Grace and Jake followed Gerard into the living room, still wondering if their parents had been delayed from taking their vacation. They expected to see their father, shaking his head and looking sheepish for remembering the wrong departure time, and their mother, lips drawn in a line of annoyance for the mix up, when the door opened. Instead, standing in the dim porch light was a strange woman.
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"Thora, it's a pleasure to see you. What brings you by so late today?" Gerard asked a slightly puzzled smile on his bearded face.
"I'm sorry I'm so late tonight, but I got caught up with my house work and almost forgot today was the day your niece and nephew were coming to visit. You've talked about them so much, I thought I’d come by and say hello. I brought a berry cobbler, if that helps." She responded with a smile, holding out a wooden bowl covered with a green cloth.
Gerard took the offered bowl with a wide grin and ushered Thora into the house.
"Where are my manners? Thora, this pretty young lass is my niece Grace and the lad staring so intently at this bowl of berry cobbler is her younger brother Jake. Children, this is my dear friend and neighbor Ms. Thora." Gerard made the introductions before setting the bowl of cobbler on the coffee table and sitting down in the big armchair next to the bookcase.
"Pleased to meet you Ms. Thora." Jake said remembering his manners and offering his hand.
"Just Thora is fine. It's what all my friends call me, I hope before you and Grace go back home that we’ll be friends too.” She replied with a smile taking his hand in her own.
Grace had yet to speak. She was speechless. To her, Thora looked like a princess from a fairy tale. Thora was a small woman, with a slender build like a dancer, and stood only a few inches taller than the younger girl. Her skin was lightly tanned, adding to the startling appearance of her pale blue eyes. Her dark brown hair fell in waves past her slender neck to her shoulders. She was dressed plainly, in loose brown pants, and a dark green blouse that laced up the front, with flowing sleeves that gathered at her wrists. A simple bracelet, a dragonfly charm made from bits of colored glass and wire tied with leather bootlace were her only jewelry. The simplicity of her attire seemed to make her seem that much more beautiful.
Sensing the girl's eyes on her, Thora turned towards Grace and smiled.
"Do you like the bracelet dear?"
Stammering Grace replied, "Very much, it's beautiful. I've never seen anything quite like it. Where did you get it?"
“I made it." Thora said smiling. "I'm glad you like it. It's one of my favorites." As she spoke, the older woman deftly pulled at the knot holding the bracelet on her slender wrist releasing it. Then she took Grace's hand. "I'd like you to have it."
"I couldn't. It's one of your favorites." Grace said shaking her head, copper curls bouncing around her face.
“Honey, I can always make another one. Besides I think it would look better on you, and it could be something to remind you of your first day here.” Thora replied moving to tie the bracelet around Grace’s wrist.
Grace began to object again, but her uncle spoke before the words could leave her lips.
“Grace it’s impolite to refuse a gift given in meeting. In some places I’ve been it’s even considered a grave insult. Accept the gift in the spirit in which it is given.” He said almost sternly, his pale green eyes holding none of the laughter she had grown used to seeing. He seemed to be willing her to take the offered bit of jewelry. Grace smiled. She didn’t want to maker her uncle angry or offend Thora.
“Thank you Thora. I’ll wear it every day. Maybe you could show me how you made it before I go back home.”
“You’re quite welcome.” Thora replied with a knowing grin to Gerard, who nodded his approval. “I’m sure I can find the time to show you a little of how it’s done.”
“Don’t think I forgot about you Jacob.” She said turning around to face the boy. Reaching into her pocket she fished out a small drawstring bag and handed it to Jake with an exaggerated bow. Jake giggled at the sight of a grown woman acting so silly and accepted the offered bag.
“Thanks, Ms. Thora, I mean uh, Thora.” Jake stammered, remembering he didn’t need to be so formal.
“You’re welcome.” Thora beamed back.
Jake tested the weight of the bag in his hand, and then held it to his ear and shook it gently trying to guess the contents before opening it. He knew the anticipation would drive his sister crazy.
“Go ahead and open it.” Uncle Gerard said encouragingly.
“Yeah Jake, open it already.” Grace added eager to see what gift Thora had for her brother.
Unable to maintain his charade any longer, Jake untied the drawstring and emptied the contents into the palm of his other hand. A necklace similar to the dragonfly pendant now hanging from Grace’s wrist lay in his hand. The pendant was also made of bits of colored glass and bits of wire hanging from a leather cord. But rather than a dragonfly, Jake’s pendant was in the shape of two tattered leaves, overlapping to form the shape of a shield. The pieces of emerald green glass were held together by tiny bits of silver wires doubling as the veins running through each leaf.
“Wow, this is the coolest.” Jake exclaimed slipping the necklace over his head. “Look Grace, it’s a shield, and a leaf! Isn’t it cool? Thanks again Thora.” With that, the boy spread his arms and gave Thora a hug that she eagerly returned, picking him off the floor slightly, and kissing him on the cheek at she set him back on the floor.
“You are more than welcome dear. I hope you like the berry cobbler, half as much as you liked the necklace.” She said with a knowing smile. “That is if your Uncle Gerard doesn’t eat it all before you get to it!” she teased.
The living room filled with the sounds of laughter at Thora’s well-timed wit. Not wanting to let the cobbler get cold Gerard and Jake went into the kitchen to get everyone bowls of ice cream and spoons, leaving the girls alone in the now silent living room.
Thora broke the silence, “Your uncle tells me that you like to read.”
Grace’s lit up at the mention of her favorite pastime. “I read all the time. I brought a whole stack of books with me, to keep me busy. I’ve got Robin Hood, Call of the Wild, and The Hobbit. There are more, but those are the big ones.”
“I just know you’ll like the Hobbit. It’s all about the adventures of a little halfling, some dwarves and a powerful wizard named Gandalf. I loved that story. In fact it inspired me to try writing my own stories. Maybe I could tell you and Jake one after we eat dessert, before you two head off to bed.” Thora replied running her fingers through her hair as she talked.
Grace was ecstatic. She hadn’t had anyone tell her a story since she was younger than Jake. She was the one who did most of the reading in the family. In fact when Jake was four he had started asking Grace to read to him instead of their parents. She didn’t mind reading to her little brother. She always looked at it as a sign that he loved her and looked up to her. Having a grown up tell her a story would be amazing. The fact that it was going to be a story that no one except Jake and Uncle Gerard would ever hear, just made it all the more special.
Gerard and Jake returned from the kitchen. Jake was carrying a tray with four bowls, each filled with a single scoop of vanilla ice cream. Thora uncovered the cobbler and taking a serving spoon from Gerard, put a heaping spoonful in each bowl. Jake dived right in, putting spoonful after spoonful in his mouth while his sister and the adults took their time. After finishing his helping of cobbler Jake smiled, a red smear of at the corner of his mouth.
“Good stuff. What kind of berry is it made of?” Jake asked, his tongue sneaking out of the corner of his mouth licking up the errant smear of juice.
“It’s an old family recipe actually.” Thora explained. “It has blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, blueberries, and strawberries in it. It’s great because you can make it anytime of year. All you need is some flour, butter, and a little vanilla.”
Grace dropped her spoon into her empty bowl with a rattle. “I loved it! Maybe you could write the recipe down for Mom before we leave.” She suggested.
Thora laughed in response to the suggestion “You’re after all my secrets aren’t you!”
“Hmm, could be.”’ Grace responded suppressing her amusement at her imitation of the cartoon rabbit.
Gerard took a look at the wall clock and watched the minute hand creep toward nine o clock, before interrupting the banter.
“Children it’s getting on toward bedtime. So say your good nights. I’m sure Thora will be by to visit often.”
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