Holly, Hemlock & Mistletoe
A 2014 Special Edition “Nameless, Texas” Holiday Story featuring Kendra O’Keefe
by Bobbi A. Chukran
Copyright © 2014 by Limestone Ledge Publishing, Taylor, Texas
Holly, Hemlock & Mistletoe
It was a nice warm December day a couple of weeks before Christmas and I was in my Zen zone, pulling weeds, picking pecans off the ground and raking what seemed like tons of wet leaves off the sidewalk so my elderly neighbor wouldn’t slip and fall the next time he visited.
It had rained the night before and the ground was soft, so I took advantage of it and was puttering around, wasting time, pulling a few more weeds and harvesting herbs for Aunt Jewel. She was making her special dried Italian herb mixture and bottling it to take to her Garden Club Christmas party.
I’d already gathered an armload of holly to decorate the sideboard in the dining room and would use one of my grandmother’s old baskets for a container.
The garden had gone to pieces since we’d had so much rain over the past month. Half of the vegetables were mush and half were alive. The warm weather and rain had fooled some of the trees into thinking it was spring and I saw some tiny green shoots on the peach tree. I groaned. Not good.
I was on my fifth bucket of cleavers, dandelions and thistles. Every once in a while I’d do a little dance, and so far I’d managed to outwit the fire ants. The rain had chased them upwards, the gigantic mounds hidden in the overgrowth.
The cardinals were serenading me from my ancient pecan trees and I was happy. Well, almost happy. Thousands of snails hung like glistening globules from my daylily leaves. I grabbed one of them, flung it to the sidewalk and stomped. Snail juice flew up and splashed me in the eye.
“Oh, gross!” I said, wiping it away with my sleeve. Did it burn like acid? Would it put my eye out? I didn’t want to think about the possibilities. I had dispatched hundreds of the little buggers so far without mishap. My favorite way to kill them was to wait for an oncoming car, then flick them out into the street under the wheels. I was getting pretty good at that maneuver. So far they hadn’t landed in anyone’s lap. As far as I knew.
I stood up and clenched my back. It reminded me that I wasn’t a 20-something anymore. As I rose up, I eyed the nice green bunch of mistletoe hanging in my neighbor’s oak tree. I was surprised, since the hard Texas drought had made it scarce this year. I squinted and pondered distance. If I got the rake and jumped, I thought I might just be able to reach it. Just to knock a little bunch down. I’d leave most of it for the birds since they love the berries.
As far as I was concerned, my Christmas decorating wasn’t done until I had a fat hunk of the stuff hanging over the arch between the kitchen and dining nook. I planned to put it to good use this year. Deputy James Wyman (my beau) and Sheriff Lyndall Tinker (Aunt Jewel’s beau) were coming to Christmas dinner. Aunt Jewel was handling the food and I was in charge of the decorating.
I walked over to the old chain link fence that separated our back garden from the yard next door, reached down and yanked out another handful of ferny weeds. I heard a rough, low voice from the head-high boxwood bushes on the other side.
“Watch out, missy! Those are hemlock. They’ll kill ya!”
I pushed the shrubbery aside and there she was—the elusive neighbor we’d tried to glimpse for the last six months since I’d moved in with Aunt Jewel. Even now, as I peered at her, she withdrew to hide behind the bushes that grew alongside her back porch.
From what I could see, she was short, had a helmet of bright white hair, watery blue eyes and turquoise cat’s eye glasses, circa 1955. I loved those glasses! I had a pair of repros, but I’d bet hers were original. She wore a faded bib apron over a pair of outlandish orange hounds-tooth double knit pants and an old man’s tee shirt soiled with grass stains.
“Oh, hi,” I said. “I hope I’m not disturbing you. I tend to talk to myself while I pull weeds. And I curse thesnails. I just smashed one and it got in my eye. Don’t you hate it when that happens?”
She stared at me. I swallowed. “I was just admiring your mistletoe. You wouldn’t mind if I harvested a bit, would you? For Christmas decorating? I don’t need much.”
She stared at me and edged out onto her porch and I wondered if she was hard-of-hearing. I started to repeat myself when she spoke.
“You ought not to be muckin’ around in there if you don’t know what you’re doin’,” she said, making no indication that she’d heard me.
Since I’m a folklorist who studies plants and have written a few gardening articles, I tend to think I do know what I’m doing, sort of. Even then, I didn’t want to argue with the lady. I’m sure she had years more experience than I had. I looked at the handful of weeds I’d just pulled and indicated the thick patch of greenery. “I thought those were Queen’s Anne Lace.”
She snorted, and shook her head back and forth, then turned to go. She moved slowly, like she was walking through molasses.
At a loss for what to say, I finally blurted. “Um, thanks, I’ll be careful with it. I appreciate the information,” but she was already halfway inside. “Do you have any tricks for getting rid of it?” I called. “And what about the mistletoe? Is it OK if I take some?”
She stopped and without turning said “Go wash your hands before you poison yourself. And next time, wear gloves. Or you’ll wish you had.”
She disappeared with a bang of her screen door. Good advice. And next time I’d also wear a snail-proof face shield.
“Snail goosh? All over your face?” Aunt Jewel laughed and shook her head. “Kendra, you need to quit messing with my snails,” Jewel Moore, (known to me and half of Nameless, Texas as “Aunt Jewel”) chortled the next day as she dished up her famous ham salad. She’d made lunch and I never turned down her food. She cooked the way my grandmother used to cook–down home food and plenty of it. “That’s priceless! Wish I’d been there to see that.”
Aunt Jewel was older by about 30 years, but had a wicked sense of humor and was a delight to be around. Especially when I was hungry.
“It’s not funny! It was gross. There are thousands of those things, maybe millions. And they’re eating our entire garden. They’re slimin’ us out of house and home!”
“Just pick ’em up and throw them in the garbage. You’ll get the better of them eventually.”
“I tried that!” I said. “They crawled out and back onto the daylilies. We have homing snails!”
“I think the old gals who lived here before we did raised them to eat,” she said, then smacked her lips. “They got loose and multiplied. Have you thought about that?”
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” I said, disgusted at the idea. I felt a bit queasy and pushed my plate away. Allof a sudden, ham salad didn’t look so good.
“Nope, apparently those two were an odd pair. Haven’t you heard the rumors?”
I had to admit that I had heard a few things, but nothing concrete. “Yeah, sort of. But I didn’t hear about any snails.”
“They used to chase around in that old truck of theirs, that blue rusted heap that Mr. Whosit down the street drives now. They raced up and down the street, honkin’ at everybody—and shootin’ the finger at their enemies.”
They had enemies? I’d heard that they had been awarded Yard of the Month numerous times, so I assumed that they were well liked. However, I also heard that they were quirky, and maybe even a bit eccentric. Small town gossip is sometimes tainted by silly grudges, so you have to consider the source. I’d never met the ladies since they’d both died years ago, but stories about them still circulated. Everybody we met seemed to have a story about them.
“They grew all sorts of strange things in their garden—mushrooms, strange herbs—you name it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t plant the hemlock, too, just to spite the neighbors. Next time, wear your gloves if you’re going to be messin’ around in that flowerbed.”
“That’s what the old lady said. She told me to wear my gloves. And wash my hands.”
“What neighbor lady?” Aunt Jewel asked.
“The one that lives next door, in that house with the blue shutters. The one covered with all the bushes and vines.”
“That house is abandoned, Kendra. Nobody’s lived there for years. I thought you knew that.”
“Then who was that I talked to this morning?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t have a clue. Maybe you were out in the sun too long and imagined her.”
I knew I hadn’t imagined her, but Aunt Jewel is as stubborn as a mule, and I didn’t want to argue with her. Much. “But I’ve seen lights over there at night,” I said.
“OK, so . . .what did she look like?” Jewel asked. “The lady you saw. Or thought you saw.”
“Oh, she was colorful. She had white hair, bright blue eyes, wore a little old-fashioned bib apron and had these amazing ’50’s cat’s eye glasses. They were turquoise. With rhinestones!” I laughed. “And she had on a pair of the most hideous orange pants. I’m sure they were double knit.”
Aunt Jewel shook her head. “Sorry, honey, it doesn’t ring a bell. The last person that lived there was Mrs. Whatchamacallit, and her kids put her in a nursing home back in 1998. I think she died soon after that.”
“How strange. I wonder who she is, then?”
Aunt Jewel shrugged. “Maybe somebody rented the house.”
“Maybe so,” I said, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. I generally kept an eye on the neighborhood, and would have noticed somebody moving in right next door.
Later that night, I was standing at the kitchen window and saw a little light flicker on, then off, next door. It almost looked like candlelight. I walked out onto the porch, careful not to slam the screen door, and peered into the blackness. Maybe it was a trick of the eyes, or car headlights reflecting off the window. I watched for a while, but finally gave up and went inside to bed.
I didn’t have time to think about the woman again over the next week because we were busy putting the final touches on our preparations for Christmas dinner and I was writing an article for the Nameless News about the folklore of holly. Aunt Jewel knocked herself out, like she always does, with the food and if I do say so myself, the decorations were nice. I’d gone over to the neighbor’s back yard the evening before and harvested a nice bunch of mistletoe. Nobody bothered me, or yelled at me to wear gloves or to be careful with the rake. Like Aunt Jewel said, the house looked deserted.
I tied a bright red bow to the mistletoe and hung it in between the arch that leads from our kitchen to the dining room. Where Deputy James Wyman couldn’t miss it.
As the sheriff and Jim walked in, calling holiday greetings, I carefully arranged myself alluringly under the arch, but Jim offered to help Aunt Jewel set the table and I was ignored. My deputy says he loves me, but he has an odd way of showing it.
“Y’all come eat!” she yelled and we each took our places around the table. The table groaned with typical Texas Christmas food, and then some. Roasted turkey, ham, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, relish tray. No festive occasion gets past Aunt Jewel without a relish tray. She made some wisecrack about escargot appetizers and they all cracked up and I cringed. I have no secrets around here.
“I hope there’s enough food,” she fretted and I thought about the four desserts sitting on the counter in the kitchen—chocolate cream pie, coconut cream pie, pecan pie and her specialty, a date nut cake. Nobody ever goes hungry around Aunt Jewel.
Jim and I sat down and the sheriff hovered behind Aunt Jewel’s chair. As she walked under the mistletoe, he grabbed her in an embrace and planted a big kiss on her. She laughed, pushing him aside. “Time to eat, you big galoot!”
I sighed and glanced at Jim, but he was already loading his plate with food. Pretty soon, we all had full plates and were eating in companionable silence.
“You’ve lived here longer than I have, what do you know about the old lady who lives next door?” I finally asked Sheriff Tinker.
He frowned and scratched his head. “What do you mean, the old lady next door? Nobody’s lived there for years since Idalou Murphy died.”
“See, I told you,” Aunt Jewel said. “She had kids in Dallas and they put her in a nursing home.”
“Nope, honey,” the sheriff interrupted. “You’re thinking of Ruby Scott, who lived there before Idalou. Idalou Murphy was the last person to live in that house.”
Jim spoke up. “I remember her from when I was a kid. She was odd. Or the kids thought she was. She always wore those crazy pants. You say she’s dead now?”
Aunt Jewel and I exchanged glances.
Sheriff Tinker nodded. “Now that was a strange case. Nobody knows for sure, but we think she accidentally poisoned herself. She just took sick and lingered for a while, and then died. Doctors never did figure out what was wrong.”
I turned and stared at him. “Poisoned herself? How?”
He shrugged. “They think she accidentally got ahold of some of that poison hemlock that grows along the fence line there.”
Aunt Jewel cocked an eyebrow at me and I squirmed. Lesson learned. I made a mental note to buy a new pair of gloves next time I was in town.
“There weren’t any signs of foul play. They found a big bouquet of dried greenery sitting in her kitchen. But they didn’t do all the forensic testing back then like they do now,” he went on. “And she’d had a lot of health problems.”
I gulped. “When did she die?”
He frowned and twisted his mouth from side to side. “Let’s see, it must have been at least 15 years now since she’s been dead and gone? Yeah, I believe that’s right. I was just a deputy at the time and I remember she was a friend of my mama’s. It was right at Christmas time, too.” He shook his head. “Sad. I haven’t thought about her in so long,” he said, taking a second helping of candied sweet potatoes.
“What makes you ask about her?” Jim said, munching a mouth full of turkey.
I shrugged. “Oh, no special reason. No reason at all.”
We finished our meal and chatted about everyday things.
I finally got up and gathered a few empty plates and took them to the kitchen. I pulled back the curtains over the sink and stared out at the house next door.
A shimmery light flickered in the window, one, two, three times—then it was gone. I gently tapped on the glass and whispered, “Thanks for the mistletoe, Idalou.”
I turned, and there he was, waiting under the mistletoe with a goofy grin on his face. “I may be slow, but I’m not stupid,” he said. “Merry Christmas, Kendra,” Jim said as he pulled me into his arms.
Copyright © 2014 All rights reserved by the author, Bobbi A. Chukran.
Permission is granted to share this story in its entirety with friends and loved ones.
About the Author
Bobbi A. Chukran is a native Texas author of mystery and suspense. She is the author of the “Nameless, Texas” series and loves writing short stories. She hopes her readers enjoy this special 2014 edition of a “Nameless, Texas” holiday story.
For more information on Bobbi or her other “Nameless, Texas” stories, please check out her Amazon Author Page,
or her website:
Aunt Jewel’s Italian Herb Mix
Jewel Moore uses this in things like spaghetti sauce, lasagna, meatloaf and any kind of pasta sauce with tomato. She harvests and dries her own herbs then mixes them together and packages them in cellophane bags or vintage salt and pepper shakers. She loves to give this mixture as a gift, and the members of the Nameless, Texas Garden Club clamors for it every year.
Makes about 11⁄4 cups.
3 tablespoons each dried basil
3 tablespoons sweet marjoram
3 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried rosemary, crushed
1 tablespoon dried parsley (or chives) flakes
Mix together, then store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.