ON HELLFIRE BLUFF (A Long Short Story for Children)

P1040617

Barnaby Blake lives in a house far from anywhere but close to the sea. Barnaby loves the sea. He lets the sound of waves put him to sleep last thing each day, and opens his eyes to ripples of light at the first. He watches the colour games between time and sea and weather and sky; when blue has white and blue is nearly silver and pink almost blue and blue grows to black. Barnaby loves the colour blue; there is something in it that makes him wish he could fly. He never tires of watching blues, or the sea. He is watching them now.

“Barnaby! Hurry up, Barnaby!”

Barnaby’s Granny pokes her head briefly into Barnaby’s bedroom. Her cheeks are extra rosy – a warning sign. Barnaby knows that Granny tires of him watching the sea rather often.

“It’s Thursday, Barnaby. Thursday, have you forgotten?” Barnaby hasn’t forgotten, though he was trying to. He was dreaming himself flying away from Thursday.

Granny Blake is sometimes flustered and rosy, but all the time round and kind and busy. Barnaby loves the smell of her – like biscuits and bees wax and home. Granny Blake took the house by the sea in exchange for housekeeping and maintenance, and “there is always something to do, Barnaby, always something to do”. Barnaby looks quickly up and up and around in case there might be an interesting bird but the sky is empty. He touches the window with the flat of his hand as if to touch the sea, then finally turns away to get on with Thursday.

Birds are another thing Barnaby loves. He has a little bird book from which he has worked out the names, colours and calls of every bird he has seen. His favourite bird is the white-breasted sea eagle, because it can fly nearly two thousand metres high, with eyesight so sharp it can see heat. Barnaby wonders what heat would look like and how it works with blue. He dreams of flying high enough to see what might lie beyond the bluff and the reef and the tier, which is as far as he has ever been.

Barnaby has made friends with a sea eagle. She lives near the house; somewhere high up where she too can watch the sea. She is a fully grown bird with two metres or more of wing and in flight is absolutely the most beautiful thing Barnaby has ever seen. Some days she swoops to rest just near to Barnaby and watches him, just watches; other days Barnaby is sure she is showing him things.

One particular morning, when the sky was its most perfect blue and the sun was early-pale, Barnaby awoke and – as was his habit – went to the window to look at the sea. There, perched on a branch by the open window was the eagle, her powerful black eyes fixed on him so intently he was sure she was looking through his eyes all the way to his thoughts. Then with a great, sudden cry she took flight, and the sweep of her wings sent a wind all the way to Barnaby’s toes and saw him dart from the room without a thought. In a moment he was out of the house and away – close behind the rush of beating wings and the echo of her call. Only when he reached the far, rocky end of the beach did he lose sight of her. Only then did he feel his own rush of air as the breaths tore through his chest, doubling him over and blurring his eyes. It was a moment or two before he could stand tall again, and another before something else caught his eye and stalled his breath – there, standing on a low rock, was a little girl with silky hair and pale blue, shining eyes. She smiled at Barnaby and took his hand.

“Coat, Barnaby, coat!” Shouts Granny, “Have you lost your senses, it’s cold as a frog out there? Go and find it while I start the boxes. And hurry up!”

Barnaby runs to find his coat and wonders what might go into the boxes today, wonders more at the care his grandmother puts into packing them for such a grumpy old man as Mr Tasman Oldmeadow. Mr Oldmeadow is the landlord, to whom Barnaby and Granny Blake “are very much obliged”, because he has exchanged his whole house for their care. Barnaby doesn’t like being very much obliged to Mr Oldmeadow, whose thick white eyebrows and great long arms are somehow frightening. Village whispers of madness and affliction have also cautioned Barnaby against Mr Oldmeadow, but he can’t help being just a little bit in awe. The old man lives alone in a large tent with a lean-to, an outhouse and a clothesline, high up in the Wielangta Forest not far from the bluff. He spends his days wandering aimlessly to and fro the far reaches of the district – it is said as far as EarlhamBeach to the Long Spit and back.  He speaks to no-one and is rarely in camp on Thursdays when Barnaby and Granny Blake attend with supplies and maintenance. Barnaby wonders about being alone and sleeping in a tent. He knows about rambling in the forest because he does it himself most days, but never on his own. Barnaby does all of his rambling with Jessie, and it is never aimless.

“Boots today, Barnaby – gumboots.” Calls Granny Blake, and Barnaby frowns again at Thursday and what Jessie might do without him today.

Jessie is the little girl with silky hair and shining eyes. Since that day on the rocks when she took his hand, Jessie has become Barnaby’s dearest and only friend. She is smaller than Barnaby, but wiser and braver. She wears a grey-blue dress and sturdy black boots and knows very well how to find adventure.

That first day she took him to the creek and paddled for river stones smoothed by water rush. She taught him to fish with bits of crab and cotton and Barnaby brought home three good sized bream which made Granny smile and pat his hair. Another day, Jessie took him inland, far from the beach and into pasture where a woolly Fresian cow grazed and hardly blinked when Jessie squeezed warm, sweet milk from her udder into Barnaby’s hands. That was the day they found the ruins of an old house, and the remnants of a beautiful garden with clusters of daffodils and roses and climbing geraniums so big they could cover the sun. That day, they found bits of pretty blue china and a tiny glass bottle. They searched and searched for that garden on other days but it wouldn’t be found. They decided, in excited whispers, that it must be enchanted and only found when it wants to be.

Another time they found an old leaky dinghy which they launched at EaglesBeach and almost sank. Barnaby used his hat to bail out the water while Jessie used one of her boots. After that, Jessie taught him to swim.

Swimming brought new adventures. Finally Barnaby saw what it was like under his beloved sea – he could fly safely through new silvery blues and bluey greens. There was more life than he had ever seen. The empty shells and dry starfish and crispy weed of his beach suddenly became living parts of the sea. From the water, Jessie showed him how to lift oysters and mussels from the rocks, to take home for tea.

Another summer’s day saw them fossicking in rockpools at Blowhole Point and finding worn shards of coloured glass which they imagined was pirates’ treasure. Jessie chased Barnaby with a sword made from driftwood, over the rocks and into a tiny cove. Its beach had no sand but instead was filled high with shells of every kind. They spent an afternoon collecting as many cowrie shells as they could. “Cowrie shells”, said Jessie in her strangely grown up way, “are few and far between and bring very good luck.” They found eighteen in all, which they packaged into a basket made from she-oak wisps for luck’s safe-keeping.

Once when they had tracked back to the secret cove again, Jessie produced a shining black pearl from an abalone shell. This she placed onto thistledown inside a tiny box carved from golden wood. Jessie was always happy but that day, the pearl day, she said she was blessed.

“Careful with those jars, Barnaby; set them apart so they don’t knock together.” Granny Blake is busier than ever and anxious not to be late. Barnaby helps her pack the last box and carries it to the old four wheel drive. Barnaby has never pondered the question of why Mr Tasman Oldmeadow chooses to live in a tent deep in a forest rather than his perfectly good house, but today – because he is feeling grumbly about the long bumpy drive and the cold and because he has reached an age when things need questions – Barnaby is curious.

“Why doesn’t he like people when he is one, why is he so cross and frowny and does he talk to animals?” He asks as Granny Blake starts up the engine.

“He’s really a nice old thing,” Granny assures him, “but terribly shy.” Her smiley mouth turned upside down and some of her rose seemed to fade. “And sad,” she adds before going quiet for a moment, a rare thing for Granny Blake.

“Why sad?” Barnaby hates to think of anyone being sad, even if they are cross and are all brow and no eye.

“Oh I’ll tell you about it one day, my love, one day. We don’t talk of it to the children, your young heads needn’t trouble.” She clunks the gears about and slows for a large crack in the road. “I think he might talk to animals though – everyone needs a friend of some kind or another.”

Barnaby thinks fondly of Jessie and her easy way with animals and absently says, “Everyone needs a Jessie.”

The vehicle scrunches to a sudden, dust-fled stop. Granny Blake looks at him, “Did you say – what did you say?”

“N-nothing.” Barnaby hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

“What do you know of Jessie, Barnaby?” Granny is unusually stern.

“J-Jessie? I know nothing of any Jessie.” He looks at the floor, then the sky, then dares a glance at Granny Blake. She is looking at him though narrowed eyes. “Whatever you’ve heard, you’d do well to stay quiet about it. We’ll talk about it over tea when we’ve done our day.” And with that, the vehicle lurches onwards and up into thickening scrub.

After their very first adventure together, Jessie had made him spit on a white river stone and vow to never speak of her to anyone. She told him that she would have go away if anyone knew she was spending her days in the forest and on the beach, that it would all be over. Barnaby solemnly vowed, put the stone on the table by his bed for remembering by and had never said a word. Until now. And now, he watches the close pass of trees with a sinking in his chest. “Will she have to go away?” He thought, this time to himself. “What does Granny know of Jessie?” He dared not ask.

Granny Blake hums a loud ‘no more talk’ tune as they wobble and heave up into the Bobby Tinker Hills. She is still humming when they reach the end of the old road and find the rickety wooden cart in its place by a bluestone cairn. Barnaby works hard to help load the trolley with the boxes of supplies and pushes for Granny’s pull to trundle it over the track to the camp. But his mind wanders into troubled terrain as he worries over Jessie and the slip of his tongue. How ordinary a life (even a life by the sea) he would have without Jessie.

As is usual, there is no sign of Mr Tasman Oldmeadow. Barnaby distracts himself by sorting through the contents of the boxes as he places them into apple crates turn-sided for shelves: three candles (two lavender, one citronella) a carton of ginger beer, a cup of fresh cream, a bag of flour, one large bunch of silverbeet, a jar of earth worms, a knife sharpener, a packet of watercolours, a tin of beetroot, three batches of Granny Blake’s Energy Biscuits and a jar of her best jam. He lingers over a shiny pocket knife and a pile of golden wood shavings that he rubs between his fingers. They send out a strong, sweet smell that makes Barnaby think of old things.

He is halfway through splitting a pile of wood when Jessie appears at his side. He jumps, then feels such a fizz of relief that he has to stop himself from hugging her. Jessie is smiling, her eyes shining more than ever – shimmering like pools. She takes his hand and says, “I’ll show you something, Barnaby.” Barnaby forgets his trouble (and his kindling) and gives a small glance toward his Granny who is sewing trousers by the lean-to. Filled with gladness, he follows Jessie through the forest and up a rocky incline, so steep they have to scramble. At the top, Barnaby catches his breath.

“My favourite place of all,” whispers Jessie.

They are standing on a wide rock, high above the tree tops, with a view to everything as far as the eye can see. For the first time, Barnaby can see that beyond the tier are more green pastures and a faraway town, beyond the reef is ocean and more ocean, and beyond the bluff is a sweeping bay with perfect waves and shining sand. He feels as though he is looking at the whole world.

“You there! What are you up to?” It is a gruff voice from below and it makes Barnaby jump. He looks down onto the large, forbidding face of Mr Tasman Oldmeadow and his eyebrows. From his high perspective, Barnaby notices a droop in the enormous shoulders and a hanging of the head which makes him think of weeping willows.

“Come down from there boy, and now.”

Barnaby jumps again and hurries down, sliding awkwardly and scraping his stomach. The old man peers down at him. “I won’t have you on that rock, I won’t have it.”

“I – I was j-just…my friend showed me…” Barnaby looks back up the rock, then around about. Jessie is nowhere to be seen.

“Your friend?”

“She – she’s gone.”

“Hmm.” A heavy eyebrow lifts. “Gone eh?”

“She was j-just here… She’s small, with a blue dress and black boots. Name’s J-Jessie. She was here, we were…”

“Jessie?” The word comes out quietly and with an odd squeak not befitting of a large, fearsome man. Barnaby looks up and into two pale eyes, set wide in an expression of sudden surprise. They stare through Barnaby and are so terribly empty that Barnaby cannot bear to look. Then they close, and for an instant the face softens and somehow breaks. But then the old eyes flick open and rest on Barnaby in disgust.

“Get out…” The old man’s eyes narrow and his coldly whispered words send Barnaby’s hair on end. “Get out of my sight you shameful, wretched waste of skin before I put you there.” The old hands clench into fists and for a moment Barnaby is sure he will be struck. Petrified, he cannot find his feet.

“GET OUT OF HERE!” The shout is close, and so loud it sends Barnaby spinning through the scrub, away as fast as he can. As he runs, the gossiped words of the village beat through his head in time with the fall of his feet and the rip of his breath: ‘Mad, deranged, lost and mad. Lost, deranged and mad.’

It is a while before Barnaby grows aware of another beat, this one above his head. He looks up to catch the white underbelly and black flight feathers of his eagle just as she flies ahead and out of sight. Suddenly aware of his dripping brow and aching legs, he slows to a stop and drops to his knees on a moss covered rock, his heart throbbing in his ears and a dry creep of dread on his lips. He looks up at the trees before him and they seem to sway, showing between them a fierce and endless blue. Barnaby rises, stumbles forward and with choking terror realizes he is no more than a few metres from the sheer drop of a vast rockface that plunges terrifyingly into the far-below sea – the ancient, scarred face of Hellfire Bluff. “Don’t look down”, so he jerks his eyes up, away from the fall and into the blue – a new sea and sky, more massive and seamless than any he’d seen before. And on the rising wind comes the distant, deranged wail of someone utterly lost.

Barnaby is not sure how long he stood there, on what seemed like the very edge of the Earth, listening to the echoing bay but he is transfixed, drenched by the shimmer of ocean, the taste of salt, the feel of fleeting air and visions of soaring wings. He is leaning and leaning, pitching into the blue when he becomes aware of the lightest touch on his sleeve, a small hand slipping into his and a whisper at his back.

“Not you too, Barnaby. It is magic out there, peaceful down there, but not you too.”

He starts, blinks and just as the fear grips him again by the throat, is pulled harshly back and away from the rushing air. He gulps, looks up; and Jessie is there, beside him, silky and bright and calm. He clenches her hand, holds it to his cheek.

“He’s a monster, Jessie, a monster. He was like an animal, he is still wailing, listen to him.”

“No, Barnaby listen to me,” says Jessie in her grown up way, with a new firmness in her voice that stills him again, “he is not a monster, he is not mad. But he is lost and hurt, and very, very sad.”

And when the wailing rose again, it was indeed the cry of very deep sorrow. ‘Lost and taken and broken and sad,’ came the village whispers again; ‘Ruined and fallen and sad.’

The wailing goes on and on, then louder, and pitching lower and lower still until it is more like a rumble. Barnaby’s eyes twitch up to Jessie’s face and she smiles at him, squeezes his hand and stands.

“We have to run again now, Barnaby.” She pulls him to his feet and looks into his face. “But come back here; I’ll be here. Promise me you’ll come back.” Her bright eyes are brighter still with something that could be tears. Barnaby squeezes her hand and nods a promise.

The rumble grows louder, an earthen thunder now that seems to pulse through the ground beneath them. And the trees before them do sway, and the blue reaches out to them with the wind as the earth beneath them slips away. So they run. Barnaby grasps Jessie and pulls her behind him, his longer legs quicker than hers. But moss and rock and earth work against them like a current and Barnaby senses a flagging, a draw and that useless taste of fear. A tree root rises from the ground before him and he stumbles and falls and falls and falls, everything inside him sinking, the world roaring and Jessie’s small, cold hand still in his.

*

This blue has been dipped in pale silvery pink; the blue of a warm, late-day sky. It has one tiny, bright hole in it – the evening star. Barnaby opens his heavy eyes to its wink, and he smiles. A wink is a kind thing, and Granny Blake says the evening star brings good fortune. A familiar, sudden rush of air near his bedroom window makes him sit up, but there is nothing but a swinging branch and the last of a sea breeze. And the sea. There it is, silken and shining bright.

“Jessie?” He gasps to the sea. “Jessie…”

“Ah yes, Jessie.” Granny Blake says softly from the chair by the door. “We should talk about Jessie.”

She sweeps over and presses his head to her bosom. “Oh my darling boy, I thought you were lost.”

“What happened, Granny?” Barnaby struggles against her relief, “on Hellfire Bluff – something…”

“We had an earthquake. Not a huge one but big enough to fell trees and move great hunks of quartz, and to send the side of the bluff into the sea. People heard the land-slip way up at Lisdillon and into Hobart. My ears are still a-ringing.”

Barnaby’s bed lurches beneath him and his ears roar. He grips the bedclothes as if they are the reins of a bolting horse. He sees rising trees and scuttling stones, and Jessie’s feet losing their grip on the ground.

“Is Jessie – is she lost?”

Granny Blake strokes his hair. “Of course she’s lost, my love. She won’t be found.” She sees his shoulders fall. “You’ve had a bump to the head, Barnaby-boy, and you need to rest.” She pulls him to her again and this time Barnaby lets her. He breathes the scent of biscuits and beeswax and home and lets his tears soak her soft woolen vest.

When he wakes again, Jessie is at his side. She stares at him through dull glass, framed by chipped gilded gold and set beside a jar of flowers on his bedside table. The photograph is old and muted in sepia, and the girl is wearing a dark coat and a solemn expression, but the shine in her eyes and the silk in her hair is unmistakable. Barnaby stares back at her, willing her to smile but knowing she never will. Never will again. Granny Blake puts a hand to his hair.

“There she is, Barnaby boy. I put her in a frame for you. This is the last picture of her before she disappeared, Mrs Freeman from the historical society found it for me. Jessie Oldmeadow.”

There is silence a moment before Barnaby gives her a questioning look. She smiles at him. “You should have told me you were searching for Jessie too. All this time.”

“Jessie Oldmeadow?” Barnaby’s voice wobbles.

“You were mumbling about her when I found you by the camp, all scraped up and bumped. Seems to me you might have yourself an imaginary friend. Always knew you’d have a good imagination.”

Barnaby looks at her blankly. “Oldmeadow?”

“He’s alright, poor old thing. Gave him a nasty turn though – he thought his world had quite fallen away, what’s left of it. I’ve had to bring him down here with us, he’s in the spare room; wants to see you when you’re up to it. I think he might be about ready to talk, especially to a friend of Jessie’s. It’s been forty years since she disappeared and he’s barely spoken a word since. `Course if you vanished in the bush without a trace, I’d camp out and search my life away too – oh Barnaby,” Granny Blake catches sight of his stricken face, “I’m sorry love, here I am warbling on, and you with such a bump…” Granny Blake brings the blanket up to Barnaby’s ears and frowns at his white face and wide eyes. “You’re alright now,” she says gently, “safe and sound.”

But Barnaby feels the world shifting from beneath him all over again.

For a while, Barnaby stays in his room, watching changing blues, listening to the sea and trying sadly not to give his heavy brain wings to wander. But wonder it did: How can she not be real…something so alive?… What else will my wicked imagination give me that the world can take away?…don’t dare dream, don’t dare… He looks again at the solemn photograph before turning it flat on its face. Something shines at him from behind – a pale, polished cowrie shell, nestled among its others in a basket woven from she-oak. Barnaby had put it there, beside his bed, for luck. Beside it, for friendship and wishes, sits the dark pearl in its tiny wooden box. Barnaby picks it up. The box is carved from dense, golden wood marked by years and seasons. It has a strong, sweet, ancient smell. Barnaby remembers something else – the river stone vow, and fumbles about on the bedside table. The white stone is not there. Barnaby looks again but no, it is most definitely gone. Frowning, Barnaby raises the picture frame again. Jessie’s sweet face looks at him and in her eyes he catches the hint of a smile.

On shaky bed-legs, Barnaby leaves his room and crosses the hall to the door of the spare room. It is ajar, and through it Barnaby can see Mr Tasman Oldmeadow lying flat on his back, staring blankly at the ceiling. A nibbled sandwich sits on a tray by his side. Something about the picture makes the great old man look small. Barnaby enters the room, just inside the door and for a long while wonders what to say.

“The quiet is very loud in here,” says Mr Oldmeadow suddenly, startling Barnaby, “it hums.” Barnaby nods nervously and edges forward. The old man lifts his head.

“Glad to see you’re back together, thought you might be broken for keeps.”

“You have her eyes,” says Barnaby without thinking.

Mr Oldmeadow smiles. “She had mine”.

They look at each other for a long moment, Mr Oldmeadow searching Barnaby’s face. “Your grandmother tells me you’ve made her into a friend.”

“Yes”.

“The last time I saw her, she was heading down to Bream Creek to fish. She was always busy with something – treasure hunting, pepper-berry picking, chasing clouds…She didn’t come back. I’ve looked everywhere, everywhere and further still. But I haven’t seen her again.” He brushes a huge, rough hand across his eyes. “So can you tell me of her, stay here and tell me?”

So Barnaby sits in the bedside chair, lets his mind wander into days and begins to speak. He talks of adventure and discovery and beauty and blue. But most of all he talks about Jessie. And when he has finished, Mr Oldmeadow looks at him with all sorts of things in his eyes – hope, envy, tenderness? – and says, “You didn’t imagine her Barnaby, did you.”

Barnaby doesn’t speak. Instead he opens his hand and holds out the pearl inside the tiny, scented box. Mr Oldmeadow gives a soft, “Oh” and reaches out, lifting the box to his face.

“She was always on for finding pearls in the abalones. One in a million. I always said that if anyone could it’d be Jessie. I carved the box from Huon pine, just in case. A perfect fit.” He gives it back to Barnaby. “You must be a good friend to her if she gave it to you. One in a million.”    

As Barnaby and Mr Oldmeadow grow stronger, Granny Blake bundles them up and takes them to the beach, “To breathe the sea spray and strengthen the bones.” Mr Oldmeadow thinks it may be too late for his bones but welcomes the sight of the sea. From the beach too, they have a vivid view of the bluff and the new, wide gash on its side, darker than the deepest blue.

“Think that may have been my doing,” sighs Mr Oldmeadow. “I saw you on Jessie’s rock and just for a moment I thought…then I was sure you were playing games with me saying Jessie’s name and I – I don’t know what came over me. Shouted loud enough to shake the earth it seems.”

“Forty years of pain will do that,” says Granny with a pat to Mr Oldmeadow’s hand, “move mountains.”

Barnaby pats Mr Oldmeadow’s other hand, then holds it. The old man looks down at him and smiles through a gleam of tears.

“Look, Barnaby,” says Granny Blake, “there’s your eagle, love. On her own again.”

Barnaby looks up. At the sight of the beautiful bird and her effortless flight, he feels a deep, spreading calm. His heart, apace since the landslip, settles back to its beat.

“I haven’t seen her since the earthquake”, Granny Blake continues. “she flew right over my head, calling out and then – my hat! – there was another, huge and handsome and just behind her. What a sight! I though she’d found her mate at long last. Disturbed by the quake they were I’d say.”

“She’ll wait for him,” says Mr Oldmeadow as he watches the bird soar circles over the sea, then curve back to land in the dunes alongside. “That’s what they do.”

A seaside silence follows – one with all the space to think and waves to soothe. After a while, satisfied that Barnaby and Mr Oldmeadow are comfortable and breathing the sea spray, Granny Blake goes back to her chores.

For hours they sit, until darkness falls. And even then they are compelled to stay by the peek of an immense, dimpled moon. It lifts above the sea and Barnaby finds his eyes drawn to the bluff. In amazement he watches the light of the moon catch on the quartzy rock of the landslip, forming a long, wide trail of shining silver that moves slowly from the top all the way to the sea.

“Hellfire”, whispers Mr Oldmeadow, “Hellfire Bluff.”

At sea level, the shimmering winks and beckons, and Barnaby feels drawn to it as though the light has a voice that calls his name. “Barnaby…Barnaby…come back here, Barnaby, promise me…”

“Barnaby!” Granny Blake shouts from the house. The eagle rises up from the dunes, calling her way back to her nest, somewhere in the dark trees. By the time Granny Blake has busily ushered them inside, Barnaby knows what must be done.

At first light, Barnaby wakes. There is yet no blue in the sky and no warmth from any sun, but there is, when he goes to the window, his eagle. She is perched on a branch, her powerful black eyes fixed so intently he knows for sure she is looking through his eyes all the way to his thoughts. She turns from him and with a small glance back, launches into the peppermint air.

It takes only a short time for Barnaby to raise Mr Oldmeadow and when they step outside there is no sign of the eagle, but Barnaby knows where to go. When they come to the beach, they can see her, high above Frank’s Marsh and heading north. They follow. Even on the Cockle Bay Track, the going is rough, and long. But two lifetimes of rambling through bush has them in good stead – and decent pace for a small boy and a very old man.  The sun is above them and the eagle out of sight when the track trails off to nothing. But with his heart beating right up to his cheeks, Barnaby finds new landmarks that show the way: an uprooted tree, newly fallen heaps of moss-less rock and broken shoals. And then, the first, fresh face of starkly pale quartz. At odds with the muted colours of the bush, it winks playfully at them, urging them onto the next, a little further on. Barnaby leads the old man from one white stone to the next, until they are following a crystalline path, right to the edge of the bluff. The edge is softer this time; there is no sudden drop into blue, no petrifying pitch, but a giant, tumbled scree of black rock, threaded with stepping stones of quartz. They shimmer their invitation.

“It’s peaceful down there…”

The pale stones lead down and out of sight, but Mr Oldmeadow barely hesitates. With his grip on Barnaby’s arm loosening and his stride widening, the old man moves ahead. Down and down they go, down and down and down until the blue of the sky is above them again and the sea only just below. But they don’t look up to sky, nor down to waves, but to the sparkling diamonds of a water-pool. For a moment, Barnaby’s sight is hindered by reflected sun, but Mr Oldmeadow has a different angle on the pool, and Barnaby first notices how still he has become, how silent.

“I’ll be here.”

The old man’s hand leaves Barnaby’s arm and he steps toward the pool, crouching down on his knees and putting out his hands as he reaches it. There, at the gently shaking, weathered fingertips is a worn dress of grey-blue linen and two sturdy black boots. And as his eyes blur again with gasping tears, he sees among the clothes, the perfect white of a tiny, broken skeleton.

“Oh Jessie, my Jessie,” says Mr Oldmeadow in a long-held stream of sigh. “You fell, girl, you fell. And I knew – I did, I looked everywhere at the bottom of heights. You always thought you could fly.”

“She can,” whispers Barnaby through his tears. He searches the sky. “She can fly, and it’s magic out there.”

*

Mr Tasman Oldmeadow will weep afresh for his little girl, but not so much in sorrow. He long ago shed all his sad tears, and has kept a great pool of tears for today’s relief. There will surely be sharp memories of loneliness and loss, moments of wist and wishing, and when he and Barnaby come to fly her ashes from the cliffs of Hellfire Bluff, he will once again long for her to share the everyday-different beauty of their home. But he will be glad for Jessie’s bringing him Barnaby, who will become a very dear friend.

Barnaby will take over the Thursday duties and Granny Blake will be a little less busy. He will, in fact, often times come to stay overnight, on his very own camp bed. He will love Mr Oldmeadow’s ways, his watchful nature and child like – Jessie-like – cravings for adventure. He will be astounded by the old man’s athleticism and strength. Together they will fish for bream with cotton lines. They will discover the old, enchanted garden without even trying and strike geranium cuttings for Granny Blake’s garden. They will search for cowrie shells at the pirates cave but never find a pearl.

“Abalone pearls,” Mr Oldmeadow will say in his wisdom, “require very keen eyesight and the luck of a thousand cowries.”

Together they will mend the leaky dinghy and use it to fish for flathead for Granny Blake’s best beer batter. Mr Oldmeadow will teach Barnaby how to whittle and one day Barnaby will lovingly fashion the shape of a little girl with sturdy black boots and long, silky hair. He will polish shards of worn glass and set them as her eyes. And every now and then, old man and boy will be joined by a magnificent, white breasted sea eagle, whose bright eyes will watch them from her distance as she waits.

White bellied Sea Eagle © D. LEAL 196

Advertisements

Categories: Stories & Poems

Tags: , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Stunning! Beautiful use of evocative language and enticing imagery…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s