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A MARMOT AND A MYSTERIOUS WOMAN
The strange things started happening as soon as Jonathan Lambshead walked onto his grandfather’s estate and only got worse. Although, in a sense, you could say that strange things had been happening to Jonathan his entire life.
First it was bad cell phone service as he got off the bus, which shook to a stop where the country road turned onto the rutted drive that, a half mile beyond, ended at the mansion.
Then no reception, although he supposed he could call the mysterious figure lurking in the bushes some hundred feet ahead a kind of “reception.”
That this figure then darted into the underbrush suggested it wasn’t the gardener. Something about the nongardener was familiar, but Jonathan couldn’t put a finger on it. The moment passed and Jonathan decided against pursuit. Usually an unexpected detour would have delighted him, but he was too eager to get to his destination and the wonders promised by the estate agent, Stimply.
So he filed the encounter away under the category of “shy herb specialist.” Dr. Lambshead’s estate was large, and the man had had any number of helpers as his health began to fail. Knowing his grandfather, upward of half of these helpers were helplessly eccentric—people his grandfather had met on journeys drawn into his orbit.
It had taken all day to travel to the mansion, coming from Poxforth Academy near Robin Hood’s Bay on the coast of Yorkshire. Three bus transfers, each one more ancient and creaky, the last with wooden floorboards and faded insignia that seemed to date back to World War I.
Now he was as deep into woods and rolling hills as you could get in England. The summer light was fading to amber, slowly withdrawing, drying up the lovely patches of gold projected onto the road through the tree cover.
He was a tired sixteen-year-old lugging a heavy backpack. Yet the tiredness had nothing to do with a physical weight. It came more from a dissatisfaction with his studies at Poxforth Academy. He missed his life in Florida before Poxforth. He missed the summer tanagers and winter warblers, and so many other things.
Perverse in a sense—he’d grown up in a tumbledown cottage in the wild and desolate countryside near Robin Hood’s Bay until age seven, and then been brought kicking and screaming to Florida by his mother, Sarah. But Jonathan had grown to love the subtropical wilderness there, and the Panhandle coast, so different from northeast England. He’d made a life in America with Sarah, and had forgotten England for the most part. Until Poxforth.
Most days at the academy, when not in class Jonathan could be found sitting on the grass under a shady tree, pretending a swamp full of alligators stretched out before him rather than a small, reed-filled lake. Being outside helped Jonathan ignore the depressing brutalist architecture of the school’s concrete buildings. (“My kingdom for a gargoyle!” was a common lament of Poxforth attendees.)
It was not that he found the intellects or demeanors of his professors less than satisfactory, but that Jonathan had soon realized that he was out of touch with the world, or it with him. He had little interest in any further formal education, unless it occurred outdoors. Especially as he had, without much thought, assumed he would follow his grandfather’s own trajectory of using biology studies as prologue for a career in medicine—only to realize it wasn’t for him. And how, anyway, could he possibly compete in that shadow?
The newspaper clipping of his grandfather’s obituary was always on his person, folded safely inside his wallet.
Noted “man of medicine” and erstwhile explorer Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead has died at the age of 75, of a heart attack, in his study at his estate in the countryside outside London. In addition to his outlandish medical inventions, Lambshead was best known for his efforts to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases in the tropics, his animal rights advocacy, and the monies his foundation has donated to indigenous organizations for repatriation of lands and artifacts.
Although very successful, Dr. Lambshead lived a life often marred by tragedy, including the death of his first and only wife in a car accident in the 1970s and the more recent disappearance of his daughter, Sarah, in the Italian Alps.
On it went, telling Jonathan nothing he needed to know, and leaving out anything along the lines of, “He is survived by a grandson, Jonathan Lambshead, still enrolled at Poxforth Academy but in the process of crashing and burning.”
Jonathan had not been invited to the funeral.
The distance Dr. Lambshead had kept in life, he had kept in death, and this after ignoring Jonathan’s letters asking about the disappearance of his mother. It was hard to forgive his grandfather for that, the only charitable explanation being that this had come a mere two years before Dr. Lambshead’s death, a period that may have been fraught with medical issues. But not a single query acknowledged?
The great man had been dead a year, but it had taken ages for estate issues to be settled. Nor could Stimply, who had found Dr. Lambshead’s body and been Sarah’s lawyer as well, shed any light on why Jonathan’s mother had traveled to the Alps, or what had happened there other than “mountaineering accident, presumed dead.”
There had been some depressing back-and-forth with Stimply about Dr. Lambshead’s will, details Sarah would have handled in a better world. All it boiled down to, as Stimply avoided too many of Jonathan’s questions, was that Dr. Lambshead had left explicit but brief instructions about the inheritance. “Namely, that it is contingent on your ability to catalogue the items in your grandfather’s mansion. Once that task is complete, including the submission of a list and brief descriptions”—which, Stimply had hinted, might take just that single summer—“the property is yours.”
As for the “most valuable part of the collection,” as Stimply put it, Jonathan was given a folder containing “the fruits of a prior cataloging effort” and a comforting diagram of the mansion’s floor plan and the “Cabinet of Curiosities” in the enormous basement that made it all seem tidy and manageable.
After Jonathan had agreed to the terms, a typed letter from Dr. Lambshead had come via Stimply, just a week before. Sealed with a huge blot of red wax seeming to date from the Edwardian period, the letter had instructed him to “memorize and then destroy.”
It had only been two pages long, single-spaced, but the contents loomed large in Jonathan’s imagination, even if he didn’t understand most of what Dr. Lambshead had conveyed to him. Some of it was practical, some of it abstract, some of it straight-out marching orders, and there were parts that even appeared to be stolen from fortune cookies.
Random highlights included:
“What you seek is always above your head and deep in the ocean.”
“Never go through the second or third doors unless you know how to come back through the first.”
“Take care of the bird-children as best you can. Or they will take care of you.”
“The fuse box is in the basement, to your left.”
“Help will come from unexpected quarters.”
“Nurture allies where you can find them.”
Taken together, it was a garage sale of advice.
Still, Jonathan had followed the instructions—memorized the contents, burned the letter, kept the old key that came with it (sans instructions). As a matter of practicality, he’d had to write down Dr. Lambshead’s eccentric “Allies List,” but had mixed in some nonsense names to obscure what was real and what wasn’t. Although perhaps all of it was nonsense, given “The one-eared squirrel near the dead tree in Park Borely, Marseilles” was one of the “Allies.” Nor was this the only squirrel on the list.
Watching the letter turn to ash in the waste bin beside his dorm room desk should have meant nothing, but for some reason it brought back with it the pain of Sarah’s disappearance. No: her death. He must be honest about that, and strong. There was no hope that Sarah would be coming back.
As for his father, well, Jonathan still had no idea who he was, nor ever expected to know.
* * *
It had been a bit much, after Sarah’s death, for Dr. Lambshead to be his guardian and yet so absent that Poxforth had, in a sense, been a better parent. Worse, almost, that Dr. Lambshead’s mouthpiece, Stimply, had never put in an appearance, either—just a voice on the phone. Yet the relief, too, that after Dr. Lambshead’s death it was still Poxforth and the disembodied Stimply taking care of him, Stimply inheriting the task and the Poxforth headmaster displaying a breathtaking understanding of the situation. For Jonathan neither needed nor wanted some “real” foster parent for the short period before being considered an adult. Had, in fact, told Stimply that he would simply run away into the wilderness if need be, there to wait it out. No one had wanted to test his resolve, for which Jonathan felt no small measure of relief.
For who could replace Sarah, anyhow? And while summers were a bit tricky, he’d dutifully waited them out at the invitation of Poxforth families he assumed Stimply had put up to the task of reluctant shepherd.
It was true, however, that from time to time, he wondered why they’d been so amenable—why Dr. Lambshead and then Stimply hadn’t forced him to obey the law.
Jonathan had concluded that it was better not to know.
The mansion was as much a distant relative as Dr. Lambshead. Jonathan had hardly any memory of his last visit as a child, and although he’d expected the overgrown grounds, other elements surprised him. For example, as he approached the gravel half circle right in front of the ridiculous wrought-iron front doors of the mansion, Jonathan spied a sports car and the custom-built shed that had sprung up near it. The shed’s roof had been blasted apart by some distant catastrophe. Experiment? Accidental fire?
Yes, it was very much Dr. Lambshead’s estate. No lord to the manor born would have built a ramshackle shed in front of a mansion—nor left it there after apparent disaster. Jonathan remembered with fondness his mother’s story of once discovering in Dr. Lambshead’s plush foyer one of the man’s many awards propping up a table leg, and another half-buried in the cat’s litter box in the corner, looking like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes.
As he came closer, Jonathan saw with relief that the Jaguar his grandfather had bequeathed to him, the fabled automobile Stimply had described in glowing detail as if it were every young man’s dream to drive one, was in terrible condition. Jonathan didn’t care if he ever learned to drive. Now he wouldn’t feel obligated to try.
The Jaguar lay like a metal corpse on the shoulder of the drive in the foreground, rusted out and resting on four flat tires, the convertible top down and the expensive leather seats covered in leaves and vines and weeds that shot up out of the undercarriage. Jonathan quite liked the effect, and felt the vehicle might be most useful as a pot for plants or an unwieldly trellis.
Less pleasing: no sign of Stimply, who had fallen all over himself with the promise of “being there to greet you at the door and show you around.”
This didn’t strike Jonathan as the best start; always good to have a guide when taking a new trail.
Yet there was a welcoming committee, of sorts. Next to the shed, next to the rotting Jag, amid the tall grasses, stood a marmot, staring in his general direction.
Woodchuck. Groundhog. Whistle-pig. Fat ground squirrel. Many were the names of marmot, which appeared neither in Robin Hood’s Bay nor in the part of North Florida where he had spent his teenage years. Certainly not native to the British Isles, but an interloper. A descendant of a pet gone feral? Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s assistant?
The furry, low-to-the-ground shed-guardian was golden and shimmering in the failing light, framed by wildflowers and long grass, and looked just as perfect as if captured by a wildlife documentary. The marmot stared at him with inquisitive dark eyes as, ignoring the purple flowers half-crushed by its rump, it destroyed a large oxeye daisy with fearsome buckteeth.
“Marmot!” Jonathan said, grinning. “Marmot! What are you doing here?”
Unashamed to talk to the marmot—relieved, even, as given a choice between a shadowy figure and a misplaced marmot, Jonathan would choose the marmot every time. No matter that this habit of conversing with animals had made some of his fellow students call him childish—that just made them unsuitable friends in his estimation.
In response, as if he’d broken a spell by speaking, the marmot went “a-runnin’,” as his neighbor Paula in rural Florida might’ve said, which meant Jonathan had to go “a-chasin’.” Through the long grass, in the fading light, as the wide shimmery rug of marmot swooshed through the vegetation, headed around to the back of the mansion, it seemed at times to wink out of sight, wink back into sight, in a decidedly uncanny manner.
The treasure of a neglected pond overrun with bulrushes and lily pads lay behind the mansion, surrounded by more weed-choked lawn and, off to the side, ancient lichen-clad wrought-iron chairs in a Stonehenge-like circle.
At the pond is where the marmot, apparently confused as to the location of its burrow, turned to chatter at Jonathan, and promptly became full-on mysterious by becoming translucent—to fade, and then recover, gather its gumption, corporeal once more.
“You are the tricky sort, then,” Jonathan said. “Tricky, tricky marmot.”
Neither Marmota flaviventris nor Marmota caligata. More like Marmota arcanum. The term Marmota arcanum came to him in the instant, but he felt as if he had already known it. But from where? He’d met all sorts of tricky animals at Robin Hood’s Bay as a child, and a few more in Florida. The tricky sorts he recalled with a fondness tied to brilliant memories of exploring. They were, in a way, his best-kept secret.
As dusk settled over the pond, the marmot turned to barge through the weeds again, and disappeared for good off toward the other side of the mansion. Had Jonathan lost sight of the marmot in the thick, tall grass, or had the fade come on?
The pond reflected a deep blue against the encroaching dusk. Leopard frogs croaked, and from the bulrushes he could hear the song of birds perched precarious amid the swaying. A line of tall pines behind the pond obscured the glare of the setting sun as they creaked and sighed in the wind.
Except for the mysterious figure standing beside the water about seventy-five feet to his left. Shy herb specialist? The person had positioned themselves in a patch of pine-tree shadow so deep that relative to the glare of the last bit of sun he couldn’t tell.
“Hello,” Jonathan called out, and waved. But he was glad for the distance between them.
The tall figure just stood there—in a hoodie, or just a hood, he could not tell—so he said hello again.
“You’re not very impressive.” A woman’s voice. Not shouting, and yet the voice seemed to be speaking right into his ear.
How had she gotten from the front drive to the backyard so quickly? Had she run? His pulse quickened and he felt unmoored, which was just a little better than feeling unnerved.
“You’re right: I am not very impressive. My apologies,” he replied. Putting on a mask that said he wasn’t much bothered, a hard-earned talent from often having to act older than his age.
“Well … you aren’t,” the woman said, as if scripted, as if she’d very much not expected Jonathan to agree with her.
Shy herb specialist now appeared inaccurate. Belligerent perennials genius? Conflicted conifer consultant? She sounded very English, and yet odd; he couldn’t place why. Which was also odd.
She wore boots, he could see that much in the glare—military-grade, tucked into dark slacks. He had an impression of a lithe physique beneath what must be a poncho or a jacket of some sort. He also had the impression she’d conducted a secret test … that he’d failed.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Were you part of Dr. Lambshead’s staff?”
A rough laughter greeted that question.
All right, then, not a member of staff. A trespasser? He was armed with no more useful a weapon than a tiny flashlight and half of a salami link, in butcher’s paper, that he’d dropped into the pocket of his blazer a day ago and forgotten about.
“Are you too dimwitted to be afraid of animals that disappear right in front of you? Shouldn’t you be more careful?”
“I’ve seen stranger.”
He was seeing stranger right now.
“Again, not very impressive.”
“Care to tell me who I am auditioning for? And what position? And why I shouldn’t just call the police?”
“You think a vanishing varmint is ordinary, and yet you think the phone works here? Bless. You’re going to have to get much smarter very quickly.”
“Is insulting people a professional calling or just a hobby?”
“You should think about becoming a professional.”
“I know you, Jonathan Lambshead, and if you were smart you’d leave this place and never come back. But I don’t think you’re smart enough for that.”
“Well, I don’t know you and I’m staying put, despite your warm welcome.”
“Then we will meet again.”
“Let’s take a vote on that. If it’s a tie, we’ll agree to never meet again.”
In the time it had taken for him to try to be witty, Lady Insult had faded into darkness, if not in the uncanny way of the marmot. Night had fallen and she made her escape along with the last of the light.
“Get off my property!” Jonathan shouted to the innocent pond, feeling a bit powerless. “Stay well clear of me from now on,” he said to the croaking frogs.
Despite his bravado, Jonathan shivered, and not from the chill of the night air. The conversation had exhausted him. And he was glad now that his Poxforth friends Rack and Danny were due to join him soon. Danny was a year older, and Rack was a grad student and older still.
A tinkling, like bells, came to him, faint and ethereal.
The sound put Jonathan in mind of faeries and hidden kingdoms. But it was only a telephone, proving Lady Insult wrong and ringing from somewhere inside the mansion. Ringing with an urgency that demanded his attention.
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