Copyright is held by the author.
PERHAPS I should have paid more attention to the flowery hand-painted sign nailed to the utility pole half way up the laneway. It welcomed travellers to “Mystic Moon Way.” That struck me as a bit odd for this part of the prairies where conservative Scandinavian values were in full force. I was a relative newcomer to this part of the country, so the discrepancy didn’t seem significant. Besides, I was on a hunt and little irregularities weren’t going to get in my way.
Long grass had almost hidden the “For Sale” sign even though it was only early May. But grass grows quickly on the prairies and in a few weeks the first hay crop would come off. During the winter months the sign post had been at the mercy of blowing snow and heaving frosts; it now hung precariously from one hook. The farmhouse up for sale sat about a quarter mile from the dusty gravel road. Typical of prairie homesteads, a woodlot occupied the area north and west of the house affording protection from unrelenting winter winds.
A newer looking barn sat opposite the farmhouse on the other side of the yard. It appeared to be in great shape and I was immediately drawn to it. The barns on so many of the farms I had visited this spring were on the verge of collapse; my hunt was beginning to look fruitless. However, this airy building needed only minor modifications to make it horse worthy. A small pasture to the east of the barn glowed green in the afternoon sun and a run-in shed was strategically placed to offer my equine companions shelter from winter winds and summer sun. My hayburners would be comfortable here. The sense of despair that had begun to take hold in the last few weeks started to dissipate.
“This is by far the best farm we’ve seen. Don’t you think?” I asked my husband and the non-committal real estate agent who was showing us the property.
“Yeah. Looks good. Great barn. Let’s see what the house is like.” Ben is not a horse person. Our agent made no comment. This was her first visit to this property as well and she merely provided us with the formless smile required in her line of work.
Outside, the farmhouse looked pretty traditional. A storey and a half. A white wood-frame home with red trim. Shutters on the windows. Hollyhocks sprouting in the garden. As we followed the real estate agent through the door she turned to us. “The owners have left for the day so there’s no rush. Take your time and get a feel for the house.”
The door we entered through couldn’t be called a front door. Although the house did have two entrances, both were on the same side, so the house had neither a back door nor a front one. And both led to the kitchen. Traditional on the outside it may have been, but on the inside not many original trappings remained.
The three of us almost collided into one another at the sight of a curious addition to the kitchen.
“Oh my gosh! What is THAT doing in a kitchen? Or any room, in any house, for that matter,” I exclaimed. In a silent response, two heads shook in unison.
A swing hung from the ceiling. Surprise turned to intrigue. Sun spilled through the large kitchen window and the swing cast an ethereal shadow that flowed over the floor and crept up the side of a restored wood-burning stove giving the impression of a slow-moving, amoebic, life form. The stove looked unused and its newly painted enamel surface gleamed and dared anyone to return this cooker to its former life when a fire once burned in its belly. However, the stove sat neglected in the corner of the kitchen. The aroma of fresh-baked bread may never again waft from its oven and an enticing pot of home-made soup may never bubble on its cast-iron top. It had been replaced by a microwave and a coffee maker — anachronisms in this century-old home — that sat uncomfortably on the countertop and were all that appeared to be responsible for preparing food in this kitchen.
Opposite the stove, aged kitchen cabinets pressed against the wall. The doors had been removed and the contents of the cupboards lay exposed. Stacks of plates, saucers and bowls sat in orderly fashion, but the haphazard display of kitchen gadgets and Tupperware collided with cereal boxes and tins of canned fruit and vegetables. The discord they created craved to be hidden from view.
An inviting table should have been the focal point of this one-hundred-year-old kitchen, but instead the swing hung in its place. The room felt incomplete. No one could sit on a well-worn chair, elbows on table, and, over a cup of coffee, chat with a neighbour who had dropped by to return the tools he had borrowed. No family dinners could be eaten here. No late night discussions could take place about when to plant the corn, begin the harvest or put up the tomatoes.
A child might enjoy this kitchen, because the swing wouldn’t seem strange to her. She could make use of it while Mum bustled about preparing dinner. It could become a close friend. Watching her mother as she chopped carrots and celery for the evening meal the little girl could climb onto the pine plank and ease her small body into a comfortable position. As her petite hands clutched the thick sisal ropes leading to the ceiling she could set the swing in motion with a gentle rocking action. But no young girls lived here. The agent told us the farm was owned by a middle-aged couple with no family.
Who used this swing? And why? Perhaps the present occupant of this home needed a place to contemplate. The gently swaying swing would encourage dreams of exotic places, colourful people or out of the ordinary adventures. It would be easy to develop peace of mind and a sense of serenity as the wave-like action created a sense of well-being.
Yes, I believed the swing belonged to a creative person with lots of imagination. However, as I began to tour the house, I came to the conclusion that the imagination of the woman — I couldn’t envision a man using this swing — wasn’t so much creative as it was painfully peculiar. Outside the kitchen window a flower box painted in psychedelic hues glared in the sunlight. The box was so brightly coloured it hardly needed blossoms. Had magic mushrooms been at work here? Perhaps she had been a California flower child during the 60s. This could explain some of her unique decorating ideas.
Overall the décor was classic hippie, shabby without the chic. In addition, the lady of the house was also into the distressed look, a decorating style that had become popular in the last few years. This woman seemed unaware that a house this old really didn’t want to appear any more distressed than it already was. Some people hammer away at furniture or woodwork to give the impression of age and provide a sense of character; everything in this house had that naturally. And the haphazard amateur splashes of paint the woman had applied to the window and door trims were bizarre.
She had further distressed the house by taking a disk-sander to the ancient pine floors in the living area and gouged out sections to simulate wear and tear. The once beautiful ten-inch planks ran the entire length of the room. I could see her, down on hands and knees, smiling, the whine of the sander obliterating her hushed humming as she contemplated the next section of floor to torture. To view the results of this deliberate act of vandalism was gut-wrenching.
The wacky renovations continued to unfold as we explored the house. In the living room a plasterer appeared to have gone mad, as if the devil had taken hold making him throw wet plaster against one of the walls to emulate some demonic version of a pie throwing contest. The dreadful rough-textured wall resembled a poorly built adobe-style house. I might have considered it funky if the room looked out over the Arizona desert, but the window framed a typical view of a prairie farm. Acres and acres of evenly spaced rows of emerging green sprigs of soy beans stretched to the horizon. Only a lonely cottonwood tree broke the monotony. The neighbouring farm was a mere bump on the horizon.
In silence I toured the house with Ben and the agent. Occasionally, we glanced at one another. Their expressions indicated that their thoughts mirrored the weird ones that skittered through my mind.
The rough plastering was repeated in the miniscule bathroom, again on one wall only. The remainder of the room looked derelict. A shocking pink bathtub teamed up with flaking gold-trimmed cabinets and a dingy faux marble vanity top. I wouldn’t be encouraged to linger in this bathroom in the morning.
As in the kitchen none of the closets and cupboards throughout the house had doors. Maybe she had a hard time remembering where she put everything and a quick glance into each room would be all she needed as she scuttled around the house looking for misplaced objects. That would also explain the paucity of furniture. Not too many places in which to lose stuff.
“Do we dare go upstairs?” I asked. Ben only shrugged. The agent’s non-committal smile was beginning to waver. Taking a deep breath I led the way up the narrow staircase to the second floor. All carpeting and linoleum had been ripped up to expose the rough wide planks of the subfloor. The floor in another room was littered with wax drippings in a rainbow of colours. Apparently our strange resident was into candle making. And perhaps, something else. Bottles of lotions — potions came to mind — lay scattered about on low-lying tables. Dried herbs and flowers were strewn about or hung in small bundles from the ceiling. Our resident ex-flower child was becoming more witchlike in my mind. I wondered whether a pentagram lay hidden under the many layers of candle wax spilt over the floor. A vision of black-clad figures encircling the pentagram, invoking a spell, came unbidden into my mind. As if on cue, a black cat appeared from another room and jumped up onto a dresser to monitor our progress. Its unblinking green eyes dared us to enter the room further.
We didn’t accept the dare and returned downstairs. As we passed through the living room I glanced over at the fireplace half expecting to see a cast-iron pot hanging there. But only half-burnt logs lay on the grate. In the kitchen I looked at the swing and imagined the strange woman gently swaying back and forth. I could hear a quiet chanting voice.
Outside, the air was fresh and sunshine warm. I took a deep breath and looked across the yard to the big, beautiful barn. My voice had returned and out of the corner of my eye I could see Ben’s pale face. “Well, what do you think?” He turned, ready to blurt out some condemnation about the house, but quickly shut his mouth as he noticed where my gaze fell.
“Oh my God! You really want to buy this place, don’t you? It’s all about the horses isn’t it?” He could tell by the shine in my eyes that he had got that right. There would be no room for discussion. “Okay. But how do you propose to de-witch the place?”
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
Horror crept across Ben’s face.
“Only kidding. You’d be surprised what elbow grease and a few coats of paint can do. No one will ever know about the pentagram.”
“Pentagram? What pentagram?”