Chapter 7: The Maze
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
After a good night's sleep in the quiet little inn, and a long breakfast that included the best raspberry jam Almondine had ever tasted, she set off on the road again. It was common for Almondine to walk for hours, her own internal narration and occasional whistling keeping her company while she passed the trees and fields that stretched on for miles. She did not mind the walking or that sometimes there seemed little in the way of change between one town and the next. There was something soothing about the familiarity of the wide green spaces, even as the landscape began to change from the kinds of trees and plants that populated her own backyard into something new.
After a day spent walking she noticed a wood cutout of a purple cat, its tail pointing down a dirt road, offering a wink over its shoulder. It seemed like an invitation. Following the pointing tail she left the main road and walked the dirt one, her footfall now muffled by the soft earth. Another purple cat cutout pointed with a single raised paw, hinting at something in the distance. As she rounded a small bend in the road she found the largest of the purple cats, holding up a sign that read "Marvinia Maxwell's Marvelous Maze" in bold gold font. In a smaller script at the bottom it read, "Open Morning-ish to Evening-ish." With the sun no longer bright in the sky, but still casting enough light to offer an even blue, and the first shadows stretching out from the trees, Almondine believed that this could be the beginning of evening-ish. In the heavy canopy of trees just behind the sign Almondine could see floating lights. She decided to walk towards the marvelous maze.
The floating lights revealed themselves to be glass bottles strung over round bulbs hanging from the tree branches. Pink, green, blue, purple, and yellow bottles gave off a stained glass glow along the ground. She continued down the path as it turned a corner and found herself standing at what appeared to be a cross between a bus and a house on her left, and the entrance to the maze on her right. It was decorated with dinner plate sized fabric tulips and daisies, and a carved sign with flaking white paint that said "Enter.” Almondine was uncertain as to whether there was a fee for enjoying the maze or if it was operating under the sole desire of offering a marvelous experience to anyone who happened to find themselves out in this corner of the world. She approached the long green bus and saw that the door was open. As she walked toward the door she looked up at the deck that appeared to be attached to the top of the bus, a tattered red and yellow umbrella visible just past the deck's railing.
"Hello?" Almondine called into the dark interior of the bus.
"Hello!" shouted a voice from inside. There was a sudden raucous clatter that sounded like a cascade of pots and pans falling, and a voice muttered something that sounded like, "Oh, snappenpoof." Almondine wasn't entirely certain as the metal cacophony had caused her to jump back a foot. A woman with wild grey and white curls appeared at the top of the bus stairs, black cat ears askew on one side of her head. Thin arms protruded from a purple and gold tunic, and the legs beneath it shimmered in shiny gold leggings.
"Hello!" she shouted again and then hurried down the stairs barefoot to meet Almondine.
"Welcome to my marvelous maze, I am the one, the only Marvinia Maxwell," she said with a rolling flourish of her hand.
"Hello, thank you for welcoming me. I am the one, the only Almondine."
Maxine grinned, dazzling Almondine with the brightness of her smile.
"Nice to meet you Almondine." Her voice was high, but had a gravelly quality to it, as though she was talking around something rugged in her throat.
"Your ears are a bit crooked," Almondine said.
Marvinia clapped her hands over the sides of her head, then a light popped up behind her eyes and she walked her fingers up her head until made contact with the sideways cat ears. She straightened them and then grinned, thrusting her arms out as though to say "ta-da".
"I'm a cat," she declared.
"Absolutely," said Almondine nodding.
"Well, Almondine," Marvinia began, clapping gnarled hands together, "Please go and enjoy the maze. If you find, when you return from your journey, that you were dazed and delighted then please consider making a donation in appreciation. She pointed to padlocked glass box turned faintly green with some sort of mossy growth, attached to the top of a wood pedestal next to the bus door.
"Thank you," Almondine said with a smile and a nod and then began her journey into the maze.
She stepped into the open space between the thick walls of green shrub two feet taller than her, and found a tunnel constructed of woven willows. She barely needed to duck to travel through the tunnel and she felt grateful for her height, or lack thereof.
The tunnel opened up into a small space just before another wall of green stretching off in two branches, one to the left and one to the right. In this center space plastic butterflies bounced on coils jutting out from the top of the hedge. The butterflies offered no clues or opinions about which way to turn so Almondine turned right. She brushed a hand along the prickly green hedge to her right and followed the path around a bend, then made another abrupt turn and found herself in a dead end. In this square of hedges sat a tiny fountain made out of tea cups. Water poured from one top cup to two more cups, then double the cups the layer below. Water continued gushing cup to cup, over rose painted and striped rims, until landing with a steady shower into a dark circular pool below. Almondine turned and retraced her steps until she saw the plastic butterflies once more, and this time continued straight on the path that would have been to her left when she came from the tunnel.
This path brought her out into an open circular clearing with three paths shooting off of it like spokes on a wheel. Around the edge of the hedges that comprised the circle sat a stone menagerie. A hound dog sat, the droopy folds of his stone face flecked with green moss. A rabbit sitting on its haunches and extended a paw up to some unseen hand. A cat, tall and lithe and full of mysteries, looked off into the hedges, and a flock a dark stone wrens either looked up at the sky or searched the ground for things to it. Inside the circle itself serpentine path of stone flagons. This clearing presented a choice; one could walk across the flat stones directly to the doorway of your choice, and continue on through the hedges, or walk the stone path, enjoying a maze, or at least a meandering swirl, within the maze. Almondine decided to follow the circuitous route of the stones, stepping deftly from one to the other in the cool air of the shadowed maze. The path ended just shy of one of the three doorways and this seemed a sign to take this path. Set inside the hedge walls were silver stars, some only plastic and cardboard covered in glitter that winked as she walked past them and some that flashed with electric light. She turned, and turned again, following the stars and once again found herself in a dead end. This one had a big painted moon, as wide around as Almondine was tall with rosy apple cheeks and a grin, winking at Almondine, suspended from the corner. Hung all around it were more stars and single rocket ship cut out coated in plastic on a course for the stars or the greenery just beyond. Almondine bowed to the moon and then winked back. She pivoted on her heel and set off for the circular center once more. She tried the path directly across the maze from her.
This path was under a canopy of grapevines that wound around a lattice suspended across the hedge walls. The vines reached curly tendrils down to her and clutched in some of their curls were strips of waxed paper with bits of thoughts and maybe poems written on them. "Robots, robots, everywhere, and not a drop to drink," "For every orange cat there is a girl who loves them," “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Almondine paused to read every quote that was within reading distance. Some would have required either larger font or longer legs in order for Almondine to read what was printed. The path twisted and turned and yet again Almondine was led to a dead end. Here there was a dressing table, the pale lemon and white painted wood peeling and warped from exposure to the outdoors. A tarnished silver comb and matching hand mirror sat in the middle of the table. Glass perfume bottles of various shapes sat along the edge of the mirror that stood up from the table itself. Written across the mirror in gold paint script was an encouragement of "See beauty wherever you go and know that you are loved." Almondine tipped an imaginary hat to mirror and turned once more, this time to try the last path that surely must lead to the other end of the maze.
Straight across the stone path maze again, she walked into the last arm of the maze. This one was studded with eyes that peered unblinking from the depths of the hedge walls. Across the bottom of the walls were black silhouette cutouts of cats, mice, squirrels, even a possum and what she thought was a lynx, all stalking along the same path as Almondine. She heard an owl hoot in the distance and the still the path wound on. More eyes stared and more shadows kept their just about to move poses, but the end still eluded her. Finally she turned around one more bend in the hedges and found herself standing in another dead end. This one a party in full swing. More animal silhouettes here, but these ones on their back legs as though dancing around in a big circle, each decorated with jeweled necklaces or flower crowns, electric bow ties or neon bowler hats. Almondine appreciated the scene, she studied each animal at the party for a moment. But then she wished that this had been the exit to the maze. She wondered if the entrance was also the exit. She decided not to retrace her steps and instead politely asked the back wall of the hedge to part briefly for her to exit. The hedge obliged and Almondine stepped through, and the hedge reknitted itself behind her. It was darker now in this dense part of the woods and the smell of wet rotting leaves was heavy. She walked along the outside of the maze wall and found that all sorts of items leaned against it in the shadows. There was a bicycle frame with no wheels, three metal watering cans stacked atop each other, a large flower pinwheel missing one of it's petals, a wheelbarrow full of dirt in which tiny starts of trees sprouted up, a tattered pram, a sprinkler, it went on and on along the outside edge. Finally Almondine came around a corner and was once again in front of the bus. She smiled up at the sky and then swung her bag around to the front so she could pull out some money. She tucked a handful of bills in through the slot in the top of the greened glass box and began to walk back up the dirt road that had brought her here. She was almost out of sight from the bus when Marvinia called out "Many thanks, and good night" in her funny rough voice. Row after row the bottle lights went about behind Almondine and when she reached the main dirt road and turned around she saw that all the lights were off, the marvelous maze closed for the night.
Almondine smiled and called the lightening bugs to form a cloud around her. In the hazy light she continued down the dirt path until she found a great set of trees from which she could hang a hammock. While swaying between the trees she ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich from her bag and drank tart lemonade, thinking about the tea cups and the stars, and the unblinking eyes. When she was done eating she sent the lightening bugs off and looked at the real stars just barely visible in the gaps between the tree tops before she fell asleep.