“Bye Daddy!” Four small pairs of hands wave at my husband, who stands with a cup of coffee at the front door. He waves back.
”Now can we listen to the Wind in the Willows?” the children ask, as we pull away. Our most burdensome errand of the past few weeks has been shuttling back and forth to a car-audio specialist to get our CD player repaired. As we sat broiling in traffic trying to reach, or leave, the remote and anonymous strip mall where the specialist is located, I held out like fruit to my junior Tantaluses the promise of the stories we would hear: “…and ‘The Trumpet of the Swan’ and ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and ‘Just William,’ and we won’t even notice that we’ve been driving 15 hours…”
Eyes on the road, I press the button: 03:00 appears. It flashes. And turns to 00:00. Disbelieving, I stab the button again. This time it doesn’t even bother to flash. We are three blocks from home.
“Don’t worry, Mummy,” Paris says, “Instead we can talk about which animals we like best. Like dolphins, or jaguars, or chimpanzees–”
“Or killer whales,” Violet puts in loyally.
“For two days?” Molly asks.
“Whabbout The Wind in the Willows?” Phoebe wants to know.
Half an hour later, in the seedy outskirts of northeast Washington, my cell-phone rings. As I fumble to answer it, a man in a pickup truck pulls level with us and mimes at me that one of our doors is ajar. I gesture back thanks, hang up the phone, pull to the shoulder, wait while traffic swishes by, then jump out into the humid air to fix the door. As I do, a deep voice shouts, “Okay!”
Seven muscular men leap from the underbrush and race towards the car, and before I know what is happening I hear my own voice yelling, “What the @#$ is this” and find that I am sprinting back toward the driver’s door, already feeling the grip of a carjacker on the back of my shirt, and yet even at that moment I am dimly aware that this may be some bilingual misunderstanding, but the men are gaining fast, leaping the crash barrier, they’re right behind me, when–
“Okay, okay, okay!” the leader shouts again. The men jolt to a standstill. “Sorry, Ma’am.” He raises his hands and flashes an embarrassed smile. Returning the smile, I fan my throat like a silent-movie heroine freshly untied from the railroad tracks. We part with many sheepish waves and smiles. Poor fellows: They were just waiting for their ride, and mistook us for it. It is a few minutes before my hands begin to shake.
Two days later the car crunches down the unpaved road to the tiny cottage we have rented for the past two summers.
“Look at the rocks,” says Molly, as the front axle hits a big one. “I thought this was supposed to be a dirt road.”
“I guess there’s been a lot of rain,” I reply, whipping the steering wheel around to avoid an exposed boulder. After considerably more lurching and thumping, the cottage comes into view.
“Weird,” Paris says, “The grass is green.”
I turn down the long driveway, cut the engine, and everyone piles out shrieking.
“I’m going to–”
As I follow the children down a lawn that has always been brown and scrubby, the way lakeside cottage lawns are supposed to be, something roughly the size of Marine One whines past. It is not a helicopter. It is a mosquito. “A lot of rain,” I repeat, faintly.
Last summer a chill wind blew Lake St. George into whitecaps, and rain came slanting through the porch screens at night, and the combination of a cottageful of small children and an outdoorsful of bad weather made for a grueling, if amusing, summer holiday–and produced “The Fever Swamp.” This year everyone is, obviously, a year older, which should cut down on the grueling-ness, but the prospect of us being hunted down and sucked dry by giant mosquitoes swarming out of overfilled culverts is–how can one put it?–unappetizing.
“–off the dock–”
The next afternoon the children and I go out for a woodland “nature walk,” which consists of us trying to cajole Phoebe into trundling more than a couple of hundred yards in one direction by giving out points for spotting “signs of nature.” The air is lively with mosquitoes. It is consequently lively with the sound of self-administered slaps.
“One!” Paris shouts, “I found a wildflower!”
“I’ve got three,” Molly says, “One for a puddle, one for a fungus, and one for a set of tire tracks. Ow–” Slap.
“I don’t waaaaant to wock,” Phoebe complains from the rear.
“Now two,” Paris cries joyfully. “Because of that bird. I think it’s a hawk. Or an eagle.”
“Unless it’s a fish,” says Molly, quoting A. A. Milne.
“Say, will you look at that!” I point with surprise at the road, a short distance off. In place of the rocks and valleys of yesterday, it is now smooth orange dirt covered with loose pebbles. Evidently this very morning the town authorities sent around a grader to scrape the thing smooth. I am beaming and nodding and starting to explain to the older children the workings of village-scale economics, with town meetings and local levies and whatnot, when I become aware that Violet is tugging on my skirt.
“Mummy,” she asks gravely, “Will I get a point for mud?”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.