In a quaint, stone cottage, on a narrow dirt road, lived a little old lady all alone. Most people in the area had no idea that a house even sat in this overgrown pecan grove. And few had ever seen Mrs. Albert C. Abernathy who lived inside. Those who did know her – the mailman for example – called her Ida.
Each day on his route, he climbed over thick vines just to get to her mailbox. And almost every day, he brought her nothing but bills, bills, bills. He knew the little woman seldom received a letter, a greeting card, or anything special in the mail.
For Ida, every day started and ended the same. She’d awaken at six, put on a tea kettle, take out a loaf of dry bread, and sit down to breakfast…alone. Most days were uneventful, and ended when she turned out the lights, locked the doors, and went to bed. Locking the doors seemed silly because who knew she was in there in the first place?
Then one day something happened that would change Ida’s long lonely life forever. It began with a letter the mailman delivered that morning, after climbing over the vines just like he always had. After he’d gone, Ida shuffled out to the box, expecting to find another handful of bills she couldn’t pay. Oh, the bills were there, but something else was, too. She walked back to the cottage, closed the door, and sat at her kitchen table.
Ida took a deep breath as she looked around the room. The ceiling above showed several stains from rain that seeped easily through shingles that should have been replaced years ago…if Ida only had the money to do that, but she didn’t. Her cupboards were nearly empty. Her eyes drifted over to the glass in one of her kitchen windows with a big crack. As she looked at the floor, large pieces of tile had crumbled long ago.
She stared again at the stack of envelopes from the day’s mail and noticed one, about in the middle of the pile, that looked different. Her crooked, wrinkled fingers shook as they reached out and slipped it from between all the others. Ida took out her wire rimmed glasses, the lenses covered with her own fingerprint smudges, and settled them onto her nose.
“First Bank and Trust,” she said right out loud. “This can’t be good news.” A sharp letter opener rested against an even larger pile of unopened mail. Ida took the opener, slipped it under the flap, and slid it from one end of the envelope to the other. When she pulled the letter from inside, and opened, it, she nearly fainted after reading:
“We regret to inform you that, after your failure to contact us, the bank has no choice but to foreclose on your house. This will take place in two weeks…”
Ida dropped the letter to the floor, took a deep breath, put her hands to her face, slowly shook her head, and sighed, “Whatever shall I do?” She struggled to her feet, walked to the back door, and looked out. The yard behind her house had become even more overgrown than the front with brush, bushes, and vines. Ida hadn’t been in that part of the yard for so many years, she hardly remembered what was out there.
As she turned toward the kitchen again, her dimming eyes saw something move between the wall and a refrigerator that no longer worked.
“It’s a rat!” she screamed. Quickly she began searching for her raggedy straw broom. When she found it on the porch, she grabbed it and returned to where the rat had become hopelessly wedged between the refrigerator and the wall.
“Try to come into my house, will you?” Ida demanded. With the broom in one hand, and a small bucket in the other, she moved with caution toward the helpless rodent. She placed the bucket behind the rat, and slipped her broom just beyond its head. With one, trembling move, Ida swooshed that rat into her bucket and hurried, as fast as a little old woman can hurry, out the door and into the back yard.
She reached for a rusted shovel, leaning against an old, oak tree. Its long, wooden handle felt rough in her hand from years of wind, rain, and weather. Ida peered into the bucket. The rat didn’t seem to be moving. Is he alive or dead? She wondered. With one foot, she tipped the bucket on its side, then pushed it away. The rat tumbled out onto the dirt and weeds. Now Ida held the shovel in both hands, trembled as she raised it above her head and prepared to make sure that rat never bothered her again.
Just as Ida was about to slam the shovel down, with as much force as an old woman could, the helpless rat did something. He opened one eye. Ida noticed that, and eased her grip on the shovel for a moment. Then he opened his other eye and trued his head up slightly. Now that rat was looking directly into Ida’s eyes.
If the rat could speak, Ida was sure the look on his little rat face meant, “Please don’t. I’m just a rat.” But, of course, rats can’t talk. Still, that look made her stop. She lowered the shovel, and sat down on a fallen tree to think. When she did that, the rat closed his eyes and put his head down again.
What shall I do? Ida wondered. It wouldn’t be right to kill it. I mean, what did the rat ever do to me? Then she got an idea. She went back into the house, poured a small sip of her tea into a dusty glass, picked up a crust of bread, and hurried back outside. “He’s probably already gone,” she said. But when she reached the log, that little rat was still there, still struggling to breathe.
It was difficult for her, but Ida knelt beside the rat, poured tea around his mouth, and waited. An instant later, the rat put out his tongue as if he were asking for more. So she gave it to him. Next she broke up the bread crust and scattered small pieces near the rat’s mouth. After that, she went into her house and shut the door. During the day, Ida thought about the rat, but she didn’t go back out to check on him. If he’s dead in the morning, then that’s that, she thought.
Ida wondered about him as she turned out the light, pulled the covers up to her neck and went to sleep that night. But those thoughts were crowded out by the letter she had received from the bank. What shall I do? she thought as she drifted off to sleep.
The sun seemed extra bright when Ida awakened in the morning. Before putting on a kettle for her tea, she wanted to know if her rat was dead or alive. I say dead, she thought as she pushed open the back door, walked down stone steps, and crept over to the fallen tree. But when she looked closer, the bread pieces were gone. Not only that, the rat was gone, too.
“Well! I’ll probably find him in the house again,” she said with a huff.
For the next few days, Ida sat in her house, wondering what to do when the bank came to take over the property. She’d nearly forgotten about her rat until one morning when she walked to the back door and looked out.
“What’s that?” she asked right out loud. She opened the door and stepped outside. There, on the step, sat a shiny gold coin. Ida leaned down, picked it up, and held it in her hand. First she looked around the back yard, then down to the coin. “Where did you come from?” she asked with a giggle. Back inside, she placed the coin inside a carved, glass box. The next morning, the same thing happened. Now Ida had two gold coins. But on the third day, she found a key on the step where the coins had been. She held it between her thumb and finger and wondered how it got there and what it might open. The key was placed in the glass box along with her two coins.
A week went by, but there were no more gifts on her back step. Then early one morning, while she was still in bed, Ida thought she heard scratching sounds at her back door. It made her tremble all over. Still, she slipped out of her covers to see what it was. When she looked out the door, all Ida saw was a single pebble on the top step. Looking closer, she noticed another on the second step, then another and another.
Ida stepped into her slippers, put on her robe, and hurried outside. What she found were several pebbles that seemed to be arranged in a line for her to follow. So she did. Ida had to crawl under thick brush and over other fallen trees until she came to a stone fence. I didn’t even remember we had a fence, she thought. The line of pebbles turned to the right and led Ida to a corner where two walls met. There, the line ended. She reached out and pushed an opening into the bushes. What she saw next nearly knocked her backward.
“It’s a door,” she said.
Sure enough, an old wooden door, built into the wall, sat hidden behind other thick tangled vines that grew along the stone wall. The old woman noticed that the door sat slightly open. Just then, a small head popped out.
Seeing that almost cause Ida to trip over a dead branch on the ground. “My rat!” she said.
The rat smiled back and then pushed the door open wide. When Ida bent over and looked inside, she saw that her rat was standing next to a large, wooden lockbox. “The key,” she said. The rat nodded. She reached out and tried to move the box, but it was far too heavy. Then the rat went around to one side, and came up with another gold coin. Ida noticed that he had scratched a hole into the soft, rotted wood of the old box and made an opening.
Over the next two days, Ida made several trips between her cottage and the stone fence. The first was to get the key. When she returned to the lockbox, she was delighted to see that her key fit the lock perfectly. She turned the key, heard a loud click, and then with both hands, lifted the top. Inside she found a pile of gleaming, gold and silver coins. Each time she came to the fence, she took as many coins as she could carry back in her apron to her cottage. Finally there were no more of them in the wooden box.
The next day, Ida heard a knock at her front door. Who could that be? She wondered. No one ever comes to my door anymore. But when she turned the knob, and opened her door, she saw the sheriff and a man wearing a dark suit. Both men had scratches on their hands and faces from the thorns and vines.
“It’s time to leave your cottage,” the sheriff told her. The banker kept a stern look on his face.
Ida held up her hand. “Just a moment,” she said, turned, and left the men standing outside. In an instant she returned with a handful of coins, held them out and said, “Will these help?”
The banker took one of the coins, held it close, and studied the markings. “How many of these do you have?”
Ida shook her head. “I stopped counting after one hundred.” Then she smiled, covered her mouth, and giggled.
The men left with instructions that she should come into town and settle her debts. Ida did that after meeting with a lawyer. While she was in his office, she also had him draw up some special papers.
A few days later, several men came to Ida’s cottage. They spent the next week clearing out all the thorns, brush, vines, and fallen trees from her front and back yards. Other men arrived to fix the roof, replace the floors and windows, and make all the much needed repairs on Ida’s home. Finally, they built a small building in the back yard, near the door in the stone fence. It looked just like Ida’s cottage, only smaller. The men took the lock from the wooden lockbox and fitted it into the front door of the smaller cottage.
When everyone had gone, Ida went outside to see the work that had been done. As she strolled across the back yard, she saw something. Her rat stood near the small cottage, but he wasn’t alone. His family waited with him until Ida came to them. She wasn’t sure they’d understand, but she told them anyway.
“This cottage now belongs to you. I’ve made sure that, as long as your family lives, you will have your own cottage to live in.” A small tear ran down her wrinkled cheek. She took a key from her apron pocket, leaned down, placed it in the lock, and opened the door.
The rat family looked up at her but didn’t seem to understand. Then Ida gave the key to her rat and pointed toward the door as she nodded. One-by-one, he and his family entered the small cottage.
“You saved my home and you saved my life,” Ida said. “I can never thank you enough.”
Ida and the small family of rats lived happily as neighbors for several years. And long after Ida was gone, her rat and his family had a home of their own for the rest of their lives.
Books by Max Elliot Anderson can be found on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=max+elliot+anderson&ref=nb_sb_noss_1