Challenge a Scarecrow
The apple was magnificent, plump and practically irresistible with its glossy coat of nut-studded caramel. Truly heaven on a stick. I took a great bite and hoped my front teeth were still in their proper place.
It tasted as good as it looked, definitely a McIntosh. But darn it all. Now my hand was sticky, even though I hadn’t touched the caramel.
Annica’s apple earrings sparkled in the sunlight amid strands of red-gold hair. Her caramel apple was already half gone. “Super delicious,” she said. “Do you remember reading about the lady who ate an apple just like this and dropped down dead?”
I took a second bite. “No. Are you talking about a story?”
“A true story. The apple was poisoned. She was a high school English teacher."
I studied her expression, searching for a tell-tale teasing gleam in her eyes. Annica, the girl I’d met at the antique shop, Past Perfect, where she worked briefly, had excelled in spinning macabre tales about her wares. Rings that dispensed poison and choker necklaces that literally melded to the hapless wearer’s throat. She had a thousand stories. I didn’t believe one of them.
"It's true," she said. "I swear it."
"When did this happen?"
“Here in Maple Creek, one year at the Apple Fair. Don’t worry. They caught the poisoner.”
Well…” Offhand, I couldn’t think of a suitable response. Fortunately, Annica’s tale didn’t diminish my pleasure in eating the caramel apple. Nothing could do that on this glorious autumn afternoon.
It was the first day of Maple Creek’s annual Apple Fair. The trees were at the peak of their brilliant fall color with leaves ranging from pale yellow to deep crimson. Clouds floated in a cerulean sky. They were so white and puffy they might have been made of cotton candy. Which had inspired our purchases of marshmallow-nut fudge, along with bushels of rosy McIntosh apples from the Brightwater Cider Mill.
Still thinking of apples, I said, “That sounds like a fairy tale. Wasn’t it Snow White’s wicked stepmother who tried to kill her with a poisoned apple?”
“Yes, the wicked queen who wanted to be the fairest in the land. Fairy tales are scary."
“And the moral of the story is: Beware of poisoned apples?"
“Or beware of envious women.”
“We don’t have to worry about poison or wicked women today,” I said.
I tossed the apple core into the nearest receptacle and scanned the crowds streaming from one attraction to the next.
“What would you like to look at now?” I asked
“The crafts. There’s a booth in the park. I’d love to have an apple maid doll.”
A faint blush stole over her face. “A little one. Like a figurine. For a souvenir.”
“Crafts it is then,” I said.
Dolls weren’t on my ‘favorites’ list, but I’d been looking forward to finding a new wreath for my front door, one with pumpkins or gourds, orange florals, and a long trailing ribbon.
The heart of the Maple Creek Apple Fair was its park, renowned for the many fountains that provided continuous background music of falling water. Interspersed with trees, meticulously tended flower beds were bursting with brilliant fall color; and bright balloons, tied to low-hanging branches, floated languidly in the mild breeze. The booths, set up in the center of the park, offered all kinds of seasonal treats, including caramel apples, apple-themed baked goods, and crafts.
We found the apple maid dolls at the first booth we came to, set up near one of the fountains with an angel or fairy--it was difficult to know which--dispensing water from a horn. The dolls were all sizes, mostly clothed in red or green and always holding an apple or wearing jewelry fashioned in imitation of one. The doll Annica chose wore a coronet of tiny apples on her long auburn hair and earrings, miniatures of the ones Annica wore.
The woman in charge of the booth fit my picture of Snow White’s wicked stepmother with hair so black it had blue lights, heavy makeup, and a haughty, regal manner. She didn’t seem remotely interested in promoting her crafts. She took Annica’s money, wrapped the doll in white tissue paper, and handed it over, all with a baffling lack of enthusiasm.
Annica tucked her doll in her tote bag. “I wonder if the real Apple Maid is on duty
“She’s supposed to wander through the Fair, handing out apples and posing for pictures,” I said. “We’re bound to run into her if we keep walking. Oh… Look!”
My gaze rested on a miniature house set amid the apple dolls. It was the only one in sight. Dark brown in color and boasting five gables and a wraparound porch, it appeared as if every light in the house was burning. Unadorned black wreaths hung from every window, and the overall effect was depressing. No, spooky was a better way to describe it.
The house sat in a square of crimson maple leaves carved in thin wood. They were so realistic that you could imagine the crunching sound they’d make when you tread on them.
Take me, the house seemed to beg. So what if I cost more than anything else you bought today? Payday is next Friday.
“I’m going to buy it,” I said.
“Yes!” Annica reached out to run her fingers along the bed of maple leaves. I half expected them to move. “It’ll be a neat decoration for Halloween. You can put it on your mantel.”
“I could, but it’s going to be a gift.”
The regal woman turned her attention to us. “A good choice. It’s the only one I have.”
“Did you sell out of them already?” Annica asked.
“I meant that’s the only one the craftsman made.”
“I’ll take it,” I said. Turning to Annica, I added, “I’m going to give it to Miss Eidt for her Gothic Nook.”
Our librarian, Elizabeth Eidt, had lived with her family in an old white Victorian on Park Street. Years later, when she was alone, she donated the house to the town of Foxglove Corners to use as a library, along with many books from her own collection, and moved to a small, one-story bungalow. Recently she had created a nook in the library consisting mostly of paperback Gothic novels rescued from yard and estate sales.
Miss Eidt had furnished the Gothic Nook with antique chairs, tables, and lamps, going so far as to set out dishes of candy for readers who wanted to escape into a Gothic world for a few hours. The miniature house would be perfect on her prized Duncan Fhyfe table.
“Miss Eidt likes doll houses,” Annica pointed out, referring to the replica of the library which she brought out of storage and decorated for different seasons. “But big ones. Why do you think she’d like a miniature like this?”
I reached for my credit card, which I’d have to use as I’d already spent most of my cash. The little house was expensive at seventy-five dollars, but I didn’t hesitate. “It’s a way to thank her for all the help she’s given me.”
Jennifer and Molly, my young friends who lived on Sagramore Lake Road, appeared in front of us, seemingly dropping out of thin air. Glowing with health and energy, they wore denim shorts and Apple Fair shirts from the previous year. They were almost grown up, but their long ponytails made them look younger than their years. They were high school sophomores.
I noticed their hands were empty. “Are you girls enjoying the Fair?”
“It’s fun but we’re on a mission,” Jennifer said.
Molly took up the story. “Did you see a small black collie? We’re trying to catch her. She came this way.”
I glanced at Annica who shook her head.
“Maybe she got away from her owner who’s looking for her right now,” I said.
Molly shook her head. "We don’t think so. She isn't wearing a collar.”
“Will you help us?” Jennifer asked. “I mean, that’s what you do.”
In truth I taught English at Marston High School, but I also belonged to the Lakeville Collie Rescue League. Jennifer was right. I didn’t go about my days searching for a collie in distress, but if I stumbled over one--in some cases literally--I would do everything in my power to rescue her or him.
Annica reached for my purchase. “I’ll take our stuff to the car and wait for you back here.”
I guessed I’d been recruited. “Okay,” I said. “Which way?”
Molly pointed beyond the booth and the merrily splashing fairy-angel fountain. “Straight ahead,” she said.