Visiting other towns can sometimes be like inter-dimensional travel. From province to province and in the space between time zones, custom and tradition can shift so dramatically that an other-world experience is the only terminology that makes any sense to those who have never been before. It is from these places, in a village or county neither here nor there, that stories of passing through a wormhole in time or living though an unusually realistic dream come. It is not imagination; it is not magical or metaphysical or mystic; it is odd, and may have been Odd, but more likely another such town by a different name.
The Venus family was one of the road-tripping kinds. They had been across the continent more times than the average person had occasion to spell the word tzatziki, and every venture they made was kicked off by the purchase of a brand new, up-to-the-date-they-left-accurate, accordion style roadmap. All three of them participated in the purchasing of their traditional navigational tool. Piling out of their station wagon and into the little general store at the corner, they walked up to the counter and smiled in unison. “Good morning, Mauve,” they chimed together. Her reply was well practiced, but it was delivered with so much merriment and warmth that it could have been the first expression of the sentiment. “Oh and a great, grand rainbow of a morning to all of you! Are you here for… your map?” And with a flourish familiar to the nimble wrists of illusionists and puppeteers she produced the glossy paper guide and grinned. “I saw the circled square on your calendar last time I came for tea and made a mental note. This one is hot off the presses in Caledonia. They sent it over by courier this morning!” She sat back on her stool and basked in their awe. “Mauve!” they bubbled, “you’re amazing!”
A tall man with a curling moustache joined the girl behind the counter and took up the second stool. “Mr. Venus, Mrs. Venus, glad to see you’re up with the sun. Violet, I must say that is quite the prettiest little smile I’ve seen all morning! With one exception, of course.” He gave his daughter a kiss on the cheek and winked across to the other girl. “I’d have to say it’s a draw.”
“Your Mauve was just showing us our new map, Mr. Mercury. It does look like a fine piece of print if I do say so... but let’s open it up and see if we can’t find our own little acreage this time. We’ve never made it to the national atlas before, but who knows? Maybe this year will be different!”
The map took up the whole counter space with corners tumbling over the spill edge as though someone had tossed a blanket over the great falls of Niagara and then pinned it down with giant elbows. They looked on with wonder at the daunting tangle of roads and highways, train tracks, perforated border marks and pepper-like scattering of picnic symbols and gas station alerts. They all poked their fingers down at a point of personal recognition and traced to where their little hiccup of land ought lie… but found only blank space for one more year. Even Rosseau was on the map. Aylmer, Powassan and Wanapitei all made the cut, but their population of one-hundred-eleven persons was off the grid again. A communal sigh followed the realization and the group repositioned their postures perpendicularly. “Ahh well,” concluded Mr. Mercury with a shrug, “by your next trip they should see us. Peach and Persimmon are due in the spring, and that will balloon our numbers one, maybe two more, assuming they stick around. Next year, friends, next year.”
Each Venus chose out one bag of sweets and lay down the crisp and colourful bill they entered with. Just before Violet tugged the door closed behind her, Mauve caught her arm. “If something cool happens,” she whispered, “I expect a good story. And maybe a souvenir.” The friends shared a hug, and with much dramatic waving and open-windowed shouts of thanks, they were off to adventure again.
“Well,” said Mr. Venus as soon as they crossed from dirt onto gravel and finally the smooth pavement of highways and cities, “what should our rule be this time?” It was an annual discussion, and each had been giving it much thought. In past travels that had decided that they would only ever make left handed turns, which had once landed them surprisingly close to the Mexican border on the way to Rhode Island. Another year they vowed to cross every bridge they could see, drive down every Main Street in three states, follow orange cars for no less than twenty minutes and so on. This year they would vote on another rule to follow, and they would hold to it religiously.
Her father continued when his women said nothing. “I was thinking it might be fun to ferry as frequently as we can… but it wouldn’t promise much when we hit the desert.” Her mother spoke second and tossed in her copper. “We could flick paint at the map and connect all the dots? It would certainly send us to places we haven’t seen – but I don’t know if it’s much of a rule, per se.” They both angled their mirrors, rear view and passenger visor, so they could better see their daughter. “Vi, honey? What do you think?” Violet pressed her thumb up against the sharp point of one of her teeth and thought. She had three ideas and was struggling to prioritize. After a moment of consideration she tipped her head to one shoulder and the other, and drew out every word for flair. “I was thinking, we should spend the nights off the map.”
The eyebrows of both her parents dipped down into an uncomprehending furrow, but only for a flash. “You mean, find other towns like us,” her mother reasoned out. “Other people off the grid.” All six of their eyes twinkled with anticipation and the mischief of innocent play. “Yes,” affirmed her dad with a laugh. “We’ll do it, and it’ll be grand.”
Their first day of driving is always rather a lazy one. Everything looks novel simply because the sensation of passing it causes a particular sort of frame to wrap every scene in a special way. They spent most of their time lost to each other and staring in wonder out of different windows. Occasionally her mother, Viridian, would lean her chair back to share the view for a while, and then she would sit back up and fix her gaze out of the passenger side once more. The stopped for dinner at a little diner with a patio and ate breakfast around eight o’clock, just as the sun was setting. They asked their waiter where the closest speck of a town was, and had to whittle him down from “an hour to the Sheraton,” to “ten kilometers and you’ll find the Days Inn,” until he finally called his sister and asked if there was a room in her B&B for the night. He wrote directions on the back of their bill. “I’d tell you what roads to take,” he smiled, “but they stop naming them after a while. I’m afraid your map won’t help you much if you get lost.” Violet responded in sum. “Perfect.”
The highway splintered off a number of times as they drove west, chasing the fiery horizon. Asphalt crumbled into dirt roads that sprouted grass in the middle parts and when they reached the tiny, lamp-lit hamlet it seemed more like a ghost town than home to the living and breathing sort. They clambered up to the front porch of the first and largest building they could see and rang the hand-held school bell that hung on a fine white cord. A faded sandwich board told a brief history of the spot and displayed a sort of menu. Violet cocked her brow at the first item on the list: One mug of warm-all-the-way-down-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach-and-back-up-around-your-brain-like-a-hug, three melt-in-your-mouth-with-that-ohh-yeah-kind-of-smile-sparker, and optional crunchy-but-soft-and-fills-me-up-just-right. Served with fresh squirt-in-my-mouth-and-tickle-my-tongue-like-childhood. Four dollars. Before she could read any further the screen door swung open and a young woman ushered them in with the enthusiasm of a mother hen. “Hello! Hello, come on in! Right on over here, can I help you take – okay, that’s right – just, yes! Great to see you!” Her words danced around the room, keeping step with her spinning, welcoming form. It felt like the sun had set outside just in time to rise again inside of this girl. She beamed like the rose-buttercup light of an early morning. “I am just so pleased to have guests around this place again. Please, come in and make yourselves at home! I’m just going to run and grab keys for you. Wow, it’s just – right? This is great!” She slipped away and left the Venus family to breathe and take in their surroundings. A steep staircase climbed up to the right, and other rooms on its far side opened to the back of the old farmhouse. It smelled of wood and the smoke of a fireplace. The kitchen stood to the left and a dining room with several lustrous place settings that seemed out of balance with the apparent emptiness of the bed and breakfast. Facing them across the front hall was a large mirror, and above it hung an asparagus coloured wooden sign with two simple routed words: Leefy Greans. The Venuses were still staring at the sign when their hostess rejoined them.
“It isn’t an error. Well, it is in a way, but intentionally so. I’ve put the kettle on for some sip-you-to-sleep, if you’ll join me in the parlor as soon as you’re settled upstairs?” She handed Mr. Venus a large brass key, and gave Violet her own, just as shiny but much more delicate. “Stories are always better with something hot in hand.”
Viridian smiled up at her husband, took his free hand in hers and picked up their suitcase. He followed her up the stairs with another bag slung over his shoulder. Violet dawdled her way up the stairs, taking time to look at each picture in the path of her ascent. She paused between the fifth and sixth step, held in place by the very old photo of a young boy. “Excuse me,” she called down to the woman who was sweeping a straw broom across the floor. “Who is this?” Leaning the broom against the wall she joined the girl on the stairs. “He’s my grandfather,” she said. “James Ian Dash was his name. My brother looked a lot like him as a kid. He lives in a city now, but this was taken just outside of this house. He grew up here.” “It’s an unusual name,” said Violet. “What colour is James like?”
Confusion fogged the air between them. “James isn’t a colour,” came the reply. She waved her hand in front of her face as though trying to physically clear up the muddle. “It’s just a name. It means something, I think, but it isn’t a pigment like yours.” Violet shook her head. “Everyone’s name is a colour somewhere on the spectrum – Jade, Emerald, Sage, Umber – that’s just how it is. You must have a colour name. What is it?” “I’m Kathleen,” said Kathleen. Violet didn’t know what to say. “Is… is that like… orange?”
Mr. and Mrs. Venus returned from dropping off their bags and soon all four of them were sitting around a small table with full teacups. “Kathleen,” said Vermillion, leaning forward just a little to focus his question, “what’s the story about that sign in the entryway?” She smiled and sipped at her cup. “Our little town – and I do mean little in a literal sense, I think there might be thirty of us living here permanently, and you’ll meet most of them in the morning – well, we used to be called Leafy Greens.” She walked to the refrigerator and took the pen and note pad to spell it out for them. “Some of the best provincial farming land is around these parts, or used to be. A couple of major highway companies bought up most of the land lot by lot before locals caught onto their project, and when we realized what they were trying to do the papers were already signed. They plowed up the farms and paved their paths, and five years later rerouted traffic and skipped our town all together. Most of the folks had to leave, to start up again somewhere else. Those who’ve stayed have done what we can to keep each other floating along and have worked out a kind of subsistence recycling of goods and labour. We don’t even really need tourists anymore, not that that we don’t love company,” she smiled. “All the kids get picked up from my place in the morning and go to school about a half hour away. A few years back there was a kid from the high school who missed the bus and decided he would walk. Foolish, maybe, but I think he made it by the last bell. Anyway, when he hit the town limits and passed the sign, he stopped for a rest and saw that one of the letters had come loose from the board. Long story short, he switched the letters as a practical joke. Nobody in town noticed for months, but one day a stack of letters came by a blustery mail courier. The post officer told us that about thirty letters had come in with the misspelled name, and therefore hadn’t been delivered properly. It was mostly fliers and trash, but someone had apparently driven by the sign, informed someone in a government office somewhere and all the records had been officially changed. If we wanted to continue life in Leafy Greens there would be a lot of paperwork in our future, and a misdemeanor fine to pay. We held a town meeting at what used to be our library and voted to keep the bumbled version to save the kid his summer money. We spent a few hours walking the streets, now mostly abandoned, drawing arrows where the letters ought to be switched. It’s all just a joke now, just a story to tell. I had that sign made up one Christmas. Other than the one on your way into town, I imagine it’s the only one you’ll find with that spelling and not just the arrows.”
Kathleen held the mug up to her nose and breathed in the warm spell. The Venus family, reflective and growing drowsy, absently mimicked her movements. “Ahhhh,” sighed Viridian, “That hits the spot.” Kathleen held up her hand in correction. “That’s hits-the-spot,” she said. Mrs. Venus looked a bit puzzled but she smiled, nodded and yawned. Bidding their hostess a good night and cheerful dreams, each Venus climbed up the stairs and snuggled into their beds, thick with comfort and down.
Morning came swiftly, and waking abrupt.
“Aaye, lass! It’s rrroll call! Seven thirrrty-thrrree and not a moment to lose!” There was a Scottish man pounding at Violet’s door. She assumed herself still swallowed in sleep until the bright twittering of a bird caught her attention outside and she remembered her setting. “I’ll give yerrr bonny face to the count of fourrr, lass, and mind you be quick to drrress!” Violet leaped out of bed and drove her hands into her tightly packed suitcase, resurfacing with a navy tee and light jeans. The whole process of un-and-re-clothing her body took less than ninety seconds. She opened the door to the sight of a rough looking man knocking sharply at the wall of her parents’ room. “Venus, Virrridian! Venus, Verrrmillion! Venus, Violet!” He read loudly from a list in his hand, with a curious sort of barking tone. “Yerrr expected to find a seat at table in a flash! The lady of this fine home has been labourrring all morrrning overrr the stove! If yerrr not quick, the I-can’t-believe-how-fantastic-this-hot-oozing-mess-feels-in-my-jaw will get cold!” And he vanished down a thin flight of stairs at the end of the hall. A moment later she could hear his holler again, slightly muffled by the floorboards between them. “Jones, Cha! Jones, Po! Yerrr expected at table!”
Mr. and Mrs. Venus stumbled out of their room with sleepiness clinging around them, rubbing their fingers against their face in the hope of massaging their eyes alert. “Did he say something about food?” Viridian asked in mid stretch. Her arms pulled taught and she made tiny, involuntary squeaking sounds and she attempted to suppress a yawn. “I didn’t quite understand, actually,” said Violet’s father. “But I know we’re intended to go down. Shall we?”
A rumbling noise grew in volume and power as they neared the dining area. Last night it had felt so quiet and empty, but upon turning the corner at the bottom of the stairs, all such adjectives fled the mind. It was like a radio playing ten stations at once – a cacophony of conversation from a room full of vastly varying characters. “Oh, my,” said Violet. Nothing more need be said for the moment; the thing to do was look on. All along the twenty-two foot table sat the strangest collection of people they had ever seen. Some were colourfully clad, but the garb of others was muted and gray. Some hair stood tall in bouffant or curl, and some lay flat and pin-straight or wrapped back in a bun, or combed over or gone altogether, skin shined. Several gentlemen wore felt hats, and around the shoulders of a particularly tall woman was a feathered boa. Correction… the draping tail feathers of a quetzal bird that hopped from behind her head to perch atop it. There was a gentleman in the formal tuxedo of another era and a set of three children sat in highchairs. But even stranger than the look of the lot was the language that flowed from their lips.
“Dear, mind your elbows; you’re about to knock over the slides-down-your-throat-and-gives-every-nerve-a-caress-as-you-swallow! Spill that and you’ll spoil something else.”
“Marta, kindly pass over the you-know-what-that’s-just-the-kick-in-the-taste-buds-I-needed? No, sorry, I meant the fizzles-at-the-top-of-your-mouth-and-ohh-it-reminds-me-of-the-east-coast-sprays. That’s it. Yes, thank you.”
“Here sweetheart, this is maybe-not-the-best-of-the-bushel-but-sweeter-than-you-might-think-for-how-healthy-it-is. Open up like a good little man.”
“Mom! Is this holy-scrape-that-out-of-my-mouth-galhhhgreeeahh again? I’m begging you: please don’t make me eat!”
Kathleen danced over and sat them down at the table. It was… well, a little anticlimactic. Each place was set with a cereal bowl, a plate with three pancakes, a small pile of orange slices and easily within reach of each seat was a toast tray and several open jars of jam. Here they were expecting some kind of strange feast, made up of absolutely inexpressible varieties of food… but it was simple. It was breakfast for breakfast and little more.
“Thank you, Kathleen,” said Mr. Venus on behalf of his family. “It looks lovely. Does your town come over for pancakes every morning?”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“Pancakes. Every morning?”
“I’m afraid that I really don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
He picked up a pancake between his fingers and pointed at it. “Pancake.” She picked up a menu from the counter behind her and pointed at it. “Melt-in-your-mouth-with-that-ohh-yeah-kind-of-smile-sparker. You get three.” His mouth fell open, flabbergasted. She continued. “Your term might be shorter, but it says nothing of essence. I’ve heard the word before, once in the city – maybe my brother mentioned it at the diner – but please understand, there is so much more that you can learn about a food than what it is. Pancake: a cake made in a pan… you know what it is, but what is it? Our word tells you that.”
He sat back and chewed the thought over with the rest of his fluffy mouthful. It was a kind of right-brained logic so unfamiliar to the rest of the world. But it made him smile, and he tried it out. “Darling,” he said lifting his shoulders in measure with the edges of a growing grin, “Will you pass me down that… quench-my-thirst-and…. some-other-delicious-adverb?” She laughed and poured him a glass of orange juice.
The meal was indeed a daily affair. Twice daily, actually: a breakfast and a “lupper” that was hosted around 4:30pm. As a community they had realized that a mass grocery bill for thirty would be much less expensive than fifteen or twenty people cooking for one or two mouths. The farmer contributed a portion of his crop for free and therefore did not contribute financially, and Kathleen as the hostess, lead organizational hand and primary chef was also exempt. Everyone else pitched in on a budget and they feasted together, most every phrase an affirmation of appreciation and delight. Between meals there was much to be done; the theatre in town opened for a matinee, the grocer set up a snack stand for those who missed a meal or decided on a treat; hair salons and liquor saloons opened up for a few hours, the doctor walked around and visited everyone and their pets, and the children, when not in school, set up forts and played in the square. Leefy Greans was a beautiful little spot, for all of its quirks and strange names. In many ways it was akin to the small town they had driven away from, but somehow extraordinarily different.
Their second night was just as pleasant as their first, but this time when Kathleen invited them for a soothing-crack-your-neck-kind-of-tension-release and one or two ohh-so-good-chocolatey-fresh-out-of-the-oven-hunk-a-hunk-of-almost-burn-your-mouth-love, they knew what she meant.
They drove away the next morning after a very complicated set of breakfast foods that boiled down to eggs, hashbrowns, bacon and a couple of beverages, both hot and cold. “If you ever find yourself around these parts again,” smiled Kathleen as she helped carry a box of lupper out to their car, “there will be a couple of brass keys waiting and a mug of… is it tea?” The Venus family smiled. “Something sweet and hot to sip, call it what you will,” said Viridian.
Their trip lasted five weeks and one day. When they returned, Mauve ran over and knocked at the door. “She’s upstairs,” called Violet’s father, but the girl was half way up the flight before he even noticed her entrance. “So?” sang Mauve with a prying inflection of her voice. “Tell me a story!” Vi swung her legs over to the other side of her bed and pulled a laminated sheet out of her backpack. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but I remembered your souvenir.” She handed her friend a table menu. Mauve cocked an eyebrow at the first item on the list. Violet smiled and pulled the backpack off of the floor, spilling its contents across the bed and revealing a jar of sand, tiny keychain animals, a wooden ruler, some kind of handmade taffy and a dozen other trinkets and bobbles. “Make yourself comfortable, Miss Mercury. You can’t imagine how crazy this world is.”