The last time we were here at Fox Lake we were sitting on the porch, watching the water, waiting for our guests to arrive, two little kids and their uncle who is taking care of them since their widowed dad died this spring.
Mia said, "Look at the ducklings!" and there was a tight cluster of them, maybe five or six, paddling away from the shore, bobbing like corks on what looked like heavier waves than they could handle.
"Where's their Mama?" I wondered and my heart sank, but Mia just cooed at how cute they were and how well they were doing, sticking together.
This hot week, a crowd of family and friends joined us at the lake and the six kids in attendance, my girls and the ducklings and a fifth grade boy and his newly teen sister, are all of the ages when riddles and brain teasers are fascinating (1. "What has three faces and eight legs?") and funny (2. "What's long, brown and sticky?")
The Riddle of Sphinx got thrown out there, of course, and (3.) the victim found in a locked room lying in a puddle of water and broken glass.
(4.) "The one who makes it doesn't want it; the one who buys it doesn't need it and the one who uses it doesn't know it" fascinated the table at dinner.
"I've got one!" I shouted and my friend Kate said, "The doctor was his mother," which freaked me out because it was the right answer and made us laugh.
After a few rounds, the kids started trying out their own compositions. (5. Mia's: "What is gold and floats?") Ruthie, the teenager, wore a grin wide open with laughter as she listened to Nora try to make her nonsense work. (6. "A man is sick and he needs to take a pill and he looks down and the floor is moving. How is this happening?")
Meanwhile the grownups who haven't seen each other in weeks or months or years or even ever were catching up and Ehran (old friend and father of the two funny kids) and Elle (Floridian friend of my father-in-law) bonded over recalling the fun of the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
"Everything works out in the end," they quoted together. "And if it doesn't work out, it's not the end!"
Elle has a pretty laugh, a musical North Carolina accent and a sweet, frequent smile. She and my father-in-law have been together for three years, happy years it seems. This is the first time the girls have met her. Nora gave her a hug before learning her name.
Randy and I had been all tense about the girls being confused by Elle's presence while Grandma stays back in Florida but when Nora accidentally referred to her once as "Grandma" and I said, "she's not your grandma," I learned once again that children adapt more quickly than adults and I am capable of making my own worries come true.
We had some quiet time together before most of the crowd arrived, just the four of us and Elle and Grandpa, and over a panini lunch on the deck, Mia told her version of the riddle we call The Two Envelopes.
"There's a tailor and he wants to marry a princess. The king is not happy and offers the tailor a choice. Tomorrow at court the king will show the tailor two envelopes. Inside one is a paper with the words You must die. Inside the other is a paper with the words You may marry my daughter. The tailor's choice will be his fate.
"The tailor did not trust the king so that night he snuck back into the castle and hid behind a curtain. He heard the king say to his advisor, 'I wrote You must die on both papers!'
"So what will the tailor do? He could run away, but he really wants to marry the princess. He could reveal the king's plot, but then he would shame him and have an enemy for a father-in-law.
"The tailor thinks of a solution. He finds a way to live and marry the princess and not make a fool or an enemy of the king. What does he do?" (7.)
I love this story so much and I love how Mia tells it, with her voice getting whispery and conspiratorial at the end. Bob and Elle, sitting next to each other, laughed at the clever solution, then I remembered another variation of her story and launched into it, thinking nothing beyond that the girls are getting smart and old enough to tolerate some solutionless ambiguity.
My story was "The Lady and the Tiger" and this time the choice is between two doors, one with a hungry tiger behind it, the other hiding a different girl who will become the suitor's bride. The princess has changed too, into a fierce Roman instead of a flimsy and silent mannequin. She is the one who discovers the secret to which door is which and she is the one who secretly gestures to her lover which door he should open. And open it he does, without hesitation.
So which door is it? Does he marry another girl, leaving the jealous princess to suffer as she watches their happiness? Or does she send him to his death, a gruesome one, but not unlike others she has watched for sport in the Coliseum?
The story never gives you an answer. The girls begged for an ending, but I told them they had to decide for themselves. I don't know how much of their pleasure is curbed by the denial of a conclusion, but I did hear Mia retelling the story to Ruthie later, with relish.
At our lunch table, with Bob and Elle, I had been halfway through the story when the connections hit me. I was sitting across from the suitor and his new love. The deadly tiger in their story was loneliness and the door chosen turned out to reveal this other woman, kind and blameless.
I used to beat myself up for the stuff that comes out of my mouth. Not this time. I knew I was telling the princess's side of the story, and that might be painful, but I just kept going. Why not learn something from that
"what did I talk myself into?" feeling, that raw and stripped feeling?
What would the girls' grandmother want for her husband? She could be fierce and fiery before the Alzheimer's took away much of her memory, and most of that fire was in the name of what she called love. Is what she wants even a question I can ask? I know what she needs, her own escape from the tiger's claws. But what she might have wanted in the end I will never know, could never know, but then again, this is not really the end, is it?
1. Two men riding a horse.
2. A stick.
3. The victim is a goldfish.
4. A coffin.
5. Goldfish, again.
6. The bed is moving.
7. The tailor comes to court the next morning, selects one of the envelopes and rips it up into tiny pieces. Then he says to the king, "What does the other one say?"