Every neighborhood has the house kids aren’t supposed to go to. Where I grew up in the Fifties in Altadena, California, that was the McKay property: an overgrown five-acre estate, one of the few that hadn’t been subdivided yet. At the end of its long curving drive was a giant old house that could only belong to a witch. No one ever trick-or-treated there. It was whispered a crazy old lady who collected animals lived up there. The rumor circulated around the regular families and newer houses of the neighborhood: She eats those animals and she traps kids into working for her like slaves. At times, my grandmother swore she could hear “help, help!” coming from there. She was hard of hearing, but still….
Well, one hot, long summer day we got so tired of playing the millionth game of Monopoly and riding our bikes around, that my brother Kevin and I decided to try something new. We dared each other to go up that long driveway and see for ourselves what was really up there. It was the summer I was eleven. I remember exactly because my life changed forever that day.
Up the drive we went, slowly and with hearts thumping. First, we passed a couple rows of orange trees and then some crooked old plum trees, then a weedy lawn, then a kidney-shaped swimming pool filled with ducks swimming in the dirty water. We passed a cage full of blue-black glossy ravens. Then, oh my gosh, a cage of monkeys! A Woolly monkey, a Capuchin and an organ grinder! Now, almost up to the scary house overgrown with bougainvillea, the driveway widened out and we saw a little old lady bending over boxes of lettuces and vegetables. She saw us, too. She stood up straight and put her hands on her hips. “What do you kids want?” She stared hard at us. “You can’t just come up here uninvited. Well, what is it? What do you want?”
“Um, um, um. We heard there were animals up here,” I said, heart racing.
“Yes, we came to see the animals,” Kevin choked. She looked at us hard with her squinty eyes. She wore red stretch pants and her red tennis shoes were cut open to give her big gnarled toes breathing room. Her knobby arthritic hands had deep blackened grooves from hard work, and her straw hat was filled with every color feather just poked into it this a way and that. And I’d never seen hair so fire engine red. Standing next to my brother, I could feel his heart beating as fast as mine. She was a witch. She was a witch, was all I could think.
“Go home, you kids, and don’t bother us up here. I’m busy sorting greens for all the animals,” she mumbled. “You must keep the lettuce separate from the vegetables.” We turned to hurry away but then she said, “Unless, that is unless, you’d like to work…” We turned back toward her. “Do you want to work? Do you even know how to work with animals?”
“I have a hamster,” I stammered.
“I have a goldfish,” my brother stammered.
She sighed with annoyance. “Well, if you want to stay, you’ll have to work. Kids work hard here—no loitering around—I’ll be watching you,” she said, shaking a bent finger at us and staring straight at me. We just nodded yes—okay—yes to whatever she was saying. “Alright, then follow that path and go back past the animals. Find the other kids under the pepper tree and help ‘em bury the dead pony.” She turned back to her job.
The dead pony! We were so shocked by these words that we simply did exactly what she’d told us to do. On one side of the path there were cages and cages full of guinea pigs and then pens of goats (which she raised for the brand new thing called the Heifer Project). Then, a big flock of chickens and a kennel with just English bulldogs, one of which was the Pasadena High School mascot. We passed a pen with lots of ponies and a couple of old skinny horses, one the John Muir High School mascot. On game day, the rival high schools came to pick up their mascots: the Bulldogs and the Mustangs. Past all this was a pepper tree, and under the pepper tree four kids were digging a big hole. Beside that hole, baking in the hot sun, lay a dead pony.
“Did you come to help?” Arthur called out hopefully. We nodded. The other kids gladly handed us rusty or splintery-handled shovels.
“More help! Hooray! We’re saved!” they called out. The kids were Judy and Arthur, twins, and eleven, as well. And Vicki and Ernie—she was eleven, but her brother was still ten, like my brother Kevin. So we were already like a club. We jumped into the hole and began to dig and dig and dig. I had never touched a shovel before that day. As we all worked, they told us how to milk goats and collect eggs and feed and clean the animals. How the bee man came once a year to collect all the honey. How the shearer man came once a year to shear the sheep. How the guinea pigs got sold off to the labs at Caltech. How the chickens all came from Bullock’s Department Store and their Easter window display of chicks hatching. And after a long time, with our hands aching and dirty, Arthur said it was okay, this hole was big enough. We clambered out of the hole, but to our dismay, in the hot sun, the pony had grown bigger!
“Bloat,” Judy said. “It’s what happens to dead animals in the sun.”
“Will it fit?” I asked. The pony’s stomach was tighter and bigger than a beach ball.
Arthur said, “It sure would fit better if somehow we could pop its stomach.” This seemed like a good idea. So Arthur took the rusty shovel and getting all his strength together—every bit of his strength—he hammered the edge of it down—fwam!—as hard as he could onto the pony’s stomach! We screamed and cringed and fell back away. But no! Nothing! The shovel just bounced back off the tough stretched hide of the pony. It looked like its stomach would burst all on its own, but it was strong as shoe leather.
Next we thought, well, if we can’t make the pony smaller by popping it, maybe we could bend its legs to fit better into its grave. They were stiff as wooden poles and stuck straight out. So this time, Ernie, who thought he was stronger than Arthur, took the edge of a shovel and with all his might—all, all, all his might—banged the edge of the shovel—fwam!—down on the pony’s leg just below the knee to see if it would break. We all ran back cringing and hiding our eyes again but—NO—nothing. We had no idea that the pony’s body was so indomitable.
“We just have to bury it the way it is,” Vicki said, tossing her blond braids back over her shoulders. So we all took a hold, all six of us, pushing and pulling the pony toward the hole. It was the most disgusting, but at the same time the most fascinating thing I’d ever done. Its eyes were wide open and crusted over with flies. Its tongue poked out and was hardening. Arthur got a rope around its shoulders to help drag it. I was pushing from a hoof, on my hands and knees. Kevin had both hands on the pony’s mane, pulling.
“How did it die?” Kevin asked.
“Lettuce! Somebody fed the pony lettuce!” Judy said with authority.
“What’s the matter with that?” I asked. They all chimed in—lettuce can cause so much gas in a pony that its intestines can twist. That’s what happened. Its intestines twisted. And then, with one final WOOSH we pushed the pony into the hole. It fell in crooked. Its front legs—those wooden poles—were sticking way out. Oh, no! Now what? It was a big, impossible job. We started digging out around the poking up legs, and when that was big enough, we tried standing on the pony’s shoulders and bouncing up and down with our weight to push the legs down below ground level. It kind of worked. We quickly piled all the dirt back in and over the pony. Done. It was buried. We were done!
We called Mrs. McKay to inspect the job. She came hurrying from the house. As she got near, she slowed down and a scowl appeared on her face. Coming closer, she gently swiped her foot across the grave. A hoof instantly popped through the dirt. We kids jumped back. So did Mrs. McKay.
“You kids dug a bad hole. It is not deep enough. This will never satisfy the Health Department,” she scolded us. (But that’s another story). “Get that pony deeper into the ground and do it quickly. Call me when you’ve finished!” She stomped off. We almost cried with despair, and now we were mad at each other, too.
“Arthur! You are so stupid to think the hole was big enough,” accused his sister.
“You’re the stupid one!” he called back.
“Quit it you guys,” Vicki said. “You know Mrs. McKay hates that word.”
We all began scooping the dirt out of the hole as best we could with little hand trowels. When the hoofs were well exposed, we kept digging down and around until there was more room under them. Then they let me stand on the shoulders and slowly inch my weight out along the legs like I was tight-roping. The legs squished down more deeply into the hole. As I stood on the legs, the others started tossing the dirt on. I stayed there until they were done, to make sure the hooves wouldn’t pop up again. Eventually, I stepped off onto hard ground. Feeling very important, I shook the dirt out of my shoes. Nervously, we called to Mrs. McKay again.
She approached the grave. “Hum…” She stared at the grave very intently then looked at each one of us. “This is a big job. A dirty job. You worked hard. Never be afraid of big, dirty jobs because God has made our hands washable. Now go wash your hands and come into the kitchen and let me make you all hot fudge sundaes. She smiled a nice big smile. I could see that Mrs. McKay wasn’t a witch at all.
* * *
And that was day one of what would become a five-year adventure. Every single day after that I returned before school to milk goats and feed animals. And, every day after school, I mucked out cages and rode the ponies.