Gentle Reader, I’m currently in Anchorage. Today’s piece is a guest post by Mr. C.W.L. Darling – a lovely piece of fiction – or is it? – from a magical summer we shared with our dear Miss Ward.
I think that we’ve all been there once. With the unformed minds of children we were caught up in our first experiences of wonder. We played in Tarabithia and Neverland; we were queens and kings with sticks for scepters and flowers in our hair. When sunlight shone gold off of your best friend’s tawny head and you saw, really saw his golden crown. That was when magic was possible, and alive. That was where adventure lay.
Some of us fought to keep it alive a little longer.
In the somewhat foggy past I see three friends on a beach. They’re awkward and unfinished in that teenager way. One of them pushes masses of red curls away from her broadly grinning face. Her laughter rings across the sand like bells. Her companions are another redhead, a boy this time, and another boy, with longish dark brown curls. The redheads are Madame Butterscotch & Dr. Hackenbush, the other boy is Jack Darling. Mark the strangeness; these are assumed names. These three friends are on a journey, you see. One that has a determined beginning, a mysterious middle & a most tragic ending.
They’ve decided to walk as far as they fancy on this stretch of Pacific Ocean. It is summer but this part of beach has no sunbathers upon it. It’s been a while since they left their shoes on the other side of the sign marking the public beach. Trespassing is its own thrill. They stride without hurry, posing few thoughts about what might lie ahead. They know that the surest route to where they want to go is best found by those not searching for it. They walk and talk; the Madame’s laughter is caught by the wind and carried away behind them.
The sun glinting brightly off the waves must have caught the good Doctor’s eye; without warning he sprints off toward the surf; his long legs carry him swiftly and soon he is splashing along parallel to the shore, his khaki pants soaking to the knee. Mme. Butterscotch and Jack laugh but do not join him, preferring to stay dry. He stands in the surf up to his calves and stares toward the horizon where the bright sky blue fades to a darker cerulean. The others wait, hands clasped at the edge of the water. When Hackenbush trudges back he is pushing his lank auburn hair from his forehead; they see the glint in his eye. There’s a shine of madness, a wildness, a joy. His eyes already gaze past what is in front of him and he is seeing another world. Butterscotch and Jack grin in unison and on a cue none of them spoke they are pelting down the beach. Bare feet make slow progress on loose sand but the tide is on the way out. They run flat-out on the damp, packed sand near the surf. Their toes squish with each pounding step.
Perhaps a fog rolls in off the shore. Strange to happen in the middle of a summer day on the coast, but certainly something obscures their path so that when they reach the wood they haven’t a clue how they got there, or how far they are from the beach, and their shoes. Jack swears he can hear the surf, but Hackenbush declares it only the rustle of the trees and that the ocean is a million miles away.
Behind them a drop, a sheer cliff for all their investigations can attest. They can’t be certain you see, because the cliff falls into a dense fog that seems to swirl just out of reach, impregnable. If you asked them how they got to the top of this cliff Butterscotch might insist they’d flown; she remembers the feeling of weightlessness. Jack would claim they had climbed it, like any sensible adventurer would do. Hackenbush would certainly declare the cliff appeared behind them and that they were never at the bottom of it at all. Putting aside how they got there, they must now approach with caution, care and respect.
Dr. Hackenbush takes the lead. He is supremely confident of what’s right in these matters having studied all sorts of lore. Trusting his skill with spells and rituals Butterscotch & Jack are behind the doctor, hands laced together tightly. They wear grins that will not fade from their faces for all their respectfully downcast eyes. Hackenbush kneels in the loose dirt that marks the edge of the clearing they stand on. His khakis are still wet with salt-water and his toes have sand between them. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a short stick. With it he traces glyphs in the dirt forming a circle. When this is done he pulls from another pocket a white candle which he pushes into the dirt at the center of his circle, so it stays upright. Repeatedly his hands reach somewhere into his oversized coat, each time returning with and placing an object in or around the circle. Three white stones around the outside, a black feather –likely a raven’s Jack thinks- placed beside the candle, a bundle of sage laid to the side. The last thing to be sought is a bic lighter which is first used to light the sage.
He finally beckons to his waiting companions and they join him around the circle. They each sit with a white stone in front of them and Hackenbush passes the sage to Butterscotch on his right after waving it in a pattern in front of him, leaving a trail of pungent smoke lingering in the air. She does the same, a different pattern, one known only to her. When she is finished she passes the smoking bundle to Jack, who makes his own sigil before handing it again to Hackenbush. The sage is placed aside and the candle lit. As one the three friends clasp hands and wait.
As happens when one sits still and remains open to what might come, something comes. They all feel it, that drifting feeling when the body is not moving. Like you can feel the pulse of the Earth, a slow rhythm. That’s when the inner eye has opened and the boundaries are thin. A person might just be able to walk across. The friends know that they have found the boundary in time, space and magic that they needed. Mme. Butterscotch is the first to shift. She tosses her head back and laughs into the silence. As if awoken by her voice the forest comes to life with sound again, though none of the three of them had noticed that the small creatures there had been waiting in silence with them. Jack looks to his left, meeting Butterscotch’s eyes and grinning again. Hackenbush is the last to stir. He is less joyous than the others, more determined. He remains serious.
“Each of you take your stone,” he says, indicating the white stones on the ground before them. “We have until the candle burns out before the boundary closes. If we become separated and you have your stone you will not be lost, it will lead you back to this place. You MUST be here when the candle sputters it’s last.”
“How long do we have?” This is Jack. His eyes shift back and forth, from the trees to Hack’s eyes.
Hackenbush grins at last and Butterscotch answers for him, “we have our whole lives, good friend. We have the world and eternity. We are free.”
They are electrified with their success at getting this far and eager to be off exploring. They break their clasped hands and each sweep up their stone into a fist. Jack’s goes into the front pocket of his tight denim pants. Butterscotch’s goes into a leather pouch she wears around her neck, and Hackenbush’s disappears back into his coat. Standing, they face the forest. Between the ordinary looking trees they catch glimpses of what lies there, flashing things and lights. Eyes that peer golden from between green leaves, but a blink and they are gone. They clasp hands again, and together they step determinedly into adventure.