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Letter the Fifth (1996 for

“I think everybody enjoyed meeting the Familia Muerjes,” said Bucky.
   “And I think the armadillos liked having the company,” said Loie.
   The Lovebunnies were cleaning up after their annual anniversary party, and agreed that although everyone had a very good time, Mark Peeling seemed to outdo them all. He had especially enjoyed accompanying Ellis on his drum set.
   Loie and Bucky’s year had not started off so festively. In the small dark morning hours of January seventh, they had been awakened by a phone call. “Come to the hospital,” Bucky’s sister Sarah cried when Loie groggily lifted the phone. “Yo is having a heart attack!”
   Frantically pulling on clothes as they rushed out the door, Bucky and Loie glanced at each other fearfully. When they arrived at the hospital, Yo was awake and talking to Sarah. Yo’s condition improved during the night, and Bucky and Loie left the hospital that morning relieved and thankful that the heart attack had not been worse.
   Yo was home in a few days, and though she was tired she was happy to be with her friends and family again. “Yo,” said Bucky during one of the visits paid to the convalescent, “you should think of a better excuse! Last year you broke your knee, this year you had a heart attack. There has to be some other way of getting out of shoveling snow!”
   Then, only a few weeks later, on January twentieth, Loie’s brother Bill was hospitalized with a kidney infection. He was very sick for days, and finally the doctors decided that he had stones blocking his kidneys. After the stones were removed and he stayed in the hospital for over a week, he recovered.
   “People being in the hospital is getting to be a routine in this family,” Bucky said to Loie. Loie hoped that the routine would be broken now.
   While all this rushing to hospitals and sickbeds had been going on, Loie had interviewed for and taken a new job. She was to be one of two Associate Directors of Frederick County Public Library System, where she would be working with her school pal and friend Denise Davis. To celebrate her new job, and because she knew it would be a lot of hard work in her new position, Loie told Bucky that they had to take a relaxing beach vacation while she was between jobs.
   “But we can’t go to the beach,” protested Bucky. “It’s way too cold now!”
   “No, no no,” exclaimed Loie, “we’re going to go on a tropical paradise vacation. For one week.”
   Bucky shrugged and opened his eyes wide! “Neato!” he said. “OK, where shall we go?”
   Their friend Richard Purdy helped the Lovebunnies make all the arrangements for a Mexican trip, and so they had a wonderful tropical paradise vacation in Cancun.
   “Actually,” said Bucky, “it looks more like Ocean city,” as their bus from the airport took them along the beach road, past huge luxury hotels. After some confusion with reservations that resulted in their being moved to a much nicer hotel, the Lovebunnies settled in for their vacation. They found that the beaches of Cancun are made up not of quartz grains sand, but rather of sand that is jillions of tiny fossil diatoms! It’s blinding white, and, since the little diatom skeletons are hollow, very cool even on the hottest and sunniest of days. The Lovebunnies visited ancient Mayan ruins, and were awed by the mystery of Chichen Itza, and its sacred cenotaph, the sacrificial well.
   “I remember reading about this in National Geographic when I was just a kid,” said Bucky. “I never thought I’d really see it.”

   “I bet they didn’t have pictures of all these craft vendors,” said Loie. Despite big signs at all the park entrances warning tourists not to buy crafts from vendors inside the park, the paths were lined with hundreds of people selling everything from oranges to serapes. It almost seemed that the vendors were more numerous than the visitors. Chichen Itza was a long morning’s bus ride from Cancun, and Loie and Bucky watched the flat, unvarying countryside of scrub and stunted trees roll by their bus window. They read in their guidebook that all of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is a huge ancient seabed, porous limestone riddled with caves and underground rivers. Rainwater runs right on through it, and the land is almost a desert. Outside of the government sponsored resorts, many of the people live in deep poverty; in some places they saw homes made in caves, and in primitive huts.
   But the ruins of El Ray, just down the road from their hotel, were almost deserted. The Lovebunnies walked there one day, when the weather was a bit overcast for beaching.
   “I wonder how those old Mayans managed to make such places as all these, when the land is so poor for farming,” mused Bucky as they strolled through the huge, half-restored stone heaps of el Rey.
   “I don’t know,” answered Loie, “but it just shows how capable people really are.”
    Bucky and Loie took a sailing trip to Isla Mujeres one day, and the crowded catamaran skudded over water that was crystal clear twenty feet down. Isla Mujeres has coral reefs where the Lovebunnies snorkled for a few hours. Loie took pictures under the water. She had brought along a camera just for such an occasion.
   “This snorkling is even better than Hawaii!” said Bucky, and Loie agreed that it seemed better, although, she remarked, maybe they were just getting better at doing it.
   “Oh, well, that could be,” said Bucky. “I only went snorkling once before we went to Hawaii, and that was a long time ago. And I got out of the water when the barracudas came, so I didn’t get a lot of practice!”
   After the snorkeling, all of the “sailors” had a buffet lunch in a little tavern on Isla Mujeres, and then spent the afternoon shopping. Loie and Bucky thought they found the best store, a co-op for native craftspeople. Bucky’s eyes went big around as saucers when he first saw the painted wood figures that were made in the southern state of Oaxaca.
   “Look at these!” he cried out to Loie. “They are just the neatest things I’ve ever seen.” There were jaguars and strangely shaped rabbits and monsters with lightningbolt flames shooting from their mouths. Dozens of weird dreamlike figurines, all painted in excruciatingly detailed patterns of spots and stripes and flowery decorations in bright pastel colors.
   “Jeezy peezy, some of these things have got to have been painted with threehair brushes,” exclaimed Bucky. “You’d go blind.” And that’s where the Lovebunnies met the armadillos, a mother and four babies, that came home with them as the Familia Mujeres.
   “OK,” said Bucky, “Isla Mujeres means the Island of Women, right? And since this armadillo family is a mother and babies from the Island of Women, I think they’re all girls, and so it’s the Family of Women from the Island of Women. Can we buy them for our craft?” Loie laughed and agreed that the Familia Mujeres certainly could be the craft from the tropical paradise vacation. But as they watched over the new family on the return sail, and the deckhand Pepito persuaded them to join in drinking Tequila slammers with the other tourists aboard, Loie whispered to Bucky, “I think one of the Familia Mujeres needs to be named Pepito.” And so now the armadillos, Mamacita, Ramona, Mercedes, Dolores, and Pepito, sit with all the crafts at Lake Drive.
    Loie and Bucky enjoyed days on the beach and nights on the town all week in Cancun, and all too soon it was time to return to their home, for it was time for Loie to start her new job. Just as soon as they were back, Loie plunged into her duties in Frederick County, and hasn’t hardly come up for air since. She works hard at helping to build a fine library system for Frederick County, and has fun and frustration galore, but never a dull moment.
   Not long after the tropical paradise vacation, Loie had a birthday party for Bucky. It was to be a Three Mark Party, but one of the Marks wasn’t able to attend, so it was only a Two Mark Party. Everyone had a wonderful time lying on blankets and in sleeping bags by the campfire in the yard, and Hilary saw shooting stars.
   Then came the Anniversary Party, with the inaugural Adoration of the Cake. Ellis played music and Mark Peeling joined in on percussion. As dark began to fall, a fire was started and a huge iron pot of goulash simmered over a bright fire. “Oh, wow,” exclaimed Susan, “this is just like being in Colonial Williamsburg.”
   “Not spicy enough,” Bucky said, and proceeded to set the goulash blazing as hot as the fire with paprika. When he got it just right, people were crying tears of spice and protest, and he had to promise to leave it alone next time!

   “Well, I thought it was just right,” he muttered. Loie laughed and said that she liked it, but that maybe it was too much for some folks. “And you have to cook to please your guests, not just yourself,” she admonished. Bucky agreed that he had forgotten that in his enthusiasm.
   On a beautiful June weekend, the Lovebunnies decided to take a daytrip, something that they hadn’t done in a rather long time. “And I know just where I want to go,” said Bucky.
   “Oh,” said Loie, “you always have a good idea for a trip. Where are we going today?”
   “To Green Ridge,” announced Bucky, “and on the way we’re going to stop at that place where they made a visitor center at the big road cut.” And so they did. The road cut through Sideling Hill was as impressive as they had remembered, and the visitor center was quite elaborate, with exhibits explaining the geology of the hill, which was dramatically visible in the brightly colored layers of different stone that curved up and down the hillside.
   Driving through Green Ridge state forest was an adventure. Signs kept warning that four-wheel-drive vehicles were necessary to navigate the rutted roads.
   “Oh, this isn’t any worse than the road back from Hana,” scoffed Loie.
   “Well, if it was wet and muddy we might be in trouble,” Bucky pointed out as their car bumped along through solitary forest.
   Along the way they saw a young ruffed grouse by the roadside, and identified a new flower, Bowman’s Root. Their flower book told them that Indians used the roots as a laxative, so it was also called Indian Physic. But then a funny sight had them stopping. Bucky had been peering at big piles of what he thought were wood chips. “Has somebody been mulching up chopped-down trees?” he wondered aloud.
   “No,” said Loie, “look, wait.” They pulled over to the side of the dirt road, and found that the “wood chips” were stones!
   “This whole hillside is coming apart in little pieces,” said Loie. And when they picked up some of the bigger pieces of rock, they found that the stone just fragmented into tiny bits in their hands. Their rocks and minerals identifying guide told them that they were seeing siltstone, and Bucky laughed. “Fossil woodchips!” he cried. “Like Yo’s fossil?” laughed Loie.
   The weather was turning hotter in the beginning of July, and Loie had an itch to get outdoors again. she decided to call her friend Joan and see if a visit could be arranged.
   “Well, we’ve had a catastrophe here,” drawled Joan. “Our new dog, Sasha dug up poor Maggie’s fern garden, and she’s been just hysterical about it. Maggie, I mean; Sasha couldn’t care less.”
   “Good dog, yeah, right,” Bucky said sarcastically, when Loie told him the bad news. “Well, we better go on out and put it back together.”
   Loie made the offer to Joan, who accepted gladly, saying that any distraction would be welcome. So the Lovebunnies headed out to Frederick, to Joan and Maggie’s house, to help repair the garden. Maggie was asleep, and Joan rolled her eyes, saying, “Well, if it’s not one thing, it’s something else around here.” Bucky and Loie tried not to laugh too loudly. The friends had a quiet visit for an hour or so, sitting in Joan’s shady yard and sampling a bit of her delicious homemade peach wine. Then Maggie came stumbling sleepily out to see who the visitors were, disconsolate over the loss of her ferns.
   “Oh, and she worked so hard making that pretty garden,” Joan said as they all surveyed the wreckage wreaked by the playful, and poorly trained, Sasha.
   “Well, heck,” declared Bucky, “we could probably put this back together in no time. I mean, you already know what it’s supposed to look like, it’s all planned out. We just need to get some new plants and plant’em.”
   Maggie’s long face showed her skepticism, but Joan prodded her, and said, “Come on, Mags, we can get some new ferns right down in the woods where we got the other ones. Mags? Come on, Mags.”
   By this time, the party had been joined by a young neighbor, and she was all enthusiasm, so Maggie was finally persuaded to drag along with all the other, much more willing workers. Shovels and buckets were gathered, and soon everyone was trooping along the road. “Here we go,” said Bucky to Loie, “this is just what Loie wanted, a good outdoor project.”

And indeed, even Maggie was perked up by the fresh woodsy air as they turned off the roadside and headed down to the stream where the ferns were so abundant. “Oh, man, this smells good down here. Positive ions, great stuff,” said Bucky.
   Maggie was carrying her young friend over a muddy spot, and Loie laughed, saying, “Maggie, remember when Bucky had to carry you over the stream?” remembering another woodland expedition of long ago.
   “I was just a kid, then,” said Maggie, but she smiled nonetheless. Soon Joan was ankle-deep in the muddy stream bank, energetically digging out a magnificent fern, and her good spirits were shared by all as they ran from place to place finding ever better ferns. “Man, how many of these things you guys think you’re gonnuh lug home?” laughed Bucky. Joan admitted that they probably had plenty, and Maggie judiciously agreed. Soon the return trip was ending, and Bucky was pretending to be exhausted and expiring, and the whole party was helping each other to haul the ferns over the backyard fence, and unrolling hoses, and discussing the best places to plant the new ferns, and before they knew it the job was done, and they were admiring their work.
   “Now that was a good project,” said Bucky. “Thanks for lettin’us help, Mags.”
   By the middle of July, the weather in Carroll County had turned ferociously hot. Gunther was stretched out full length, playing Flex-O-Cat to beat the heat, and Bucky exclaimed, “Man, even the weeds are dying!” So the Lovebunnies decided to retreat to the natural air conditioning of the Gunpowder river for the day. Now, while it’s true that sitting in the chaise lounges in the river shallows, dabbling your feet in the icy water, and enjoying the cool breezes that flow over the river is a very fine way to beat the summer heat, Loie maintains that the best part of such a lazy day is the gawking.
   Dozens of people pass by in all sorts of rigs, floating, paddling snokling and tubing down the shallow river, that, in some places, isn’t deep enough to float a pie. Loie wrote in the travel diary that evening:

   The best part of this is watching the people. We saw canoers with their boxer dog who was swimming and walking down the river, jumping all around the canoe. Skinny young girls in skimpy bikinis, lounging on rubber rafts floated downstream like so many Ophelias. The two best: a huge, orange inflated dragon, easily fifteen feet long, with a crested head rearing up and an gaping mouth with sharp, jagged teeth had legs, a tail, and seats for riders! Astride the middle were a couple whose blasť looks suggested that they did this sort of thing every day.
   The second best was an overweight man who had built a floating contraption of three innertubes lashed beneath a ladder, surmounted by a chaise lounge and lawn chair. He sat in front on this chair, while behind him a teenaged daughter (?) reclined languidly on the chaise.

   The next weekend, Bucky and Loie took their parents and Brother Pete and his wife Terrie and Brian and Alyssa to the river, too! “I want to see that old dragon, since I missed it last time when I was off looking at birds,” said Bucky. No such luck, though, but Bucky was consoled by the lunches packed by all the relatives, which they shared freely.
   Weekends on the river were a little foretaste of the true water vacation that came up in September. Loie and Bucky and sister Amy and Loie’s friends Laura and Audra spent two weeks at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. On one of the first beach days the vacationers built a scale model of the Chartres labyrinth in the sand, and invited passersby to walk through it. For a few days the wind blew fiercely, and though everyone braved the scouring sand as long as they could, having occasionally to abandon the beach meant there was plenty of time for excursions to the lighthouses, and to visit Dick Darcey at the Waterfowl Shop. Dick’s roof was all snugly repaired after the hurricane damage it had suffered a year or two ago, and he was busy at work on a scale model of a lifesaving boat that was to be the centerpiece of the newly renovated lifesaving station. “No,” drawled Dick in answer to Bucky’s entreaty, “I already turned down one offer to make another. Just too much work.” and they all laughed, for who would want to work so hard at the beach?
   The Lovebunnies took many day trips to find wildlife and birds, with great success. Muskrats swam busily about, mullets jumped from the water, and the turtles and terrapins in the pond by the ranger station begged to be fed. “Some kind of wildlife,” said Bucky. “These darn things are pets.”
   One day Bucky and Loie decided to drive up to Mantua to do a bit of historical sightseeing at the site of the Lost Colony. Laura agreed to go along, too, even though she was warned that if tome permitted, Loie and Bucky were going to try to drive to the inland town of Bath to seek out the Devil’s Hoofprints. And so, hours later, Laura found herself kidnapped onto a seemingly interminable ride to Bath, and having, on arrival, no luck whatsoever finding the mysterious site. But when Bucky mentioned that, despite directions, guidebooks, and some wild goose chases they might have to give up and go home, Laura exclaimed, “Oh, no, no way. I didn’t get dragged out here all this way for nothing. We’re going to find these things. That’s all.”

And so, with that, the explorers luck changed. They stopped at the home of Coralee Cutter, whom they saw tending her flowers, and Laura and Bucky talked with her for some time. “Oh, sure, they’re just right over there,” said Mrs. Cutter, pointing down the road. “Why, my grand-daddy used t’keep hogs penned in that field. You can just’bout see the spot from here.”
   Mrs. Cutter maintained that the hogs wouldn’t eat the corn that fell into the Hoofprints, either. Well, with a tiny bit more searching, the goal was attained. The mysterious Devil’s Hoofprints lay all about the searchers in a tiny pine woods: dinnerplate sized depressions, some a few inches, some a foot or so deep. “This is it, huh?” said Laura. “Yeah, neato, isn’t it?” exclaimed Bucky. “We wanted to come find these things for years, and you found’em for us. We never could have done it without you, Laura. You’re the champeen explorer.” Laura just shook her head and smiled. But upon their return home, long after darkness had fallen, She said, “Remind me not to go on any more expeditions with you two!” Everyone laughed and Loie told her she had been a good sport, but Laura was adamant. “I’ll stay right here and enjoy the beach,” she declared.
   When they returned home from their lovely beach vacation, the Lovebunnies found Postcards from the Beach waiting for them. Not real postcards, of course, but the printed copies of a chapbook! Loie and her friends Susan Tegeler and Laura Van Der Linden, all of them members of the Poetry Forum, had published a chapbook of poems they had written during a weekend spent at Susan’s house in Ocean City the year before. Laurie Precht, another member of the Forum, had a poem included, too. The book had been printed while the Lovebunnies were on vacation. “This looks wonderful,” said Loie. Bucky had illustrated the cover, and typeset the book for the Forum. “Yeah, not bad if I say so myself,” said Bucky.
   The beach was long behind them when the Lovebunnies woke one morning in early November to find the season’s first snow blanketing the yard. “Curses,” muttered Loie. “Oh, I don’t think its gonnuh be such a bad winter this year,” soothed Bucky. “Not like th’Long Winter of ’94, anyway.”
   “It better not be,” warned Loie, who was dreading trudging up and down the lane in the ice and snow, “or we’re moving to Arizona.”
   “Well, that wouldn’t be so bad,” said Bucky. And sure enough, on the twenty-sixth of November when Bucky’s old schoolmate Frank Giorgilli came for a weekend visit, the weather was warm enough to be out in shirtsleeves. Everyone had a good time lazing around and chatting, catching up on stories and trading yarns. In the afternoon, Bucky remembered that he needed to fill the birdfeeders, and as he got the seed ready, he called to Gunther, whom Yo had dubbed “Outdoors Gunther”, after he stayed with her during the Lovebunnies’ beach vacation, and spent all day asking to let out and back in, “Come on, Mr. G., let’s go feed th’birds!”
   Frank jumped up, thinking Bucky was calling him! Loie reassured Frank, saying, “That makes sense. No one who knows Gunther would ever expect him to obey a command!”
   November also saw the publication of an article that Loie had worked hard on for almost a year. “The Beauty of Baltimore Album Quilts” appeared in that month’s issue of Quilting Today magazine. “Neato,” said Bucky when Loie proudly showed him her copy. “Now you’re a famous author.”
   “You got to see the quilts at the museum,” said Loie, “and now you can read my article about them, too.”
   But the Lovebunnies’ year ended on a note of horror. Yes, once again, the Archfiend struck. And after they had all had such a nice beach vacation, too.
   It was New Year’s Eve, and the Lovebunnies were hosting a small dinner party for friends. The next day would be, as was traditional, the day of their New Year’s Open House and Tree Planting. But New Year’s Eve they were to spend at home. As the guests arrived, they were welcomed in and shepherded to the living room upstairs, meeting, and chatting as the party gathered in from the wintry dark outside. And perhaps it was that dark that obscured the faint signs of troubling oddness about the package that Audra brought in with her. Or perhaps it was just preoccupation and good fellowship that made Loie and Bucky overlook the just barely visible miasma of sulphurous mist that wreathed the fateful package in greasy tendrils.
   Whatever the reason, the Lovebunnies welcomed this viper into their home all unaware of the horror that awaited them. And soon everyone was chatting and visiting. Bucky kept trying to shoo guests out of his way as he made last-minute preparations in the warm kitchen. And so he was only vaguely aware of Audra's voice at first, hearing her say “…thought we could settle the old feud for once and for all, so here it is.”
   “Oh no,” he thought, and started to cry out, “Loie, don’t open it…” but too late, all too woefully late. Loie, kind and unsuspecting soul, had been trapped by the duplicitous Audra. The package she opened was too flat to contain the infamous Bottle of Fate, the Perpetual Yago Sangria, and so Loie opened it gladly, but what it held was infinitely worse. As Loie unwrapped the fiendish gift, she was struck dumb. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth. She held the painting (for it was a painting, executed in dull grays and hideous smears of black) aloft for the company to see. Their cries of admiration for Audra’s supposed grand gesture of a peace offering died stillborn on frozen lips as their faces twisted into grimaces of disgust and loathing. In the dead silence, a mouse could be heard squeaking in terror as it fled through the wall from the corner where Loie stood.
   They all beheld a painting of such crabbed hideousness, such malevolent color, such fatuous subject, that stout hearts quailed. Some fell faint into nearby chairs. And Bucky strode hastily into the room, to be struck still as if he’d run into the wall, not the sight of a picture. He gulped for air through constricted throat, then, forcing himself against the loathing that threatened to overwhelm him, he tottered forward. Fingering the frame of splintered, warped wood, he managed to croak, “Uh, well. . . .ah, yeah, uh. . . it’ll make good kindlin’,” and staggered back into the welcome comfort of the kitchen to suck greedily at a restorative glass of wine.
   Then the spell was broken, and all the company shrieked with laughter, congratulating Audra on her latest masterstroke of evil genius. “Some friends of mine have been passing this thing back and forth just like we did with the Yago,” chuckled Audra. “I thought this was just too good to pass up.”
   “I don’t know how we stay friends,” laughed Loie, and the Lovebunnies’ year was ending once more on a note of happiness, as Bucky’s voice called from the kitchen, “Ohhhh kayeee, clams’r’ready!”


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