Above the bush, the pink and orange streaked sky had
faded to gray. Inside, it was almost dark, and Grandpa,
in his chair beneath the room's only window, caught the last of
the light. He sat completely still, smiling at our confusion.
His whisper had silenced the conversation. "Look who's joining us for drinks," he had said. But nothing had moved. The door remained closed, the cat curled peacefully on the sofa. No new sounds interrupted the soft ring of chirps, rustles, and faraway hunting barks.
We waited for an explanation. He gave none. His gaze alternated between us and the ceiling; his body remained still. One hand clutched a small glass, full with an equal mixture of red wine and grape juice; the other lay on the armrest, long fingers digging into the worn velvet covers.
Then a flicker near the ceiling, and a shadowy creature plunged out of the gloom.
Just above his head, close enough to brush wisps of thin white hair, it stopped a giant brown moth, suspended with an unsteady flutter. The moth, joined moments later by a second, began a jolting orbit of his head.
Grandpa gave a satisfied grunt. He lifted his glass and took a small sip. The moths, ignoring him, continued to circle, and just as carefully, he lowered the glass again. He sat motionless, his lips taut and flattened. He hadn't swallowed, and as his eyes followed the moths, a drop of liquid grew at each corner of his mouth, pausing just before it was full enough to slide down his jaw.
Suddenly, a dark butterfly shadow eclipsed his cheek: one of the moths, wings flat against his face, long proboscis reaching for a drop. The second moth descended on the opposite cheek. The first flapped away. It was magical and ridiculous: the ghostly, clumsy creatures taking off and settling again; Grandpa, until then so fiercely intimidating, looking like a gentle, badly painted clown.
He smiled at those dowdy moths as if they were beloved pets; and only when they left, when the last traces of daylight had vanished and a paraffin lamp spluttered to life in the corner of the room, did he return his attention to his audience.
"Nice trick, Ivor," said Dad, as the moths joined clouds of insects that appeared out of nowhere to dive- bomb the lamp. "But what these kids really want to see are snakes."
"Whaddaya say?" Grandpa leaned forward and cupped his hand behind his ear. His voice was high- pitched and sounded strange coming from such a tall, imposing man. Squeezed between Mum and the cat on the sofa, Damien and I stifled a laugh. Lulu didn't manage, giggled, and buried her head in Mum's lap.
Dad repeated himself.
"Hard to please, eh?" Grandpa fixed his gaze on each of us, half amused, half accusing. He turned back to Dad.
"Keith," said Grandpa, pointing to a frayed brown armchair in the corner of the room. "Show the kids what's under that chair."
Dad raised an eyebrow and smiled, but didn't inquire further. He stood up and walked slowly toward the chair. "Come on, chaps," he said, grabbing the armrest, "not suddenly scared are you?"
We all shook our heads. None of us moved. I didn't trust myself to speak. Desperate as I was to see snakes, after all Dad's stories about Grandpa Ivor's wild, laugh- in- the- face- of- danger life, the prospect of whatever lay beneath that chair in this strange house was suddenly terrifying.
I turned to Granny Betty, who sat quietly at the end of the long sofa, stroking the cat with a bony hand. An amused smile flickered across her face, but she remained silent.
"Go on," said Mum, smiling encouragingly, "Dad and Grandpa Ivor know what they're doing. This is what you've been waiting for."
Excerpted from Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (chapter 1, pages 1-14) by Robyn Scott. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Robyn Scott, 2008.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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