Evelyn looked around at the cheap china figurines in the curio shop. She cringed, shrinking away from the trashy offerings.
The clerk, a rosy-cheeked young girl who looked like she should have been in school, came out from behind a frayed curtain and spoke to her. “Hello. Can I help you?”
“No, dear, I’m afraid not. I’m just waiting for my bus to leave. What’s the name of this town?”
“River’s End. I think it really is the end.” The girl grinned and flipped her long chestnut ponytail over her shoulder.
“But there’s a river?”
“Yes, the Strange River. It’s our claim to fame. Oh, that and the wood-carvings.”
“Ah! Do you sell carvings?”
“Usually Pa has a few for sale but they’re all gone, now. I have one of my own. Wait, I’ll show you.”
Evelyn looked at her watch. Twenty minutes before the bus was due to leave. Plenty of time to look at rustic wood-carvings. She had a soft spot in her heart for woodwork of any kind.
Forty minutes ago the bus driver had shouted “Rest stop! One hour!” as he jerked the bus to a halt and got out. Evelyn had gathered her things and gone into the decrepit station to find something to eat.
After touching up her makeup and her stylish silver hair in the restroom, she bought a cellophane-wrapped sandwich and a soda in the snack bar. She finished half the sandwich and threw the rest away. On her way through the ruined station, she saw that the ticket window was closed. It had been open when she entered the snack bar, just before five p.m. She passed scarred and broken benches and spaces where pay telephones had been ripped out of the wall.
It was a warm spring day, with a light breeze coming from the hills, carrying with it a curious odor of decay. Wandering outside the station to stretch her cramped legs, she saw few buildings, mostly small, run-down clapboard houses and trailers. There was a gas station and a grocery store, both in need of repair and paint. Next door to the station was the small curio shop. Having nothing else to do, Evelyn went in.
The young clerk came back and showed Evelyn a carving of a dog, in an impressionistic style but so lifelike that it appeared to be walking toward her, wagging its tail. The reddish wood helped to give the carving the image of an Irish setter.
“Why, this is beautiful!” she exclaimed before she could stop herself. “It’s not for sale?”
“Oh no, I couldn’t sell Rusty. Old Pete made it just for me, when the real Rusty died.”
“Old Pete lives around here?”
“Yes. He really is old, probably about ninety. He still carves, but not as much as he used to.” The girl flipped her unruly hair again.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Mary, Mary Jenkins. My pa Jim Jenkins owns the store.”
“Mary, what’s Pete’s full name?” Evelyn still fondled the carving.
“Old Pete? I dunno. Wait, I’ll ask my ma.”
Mary disappeared through the curtain again and Evelyn heard her calling, “Ma, what’s Old Pete’s name?”
Evelyn still had a good ten minutes before the bus was due to depart. She needed to get the name of the woodcarver—the small art gallery she and her sister owned in Baltimore would be a perfect place to display work like the finely carved Irish setter.
She waited a few minutes. Then, to her horror, she heard the bus start up and roll off down the highway!
Mary came ambling back through the curtain. “It’s Peter Callahan, Miss.”
“Oh, Mary, thank you. But I’m afraid I’ve missed my bus. I just heard it pull out. Do you know of any taxis here, or cars for rent? I need to get on to Charleston.”
“Oh, no, Miss, there’s nothing like that here. The next bus comes through at about two in the morning—that’s about all there is.”
Evelyn thought quickly. Her suitcase was on the bus. She was going to miss her appointment with an important client in Charleston. There was no hotel here, no restaurant, nothing! There wasn’t even a working telephone in the station. Well, there had to be another telephone somewhere.
“Mary, do you have a phone I could use?”
“There’s one in the back. Wait, I’ll ask Ma.”
In a few minutes Mary’s mother came bustling into the shop. “Missed your bus, did you? Those drivers just don’t wait. They don’t like to stop in River’s End, anyway. There’s nothing here except bathrooms!”
“Mrs. Jenkins, if I could just use your telephone . . . I’ll get the time and charges and pay you for it.”
“Sure. Come on back here. This is not the first time this has happened. Let me place the call for you.”
Evelyn raised her eyebrows. The plump woman in a worn housedress was brighter than she looked. She was going to make sure she was paid. Evelyn followed her through the curtain, into a welter of mis-matched furnishings, piles of clothing that looked clean but unpressed, and packing boxes.
Her client in Charleston was sympathetic. “Why didn’t you fly?”
“Fear,” said Evelyn, “I’ve been terrified of planes and heights all my life. And my car’s in the garage for a major overhaul.”
“I guess I’ll see you sometime tomorrow.”
“Yes. Thanks for your consideration.” Evelyn broke the connection.
While she waited for the operator to call back with the charges, Evelyn asked, “Is there a rooming house, or a place where I can stay and rest for a bit?”
“Not really,” said Mrs. Jenkins. “I’ll be happy to put a comfortable chair in the shop, so you can sit.”
“Oh, I wanted to ask—where does Peter Callahan live? Is it too far to walk? I’d love to see more of his work.”
“Well, it’s uphill, but it’s only about a quarter of a mile. His name is on the mailbox.” She gave Evelyn the directions.
“Thanks. I’ll try to see him, and I’ll come back and take you up on your offer of the chair.”
“We’re closing, but just knock on the door and I’ll let you in.” Mrs. Jenkins smiled.
As Evelyn walked through the street past the station, she saw no one. It was dinner time in the small town—that probably accounted for it. She felt very much alone.
The hill walk was difficult, especially in city shoes, but Evelyn struggled on and finally came to the mailbox. She entered a sunken front garden. Snapdragons were mingled with iris, while marigolds and petunias shared the riotous border. A brightly painted wooden dog or two, rabbits, and some dwarfs done up in primary colors peeked through the greenery here and there. Evelyn breathed in the flowery essence and thought it delightful. She pushed her way through the mass of plants and knocked.
When the door swung open, she almost lost her balance as she jumped back off the small porch. In front of her was a tiny, wrinkled man. He did appear to be ninety years old, as Mary had said, although he had thick black hair, and startling blue eyes.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Uh, hello. Are you Peter Callahan?”
“That I am. And with whom do I have the pleasure…”
“I’m Evelyn Conklin, and I saw one of your carvings. Do you have others I could see? I’d like to buy one.”
“Ah, yes, yes, Miss Evelyn. I’ve been expecting you. Come right in.”
Expecting…? Evelyn stooped to enter the doorway, built slightly too low for her five foot ten inches.
“Come and sit, Miss Evelyn. Some tea?”
“That would be most welcome.”
The little man left the room and came back immediately with a tray filled with a teapot, two cups, and several delicious-looking tiny cakes. It was as if he had the tray ready and waiting for her to come.
“I’m enchanted with your garden, Mr. Callahan. The carvings are excellent.”
“Please, everyone calls me ‘Pete.’ The garden is enchanted, of course.” He poured tea and offered her the plate of cakes.
Evelyn couldn’t decide whether to continue eating cakes, forcing herself not to gorge on the marvelous things, or to follow up on the theme of the enchanted garden. She put down the plate after consuming two cakes.
“An enchanted garden. Tell me about it.”
“Ah, you’ll find out. Let me show you my carvings.” Pete’s manner was so seductive that Evelyn thought he could have said “etchings.”
Pete reappeared, carrying several wood-carvings of animals, and some of children in unusual and interesting postures. Evelyn saw squirrels, rabbits, opossums, and children skipping rope, throwing balls, playing marbles.
More than enchanted, Evelyn became greedy! She foresaw a tremendous market for the lifelike figures. All of them looked ready to move on their own.
On her low chair, she bent her head only slightly to look into his eyes. “You’ve painted the ones outside.”
“Ah, you noticed! It had to be done because the weather would wear the wood down too quickly. The best work is in the natural wood.”
“I agree. Pete, I have a gallery in Baltimore. I’d like to take some of your work and display it there. To sell it, if you wish.”
“Now that might present a problem, Miss Evelyn. You see, I can only produce so many. Most of these are spoken for. I could only let you have this one.”
He handed her the carving of a small boy kneeling with a marble in his fist. A girl stood beside the boy, watching him. Both figures were on a base carved from the same piece of wood, which showed more marbles inside a faint groove representing the ring.
“Yes, I want this one.” Evelyn turned it over and over, admiring the work. “When could you have more?”
“It depends. I will have to send word to you. I have nothing else now.”
“All right. Can you telephone me?”
“No, I have no modern apparatus in my house. I will send a messenger.”
“How much do you want for this one?”
“My, Miss Evelyn, I can’t take money from you. You are my friend.”
Evelyn was puzzled, but accepted what the strange little person told her. She left him a note giving her address and told him she wanted to buy—she repeated buy—anything he made, that it wasn’t for her, that she would sell it to other admirers.
She was ready to leave. She rose from her chair, and as she moved past the windows at the back of the room, she glanced through them, expecting to see more greenery. Instead, she looked out on an immense canyon. She paused and looked down, a little light-headed. The Strange River flowed through the darkening valley at the bottom of the canyon.
Pete said, “The town’s claim to fame, as they like to say. These two,” he laid his small knotted hand on the carving, “these two children fell and were swept away by the river just last year.
He smiled at her and bowed deeply as she left. “I will see you again, Miss Evelyn.”
Clutching her prize to her breast, Evelyn walked, half-sliding, back down the hill to the curio shop. Mrs. Jenkins greeted her with another warm smile. “So you did find something? Good. Sometimes he has nothing at all for sale.”
For sale. So, he did sell the work. Evelyn couldn’t imagine why Pete thought she was so special.
A few months later, Evelyn spotted a small item in the Baltimore newspaper describing a landslide along the banks of the Strange River which carried away several people, part of a picnic party. She clipped the article and put it away. Her hand went out to the carving of the two children, which she had placed on her desk.
She spoke to her sister, at the desk beside her. “Jeannette, there’s something odd about these carvings.”
“I know, I love them. They are so lifelike,” said her sister.
“I almost want to say that they capture the spirit of the models, but that sounds too simple, too trite. What do you think?”
“Well, you told me Old Pete said the children were dead. Do you suppose…?”
“Oh, of course not! You have these strange ideas. You remind me of Mother, with her séances and card-readings.”
The doorbell of the gallery rang.
“Your turn,” said Jeannette.
Evelyn went to meet the guest.
“Mary! What are you doing here?”
“Old Pete sent me. He said to tell you that you can come pick up some carvings next week.”
“Wonderful! Here, sit down. Have you had lunch?”
“I don’t want anything, thank you. I just came to tell you that. I need to go now.”
“You can’t just rush off. Come and meet my sister and tell us about River’s End. Where did the landslide take place?”
Mary didn’t move. “Close to us. I have to go now. Goodbye.” She turned and went out the door before Evelyn could speak again.
Jeannette had been listening. “How strange. It sounded like that girl was in a trance.”
Evelyn’s carefully shaped eyebrows went up, and her mouth opened slightly as she turned to look at her sister.
Evelyn drove her car the second time, studying maps to make sure she followed the route of the bus. When she came to the river crossing, she pulled over and got out. The landslide was obvious. On the town side of the bridge a huge area of the canyon showed red earth instead of green shrubbery. At the bottom, at the river’s edge, great boulders rested amid a mass of smaller rocks and soil. Evelyn stepped back quickly, nauseated. Why had she looked down?
She stopped at the curio shop. This time, a man came out from behind the ragged curtain.“I came to thank Mrs. Jenkins for helping me when I was here before—I’m Evelyn Conklin—I missed my bus.”
“Thank you for coming by. I’m Jim, her husband. I’ll tell her.” He did not smile, as his wife and daughter had.
Evelyn shook hands with him and left. The man with the sad face was not at all as friendly as his family.
She drove to Pete’s house, accelerating carefully over the gravelly incline.
“Hello, my dear Miss Evelyn,” said Pete. “Come in, have some tea. Oh, but it’s lunch-time. I have a stew on the stove waiting for you.
The two sat companionably at the small table, and Evelyn consumed a great quantity of the best stew she had ever eaten, followed by tea and more of the delightful cakes.
“Now for business. I’ll show you what I have ready.”
Pete brought out four carvings—three children, a little older than the ones he showed her before, and one dog—a pert cocker spaniel.
Evelyn’s eyes sparkled. “Pete, they’re wonderful!”
“Yes, they were. Your sister will love them.”
“My sister? How did you…? I love them.”
“Yes, you do.”
His manner of speaking puzzled her but she was so taken by the graceful, fun-filled statuettes that for a moment she forgot her bewilderment. Her hands caressed the carvings. Suddenly, she gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth.
“Why, why…that’s Mary!”
“Yes, and that’s Sam, and Johnny, and little Daisy.” He pointed to the dog.
“Evelyn, come to the window. Come and see where I get my inspiration.”
“No, I’m afraid of heights!”
“No need to be afraid now, Evelyn, my friend. Come and see the grand view.”
Slowly, Evelyn rose and walked toward the window. She was not able to resist the little man. She looked at his laughing eyes, and then at the open window.
“It’s warm for September,” he said. “Best to let all the fresh air in.”
Evelyn walked until she was right at the window ledge, keeping her eyes level so that she looked across the canyon, not down.
“Now look down, Evelyn. See how lovely it is. It just takes a little effort—“
Evelyn floated through the air toward the Strange River.
Jeannette expected Evelyn back the next day. With a stopover at a motel in a nearby town, it was an easy drive back to Baltimore. Jeannette looked forward to seeing more of the wonderful carvings.
She looked up as the bell rang, and went to take delivery of a large, badly-wrapped package. The messenger dropped the box and left, not waiting for a signature.
There was no return address. The outside of the box was marked simply “Conklin Gallery.”
A little suspicious, Jeannette opened the box with care. She found wood carvings, of a quality she had never seen before. There was a small dog, a lovely teenage girl with a long ponytail sitting on a bench, and two boys, also in their teen years. One was pitching a softball and the other was in a crouched position, ready to catch the ball. Jeannette wiped off the dust of the packing material and placed the carvings carefully on a shelf she and Evelyn had prepared for them.
“But why…where’s Evelyn?” she mumbled to herself.
The box was not yet empty. Reaching deep inside it, she lifted out the most beautiful piece yet—a life-size bust, the perfect likeness of Evelyn.
Evelyn looked around at the cheap china figurines in the curio shop. She cringed, shrinking away from the trashy offerings.