Bougainvillea Dankhurst had never had a husband but had been familiar with wayfaring men so that she had two children, a boy and a girl, that she never wished to have. When she had to go away to deliver herself of a third child, she left the children, Sir Isaac and Edith, with an old woman of her acquaintance, a Mrs. Bertha Gessler, who lived deep in the woods.
Mrs. Gessler was an eccentric and something of a hermit. She liked children well enough but wasn’t used to mixing with people and found Sir Isaac and Edith trying in the extreme. They were loud, unruly, and undisciplined. They slammed doors, spilled their milk on the floor, taunted Mrs. Gessler’s three cats, screamed for no reason, chased each other through the house, opened doors and drawers they had no business opening, tore up whatever they got their hands on, and threatened to stab Mrs. Gessler in the heart and burn her house down whenever she tried to discipline them.
“Some children should never have been born,” she said to herself. “If they were my brats, I’d string them up in a tree and wouldn’t let them down until they decided to behave themselves.”
When Sir Isaac carved a profanity in the banister and Edith threw a bibelot through the window and broke it (the window and the bibelot), Mrs. Gessler locked them out of the house. She would let them back in to eat their meals and to sleep, but at all other times they would have to stay outside until their mother came to get them. The weather was warm and there would be plenty for them to do. They might sit underneath a tree in the shade and contemplate how bad they were. If nothing else, they could go exploring in the woods. If a bear ate them, then so be it. Things like that happened all the time.
Sir Isaac and Edith had been outside half a day without incident when a thunderstorm rolled in from the southwest. The rain fell in great torrents, the thunder boomed, and the lightning flashed. Mrs. Gessler couldn’t very well keep them outside in a storm. If it was up to her she wouldn’t mind seeing them drowned or burnt to a crisp from blasts of lightning, but since they were somebody else’s children she had to see them safely delivered into their mother’s arms.
She let them come back into the house but tied their hands and feet. They could stand or sit as they saw fit or move around inasmuch as the ropes would let them. Though their limbs were restricted, their mouths were still in full working order.
“I’m sure it’s against the law to tie people up against their will,” Edith said. “When my mother finds out, she’ll have you arrested.”
“I’m sure she’d do the same if she could,” Mrs. Gessler said.
“What if I have to use the toilet?” Sir Isaac asked.
“Hold it as long as you can and when you’re sure you can’t hold it any longer I’ll let you loose long enough to relieve yourself.”
“You’re a horrible old woman and I hate you,” Edith said.
“Tell it to the Lord and ask for his forgiveness.”
“Just wait until I get loose!”
“Something bad is going to happen to you,” Sir Isaac said with a smirk. “I just know it!”
“Such hateful children!” she said.
She left them alone and when she went to check on them several hours later they were asleep, lying side by side. Sir Isaac was on his back with a slight smile on his lips; Edith on her side, a sofa cushion underneath her head and her tied hands underneath her chin. At the sight of them like a couple of trussed-up slabs of meat, Mrs. Gessler felt a pang of conscience. They were, after all, only children. If they didn’t know how to behave themselves, it was because they had never been taught any better. She untied them and took them into the kitchen to feed them their supper.
“What’s this slop?” Edith asked when Mrs. Gessler set a bowl of vegetable soup in front of her.
“Never mind what it is,” Mrs. Gessler said. “Eat it because it’s all you’re going to get.”
“Don’t you have any chocolate cake?” Sir Isaac asked.
“No, you get an apple for dessert.”
“What if we don’t like apples?” Edith said.
“I never heard of anybody not liking apples.”
“Don’t you have any peanut butter?” Sir Isaac asked.
“Eat your supper and I’ll read you a nice Bible story before you go to bed.”
“What do you take me for?” Edith said. “Bible stories? Do you think we’re infants?”
“Are you going to tie us up again?” Sir Isaac asked.
“I won’t if you conduct yourself like the little lady and gentleman that I know you are.”
“Whew!” Edith said. “You are naïve!”
“I want my mother!” Sir Isaac said.
“She isn’t here.”
“Well, I’m going home!”
He pushed his chair away from the table and began to stand up, but when Mrs. Gessler gave him a sharp rap on the wrist, he sat back down.
“You’re not my grandmother,” Edith said.
“Nobody said I am,” Mrs. Gessler said.
“Have you ever heard of the crime of arson?”
“There’ll be no arson here.”
“Well, we’ll just see about that!”
Edith picked up the sugar bowl and flung it across the room against the wall. Mrs. Gessler picked up a full glass of water and flung it in Edith’s face.
“Oh, how I hateyou!” Edith said as the water dripped from her hair, chin and nose onto the table and the floor.
“Get the broom and clean up that sugar!” Mrs. Gessler.
“I won’t and you can’t make me!”
Sir Isaac stood up and began flailing his arms and running around the table, screaming, “I want to go home! I want my mother! I want to go home!”
Edith, taking her cue from Sir Isaac, began throwing the dishes that were on the table to the floor and breaking them, all the time screaming as one possessed.
Mrs. Gessler knew of only one way to control them. She raised her arms above her head, uttered a few words in a Slavic tongue that she remembered from her youth, and watched as Sir Isaac and Edith were transformed into scampering mice. She corralled them into a small cage and clamped the door shut.
“I guess that’ll hold you,” she said as she set the cage in the middle of the table where she could see it and took the broom and dustpan and began cleaning up the mess.
Sir Isaac and Edith ran around inside the cage for a few minutes as though looking for a way out. Finally wearing themselves out, they settled down, tucked their tails under their bodies and made pitiful little squeaking sounds.