Changeling’s Island – Snippet 07

* * *

They’d come to a place of old sadness and ghosts. A haunted place. A strong place too, in its own right. Áed could feel that Aos Sí blood had been spilled here long ago. And others of his own kind had left their marks, rather like dogs marking the edges of their territory. But the signs were old.

He was glad to be out of the cold-iron chariot. He hadn’t liked it, and he hadn’t liked the other human in it either. Ghosts or not, this place was open to the sky and the wind. It had a freedom about it.

Besides, the ghosts here were not inimical. Just present, and watching.

* * *

The rattling wheels on his Spiderman II bag were no use at all on the sandy track. And fifteen kilos had seemed like very little to fit your life into, but it got heavy, trudging towards…well, towards what? He had no idea.

The silence was frightening in itself. Partly because it wasn’t silence. Just quiet, with none of the ever-present background noise of the city. It made small noises seem louder and…well, more worrying. There were snakes out here. And he felt as if he were being watched. But there couldn’t be anyone out here…

The bushes rustled. Something was moving. Tim stood dead still, ready to run, his tiredness forgotten.

The terror stepped out onto the track and spread its tail. Tim was so startled he fell over his case. He lay there, hands in the dirt, feeling stronger, laughing with relief and just the sheer craziness of it all. A peacock? Here? In the middle of the bush?

The peacock didn’t like its tail being laughed at and stalked off. Tim got up and started walking again. It must be a pet, surely. He must be close to the house now? Three small wallaby came out of a patch of paper-bark trees. They didn’t give him quite the fright that the peacock had, and they were plainly wary of him too. He stood watching. He could see their nostrils whiffle as they tasted the air, turning their heads. They seemed to take it in turns to graze, with him being watched, as he watched them, with the sun slowly sinking into the trees.

He had to get on. He didn’t want to be here in the dark. You can’t be afraid of a wallaby, he snarked at himself. But he was. Would they kick him? He took a step towards them and they bounded off, and he trudged on. He was a lot less close to his grandmother’s house than he’d imagined when he saw the peacock. Maybe he should have taken that first faint track? This one didn’t look like it had been driven down lately either. What…what if he was lost? What if he had to spend the night out here? It was long, long walk back to the last house he’d seen from the speeding car.

The sight of a light was a very welcome one. He walked a little faster, down the curve and toward the house. There was only one light on, the house itself a dark bulk against the garden. As if it were some kind of beast waiting to leap.

Someone stood up from next to a garden bed as he approached. A small, slight woman who somehow managed to look about two meters taller than he was. The first thing Tim noticed about his grandmother’s face was her eyes. They were fierce, staring. And then she turned her head sideways, like she didn’t want to see him. But he could see that she was still staring, just not directly at him.

“You took yer own sweet time, boy,” she said, gruffly. He recognized the voice from the telephone. She never said much. Just “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas.” Never sent him anything either.

“No one picked me up until just before five!”

“That bloody Dicky Burke. He’s no good,” said his grandmother dismissively. “Well. I see you’ve got one of them trailing you around. You tell him he’s not to make any trouble around here, or I’ll give him what for. Put your bag on the verandah and come give me a hand.”

Tim didn’t know quite what to make of that statement. Hailey’s surname was Burke, so that, he assumed, was “Dicky Burke,” but was she talking about the bag trailing him around? Was she mad or something? Was he stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with a crazy old woman who wouldn’t even look at him? He soon found out that, whatever else she did, she meant to make him work. Principally at pushing a heavy wheelbarrow. First it was weeds to the compost heap. Then it was hauling wood for the kitchen from the woodpile. She fed the chickens, and then told him to bring over two more loads of wood, as she went inside.

* * *

Áed knew she could see him. That was enough to worry him, without adding this place to it. Sadness and the murder hung about the building. Not the whole building, just the old part, built with salted timbers drawn from the sea.

* * *

Mary Ryan did not need to see anything much in her kitchen. It hadn’t changed a great deal in the last fifty years, and she could put her hand to anything she needed in the pitch dark. With the way her sight was, these days, it was just as well. And right now her eyes were also full of tears. She couldn’t see him well enough. But he sounded…and moved so like her Tom had, when he was young, before…before he’d gotten angry inside, before he’d left the island. Before he’d pushed away all that his people came from, pretending he was something he wasn’t. Before he’d gotten involved with that Irish woman. It hurt. Heaven knew it hurt still. Having the boy here…was like a sore tooth that had been a mere niggle until one had a cup of coffee.

And yet…she’d desperately wanted him to hug her.

This youngster wasn’t her Tom. That boy had grown up and rejected everything she’d fought for, worked for. This boy was like him…but not like him. And this boy had one of the shivery little people with him. Funny, she couldn’t see the boy’s face except out of the side of her vision, but she could see the little people just fine. They looked like the air over a hot road, but you could sometimes make out their faces.

She sighed and turned back to the wood-burning range. She pushed the pot onto the heat. It was bad enough that she couldn’t really drive anymore, which made life difficult on the farm, but the boy would be expensive too. It was an expense that would have to be met.

After all, all of this was for him, eventually.

She’d promised her John, faithfully, when he’d gone off to war, that she’d look after the land. That there would always be a Ryan on it. Sometimes…sometimes she’d had the second sight. The inner eye that saw the future, and places far away. That always saw fragments…of truth. She’d seen her John die, her big, solid, beloved man, the only man who’d had the courage to come and dance with the black girls, and damn what anyone said. She’d seen him bleeding in the mud, three thousand miles away. She had known he was dead, long, long before they came to tell her. They’d said she was a hard woman. But she’d done her weeping by the time they brought the news. She was cried out by then.

She stirred the pot fiercely. She’d been strong then, and strong when Tom had wanted her to sell the farm. She’d be strong now.

When Tom had called to ask if she’d have the boy, she’d had a moment of the second sight again. Her eyesight was failing, but that inner eye still saw clearly. That inner eye showed her a vision, briefly, of a taller, broader boy than the one who had just crept into her yard. A boy with a straight back, in a red jacket, out on a boat with a stormy sky, and Roydon Island disappearing into the rain behind him, riding the wild waves, as if they were children’s tame ponies, and him with a broad smile on his face.

It was a smile that took her back fifty years to a man she’d loved, and still did.

After the seeing, after that vision, she couldn’t have said no, although she wasn’t sure how she was going to manage.

The boy came into the kitchen from the yard. Didn’t even take his shoes off by the sounds of it. He had a lot to learn. But he was her grandson. “Welcome home, boy,” she said evenly, trying to hide the emotions he’d boiled up in her. “Now go wash yer hands. The bathroom’s up there, to yer left. Yer tea will be ready in a few minutes. And next time leave your boots outside, see. We don’t wear boots in the house.”

* * *

Tim walked up the dark passage to the bathroom. The worn wooden floorboards creaked underfoot. The smell of food had reminded him just how long ago, and in what a different world, his last bowl of cornflakes had been. He was still tired, wary, and deeply unhappy inside. But it was kind of odd what someone saying “Welcome home” did to him inside.

It was almost as if, strange as the place was, it was home. Weird, he thought as he washed his hands. Home was Melbourne. It didn’t have a wood fire in the kitchen and had hot water in the hand-basin. It wasn’t a million miles out into the bush with a crazy old woman.