At the same moment summer dug in its heels in earnest, Lucy’s running water was restored, and that is to say, not a moment too soon. The massive hardwoods towering over Bran’s little cottage overflowed with mid-season foliage in a lush and shadowy green, but elsewhere a few dogwoods disclosed the slightest blush of color in their leaves (their blooms now long gone), just a tease, like a Victorian lady lifting her skirt in some naughty vignette. Starting midday and continuing into the night, the trees resonated with the loud chorus of cicadas, who paused now and again at the bottom of a descending scale for dramatic effect. Lucy recalled poking a lifeless cicada with the end of a stick one time on a childhood visit to this very cottage, and then screeching and recoiling in horror when it exploded crazily into action the way a dying cicada will, as a last hurrah, one imagines.
The cottage had a new roof, a new water heater, some new plumbing here and there, and now a shiny new piece of hardware pumping furiously some 600 feet below the earth Lucy trod upon. She reflected on the unjust invisibility of these expensive repairs, listening to the sound of the pump humming again through the kitchen tap while she mixed a few table scraps into Charley’s kibble and lowered it to the floor. There was so little satisfaction in a thing you couldn’t drive, or wear, or hang upon your empty walls, she concluded. And at the same instant, she reminded the universe and anybody else who might be listening just how delighted she was for water to flow again from her taps, lest her self-pity be misconstrued as thanklessness: “I love indoor plumbing that works!”
Charley greedily snapped up her first mouthful of supper even before it left Lucy’s hand. “Mind your manners, missy!” The dog paid no heed to her human, nosing the bowl around the kitchen while she ate, sending as much of its contents flying as she managed to scoop into her jowls. Lucy stepped into the dining room while Charley ate, and observed the pile of papers strewn on the table: bank statements, legal documents, the hefty invoice Mr. Acuff had unceremoniously thrust into her hand not long ago. And here were paper wads and a pad covered in her own scrawl—categories, budgets, various and sundry lists, to which she’d soon add, Charley-proof dog bowls. And there were the sheets with her drawings—imagined floor plans, light fixtures, shelving, signage. She’d wiped out most of her rainy-day fund with the well pump; it was the kind of expense she had not anticipated when she first thought seriously about opening up this little house. The roof was a foregone conclusion, and the water heater was just plain idiocy on her part: The power to the house had been reconnected a full day before she thought to throw the pump switch—more than enough time for its elements to burn up.
Lucy needed to make a plan before her own proverbial well ran dry. Common sense suggested gainful employment (doing dog-knows-what with her liberal arts education, she wondered) or borrowing money for more schooling, an idea she’d been batting around for weeks. But since that afternoon she and Susanna had first peered inside the old ‘Philco-Your-Better-Buy’ storefront just north of the city’s urban center, she couldn’t shake it—the notion it was calling out to her—and now couldn’t deny even to herself that a seed had been planted and was already taking root.
While Charley played connect-the-dots with the spilled kibble on the kitchen floor, Lucy’s eyes settled on the one other object on the dining table, the thing she’d been fingering for these last several days. A few days earlier she’d hovered over Mr. Acuff in her root cellar, watching him replace a damaged section of pipe that announced itself the first day water blasted through it after he fired up the new well pump. She had dodged dust and debris everywhere inside the small space to point him to the leak, watching the silty red clay swirling around on the swamped floor and making a note to herself to pull out all these water-logged cardboard boxes and sift through them, in case they held anything at all worth salvaging. An opened flap on one betrayed its contents as kitchen detritus, and Lucy thought she could just make out the potholders she’d presented to Bran as a child, the kind you made on a plastic loom with stretchy loops of different colored fabric; they were moldy and Lucy would pitch them, along with most of the other textiles in the box, but she would save Bran’s heavy cast-iron skillets underneath them.
Behind this box and several others stacked under it, tucked into a corner on top of some exposed wood framing, Lucy spied an ancient book with a tattered reddish binding and a brown cover. After she’d settled up with Mr. Acuff and sent him on his way, she popped back down the steps and into the cellar, and gingerly reached for the book; cobwebs all around it ripped in protest as she pulled it from its moorings. Stepping into the light, she swiped some grime away with the edge of her hand. “The Complete Collection of Pictures and Songs, by Randolph Caldecott,” she said aloud to Charley. She gently opened it and turned over the first leaf inside it. “1887—damn,” she whispered.
A clump of moist pages clung together and Lucy thought better of separating them, but instead flipped them over as a unit, revealing the start of a new section inside the book, enchanting illustrations on every page: “The House that Jack Built! Wonderful!” Lucy’s breath caught in her throat with the serendipity of this moment. Charley wagged her tail and followed her human lady up the steps and out the front door of the house, and the two of them settled contentedly on the stoop, where the sun fell across the pages of this newfound treasure—the better to dry them out, Lucy thought. The cicadas screeched joyously in the trees above them, as if to reaffirm the importance of this find, in some ancient way befitting their species: We are the chorus, and we agree!