For Cyndy Green, a miniature mystery
to add to your mammoth collection.
If I was a mathematician rather than a detective,
the problem’s equation would run something like this:
the first mystery of the new year equals the last mystery of the old.
To wit: the beautifully designed and illustrated greeting cards
that my gifted artistic friend Helen Trowbridge never fails to send
for Christmas and the new year had failed to arrive in either year.
One loss put my suspicions on alert; two, on high alert.
Had the postal service been derelict in its delivery duty?
Was my friend suffering from something more than memory lapse?
Taking the wheel of my boat for a run into the Delta,
I set forth to investigate when our stormy December
was replaced with a January of bright sun and fair breezes.
As I sailed, Helen loomed large in my concerns.
Did she require nothing more than a polite reminder?
Had something happened that might require my services?
Helen and niece Ann Cates maintained a modest farm
with orchard, vineyard and a row of stately beehives.
Cabaret and honeyed hospitality were my usual reasons for visiting.
But this time, I was met by sorrow. Handyman Hector
explained that his employer had fallen off a high ladder
fixing the sacred nativity star atop her decorated tree.
Given the possibility of a stroke, it was touch and go
at the hospital from which a worried Ann returned
to greet me with gratitude and tears for her beloved aunt.
At her beside throughout the ordeal, Ann saw little change
in the patient, but wondered at her repeatedly murmuring
“Winter white sleigh”…..”Winter white sleigh….”
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“Maybe a memory of her Idaho childhood or else
a little nonsense she liked to sing about winter whites.”
“Winter what? How did that song go?”
“It went: ‘I’ve got my winter whites to keep you warm’.
It was about blankets and comfort, not a sleigh run,”
Or was it more than that? I took Helen’s three words
and Ann’s account back to the office and put them to Iris Noire,
who has all the answers to office life—-and life beyond.
“With all due respect to Miss Ann,” Iris responded,
“Maybe she didn’t hear it quite as it was intended.
You never know when incoherence has meaning.
“Suppose she was murmuring ‘winter whites’
with a speech slur at the end that made it sound
to Ann as if she’d heard the word ‘sleigh’.”
“But if we don’t have a sleigh, what do we have?”
“Sounds to me like seasonal fashion.”
“Whites being fashionable in the wintertime?”
“To some women. Not that common in the Delta.”
“And what if she really intended to use the word sleigh?”
“A sleigh covered with snow? No snow in these parts.”
“Well, as long as we’re playing the guessing game,
how about ‘white sleigh’ being one word rather than two?
How about a last name? Whitesley? Whitesler?”
“You’re whistling in the dark, aren’t you, sir?
But if you want to play a hunch, my advice is
take it and see how far you can run with it.”
“Nobody I’ve ever heard of,” Ann shook her head.
“Any winter whites in Helen’s closet for clues?” I asked.
“I already looked. Nope, not her preference for winterwear.”
Instead of whistling, I put the puzzle to Stuart Woo,
our high-tech whiz kid, to see if he could work his resources
and help us arrive at an answer—if tech could provide one.
After all, we live in age of advanced science
where nothing is impossible–from driverless cars
and space touring to DNA solutions to ice cold cases.
Stu was glad to get in on what he called “a dying clue caper,”
and came up with a list of potentials on the three words
that I set before Ann in the hope one might resonate.
Once again, we came up blank as a winter landscape.
“I guess there’s just no explaining it,” she concluded,
“but thanks for trying, sweetie. Can you stay for dinner?”
Before leaving, I took a last look around the premises,
amused as always by the profusion of colorful souvenirs
Helen had gathered in years past on worldwide travels.
Among them, small manikin figures of native peoples—
African hunters, Arab sheikhs, Asian planters,
and a lei-clad Hawaiian dancer shaking up a hula—
none of whom seemed in need of winter clothing.
I patted a few natives in passing and suddenly
felt something beyond flowers in the dancer’s leis—
Something round, hard and smooth like marbles
on a loop. Where logic and science had failed,
chance supplied the meaning of Helen’s last words.
“Looks like the world is your oyster,” I told Ann,
urging her to reach inside the leis for a surprise.
“Not your average holiday gift, is it?” I asked.
“Those three little words of Helen’s were her way
of telling you where to find this in the event
she didn’t make it out of the hospital.
“These rarities are sometimes called ‘winter whites’—
exactly what Helen was trying to articulate,
adding the word lei–not sleigh–to point you to the hiding place.
“And that’s what she meant by winter whites to keep me warm?” Ann asked.
“Warm and more than cozy. I’ve never seen more luminous
and lustrous examples of South Sea pearls than these dazzlers.”
“I’d rather have my aunt healthy and safe at home,”
Ann said, replacing the pearls with a wish for Helen
as if the pearls had the mystic power to grant her recovery.
And perhaps they did, for the homecoming came soon,
with a belated gift of two dozen winter whites, but not for Christmas.
“Just a small surprise for your 24th birthday, dear,” Auntie explained
as she fastened the stunning South Sea strand
on the neck of her suitably surprised niece
with a snap of its elegant diamond clasp.
“I wanted to give you one of the pearls as a keepsake
and a thank you for your time and trouble,”
Ann said the next time i sailed her way.
“But Auntie thought you would much prefer these,”
she added, gifting me with a jar of honey and a fine cabaret
stamped with a green Delta scene and the Trowbridge crest.
“She also told me to tell you a little secret:
She’s working now on a sumptuous holiday card
that will arrive belatedly and rock your boat.”
A lingering handshake, with wishes for health, happiness
and love were gifts that surpassed the wine and honey.
I hoisted sail and eased out of the small harbor.
When I looked back, she was still there, waving
as the Delta Dazzler and I slipped away, out of her life
and into the current of the deep water channel,
on whose waters the new moon played hide and seek,
sometimes glowing and sometimes concealing its face
like a rare pearl awaiting discovery.