Catherine’s Castle - The Story
The continuing adventures of the Colorado Girls.

Chapter 12

Catherine’s Castle © Linda Pilkington

With No Star to Light the Way

One warm October Saturday, Gwynie Emerson, who had just finished dusting her sisters’ furniture, sat perched on the edge of a green chair in her sister, Melinda’s, room “taking a breather”, as her father said.

The girls were cleaning the family’s upstairs bedrooms, a job they did each Saturday morning, while their mother and father cleaned the downstairs rooms. Gwynie had started dusting in her parent’s room, and then moved down to Catherine and Melinda’s rooms. Overhead she could hear Melinda’s quick footsteps, and the roar of the old vacuum in her parents’ room.

Other kids might have pouted to evade, or plotted a way to escape helping with the work, but Gwynie didn’t mind chores; she was good at them. Besides, she liked it when the whole family worked on something together.

The Emerson’s had a good system for Saturdays.

Jordan Emerson, who was an early riser, got up first and fixed coffee. As a special Saturday treat, he brought the coffee tray upstairs, tapping on the girls’ doors, and dropping off a cup for Melinda, and a half-cup for Gwynie.

After putting the mugs on the girls’ bedside tables, and announcing to Melinda, “Rise and shine, time to get moving.” And to Gwynie, “Get your work done and later I’ll tell you a Halloween story and you can help me carve the pumpkins.” Their father carried his own and Melin Emerson’s coffee up to their room at the top of the old Victorian house.

The coffee was strong, brewed to their mother’s taste, so both girls needed to add quite a bit of cream and sugar.

Even with the cream and sugar, Gwynie drank her coffee with a frown and a pursed up mouth. She liked the fragrance more than the flavor, but she wouldn’t admit it. It was special to have a mug brought to her room, and she liked drinking coffee on Saturday mornings as the rest of the family did before they set about their work.

An observer would have noticed that the Emerson girls’ bedrooms were as different as were the girls themselves.

Catherine’s room, (Melinda didn’t allow them to say, “Catherine’s old room”-no matter how long Catherine had been away) was a good attempt at the French Country style.

It had green and yellow floral paper on one wall, creamy white shutters at the windows, and sheer, white curtains looped to the side. There were white crocheted pillows on the bed, a large painting of a colorful garden on one of the walls and lamps with creamy, lampshades on the tables.

Here and there were keepsakes, a Scarlet O’Hara doll dressed in green velvet, that Catherine had received for her fourteenth birthday, and some of the paintings and crafts that her Aunt Connor had made for her. It was the room of a woman of character, but one with a decidedly feminine flavor.

Melinda’s room, where Gwynie was sitting, was simple, almost plain by comparison.

Here were the same off-white walls and woodwork. The draperies and the bedspread had teal and rose stripes on an off-white background, and the accent pillows were in teal and rose.

One would hardly know that it was a teenager’s room, for few decorations topped the tables. And, there were none of the usual posters that most kids liked; Melinda thought that posters cluttered things up and wouldn’t allow one to cross her doorway.

The walls were unadorned except for two framed pictures above the bookcase. They were actually Christmas pictures, but the tinted metal frames made them at home in the room.

Gwynie yawned, not because the work had tired her, but because she had woken up so early. She didn’t need a rest; resting was just an excuse to put off dusting the furniture in her room.

She sat staring at the pictures. Her mother called the first picture a “modernistic Christmas tree”, but her father said that it was actually a mathematical equation-worked out on a computer by Melinda’s “young genius”, Dean Mattingly.

What Gwynie saw were lots of triangles in green and red. She liked the picture, and the quiet boy who had given it to Melinda last Christmas.

Gwynie had planned to hide in the dark hall that led from the kitchen to the stairway so that she could watch Melinda come down the stairs for her first date with the new boy.

But Dean Mattingly had arrived so early that Gwynie had been trapped in the living room and couldn’t see Melinda without walking down the hallway to stare.

She was too shy to do that so she had stood shadowed in the darkness of the main hall, and watched Dean Mattingly as he watched her sister come down the stairs.

“It’s just Melinda dressed in tan jeans and a black sweater set, so why does he look like it’s Christmas?” Gwynie wondered.

Although Melinda had framed Dean Mattingly’s Christmas card, Gwynie knew that the boy Melinda really liked was Derek Phillips, who drove Melinda around in a bright red pick-up that he called his ‘Fiord Truck’.

“Come on my little American beauty, step into the lean, mean, motoring machine,” he said, grabbing Melinda around the waist, and rushing her down the sidewalk to the truck.

“It’s just a plain American truck,” Melinda told Catherine, laughing, “But he always makes a big deal about it.”

“Today he kept motioning for me to meet him in the middle of the lunchroom. So, it’s the busiest part of the lunch hour and we have to fight our way towards each other through the crowd, and what does he say?” She giggled, ‘hey, Millie, filly, you want to go to the show in my riddle red, fiord truck?’

“I don’t know why, but he breaks me up!” Melinda said.

Gwynie didn’t know why either.

Melinda never said anything about either of the boys to the rest of her family. But Gwynie watched her as she put on makeup for those dates, and she knew that Melinda never needed to wear ‘blush on’ when she went out with Derek because her cheeks were already ‘blushed’.

“She laughs all of the time when she’s with Dopey Derek; I don’t know why, cause he’s not a bit funny,” Gwynie muttered.

Gwynie’s eyes moved from the triangle Christmas tree picture to the photograph below. It was one that their cousin, Lance Collins, had taken of the Emerson stairway one Christmas season.

It showed the banister with a garland of ribbons and greenery. Above, on the wall, was the round stained glass window, with a design like an odd shaped star.

Their mother loved that window everyday of the year, but at Christmas, it was her next favorite place in the house, except for the spot in the living room where the Christmas tree stood.

Gwynie’s father said, “Even after a bad night, without hope or a star to light my way, I know that a better day is dawning when I see the sunlight streaming through that strange star.”

It was a brilliant way to begin Christmas when the sun, shining through the stained glass window, lit up the entire hallway, reflecting onto the mirror across the hall, and then sparkling from the pieces of crystal that sat on the small desk under the mirror.

The star looked like a starburst and its light, reflected from the mirror and the crystal, was in shades of gold, white, blue, and pink. Through the years, the Emerson’s had come to call the design in the center of the window “The Christmas Star”.

At the bottom of Melinda’s picture, on the floor of the landing, was one of the trucks that Lance and Melinda had sent racing down the stairs when they were younger. That green truck had made many trips carrying Gwynie’s Barbie dolls or a stuffed animal tied to the top as the passenger. On the floor, below the banister stood Gwynie’s wooden castle.

Shortly after her cousins’ family moved away, Melinda looked through those Christmas pictures to pick one to enlarge and frame.

Her mother had asked, “Are you sure that you want a picture without anyone in it? Why not frame this picture of you and Lance to hang in your room instead?”

Melinda turned to stare down at the other pictures, but she hadn’t answered, and in the end, it was the picture of the empty stairway that she had chosen for her bedroom.

She had written, “Christmas Morning, by Lance Collins” at the top of the mat.

Gwynie tried to concentrate on the Christmas pictures, but her mind kept wandering down the hall from Melinda’s room to her own bedroom.

It was a narrow room with the same creamy walls as in the other bedrooms, because her mother said that using the same color gave the bedrooms “a sense of continuity”. Gwynie’s room had accents of Royal Blue, and there were lacy looking, wrought iron shutters at the windows.

Gwynie’s bedspread was royal blue with yellow and pink roses, intertwined with shamrocks and yellow iris. “It’s a room that any girl would love,” Their mother said. And for a long time Gwynie had loved it.

The Emerson children were as different as their rooms, but if Gwynie Emerson had anything in common with her older sister Melinda, it was a sense of privacy.

Melinda didn’t like questions about her feelings or thoughts and was able to get that point across to her relatives and friends. It was harder for Gwynie, who resented questions just as much, but was younger and couldn’t be honest without being thought a brat.

Melinda knew that Gwynie didn’t like questions and so she told her, “The way to make people leave you alone- is to do a good job at everything. If you do what you’re supposed to do, nobody can complain.”

“Whatever work you need to do, at school or at home, just do it. At first, it seems hard, but parents, and teachers cannot nag if everything is done. After a while, no one questions you. It’s easier.”

So, Gwynie tried it and found that what Melinda said was true.

Right then, Gwynie didn’t want questions about why she had stopped sleeping in her own cheerful, bedroom, and about why she had slept in Catherine’s old room for the last few months.

So, she sat on Melinda’s green chair to talk herself into some courage.

“I’ve got to finish the dusting, and I have to start going into my room more. I don’t want to, but that’s where I’m supposed to sleep, and pretty soon Mom and Daddy will ask me questions about it,” Gwynie whispered to herself.

Fear and courage were warring in her heart, and for a moment, she wondered if she could just say that she had already dusted; the other rooms had had hardly any dust in them so Melinda might not notice.

Finally, Gwynie took a deep breath and sat up straight, squaring her shoulders.

“It’s like the story Catherine wrote for me, the wizard said, ‘you have to practice being brave everyday, or you will always be afraid’.”

“Besides, just one speck of dust and Melinda will know that I didn’t finish my work. Melinda notices everything.”

She left the chair, and slowly walked down the hall to the door of her room.

“It’s light as can be. I don’t need to be afraid. I slept here, even when I was a baby. And I wasn’t scared either,” she murmured.

She stood looking through the open door at all of the toys and books that she now saw only as she passed the door, or on Saturdays when she was cleaning.

Finally, she edged around the door and stood still, biting her lip. Downstairs, the screen door slammed and Gwynie jumped at the sound.

Across the room, sunshine streamed through the row of windows. Small clouds were beginning to gather in the bright blue sky, later it was supposed to rain, maybe even snow.

“It’s cold in here,” she murmured, and shivered, but she hurried around the bedroom, carefully dusting each piece of furniture so that Melinda wouldn’t complain that she had done a sloppy job.

When she finished, she sighed with relief; the work was done, she could leave the room anytime she wanted to.

“But I won’t leave yet. I’ll stay and practice being brave…for a little while,” she told herself.

She walked to the bookcase and picked out several books and then took them to her bed to look through them.

She turned the pages. “Baby books,” she muttered scornfully, but her eyes lingered over the pictures of Cinderella and, Sleeping Beauty.

“Silk dresses, probably,” Gwynie, murmured. “I wish I had one, and long hair all the way down to my waist.”

“Done?” Melinda Emerson stood at the door of the room.

Gwynie jumped when Melinda spoke, but nodded and smiled nervously to cover it up.

“It’s good to see you in here. Does this mean that you are going to start sleeping here again?”

Gwynie shook her head, looked away, and then wandered over to the windows to look out.

“Not yet,” she answered.

“What is so scary in here? It looks ok to me,” Melinda asked.

“I never said it was scary,” Gwynie said.

“No, you never said it- but something scared you into sleeping in Catherine’s room.”

Gwynie stood staring out into the back yard and beyond to the empty land that led to the grove of trees that the kids in the neighborhood called “the forest”.

For a minute, it seemed as if she wasn’t going to answer Melinda’s question.

But then, perhaps because Melinda asked so few questions, Gwynie did answer, “I don’t remember what scared me…” she hesitated, and then, “I think it was bad dreams,” she said, so low that Melinda almost didn’t hear.

“But you haven’t had bad dreams for a long time.”

“If I come back the dreams might start again.”

“Sometimes if you think about when you first got scared of something, you can understand it better. Then if you tell someone about the things you are afraid of-especially bad dreams, then you stop being afraid,” Melinda said.

Gwynie stayed at the window watching some kids walk towards the grove.

“I’m going to my room. I’ve got to look up some stuff for a book report. Do you want to stay here while I do that?”

Silently, Gwynie nodded.

“You’re doing the right thing, making yourself come in here. Next Saturday, while I’m up here with you- try stretching out the time you stay. If it’s daylight, and I’m here then there’s nothing to be afraid of is there?”

“I guess not,” Gwynie said, not sounding very sure.

Melinda went into her own room, calling over her shoulder, “Remember, you have to do the things you’re supposed to do, or else people start asking you questions.”

“I know it!” Gwynie snapped, tired of Melinda’s questions.

She pushed her pillows to the head of the bed, leaned back against them, and pulled the books closer, but she didn’t look at them.

Instead, she thought of a dark but starry night that brought a summer storm, and of a story that Catherine had told about cruel witches, and a wicked dragon that scared the people who lived in a yellow castle.

And she remembered when she was little, knowing that her mother had left the house, yet hearing the floor of her parent’s room creak with quiet footsteps, and silently slipping out of her room, desperate to get downstairs to her sisters.

Her eyes big in the dim hallway, she had started at every creak of the old house, sure that something was going to jump out at her; she had tip toed down the upstairs hallway whispering, “Mommy?”

“That was like a Halloween story, but it really happened a long time ago, when I was little, ” Gwynie whispered, and was relieved when she heard her mother calling them to lunch.

Later that afternoon her father spread newspapers on the porch and carried the big pumpkins over to where Gwynie and Melinda were sitting.

“Do you know why we have pumpkins at Halloween, my little pumpkin?” He asked Gwynie.

“Don’t be silly, Daddy, we have them cause it’s part of Halloween,” Gwynie replied.

“He’s trying to lead into his Halloween story, Gwynie,” Melinda said, grinning.

“Ma’am, help, please, don’t hinder- me; remember, I get to tell a story about once a year,” Jordan Emerson said, grinning with satisfaction at his daughters, at the soon to be Jack o’ Lanterns, and at the October afternoon.

“Popsie, I’m going to give you one chance- if this story has too much of a moral, like most of yours do, then it’s the last story that I’m listening to, from you- anyway.”

“I’ll try to curb my instincts, but I must warn you that I watched two of those ‘sex-coms’, I mean ‘sit-coms’, that the sponsors, and the TV Networks palm off as entertainment, just this week, and I’ve been in a moralizing frame of mind ever since.”

“I’ll stay, but remember, I gave Louisa May Alcott one chance with Little Women, and I never did read Little Men.”

“Ignore your sister, and listen to your father, Gwynie. Now, about why we have pumpkins at Halloween. Yes, it’s a custom, but where did the custom come from?” He asked.

“I don’t know,” Gwynie, answered watching as he cut the lid off the top of the pumpkin.

“Well, the custom of carving jack o’lanterns comes from an Irish legend about Jack O’Lantern, a man who lived many years ago.”

“Is this a true story?” Gwynie asked.

“In a way, legends start out as a real story, and then everyone adds something, or takes something away, till the story becomes a legend.”

‘Jack O’Lantern probably had another last name in the beginning. As a boy he had been selfish, and proud, for he was a handsome young man and popular with girls.

His eyes sparkled, and he smiled at everyone in a friendly way. Because of the charm and smile, many people thought that Jack was a good person.

They were wrong. And as the years went on he grew ever more conceited, deceitful, and selfish.

To Jack, getting what he wanted was the most important thing. He liked money; the more he had, the more he wanted, and the less he cared how he got it.

If he lied or cheated someone - it made the money that he got all the sweeter, because he had gotten it by being cleverer than someone else.

As the years passed, he thought better of himself, and less of everyone else. He wanted everything there was to have, to grow more handsome, charming, and clever, but most importantly- rich.

He never worried about the sneaky bargains he made or about the people that he cheated and tricked. Before long, he thought that everyone that he had cheated was stupid, and deserved it.

The friendly smile, and charming way helped him disguise his deceit as he grew older. And when he married and had children; they learned from their father to love money, and to do whatever it took to get it. Through them, Jack’s legacy was sure to survive through the ages.

In that time and place, the Devil traveled the earth. He heard stories about Jack, and admired him. Still, the Devil considered himself the cleverest of cheats, and he resented anyone who could drive as good a bargain.

“Clever as he is- I’ll bargain for his soul, and I’ll have it,” he bragged.

Jack heard that the Devil was looking for him. And Jack, clever devil that he was, found other roads to travel and so escaped the devil’s snare.

Jack escaped because, wicked as he was, he feared Hell, and had a plan for his soul to gain heaven.”

He would reform his wicked ways, give away a bit of gold, and say a few prayers. This was to be done at the last possible moment in order to bargain his way into heaven.

One night, which we now celebrate as Halloween, the Devil decided to trick Jack out of his soul. He climbed a tree that Jack would have to pass on his way home. Jack drank, and the Devil planned on meeting him after he was drunk.

“The cleverest man is but a fool with drink,” The Devil said to himself. “He will try, but he can’t trick me; he will trick only himself in the end.”

The Devil was tired after so much travel; he climbed the tree, hid himself, and fell asleep. Jack was later than usual, and when he did arrive at the spot, he was sober, and felt very clever.

He saw the Devil up the tree and quickly circled it; quietly he cut crosses high on the tree trunk. It was a known fact, that the Devil couldn’t directly touch a cross. He would be trapped up that tree until Jack helped him down.

Then Jack made a racket loud enough to wake the Devil, and laughed to see his anger at being tricked. There began a bargaining session between sly Devil, and sly man- each determined to trick and cheat the other. At first, the Devil tried hard to win Jack’s soul, promising him what he loved most on earth, money.

Jack was tempted, but refused the bribe and kept to his plan.

“Now I’ll strike a bargain with the Devil; later I will trick God himself.”

Sunrise was approaching, and the Devil knew that it wasn’t wise to let people see him, clearly, in the broad light of day. He was bored with Jack; the man placed too much value on his empty life, his selfish heart, and his shriveled up soul; it was time to strike some sort of bargain.

“Help me down; I promise to leave you alone for a year or even five- then meet to bargain. Be reasonable, for no man has ever so earned his place in Hell as you have.”

But Jack was determined; there must be no threat of hell in his future. He bargained more fiercely, “I will help you down, and keep you from touching the cross, but in return promise to leave me alone for all eternity,” he demanded.

“I see, you have some plan in mind to evade your fate; remember, you are- after all, just a man, no matter how clever, things don’t always go according to a mans’ plan.”

But he promised to leave Jack alone, and so, Jack covered the crosses with his thick cloak and helped him down from the tree.

The years went on, and Jack cheated, and stole, and as he grew richer, others grew poorer. The strange thing, to Jack, was that he wasn’t nearly as happy as he was rich.

He was not even as happy as those people he had made miserable. But it was all habit now, and so he lived on causing pain and unhappiness wherever he went, and bringing disaster to whomever he touched.

Jack still planned to change his ways, but he felt healthy, “no need to try for heaven yet,” he told himself, “In a month, or two, I’ll redeem myself. A bit of money to charity, a trip to church, a few prayers, and in the end, my tricks and treats will pave my road to heaven with gold, and neither God nor the Devil will be the wiser.”

But that night he died before his plan could be carried out.

He had been a man, so hope remained a part of his spirit; since his conscience didn’t trouble him he decided to try heaven. Surely all wrong would be forgiven. God was understanding, merciful, and kind. Clever Jack could still make his last, best bargain.

But there were to be no bargains with heaven.

Finally, Jack left in despair, and after much wandering his loneliness became unbearable, even Hell seemed better than the darkness of eternity.

So, on another dark, Halloween, without hope, or even a bright star to light his way, he went to the Devil. But the Devil reminded him of their bargain.

“Cleverness lost your place in Heaven, I suppose?” he inquired, “Well, your cleverness has left you no place in Hell either,” the Devil announced.

“Have mercy! Don’t leave me to wander in this terrible darkness!” Jack pleaded.

“Sorry, no mercy to offer. I will offer you a lantern instead,” the Devil said, offering an ember from the fires of Hell.

“How am I to carry it?” Jack asked.

The Devil reached down, plucked a pumpkin that grew near by, and cut holes in it so that the light would show through. When Jack put the coal into the hollowed out pumpkin, it gave off a ghostly light. The holes the Devil cut gave the pumpkin the look of an evil face.

“The face in the Lantern looks like he who made it,” Jack said, spitefully, as he turned to go.

“You think so? To me, the face looks like he who carries it, you old Jack O’Lantern. Now, leave.” The Devil’s eyes glowed; he spoke softly, but in a warning voice.

“I will, but first I need to rest, and warm myself by this lantern.” Jack insisted, still sure he was master of his fate.

“No! On to your eternal wandering- for you there is no rest!” The Devil roared, and his voice echoed long into that dark and starless Halloween night.”
Jordan Emerson finished carving the pumpkins and looked up to find one daughter giving him a reproachful look, and to find that the other had fallen asleep.

“And you talk about deceit! Moralizing worse than Louisa May Alcott,” Melinda declared, huffily jumping up to leave, but as she turned away, her father caught a glimpse of a smile.

So Ends Volume I of Catherine’s Castle, Part II will follow! Check back!


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