to it. “We should have guessed, Peter.”
“Of course, you’re right,” he agreed, seeing it, too. “This is Pilikia’s doing, isn’t it!”
And so it was.
“It all happened months ago,” Pilikia whined, as the two humans questioned the cat about the matter, “so you can’t expect me to remember the details.”
“You can remember,” Anna insisted.
“Perhaps,” Peter suggested, “recalling the source of your food and the roof over your head will help to improve your memory.”
“Okay, okay, maybe I can,” Pilikia finally acknowledged. “It was an afternoon when the two of you were in town. Hadden came by on his father’s three-wheeler …”
“The Goddard boy?” Anna asked.
“Yes,” Pilikia replied, “Hadden Goddard.”
“The Cranberry Tales” is
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