Independence Day

Independence Day

Willie Bear had business to take care of.  Places to go. Things to do.  He was a busy man, was Willie Bear Hollings (albeit at 14 months, a very young one). He had a whole wide world to explore, and time was a-wasting.  He’d been in the park before, but never when it was full of so many strange legs and shoes — not surprising since today was the 1960 edition of the annual Independence Day barbecue and picnic, and most of the town was in attendance.  Willie Bear had spotted this great big fuzzy thing over there by mama that was new and strange, and very interesting.  Sometimes it was tall and horizontal, with legs on both ends, and sometimes, like now, it was flat.  He was pretty sure it had a head, and it moved by itself, and Willie Bear was consumed with the need to find out what it was. 

The only way he knew how to get to it was to crawl, but Willie Bear was becoming more and more dissatisfied with that method of locomotion, more and more put out with the fact that he couldn’t get any speed out of it.  When he held his head up to see where he was going, it was hard to get his shoulders into it and his chubby arms tired out too quick. But if he held it horizontal so he could get his back and shoulders into the action, he couldn’t see where he was going. He’d finally managed to work out a system of bobbing his head up and down to keep his bearings and check for obstacles and he’d almost got it perfected. But he knew there was another way, the way mama and dada did it, and he was working on it with his usual single minded determination.  So far he had only mastered the standing up part, although he still hadn’t worked out how to get up onto his feet without pulling up on the furniture. Once he was standing up, he could move around, but only if he was holding on to something.  The minute he let go of it, though, he’d lose his balance and either flop down on his butt or fall over onto his hands and knees again.  Yesterday, that balance issue had just about frustrated the tarnation out of Willie Bear.   

He was a busy man, and time was a-wasting, and Willie Bear did not abide frustration well.  And just when he’d worked out a way to get to all the things he wanted to see and do, it seemed like the whole world was out to thwart him.  Like today. When mamma and dada had brought him to the park, they’d spread a quilt and plopped him down on it right in the middle of the most amazing collection of things that needed investigating that he was hardly able to contain himself for the excitement.  And then what did they do but block every attempt he’d made so far to get to them.  And now there was that great fuzzy thing over there where momma was standing next to a cluster of such fascinating legs and shoes. 

Willie Bear saw his chance and made his break.  He put every ounce of muscle into working his roly poly legs and threw his back and shoulders into it, and really poured on the speed.  At last!  There it was in all its wonderfully intriguing fuzziness.  Willie Bear sat back on his behind thoughtfully. It was way bigger than he was (so was practically everybody). But, oh, it was fuzzy, all right, as fuzzy as his Wooly Bear, and warm, like his Wooly Bear was after he’d been holding it against him all night.  When it slowly turned its head and looked at him, Willie Bear saw to his delight that it had real eyes with somebody looking out of them, not just hard shiny things stuck on in the eye place like his Wooly Bear had.   Now it was being kind of triangular and pointed, with its head just above Willy Bear’s, and something long and floppy and pink hanging out of its face.  And he had to know about it, find out as much as he could about it as quickly as he could before somebody came and got him and put him back on that stupid quilt.  He gave it an experimental pat.  It was soft on top and firm underneath.  He put his face up against the fuzziness and gave it a hug, and found it most satisfactory for hugging.

“Willie Bear!” Oh, drat! Mama had spotted him. He clung tightly to the dog’s fuzzy warmth and pulled himself to his feet, the better to hold on with both arms.

“It’s alright ma’m. Diarmuid won’t hurt him.  He’s real good with kids,“ said that man whose dog it was — Sam Goode, wasn’t it? (Mrs. Hollings thought she’d heard he was from Montana and was helping the McLarens with the work they were doing on their house. He seemed to be a nice man but he had that big mustache all over his upper lip. And ‘Diarmuid’ was such an odd name for a dog, especially one from Montana, but then it was an odd looking dog, like a very large greyhound with wispy, salt and pepper colored fur. Such a big dog, too.) Just as Mrs. Hollings was about to say something, Sam added, in a slightly louder voice, “Everybody just keep quiet and stay put, and we might get to watch a miracle happen.” 

Then, in a very soft, hardly audible voice, he said “Walk up, now,” which seemed to be a command to the dog, who perked its ears and looked over at its master. As the hefty toddler patted at him, pudgy fist thumping resonantly against the barrel of the dog’s chest, Diarmuid carefully and slowly lifted his hindquarters off the ground until he was standing.  The dog’s attention was now focused on the child who had a fistful of the fur over his shoulders.  He took a careful step forward, and the child followed suit, clinging to the dog for balance. 

Another softly spoken command, “Walk up.”

The dog began to walk carefully and slowly forward toward Willie Bear’s mama with Willie Bear trundling single-mindedly alongside, clutching the dog’s fur for balance.

Then Sam said, “hoo-ahh” quietly and Diarmuid eased to a stop.  With a determined frown of concentration, Willie Bear let go of the dog and continued his teetering advance the remaining distance to his mother. As she knelt down to pick him up, he looked up at her with an expression of triumph, his face flushed with exhilaration at his first solo venture on two feet. He was finally starting to get a handle on this balance thing!

“I believe that’s a young man who’s going places, “ Sam allowed in his slow Montana drawl,  then added with a chuckle, “And the first places he’s gonna go are the places you don’t want him to.”  A ripple of laughter acknowledged the truth of that statement.

The Day The Fish Swam Over the House

It was the Gúríí who started it all.  He was the one who had been out walking in the forest early in the morning, thinking a thought that wanted thinking.  He was the one who had come across the bit of dead branch with the odd little serpentation in it.  He was the one who had picked it up and had seen a fish inside it that wanted carving out; so he did.

How wise the little bit of branch had been to choose to be a fish next, a hemispherical sort of fish, flat across the belly and round over the top, with a wide slit of a mouth flat across the bottom and round over the top.  The branch had two little offshoots near the big end that were perfectly willing to become the fleshy side fins, flat across the bottom and round over the top, that keep the fish on its even, flat‑bottomed keel as it sculls its way slowly along the flat and muddy river bottoms where it likes to live.  And the top end of the branch forked into two in just the right way to make the wedge of the tail with its shorter lower fin almost horizontal and the longer upper fin curving up and back.  In hardly more time than it took for the ground mice and fussbirds to spirit away the whittlings, there it was: a little flat‑bottomed round‑topped fish swimming across the flat of the Gúríí‘s long hand in sinuous mid‑undulation from palm‑edge to fingertip.

The Gúríí studied it over with his fingers, smoothing the flat of his thumb across the flat of its belly.  It was a winding, wandering sort of fish to have found on his winding, wondering walk, and by the time it had swum across his hand all the way back to the spring that was by ‘áööù léé’í mâ áíányéí, The House in the Pine Trees by the Spring, where he was living, he knew what happened next.

He perched on the flat rock by the spring pool with legs folded in half and knees for a table to steady the fish against, and with the sharp tip of the carving knife, he engraved the thought he had been thinking, letter by letter, in three neat even columns down the flat fish‑belly:

“Everything touches something which touches something else…

To touch one thing is, eventually, to touch everything.

To be one thing is, eventually, to be everything.”

Once again, he searched over it carefully and saw that it was a finished fish with a fine thought to keep it good company in its wanderings.  And since fishes belong in water, he laid it carefully down in the spring pool where a gurgle slipped it over the edge and into the current.  With a chuckle of delight, the spring stream and its new friend the fish scampered off into the trees to play together.

That was how it started.

And, since water likes nothing better than finding more water to play with, the spring stream found another stream from somewhere else up the mountain, became instant friends, introduced the fish, and the three of them skipped off down the mountain together, whispering secret nonsense in each other’s ears and giggling about nothing and everything.  When a third stream tumbled off a rock and fell in with them, they declared themselves a creek and celebrated by giving frothy beards to every rock they met.

And, since wooden fish don’t swim quite as well as real ones, the water helped it, bubbling it along over the gravel and pebbles, sailing it sedately across the pools and wriggling it in between the stones.

By noon, the fish had reached the part of the mountain where great chunks of scorched and sooty granite had weathered out of the mountainside. The water had great fun shining up all the quartz crystals as it shinnied down the fracture planes.  Sometimes the water zigged down one block and zagged right away down the next; sometimes it danced a little rambunction first; and sometimes it went leaping right over the edge and down, taking the fish with it.

In several places, the water had hollowed out basins in the rock where it could pool its resources before setting off down the mountain again.  The fish would dive down deep into each one and come bobbing up.  Sometimes it would swim around the pool in slow, stately circles several times before starting off again, and sometimes not.  And once, the fish bumped up against the nose of a drinking horse who snatched its muzzle up in surprise and stood a long moment dripping in puzzlement.

Further down the mountain, there is a place where the water chuckles out onto a big, flat block of granite and flows across it in a wide shimmering sheet, to fumble down the side in dribbles, splatters, streams and rivulets into a wide shallow pool below.  Because it is early summer, the pool is brim‑full and ice‑cold from the snow‑melt.  At the one side of the pool, the water capers off into the trees again.  On the other edge of this pool, where this granite block abuts another, there is a narrow ellipse of darkness which is the doorway of ‘áöüù s’àìàn kêsh ‑‑ The House With the Water Falling Over.

Beside the pool is a little leveling of open meadow perhaps a hundred feet across at its widest point, encircled by seventeen big, old trees.  From about midday until late afternoon, the meadow catches the sun and holds its warmth.  There is one particular tree, the one farthest from the pool, with a root that had started to grow out into the meadow but had had to crook to the side almost immediately to avoid a buried boulder.  As the tree grew larger, the crook had become a good place to sit, and what with centuries of growth and generations of sitters, the root had flattened out and leveled off until two people could sit side by side on it and lean against the tree quite comfortably.  In one of the House chests in The House With the Water Falling Over could be found a cushion with a leather bottom and a soft cloth top that fit just exactly over the twisted root.

On the day the wooden fish slithered out across the big flat block of granite, the cushion had been brought out to the root, and a slender woman sat there now, leaning back against the tree.  A thick soft shawl was spread over her lap, and her tunic was a vivid russet against the translucent eggshell of her skin.  Her name was T’saile; she had been dying a long time now and was mortally tired of it.

On the grass before her were those she loved most in the world: Esà her beloved mate and Ghíndhì her beloved child, exactly five years old yesterday.  Several adolescent horses were grazing in the meadow, each with at least one frosty‑feathered bugger bird perched on its withers eager to swoop down in an instant on any insect life the grazing flushed out.

The trees around the meadow were home to enough fussbirds to ensure there was never a moment between first light and last that was not filled with their twittering.  The parental wisdom held that the pert little fussbirds were made of three parts fuss and two parts feathers and were always fussing about something ‑‑ and on the rare occasions when they had nothing to fuss about, they would fuss about having nothing to fuss about.  Since they had nests now, every time Ghíndhì would get close to a tree, the fussbirds would flit down into the lower branches and fuss at him.  And when he found a seed head that had somehow survived the winter, cracked the seeds out in his hand and held it up to them, they fussed down out of the trees and perched on his fingers to peck the seeds out of his hand, fussing at him in between pecks.

It was Esà who noticed the blip of dark against the white water wash down the rock‑face, but it was Ghíndhì who leapt up to investigate, in case it was something he just might have to wade in barefoot after.  To his delight, he reached the pool just in time to see the fish bob to the surface and had to splash in to intercept it before it was swept off down stream.  When he got it ashore, he saw at once what it was and ran to show it to T’saile.  With only a little help from Esà he was able to pronounce out into words the neat rows of letters carved on its flat belly:

“Everything touches something which touches something else…

To touch one thing is, eventually, to touch everything.

To be one thing is, eventually, to be everything.”

Which explains how the day after Ghíndhì‘s fifth birthday became known forever after as “The day the fish swam over the House.”  T’saile kept the fish all the rest of her days in the special‑things box the Gúríí had made for her, the special‑things box she would ask Ghíndhì to bring to her of an afternoon to turn out in her lap and tell over the special things back into the box one by one.  And when they came to the fish, Ghíndhì would read to her the thought that wanted thinking that the Gúríí had carved upon its belly, and they would remember together the day it had come swimming over the House to them.  The last time those special things were told over, the last time Ghíndhì put the fish in her senseless, almost lifeless hand, was the day her frail, fragile body could hold onto her no longer and she slipped away.

But that was not how it ended.

The Gúríí was making a House chest, had been making it since just after Ghíndhì had been born, one piece at a time.  It was a rare occasion.  He had never made one before, and would likely never make another.  All the Houses around already had as many House chests as were needed and House chests were too well made and too well taken care of to need replacing very often.  A good House chest would easily last for six or seven centuries.  There was a House chest in Nä’yàm’àdêth, The Burning Land, that was over a thousand years old.

But the Gúríí knew that the day would come when Ghíndhì would need a House chest to hold all the household things he would need to take with him back to the faraway place where T’saile had come from.  Against that day, he began to make one, a piece at a time.  And, even though he always made everything the very best he knew how, this was not just a very special, once in a lifetime thing, but a special House chest not like any other.  Therefore, right from the beginning, he set in his mind the longing for a finished chest that would be what this chest was needed to be and that would do what it was needed to do.  And from that moment, he knew with perfect confidence that the wood he would need for each piece would come to him when it was time, and that it would bring with it the understanding of how each piece should be made.  And he knew with perfect certainty that, because a thing cannot be other than what it is, the chest would be exactly the way it was supposed to be, which was the way he had known it would be right from the beginning only just waiting for him to make it that way.

So it was over the years the Gúríí would find a piece of wood, or else it would find him.  The first wood came to him this way: On a rocky promontory on the sunrise side of the mountain, a crumbly‑bark pine tree had grown a hundred and fifty feet straight out into the sky for two hundred and seventy two years only to be struck by lightening and blasted in half from crown to roots in the two hundred and seventy third.  The forest Watcher had taken him to see it, but he had heard the echo of its dying scream the moment he’d touched it, shaken his head and hurried away, knowing he could not bear to work wood so lately and violently dead.

But once he had decided to make the House chest, the memory of that tree had come back to him with its broad band of dark heartwood flayed open by the lightning, and the memory had whispered of short sides that would yearn across toward each other as they had been together in life.  He had sought out the promontory and the blasted tree, and as he sat with it and felt over the sundered trunk, it seemed right that this wood should be part of the chest, for this House chest had to do with partings and things separated that could never be rejoined.  It had taken three big stallions of the local horse folk, the Gúríí, the forest Watcher and two Wanderers all day to carefully ease the huge sections of the tree down off the rocky heights, down onto the forest floor where they could safely work on them, and the better part of another day to split out two thick slabs from the dense, dark russet heartwood.

Although this wood had been the first wood he’d gotten, the pieces had stayed leaning against each other in the store room of The House in the Pine Trees by the Spring a long time before they were ready to be fashioned into the two sides of the very special House chest.  Ghíndhì had been four years old then, and had played to them on the flute all one summer day as the Gúríí had worked and shaped them.

The year Ghíndhì began to walk by himself, a piece of wood came to the Gúríí all the way from Cht’yém’tsû äòúshâîä, Ship Mother Bay, two ship rides and a long journey overland by horseback; the big end of a trunk of close‑grained, strong, silvery mastwood cut off as too long for a mast, but just long enough and just big enough around to be carefully split first in halves then in quarters long‑ways down through the silver‑grey centerwood for four chest legs.  When the Gúríí had lifted the section of trunk off the tired horse’s back it had whispered, “Legs,” to him.  “Legs,” the Gúríí had told the Traveller, and the word had gotten all the way back to the shipwright, who was not the least bit surprised to hear it.

The wood for the hinges and hasp came from the rocky southwest coast of Dóësh‘ëyääm’ ëshàshäïán’, The Wave‑Washed Land: burl wood from the gnarled root balls of the wind‑twisted salt‑stunted trees of the headlands.  Almost rock‑hard wood with a dense, red‑dappled, black‑speckled grain.  The summer Ghíndhì learned to talk, the Gúríí spent carving out the fittings, nibbling the wood into shape a piece at a time.  Because the fittings were of easily‑portable size, he would bring several pieces to The House With the Water Falling Over and sit at T’saile’s feet through the long summer afternoons while a small child and a patient father read the meadow together and found treasures to bring to the one they both loved best.

The year Ghíndhì was seven, five Wanderers brought two big slabs of high‑mountain cedar wood down out of the mountains as soon as the passes were open, taking turns carrying the wood on their backs until they got low enough to find forest horses to help them.  The thicker board had a nice, tight, even grain that would split quite nicely in halves with a little coaxing and made good front and back sides for a very special chest.  The thinner slab the Gúríí sent on down to the coast with the first down‑country traveler.  The bottom parts of the lid hinges and the hasp front Ghíndhì had oiled and handled since he was old enough to comprehend what they belonged to were now carefully fitted into the front and back sides that had been carefully carved to receive them.  The red‑dappled, black‑speckled burl wood shown like jewels set in the dark sienna mountain cedar wood.

The chest lid was made from a board split out of the same kind of tree that ringed the meadow by The House With the Water Falling Over, although it had grown much further to the northwest.  A rock slide had felled it two summers after Ghíndhì was born, and a forest Watcher had taken note of it and told the Gúríí.  When it was time, they had gone together to where it lay and split a single long board out of its center and also cut out a branch/trunk piece higher up that was just the right shape to make the elbow of a harp.

Storm‑Between‑the‑Mountains had carried the board balanced across his broad grey back, with the Gúríí steadying one end and the forest Watcher the other; his mate, Dumped‑Out‑Rain, and their colt Possibly‑Hail had gone ahead.  The mare held branches out of the way with her broad grey body, and Possibly‑Hail gave it a proper dancing around the mountain over the three days it had taken them to bring the board down to The House in the Pine Trees by the Spring.  When that piece was finally shaped and cut, it was the summer after Ghíndhì had turned eight.

The day the Gúríí began the carving on the chest lid was two days after he had ridden over on an obliging horse to get Ghíndhì and the day after the two of them had walked together through the forest from The House With the Water Falling Over to The House in the Pine Trees by the Spring.  T’saile had not the strength to walk now or even to stand, and spent longer and longer in the elsewhere of Nothing where the cold could not reach her. Now even the high noon of high summer was not warm enough to drive the mortal chill from her dying bones.

Ghíndhì and the Gúríí had walked back on purpose, the Gúríí needing the walking back to take the measure of the boy now skipping along beside him, now riding high on his uncle’s back, now running ahead to say hello to some green thing or animal, or to gather up a dancing handful of sunlight through the trees: Ghíndhì needing the walking back to take the measure of his tall, crane‑slender uncle with the russet‑gold hair and russet‑gold eyes to match who could hear the wood whisper what it wanted to be next, and liberate wonderful things out of it with his carving tools; the slow‑soft‑seldom‑spoken uncle the horses loved because he could transmute the very air into the most wonderful, irresistible music.  They spent that night entwined in sleep, dreaming dreams that got entangled with each other to the accompaniment of strange, wild music that might well have been Lîdâ herself wrapped in her sea‑blue mantle, on her slow and stately progress into summer with her moons dancing about her and singing harmonies to her songs of celestial circumdances.

Three days Ghíndhì spent in The House in the Pine Trees by the Spring helping carry the board out to the rocks at the edge of the House where it could be propped up in the sunshine, where the Gúríí could get a good view of the scene that was waiting for him to carve out.  With a small boy leaning against his back and looking over his right shoulder, he could see it perfectly.

In the upper left hand corner were the pine trees around the meadow, the big rocks out of the mountain at the meadow’s edge and the other rocks by the spring.  In the big rocks out of the mountain was the dark oval doorway of The House in the Pine Trees by the Spring, and on the rock by the spring was a carving knife and a bit of branch with an odd serpentation in it.  Ghíndhì watched in fascination as the scene began to appear out of the thick wooden panel.  He could feel the muscles of the Gúríí‘s shoulders working against him, see the long, thin fingers working the knife with careful skill.  He could smell the sharp tang of the wood, and hear the laughter bubble up from deep inside the Gúríí when the fussbirds would light on his arms, sidle down toward the curls of wood they coveted for their nests and snatch them away in a splash of feathers.

On the second day, in the lower right hand corner, The House With the Water Falling Over began to appear under the Gúríí‘s carving knife; the seventeen trees, with the one with the root just right for sitting on, the water falling over, the pool it fell into and the stream that led it off into the trees, the dark oval of the doorway of The House With the Water Falling Over and the meadow beside it.

On the third day, was the polishing and oiling, with Ghíndhì helping to rub the oil bare‑handed into the wood.  The oil brought out all the subtle shadings of wood grain and added a golden glow to all the browns and an amber tint to the tans.  The tangy‑sweet smell of the rich, thick oil lingered on his hands for days after.  It was only as he was helping to wipe down the wood with the polishing cloths that Ghíndhì noticed what had escaped him as he had been watching the Gúríí carve out all the water ripples across the top of the rock of the House.  There amongst the ripples was a little wooden fish right where it was supposed to be, swimming over the House.

While they rested during the heat of the day, Esà carried T’saile out of Nothing into the meadow.  She was wrapped up in the blanket made of the winter wool of the mountain horses, soft as an amber‑colored cloud and warm as the amber‑colored sunshine that was no longer warm enough.  A Weaver in the mountains had made it especially soft, especially warm, especially amber, and especially for her.  Esà sat her on his kneeling leg and held her while Ghíndhì showed her over the carving, saving the best part for last. More than once after that, Ghíndhì would remember for her how the Gúríí had carved it out, and remember the feel of the carving in the wood beneath his hands, for sensation had long ago left her twig‑thin fingers, falling away like leaves in autumn.

The bottom was the last piece.  It was made from a knee knob from a giant swamp cypress that arrived in late summer.  With it came the knowledge that T’saile would not see another year out.  The Gúríí worked alone in the shortening days, for Ghíndhì hoarded every moment now that the end was near.  The Gúríí split the swamp cypress knee knob into three boards and tongue‑and‑grooved them together into a single piece, alternating the direction of the grain. He made butterfly insets out of the remaining piece of burl wood to inset across the tongue‑and‑groove joint of the boards to keep them from sliding sideways.

With his sharpest carving knife, the Gúríí carefully carved onto the bottom of the bottom piece where each of the pieces of wood had come from, how it had come to him, the year of its carving, and the finished thing they would be assembled into; and the who, where and why of the making.

That done, the Gúríí carefully wrapped each of the pieces separately, wrapped and tied them all together, and consigned them to the Travellers who would begin them on their long journey over land and water to Nä’yàm’àdêth, The Burning Land, where they would finally be assembled.  Along the way, other hands would add to the carving until the four remaining out‑sides and all six in‑sides were embellished with scenes of this place and that, and the pertinencies added to the legend on the bottom of the bottom.

But that was not how it ended, for T’saile had asked Ghíndhì to take the special‑things box and all the special things in it back with him to that far, distant place she had come from, to the house where she had been born, and if a special aunt still lived there, the little fish must swim into her hand, and Ghíndhì must read for her the thought that needed thinking that it carried with it.

“Everything touches something which touches something else…

To touch one thing is, eventually, to touch everything.

To be one thing is, eventually, to be everything.”

But that is another story, and was still not how it ended.  After Ghíndhì left that big, old, far away house, there was a girl betwixt and between who needed someone older, and an old woman who needed someone younger now that Ghíndhì was somewhere else.  And a little wooden fish to swim from hand to hand.  But that is still another story.  And it didn’t end there either.

 

*********************************

NOTE:  Another first posting of an old, old tale of a young boy named Ghindhi who was born on a far distant planet named Lida, where the horses dance, and the blue fish sing.  Although his name is Gúríí, he’s always called “the” Gúríí as in “the one and only” for he is one of a kind.  The horses’ names are descriptions of the cloud types their coloration most resembles.  It is a gentle peaceful place, and I haven’t been back there for quite a while. This is the first of a proposed string of stories that traces the journey that the boy and his father make across the planet to visit the paternal grandmother the boy has never met.  I have sketches and snibbets of some of the others, but this is the only one that is complete.

Seascape

 

It was only a little drekkar, barely 25 feet in length; its dark oaken hull was scarcely  distinguishable from the black rock behind it and the glistening inky water that rocked it.  The year had turned and spring was well on its way, but the wind that came skirling out of the north Atlantic had ice on its breath and there was a fair amount of chop.  They would not feel the full brunt of it until they left the shelter of the little bay and were out in open sea.  Settling the hood of her dark grey cloak over her head and holding the edges of it around her, the woman walked down the beach to where the waves lapped, her sturdy leather shoes crunching on the shingle, the big black wolfhound trailing close behind her like a shadow.  It was easiest and quickest simply to step up onto the air and climb it like a stair to the drekkar’s deck.  As the big dog’s paws touched wood, it blurred, stood, and became a tall man with a scraggly head of black curls beneath a black woolen cap that matched his black wool Aran jumper, black wool trousers, and heavy leather lace up boots.

“Away now, quickly,” the woman called to the trio of silent men who had brought the little drekkar to this hidden bay on this hidden isle off the coast of County Maigh O. Now that the sun had set, the wind was veering around to the southwest and picking up.  It would be a long, cold trip back to Scotland after being nine days on this little island out of time and a neat trick to be returning home a mere hour after they’d departed.

She made her way to the bow, wrapped her arms around the dragon-headed prow with its twisted narwhale horn gleaming white in the moonlight against the dark oak, and began to sing softly to it.  Behind her, oars were unshipped and used to pole the drekkar off the shingle, back into the water.  Then they were fitted into oarlocks and the slender boat was backed out of the little bay.  Once they cleared the point, the portside oars were shipped as the starboard oars turned the dark hull into the wind.  Then those oars too were shipped and the men who had manned them busied themselves with raising and setting the drekkar’s single sail, a square of dark grey wool.  The cold wind huffed it full and the drekkar’s timbers groaned with the load.

The men knew their work well and moved briskly and efficiently about it.  The steersman set his course, the other three trimmed the sail, and the little drekkar settled down to do what it did best, which was fly before the wind.  At anchor, the bottom of its keel sat less than 18 inches deep.  Now with its grey sail full of wind, its clinker-built hull slid on its belly over the water.  By the time the woman walked from bow to stern, the little drekkar was skimming along at a brisk 5 knots and still picking up speed.

The woman settled into the stern at the steerman’s feet and wrapped her heavy woolen cloak about her.  Here was the only place where there was shelter from the wind.  The man at the steer-board had an oiled leather tunic over his thick woolen sweater, and oiled leather gloves over fine woolen ones.  The spray beaded and dripped off the leather’s shiny surface and shimmered on the oiled wool.  His face glowed white in the darkness and his dark, full moustache gave it the eerie semblance of a gaping maw.

Two of the men sat by the rails amidships.  The man on the port rail was stocky and had a full beard that gleamed like old gold in the moonlight.  The man on the starboard rail was the big black dog that had followed the woman aboard.  The third man, tall and rail thin, whose salt and pepper hair and moustache glittered with spray, was in the bow watching past the prow into the wave-swept night.  They were all three well versed in their task, manipulating the sheets and yard to keep the sail in constant trim.

By moonrise, the little drekkar was fairly flying.  Its oaken timbers chirped and sang as the hull flexed like a living thing.  It galloped over the waves at a steady 15 knots in the stiff southwesterly wind.

. . . . . The night was bitter cold and the wind was rising.  Coming up a howler it was, but Peadar didn’t care. The backs of his legs were still burning from the switching his stepfather had given him for not heating up the supper tin of stew fast enough to suit him.  Then he’d been sent off to bed without his meager share of it — and no point sneaking down to get something later.  His stepfather kept a careful eye on the food, even counted the slices of bread each day, and he would notice something missing.  A switching usually meant the old man’d be upstairs later looking for a poke about. The thought made Paeder shudder with loathing.  By the time the old man found his empty bed, he’d be too drunk to do much but rant and curse and toss the furniture about.  But he’d not think to look outside.  Not on a night like this.  He wouldn’t see his peacoat was gone til morning, but by then it wouldn’t matter.    

The moon was full, thank God for that, or Peader would never have been able to manage the steep and rocky sheep path that paralleled the drystone wall a goodly bit before it veered off toward the distant beach.  He’d been dreaming of the dark sea every night for a week now, of walking down to the little sandy beach at night with the full moon to light his way. He would settle down in the shelter of the rocky outcrop and wait. Soon after that, a big black dog would come to find him and lead him away to freedom.  The dreams had been so vivid, so powerful, and every one exactly the same in every detail, that he’d decided it was a Sign.  The answer to his prayers.  Tonight had been the last straw.  He would go down to the beach.  What happened after that was up to God.

Over two miles of hard slog between the farmhouse and the beach, and himself bare-headed in the stiff, icy wind, the cavernous dirty peacoat buttoned all the way up and hanging off him nearly to his knees.  By the time he reached the sea, he was shivering so hard he could hardly breathe. The beach was empty, just as he knew it would be. He staggered over to the rocky outcrop at the southern end and gasped with relief to be out of the wind.  He nestled down against the rock, pulled his arms up out of the sleeves, pulled his knees up under the coat, pulled the collar of the coat up over his head and worked his hands up into his armpits.  Exhausted now, he lay his head down on his knees.  He’d run away twice before and twice before the Garda had found him and brought him back and his stepfather had beat him black and blue.  It seem clear to him now that the big black dog in his dream was the Cu Sith, the death hound, and that death was the freedom it would lead him to, but he was past caring now.  He would rather die than go back.   His last thought before he slid into the inky depths of sleep was the hope that it wouldn’t take him long to freeze to death . . . .

It was close on 2 a.m. when the drekkar dropped sail and shushed its keel up onto the sandy stretch of beach on Ireland’s northern coast.  The black dog leaped from the bow onto the shore, it’s shaggy black coat swirling in the wind.  It cast about and found the line of footprints where they came out onto the beach, followed them to a rocky outcrop at the southern end.  Taking man form, the black dog picked up the bundle he found there and carried it back to the drekkar, to the two men waiting to take it.

Between the three of them, they shucked the senseless boy out of a man-sized, dirty peacoat, stripped him down to bare skin and swaddled him in a heavy woolen blanket that one of them had plucked out of the frigid air only seconds before.  They left the boy bundled on the deck and scrambled to unship the oars.  The woman gathered up jeans, ragged jumper, battered canvas shoes, threadbare underthings, socks and peacoat and flung them out onto the sand above the tide line.

“Heads up,” she warned, and made a sharp pushing motion with both hands.  In a great splash of spray, the drekkar went sliding fifteen feet backwards into the sea.  The men caught the water with their oars and hauled on them.  Twice more, as they raised their oars clear of the water to take another stroke, the woman pushed the drekkar further and further out to sea.  With a careful maneuvering of oars and steerboard, the bow swung round.  Up went the sail to fill with a snap and a lurch.  The drekkar leaped forward off the belly of a wave and loped off into the night, building up speed again as it knifed through the dark water.

The woman picked the boy up off the deck as though he weighed nothing and carried him to the stern of the ship.  There she sat, put him in her lap and laid his head against her shoulder, shrouding him in her grey woolen cape.

The steersman pulled a stone bottle out of the chill, damp air and handed it down to her.  She uncorked it with her teeth and carefully poured a small dribble into the boy’s mouth.  He swallowed instinctively.  Twice more she poured a little bit into his mouth, and he swallowed it.  She watched him come to himself and focus on her face.

“Listen to me carefully, boy.  If your name is Peadar O’Malley, I will turn you over to the Garda as a runaway and they will take you back to your stepfather. If your name is John Campbell, I will take you to Scotland with me.  Do you understand?”

He looked up a long moment into her green eyes that seemed to look inside him and see everything.  He nodded.

“Now, then, boy.  What is your name?”

“J-J-John C-C-C-Camp-b-b-bell.”

“So.  Sleep now, John Campbell, and while you’re sleeping, I think we’ll just let that dreadful stammer blow away on the wind.”

With a sigh, he sank into a deep and dreamless slumber.

Dawn brought cold grey light and low scudding clouds. The little drekkar was now running flat out before a wind so stiff the hull growled and mumbled, and a second reef had to be taken in the sail to protect the mast.   The cold damp breath of the sea gave up bowls of hot stew rich with vegetables and chunks of mutton, with sops of coarse brown bread.  The biting wind produced stoneware bottles of hot, sweet tea that was at least a third cream.  Never mind that the woman spooned the stew into his mouth as though he were a babe and held the cup for him to drink.  He ate and drank until he was blissfully full.  He sighed with repletion and slid back into sleep.

What woke him was daylight.  He was in a bed whose soft cotton flannel sheets and pillowcase smelled of lavender, with a heavy woolen blanket over him.  He had no clothes on.

Sitting on a stool beside the bed, leaning against a tall wardrobe made of dark wood was a thin, tall man who looked much too young for his scraggly salt and pepper hair.  His full mustache under a great prow of a nose was also liberally salted.  He was clad in a grey woolen Aran jumper and grey woolen trousers.  His long lean legs were stretched out across the floor, he had a wooden bowl in his lap with two balls of dark grey yarn in it, and he was, of all things, knitting something long and tubular that might be a sock on three small, double pointed needles.  He had strands of yarn wound through both hands and wrapped around each index finger.  He would knit a stitch with yarn from the left finger, then knit the next stitch with yarn from the right, alternating back and forth.  His long, slender fingers moved like clockwork, wooden needles poking in and out, stitches slipping one by one from one needle onto the other.  It was mesmerizing to watch.

Without looking up, the man said, “Good morning, John Campbell,” in a reedy baritone with a crisp Scottish accent to his Gaelic.  “My name’s Diarmuid.  There’s a robe at the foot of the bed, slippers by the bedside and the convenience is the furthest door on the right.”  He nodded with his head.  “There’s porridge, eggs and bacon for breakfast and Macca cooking it up just now. If I was a hungry boy, I’d be getting dressed and heading downstairs right sharply so as not to miss out on any of it.”

 

*******************************************

NOTE:  This is the first posting of this short tale.  The woman in this story is Macca, and it’s her son Gwythsiam at the helm of this little drekkar.  The big black dog is Macca’s man Narna.  The man with the red-gold beard is Morien’s son Red Thom.   When not in use, the little drekkar, whose name is Nahvalr,  is kept in a bottle on the mantle of the fireplace in the main room of a house called Pirincursie on the north coast of Scotland.  Darmuid is Gwythsiam’s dog, and lives with him in Macca’s house on the banks of the Clyde, which is where this story ends up.

Maire Popkin

She wasn’t Cockney, she was Irish, so that was wrong, but she did have the large black umbrella with the ivory handle carved into a macaw’s head, which had come down to her from her grandmamá.  (It was mastodon ivory and her grandmamá and great grandmamá had eaten off its former owner for a month, but that was neither here nor there.)  She had simply shown up shortly after the coroner’s wagon had left and announced herself to Constable Harker, who was under the impression headquarters had sent her — and not a moment too soon, if you asked him. The lady’s maid was practically hysterical and the cook and parlor maid were not in much better shape.  As for the poor child, all she did was sit there wide-eyed and silent.   Shock, of course.  The constable conveyed the woman straightaway to Chief Inspecter Philbeam.

“Sir, they’ve sent a matron to take charge of the little girl.”

“About time,” The chief inspector replied gruffly.  He hated these domestic cases, especially when there were children involved.  He glanced at her, then took a second look.

In the cold, unblinking light of early morning, she was a woman drawn in pen and ink, with ink-black eyes and raven’s wing brows stroked onto paper white skin, ink black hair pulled severely back over her white shell ears and completely restrained in a tight bun at the nape of her neck.  She wore a black felt hat with a narrow brim and a black grosgrain ribbon for a hat band, secured to her head with a jet beaded hatpin.  Indeed, the only bit of color about her was her woolen coat of graphite grey, which she wore buttoned up to her chin.  The hem of it brushed the top of her black leather, lace-up boots.  She was holding the bottomless carpet bag in one black-gloved hand, so that bit was right as well.   In reality, she was of average height for a woman, but she carried herself like a queen and seemed half a head taller than she actually was by virtue of it.  Philbeam’s critical eye searched her carefully but could detect no nonsense about her, and that was a great relief.

“Maire Popkin,” she said, and though she had pronounced it ‘Moya,’ she added, “That’s M-a-i-r-e, if you please,” to make it quite plain.  Oh, and she had ‘the voice’ as well, wine dark and soft as velvet, too quiet and reasonable to be disobeyed.

“Nasty business, this,”  Philbeam said,  “The child is upstairs. Harker will take you up.”

It was the sort of house one would expect of a family of their social strata;  fashionable address, fashionable décor, quality furnishings and appointments, but the colors were rather insipid and spiritless.   Harker paused on the first landing and murmured, “Governess.  Murdered both parents then hanged herself.“

“About four months along, I’d expect,”  was her terse comment.

“Eh?”

“The governess.”

It took Harker a moment to fit that into context. “Shameful.”

“Yes, it is, when it is left to one of the victims to hold the guilty accountable for his crimes because society won’t.  And the child?”

“What?  Oh, er, right.  Aged six.  Name of, um,” he consulted his notebook.  “’Cecily Grace.’”

He hustled her quickly past the first floor hallway where several uniformed policemen were standing, and up the considerably more narrow stairs to the second floor where the nursery was located.  One of the maids, red-eyed and sniffling , stood by the cold and empty  nursery fireplace wringing her hands.  The child was sitting in one of a pair of small chairs at a small deal table.  Before Harker could speak, Maire Popkin turned him out of the room and shut the door behind him.   She set her carpet bag down beside the door, laid the umbrella against it, took off her gloves and pocketed them, and began to unbutton her coat.

“And who are you?” she asked the maid in her velvet voice that had a silken lilt to it.

“Emma Turnipseed, miss.” The poor girl’s voice trembled on the brink of tears, stumbled and fell. “Oh, what’s to become of us, miss?” she blubbered.  “Nobody ever seems to think of that.  No place, no references, and now we’ve got an ‘istory.  They’ll never take you if you’ve got an ‘istory.”

Maire Popkin studied her a moment, reached into her coat pocket, and pulled out several folded pieces of paper.  She selected one, opened it, refolded it, selected another, opened it and smiled.

“Here,” She took the maid’s hand, put the paper into it and folded her fingers around it.  “Married couple, no children, arrived from India two days ago.  They’ll be needing a parlor maid, an upstairs maid, a scullery maid and a cook.  Apply Friday.  You’ll be a godsend.”  Then she ushered the poor girl gently but firmly out the door.  She turned to the child and finished unbuttoning her coat.

“Are you Cecily Grace?”  she inquired.

“Yes, miss,”  the child replied in a barely audible voice.  She had limp, mousy brown hair, large brown eyes, a pale complexion, and was little better than skin and bones in her plainly cut, unadorned navy frock.  Her stockings had a small hole at the ankle, and her shoes had noticeable bulges at the tip from the crowd of toes beneath.

“You may call me ‘Maire Popkin.’ “  She slipped off her coat to reveal a plain, black wool dress with a high collar and long, fitted sleeves.  A plain gold pendant watch was pinned to the bosom of it.   She looked around for someplace to put her coat, spotted the only adult sized chair in the room and draped her coat over the back of it. She balanced her hat atop it.   She went to the other small chair, pulled it out and sat down in it facing the child across the table.

“Well, Cecily Grace, I suspect nobody has thought to feed you this morning.”

“No, miss.”

“Do you think you can possibly hold on for one more hour?”  Maire Popkin asked seriously.

“I think so.”

“There’s a brave girl.”  She looked the child over for a long thoughtful moment.  “No doubt you are aware that something terrible has happened, and your life is never going to be the same again.  But all is not utterly lost.  I am come to help you over the rough patches and see you settled.”

“Mummy is gone, isn’t she.”  Cecily Grace said with hollow certainty. A single tear dripped down from the corner of her eye.  She wiped it away with a furtive, almost guilty swipe of her hand.

“I’m afraid so.  And we will deal with that in its time, but first we must get you packed and take you someplace kinder,” Maire Popkin said firmly.  “And get a decent breakfast into you.”

The little girl’s bedroom might have been pretty if the fabric and wallpaper had been done in brighter roses and pinks instead of washed out puces and mauves. Tucked as it was up under a northern eave and with only two small dormer windows to light it, the room was small and rather dark.  Still, it had a majestic view of the roof of the house behind and the mountainous forest of smoking chimneys beyond.

Maire Popkin turned to the girl, fixed her with a serious gaze and said, “Now, Cecily Grace, once you leave this house, you are never coming back again.  I want you to carefully consider which of your things you would be most sorry to lose.”

Cecily Grace looked at her solemnly, frowning slightly in thought.

“I want you to gather those things and put them on the bed here, so we will be sure not to leave them behind.”

The girl went to the far side of the bed, knelt beside it, and worked loose a floorboard.  She retrieved a lawn handkerchief which was dusty from being hidden away there.

“These are all but one of my most precious things.” She said, laying the bundle on the bed beside the carpet bag. “There’s a locket which I had from my real papa when I was a baby,  Mummy had given it me to wear on a ribbon, but when I showed it to Miss Grimsly, she said I was much too young to be entrusted with such valuable jewelry and that I must give it to her to keep for me.”  Though her voice was carefully neutral, her dark eyes were hard with the unfairness and sheer injustice of it.

“Tch. Worse and worse.”  Maire Popkin frowned thoughtfully.  She sat down upon the bed and motioned the child to her.  “Give me your hands, child.”   Maire Popkin gently folded the child’s hands one atop the other, palms pressed together, and cupped her slender white hands around them.  “Now, close your eyes and think hard about your locket.  Picture it in your thoughts as clearly as you can.  Remember what it looked like on the outside, all the little details, and what it looked like on the inside.”

The child frowned with the effort of it.

“Now.  Remember Mummy giving it to you.  Remember how it rightfully belongs to you and how much you want it back, and how much you will treasure it once you have it back again.”

The child’s features settled into grim determination.  Abruptly, her eyes popped open with astonishment. As Maire Popkin opened her hands, the child opened hers, and there resting between them was a gold oval keepsake locket strung on a blue silk ribbon.  With trembling fingers, the child opened the catch to reveal the entwined locks of hair it contained behind its little glass fronted frame.

“The dark hair is my real papa’s.  The golden hair is mama’s.  She cut the locks and braided them together the day papa left for the Crimea, so they would never be parted.”

Maire Popkin gently closed the locket and tied the ribbon around the child’s neck loosely enough that it did not touch her throat, but tightly enough that the locket could not be taken off over her head. Then she slipped the locket beneath the neck of the child’s plain little frock and carefully concealed the ribbon ends in back until nothing was visible.   She considered the child a moment, then she stood and turned to look about the room.

“You’ll want your hat and coat.  It’s quite chilly out.”  These were located.  The coat sleeves were almost an inch too short.  The hat ribbons were noticeably frayed.  Then Maire Popkin stepped to the center of the room.

“You’ll need something to wear until better can be gotten for you.”  She said, and made a broad, sweeping gesture with her hand as if snatching something from the air and tossing it into the open carpet bag.  “And we’d better have that trunk in the attic.”  She snatched something from the air above her head and tossed it into the carpet bag as well.  Then she walked to the bed, took the handkerchief full of treasures and placed it carefully within the carpet bag.  Slowly Maire Popkin studied the room, taking in the cheap hairbrush and comb upon the dresser, the mismatched basin and ewer, the old furniture, the rag rug.  “No dolly?”

“No,” the child replied mournfully.

Maire Popkin closed and latched the carpet bag, took it by the handle and headed back into the nursery, beckoning for the child to follow.  She quickly donned her own coat and hat, slid the handle of the carpet bag over her arm, hung the handle of the umbrella over her arm beside it, then held out her other hand to the child.

“Come, Cecily Grace.  It’s high time we were going.”

The child took her hand with a shy, wan smile and they set off, leaving the nursery door ajar behind them.  At the first floor landing, they encountered Constable Harker.   Maire Popkin drew a folded piece of paper from her coat pocket, shook it open, glanced at it to verify what it contained, then handed it to Constable Harker.  “We shall be at that address until further notice.”

Chief Inspector Philbeam was remonstrating with two of his subordinates and did not notice them leaving, nor did the gaggle of curious bystanders who had collected in the street before the house.

A short way up the street awaited a neat little brougham with a sleek bay between the shafts.  Leaning against it was a tall, slender man in a dark suit and a top hat.  He had a very prominent nose underscored by a cavalry mustache.  He looked much too young for the curls of his hair to be so liberally grizzled with grey. As they approached, he opened the carriage door and flipped down the steps, then gravely helped them inside.  He shook out the thick woolen lap robe to put over them and as he helped to twitch it into place, he leaned in close to the child and whispered, “It’s been almost seven weeks since Tabitha Mouser had her kittens.”  He put one long thin finger across his lips, winked, then closed the coach door.  Cecily Grace looked up at Maire Popikin, but she was busy looking at the ceiling, an angle that obscured from view the tiniest of smiles that flitted like a cloud shadow across her lips.   The horse did a little dance, the brougham began to move, and Maire Popkin put her arm about the child’s shoulders, pulling her close.

“Now then.  Once we get to where we’re going, there’ll be a nice hot bath waiting for you, fresh clean warm clothes, and then breakfast.  Do you prefer kippers or sausages?”

“I don’t know, Maire Popkin, I’ve never had kippers,”  the child said sadly.

“Well, then you must have some of both, so that you can have a proper taste of each, and give the matter due consideration before you make up your mind.  One ought not to jump to hasty conclusions.”

“No, Maire Popkin.”

After a long moment of silence, Maire Popkin remarked conversationally, “The coachman is my brother, you know.  His name is Diarmuid.  It’s an Irish name.  It means ‘all knees and elbows.’”   She gave a little sideways glance down at Cecily Grace, and her black eyes were twinkling with unshed laughter.  After a moment she said with perfect seriousness, “’Maire’ is an Irish name as well.  It means ‘practically perfect in every way.’”  With equal seriousness, she added, “’Cecily Grace,’ on the other hand, is Anglo-Saxon.  It means, “she who suffers a great loss in childhood, but who wins through to find a great deal of happiness and love not long thereafter.’”

Cecily Grace suspected that Maire Popkin had completely made up that last bit to try to make her feel better. Oddly enough, it had worked.  She leaned her head against Maire Popkin’s soft woolen coat tiredly.  She was coming to realize how very heavy grief is, and how very fatiguing it is to bear up under it, especially on an empty stomach.  They clopped and rumbled along for a bit with neither of them speaking.

“The wind shifted round before dawn this morning and is now in the south, which means it will be sunny and warm next week,” Maire Popkin said, apropos of nothing in particular.  “Once the weather settles and you are able to play out of doors, my brother might turn into a dog for you – if you ask him politely and say ‘please,’ that is – and then the two of you might go across to the park and play fetch in the sunshine.  We shall have to find some leather gloves for you to wear, of course.”  She thought for a moment, then added by way of explanation, “When Diarmuid is a dog, he must carry the ball in his mouth because of having paws instead of hands.  Unfortunately, the ball gets rather damp as a result. But if you have leather gloves on, you shalln’t mind, shall you?“

“No, Maire Popkin.”

“Good.”

Cecily Grace was almost positive that people couldn’t possibly turn into dogs, but felt it might not be a good idea to say so.  Then she remembered about the locket and began to be less sure that it was quite as impossible as she had first thought it to be.  From there, it was quite easy to fall to speculating how the coachman might go about it, and what sort of dog he might turn into.  She had begun to wonder if it was something he could always do, or if he had been taught to do like lessons, when the little brougham with the tall lean coachman at the reins turned a corner and was swallowed up in a swirl of early morning fog.

*******************************

NOTE:  Another glimpse into the world of The Kind first posted in 2018.  Maire Popkin and her younger brother Diarmuid are the children of Catha, Macca and Morien’s younger sister, Edainye.  Mary Poppins is a fictional echo of Dark Maire, and like her fictional shadow, she often deals with children to whom life has handed the proverbial short end of the stick.  Here we see her in 1880’s London coming to the rescue.  We only get a glimpse of Diarmuid, Maire’s Scottish deerhound brother, but he is one of my favorite characters among The Kind.

Dagnar and the Raven

He was a tall young man, was Dagnar Halfdan, sky-eyed and straw-haired, with wide shoulders he still hadn’t quite managed to grow all the way into and a long-legged loose-limbed stride. He’d been walking southward along the beach since sunup making for the Languyard ley that would lead him inland. He was also supposed to be on the lookout for a bird. “You’ll know it when you see it,” was all his mother would say.

He was almost upon the ley when he found the man lying face down in the sand with the waves licking at his boot soles. Slender, black haired, young by the look of him. It was not until he felt for a pulse that Dagnar knew he’d found his bird. He gathered the man up from the rough wet sand and carried him further up the beach into the shade, brushed the sand off his face and poured a little water into his mouth.

When the man came to himself, the first thing he said was, “I must go to the Queen of Death in the Black Wood,“ in a voice that was hardly more than a croak. He spoke in the old tongue, the one all the Mother’s Children shared, though his accent was a little odd. If Dagnar needed further confirmation that he’d found the bird he was supposed to be looking for, there it was.

“Oddly enough, I’m headed that way myself,” Dagnar replied in kind, grinning. “We’ve got quite a hike ahead of us, though.”

“Why am I not surprised?” After a long, tired pause, the man muttered. “Helásasára. I remember her name was Helásasára. Vast cloud of red hair. And that damn big snake, and the tower, and climbing. Time was all jumbled and fragmented. I remember that.” He paused a long moment frowning. “But I can’t remember anything else except that I must go to the Queen of Death in the Black Wood.“

“You’ve been in a place of power. You fairly reek of it.”

“Oh, Holy Mother. So much power it made my bones hum.” He shivered at the memory. “Is there … could I have another drink of that water, please?”

Dagnar handed over the water skin. “There’s a creek just over yonder if that’s not enough.”

The man took a careful swallow from it, wiped his mouth and took another. “I’m Drogo, by the way, a raven brother. Son of Zlota Baba, grandson of Matka Zhemya, great grandson of Bunica Singe, and you, I think, are a wolf brother.”

A nod of acknowledgement. “Dagnar, son of Hlifthrasa, grandson of Eir, great grandson of Hertha.”

The man paused in his drinking as something out to sea riveted his attention. “What happened to the sea stack? There was this little tooth of an island just there.” He pointed, and a brief spasm of panic slid across his face like a cloud shadow over the land.

Dagnar followed the finger’s direction with his clear-sky eyes, but there was nothing there but the grey-blue, breaker-ruffled sea. After a thoughtful pause, he said, carefully, “I’ve been traveling along the coast for a week now, and I’ve not seen anything out there but water.”

After another long, memory-haunted pause, Drogo shook his head, looked up, and said, “It could all have been a dream, . . . vision, . . . delusion, . . . I’ve been traveling for months. Not eating all that well or sleeping much. The weather has been pretty lousy, too. It’s bad when it’s so stormy this close to Samhain, . . . though it seems to have cleared up. I hope they got the harvest in all right.” He tried to keep the bedraggled locks of his hair off his face by tucking them behind his ear, but they would not stay.

“Beltane was three weeks ago.” A soft reply.

Drogo looked around then, at the verdant foliage rustling in the light breeze, the wildflowers nodding in the grass and his expression collapsed into bewilderment. He smiled weakly in the midst of his confusion. “I seem to have mislaid winter.”

“There’ve been times I’ve wished I could,” Dagnar allowed and quirked a smile. “Could you eat a little bread and cheese?”

“I could eat a whole cow, I think.” Drogo put the water skin to his lips and drank. When he took it away again, it was almost empty. “You said there was a stream nearby. I seem to be . . . gritty. . .”

He let Dagnar pull him to his feet, but once he was standing, he found he had somehow misplaced his equilibrium as well. He staggered into the big Dane more than once as he followed him through the trees to a brook wide enough that a long-legged man would need a running start to jump it. He struggled out of his clothes and crawled into the cold, clear water, flopping onto his back to let it flow over him. By the time he made it back up onto the bank, Dagnar had rinsed the sea and sand out of his clothes, wrung them out and dried them by the simple expedient of evaporating all the water with a flick of power.

“The Languyard is only about 20 yards further on. I thought I’d find a place along it where we can stop for the night. If you can survive til nightfall on the bread and cheese and smoked herring I’ve got in my bag, once we’ve made camp, I’ll see what I can do about fresh meat.” Dagnar said, grinning. His eye teeth were noticeably longer than the rest.

“I think I can manage 20 yards,“ Drogo replied.

They followed the stream inland, which led them deeper into the woods and then between two rocky outcrops. Further upstream Dagnar found a place where one bank had been deeply undercut and left an overhang where two men might sleep out of the weather with solid rock at their backs and with room enough for a fire between them and the water.

“Don’t stand on ceremony,” Dagnar told him, tossing his pack onto the ground. “Help yourself to food. It’s on top.”

Though his stomach growled at the mention of food, Drogo felt that fire was a higher priority. While Dagnar scavenged larger branches with his belt ax from a downed tree a little way back up the way they’d come, Drogo collected stones to build a fire ring, then built a small fire within it using what he could pick up off the ground. Only then did he open the leather pack and search out bread and cheese, and smoked herring, each wrapped in linen soaked in beeswax. He broke a hunk of bread off with his fingers. The cheese was soft enough that he could pare off a hunk with a blade of grass held taut between his hands.

He had to bend a piece of dried herring back and forth several times before he could tear it in two since he had no knife to cut it with. He had no sword nor belt ax, either, nor pack nor even a belt pouch. All he had were the clothes he stood in, and they were a good deal the worse for wear. His boot tops were in fairly good shape, but the boot soles were nearly worn through in places. He had no idea what kind of journey they faced, but he was not going to be walking far in these boots without new soles. Just as well he’d misplaced winter since he might be going barefoot.

After about an hour, Dagnar returned with an armful of fairly large branches cut to length and a green sapling, to find his companion staring absently into a small fire of sticks. He selected some of the smaller branches, positioned them, and laid two larger logs across them. Then, with his belt ax, he began to fashion a spit from the green sapling.

“My thought was to travel by night and hole up by day. You can ride in raven form upon my shoulders. If we don’t dilly dally, I feel sure I can get us to the lady Belisama’s hold in the forest of Bellême by Litha. I had thought to ask her to ask her mother if we might fly the ley at least part of the way, else we’ll not be getting to the Black Wood before next year.”

“That far away?” The thought of a year on the road was daunting and dispiriting.

“Aye. This is Armorica and the Black Wood is in the mountains east of the high Rhenus. Lurbira’s daughter Morana Gheata guards it. She is the lady we both seek.”

After a time, Drogo said, “Who rules the Romans these days? The last I heard it was Claudius Gothicus.”

Dagnar shot him a puzzled look. After an uncomfortably long silence, he replied quietly, “Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus died the year I was born.”

“What?” From within the hood of his night black hair, Drogo’s face became ghostly pale and he hissed through clenched teeth, “Don’t. It’s not the least bit funny.”

“Not a joke. I was robed 17 years ago.”

For a long, almost painful time the only sound was the whine and pop of burning pine sap.

“I’ve mislaid more than a season, haven’t I.”

“Looks that way.” None of them was robed until their four hundredth year, after they had been taught, tested and proved.

Drogo dropped his head into his hands, clutched his hair tightly as if his head might roll away. A gasping sigh twisted into a sob, and suddenly there were more sobs behind it, till he could hardly breath for them jostling and shoving their way out. Dagnar unrolled his cloak and wrapped him in it and, to give Drogo time to find himself again, he went to the stream and refilled the water skin, and took a devious and circuitous route back to the fireside, accumulating an armful of deadfall in the process.

Into a silence punctuated by the snap and pop of dead branches being broken into fire lengths, Dagnar said, “I’ve heard tell of places out of time. Places where time runs differently than it does out here in the world. You can go, stay a day, come back and it’s years later, or years earlier.”

“Places out of time,” Drogo repeated hoarsely.

“My Greatmother Hertha is said to have one somewhere in the Lofoten islands off the northwest coast of Norland, a place where five leys cross. I’ve heard tell of others scattered here and yon, always at a major crossing point, always out at sea.“

“I think I have been . . . I don’t know how long . . . in such a place.”

“You are back in the world now, and we have a common destination, so you will not be traveling alone.” Though Dagnar was a happy soul by nature, his cheerfulness was a trifle forced just at that moment.

“For that I am very grateful.” Said with a softness that made Dagnar smile.

“And those who travel with me do not go hungry, that I can promise you,“ Dagnar grinned.

“No, I think not.” Drogo smiled.

True to his word, shortly after nightfall, the white wolf ran down a young roebuck and they roasted strips of its meat over the fire. It was hot and juicy and filling. They cooked a lot more of it than either of them could eat at a sitting so they would have venison for days without the need for fire building.

“Roll up in my cloak and sleep your supper off, little brother. You’ve had a long and busy day.”

That made Drogo smile again. He did as he was instructed, and within four breaths he was deeply asleep. Where Dagnar had been sitting, there was now a very large white wolf thoughtfully gnawing on one of the roebuck’s long bones, one ear cocked toward the night.

 

********************************************************************************

NOTE:  This tail end of a much longer story was first posted in 2017.  Here we learn a little bit about Drogo when he is much younger, a long time before he was Aoife’s. We also meet Dagnar, one of the descendants of Hertha who is the matriarch of Scandinavia, just as Danu is the matriarch of the British Isles, and Maia is the matriarch of the eastern Mediterranean.  Helásasára is the mother of Hertha, Danu, and the grandmother of Maia, very old, very powerful, who lives on a tiny island out of time off the coast of Brittany that was the kernal around which coalesced the legend of Ys.

The Crystal Stars

“Wake.”

Gianni passed from deep, dreamless sleep to wakefulness in the twinkling of a star. The darkness was as still, as deep, and as silent as stone.

“Come.”

Without thought, he rolled out of the cocoon of warmth within the heavy woolen covers, off the thick felt pallet where he slept, and onto the cold stone floor.  He put out his hand, found his robe and shrugged its fleecy softness over his bare skin.  Through total darkness, he walked barefoot across the ancient stone floor in the direction from which the call had come.

The chamber in the students’ hall at Cho Oyo where he had been living for the past eight and a half years was cut from the living stone of the mountain.  It was a simple, windowless cube 9 feet on a side.  If he took more than two paces in the direction he was walking, he knew he would reach the chamber wall, but he trusted and without pausing, he took a third step. What should have been cold, hard, unyielding stone was nothing more than cool mist.  He took another step, and another, through cool, vaporous, utter darkness that bore the scent of cold, rain-wet stone.  He was aware of the lofty wool of his robe, the mantle of his hair falling into ringlets over his shoulders and down his back, the cold, damp stone beneath his bare feet, the misty air heavy with the smell of rain on raw stone.

As he walked, the darkness relented slightly and a pinpoint of light appeared in the distance.  It grew larger as he approached it until it became a glowing orb of moon-white light lying on a floor of deep grey slate.  Beside it sat an ancient woman in a brocade robe of midnight blue chased with silver embroidery along the closure flap and around the collar and cuffs of the full sleeves.  Her right foot was up on the seat beside her, and her outstretched arm rested on her knee.   Her neck was encircled by a succession of longer and longer necklaces strung with large beads of turquoise, amber, and silver.  On her wrists she wore large silver cuff bracelets studded with turquoise.   Heavy pendant earrings set with turquoise and golden lumps of amber hung from the long lobes of her ears.  She was tiny, elfin, and her wispy, pearl-grey hair was bound up into a topknot.  The passage of countless smiles had left deep ruts around her mouth and the corners of her bird bright eyes were crinkled with laugh lines.

He had never seen her before, nor had he any idea who she might be.  Still, he bowed to her respectfully, and as he did so, he noted that on the floor in front of her was a large brass bowl full of pure white sand.

“They tell me you sing very sweetly,” she murmured, and unseen spaces soaked up the soft sound of her voice.  “Will you sing for me?”

He bowed in assent.  “What shall I sing?”

“Your favorite song.”

That made him smile. A breath in and out to prepare the chest, a second breath to refill it, and then he began to sing a song first sung in the dark caves of earth deep in the womb of time.  He had a clear, light tenor, with a tone as pure as an organ pipe, and he had been trained in the art of singing in vast, stone spaces.  So attuned was his ear that he remembered the sound of his own voice when he had spoken just now and what the space around him had done to it and, without thinking, had modulated his singing to fit that space.  He launched each ancient phrase from his throat and let it soar out into the empty, stone-shaped darkness.  He has loved the song since his mother first sang it to him as a babe in her arms, this queen of songs, with its odd melodic turns, and arcane intervals of pitch, this hymn to the Mother who is the Gateway through which the soul comes into the world. He sang it once, for the joy of singing it, a second time for the joy of hearing the sound of it, and one time more for the thousands of threads of memory it set thrumming in his heart.

“Ah, I thank you for giving me the pleasure of hearing you sing,” her soft voice whispered.  “It is my favorite song, too.”

“Thank you for giving me the pleasure of singing it for you,” he replied, and meant it.

He was convinced now they were in some sort of large stone chamber or cavern within the mountain itself  However, Cho Oyo was not only a school and a temple, but also a place of retreat.  He had heard that the old ones came here when the years of the world began to weigh too heavily upon them.  Perhaps she was such a one.

The soft sssss of scales on stone, shadows shifted, and he realized that the glowing orb had begun to roll slowly away.  A large claw arrested it. That was when he realized what she was sitting on was alive.  And scaled.  A cold chill puffed through him. When he looked back up at her, the corner of her mouth was trying to wriggle free and curl upward.

“Have you learned to form crystal yet?” She asked then, glancing down at the bowl of sand on the floor between them.

“Yes.”

“Will you make me a crystal chime?”

“Yes.”

He knelt to do so.  The bowl was heavy with sand, and the metal was cold between his hands.   He placed it before him and slipped his hands up his sleeves, settled himself, brushed a tendril of power across the sand, found a single grain and melted it.  Carefully, he selected another grain and another.  With careful brushes of power, he grew the droplet of molten quartz a few grains at a time.  When he had enough, he began to modulate the heat to let the crystalline lattice  form and a shard of crystal began to take shape.  The quartz in the sand was not completely pure and he had to pay close attention to snatch away the impurities — bits of iron and crumbs of manganese — lest they warp the lattice he was building. It was as much an exercise of concentration as it was an exercise in the skillful manipulation of power.

It took him well over a hour to form a sliver of carefully faceted crystal about five inches long, but when he finally let it grow cool enough to handle, he was pleased with its shape.  He pierced the end of it, pulled a hair from the back of his head, and threaded it through the hole. Holding it by the hair, he let it dangle and pinged it and discovered it to be slightly off pitch.  Frowning, he shaved a microlayer of crystal from each facet and pinged it again.  It took him several adjustments to get the tone just right, but when he was done, it pinged a  perfect G four octaves above middle C.

He pushed the bowl away, rose to his feet, and presented the crystal to her.   She picked it up by the hair he had strung it on, and held it dangling before her as she studied it intently. The light from the glowing globe on the floor speckled her with rainbows.

Quite abruptly, she tossed the crystal up, caught it in her hand and flung it toward the ceiling.  He followed it with his eyes as it arched up into the darkness and saw, to his surprise, the upper darkness was perforated by myriads of twinkling pinpoints of light.

“A worthy addition to my collection,” she said then.  A single crystal pinged a high G into the silence.  A moment later, a shimmer of crystalline pings swept down from the ceiling,  Not stars, then, but hanging crystals, more than a thousand of them, gently chiming in the breath of a breeze that sighed through the vast, empty darkness.  The random beauty of the sound  made him laugh with wonder and delight.

Cho Oyo is the only place on dry land where nine leys come together.  Their children have come here to be taught for millennia and Tsong Xap has taught more than a thousand of them.

The heavy wooden sanctuary door groaned on its hinges as the old monk pushed it open. Before the Goddess’ great stone presence, is a nonagon 27 feet across demarcated by iron bars set flush into the living rock of the floor and aligned so that each of its nine corners marks a ley.  At its center is inset a nine pointed star of iron at the spot where they converge.  This morning there was someone standing atop the star, looking up at the ceiling and laughing quietly.  Tsong Xap recognized the torrent of dark mahogany curls even before he was close enough to see the face it mantled.

Giannangelo di Giacomo Buonarotto Simoni was the name this man child had been cumbered with.  His face was famous because another angel stole it and put it on a statue, and in the contrariness of genius, the expression that this other angel gave it was not the one of wonder and delight that softened it now, but the grim determination of a man with a rock in his hand, who knows he can hit whatever he aims for, and has just bet his life on it.

The next instant, Gianni realized he was not where he was an eye-blink ago.  Inexplicably, he was now in the sanctuary, and his teacher was standing in front of him. “I think I was dreaming,” he murmured, blushing.

The old monk suppressed a smile with some difficulty.  This was not the first time one of his students had awakened to find they were not where they were when they went to sleep.  Cho Oyo was an old, old place rooted deep into the earth, a place of vast power, a place where the line between dream and reality had a tendency to become hazy.

As they stood there facing one another, the great World Bell that hung at the heart of the temple tolled its single sunrise note. The sound of it sailed out across the air like ripples across a pond.  When the surface of the world was still once again, Tsong Xap said quietly, “Breakfast with me on the terrace and tell me of your dream.”

 

*************************************************************

NOTE:  Yet another glimpse into the world of The Kind, first posted in 2016.  Gianni is the character who first led me into their world.  But that’s another story.  This story takes place in the 1400’s, long before New York is even a place.  Gianni is a young man not yet 400 years old, and we find him at the school high in the Himalayas where The Kind send their children to be taught the ways of power.  The old monk Tsong Xap is one of the oldest of The Kind, and remembers when the world was covered with ice.   Surely somebody modeled for Michelangelo when he was sculpting the David.  I think it was a young man named Giannangelo who lived with his mother Livia in Florence at the turn of the 16th century.

By The Light of a Torch Song

 

It was a little hole-in-the-wall joint tucked away in an unfashionable part of the East Village. Dexter stumbled upon it by chance one evening. The entrance was down in a basement well with the door set at a right angle to the street. He must have walked right by it a hundred times and never noticed it. The only inkling of its existence was a small squiggle of a sign set above the door that said “Cobalt” in cobalt blue neon which would intermittently flicker and go off, stay off for a while, flicker and come back on again. That’s how he’d come to notice it. The sign had been off, and flickered back on just as he was walking up the sidewalk toward it. Curiosity had gotten the better of him and he’d gone down to investigate.

There wasn’t much to the place. Solid wood door with a little sliding “speakeasy” window and a squeaky hinge that let onto about 8 feet of landing, left turn and down about fifteen concrete steps lit by bare bulbs, left turn again, through a short hallway and out into a low-ceilinged, cavern-like room with a bare concrete floor. There was about ten feet of bar on the end by the stairs, a stage down at the other end just big enough for drums, upright piano, and a couple of chairs for the side men du jour, and in between a collection of maybe fifteen cocktail tables surrounded by an assortment of arm chairs, love seats, and ottomans, all standard Salvation Army issue. Indirect fluorescent lighting washed down the black-painted plaster walls, and each of the four square concrete pillars had a couple of those movie theater floor-directed lights placed knee-high around it.

That first night, he’d found an out of the way corner, and ordered a Coors Light. He’d had a particularly crappy day at work and as he sat listening to the surprisingly eclectic mix of music on the surprisingly good sound system, the tension of the day had just drained out of him like water out of a bathtub. It was a slow night, and one of the waitresses, Sachi, had sat down and talked to him for a while. The next thing he knew, Dexter was telling her all about his dead-end job and how much he hated it, and the assholes he worked for and with, and how he never seemed to fit in anywhere and how he always felt like a third wheel. She’d seemed interested and sympathetic but, of course, she was just being nice to the customer.

Still, he found himself going back again and after he’d been a couple more times, he found out that they opened at 6:00 and that you could bring food in and eat it there if you didn’t make a mess and bussed up after yourself. That’s when he started coming straight after work. He’d pick up some takeout on the way, and then just sit quietly and listen to the music for the rest of the night, and drink a couple beers.

Sometimes they had live music, but it was never advertised and didn’t seem to be scheduled. Just whoever showed up and wanted to play. They played what Dexter assumed was jazz. Most of it he had never heard before, but he decided he liked it. One night it would be piano and string bass and trumpet, and another night, it was drums, electric guitar and flute, and then drums and piano and string bass. But then last Tuesday, the bartender and one of the men customers put an armchair up on stage and about an hour later, this woman wandered in, slender, with dark hair in a single braid all the way down her back, and she was carrying a large cloth bag. She got up on the stage, sat down in the arm chair, pulled out this thing she was knitting and sat there and knitted and sang, one song after another, just her singing, for almost two straight hours, in English once or twice, but mostly in what Sachi told him later was Gaelic, and it was the most incredibly beautiful singing he had ever heard.

Today, he’d stopped by Won Hong Lu’s and picked up some shrimp fried rice and a couple of egg rolls. He had begun to hate the fact that he had to leave at midnight — turn into a pumpkin, he’d joked — because he had to go to work the next day. But it was Friday, finally, and he was determined to stay there until they closed. Sachi brought him a Harp Lager. He had never drunk anything but American beer until he started coming there. Then one night Sachi had brought him a Harp. She said the bartender had opened one too many, and he could have it on the house. It had been a revelation.

He’d been there about an hour when a guy went up on stage and started playing piano. A while later, the black bassist came in schelpping his string bass, unpacked it and began to play along with the piano player. He had seen both of them before and smiled at the thought of listening to them again. About ten minutes later a guy came in lugging drum cases and began to set up a snare, high hat, and bass drum, then unpacked some brushes. Kia the other waitress brought them all up bottles of something to drink. Dexter thought he enjoyed watching them play as much as he enjoyed listening to them. There was an easy rapport between them. They played comfortably together. The pianist would start a song and within a bar or two the others would have joined in.

The place was beginning to fill up, soon there were no empty tables and not much longer after that, the only empty chairs were the other armchair, the love seat, and the ottoman at Dexter’s table. Sachi came over and asked if he would mind if some people sat at the table with him. He had already begun to feel guilty for taking up a whole table by himself and readily agreed.

The couple that took the love seat were older – maybe late 30’s, early 40’s, both on the short side, slender. He had a ponytail of dark hair, and her hair was loose and long, almost invisible in the dim light against her dark clothing. The man introduced himself as Bron and his lady as Catha. He was obviously British by his accent. The chair was taken by a tall, thin, teen-aged boy with long dark hair, a pierced ring around the middle of his lower lip and a long sleeved black teeshirt that had “If you’re really a Goth, where were you when we sacked Rome?” in white gothic script on the front. He was introduced as, “My nephew Drogo.” But it was the girl who took the ottoman that captured his entire attention. She was wearing a long black crushed velvet dress with fitted sleeves. She had a disheveled scribble of dark hair that hung in strands and locks about her face, and she wore blood red lipstick, which along with her dark hair, only made her pale skin look all the more pale. Drogo proceeded to introduce her as “My girlfriend, Maida.” Drogo had a thick middle European accent.

They were settling into their seats when Sachi brought their drinks, what looked like Guinness draft, except in front of Maida, she set a full, unopened bottle of Old Crow whiskey with the seal unbroken. Apparently, it was some kind of inside joke because they all laughed. “That should last you at least til midnight,” Bron said with a chuckle. She promptly opened it and took quite a slug straight from the bottle. Then, grabbing the bottle by the neck, she stood and made her way to the stage, acquiring a low stool en route. After kissing the piano player on the cheek (he didn’t miss a note of the complicated riff he happened to be playing at the time), kissing the bass player on the cheek, and waving at the drummer, she settled on her stool and began to sing.

She had a low, sultry voice slightly frayed at the edges, and she seemed to specialize in love songs. Dexter recognized some of them, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and “As Time Goes By” and a couple of other tunes were familiar from some of the old B&W movies he’d seen on Turner Classics channel. Thankfully, the others at the table were there to listen and didn’t feel it necessary to engage him in conversation, because he was spellbound.

It was another of those magical musical nights, like that time the lady had sung in Gaelic. About four or five songs in, it occurred to him that he could open a memo page on his iPhone and thumb out a line of lyric so he could find out more about the song later. But once he had, he would surrender to the song and just let it wash over him. The time slipped by in a happy haze and then suddenly it was last call, and with a chuckle, Maida started singing a song that had the refrain, “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and that made the people she’d come with laugh aloud.

Dexter meant to go up to her, Maida, and tell her how much he liked her singing but as she finished her song, the couple and the boy got up to go, along with half the people in the place, and somehow he lost them and her in the crowd of people headed toward the stairs that led back up to the street. He caught a glimpse of them, but then a short, blond haired man and his tall Eurasian lady slipped in front of him. Dexter had seen them at Cobalt on several occasions. They were speaking French.

When he finally made it up the stairs and out into the street, he looked around for the singer and her friends, but didn’t see them. They’d probably caught a taxi. He stood a long moment in frustrated disappointment. Then with a philosophical sigh, he set off up the street toward the subway entrance. At the corner, a raucous caw called his attention to the street signs bolted to the street light pole. Four black birds that look like crows were perched there. As he stood there watching them, they launched themselves into flight and disappeared into the darkness. A single black feather floated down into the light. He held out his hand and caught it. A long moment he looked at its glistening blackness lying in his palm, then he carefully put it into his inside coat pocket, zipped his coat all the way up and started off toward the subway.

 

****************************************************************

NOTE:  Another glimpse into the world of The Kind first posted in 2016, this time set in present day New York, in a little Greenwich Village bar called Cobalt.  Drogo is not actually Catha’s nephew although they are very distantly related.  He is from a European branch of The Kind, but Maida is one of Drogo’s cousins whom he reckons by the dozens, of assorted degrees and various removes. Some of The Kind came to the Americas with the First Nations, others immigrated from Europe with the Europeans.  Cobalt is a little club owned and operated by some of The Kind who immigrated to New York around the time the Dutch “acquired” an island called Manhattan.   I liked Dexter, renamed him Andrew, and let Love find him in this little bar called Cobalt.  The lady who knitted and sang in Gaelic is Fionnuala, daughter of Catha’s older sister Cliodna, whose penchant for turning into a seal makes her a selkie. The “short, blond haired man and his tall Eurasian lady” is an Easter egg from some long ago fanfic based on the original “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” TV series in which Illya found love.

All Sorted

 

The bleary sky had been meditating all morning on whether it would snow or not; in the meantime, Edinburgh was up to its knees in damp, muzzy air that was piercingly cold and without a breath of wind. Jehanne sat beside her mother on the settee before the fire and was content to be inside.

The two heads bent over their work were both crowned with the same, almost colorless blonde hair, pulled severely up into buns atop their heads, and crowned with a large braided coronet. The paleness of their hair and skin made stark contrast with their high-necked, black wool dresses with wrist-length sleeves, and their black knitted fingerless gloves.

It was the middle of the afternoon but, owing to the combination of the northern latitude and the three and four storey buildings on either side of the narrow street, little light came in through the narrow casement window. The only other source of light in the small, oak paneled sitting room was the coal fire burning in the grate. Despite the gloom, mother and daughter worked steadily at their knitting. Jehanne’s mother, whose given name was Aoife, glanced up at the ormolu clock on the mantle, below the large gilt-framed mirror.

“You’d best start tea, Ottar,” she said, “They’ll be chilled from their flight.”

The large black dog lying at their feet, almost indistinguishable against the dark blue Turkey carpet, obediently rose to its feet and padded out of the room. The faint click of its claws on the wooden floor marked it’s passage down the hall.

“I hope everything went as planned,” Jehanne said after a while. She was the image of her mother, from her narrow, high-boned face to her long, slender fingers.

“An iffy thing making the switch, but I’ve no doubt they’ll pull it off,” her mother replied.

They knitted in silence for another moment. Then Jehanne said, “One worries that the boy will take to drink like his father.”

“Ah, but that drunken lout is not his father.” Aoife rummaged with one hand into the work bag on the settle beside her, found her needle case, extracted her darning needle and began to work the tail end of the yarn into the top of the sock cuff.

“Don’t tell me it’s the Reverend McElvoy’s!” Jehanne gasped.

“I can’t, because it isn’t. T’was his younger brother, who had more than one tumble with the upstairs maid last summer.”

“Oh, there’s a tangle. The father drowned at sea, the mother beat to death by her drunken husband. And the preacher’s poor wife brought to child bed three times and not a liveborne babe to show for it.” Jehanne shook her head sadly.

“And your Aunty Macca sitting in her attic half the morning waiting for babes to materialize and make sure the live one doesn’t get dropped.” Aoife smiled at the thought. “Still, all in a good cause.”

Footsteps on the stair announced the arrival of a tall man in his early fifties, whose jet black hair was laced with grey at the temples. His face was square-jawed and long, with deep-set eyes of a hazel so light as to verge on amber.

“Tea is ready ma’m.”

“Thank you, Ottar.”

He bowed slightly as he crossed the room to the window. There he stood watching out it for several long moments before he spotted two ravens with a hooded crow between them gliding low over the rooftop of the building opposite and headed straight for the window. He opened the casement, stood back to allow them entry, then quickly closed and latched the window behind them and drew the draperies over it. The three birds hovered in midair for several seconds, blurred, and then one by one resolved into an older black haired man in a black frock coat and black woolen waistcoat, a slender older woman with grey-laced black hair wearing a plain black woolen dress with a heavy grey woolen shawl draped over her head, and a young black haired man dressed as a clergyman.

“It’s snowing finally in Aberdour and coming this way,” the older woman said, resettling her shawl about her shoulders and hugging it around her. The older man snapped his fingers and the gas jets lighted, throwing pools of glowing white light into the room.

“It was cruel cold over the Firth,” the young clergyman allowed. He shot his cuffs and straightened his coat collar.

“Drogo, if you and Mr. Black will bring the other settee to the fireside, the tea is ready,” Ottar said quietly.

“There is room here on the settle for you by the fire, grandmamá,” Jehanne said, as both mother and daughter shifted to make space.

“Yes, Lady Catha, draw you near the fire and warm you,” Mr. Black agreed, as he turned to help the young clergyman carry the settle from the far wall to the fireside. In the meantime, Ottar had produced a heavily laden butler’s table from thin air and set it in front of the ladies. He then went to a small cabinet on the wall beside the door, where he got out a silver tray bearing a cut-glass decanter and three hand-blown crystal glasses. He carefully poured three fingers’ worth of the decanter’s dark amber contents into each glass. He set the decanter aside and brought the tray to offer it to Lady Catha, Drogo and Mr. Black.

If one ignored the prominence of Lady Catha’s nose and the confusion of the differences in coloration, there was a notable resemblance between mother, daughter and granddaughter about the cheekbones and the shape of the eyes, though Lady Catha’s eyes were black and Jehanne’s were a clear, cold blue like her mother’s. Lady Catha quickly tossed the glass’s contents down in one gulp, set it back on the tray. Her male companions did the same, though Drogo had to suppress a coughing spasm afterward.

“Ah, I feel better, now,” Lady Catha said, with a sigh and a smile. She took the tea her daughter handed to her.

“A stiff snort of good Scots whiskey’ll take the chill right off you,” Mr. Black agreed, although his voice was slightly hoarse.

“Oh,” gasped Drogo wiping at the corner of his eye, “It’ll take your mind off it, anyway.”

Having set the tray of glasses and the decanter back into the cabinet, Ottar inquired gravely, “Will there be anything else, ma’m?”

“No, I think this will do quite nicely. Thank you, Ottar.” Lady Catha interposed before her daughter could reply.

Ottar inclined his tall body in a slight bow, blurred and became a large black dog. The dog walked quietly to the end of the settee where his mistress sat, turned in a circle, and settled to the rug.

“So, did everything go well?” Jehanne inquired, handing cups of tea across to the two men.

“Just barely. Thank goodness the McElvoy babe was born upside down. It was another girl. Dead at least a day,” Lady Catha said between sips of tea. “I was able to get a towel round it before that silly maidservant of hers got a good look at it. A bit tricky to tie off the cord and cut it without revealing the naked truth, so to speak.”

“Knolly’s husband had been drinking all night, devil take him,” Mr. Black half growled. “I had to clock him good to get him off her. Vicious brute. I won’t half mind watching that one swing.”

Drogo swallowed a sip of tea and added, “Your Aunty Macca nearly scared the life out of me grabbing my hand when I put the dead girl babe through. The boy babe was all slippery with blood and I almost dropped it. It was howling when I brought it out.”

“There was blood everywhere,” Mr. Black footnoted grimly. “The bastard had knocked her down and kicked her before I could get to him. I had to help things along a good little bit. T’was almost all I could do to keep her from bleeding to death before she delivered. Poor woman. Even if I could have stopped the bleeding, she wouldn’t have lasted the night. ” He shuddered at the memory. “I’m glad it’s all over.”

“Amen to that,” Drogo said softly. “Still her babe’s alive and will have a loving home.”

“There’s that,” Mr. Black agreed, frowning. He set his teacup aside and took the plate of sandwiches Aoife handed him. “I expect I’ll have to go and testify at the assizes, but that’s not til spring.”

Drogo set his teacup down, reached for the fire iron and poked up the fire. “Such a tiny thing for the future to turn on.”

“The future always turns on tiny things,” Lady Catha replied. “This time we got to save a babe and give it two loving parents. That’s three lives better for this morning’s work. There was no future we could see where Knollys lived beyond this day, and don’t think we didn’t look.” Shaking her head sadly, she took the plate of sandwiches Jehanne handed her. “I must say, daughter, your dog sets a lovely tea.”

“Oh, he’s a good dog,” Aoife allowed, smiling. The dog beside her thumped its large tail against the carpet three times. He was, in point of fact, a wolf masquerading as a dog, but he let it pass without comment.

The conversation lapsed into silence as the five of them made short work of the large plate of cold beef sandwiches and the plate of jam tarts. In the silence of their eating, sleet began to rattle against the windows. Aoife had just refilled her mother’s cup and handed it to her when a woman’s face appeared on the surface of the tea within it.

“Everything all right, Catha dear?” said the face in the teacup.

“Yes, thank you, sister. You’ll be interested to know that the worthy reverend is over the moon now he’s got a son. He wants to name him ‘Patrick’ after his papa and ‘Alfred’ after his poor drowned brother.” Lady Catha replied.

“There’s irony for you,” Mr. Black murmured.

“Well, I must dash, sweetie. There’s the Widow Campbell coming up the path for cheeses. I don’t think I’ll mention I spent the morning in the attic sorting babies.” The face in the teacup said wrily. The image faded and disappeared.

 

********************************************************************

NOTE:  Another glimpse into the world of The Kind which was first posted in 2016, this time in 1880’s Scotland.  Catha has lived in Edinburgh with her familiar, Mr. Black since there was nothing there but her Celtic round house.  Here we meet Catha’s daughter Aoife, who was born well before the Romans came to Britain, and Aoife’s daughter Jehanne, who was born in Northumberland in 1162.   We meet Aoife’s two companions, Drogo, and Ottar.  We get a brief glimpse of Macca in a teacup.  Small changes can have far-reaching consequences, but the trick is to know what changes to make, and where and when to make them.

Tea For Three

27 October, 1937 was rainy and cold.  Clivenden had taken refuge from the weather in a tearoom off Charing Cross Road.  He had finished the list of errands Smithers had handed him but was unwilling to return to the office just yet.

They were both attractive women in a patrician sort of way.  The hostess had shown them to the table behind him.  Neither was in the first blush of youth, but neither looked to be beyond thirty, either, Clivenden though.  He had heard them tell the hostess they were waiting for their sister and, watching them surreptitiously by way of their reflection in the tearoom window, he could see the resemblance between them.

Both had dark copper hair shot through with red gold highlights, and quite a lot of it if the thick coronet of braid that crowned their heads was home grown and not a hair piece.  They both had long oval faces, high cheekbones, brows arching high over cat-tilted eyes, and dimple bracketed mouths.

He was not normally an eavesdropper, but as the hostess had led them past him, the one now sitting on his right in the reflection had stopped beside his table long enough that he had looked up at her, and had found her practically staring at him with a pair of the greenest eyes he had ever seen.  Strange, fey eyes. Then, with a slight smile, she had continued on her way, leaving him startled and unsettled.

They were wearing matching black wool suits with mandarin collars, but the green eyed one who had all but accosted him had a silver pin in the shape of a rearing horse on her right shoulder.  The other had a silver pin in the shape of an acorn and oak leaf in the same location.

Acorn Pin told the waitress, “Just bring us a pot and three cups.  We’ll order after our sister gets here.,” Then, after the waitress had left, she said to her sister, “What was that about?” She nodded in Clivenden’s direction.

“I’ll remember why in a minute,” Green Eyes replied, fished some knitting out of her handbag and began to knit.   She was murmuring something to herself as she worked the needles.

“Ah.” Her sister gazed idly out into the tearoom.  It had started to rain again, a slow, steady, relentless rain. The waitress quickly returned with their pot of tea and three cups and saucers.  Acorn Pin poured first into her sister’s cup and then into her own.  Green Eyes took a sip from her cup and made a face.

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Acorn Pin replied, making a graceful waving gesture with her hand over both cups and the pot.  “Is Mother serious about having it at Salsbury?”

Green Eyes took another sip, nodded and smiled. “Where else?  We’ve got to strengthen the South, and that is the southern nexis.  We’re going to lose so much of London as it is, and there doesn’t seem to be a way we can keep from losing St. Michael’s in Coventry.  All those beautiful windows.”  She frowned. “I’m going to hate the next ten years quite thoroughly.”

“Nasty, hateful man,” Acorn Pin curled her lip in disgust. She set her handbag in her lap, opened it and took out her own knitting. “Ridiculous little square mustache.”

Green Eyes shook her head.  “They always seem to have the most unbelievable talent for self delusion.  Remember Napoleon and his little comb over.”

“Oh, please.  It was all I could do to keep a straight face around the wretched little man.”  They knitted in silence a while.

Clivenden’s attention was caught by a woman in a black wool suit with a mandarin collar sprinting across the street between the passing cars, heading straight for the door of the tearoom. “This will be the sister they’re waiting for,” he thought.  Even though this one slipped loose her white silk scarf to reveal jet black hair, it was done in the same up-swept manner crowned with a braid. She had a circular silver pin on her right shoulder with the silhouette of a raven cut out of the edge of it.  She spoke with the hostess and pointed to where her sisters sat, but as she passed his table, she took a step back and paused to take a good look at him, shot him the tiniest smile, then continued on to her table.  Clivenden was startled to note that her eyes were as black as her hair.

As Black Hair settled into her chair, she looked over at Green Eyes.  They both said, “Daphne” at the same time and nodded as though that settled something.  The mention of the name made him start.  Were they acquaintances of Daphne’s who had seen him with her somewhere?  How could they know he was here trying to talk himself out of his silly infatuation with Daphne and work up the nerve to propose to Eleanor?

But Black Hair was saying, “Sorry I was late.  Cliodna walked in just as I was heading out the door.”

“Cakes now?” Acorn Pin asked.

Black Hair shook her head.  “We haven’t time.  The train to Salsbury leaves in about 45 minutes. Mr. Black is arranging taxis.”

Acorn Pin divided the remainder of the pot between their cups and they sipped in silence a moment.  Then knitting was put away and silver coins were counted out of change purses and stacked into two neat little stacks.

Then with a perfectly straight face, Acorn Pin asked, “When shall we three meet again?  In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

To which Black Hair, with an equally straight face replied,  “When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.”

And Green Eyes added,  “That will be ere the set of sun.”

They looked at each other, then broke out laughing.

“I don’t care how educated he was.  James Stuart was a grubby, smelly little man,” muttered Green Eyes making a face.

Then they gathered their things up and made ready to depart.  The waitress came up then, saw the twin piles of silver coinage, and murmured a delighted “thank you.”

As they passed Clivenden’s table, they stopped and Black Hair and Green Eyes turned to face him.  “Do yourself a favor.  Forget Eleanor and marry Daphne.” Black Hair counseled him seriously.

“But only if you want a long happy marriage and children,” Green Eyes added, equally seriously.

“There’s the taxis,”  Acorn Pin interjected. They paused only long enough to smile sweetly at him, then turned and trooped out the door where three taxis had pulled up in front of the tearoom.

Thunderstruck, Clivenden watched in astonishment as each got into one of the three taxis which promptly pulled into traffic and sped away.

 

********************************************************************

NOTE:  This is another artifact from the world of The Kind first posted in 2016.  Here we see all three of the triplets in action.  Black Hair is Catha, who we first met in Vivaldi and Memories, Green Eyes is Macca, and Acorn Pin is Morien.  World War II is looming and there is no dodging it, but they do the best they can to find the path through the forest of possibilities that leads to the best long-term outcome.

Wrestling the Angel

The top edge of the sun would just be visible above the horizon, but the fog is too close in and thick to see it, even more impenetrable now that daylight is diffusing through it. The barge comes belching out of the fog, a heavy breathing behemoth, chuffing steam. Its lantern eyes are beady and baleful athwart its stubby prow, glimmering across the leaden water. The underside of the bridge ricochets the noise back down onto the water and the waves of its passage shlap against the stone pilings. It will growl off downriver soon enough, and quiet will descend again, but the spell of the fog has already been broken.

The world is waking up. There are things that need doing and another day to be gotten through, and standing here with his hands in his pockets staring at the river isn’t getting them done. He’d left the house at ridiculous o’clock in the morning when he should have been sleeping but couldn’t, with the idea that a walk would settle his mind and help him think things through. He’d stepped out the front door into a darkness fur-lined with fog that snuffed out the sound of his footsteps on the stone walkway. He’d felt furtive and secluded, like he was walking through some cool, damp cave. He hadn’t meant to walk as far as the bridge, but he’d only been able to see six or seven feet ahead of him, and he hadn’t thought he’d been walking all that long when the bridge’s huge irrefutable reality had suddenly materialized in front of him. Wasn’t that a perfect metaphor for life, he thinks, hmphing at the irony of it. You can’t ever see all that far ahead, can you? But you keep on going, until suddenly, there’s this big hulking something lying in your path and you’ve got to figure out how to get past it. Abruptly, he realizes that he’s been standing here for hours and that he is chilled to the bone. The morning breath of the river is fetid with the smell of machine oil and rotted vegetation.

Elizabeth will likely have woken up by now and discovered she is alone in bed. She would have searched for him and determined he is not elsewhere in the house. Had he known he would be gone so long, he would have left a note. He didn’t like to give her cause for concern. How like the fog she is, he thinks, muted and quiet. He’d gone out with other women, glittering, beautiful, all of them appropriate choices, but he found them too disruptive. They sought to preempt his life, and their presence quickly began to chaff and irritate, like sand in one’s shoe. When had he met Elizabeth? He couldn’t quite recall the actual circumstances. She had just been there one day, dark haired, quiet, with a cat-like self-possession. She was three years his elder. Her people were not well off but they, like she, lived wisely and with an elegant simplicity. He hadn’t been in love with her nor, he though, she with him when they’d married quietly at a registry office. His mother had been quite put out with him about it.

He wouldn’t accept St. John’s offer. No doubt people would think him a fool to turn down a junior partnership in such a prestigious firm, to forgo such an opportunity to advance his career. The money would have been nice, but the rest of it wouldn’t have suited. He would have had to shift the focus of his practice. He’d have been expected to move to a more fashionable neighborhood, buy a bigger house, run with a more fashionable set. They’d have had to entertain. And not to put too fine a point on it, he didn’t really like any of them. The garden gate recalls him to the here and now. He notices the fog is beginning to thin. The metal doorknob is cold and damp with condensation. He has to wipe his hand dry on his coat to get enough of a grip to turn it. He hangs up his coat and hat and makes his way back to the kitchen.

Elizabeth is sitting at the kitchen table. She is wearing her navy robe, her long dark hair twisted up and secured with a hair pick. The cozied teapot is on the table in front of her. “Cup of tea?” she asks.

“God, yes.” The mug she pours for him is warm between his clammy hands. “It’s quite foggy out and cold. I think we’re in for a drippy, dreary day.” He sips his tea in silence for a while. “I’ve been mulling over St. John’s offer. I’ve decided not to take it.”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t. Scramble you some eggs?”

“Please.” He watches her move about the kitchen gathering what she needs.
“You think I’m right to turn down such a sterling opportunity?”

“It’s only an opportunity if it helps you get to where you want to be,” She says in that quiet, pragmatic way she has.

“True.”

“And if you had taken it, I would have lived in fear that we’d be at a party somewhere, St. John’s wife would laugh one time too many and one or the other of us would suddenly snap and throttle her.”

That makes him laugh. It was true. St. John’s wife had one of those high, shrill laughs that sounded like nothing so much as a horse’s whinny. It grated on the nerves like fingernails on a blackboard.

She has made enough for two, and toast besides. Neither of them speaks until they’ve nearly finished eating. She is comfortable with silence. That may have been what had first attracted him to her. She sips her tea. “Shall you be working in your study this morning?”

“Yes, I think so.” He runs his fingers across his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve just got some odds and ends to finish up. But I think I’ll go upstairs and get cleaned up first.”

“Would you like the fire lit in the study?”

“Yes, that would be lovely.” He pauses in the doorway. ” Your father’s not getting any younger, you know.”

“Nor is mother, come to that,” She replies, looking up at him speculatively. “He asked me last Christmas if you had your heart set on a practice in the city. I said I wasn’t the one to to ask.”

“Williams offered to buy me out if I took St. John’s offer.” He cocks an eyebrow at her.

“What about the house? You’ve put so much work into it.”

“Only because I liked doing it.” A thoughtful pause. “Would you miss the city?”

“I could force myself to make do with the odd weekend.” The corners of her mouth quirk and in the night dark of her eyes, a single star twinkles. Her expression sobers. “He put their house in my name the week we were married. Said it was a wedding present.”

“Oh?” He frowns. “That was forward thinking of him.”

“As things stood, it was of no relevance unless something happened to one of them.” She begins to stack the breakfast dishes and gather up the silverware.

He pauses in the doorway, leaning up against the door jam. “It has lovely bones, your parents’ house. It just wants a touch here and there. It could do with a second bathroom for starters.”

“It wants the plumbing sorted out.” She frowns, piling dishes in the sink. ” And the wiring.”

He smiles remembering how peaceful and quiet it was at her parents’ house, and how lovely it had been the two of them sitting on that little stone bench in her mother’s cutting garden in the evening. “Why don’t you call your mother later, see if it would be all right if we came up for the weekend. We might launch a trial balloon or two.”

“I shall.”

************************************************************************

NOTE:  This is another little flight of fancy, in this case into the picture at the top of the post.  Playing around with characterization and dialog.  More of a watercolor sketch than anything.