FRIDAY: Hunchback of Musquodoboit Harbour

BY KAREN HARDING

Copyright is held by the author. This story was previously published in CANADIAN magazine.

“LAST ONE to the door is a rotten egg,” hollered my brother Nathan as the tires crunched on the gravel driveway of my great aunt’s driveway. Everything to him was a contest.

Finally we had arrived. I’d had my nose pressed to the car window for so long I felt it would be flat as a pancake. Mom said the drive would only take an hour but it seemed like half the day.

We pulled up to a tiny house that had only a door and one window in front. It didn’t have an upstairs but had a roof over the door shaped like and “A” at the top. Dad would have gone crazy with the long grass and the weeds everywhere. He hates long grass and weeds.

Mom was taking my brother Nathan and me to see Aunt Elva — our great Aunt Elva Primrose to be exact. Her name sounded like a princess. My older cousins talked about the great cookies and the homemade doughnuts they used to have at her place. I couldn’t wait to tell my bestest friend Sara Jane all about her when I got home tonight. She doesn’t have any great aunts anymore.

Mom got to the front door, knocked and then walked right in through the squeaky front door. After the bright sunshine, it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. It reminded me of our dark basement; smelled like the basement storage closet too.

“Watch out for Hunter. He’s pretty much blind,” Mom said. At first I didn’t notice the black and brown mutt sitting on a rug against the wall. He was mostly black with a brown face and paws with white hair around his mouth. His front claws were long and yellow.

Mom walked over to the kitchen counter to grab the kettle, went to the sink and filled it with water. She sometimes takes her own tea leaves when she goes to see relatives. It’s called Monk’s Blend and it is the kind that goes in the round ball thing-a-ma-jig with holes in it. She calls it a “confuser.”

Of course, Nathan had to flap his hands in front of the dog’s face to see if it really was blind. Hunter just lifted his head and yawned, stretched his front paws out in front and bent over in a long stretch. Then Hunter walked right into the front door frame, shook his head and lay back down on the mat.

Nathan plopped down on all fours, lifted his head and sniffed the air. He crawled over to the door frame and ran into it just like Hunter. I giggled. He stopped, gave a low growl and shook his head. He headed for the fridge.

My turn. I dropped to the tile flooring that had big orange and brown squares all over it and headed directly to the kitchen table and chairs. The chairs had chrome legs to match the table and the seat had a strip of duct tape right across the middle. When my head hit the chair, it made a noise as it scraped across the floor.

Mom turned around quickly.

“Ellie. Get off the floor,” she said in the same loud whisper she saves for when we’re out in public. By then Nathan had sprung up from his crouch and put on his innocent face. Why was it that he started it, but I was the one who got in trouble? Always! I got up from the floor and stood beside Nathan. I elbowed him as hard as I could. He grunted.

“I’m in the back, dear,” came a voice like the mean witch in Wizard of Oz. It was crackly and scratchy at the same time.

I stared at my brother. He actually stood motionless for a whole five seconds. I swallowed.

Mom started to head down the hall toward the voice. She looked back and gestured for us to follow. Nathan hesitated at first then followed her down the hall. He stopped quickly at the door frame. I skipped down the hall behind him and ran smack into his back. Making a fist, I was just about to punch him in the shoulder when I stopped in my tracks.

My eyes were fixed on the shortest grown up I had ever seen in my whole entire life. I think I was as tall as her. She was wearing a flowered skirt that looked like the curtains in Grammie’s dining room. Her blouse seemed longer in the front.  At the top of her back was a hump like a camel’s. It lifted her blouse up so much that it didn’t even touch her lower back.

The weirdest thing was that Mom was heading straight toward her with her arms stretched out. When Aunt Elva stretched out her arms, you could see the skin wobbling underneath.  Mom gave Aunt Elva a kiss on the cheek and then a long hug. Mom laid her arm right over the top of the hump. I looked at Nathan. He looked at me. We both stared at Mom waiting for her reaction. Nothing. Not even a flinch.

“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s get some fresh air,” suggested Mom. She went to the window, opened the drapes and proceeded to yank it open. The fresh air and sunshine streamed in.

I got a better look at Aunt Elva. She was wearing a pair of sandals with Velcro straps. The top of her feet were puffy but the toes were a kind of purply, red colour. Her feet were bulging so much it looked like the straps were going to burst. How did she manage to walk around in those stumps?

Nathan was totally absorbed in biting his fingernails. It was like he was visiting another planet.

“Have a seat, sweeties.” That voice again.

Nathan snapped out of his trance long enough to race me to the one lone chair in the room. He won. I had no choice but to sit beside Aunt Elva on the sofa, complete with crocheted doilies on the arms and a colourful afghan across the back. She smelled like lavender soap like the kind in Grammie’s bathroom that is only for smelling, not for using. Aunt Elva obviously didn’t follow the rules.

I tried my hardest to put on my best smile, the one I reserve for the minister at church. I hoped Mom would see the great effort I was making. She would be pleased.

I noticed Aunt Elva’s glasses for the first time. They were so big that they were sitting on her cheeks but still touched her eyebrows at the same time. The eyes behind looked glassy like the fox above Uncle Barry’s mantle. Why did mom make us come here?

“I’ll make tea.” Mom smiled as she started to leave the room.

“Lovely.” replied Aunt Elva. “Aunt Nina was such a dear and sent over some cookies for the children. There are some heavenly lemon squares too.” Her voice grated on my eardrums.

Aunt Elva leaned forward and then spoke to Nathan and me, “So tell me. How old are you children now?”

She made it seem like asking our age was a very important question. Aunt Elva’s smile seemed to go from one side of her face to the other. She certainly seemed happy to have us visit. Nathan was chowing down so hard on his fingernails, I didn’t expect any help from him.

“I’m six and Nathan is eight.” I finally answered.

I glared at Nathan. Still chomping. It had taken two months of nagging from Mom and Dad before he gave up the bad habit. They were going to be so mad at him. I wanted to be there when he got a talking to.

I couldn’t think of what to say next. Until . . . “I’m going to be seven in five more sleeps.” I blurted.

“Isn’t that lovely?” she responded. Her voice didn’t sound quite like crumpling tin foil anymore; maybe crinkling waxed paper.

“Mom’s going to make me a pony cake.”

“Sounds delightful.” Old people always use funny old people words. “You’re very tall for your age,” she added.

“As a matter of fact, I‘m the third tallest in my class at school. Next to Bobby Andrews and Peter LeBail.”

“Oh my,” she said, smiling.

“But guess what? I can run faster than both of them.”

Aunt Elva closed her eyes, rolled her head back and her whole body shook as she laughed. Her blouse flapped back and forth over the lower part of her back. I quickly looked away. Nathan was speechless. I’ve never seen him sit so still for so long.

Aunt Elva did have the kind of laugh, though, that made you want to laugh along with her. I couldn’t help but grin.

Her voice got a bit softer. “When I was your age, I used to chase after the sheep dogs. They called me Little Bo Peep. My, my I loved to run.”

I tried to imagine her as a little girl. She must have been no taller than the furniture.

“You had a sheep dog? Did you have any sheeps?” We don’t even have a dog at our house and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have sheeps.

“Oh, yes. We had many animals on our farm when I was your age. We had sheep, horses, cows, goats and chickens. And, we had two sheep dogs.”

“Wow! What were the dog’s names?” I asked.

“Everyone just called them ‘the dogs.’”

“That’s sad,” I said. “They deserved names.”

“So true. That is why I secretly named them Mable and Prince.” Her face lit up when she saw me smile.

“Where did all the animals sleep? You must have had a huge house.”

“In the barn, of course.” Aunt Elva grinned. “We also had lots of barn cats; too many to count.”

“Aw. You were so lucky. We’re only allowed one cat. She usually sleeps with me. Her name is Dixie.”

Just then Mom brought in the goodies and tea on a tray and set it on the coffee table. How fancy! She had lemonade for my brother and me.  After placing a small plate on our laps and giving us each a napkin, Mom sat on the sofa on the other side of Aunt Elva. Nathan is always in such a hurry to get food in his mouth that he misses half the time.

Hunter followed Mom slowly into the room from the kitchen. He sniffed the air again and again then went over to Aunt Elva and lay by her feet. He bumped the coffee table and the teacups rattled. Nobody seemed to care.

The cookies and the lemon squares were yummy. Old people are the best bakers in the world. On the drive here, Mom told us not to judge a book by its cover. I think I know what she was talking about. After all, Aunt Elva seemed really nice.

After we finished eating, Mom started to talk about all kinds of relatives I didn’t know I had. In the meantime, I spotted a magnifying glass sitting on an open book on the coffee table. I leaned over the top of it to get a better look at the letters underneath. They were huge.

“You can play with it if you’d like,” offered Aunt Elva. Her voice wasn’t sounding as bad now.

I grabbed the magnifying glass by the handle, jumped up from the sofa and headed to the shelf in the corner where all the knickknacks were. Dust on the figurines was as big as feathers. Nathan tore himself away from his nail biting to join me. He grabbed the magnifying glass from my hand and held it up to my face.

“Gross,” he said with a smile. I held back from punching him this time.

We covered every centimetre of the room. Things are more interesting when they’re 10 times larger. The absolute best thing was the dead fly we found on the windowsill. Who knew flies’ legs were so hairy?

One thing I didn’t want to see up close was that hump!

Our afternoon visit was winding down. I guess the grown-ups ran out of news about their relatives. Aunt Elva shuffled her way out to the back door to see us off. Hunter lumbered out to the kitchen behind her. Mom motioned for us to return the magnifying glass and to follow them to the kitchen.

Nathan, at that very moment chose to push me toward Aunt Elva Primrose’s hump. I stumbled and tried to grab onto the kitchen cabinet but only managed to smack my elbow on it. A Bluenose plate had been sitting there, leaning against the wall. It slid down onto the top of the cabinet and circled round and round before it came to rest.

In the meantime, my hands skimmed great Aunt Elva’s hump. I gave a little squeal and pulled my hands away as quickly as I could like the time I accidentally touched the hot iron. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t tell if the hump was squishy or solid like a rock. I quickly inspected my hands to make sure they were all right.

Mom didn’t see what happened but heard the squeal. She glared at me. Aunt Elva didn’t move a muscle. It’s like she didn’t feel anything. Maybe there was no feeling in the hump – like after going to the dentist for a cavity!

“Your visit today made my day. No, I think it made my whole month,” Aunt Elva said to Mom with tears in her eyes. She thanked us again and again for the visit. It’s like the near miss on the hump was nothing at all! Mom gave her another one of her hugs. I was just about to open the door to escape when I saw Aunt Elva Primrose reach her chubby little arms out to me for a hug.

I froze. I didn’t expect this to happen. I wasn’t prepared. Where should I put my hands?  What if I accidentally touched the hump again? What if the hump was contagious? Wasn’t I already at risk?

Mom must have seen the look of terror on my face and nodded her head quickly up and down for encouragement. I held my breath and let the hug happen. She hugged me around my shoulders while I let my hands stay around her waist. It seemed like a long hug but then it was over. I let my breath out. I hadn’t touched the hump and I’d survived!

Out the door we went. Nathan and I raced to the car and dived in. We waved our goodbyes from the comfort of the back seat. I reached my arm around my back to make sure there wasn’t a hump starting to grow.

“Who wants an ice cream cone?” Mom announced. I guess that was our reward for not misbehaving all afternoon, especially Nathan.

I had a one hour drive to think about what I would tell Sara Jane. I would start with the blind dog named Hunter. I would follow it up with details about the yummy treats, lemonade and tiger-striped ice cream. Oh yes, the magnifying glass was the best invention ever. I thought about the fact that Sara Jane didn’t even have a great aunt. But how much about great Aunt Elva should I tell her? I decided to tell her absolutely everything . . . especially how brave I was when it came to that dreadful hump.

4 comments

  1. Connie Cook

    Karen, loved your story. It reminded me of my grandmother, who also had one of those “mysterious humps.”

  2. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: Hunchback of Mosquodoboit |

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