For Hamish Miller, whose inspirational work, The Sun and The Serpent, helped me show Laurel the way. Last, but certainly not least, my husband, Doug.
* * *
The May Day song sung at Padstow is an old traditional folk song. The story of St. Tues and Uther is my retelling of a Cornish myth. All other verse and the tin mine story are the original work of the author
It’s a Long Way From Home
Laurel curled up tighter on the train seat and pressed her face against the window. The passing countryside unfolding before her was a blur, as was the blue shine of the sea to the west. She swallowed hard and hoped she wouldn’t embarrass herself by hurling. What if Mom gets worse or dies while I’m in Penzance? Two fat tears crawled down her cheeks, and she squeezed her eyes shut to stop more from falling.
It sucked being on a train in a strange country going farther away from home with each annoying clack of the wheels. A huge wave of desolation swept through her and threatened to break the slim hold she kept on her emotions.
Worms of anxiety twisted through her stomach and she struggled to breathe normally. Why did she ever agree to visit her mother’s friend in England? It seemed like such a great adventure when Mom suggested it. Everything was already arranged when the doctors discovered the cancer. Dad insisted she take the trip as planned. He just kept saying Mom would be better soon. But, what if she wasn’t? Laurel smacked her fist on her blue jean clad thigh. I should be with her!
A boy with sandy blond hair dropped a backpack onto the seat opposite her. “This one’s free, inni’t?” He indicated the window seat.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
“Excellent!” he exclaimed. With an easy motion he flung the backpack into the overhead rack before he hurled himself into the seat, looking out the window with obvious delight.
“Nothing like heading home!” he said with a grin that revealed uneven white teeth.
Laurel studied him through the curtain of her hair. He was about her age, she guessed, maybe a little older. His eyes were a vivid blue above prominent cheekbones.
Without taking his eyes from the window, he said, “Name’s Coll. What’s yours?”
The way he pronounced the name made it sound like kawl. Coll, what kind of a name is Coll? She would never get used to the odd-sounding British names. No one she knew in Canada was named Cedric, or Sebastian, or Coll. She put her feet back on the floor before she answered Coll, who was clearly waiting for her to speak.
“Hi, I’m Laurel. I’m headed to Penzance. Are you from around there?”
“Born and bred, lived in Penzance all my life.”
“Is there much to do there? I’m visiting a friend of my mother’s for a little while.”
Suddenly very aware of the scuffed boots on her feet and her long legs encased in faded, worn blue jeans, she realized it was painfully obvious she was not from Britain.
“Where ya from?” he asked, his brow wrinkled in thought. “You don’t sound quite like a Yank, but I don’t know.”
She sat up straighter and looked sternly at the boy across from her. Her smoky grey eyes met his levelly.
“I’m Canadian.” Laurel spoke with more heat than she intended.
On the long plane ride, the couple seated beside her assumed she was an American. When they learned she was from Canada, they wanted to know if she knew anyone in Toronto. As if! Alberta was a long way from Ontario.
“North of the forty-ninth parallel,” she continued, “and no, I don’t know anyone from Toronto!”
“Okay, sorry.” Coll held up his hands in surrender. “Who are you staying with in Penzance? Bet I know them. I know everyone in Penzance.”
“Sarie Waters, she’s an old friend of my family. I’ve never met her before.”
“Oh, Sarie, you’ll get on fine with her.” He paused. “You do like horses, don’t you?”
“Are you kidding me?” Laurel smiled for the first time. “I love them! Does Sarie live on a farm or in town? How many horses does she have?”
“She lives off the road out toward Marazion; she has Fell ponies and keeps a couple of old work horses.”
“Do you live near her?” Coll wasn’t half bad to look at once she got talking to him, and he seemed nice enough.
“Not far, ‘course nothing’s that far in Penzance. Handy like.”
“Maybe I can come and visit you while I’m here? I don’t know anyone in Cornwall.”
“How do you know Sarie then?”
“She’s an old friend of my Gramma Bella’s. Her and my Gramma went to school together or something, I think. I’ve only talked to her on the phone a couple of times. Is she easy to get along with?”
“She likes her horses better’n most people. Sarie’s all right when you get used to her, though. Talks to her horses like they understand her.” Coll shook his head and grinned.
If Sarie liked horses and was kind to them, hopefully she wouldn’t be too hard get along with. Laurel released a tiny sigh of relief and shrugged the tension from her shoulders.
“I can help her out with the animals. I have a horse back home, but I haven’t ridden him much since my mom got so sick. I miss him.”
“Ya have your own horse?” Coll exclaimed enviously. “Your parents must be rich.”
“Not hardly. Lots of people have horses in Alberta, some for fun and some for ranch work. I rode Sam in 4H, and I belonged to Pony Club, too.”
“Did you ever punch cows, like in the movies?”
“Punch cows? You’ve been watching too many old western movies; nobody uses that term much anymore. I help my folks move the cows from the home quarter to summer pasture and back in the fall. Sam is so good. He just pushes the cows back into the herd when they try to stop and wander. It’s fun to chase them when they try to run off”
“You said your mom was sick. What’s wrong with her?”
Holding her breath and willing away the tears she could feel burning at the backs of her eyes, she bit her lip and looked out at the sky and the sea.
She spoke without turning her gaze from the window. “She has cancer. I don’t know if she’s going to get better.”
There it was out, she had said it. The fear she hadn’t been able to acknowledge until now.
“Wow, I’m sorry.. That must be hard. I live with my Gramma. I don’t even remember my mom and dad. I was too young when they died.”
It felt natural to share her worries with Coll after he told her about his parents.
“My dad doesn’t have time to look after me or the ranch right now. He spends all his time in Calgary with Mom. They thought it would be better for me to be somewhere new and have other things to think about. This trip was already planned, so both of them really wanted me to go. Nobody asked what I think. They just keep saying everything’s going to okay. I want to be home with my mom!”
The last sentence came out mixed with quiet sobs, abandonment and loss breaking the tenuous hold on her emotions.
Through her tears, Laurel saw Coll’s look of dismay, crying girls were apparently not his area of expertise.
“Don’t cry,” he stammered. “We can have lots of fun while you’re here. We can go pony-trekking and swim and sail. Do you sail? And maybe go out to St. Michael’s Mount.” Coll trailed off.
Laurel wiped her eyes on her sleeve and dug in her pocket for a tissue. Finally giving up the search, she wiped her nose on her sleeve as well. “What’s pony-trekking?” she asked in a steady voice with no trace of the tears from a minute ago.
“You take the horses and just go for a ride, wherever the track takes you,” Coll explained.
“You mean like trail riding?”
“What’s trail riding?”
“You take your horse and bedroll, pack some stuff to eat and just ride. We stop, cook lunch or supper, and swim if we’re near the river. Sometimes, we put the horses on the trailer and go to ride in the mountains. There are horse campgrounds with trails leading in all different directions. You can ride one trail for a while, come back to camp, and ride a different trail the next day, or that afternoon. Lots of them start and end back in the campsite. There are maps and everything, so you can’t get lost, even if you don’t ride there all the time.”
Coll’s blue eyes widened. “What mountains do you ride in? Are they really high?”
Laurel wrinkled her nose at him and named the two places she knew most people associated with the Canadian Rockies. How can he not know about the Canadian Rockies? “The Rocky Mountains in Alberta, where Banff is, and Lake Louise.”
Laurel really preferred to ride in the Kananaskis country near Bragg Creek, but the National Parks were beautiful, too.
“Can you ride by the lake?” he asked disbelievingly.
“You rent horses from the outfitters at the corral behind the hotel. They take you on a guided tour along the lake trail, up into the mountains to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. It’s pretty cool, but not as much fun as riding your own horse.”
“I don’t think pony trekking is that exciting,” Coll said doubtfully, “but it is fun, and we can gallop along the ocean. If we go as far as the moor, it’s a great place to race. We can visit the Dancing Maidens and Men An Tol.”
“Who are the Dancing Maidens and the Men An…what?” This might be an adventure after all.
“The Dancing Maidens are a ring of standing stones, sort of like Stonehenge, but smaller. Legend says they were mermaids who were dancing on the moor in the full moon and were caught by the sunrise and turned into stone. There are two other stones a little ways from them called The Pipers. They’re supposed to be the musicians who supplied the music for the maidens to dance to, so they were also turned to stone as punishment. Other old stories say they were fairies who angered some sorcerer who turned them into stone. There are lots of old tales and folks who keep the old ways in Cornwall. The ‘Obby ‘Oss festival is coming up. It’s been celebrated for centuries. You’re gonna love that!” Coll ran out of breath.
“What’s the Men An…whatever you said?” She refused to be distracted by guessing what a Hobby Horse festival was, picturing dozens of people on stick horses parading down the road. It couldn’t be that could it?
“The Men An Tol is a standing stone all by itself. I think it’s called a dolmen stone or maybe a menhir. Sarie will know. Anyway, it has a hole in it large enough to crawl through. Legend says if you pass through the hole nine times at the full moon you can enter the otherworld of the fairies. Other tales say if you do the same thing, especially on one of the old fire festivals, it will heal sickness. Sarie knows more of the legends than I do. That’s where I heard them,” Coll finished.
“Do you think it’s true?” she asked, “It can heal sickness, like cancer?” Hope leaped in her chest. “I wonder if I crawled through thinking about Mom really hard, if it would work, even just a little bit. I could keep doing it over and over until it all kind of built up, and then she would be okay.”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Coll said warily. “Sarie says you have to be careful dealing with the Good Folk, or you can end up promising things you really don’t want to. Or they give you exactly what you ask but not what you think you’re asking for. You need to talk to Sarie or my Gramma before you try anything like that.”
“Do you think Sarie will take me there? You’ll come too won’t you, just to see it with me?”
“We’ll ask her after you get settled in. You’ll have to convince Sarie you ride well enough and can take care of her pony before she’ll even consider letting you go that far,” Coll cautioned.
Laurel settled back in her seat feeling more hopeful than she had since leaving home.
“What’s the ‘Obby ‘Oss Festival?” Laurel could never let anything go undiscovered once it tweaked her curiosity, and a town full of people parading along on stick horses was certainly worthy of further exploration.
“Big party, sort of, in Padstow,” Coll answered. “It starts early in the morning on May Day, that’s May first,” he elaborated at her puzzled look. “People go out into the woods and fields and bring back green things, flowers, or leaves, and such. Then they go through town dancing and singing to show summer has arrived.”
“Doesn’t summer begin on June twenty-first?” Laurel asked.
“Nope, by the old reckoning May first is the start of summer and June twenty-first is actually mid-summer. Like Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream,” Coll replied. “Anyway, a man dresses up in the ‘Obby ‘Oss costume. It’s all white, with black and red, the parade winds all through town. Everybody lining the streets sings. The horse chases and catches girls and young women, the tales say if the girl isn’t married, she will be soon, or if she is married, that she’ll have a kid within the year. Every so often the horse does this weird dying thing. He falls down, and all the singers change their song to really sad one. Then the horse leaps back up, alive again, and the song changes back to the happy one. They repeat the whole thing all over town. It’s fun though with lots of good fair food.”
“What do they sing?”
“It’s a crazy, old song. It goes:
“Unite and unite and let us all unite
For summer is i-cumen today
And whither we are going, we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.”
Laurel giggled, the song sounded funny coming from the boy sitting across from her kicking his heels against the seat.
Coll grinned back at her. “Just wait till you hear the whole town singing it. It’s like there’s no other sound in the world.”
“Where’s Padstow? Is it far from Sarie’s?”
“It’s up the coast a ways, toward Arthur’s Castle. Sarie goes every year, so I think she’ll take you with her this year.”
“What’s Arthur’s castle? You mean like King Arthur and his knights and all that?”
“That’s him. It’s actually called Tintagel, and it’s where King Arthur was supposed to have been born according to the old stories. Sarie might take you there if you really want to see it. It’s just a bunch of old stones and ruins,” he finished doubtfully.
“I’d rather see the Hobby Horse Parade if I had the choice.”
“You say it ‘Obby ‘Oss,” corrected Coll.
“Whatever, a horse is a horse.” Then she giggled. “Or ‘Oss in this case, I guess.”
He grinned and lapsed into silence. Laurel watched Coll out of the corner of her eye, while she pretended to read the book she picked up from beside her. He was so different from the kids she knew at home. From what he said, he seemed to hang out with adults more than kids his age. He hadn’t mentioned anybody their age. Not so different from her in that regard. She preferred her horse and the barn cats and didn’t have a lot of close friends.
But she did miss Carlene and her brother, Chance. They always met up on the range road half way between their home quarters. Most times they would spend the day riding the wide prairie. They liked to picnic by the Old Man River which wound through the coulee, sheltering behind the big rocks if the Chinooks were blowing hard. Laurel could almost smell the hot dry dusty scent of prairie grass and wind with an edge of sage mixed in. And horse, she missed that most of all. The scent of prairie dust, clean horse, and sweat mingled with dried manure. It was just horse to her nose.
Coll’s voice brought her back to the present; she noticed he rushed his words. There was a panicky look in his eyes. She guessed he was hoping she wasn’t going to start crying again.
“Did you know Sarie doesn’t live right in Penzance? She lives out toward Marazion. Her place is about halfway between. She says that’s why she likes it so much, ‘cause it’s a between place.”
“A between place.” There was something appealing about the idea. “Between what?” she wondered out loud.
“Don’t think it matters,” replied Coll. “It’s like in between places are openings to new possibilities. Like doors, I think, without them you can’t come in or go out.”
The sun was setting on the Cornish countryside, its light slanting across the interior of the rail car. Outside the glass pane, wind bent the grass and low shrubs against a backdrop of strong sunlight and blue sky with clouds piling up in the west. Unnoticed, the blue of day faded to the iridescent royal blue of early evening, as the light leaked away with the setting sun. White stars shone in the night, and the moon etched the moors with silver light.
Coll stretched up to reach his backpack down from the baggage rack. He rummaged around for a bit, muttering under his breath. Finally, he produced a bag of somewhat crumpled sandwiches, along with a couple of bags of potato chips.
“Want some?” Coll offered her a sandwich and a bag of chips.
“Sure.” She accepted the food gratefully, not having realized just how long the train ride was and neglecting to bring any snacks. The British money was too confusing still and she was reluctant to purchase anything from the canteen in the next car.
“The crisps might be a bit mashed.” Coll regarded the flattened bag ruefully.
“What did you call them? Aren’t they chips?”
Coll laughed. “Only to Yanks, and I guess Canadians,” he added at the look on her face. “Chips are what we get with fried fish at the chip shop.”
Laurel grimaced in frustration. It was going to be harder to fit in than she thought. How was she supposed to know chips were called crisps and French fries were chips?
“We call those French fries, although we do call fish and chips, fish and chips. Oh, it’s all too confusing,” she exclaimed in disgust. “Let’s just eat the damn things!”
Her dad would be furious with her, her face flushed hot with guilt at the cuss word. She turned her gaze resolutely to the dark window. Well, he doesn’t know, does he? If he didn’t send me all this way on my own, he would know. So, she reasoned, it’s actually his fault.
Feelings of rebellious freedom swept through her. As long as no one ratted her out to her parents, she pretty much had a free rein to do as she pleased. Within reason, she amended silently. Laurel was pretty sure this Sarie would be lenient with her; she could always say she didn’t want to worry her parents if she did get in real trouble and beg Sarie not to tell.
Sneaking a look at Coll’s reflection in the dark glass, she saw he was too involved in making short work of the sandwich in his hand to take any notice of her silence. She took a bite of her own sandwich.
The quiet of the car was broken as a group of older kids trouped by. Coll glanced up at the sound of their approach; dislike flooded his good-natured features as he recognized them. Some of the group stopped by their seats and seeing Coll, made rude gestures at him. Coll pointedly ignored them, until one boy dropped his knapsack on the table and glared at him.
“You have to go to school on Monday,” he said nastily. “You can’t hide forever.”
“Sod off!” Coll snarled at him.
What the heck is going on? That guy is threatening him! Without thinking, Laurel pulled her booted foot back and kicked the tall, rangy stranger hard in the knee. He spun around on one leg, swearing.
“Who the hell’s your little friend?” he growled at Coll.
He looked at her with his face twisted in anger. “You should be more careful about who you pick as friends and who you kick. You never learned you dawn’t shuv your granny when she’s shevin?”
Temper ran away with her, and she slid out of her seat. She could not stand bullies. Laurel ignored Coll gesturing to her to sit down. She took a step toward the tall stranger and stuck her face up at him.
“You want to have no leg to stand on?” she asked him with a grim smile. “Need to go get your friends to help you?” Advancing another step, she drew her foot back to kick his other knee. “Are you sure you want to go there?”
“You’re all talk,” he snarled. “You won’t be so cocky when you’re outnumbered!”
A grim smile stretched her lips, and she aimed a kick at his good knee. She only managed a glancing blow, as he lurched backward.
“You’re bleeding kitey! You’re barking mad to hang around with this one!” he addressed the last to Coll who was looking at Laurel with his mouth hanging open.
“We’ll finish this later,” the tall boy growled and hobbled down the aisle after his friends.
“Anytime, darlin’,” Laurel called, sliding back into her seat.
Once the incident was over, she wanted to be sick to her stomach; her hands were shaking badly. She buried her face in her hands.
“Holy crap, he was big and mean.”
When was she going to learn to think before she did something? Her dad’s voice whispered at her, Violence is no way to solve your problems, Laurel. You can’t just hit people. Dad didn’t seem to understand bullies weren’t much on negotiation. Until she stood up to the bullies at school, her life had been horrible. After a while, the group of them left her alone, but started to pick on other kids smaller than themselves. Laurel went to the school counselor, but as one of the biggest bullies was the counselor’s daughter, it hadn’t helped much. It seemed no matter where she went there was no escape from idiots. The seat cushion sagged as Coll sat down beside her and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.
“That was great! Barking mad, but great!” he congratulated her. “That group makes life miserable at school for me and my mates.”
“I’m not sure I helped.” Laurel looked up at Coll through her bangs. “It might just make things worse.”
“Nobody stands up to them,” Coll said. “Some of us have tried, but they always manage to get us alone, and then there’s hell to pay. But you really hurt Stuart; that’ll impress the rest of them.”
“So we need to be careful when we get off the train in Penzance?”
This is just great, I’m in trouble, and I haven’t even gotten off the train yet!
“Sarie will be waiting on the platform,” Coll assured her. “She’s giving my Gram a lift to the station to pick me up. I didn’t know she was meeting you. Nobody messes with Sarie,” he finished enigmatically.
She gave him an odd look. It sounded like Sarie was somehow threatening to people. She shrugged. At least she didn’t have to worry about getting off the train in one piece and finding Sarie. Coll knew Sarie and could introduce her.
“I just can’t stand bullies. I’m in their face before I can stop myself,” she confessed ruefully, “and sometimes, it’s not such a good thing. What was that kid talking about, shoving my granny or something?”
“It just means you should know when to butt in and when to keep your gob shut,” Coll said through his laughter. “Don’t push your opinion when someone else bigger or stronger is pushing theirs. Stuart must have picked that up from his Granda.”
The train lurched to a stop. There was the general confusion of people gathering their belongings and scrunching their way down the narrow aisle to the exit. They waited until the biggest crush was over before they ventured out into the still busy car to collect Laurel’s bag from the rack by the exit. Coll wrestled it down the steps onto the lighted platform for her.
Laurel took a big breath of fresh air and was delighted at the strange new smells. She identified the smell of the sea and damp earth faintly carried on the sharp breeze. She put her backpack down at her feet and tried to tame her flyaway hair.
Coll stood beside her, searching the crowd. She noticed he kept glancing at Stuart until a woman appeared from the station and gave the bully a hug. With a baleful backward look at them, Stuart and his friends followed the woman off the platform into the darkness.
Coll caught her arm and pointed down the platform to the waving figures of Sarie and Coll’s Gramma.
“There they are, Laurel. Sarie’s the taller one on the left.”
Here goes nothing. They moved down the platform toward the terminal. She caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection from the windows. Her hair looked worse than ever for all her attempts to tame it. Mom’s words echoed in her ears, “Try to look tidy when you get there. I don’t want Sarie to think I’ve raised a ragamuffin.” Her mom teased her when they said good-bye. Her dad was a little more forthright. “Seriously, Laurel, remember you’re representing our family and mind your manners. Behave like a civilized human instead of a dust devil.”
Ragamuffin, dust devil, either way this is as good as it’s getting, she thought, and followed Coll across the pavement toward Sarie and Coll’s Gramma.
“Look who I met on the train!” Coll greeted his Gramma with a hug and gave Sarie a huge grin. “This is Laurel.”
Laurel stuck her hand out to Sarie, but Sarie engulfed her in big hug.
“It’s wonderful to have you here, child,” she said.
Sarie was taller than Mom by about three inches, which put her around five-foot-nine. Her greying hair still retained some streaks of its original blond and blew about her face in the wind. Sarie was what people called a handsome woman. She was not pretty in the classical sense of the word, but she was a striking figure all the same. Her wide generous mouth was spread in a grin, and her laughing eyes were bluer than anyone’s eyes had a right to be.
Sarie’s upturned nose wrinkled as she hugged Coll. “Have you been eating those disgusting dill pickle crisps again?” she asked him in mock exasperation.
“You know it!” Coll grinned back at her, unrepentant.
“Let’s get your bags, then.” Sarie walked toward where Coll had left Laurel’s bag.
“Laurel, this is my Gramma, Emily.” Coll introduced his gramma.
“It’s pleased I am to meet you, girl,” Emily said kindly.
“Nice to meet you, too.” Remembering her manners, she extended her hand to Emily.
The three trailed after Sarie down the station platform. The wind was picking up, and it whistled shrilly through the spaces between the train carriages. Sarie was waiting for them by the pile of bags.
“Which bags are yours?” Sarie gestured to the pile.
“I only have one; it’s got horses on it.” Laurel scanned the confusing pile of assorted bags from a tour group. They must have unloaded their stuff after Coll left hers here.
Coll emerged from the other side, dragging a bag behind him. “This it?” he asked as he hauled it into the light.
“That’s the one.”
Thank God it was safe! Packed inside were pictures of home: her mom and dad, Sam, her horse, Chance and Carlene. There was one of the butte across the river from her bedroom window. The picture was taken at sunset at the end of a glorious blue and gold September day; the river looked like it was on fire, and the butte was glowing with golden light. There was another of the prairie spread from horizon to horizon in unbroken splendor. It was taken from Sam’s back just before she left home. She knew she wouldn’t feel so far from home with the photos to remind her how the prairie looked and smelled. I have to remember to write to Carlene tomorrow and tell her how weird everything is here.
Sarie hefted the suitcase, popped up the handle, and set off toward the car park with the suitcase trundling along behind her. Laurel followed with her backpack while Coll and his Gramma brought up the rear. She could hear Coll and Emily conversing behind her but couldn’t make out the words. Suddenly, she was very, very tired. She looked out toward the sea and the weird hump backed island crouching just off shore. She squinted. It looked like some sort of castle all lit up perched on the summit. She tugged Coll’s sleeve and pointed.
“That’s St. Michael’s Mount. Local landmark, big tourist attraction.” He shrugged and kept walking.
In just a few minutes, everything was stored in Sarie’s little car, and they were speeding along the narrow streets. Sarie pulled up in front of a row of attached stone houses. She shifted into neutral and engaged the parking brake.
“Back in two shakes.”
Sarie got out of the car and helped Emily unearth some packages out of the trunk of the car. With a wave to Coll and Emily, Sarie jumped back in, releasing the brake. The car started to roll down the sharp incline of the street before Sarie even got it into first gear.
“See you tomorrow!” Coll yelled as the car gathered speed.
Laurel waved in return before she looked out the front windshield at the stone houses and buildings crouching on either side of the narrow street. She was too tired to think about tomorrow; all Laurel wanted to do was go to sleep. Covering her mouth as a huge yawn overtook her, she leaned her head against the cool glass of the passenger side window.
“It won’t be long ‘til we’re home,” Sarie said as they left the lights of Penzance behind and headed out into the countryside.
Home, this isn’t home. I want to go home!
She planned to call Dad in the morning and beg him to let her come home. Coming here was a really bad idea. I know I can convince Dad to let me come home. Why did I let myself get talked into this in the first place?
It had all seemed kind of exciting. Chance and Carlene said how lucky she was to get a chance to go to England. The reality of leaving kicked in big time when the time came to say goodbye to her parents and friends. Now she was a million miles from home, bone tired, and homesick.
Laurel turned her face into the window, so Sarie couldn’t see the tears tracking down her cheeks. She wiped her nose surreptitiously with her sleeve and tried not to sniff too loudly. The dark landscape whipped past as the car careened down narrow lanes with tall hedges on either side, the branches hitting Sarie’s door. It added to the weirdness of driving on what seemed like the wrong side of the road.
A short time later, Sarie jammed on her brakes and skidded into an even narrower laneway. Ahead the lighted windows of a small house and the faint outline of the roof in the moonlight greeted them. The bulk of another building behind the house was also visible in the faint light. It must be the barn, although it didn’t look like any barn she had seen before. It was short and squat, made out of stone of some kind, instead of wood or metal.
Sarie parked the car in front of the house, and Laurel stumbled out. The older woman hefted the suitcase out of the trunk and headed for the door, leaving her to trail behind. Laurel paused on the step to read the small sign on the door post. Between Cottage. She followed Sarie through the bright blue door and stood in the doorway for a moment, blinking in the light. A fireplace with some comfy-looking chairs pulled up close to it warmed the small room. The night pressed its black nose against the many windows in the room. Sarie disappeared through a doorway on the far side of the room.
Laurel stepped into the house and pulled the door shut behind her. She wandered toward the door at the back of the living room. The door opened onto a dark hallway; there was light coming from another door at the end of the hall to the left. On her right, the narrow hall led to an equally narrow set of stairs disappearing into the darkness of the upstairs. Dropping her backpack at the foot of the stairs, she headed down the hall towards the light.
Laurel pushed open the bright yellow door to the kitchen. A rush of warm air greeted her. The kitchen was a room added on to the original house at some point a long time ago. The roof slanted downward toward a row of windows running the length of the back wall. There was a big old cook stove producing the vast amount of warmth filling the small room. Sarie put some bread and jam on the table, along with two big mugs of tea.
“Are you hungry, my flower?”
“A little bit, I guess.” She hovered at the doorway, not sure what to do next.
“Sit, child, sit. Are you after wanting some tea?” Sarie gestured to the chair across from her own.
“Tea would be nice.”
There was silence as she sat opposite Sarie and sipped her tea. The brew was very strong and very sweet.
“Your room is at the top of the stairs on the left. The necessary is down the hall from you.” Sarie broke the silence.
“The loo, the toilet.” Sarie elaborated with a laugh.
The small warmth and comfort the hot tea generated evaporated in a blink. How in the Sam hill was she ever going to figure out what these people were talking about? Her shoulders slumped with defeat, she clenched her teeth in frustration.
“It does get easier, child. Don’t be discouraged. We’ll have you talking like a native in no time.”
She managed a tired smile before pushing away from the table to take her mug over to the wash basin.
“I’ll show you up to your room if you like,” Sarie said as she led the way back into the cold, dark hall. The older woman dragged Laurel’s suitcase up steps to the upper floor.
She stopped to retrieve her backpack from the end of the hall and climbed the stairs behind Sarie, careful where she stepped, as the stairs were narrow and steep. Sarie flicked on the electric light after she opened a door at the top of the landing.
A single bed stood against one wall. There was a worn chest of drawers on the opposite wall and a small table beside the bed. The one window, framed by white curtains, looked out over the starlit moorland. It reminded Laurel of the prairies at home, softly rolling land and big starry skies with the huge moon overhead. The sea gleamed in the distance. She dumped her backpack on the floor beside the dresser and turned to take her suitcase from Sarie.
“If you need anything you can just yell.” Sarie hugged her before she left the room. “It’s pleased I am that you decided to come.”
Laurel didn’t know what to say in light of the fact she was going to phone her dad as soon as she could and beg to come home. She mumbled into Sarie’s sweater and followed Sarie to the door, closing it behind her.
She was so tired it hurt to think. Laurel forced herself to rummage in her backpack for her PJs. She undressed and dressed quickly in the chilly room and thought briefly about finding the bathroom to brush her teeth. Deciding against an exploration excursion, she slid into bed and immediately muffled a scream; the bed was freezing! Not just cold, but freezing. Her teeth chattered, this was as bad as camping out! Tucking the blankets tightly around her, she hoped body heat would warm things up soon. The long trip and the worry about her mom had taken its toll; before she knew it, she was asleep.
The White Lady
Warm sunlight and fingers of breeze woke her the next morning. She rolled over and buried her face in the pillow, not wanting to open her eyes. As long as her eyes were closed, Laurel could pretend she was sleeping over at Carlene’s, and Carlene’s mom was making bacon and eggs down in the big kitchen overlooking the coulee. If she tried hard enough, she could even hear the horses galloping up to the corral from the river.
The high whinny of a horse brought her upright in bed and opened her eyes. She threw back the bed clothes and kneeled on the bed to look out the window. There was a big field behind the house; lined up along the fence by the gate were four large black ponies and two draft horses.
They were solid beasts with long flowing manes and thick tails. The one nearest the gate whinnied again and stamped its hoof on the soft earth. All the ponies pricked their ears up a second before Sarie appeared, wearing a pair of big muck boots and a tattered green jacket. A yellow kerchief kept her grey hair from blowing in the strong breeze billowing the clothes strung on the line across the back garden. Sarie’s voice carried easily through the open window.
“Hush you now! You’ll wake the girl,” Sarie admonished the ponies. “Back off from the git you.” Sarie spoke to the largest pony by the gate.
The ponies backed away from the gate and followed Sarie off toward a low stone building. She dropped onto her back on the bed with a sigh. It was no use pretending she was home. Better to think about what to say to her dad when she phoned later. While she washed and dressed, she formulated her argument. Catching her hair up in a ponytail and satisfied she looked pretty decent, Laurel headed down the narrow stairs and into the kitchen. The phone hung invitingly on the wall but better to ask Sarie first. The sides of the big brown tea pot on the table were warm when she checked it with her hand. She poured herself a mug and sat down at the table. Through the windows, she saw Sarie making her way through the back garden to the kitchen door. Finding another mug, she poured Sarie a cup of tea and set it on the table as Sarie hung up her jacket on the hooks by the door.
“Ta,” Sarie said. “What would you like for breakfast?”
“Some toast would be good,”
She wasn’t sure what Sarie had in the house, toast was safe. Chance teased about how his grandpa used to make him eat kippers and duck eggs when he visited him. She thought kippers were some kind of fish, which sounded totally gross for breakfast. Better not to go there at all. Toast was definitely a safer bet.
Sarie bustled about and in a few moments, set a plate of toast on the blue oilcloth covering the sturdy kitchen table. Laurel helped herself and added some honey from the pot Sarie placed beside her. She tried not to stare in amazement as Sarie ate six slices of toast with honey.
“I’se is as full az an egg!” Sarie declared as she leaned back in her chair and sipped her tea. “I didn’t get a chance to eat last night, and the ponies were wanting their breakfast this morning before I could get mine.”
Watching the ponies nosing about in the grass in the field, she finished her tea and tried to remember what breed Coll said they were. Fell ponies, that was it. They resembled miniature draft horses with their sturdy feathered legs, thick necks, large heads, and rounded barrels. The two larger horses by the barn looked like Belgians, but smaller.
“What are the ponies’ names?”
“The biggest one is Lamorna, the other mare is Ebony, the two geldings are Arthur and Gareth,” Sarie told her.
“What about the big horses?”
“That’s Morgen and Vivienne. Morgen is the one with the most white on her face,” Sarie reached to fill her mug with tea.
“Are they Belgians?”
“No, love. They’re a breed called Suffolk Punch. They’re the same color as Belgians but smaller in stature. It’s an old blood line. I don’t imagine you’ve seen them in Canada.” Sarie smiled at Laurel.
“Can I ride one of the ponies?”
“We’ll see how you get on with them later today,” Sarie promised.
“Can I phone my dad?” Laurel remembered her plan to get back home.
“Of course, just don’t be too long, the phone bill will be as dear as saffron if we’re not careful,” Sarie said as she tidied the breakfast things away.
“Whatever,” she muttered. It doesn’t matter because I won’t be here that long anyways.
Ten minutes later, she stalked out the kitchen door and across the back garden. Her dad wasn’t very receptive to her plan. He told her in no uncertain terms she was staying in Cornwall and not to make any trouble. She kicked at an unoffending clump of grass and muttered words her dad would skin her for if he heard them. Well, he can’t hear me, can he? Not with me stuck in Cornwall.
Reaching the fence bordering the ponies’ field, she leaned her chin on the top rail. The ponies were grazing in a group about half way down the field. There was a gully and some trees behind them. The breeze rippled the grass and fluttered the leaves of the bushes in the garden. Everything was so green, not just green like the prairies could get after a wet spring, but an almost iridescent green. The grass and the trees radiated a green light which shimmered where it met the sunlight. The strangeness was overwhelming. This is all just too different. I hate it here. Homesickness swamped her and tears blurred her vision as she watched the horses graze.
Sarie called from the kitchen. Wiping her eyes on her sleeve, she ducked into the shelter of the hedgerow growing along the ponies’ pasture. An ancient, low stone wall lay hidden in the tangled branches of the bushes growing up around it. Clambering up onto the wide top, she tucked her feet under her. She just couldn’t face Sarie or anyone right now.
She was furious at her dad. How could he refuse to understand how homesick she was? Mom would understand; she would. But Mom was so sick from the chemo treatments right now it was all she could do to talk for a few minutes on the phone. Laurel didn’t want to make her feel even worse by complaining about wanting to come home.
Sliding down off the wall, she peered through the leafy branches of the hedgerow. Sarie was in the back garden weeding the herb beds. Laurel didn’t feel like helping right now; she needed time to think.
Feeling more than a little guilty, she set off to explore the pony field. She slipped out of the hedge and began to follow it toward the gully, away from the house. The grass was still damp from the heavy dew. Impatiently she pushed the hair escaping from her pony tail out of her face.
Although the breeze was cool, Laurel’s face was damp. It was so much more humid here than at home her normally straight hair curled in little tendrils on her forehead.
Some of the bushes in the hedge were flowering; pale white bunches of blossoms perfuming the soft air. The tension leave her shoulders when she reached the cover of the bunch of trees crowning the lip of the little valley she planned to explore. Sarie couldn’t see her in the trees, and if someone came looking, she could stay hidden if she wanted to.
A little path led through the woods, down into the narrow ravine. Under the trees, the air was rich with the fragrance of the damp earth and the small colorful wildflowers growing in abundance under the canopy of interlacing branches. Some of the trees themselves were flowering as well. The trees also had teeth Laurel discovered when she slipped as the path dipped toward the bottom of the ravine and she grabbed at a small bushy tree to keep from landing on her butt. The long sharp thorns hidden in the leaves raked her arm and bloodied her hand. The pain was like a personal assault.
“Even the stinking trees are against me.” She slipped and slid the last few yards to the boggy bottom of the gully, stopping to wipe away the tears tracking down her scratched face.
Aimlessly, she continued to walk along the narrow path as it wound through the grassy gully. The ground was wet underfoot and she soon wished for her boots instead of the sneakers on her feet.
“Oh, well might as well be wet and miserable, instead of just miserable.” She squelched along through the boggy grass.
The marshy area in the very bottom of the gully was full of bright gold flowers dancing above broad emerald green clumps of leaves. The flowers stood above the still water in little hillocks. Marsh marigolds, cowslips her Grampa D’Arcy called them.
The path turned up hill, bordered with dogwood bushes, their bright red bark shiny even in the shadowy light. She could hear water running. There must be a creek or little stream somewhere. The path continued to climb slightly as it angled along the side of the gully. White and purple violets grew thickly in the damp earth on the edges of the path.
The peace of the gully began to ease her tumultuous thoughts. The little stream cut across the path, gurgling and splashing as it headed for the marshy bottom below. Laurel sat down on a huge boulder just off the path on the uphill side and watched the water tumbling down the hillside. Laurel gazed at the stream for about half an hour, letting her thoughts drift where they wanted. The boulder was hard to sit on after a while. She felt better now; she still didn’t agree with her dad, but at least she wasn’t spitting mad. I still want to go home, like yesterday.
The path slanted down the hillside from the point where Laurel stood. She was tired of sliding in the mud but not ready to accept her fate and return to Sarie’s just yet. In sudden inspiration, she followed the stream uphill to find out where it emerged in the pony field.
The going was tough, the rocky hillside was covered with bushes growing right up the edge of the stream. Branches caught in her hair and pulled at her jacket. It was just as easy to walk on the rocks in the stream as it was to try and bushwhack her way through the brambles. The water was cold, and it soaked through her sneakers, but it was a lot easier going. The stream came to a series of small waterfalls and a short ledge of earth clinging to the side of the gully.
The ledge was twenty feet long and ten feet wide. Ferns and wildflowers covered it, along with some larger trees and saplings. More ferns and flowering bushes hung from the side of the gully as it rose above the spring. The stream ended in a small rock-lined pool in a basin of emerald grass. Actually, the stream really starts here.
The air in the little clearing was sun splashed where the light filtered down through the green leaves and lit the bottom of the shaded pool. Water dripped from the stones above the pool, which were moss covered and sprouted more ferns. Sitting cross-legged on a flat rock at the edge of the pool, she pulled her jacket closer around her for comfort. There was no wind in the sheltered gully; the water fell into the pool with a sound like the tinkle of crystal or little wind chimes. She closed her eyes and propped her chin on her hands.
I wish Mom were here; she loves places like this. Mom knows all kinds of stories about the fairies that live by springs and how they have tea parties with the yellow marsh marigolds as tea cups and the delicate leaves of the brambles for plates.
Her mom told her about some water spirits one day while they were exploring down by the river near her house. Undines, her mom called them. They were supposed to live in the still water of pools and springs, but you could only see them if they liked you. She was never sure if her mom was just making up fairy tales for her, or if she really believed in them. Mom never mentioned anything about fairies when her dad was around.
“I miss you, Mom.” Laurel spoke softly without opening her eyes.
I wonder what time it is. Her stomach rumbled with hunger; she guessed she really should help Sarie with the chores. Maybe they could ride the ponies this afternoon. I wonder if Sarie rides. Coll hadn’t mentioned anything about Sarie riding, only that she kept Fell Ponies. Despite her good intentions, she didn’t make any effort to figure out how she was going to get back to the pony field.
It’s so unfair Mom is going to die. Why my mom? Nobody actually came out and told her Mom was dying. But, that was exactly what was going to happen if somebody couldn’t fix things soon. She saw the truth in Mom’s eyes when she said goodbye. Her mom was never very good at telling lies.
“I love you too much to lie to you. Even when your dad thinks it’s better if you don’t always know the whole truth,” her mom told her often.
Laurel was glad her mom trusted her to be able to handle most things. Like what happened to Cole, their border collie. Her dad said Cole had gone to retire in B.C. with some nice people. Mom told her the truth; Cole went to sleep and didn’t wake up. He was old, and it was time for him to go. She felt better about knowing the truth and didn’t fret about Cole missing her. Wondering why she didn’t come to give him his dog treats and bring him home.
“I know he’s just trying to protect me,” Laurel muttered, forcing herself to be fair to her dad, even though she was still currently, pretty mad at him.
How am I going to manage without my mom to talk to? She scrunched her hands into fists and pounded on her thighs in frustration. The floodgates burst open. Sobs tore her throat, and tears clogged her nose, her ribs hurt, and she still couldn’t make herself stop. It just wasn’t fair!
Without realizing she had moved, Laurel found herself lying face down on the flat stone with her legs entangled in the bushes. Her tears fell into the pool, making little circular ripples like raindrops. It was a little easier to breathe now, but the tears kept coming. Laurel cried for her Mom, for Cole, for Sam, and mostly for herself.
She was abandoned half way across the world. Mom needs me; I need Mom; I want to go home! The tears dripped off her nose into the pool, faster and faster. She needed to stop crying, but she couldn’t. The loss of control scared her, and she was very cold now. Her feet felt like ice, her wet jeans clung to her cold legs. In between the sobs, Laurel’s teeth started to chatter.
Through the blur of tears, there was a shimmer over the surface of the pool. She hiccupped and blinked. A gentle hand touched her hair, smoothing it back from her face. Mom! Mom always smoothed her hair when she was sick or upset. Warmth spread through her...
The woman about her mom’s age, but it wasn’t her. The lady had blue eyes, and her skin glowed. Bright and silvery blond hair hung long and gossamer around her face, falling over the weird hooded robe she wore. The fingers on her hands were short and sturdy. She was the most beautiful person Laurel had ever seen, except of course for Mom.
“No, sweet child, I’m not the mother you are missing so badly.” Her voice blended with the sparkling voice of the spring.
The woman sat down and rested a hand on her cold shoulder. The touch was comforting. Laurel wriggled around and sat cross-legged with her knees drawn up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around them in an attempt to stop the shivers. The woman wrapped her cape around Laurel. She gathered the soft fabric up under her chin, breathing in the sweet scent of verbena and lavender. Immediately, she was warmer and calmer. With her eyes on the fall of the water into the little rock pool, she searched for something to say, embarrassed at being discovered wailing away like a baby. Even worse, by someone she didn’t even know.
“Do you live around here?”
“In a manner of speaking, I do. I can usually be found somewhere near this spring,” the woman answered.
“Do you know Sarie?” They must be friends, if this woman hung out in Sarie’s pony field.
“Sarie and I are old friends. She is the current custodian of this spring.”
“Does the spring have a name?”
“Some call it the Well of the White Lady,” the woman said softly.
“Who’s the White Lady?”
“She is the spirit of this place, this spring. But she is connected to all the sacred wells and springs, indeed to all the landscape that is Britain,” the woman explained.
“So she’s like an undine?” She remembered her mom’s story about the water spirits.
The woman’s laughter spilled into the serenity of the small glade. “Goodness, child where did you hear of undines?”
“My mom tells me stories about them.”
“Undines are water elementals. They dwell in any body of water and are small and childlike, although they can be quite helpful at times. The White Lady is the actual spirit of the spring, associated with a particular spring. She is however connected to the greater feminine spirit which inhabits all the sacred springs and dwells in the landscape about us. The greater Spirit is known by many names Mary, Brigit, the Lady of the Lake, and in other lands as Isis, to name just a few.” The woman’s voice held a strange vibrancy.