In the Branches
Writing Contest Winner

My Counterpane

by Doug Engel


As autumn pushed into winter I became ill and confined to my sickbed; I was four.

Family members took turns entertaining me to ease the passing of slow wintry days. Grandmother would bring me soup and listen to my ABCs. Together we watched Jack Frost paint crystal flowers on my window. When all was still we listened to the house talking to itself, creaking and sighing as it warmed in the winter sun. When shadows lengthened we tried to guess who was coming in the back door by the sound of their boots and their huffing and puffing from the cold. Mother brushed my hair and smoothed my bed before the doctor's visit. She administered cookies and milk as soon as he was gone, to ease the pain from the daily shot.

Grandfather's visits were much anticipated as he brought me adventure books and regiments of lead soldiers. In the evening we reenacted famous battles on my newly rumpled bedclothes.

A spinner of tales, Grandfather had a storehouse full of magic. His ditties, stories and poems brought others to my bedside evening after evening. One of our favorites was "The Land of Counterpane."

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets:
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
-Robert Louis Stevenson
1850-1894


While we played out our marches and maneuvers Grandfather spun stories of his childhood; tales of royalty, crystal palaces, great stone lions and adventures in the world's greatest city. Grandfather's tales, told in the waning light of early evening when I was but a tad, were better medicine than all the shots and pills administered by Old Doctor Buxton.

When first allowed to venture forth, a warm spring day was mine--acacia trees just leafing out, sparrows chattering in the branches. Mother tucked me into my big red wagon, a blanket wrapped and rewrapped; she then paraded me triumphantly through the neighborhood. Even now the pungent smell of a warm spring day instantly transports me back to that sun-dappled ride.

Later, as strength and vigor returned, Mother and I embarked on trips to "Uncle Jim's" grocery where a sliver of cheese, freshly sliced from the great wheel awaited my approval. There was coffee to grind, with a helping hand "to get the big wheel turning," its thick aroma competing with the mix of spices in their glass-doored bins. There were apples to polish, bacon to wrap and great tea chests to hide in on my way to the Spice Islands. I was becoming a great help to all and I carried Mother's jug of molasses nearly all the way home.

That summer I discovered Grandmother's cherry tree and the wonders of scaling its not so lofty heights accompanied by squeals of fear from my mother. While gathering bits of bark and glorious scratches I could see the world unfold beyond the family garden. To the west was McCoy's funeral home with its row of shiny black vehicles. Aunt Pearl's gazebo beckoned from two yards over, and to the east rose a great church spire. All of these wonders were hidden from me when earthbound; higher was the secret to expanding my horizons.

In the garden beneath the tree were other delights. The goldfish pond in the rock garden beckoned. In its cool depths my exploring fingers found nooks and crannies, surely miniature sunken grottos where golden sea monsters teased just out of reach. There were quiet times spent napping in a blanket-and-clothesline tent while bees hummed through the garden and cicada sawed in the great shade trees.

In the evening as fireflies wove their way through the shrubbery I studied the intricacies of street games from my porch-railing vantage point. As chief spectator I lent vocal support to the kicker of the can and loudly vowed to be in the thick of it before the week was out.

When summer showers cleaned the streets I watched from the pillowed ramparts of my counterpane. There I counted the long seconds between a flash of lightning and the boom of thunder so I might impress Grandfather with details of how close the storm had come to crashing "down about our ears."

©2004, 2005 Doug Engel Used by permission.