Once upon a time, not so long ago (before the days of ipods and blogging, but after cars and air conditioning were invented), two sisters went on a trip with their parents.
They went on a trip every summer, but this summer was different. This summer, instead of going to the tropical heat of small-town North Carolina, they would be traveling to the shady cool woodlands of small-town upper New York state. To visit a mansion.
In the mansion lived a man named A. No other letters, not even a noun after it. Just A. He was a distant cousin of the girls’ mother, and one of the last living relatives on that side of the family. A was delighted to see his cousin again, and especially the two little girls, and was a gracious host—but even so, he seemed a bit peculiar in the head, as one might expect from a man who lived alone in a great old mansion.
The two sisters explored the mansion, and found oddities and marvels at every turn. Every room was so full of furniture they could hardly walk. Heavy tables and faded armchairs and dark wooden bookshelves—the sort of furniture one might see in a museum, all huge and old and carved with elaborate designs. Books everywhere, producing dust from their crumbling leather bindings, overflowed the bookshelves and sat in stacks on the tables, the armchairs, the floor.
The sisters found a box of doilies and little knitted things. There were some tiny mittens and hats that might just fit their dolls. On a shelf in a musty closet were toys—toys too dusty and old to play with. Wooden pull-toys missing their wheels, rickety metal cars with the paint peeling off. Who made children’s toys out of sharp-edged metal and paint that peeled? The sisters had heard something about lead paint and how poisonous it was—maybe that was why A was so odd.
There was a marble chess set, in green and white and black. The chess board alone felt as heavy as one of those great carved tables covered in books. The sisters wanted to play a game, but one piece was missing. Their mother explained: one Christmas, her mother had mailed the marble pawn to A’s mother, just for fun. The next Christmas she mailed it back. The tradition went on for years, mailing the chess piece back and forth across the country. The girls thought it an impractical thing to do, at least with a chess piece—it made the game playable only every other year. The two old mothers were now dead, and no one remembered who’d last had the pawn. The sisters looked at the empty cradle in the black velvet case and didn’t play chess.
When the sisters and their parents went back home, they had a car full of stuff and memories. Their parents took some furniture (small things—no museum tables), and books and fragile dishes with fancy patterns. The two sisters had mittens for their dolls, and books, and funny little plastic and metal figurines that A said he got from a gumball machine. All the sisters had ever gotten from gumball machines was stickers and jelly bracelets and gum that lost its flavor too fast.
On the long drive home, the sisters talked about dotty old A, the mansion full of treasures and dust, and the marble chess set missing its pawn. The older sister thought she might like to write a story one day about the old house, and what might have happened to the green marble chess piece.
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