The Old Lady of Bedlam

by Theresa Vanden Berk


In a queer, remote American town called Bedlam, lived a woman the ripe age of 60, who, for reasons best known to herself, found it most amusing to frighten and repel all of the 5-30 people who ever resided at one time in the town. She succeeded very well at the task, and it may be wondered if she herself was the very one keeping the population so low in Bedlam. There were other reasons this town was not flourishing as it should, like the fact that 300 miles separated it from any other town, or that its 100 square miles of territory was almost entirely apple trees, to name just a few. Still, an unfriendly face (especially one that would not leave anytime soon) could make the likelihood of someone not staying around long (considering the other downfalls as well) much higher.

Besides being unpleasant and old, there were other eccentrics which added to her general dislike. Her house was situated at the farthest northeastern corner of Bedlam. At night, her light would sometimes penetrate the darkness, and the smoke from her chimney would come out with strange fumes and colors. Most children formed the idea that she must be a witch, saying spells and mixing strange ingredients into a black cauldron, but, taking away the witchery and spells, the children weren't far from the truth.

It so happened that one spring day, while making her customary trip down to the town square, a new family was just moving in. They were talking to Mr. Lunk, the town's general –  or rather, thrift –  store owner. When Old Lady Grumps saw the new family, she smiled to herself, excited to have some different people at last to try her tricks on. She was about to begin her unwelcoming display when she was greeted by the newcomers' daughter, a smiling blonde-haired girl of ten.

"Hello!" she said in a friendly way, "We just moved here. It's nice to meet you! Oh I almost forgot! My name is Rose Marie Hendon." and she held out her hand expecting it to be shaken.

There was only time for Old Lady Grumps to shake the hand given her and mumble something of a hello back. Apparently satisfied, the girl with a "I hope we'll make good friends", skipped happily away, humming a cheery tune. To say the least Old Lady Grumps was aghast, and very surprised anyone could be so friendly. All she could do was make some stink about a "poorly hand-crafted" chair and leave as quickly as possible.

When she was gone, Mr. Lunk said in a low voice, "That was Old Lady Grumps. No one knows her real name, she's been called that for so long. She always wears the same thing without fail, poor woman: from the cowboy hat, faded dress, to the knee-high rain boots, everything –  even the scowl. You don't want to mess with her. She's pretty grumpy, as the name implies. Old Lady Grumps has never been nice to anyone I've seen –  never."

But, despite Mr. Lunk's warnings, Rose couldn't agree with him entirely and quietly thought to herself, "She seemed pretty nice to me."

Old Lady Grumps was a great thinker, but any previous recognition of her wonderful mental capacities had passed from the remembrance of man long ago. Sometimes, when she thought, her mind continued on one subject for many days but more commonly, her mind jumped from thought to thought until she could not figure out how Point A had become Point Z. The encounter with Rose Marie gave Old Lady Grumps a thinking spell so extensive and so perpetual in its continuance that it took all the effort she could muster to stop its process even for a few seconds.

Many days later, the thinking spell not abating, Old Lady Grumps in desperation, went outside for (she hoped) a peaceful stroll. The spring apple blossoms blew through the air, swirling around the ground, the trees, and anything in sight. On the ground not much else besides the light pink petals were visible, save for a blade of grass or a flower or two. As Old Lady Grumps walked, feeling for the first time in days some relief, she came upon a sight which surprised her immensely. A man, aged about thirty, was trying in vain to move along none other than a dusty white –  pony? and with the ricketiest of wagons in tow, too (now THIS was a sight to be seen in the thriving American 50's).

The man pulled; the pony placidly ate grass. The man pulled again; the pony would NOT move and braced against him. Frustrated, the man walked behind the horse and smacked the pony's rump; the pony only swished his tail as if warding off a fly. Upon the man continuing, the pony nipped at him annoyingly. The heat of the midday sun stopped the man for a moment as he wiped the beads of sweat from his flushed forehead. This calmed his irritation, and when he went back to his previous occupation, it was with a gentler approach. He stroked the pony softly saying things like "Come on girl," or, "Its time to be going now then, pretty," and other coaxing and endearing words, meant to be encouraging. Slowly, a dusty ear turned towards the kindly touch and sound, then another dusty ear, and then the whole dusty face looking pleasantly at the man.

"There, there now little lady," said the man, who by this time was as dusty as the white pony, "Was that so hard?"

Gradually, the patient hand moved to lead the attentive pony forward. The docility of the pony at that present time, allowed for the man to walk her a few steps, but as soon as the weight of the wagon could be felt, she stopped abruptly, disregarding all protests of the man. All the progress made therefore, ended in nothing, much to the exhausted man's displeasure.

Meanwhile, Old Lady Grumps, who had recovered from her surprise, watched the whole performance, with growing enthusiasm and amusement. Its conclusion was enough to make her laugh heartily (to be sure her earlier thoughts had been completely forgotten). This laughter caught the pair's attention, the pony as an indifferent observer, the man as a flustered, desperate, stranger.

"That is some way you have with that animal." Old Lady Grumps said with a chuckle.

"Do you have a better way?" was his defiant answer, being justifiably out of humor.

Brightly her eyes shone at this challenge, and she replied, "Whether it is simply ignorance, or that you were too preoccupied to notice, I don't know, but it may be prudent to look around you right now. Start at the ground if you will. What – " she picked up a petal from the grass, "–do you suppose this is? Now look all around you, and above you, too ­ What kind of trees do you think these are?" She gestured to the apple trees surrounding them on all sides, "Why they are apple trees of course! And what do horses –  ponies, too –  like better than apples? Why hardly anything at all, at least in my experience –  which I feel (if I do say so myself) to be pretty accurate. You see, this is a pony's paradise!

"Unfortunately, you came at the wrong time for apples," she said to the pony. Then turning to the man she said, "Wait here and I will be back." And so doing she ran off.

In a matter of minutes, she came back with a small picnic basket, apples filled to its brim. A pony is not dumb when it comes to food, and this one was no exception. With pricked up ears, the pony looked greedily at the basket. The pony needed only slight coaxing to come forward excitedly. She hesitated when she felt wagon, but the apples were too alluring for her to stop long. So first walking, then trotting, the pony followed the basket as Old Lady Grumps walked ahead with it. Finally, she stopped and the man looked on sheepishly.

"How was that young man?" she said triumphantly.

"Good ­ Except, I would have done the same thing, if I had had apples to begin with." A little of the light went out of Lady Grumps' eyes when he stated that, but otherwise she remained victorious.

Soon the necessity for an introduction was wanted. The man said his name was Alfred Gray. He had chanced upon Bedlam (though he did not know its name at the time) while following directions to some spectacular sight. The directions were written in cryptic Alfred Gray hardly understood. So, Old Lady Grumps invited the man to her house, with the intention of studying them in more detail.

Old Lady Grumps' house was a curious one, particularly at the entrance. When you entered, you saw what looked like a primitive kitchen, with a fire for a stove and a wooden table for a, well, table. Yet strewed upon the walls were charts, graphs, experimental observations, and many other scientific odds and ends. On the table, magnets, jars, various liquids, vials, containers, along with numerous other unrecognizable things cluttered it. That day, a reddish smoke issued from a black cauldron burning in the fireplace. There was a smell, which could be disgusting OR pleasant; it was hard to make a decision.

Moving through the entryway, Old Lady Grumps led her guest to the real kitchen which served a double role as the kitchen and the dining room. This area was more updated to the times, making Alfred Gray feel a little more at home, than the previous scientific room had been.

"Now Miss Grumps," remarked Mr. Gray "You seem smart enough, to help me decipher these directions." He handed her a piece of paper which read:

***************************************************************************

I write, in our own dialect, your directions to the director, whose name you should know; a passage for the passageway, and, your guide to the guidebook. READ FIRST then, LOOK FIRST.

Beyond endless "desert", little apple maid. (W) –  Most attempts rather tried her attitude –  Gossip relays, unluckily mostly petty surmise.

Lovely as straightforward transportation: –  miles of unbroken, neat trees. An important note: –  always travel by alps' smallest elevation. (NW)

Ill-lighted now. – ­ Art – ­ writings at lady's legs. (STAY RIGHT)

I hope you understand my twofold message.

Francis Gray

*****************************************************************************

Miss Grumps read it through once, then twice. She puzzled over it for a period of time, entirely silent, while Alfred Gray waited expectantly. Eventually, she put it down, leaned back, sighed, and closed her eyes.

"Well?" Gray asked impatiently.

"Is Francis Gray your father?" she asked.

"He was." Alfred replied, putting emphasis on "was", so that Old Lady Grumps instantly knew that Francis Gray was no more, "And anyways what does that have to do with the riddle?"

"Lots," she whispered mysteriously.

"But what – How?" so far Alfred Gray had only become more confused, and the one who was supposed to help, now was just acting mysterious. He tried drawing the facts out of her in many beguiling ways but was as unsuccessful as he had been with the pony (who was by the way, ironically named Apples). It was when the last of his endeavors failed, that in desperation he said "You must come along then for the journey, if you won't explain the directions to me frankly."

Only then did the mysteriousness fall away, and the excitement of adventure overcome her. She accepted, and so began their search for the Spectacular Sight. Night drew in upon them with speed, seeming to race the feverish haste which Miss Grumps made in packing, and the dexterity in which Mr. Gray made his bed beneath the stars. The man fell asleep quickly, but the lady pondered over the riddle for a long time. She hadn't figured out what riddle meant at all and the mysteriousness Alfred had seen was only deep thought. Of course she was always ready for adventure, so her job as guide was not a problem.

Early dawn appeared before she knew it, but by the time she was thoroughly ready, with breakfast on the table Mr. Gray had just woken up. Breakfast was speedy, all preparations completed efficiently, and they were ready to go.

As they passed out the door through the experiments room, Alfred spied one of the many sheets of paper covering the wall, filled with more notes than any other, and on that sheet printed the words "How do others react to grumpiness?" He had no reason to think much of it, and indeed it hardly made an impression, but if he had known what effect it had had on others, he may have thought of it more.

Many hours went by in tedious, aimless, walking; the sun for a spring day was sweltering. They walked on and on, growing more and more tired. A rest was unanimously decided on and they rested, had a snack, and napped lightly. While they were resting thus, a cheery voice mingled with a low one greeted their ears. Soon, the owners of the voices came into view. Rose Marie and her father were having a lovely walk admiring the day. It didn't take long to spot the other exhausted pair sprawled on the grass. A friendly greeting occurred between both parties.

"So what are you two doing?" Rose Marie asked curiously.

"Actually, we are trying to figure out where these directions are telling us to go." Mr. Gray replied handing her the riddle.

She was overjoyed to solve the riddle, and after a few minutes of thought, in which her brow was furrowed in concentration, she relaxed, and the light of truth came into her eyes.

"The second sentence and the last one seem to be hints on how to solve the riddle. The 'directions to the director, whose name you should know; passage for the passageway, and, guide to the guidebook' are, I think, what the middle section explains (otherwise, what is all the jumbled stuff in the middle?). I think READ FIRST, means to read the riddle straight through. The LOOK FIRST, means you must look at the first of something. I thought of acrostic poems –  since I like them –  and how in those poems, there is a word, going across, described by other words, going down and starting with the same letters as the word going across. So, I read the riddle like an acrostic poem. Only the middle sentences work. The acrostic spells B-E-D-L-A-M-M-A-R-T-H-A-G-R-U-M-P-S-L-A-S-T-M-O-U-N-T-A-I-N-A-T-B-A-S-E-I-N-A-W-A-L-L. That doesn't make any sense. But, there are dashes in between sections of words (when you read the riddle straight through)I thought might be separations for words in acrostic. Then the acrostic would spell B-E-D-L-A-M, Bedlam; M-A-R-T-H-A, Martha; G-R-U-M-P-S, Grumps; L-A-S-T, last; M-O-U-N-T-A-I-N, mountain; A-T, at; B-A-S-E, base; I-N, in; A; and, W-A-L-L, wall." Rose explained. "So you have been following the directions the whole time!"

Since Rose knew the directions so well, Martha Grumps (for that was her full name) and Alfred Gray, felt they could not complete their expedition without her help. After a consultation with Mrs. Hendon and the others, (the house not being far away) it was determined that Apples would stay with Mrs. Hendon, who didn't care to go, and that Rose and Mr. Hendon would join the other two adventurers. They also decided to drive the 45 more miles to the apparent cave, for speed.

All went well from that point on. The cave was found, as well as the writings (which were even more instructions and riddles), yellow and worn with age. Everything direction was followed faithfully. To ensure safety, they left marks on the cave every few minutes.

I said that all went well from that point on; it did until the cave became so dark the flashlights could not penetrate its depths. How suddenly this happened, even the adventurers did not know, but there was no hint of it in any writings they had read. Holding hands became necessary as they slowly groped their way along.

Maybe they had been in this pitch black state for a minute, maybe longer, when the imperceptible ground fell out from under them, as suddenly as it had been there the moment before.

When one thinks one is about to die, it does not seem uncommon that that one should see one's whole life before one's face in the fastest (and possibly most thorough) examination of conscience ever. It would also not be uncommon to ask for mercy, pardon, to be saved, or whatever else pertains to the soul's or body's preservation.

If no one does think and act this way when death seems imminent –  though that seems strange ­ then Martha Grumps is one of those odd cases that go against the ordinary, for she thought and said all those aforementioned things, as she fell with the other three.

Not too long after ­ it could have been three seconds later –  they landed; yet they did not hit solid ground ­ which would have meant death –  but instead the ground sank gently to catch their weight, leaving them without the slightest bruise.

Silence ensued as they lay there, bewildered. Then quavered voice of Alfred Gray, saying, "Is everyone alright?" There were sounds of affirmation from three voices.

Alfred flicked on his flashlight, the glare going straight to Martha Grumps face. Immediately her hands were up while she exclaimed unhappily.

With an apology, Alfred moved his light away from her face, and began exploring the new surroundings with it. Martha began examining on the ground the thing which had undoubtedly saved their lives. It was some sort of plant-life; and if moss can resemble ferns while still retaining its spongy characteristic, it would be very much like that life-saving plant.

Soon two more rays of light burst the murky dark, roving like advertising spotlights. These came from Rose and her father. For a while the main attraction was the curious plant, but the desire to move on eventually overpowered all other interests ­ not before Martha had a decent sample of the plant to examine at home, though.

As the adults discussed how they were to proceed, Rose did some exploring. She did not go far when, turning a corner, brightness like day engulfed her. But the sudden light was not the surprise so much as the sight she beheld.

Coming through an aperture in the roof was the sun whose dazzling rays shined upon thousands of glistening gems. While the gems sparkled and glowed, they made a still even greater design, one which could only be made by greater-than-human smarts. Two large rays made a cross while a third reached down where the two others intersected, illuminating a small tree, with apples that could have been gold. Below, a crystalline stream encircled the tree, glimmering like gems.

Rose gasped in wonder. She yelled excitedly for the other three to come, "and quickly!"

Thinking something was wrong; the three ran as fast as they could towards Rose's voice. A shout of concern was on their lips, but instantly hushed in the beauty of the sight. It would be easy to imagine what came next; to see the awed faces, to hear the breathless ejaculations, committing everything to memory, so as never to forget the sight.

They probably would have been in that fascinated state much longer had not the sound of foot steps echo towards them; not from the way they had left, but from somewhere else. The steps grew louder and louder, the echo longer and more frequent. Present concern stopped all admiration in the consideration of whether to run, hide, or remain. The owner of the steps made their decision for them. They must remain.

The owner of the steps noticed them.

"Hello ­ you ­ there!" he said in a friendly way. The man's spine was bent with age, and his once strong legs only permitted him to walk slowly towards them. As he neared, Rose thought his face strangely familiar.

The man introduced himself as Francis Gray, while the explorers in turn introduced themselves. When the name of Francis Gray was pronounced, the thought came to all of them that there was something strikingly familiar about him, and this time, Rose felt it stronger.

Upon the question of how they had gotten here, Alfred explained the whole story, starting with the riddle given to him by his deceased father and ending with the discovery of the scene they beheld. Francis Gray had listened patiently throughout the whole tale but he seemed more curious in the speaker than the spoken.

When Alfred finished, Francis smiled calmly and said "You remind me of my son ­his name was also Francis –  who left here, long ago. I have never seen him since, nor heard a word from him, in almost twenty years..." he sighed. "But come, come," he said, once again cheerful, "Let me show you my kingdom! I might even tell you the story of this grand work of nature."

A king and a story! That was a surprise to them; so they followed eagerly.

They walked through a corridor into the bright daylight. Finally! They were outside. Walls surrounded the miniature kingdom, decorated with millions of crystals and sapphires. The same covered the looming castle, simple yet beautiful in decoration.

"One cannot see this kingdom we call Paradise from the outside," Francis called to them happily, "It is an amazing optical illusion."

Alfred all this time had been thinking deeply about what the king had said. So, when they were inside the castle he asked excitedly, "When your son Francis left, did you give him a ring?"

"It is possible." The king said musingly.

"Well – " he said frantically searching through his pockets, "–did it look like this?" he handed the king a signet-ring. It portrayed the "Spectacular Sight" in intricate detail. An indiscernible cry came from the kings mouth. Yes, he had given his son this; it was written in every line on his face.

Alfred rummaged through his pockets again and brought out a crumpled note, giving it to Francis. Two eyes eagerly read the few lines. Then he fell back on a seat, thinking quietly.

"He asked me for my forgiveness, and as an apology, sent his son to me." This was more said to the king to himself than to any one else, "And I forgive him wholeheartedly."

And looking up to Alfred he said with emotion, "My Grandson!"

*******************

Toward evening, after the festivities had dwindled down (a holiday had been ordered throughout the kingdom to welcome Alfred Gray) the adventurers sat exhausted in the castle. A great fire filled the occupied room with warmth, its orange glow upon the grand tapestries, furniture, and not least upon five contented faces. The king sat in a large armchair; his grandson by his side bedecked in noble attire. The other three sat around in fancy chairs.

The king tapped his fingers together gently and said, "I promised you a story –  I shall tell you it presently... It all started when a handful of Indians found the 'Spectacular Sight' once upon a time. They wondered at it, thinking it the palace of the gods –  or a god in itself. But then the priests –  the Blackrobes they were called –  came. They taught those Indians many things –  but you probably know this. Well, though they made much headway with those Indians they could not convert them, try as they might.

"You see, the Indians wondered what the Spectacular Sight meant. If it wasn't a god or the gods' palace, what was it? So one day they brought a blackrobe with them to the sight and asked him to explain it for them.

"The blackrobe told them the story of Adam and Eve, and of the fall of man. That is what the tree meant, he said. He told them how the True God redeemed them –  Adam, Eve, and everyone –  by dying on the cross. Thus the cross-beams of light. 'But there were three beams of light' the Indians said, so the blackrobe explained, as best as man can, the mystery of the Trinity. 'And the water?' the Indians questioned, but they had already been won over. 'That is how you become part of the story of redemption, and part of that Mystery –  if only you will allow it.' the blackrobe replied. So that very day, that very hour, a whole new set of believers were added to the number of the faithful – " he concluded, "– or so the legend says."

Rose and Alfred smiled, Martha eyes glinted, Mr. Hendon sighed, and the storyteller leaned backed complacently, tapping his fingers gently.

********************

Alfred had found his home, but three others waited anxiously to return to the apple tree forest of Bedlam.

The next morning was appointed for their departure. They were woken up quickly by the king himself with a "Come, come! Or YOU'll be late for dinner!!" The king led them through a passage and to the Spectacular Sight.

It had not changed since they had left (why should it have?) but there was an object resembling a boat with a roof laying on the ground.

"This is your transportation!" the king pronounced, motioning to the boat, "You didn't think you were going back the way you came did you?" he answered when three surprised looks met him.

"Now, as soon as you all get in, I'll put you in the water and you will find yourself in Bedlam promptly!"

Once the three had made themselves comfortable, and were in the water, the king said smilingly (though quite serious) "You must promise to keep this a secret!" which they agreed to readily.

The roof of the boat closed slowly, while all parties waved good-bye. Quickly the boat shot away. Then the beautiful sight, two waving figures with it, disappeared, and, in an instant, the spring day, with all its life, stood peacefully before their eyes.

Two weeks passed. The exploration had not exceeded the length of three days. Yet those three days saw the reuniting of two and, more importantly to our story, the beginning of a lasting friendship between an old lady and genuinely happy girl of ten.

It was Saturday when Rose burst through Martha Grumps' door. "Good Afternoon, Miss Grumps!" she cried with her usual cheerfulness.

Now normally, there would have been a no less cheerful reply, or an excited "come quickly" if an experiment were underway - but not this time. This time, there was only silence. Rose looked about and spied Martha in a chair by the wall of scientific odds and ends. She was evidently deep in thought for she leaned against the chair, her arms folded, and eyes staring at nothing.

Moving silently over, and touching Martha on the arm Rose said, "Miss Grumps?" Martha didn't stir but she spoke, "I've been thinking," she said, "about our exploration a couple weeks ago. "I've also been thinking about this" she gestured toward the wall indicating one of the many papers and charts on it. "See the one labeled 'How do people react to grumpiness'?" Martha asked. "I made that one up many years ago, while I was still very young. There were two reasons for this: For one, I didn't want nosy people coming to my house, and stealing all my ideas and experiments. The other - well, it was funny to see peoples' faces turn all horrified and scared." She sighed, "I could've stopped doing this so long ago but I didn't; it was too fun. You see, I've been asking myself, if I had done this test on you, or Alfred Gray, I would never have seen that beautiful place, and that strange kingdom."

After a brief interlude of quiet meditation, Martha stood up abruptly and standing like a great orator, her arm in the air, pointing to the ceiling, she announced "So on this day, in the presence of a witness I, Martha Grumps, hereby discontinue the experiment 'How does grumpiness effect people' and on this day, in the presence of a witness, do hereby throw away all traces of this experiment from the face of the earth." with that the paper, along with all notes was ripped from the wall and cast into the fire.

Rose, meanwhile, had listened quietly to the whole narration with growing excitement, and at its conclusion, wildly clapped her hands in applause. Martha made a sweeping bow while modestly saying "thank you, thank you" then, composing herself – still with the air of orator – said "Now look, there is a bare spot on the wall where must be placed something else – something better, more tricky, yet still enjoyable..." the orator trailed off and left her audience – left the room entirely! – in great haste. Coming back with a clean piece of paper she wrote something at the top – a title! She showed it to her audience who waited in suspense. The title read: "How well can you keep a secret?" written with large, proud print.

Then the orator continued with solemnity, "Today marks the beginning of something new, in the place of something that gave harm, I put a test. As my witness and I know, there is a secret we vowed to keep about a certain place we saw, not so long ago. For that reason and that reason only, I hereby place this" Martha held up the paper proudly, "upon the Wall of Science and Tests, as a reminder for all involved of their vow of secrecy."

Another bout of cheering and wild clapping ensued, as the sheet was put on the wall, then another sweeping bow and modest "thank yous" before the orator left and the true Martha Grumps came back.

***************

The next day being Sunday, the Hendons and Martha went to church. When the other townspeople came, and saw the happy chatter of the Hendons and Old Lady Grumps, they were astonished. The men scratched their heads while the women whispered questioningly to themselves as to whether it was possible that was Old Lady Grumps? "No," some said, "it could not be her; maybe it was the Hendons' grandmother." Others said "It must be her – who else wears clothing quite like she?" But Rose answered with surety that indeed it was Old Lady Grumps – and actually her name was Martha Grumps.

When they reached the square she gave her apology. All were amazed to be sure, but most accepted her apology wholeheartedly. True, there were some still skeptical, but after many weeks and no change back to her grumpy ways, they, too believed and forgave.

From that point on, as long as she lived Martha was the most friendly of people, almost coming ahead of even Rose. Always, when she felt herself reverting to the old grumpiness, the Spectacular Sight came before her memory, then the vow of secrecy, then the oration, then putting up the test, so that in the end, she faithfully kept both her cheerfulness and her secret.

In the years that passed, Alfred Gray became king, and invited the others to come back sometimes, which they did readily. Eventually, Martha Grumps' name became an irony. Everybody but herself had forgotten what she had once been. Yet this didn't bother her, rather it made her realize what she had missed, and be all the more thankful for what happened on that adventure. Despite all her new-found friendliness, though, she never DID cease vexing her fellow neighbors by sending strsnge fumes into the air, and she never did stop wearing the tiresome flowered dress, rainboots, and cowboy hat; but, that was just the way she liked it.