Ch. 14: Sibling rivalry isn’t only among 9- and 11-year olds
Brothers and sisters, brothers and brothers. It’s all family.
“My my, Lu,” she was both surprised and relieved at the same time. “I thought you might be a giant furry rodent beast about to pounce on my head.”
“Margaret?” Lu asked.
“Well, who else would be lurking in the lower passageways of our fine castle, Lu?” she said as chipper as could be and not as if she stumbled on a 9-year old upside-down boy hanging from the ceiling under a castle. She kept going as if they were sitting together in the kitchen eating yogurt, “So, my dearest upside-down laddie, what brings you here on this fine Saturday?”
“Well,” he started hesitantly, “We were just, uh,” he bumbled his words as he hung from the trap door.
“Lu,” she interrupted his mumblings, “Why don’t you come down here and I’ll show you something I’m sure you’ll find irresistibly interesting.”
“OK,” was about all that Lu could muster.
“Now,” she started in on instructions, “If you reach out, I can help you grab that rope ladder. See it?”
“I see it and, well, that’s why I’m hanging here,” Lu said.
“By my calculations, you must have something holding onto your legs or you’d be doing an Olympic somersault into this room,” she paused. “Aha, something or someone,” she smiled and then called out, “Who else might be up there? Show your faces now or forever hold your silence and never know the glorious treasures of the Markree,” she belted out as if she were singing some national anthem.
Dec was holding onto Lu’s legs the closest, so, while still holding onto Lu, he peered his head out over the opening and said sheepishly, “Hi Margaret. How are you?”
“Well, Dec,” she pretended to be angry, but it just wasn’t in her personality, “At least I’m right-side up and in a room that has doors, unlike the two of you lads. Now hold onto Lu’s legs so he can grab the ladder and then it should be available to you as well.”
“OK, Margaret, thank you,” Dec said and he held onto Lu’s legs as best he could.
“Now Lu,” she focused again on the hanging bat of a boy above her. “Reach out and give that rope a yank,” she snorted and laughed. “Ooh, did you hear that one, laddie? Give it a yank and you’re American, aren’t you, Lu? Or at least half-American and half-I don’t know what. Did you know that they called Americans yanks, son?”
“Is that like the Yankees? The baseball team?” Lu asked.
“Precisely, Lu, and good on you for making the connection,” she spoke loudly and proudly and made the boys feel like they were something, like they were brilliant and savvy, industrious and useful. It was safe to say that they liked Margaret more and more with each passing tick of the tock. “In fact, wait a second, aren’t you half Dutch?”
Lu spoke up, “Yes, but Margaret, how do you know all this stuff? How do you know about Yankees and then that I’m half Dutch. You just met me?”
“Ooh, wee lad of 9 short years, you are a clever one. You will do just fine and in fact, you answered your own question with your own question if that makes any sense at all.”
“Uh,” Lu felt bad, “it actually doesn’t, Margaret.”
“Listen up, my darling upside-down Dutchie,” she was now exactly under him and Lu had to twist a bit to focus on her face. “Your curiosity is exactly what you need to solve the puzzles of this castle, but that is precisely what is going to get you your answers from the day you walk away from Markree and into the rest of your life.”
Lu had pretty much nothing to say about that other than how she knew this stuff.
“Because you are curious and you ask questions. You noticed that I noticed that you’re half Dutch and you stopped and questioned it. You didn’t just let it slide and wonder. Oh, sure, you may have done that as well, but then you asked, you questioned, you made the inquiry and then you got the answer, which was a riddle of answer in itself, but this is just the point. You’re paying attention, my young adventurers, your eyes and ears are open and you see and hear everything.”
“But you remember it all,” Lu commented. “I don’t know anything yet, I’m only 9. I’m still little,” Lu paused. “Wait a sec, you also didn’t tell me how you know all of this about me?”
“Oh, sweet little bear, you know nothing and you know everything. You have the gift of curiosity combined with the power of the innocence of youth. With that, you can figure things out that older people can’t. But you need to keep your mind sharp, your eyes and ears open and let the knowledge come to you,” she paused. “And that is how I know you’re half Dutch.”
Lu stared into the eyes of the friendly witch below him and had so many questions, but they swarmed in that 9-year old brain like bees in a shaken hive. His many questions fought to come out first, but the winner was the simplest one.
“Could you help me get down from here, Margaret?” and with that, Lu reached out his hand, yanked on that rope and it came loose. It unleashed a cloud of dust at least as old as the castle itself and a thick rope ladder dangled heavily next to him.
He was still upside-down, however, and would have to employ some gymnastics to get onto the ladder.
“Dec, you’re going to need to let go of Lu’s legs in a minute, OK?” Margaret called up to the open door in the ceiling.
“Wait, what?” Lu asked. “But won’t I just fall down?”
“Lu, you need to grab a hold of the top rung of the ladder and hold on tight. Dec is going to slowly release your legs and you’re going to do something of a somersault and you’ll want to hold on with your hands and then zip, zap, zop, your bottom will be your top.”
“I’m ready,” Dec said from above.
“Yeah, you’re ready,” Lu called out, “You’re not the one doing the somersault.”
“You’re ready, Lu,” Margaret said with such conviction that Lu realized that he was ready.
“OK, I’m ready,” Lu said and he grabbed onto the rung of the ladder and said to Dec, “OK, let me go, Dec.”
Dec let go and Lu’s legs slid through the trap door and did a semi-circle as his hands held on tight. His body slammed into the thick rope and it puffed with dust. Lu coughed as it got immediately into his mouth and eyes.
“I did it!” Lu cried out.
“Of course you did,” Margaret said. “Now climb on down, lad, and we’ll dust you off. Dec, we’ll try to pull the ladder over closer to you to help you down. There we go,” she pulled it over. “Got it?”
“I got it,” Dec said, “But I’m going to go feet first,” he said and he pulled the ladder up, sat down on the ledge of the opening and tried to let himself down easily. He put a foot onto a rung, then another, and could hold onto the top of it with his hands and soon he was down.
“Now, lads, nice to have you back,” Margaret said, but the boys both looked back upwards. As they did, Li and Dan slid their heads over the opening and simultaneously said just a single word.
“Well, so they do exist,” Margaret shrieked. “The brothers are alive and well. Now, come on down boys, you’ve seen the procedure. Get to it, lads, we don’t have all day,” she paused, looked at the two boys on the ground, then back up and continued. “Well, actually we do have all day, but it’s just an expression, don’t you know?” She cackled and bowed her body down and her eyes were lost in wrinkles and her teeth seemed to light up as she laughed from deep within at her own comedy.
Li and Dan did the same bit of acrobatics and were soon on the dusty floor with the rest of them.
“I’m Dan,” Dan said and offered his hand.
“So you are,” Margaret said. “Younger brother of Dec, I presume?”
“That’s me,” Dan said, not quite knowing what else he was supposed to say.
“And I’m Li,” Li said and also offered a hand which she shook mightily. “Big brother of Lu,” he added like an Indian chief.
“Indeed,” she said and with that, the boys waited. They were all properly introduced and now was the time to, well, they weren’t sure. Lu had a few ideas, but they involved foods he didn’t dare mention, so he didn’t say anything.
Margaret broke the silence, “What, may I ask, were you boys doing up there and how did you get there?”
“Are we in trouble?” Dan asked.
Lu didn’t wait for an answer to Dan’s question and jumped right in, “So, we were doing penalty shootouts and Dec,” Lu pointed to Dec, but Margaret nodded as she knew already who Dec was. Lu kept going, “He has a rocket launcher for a leg and he took this shot that blew past the goalie like a, well, like a rocket. Wait, who was goalie then? Oh, I know, I know, it was Li,” and he pointed to Li and again Margaret nodded as she now knew who Li was as well. Lu continued before she could interrupt, “So it blew by Li’s head like he was a statue. Whoa, it was cool. It was like he didn’t even have time to react. I mean, he doesn’t usually play goalie, so maybe he’s just not used to it, I mean, I probably would have been able to at least get a hand on it because I’m an awesome goalie, but this was a rocket. Man, it was a hard kick.”
Margaret put up a single finger, “Lu?”
“Yeah?” he asked, pretty sure she was going to ask him to get to the point. But she asked the question that kids want to hear most. More than ‘Are you ready for dinner?’ more than, ‘Would you like ketchup with your fries?’ and even more than, ‘Do you need a few more minutes to wake up?’ They were the three words that any child wants to hear more than any others.
“Then what happened?” she said and smiled.
Margaret was a sweet soul who would allow someone their guilty pleasures. She let Lu babble on about the top-ranked teams in the World Cup, the stone entrance to the tunnel, then falling into what seemed like nothing, but was probably a bog, she even learned that Dan likes to watch documentaries. He even covered the glasses and the sunlight, the letters and then finding just the letters they needed.
“Then my brother pushed me,” he was still going. “But he was really showing me that he would actually save my life, but he kinda threatened my life, so I’m not sure it really counts. Then that trap door opened, I was hanging out, I saw that ladder, then I saw you,” he finally stopped after what seemed like a Forrest Gump trip across the country. “So that’s how we got here.”
Since Lu left out not a single detail, the other boys had nothing to add except nods and even a few moments of recognition of Lu’s laser memory.
“I see,” was all that Margaret said. “Have you boys found other words hidden around the castle?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lu started, “So last night, when we were with you, actually,” but this time he was interrupted.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “But I don’t mean ‘Don’t tell me,’ as if I already know, but, truly, ‘Don’t tell me’ because I shouldn’t know,” she said but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to the boys. “In some weird ways, lads, one person shouldn’t know everything, but we should each know what we each know and tonight, perhaps we can put it together.”
“So,” Dan chimed in finally, having displayed a herculean effort of patience listening to Lu’s extended unabridged version of the morning’s activities. “About tonight.”
“Yes, Dan, about tonight,” Margaret repeated.
“What’s going to happen?”
For a change, it seemed that Margaret didn’t know what to say. She bowed her head, then she looked back up to the open trap door. She looked at the boys, all of them one at a time. It seemed like they were about to get in trouble, but this was Margaret, she was all good news, all the time.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Li asked.
“I think that you boys might now know more than I do,” she said.
“How could we know more than you do? We don’t know anything?” Dec asked.
“You have three of the keys to the door,” she started. “Up until now, we have had only guesses and attempts and thoughts and frustration. We’ve had family feuds and arguments, declarations of hatred and periods of peace. But you boys have stumbled on three of the four pieces of the key to Markree Castle and tonight the moon is right as it is only once every,” she was interrupted by Dec.
“Every blue moon,” Dec proudly stated.
“Exactly, Dec,” Margaret said and smiled at him.
“Oh, lads, I’m getting old and I’m tired of the feuding between families around here. Oh, sure, you don’t really see it, but it’s behind closed doors, it’s whispered in the small pubs in the surrounding villages and it’s all old news. It’s talked about so much that it’s just become background noise, like a bad Irish fiddle playing in a rowdy pub,” she said and her thoughts seemed to veer off into a rowdy pub for a moment.
“Alastar and Killian are on opposing sides of the history and have never been able to bury their grudges. It’s one of those family grudges that goes so far back that if you asked any of them what it was all about and you pressed hard for details, they would eventually back down, especially after having tossed back a few pints, and they’d say that they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the fight was all about,” Margaret looked tired or at least tired of the feud.
“The time has come, my four excellent explorers, to end this secret of Markree Castle and put it behind us. Tonight the moon will be right, we’ll need to gather up both Alastar and Killian, you boys and we’ll have to be ready,” she spoke almost like a soccer coach getting the team ready for a grueling second half only they were down 3-0 and two of the players had yellow cards.
“We have to bring both Alastar and Killian?” Li asked.
“I’m afraid so, Li,” she answered. “Killian is a big teddy bear once you get through the evil Frankenstein exterior. He means well, but he’s also tired of the fighting, but he’s stubborn and old and, well, old and stubborn. He doesn’t want to give in and he doesn’t want to give up. You boys are going to be the straw that broke that camel’s back.”
More than one of the boys gulped down a hard swallow of fear at the thought of them all down there that same night with Alastar and Killian. Lu had a thought that would make it easier.
“Margaret,” Lu asked. “Can you be down here tonight, too?”
“Oh, Lu, you’re a sweet cube of sugar in a cup of bitter tea, you are,” she said as she looked directly into his eyes. “But my brother doesn’t quite agree with me, we don’t see eye to eye, he wouldn’t allow me to be part of anything that might happen down here tonight lad,” she said. “You see, he thinks that, quietly, I’m after the same thing that he is, some sort of treasure beyond that door, in that next room,” she pointed over to the place they’ve been dreaming about, day and night, over the past two days. “But lads, my treasure was lost to me in my only son and my joys these days are more the likes of you four lads and your innocence and spirit. There’s nothing that I need in there that I don’t have already here,” and she put a hand over her heart.
“Can’t you just tell him?” Li asked.
“Because maybe we need you down here,” Dan chimed in. “You said yourself that we all have pieces to this puzzle and maybe you’re a part of it. We need you here, Margaret.”
“Oh, you’re all dollops of sweet cream, you are, and I cherish each kind word you float my way,” but my brother will have nothing of it.
“Maybe he doesn’t know that you need to be a part of it,” Li suggested. “Maybe if he knew that you could help us all get in, then he’d let you come help us.”
Lu didn’t say anything for a moment, but thought and figured and counted and wondered. Then he let out his thought.
“Margaret?” he asked.
“Yes, Lu,” she answered.
“Who is your brother?”
She smiled and closed her eyes and whispered the words that the boys weren’t sure they were ready to hear. Silence layer-caked on top of more silence as every spider stopped, every wisp of air stilled and the boys listened with all of their might.