It was one of those coastal towns—you know the type—charming in a coastal town sort of way and yet rugged in a coastal town sort of way, with jutting rocks and turbulent waves. And yet, when the sun was shining, and the inland waters were sparkling, it seemed crisp and fresh and alive from deep within.
Of course, it had the mandatory white picket fences and the cramped, musty bookstore with the creaky staircase leading to some shadowy place. But then, it also had a cozy little tearoom where older ladies gathered to eat tiny sandwiches and to dip strawberries in sweet melted chocolate while drinking tea from flowery porcelain cups. A cemetery stood high on a hill right outside of town; and weeping willows sheltered the weathered, crusty graves. Yes, it was one of those kinds of little coastal towns.
And it was on the edge of this town, just where the waters meet with the land, that an older smallish Victorian house with turrets and gables and gingerbread trim sat among uncut grass and ancient rhododendrons. Climbing roses, grasping for their share of sunlight, scrambled upward, falling over the unpainted fence; and purple wisteria twisted across the roof, drooping over the edges of the wraparound porch.
And on a cheerful sort of day in June, a youngish sort of grandma with crinkles around the edges of bright-blue eyes and an unruly mass of tawny curls heavily streaked with silver strands fidgeted in an oversized red rocking chair. Now and again, after tapping her fingers on the arms of the chair, she would rise and pace back and forth and then plop back down and tap her fingers some more.
And after a little while of rocking and fidgeting, she would get up and wander up and down the lane leading to her house. After sheltering her eyes from the sun and gazing about for a while, she would sigh and wander back to the porch where she would plop back down into the rocking chair and fidget some more as she waited for the arrival of Levi, Eleanor, Claire, Addison, Tilly, Brody, Ivan, and Esmé.
Gramma jumped up from the red rocking chair as billows of dust and spewing pebbles enveloped the three vehicles jostling up the gravel lane. As the caravan slowed to a halt, doors burst open, and eight kids tumbled out.
“We’re here!” Eleanor shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Grammmy!” Claire yelled, sprinting forward, her husky voice rising above the chaos. Levi and Ivan raced each other for Gramma’s hug. Addison held back for just a second, watching the chaos; but when Gramma glanced over with a wink and a smile, she giggled and hurried to join the others.
Tilly and Brody stopped and whispered something to each other before sprinting forward for their hugs. Esmé, the youngest, waited patiently; but once the rest had their squeezes and were clamoring and shouting over one another about ideas and plans for the next three days, she hurried forward, wrapping her little arms around Gramma’s waist.
“I’m so glad I’m here,” she said, and Gramma tweaked her nose, picking her up and planting a sloppy kiss smack dab on her forehead.
“I’m so glad you are too, Sugarplum,” Gramma said as she set her back down and patted the top of her head.
Three sets of parents had climbed out of their vehicles, stretched their legs, and observed the scene while pulling suitcases out of the cars and setting them on the grass beside the gravel lane.
“Hey, I got it now,” Gramma called, waving a dismissive hand to the parents. Three sets of parents smiled and climbed back into their vehicles. “Goodbyes,” “love yas,” and “see ya soons” flitted through the air as three sets of parents re-dusted the air as they drove back down the gravel lane.
Gramma was jittery, bobbling up and down and back and forth until the parents were completely out of sight. As soon as the last set of taillights disappeared around the bend, she plopped down on the front porch step, beckoning for the cousins to come closer. Her face flushed with excitement.
“I have something very, very special to show you, and I can’t wait any longer,” she said. The cousins looked at her and then glanced at one another, anticipation bubbling in their bellies. Gramma leaned forward, pointing at the stack of suitcases and backpacks that lay on the ground. “Throw your stuff in the front door and follow me,” she said. Abruptly, she stood up, turned, and strode across the grass toward the woods.
The cousins grabbed their suitcases, threw them inside the door, and scrambled to catch up as Gramma tramped away. Almost immediately, Gramma stopped and pivoted to face them. She looked up at the sky, took a deep breath, and tapped her top lip with her forefinger. Finally, she looked directly into the eyes of each cousin.
“I’ve been waiting for years and years, and I think the time is finally here. I think I can show you, and you won’t get lost. It’s between here and the water—pretty close and hidden from prying eyes. But there are promises to be made and notions you must accept. Can you do that?” They all nodded. Confused frowns and sidelong glances passed back and forth among them.
“Levi, Eleanor, you two are the oldest,” Gramma continued. “You must promise to keep an eye out for the others and make sure nobody gets lost, okay? Do I have your word?”
“Of course!” Eleanor said, but as Gramma turned and hurried off down the path again, Eleanor and Levi glanced at each other, scrunching their noses and shrugging their shoulders. After a few more steps, Gramma spun around again.
“Wait, wait, wait, I almost forgot the most important part,” she said, waving her index finger. “This path is our secret. Parents are not invited—and I mean that. They would fret and moan and groan and start talking about getting lost and fiction and imagination and—” Gramma bobbed her head back and forth and rolled her eyes. “They just wouldn’t get it. Okay?” Gramma whirled around again and bustled down the path as eight very perplexed cousins scurried after her.
They hustled down a narrow, pebbled path with twisting madrones sheltering it. They ducked under moss-draped tree limbs, hurried past giant toadstools popping out of the ground, and scurried around enormous jade rocks stuck in the middle of the path. They pushed swaying branches aside and scrambled through openings in curved tree tunnels.
“Where in the world are we?” Levi asked.
“I know, right?” Eleanor replied. “I thought we had explored every single inch of Gramma’s place, but I have never seen any of this.” “Me either,” Levi agreed with a shrug as they hurried along behind Gramma, trying to recognize any familiar landmark—which they did not find.
“Almost there,” Gramma called back as she scurried along the path. “Almost there.”
And then, all of a sudden, Gramma stopped and pointed up at the top of a mass of trees. And there it was—perched high in an ancient oak and nestled within the branches—an oddly shaped ramshackle tree-house. It was slightly askew, somewhat rickety, and setting a little lopsided with uneven, peculiar angles. It was made of old wooden shingles and tin and such. Branches seemed to grow around the bottom, squeezing the sides and bursting out from the top. The entire group stood still, mouths gaping open, peering up.
Levi saw the wooden ladder first and raced toward it. Immediately the others were nipping at his heels as they competed to get to the top. Grunts and ouches and “Hey, stop thats!” pierced the air as each one pushed and shoved and fingers and toes were trampled in the chaos to get to the top first. Gramma watched from the ground, and once they were all at the top, she grabbed hold of the bottom rung of the ladder and began climbing behind them.
The Peacock Door
The tree-house appeared very different once they were standing on the wooden walkway surrounding it than it had looked while they were on the ground. It was bigger and somehow even odder. A beautiful bluish door stood in the middle of a protruding portico, overwhelming the entire front of the tree-house; the rest seemed to consist only of angles and edges. Levi hurried into the portico, grabbed the copper doorknob, and jerked, but the door did not budge. “Must be locked,” he said, so they all hurried back to the ladder to see where Gramma was.
As the tawny head popped up over the edge, Ivan reached down, grabbed Gramma’s up-stretched hand, and pulled her up onto the platform. Ambling across the wooden walkway, Gramma fished in her apron pocket, pulling out an oversized jangling ring crammed full and bursting with all sorts and sizes of skeleton keys. One by one, she sorted through them, mumbling things like “hmmm” and “maybe,” until she finally smiled, settling on a tiny blue key with a pearl-encrusted, heart-shaped head. She slipped the key into the lock, tugging on the doorknob, twisting the key back and forth until they all heard the loud click. Exhaling loudly, Gramma smiled, slipped the keys back into her pocket, and turned around. She planted herself squarely in front of the door.
“I have waited a long time to show this to all of you,” she said. “And I think the time is finally right, but, whatever you do,” she whispered as she slowly turned her head back and forth, gazing directly into the eyes of each cousin, “whatever you do, listen to me! If I show this to you, you have promises to keep. We are going to enter through this door right here, correct?” She patted the door with her hand. They all looked at her suspiciously.
“Yes? And?” Brody asked.
“Look carefully at this door,” Gramma continued.
Each one looked at it and then at one another. Claire smirked, shrugging her shoulders. Addison nodded. Eleanor shifted impatiently from one foot to the other. Tilly stood simply gazing at the door, considering each detail. “What color is it?” Gramma questioned.
“It’s blue,” Ivan said.
“Yes, but what kind of blue?” Gramma asked.
“Kind of a peacock blue?” Addison suggested.
“Yes, good! It is, indeed, peacock blue. Now, what else do you see?”
“It’s thick?” Levi suggested.
“It has a rounded top?” Claire added with a shrug.
“Both true.” Gramma nodded. “What else?”
Tilly stepped forward to touch the door, running her fingers around the raised border. “It has peacock feathers carved in the border,” she said.
“Okay, that’s good—now remember! Peacock blue, rounded top, peacock feathers carved into the border,” Gramma cautioned. “Just in case. Your parents would be so mad at me if any of you got lost. And, quite honestly, I really don’t want to lose any of you. It’s such a pain to find lost kids. I know I would eventually find you, but what if you got lost and your parents returned for some reason before you got back, and, well”—she shuddered—“I don’t even wanna think about it.” Her head bobbled some more as she rolled her eyes.
“Lost?” Levi grinned, rolling his eyes. “This tree-house seems to have weird angles, and it is big Gramma, but not that big,” he chuckled.
Gramma paused, staring straight into Levi’s eyes before continuing, “If we go in this door, you’ve got to promise that you’ll use only this door for coming and going. Do I have your word? And remember, a man is only as good as—”
“As good as his word,” Levi interrupted, knowing where Gramma was going after having heard it way too many times before.
Eleanor’s eyes met Levi’s. “Gramma,” she said rather impatiently. “We’ve got it!”
Gramma cocked her head to the side, this time staring directly into Eleanor’s eyes for a few seconds as the cousins stood in awkward silence. Suddenly, the crinkles around Gramma’s eyes deepened as she began smiling once more. “Okay then,” she said, glancing at each of them as she turned and pushed against the peacock door. “Let’s do this!”