A birthday story for Loretta
The American paused before getting out of her car and read the note one more time. This was the definitely the place, the house. She had walked every neighborhood in Qualicum Beach to find the life-scale statue of local lore, with its eyes lifted, giving the impression he was looking back at viewers over the wooden fence. And the description of the house from the letter fit too: I’ve changed the style of the porch Darling, hung some plants, painted the old wood a brick red color to match the trees. And I placed a small elf holding a paintbrush just by the walk.
It was an ugly shade of red to paint a porch, she thought, now walking up the rain-soaked terraced steps to the front door. But obviously she needed to return the note she had found, and opened. Accidentally opened, of course, she would never intentionally open someone else’s mail. That might be the most awkward part. Returning a love letter that never reached its intended is one thing, but returning it to the writer, opened, obviously read…well, maybe the writer wasn’t even alive anymore, maybe a family member would just be glad to have it back.
The American had never meant to infringe on anyone’s privacy. She had borrowed several books from the library on the history of the surrounding area, trying to find out as much as she could about her vacation home. It was nearly impossible to locate a book about the island that focused on something other than Victoria, but there were a few publications, all in different darkness and pattern of coffee mug stain. She had settled on one book in particular, Qualicum Beach and Parksville from a Modern Day Ethnographer. Unfortunately, the book was printed in the early 1980’s, and if she could have a word with the author, Dr. James Malory, she would have let him know, in a friendly way of course, that in the 80’s, even in Los Angeles County in the 80’s, she had not felt it was a time of modernity. But then, not everybody had Reagan’s policies and AYSO to contend with during those years. Maybe in Qualicum Beach, the 1980’s had been a time of forward-moving prosperity.
Time and years served a different function on the island than it did in the states, and that was one of the reasons she had bought a home here. Qualicum would offer her a place to paint and focus on her art without any of the usual hassles that devoured her time back at home.
Malory’s book was interesting, in a quaint way, and she returned to it often while taking breaks from working on the new house. Usually she set the book down open-faced when going back to work, even though she knew this was hard on the spine, but with so many coffee rings she thought pressure on the binding was a negligible attack on the book’s modernity. When the phone had rang, it so rarely rang, and it had been her daughter, asking her to call back to a land line in New Jersey, she had accidentally closed the book upon answering the phone.
Returning to the comfy chair and Malory after their conversation, she saw the book closed and feared she lost her place in its many pages. Normally this would have upset her, for she hated trying to re-read in an attempt to find where she left off. Her memory was excellent in the big ways, and poor in the small ways. She new detailed financial information, and yet often forgot where she had set a glass of white zinfandel. But warm with the news that her daughter was engaged to be married, and therefore less likely to have a child out of wedlock and nearing the finale of this endless wishy-washy business of “living together,” she sat down and began flipping through the volume without much care as to how long it took her to retrace her reading.
It was then that she had found the incredibly thin envelope. It seemed to be no thicker than a page in the book, which could be why it hadn’t been apparent earlier. There was no writing on the faded pink envelope, except for a small check-mark, perhaps in pencil, at the top right corner where the postage ought to have been. It seemed it had been checked while between the pages of the book, for a long pencil line extended across a section of the text. The flap remained tightly sealed, so it couldn’t have been all that old. And yet, it was so thin, so very thin, that she assumed there was nothing inside the envelope. She lifted it to the light, and it appeared to be empty. Probably it had just been used by another reader as a bookmark, a reader who cared more about spines and binding and preserving modernity than she did. The envelope had just sealed itself with the lick of time’s moisture, and resealed with the continuous pressure from pages explaining colonization and expansion on the eastern shores of Vancouver Island.
And so she could open the envelope. Because there was nothing inside. And she had to make sure about that. She had been wrong.
Don’t call it an affair. That word reeks of dishonesty and betrayal. Of those we have nothing. Our love is of art and beauty, as delicate as an ancient carving. Do not fear reprisal of any form, just come to me and look at my face…
She had inadvertently opened a love letter meant for someone else. It was a fun, but voyeuristic pleasure to be privy to knowledge before the intended audience. And it would have ended there, with her gently sliding the opened envelope back into the book and hoping the next reader would gain as much fun from the old letter as she had. It would be a slight update to Malory’s modernity, a little caveat on how people behaved after 1989. Of course, she had no idea when the note was written, because it wasn’t dated, but she guest it was at least 20 years old, and the library stamps on the inside front cover confirmed that it hadn’t been checked out in over a decade. How the letter found its way to the book, though, that she couldn’t guess, but either the writer or the recipient had been quiet careless.
Finding her original place in the book, the American had continued her reading. She read all the way up to where the note was, but she had became so intrigued by the mention of a “Hermit” and his carved statue that she clean forgot about the letter. It seemed there was a man who had lived in Qualicum in the first half of the last century, to whom the entire town referred to as a hermit. Really, it was only his appearance that warranted the name - his beard was mighty unkempt, and hygiene was notably not a huge concern of his. The American wondered if perhaps his hermitage wasn’t just wishful thinking on the part of those who caught his unpleasant odor in public places.
The Hermit himself was long gone, but his wooden statue remained in town. The book didn’t provide an address for where it was, but it did say that you could see it over the fence from The Road. Which road the book didn’t specify, but Qualicum Beach was simply not that big, and the American enjoyed walking. She would take her dog, a very large mutt that held affection in the highest regard, and stroll the area looking for the statue. She would canvass the town and peer over people’s backyard fences. Knowing the soft demeanor of Canadians, she knew that no one would mind a friendly peek over a privacy fence, and so she brought with her a light weight step stool (that she used to sit on while painting en plein air) to make the task a bit easier, for she was less than five and a half feet tall.
A few days after beginning her search, on a walk past the stores of the town center to where the businesses gave way to residences, she spied the angularly carved statue! It was in a well-manicured backyard garden, with bright flowers and little stone pathways. She had been so excited by her find that she decided to go up to the front door and ring the bell. Surely a Canadian would be kind enough to let a stranger wander his or her garden. Canadians were amazingly helpful at all places except where they were specifically paid to be, such as the library. It was as she came around to the front of the corner lot that she suddenly stopped in her tracks and told Bubbles, the very large dog who held affection in high esteem, to sit. A few feet from her stood a cherub cheeked lawn ornament. It was an elf holding a paintbrush. The porch was a dark red, flowers hanging around the perimeter. This was too much to be a coincidence. And it was then she remembered that the note had been placed on exactly the page that mentioned the statue. The poor author must have been reading about himself or herself and accidentally left the love letter at that page.
The American wanted to do what was right, and return the forgotten letter, but she also saw this as a very good quid pro quo opportunity to secure the owner’s good favor and therefore a closer peek into the backyard.
She had returned home immediately. And the very next day she set out to meet the owner of the hermit statue and the love letter. She took the envelope and secured it in her purse, gave Bubbles a treat for being left out of the adventure, and grabbing the book (for it was now overdue) she journeyed out.
And thus she was standing on the red-painted porch, knocking politely, and hoping the person inside was a native islander and not a Vancouver transplant, those types were never able to fully retract the city bustle from their personalities.
“May I help you?”
It was a gentleman of about 50, with watery eyes and not too clean teeth, but otherwise entirely presentable.
“Hello, I’m Evetta Kovak. I believe I accidentally found something that might belong to someone at this house.”
“Well, there is only me at this house and has been for some time, eh? Won’t you come in?”
The American was terribly relieved, for it occurred to her she might be alerting a spouse to a painful betrayal, despite what the note had said about not fearing reprisal. She stepped into the house and immediately took off her shoes, setting them by the door, as the local custom dictated.
“Come have a seat,” He said graciously.
Evetta followed him through the house, which was floor to ceiling with art and artifacts. She tried to take in as much as she could of the treasures before arriving in a bright sunroom, where she sat on a couch that seemed to made of a vinyl-like upholstery. She wished she hadn’t worn shorts, because her thighs would stick to this couch as certain as they melted to the driver’s seat of her VW bug in the late ‘60’s. Sitting on the edge of the cushion, to avoid contact with her flesh, she fished out the envelope from her purse and handed it to the man, who had yet to introduce himself.
“I’m so sorry to have opened it, I had assumed it was empty and my curiosity forced me to make sure.”
As he took the envelope, a confused expression passed over his face.
“I thought you would have destroyed this by now,” he said, almost chastising her.
“I found it in a book, from the library, I certainly wouldn’t destroy something that wasn’t mine, much less something that came from a library.”
His look changed from uncertainty to panic, and raising his voice he said,
“But did you not come here, for, for a shared love of antiquity?”
The American decided that this was one of the oddest Canadians she had yet met.
“Of course, I was hoping to see the sculpture,” she replied, not knowing how on earth this man had figured out her ulterior motive in just minutes. He must receive tourists constantly, banging on his door all the time wishing to see the Hermit statue up close.
The anxiety left his face, and he seemed to be in calm control again. Evetta noticed that he had tossed the envelope aside quite without even a thought, and his attention was completely directed at her rather than on the letter or how she came about getting it.
He eyed her somewhat suspiciously, from the top down and then back up. And although she hated to admit it to herself, he seemed somewhat disappointed in her overall appearance.
“Excuse me a moment,” he said, shaking his head slightly as he left the room.
Evetta wondered if she should leave. Just because it was a small town of Canadians didn’t mean one of them couldn’t be a deviant psychotic killer. And here she was, sitting in a stranger’s house. A stranger she knew next to nothing about and the little she did know was not comforting.
But before she made a decision to flee, the man returned with a wooden box, about two feet by two feet. He placed the box on the table in front of the American, flipped up a latch and opened the lid. Inside, cushioned in foam cut exactly to its shape, was a carved wooden mask. It seemed to be encrusted with shell bits that glittered as if they were inlaid diamonds. There was almost more mosaic than cedar showing, and it was clearly a very precious object and not at all recently made.
“It’s beautiful!” She gasped.
“You may inspect it, but please wear these,” and he handed her a pair of latex gloves.
Evetta was thrilled. This man was not a lunatic murderer, he was an eccentric collector and she had stumbled upon a private showing of his most prized possession.
“How old is it?” She asked, putting on the gloves and gently holding the mask in front of her.
“Kind lady, I will not play these games. I can assure you it is authentic to the pre-colonial period, the papers of provenance are beneath the bedding. You must either find it satisfactory or not.”
Again, he seemed angry and confused. An odd man with a short temper Evetta thought.
“I find it quite satisfactory, thank you for showing it to me,” she said, hoping he knew how truly grateful she was as she returned it to the box in front of her.
“Excellent. How will you cross customs?”
Evetta was less surprised by the non sequitur in his conversation than that her Americaness was so readily apparent. She shook her head sadly, no matter how hard she tried to fit in, even with her speech, even by removing her shoes, even by calling a dollar a “Loonie” in a casual manner, as if that were a perfectly normal thing for an adult to call a monetary amount, they always knew she was a foreigner. Always.
“I cross on the ferry at Victoria, with my dog in the back seat of the car guarding all of my valuables,” she joked, hoping to befriend the man.
“Alright then, I bid you farewell.”
And he abruptly stood up, taking hold of the box with one arm and firmly grasping Evetta’s arm with the other hand. He led her back though the house, past various totems and jewelry, headpieces and statues and artwork of ancient-looking origin, to the foyer. She hadn’t even seen the Hermit statue yet!
“The transfer went through days ago,” he continued rapidly, “I must say I was expecting you sooner than this, and due to your lackadaisical approach we will not be doing business again. So thank you and goodbye.”
Evetta barely had time to put her shoes on before she was shoved out onto the ugly red porch. When she turned to tell him what she thought of his horrible manners and temper, the man pushed the box into her hands and quickly closed the door.
Upon hearing the deadbolt latch inches from her face, everything that happened in the last few days became quite clear to Evetta. She was not a stranger to mystery, whether she was in California or Canada. Mystery seemed to follow her like gum spat out on the sidewalk in 90 degree heat only to be tracked for blocks on the sole of a sneaker.
The American sighed, realizing that her second home would no longer offer any relief from the constant sleuthing and crime fighting that doggedly occupied her in the coastal resort community she usually inhabited. No, Qualicum Beach, perhaps the island as a whole, was in just as dire need of her skillful detective work as the pseudo-sleepy town of Cambria, California.
With the sad realization that her vacation home would really just be another location to battle conspiracy and correctly attribute murders, Evetta returned to her car. She carefully placed the box, which most certainly contained a stolen indigenous mask some three hundred years old, in the back seat of her car, tightly nestled between Bubble’s travel water dish and her can of oil paints.
Evetta then drove to the library, thinking she would save the police one more bit of trouble by finding out if there was any patron who had made attempts to check-out Malory’s ethnographic vision of Parksville and Qualicum Beach. Her investigation was delayed and then speeded by the librarian’s feverish obsession with correct change. It seems she would only accept Evetta’s overdue book fine in Toonies, and refused to make change for any bills. “The bank is down the road, we’re the library. We deal with books, not money. And I must say that has become a popular title lately. Just after you checked it out another foreigner came in here looking for it. Asked me to do a re-call before your loan period was even done. Can you imagine the nerve? Americans!”
Evetta resisted the temptation to inform the librarian that this American was saving a priceless artifact from being smuggled out of the country and instead found the correct change in the bottom of her purse and then offered to inform the her fellow antsy American of the book’s availability herself, seeing as how she had kept it past her allotted time.
Hurrying, because it was past dinner time now for her large dog, who would, due to his fondness for attention, would actually prefer petting to kibble, Evetta stepped into the police station next door to the library. There she supplied the detective/clerk/parking officer with a short summary of the crime, the address of the black market supplier, the name and number of the buyer, and the stolen mask itself. She felt secure that justice would take its course, not for faith in the local law enforcement, but because the editor/reporter/publisher of the daily Qualicum Query also happened to be at the police station, taking notes on everything she said and asking more questions about her claim than the police officer himself.
The Query was a rather clever piece of journalism, she thought to herself upon leaving the station. Evetta turned at the door to remind the officer to use oil-free gloves if handling the evidence, and upon smiling goodbye to the newspaper editor, the American was yet to know that her very next mystery in the cozy town of Qualicum would coincidentally hinge upon that man’s integrity. Indeed her own life would be imperiled by his wavering morality in the Case of the Copy Edit.