Somewhere deep in the tangle of wire that is Amish Country roads there is a massive labyrinth that the locals call an antique shop. It is a warehouse of snaking pathways and dead ends filled with broken kitchen utensils, ancient glassware, magazines, faded posters, all tied to shelves and floor boards by a network of vines and a crust of petrified dust. It is a tomb filled with mysteries and ghosts, curses and memories.
My children found themselves wandering lost in this maze of echoing canyons and without knowing what they were doing they accidentally stumbled into the very center of the whole conundrum, the hidden chamber at the middle of the catacombs. Light streamed through a window in the ceiling high above. It dropping a shaft of light into a perfect circle on the table in center of the room. They placed their hands inside of the light and felt it course around their bodies like warm water in a stream. It was as if the light was being drawn down, down towards something hidden beneath a draped clothe on the top of the table.
The older of the three children stepped bravely forward and brushed two centuries of dust off of an old afghan, and then tore the blanket away to reveal an old copper machine lying on the table beneath it. The machine was something like the tarnished skeleton of a long dead automaton. A chest full of levers and bolts with a head that was a glass sphere. And in place of brains, the machine’s mind was a rainbow of tiny gumballs.
The children walked a few slow circles around the table, examining this strange alien device from every angle. They each rubbed a clean spot onto the thing’s glass forehead and peered down into its mind. What was it? What were these things locked inside of it? They had no way of knowing. At least, they thought they had no way of knowing, but soon, closer inspection revealed a clue on the front panel of the machine. Next to a brass level was an embossed symbol which the oldest of them recognized as she ran her fingers delicately across it. It said “1 Cent”. Without speaking, the girl reached in her pocket and pulled out a handful of small coins.
With a clunk and a grinding of old metal the machine began to move. Arms and pulleys deep within the heart of the creature spun to life and then hissed as the ocean of tiny marbles rumbled and shifted, as if in thought. As if the machine were remembering its ancient life and the sight of children were reminding him of other children that had come in search of his wisdom long long ago. Children wrapped in desert robes and fine silk. Generations and generations of children, all seeking the same thing. A piece of the forbidden fruit of his mechanical mind. The knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil wrapped up in a colorful sugar glaze and mixed together in the glass skull of this forgotten thing.
A small red object dropped out of the base of the machine and landed with a soft ‘plink’ in a golden dish.
The girl looked back at her hand and fished for another coin.
At least that is how I imagine it happened, since I was not there myself. I was elsewhere in the labyrinth, lost in a tomb of baseball cards and comic books, reading the names of long dead heroes both real and fiction, but both equally forgotten. When suddenly three little kids appear next to through an arched doorway.
Clara was at the head of the party and loudly announced to me, completely out of breath about how she had found a machine that sold gum balls for only a penny each. I had to wrest my arms on her shoulders and press down on her to keep her feet connected to the floor and get her to talk slow enough for me to understand.
Suddenly we were approached by an old woman with a seriously furrowed eyebrow. She was wearing the dark grey uniform of the shop’s guardians, and she pushed her way into our small circle and turned towards my daughter.
“Excuse me child, but did I hear you correctly when you said that you bought gum balls from the machine in the other room?”
The little girl glanced toward me with wide frightened eyes and then back to the woman. “Yes Ma’am,” she said politely and then swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a condescending tone, “You didn’t eat any of those candies did you?”
The child shook her head.
The woman smiled for half a second and then caught herself. “Oh, good. It’s just that those candies are a million years old.” She extended her hand toward the girl. “You really should give them to me immediately.” She stretched her long fingers towards the girl, sharp demanding fingernails hovering just below the child’s chin, nails aimed at her neck.
She didn’t continue, “Those candies are cursed you see. They are from an ancient time of magic, dark wicked magic,” she didn’t say. “If you were to eat one of these gum balls it would become like a small lit candle in your belly, and within a day you will discover yourself growing a tail. A long twisting leather tail would grow on you over night.” she did not explain. “At the end of your tail would be a small ball, the same color as the gum ball you had eaten. The ball will grow and when it is large enough it will open like a flower and unfurl into an exact mirror image replica of yourself. The two twins momentarily connected by the tail. However, at the exact same time your original self will collapse into a tight ball and begin to shrink until it has completely disappeared. What will be left is a different you. A new you. But a you that is unknown to even yourself. A you that thinks and acts the opposite of how you would have acted before,” the old woman did not say. “If you were a good little girl before, then the new you would be very bad. And if you had been bad before, then the new you would be good. But I’m afraid you look like the sweetest little girl ever, and I’m frightened to see what would happen if someone like you were to accidentally eat one of those candies.”
The woman did not say any of this. But her eyes did twinkle in a sinister sort of way as she waited, hunched over towards the little girl, her palm outstretched.
Finally, reluctantly, the child reached inside a side pocket on her purse and place two small red pellets in the woman’s waiting hand.
With a smile the woman’s fingers snapped closed like a trap. “Thank you,” she said plainly, and without another glance at any of us she disappeared into the forest of antique clocks and age old picture frames.
The children all frowned.
“It’s for the best,” I said, returning their frowns. “I can’t imagine what that old candy might have done to you.” Although, secretly I could imagine quite a bit.
Clara was especially disappointed. She wrapped her fingers into mine as we maneuvered our way through the alleys and out the door onto the porch. We stood for a moment in the sun, looking at a massive collection of plastic Santa Clauses.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I mean,” she continued, “she didn’t even give me my money back for them. It’s not fair.”
“No,” I said, “It’s not.”
“That woman owes me three cents.”
I squeezed her hand. “that’s really not a lot of money, Dear.” But then I was suddenly struck with a revelation. “Wait a second. Clara. You only said they were a penny each, and you only gave the woman two of them. Where is the third gum ball?”
The girl looked down at the ground and scuffed the toe of her shoe at a board.
“Did you eat it, Clara?”
“No! Honest Dad,” she said finally looking me in the eye.
“Do you still have it?”
She looked back down, “No…”
“Where is it?”
She sighed, “Earlier, in the store… I gave it to my sister. Lydia ate it.”
We both slowly turned to look back at the old wooden building. Through the leaning doorway, we could see a little girl in a purple dress as she danced in circles mischievously poking her little brother in the belly. She threw her head back and laughed. It was hard to tell, but as she twirled there was the faint motion of something moving under her dress. Could it have been a tail? It was impossible to be sure. Who would we be greeted with the next morning when I shook my daughter awake? Who could possibly know… The world is full of puzzles and labyrinths, and every day we make choices. Not a single one of us wakes up the same as the day before.
The clouds drifted slowly in front of the sun and instinctively we looked towards the heavens as they shut their eyes.