Genny and I were sent back once the sea wind directed the storm to farther climes. We had spent a tense few hours taking turns peering out the one pair of binoculars that Mr. Lewis had in his shop, only to be sent off before the final ship was sighted.
Bryn had walked us to the beginning of the pathway and offered only a silent, raised hand in farewell. It was appropriate I suppose, as anything else would have broken the solemnity. We’d done what we could to ensure those at sea found their way home safely. The rest was up to fate, chance, destiny, or maybe a combination of the three. And yet this didn’t occupy my thoughts. The guilt and worry that occasionally swarmed my conscience was replaced by wondering at why Dan Ilyr had told me the tale he did and how it related to our family. The bell glass, clinking in my pocket next to the shell was a small reminder that constantly directed my thoughts there again and again.
“You’ve not spoken at all since we met back at Mr. Lewis’.” Genny finally broke the silence. “Are you worried about the ships?”
I winced, the guilt palpable. “I should be,” I started. “But I… I met a sailor after I raised the alarm. There was this path towards the sea and I heard these bells.” The story spilled forth about Dan and also Ilar Morgan. And when I finished, I realised that we’d stopped at the fairy tree both of us sitting about the rails, our feet tucked in around us. Genny blinked as I finished. Something finally startling her into silence. I passed over the piece of sea glass Dan had given me.
Unsure, she turned it over in her hands, tracing the same pattern that I’d found, in the same reverent way. What was it, that caused such an exact replication? Maybe we’d both been looking for the same thing. A place to belong completely. To fill up any emptiness inside until we were completely whole. Something inside me yearned for this feeling of total completion, to brim with self-confidence until I overflowed and was able to inspire the same in others. The way Nainy did. It had always seemed to me that Genny was right there too. But as I watched her turn not only the glass over in her hands but my story over in her mind, I was reminded of what Mr. Roberts had said on the train. About hurricanes being lonely. It was in this fast moment, when I witnessed the same vulnerability in Genny that I always felt myself, coursing through my veins to my own constant disappointment, that I discovered a truth in the world. That all of us, are in our own way, susceptible to the self-doubt that may sneak into our thoughts and extinguish the hope and truths that drive us. Even the bright vibrancy of Genny could be diminished by the disease of doubt.
The strength of such a discovery was astonishing and the tears that unconsciously welled in my eyes were only driven back by the grim realisation that it could have a detrimental impact on Genny. And in that I found strength. I reached across the great depth that separated us by mere inches and gave a her hand a squeeze, hoping that in that frail assurance she could feel the peace and fortitude that I wished to imbue her with.
“And you think Ilar Morgan is our distant grandfather?” Genny almost whispered, glancing first at my hand and then at me through her lashes. She cleared her voice and what was a whisper before, came out with more confidence. “I mean he must be. Don’t you think? This Dan character was just the right person to talk to about this. Do you think he knows about my mother as well?”
I shrugged my response.
“We could go ask him. We could go right now,” Her excitement shone clearly through her bright eyes.
I shook my head, “Mr. Lewis called Nainy and told her we were on our way as we left the shop.”
Genny frowned and reluctantly handed back the sea glass. Then her head darted up and she bit on her lower lip whilst glancing up the hill. She began, “Maybe…” and then trailed off tapping her fingers on the rail.
“Maybe what?” I asked now too curious to wait for her to finish.
Her head whipped back around and a small half smile broke on her face. “Come on,” she pulled me to my feet and we continued on our way down the path. “Remember how I told you about the strange man who lives up on the hill?”
“Yes,” I responded hesitantly. “You said he was creepy, like something out of an old tale and that we should leave him be. Good riddance or something of that nature.”
Genny waved away the annoying truthfulness of my response away. “Yes, well there was that. But what I meant, was how I said sometimes he tells strange stories.”
“But you didn’t mention a word of that before.”
Genny rolled her eyes, “I’m mentioning it now. Anyway, it doesn’t matter when I said it, just that I am saying it right? Right. So, here’s the plan…”
Nainy was relieved to see us when that final bend turned and we came in view of the house. I couldn’t see her face, so very far away still, but that she was standing outside and squinting in our direction was proof enough.
“Dear Lord,” she pulled us into her as she knelt down to greet us. An arm around both Genny and I, clasping us all together. “You girls were so brave today.” She held us both back, so that she could look into our eyes as she stood. A strained smile taunted her lips, “You saved a good number of people out there. I’m quite proud.”
She didn’t look very proud. She looked worried, as if she had risked us both unnecessarily and we’d come out on the other side by only the grace of God and some sort of vagabondish luck that traipsed the country side and settled upon two wayward girls, once a millennia or so. That didn’t stop her from taking us inside and making sure we each had a a warm bowl of soup in us before she attempted to usher us upstairs for an afternoon of quiet reading or a nice nap. Both actually sounded divine but the lure of further knowledge encouraged us both in another direction.
“Actually, Nainy,” Genny began. She had foreseen the suggestions for the afternoon. “I was thinking of poor Mr. Sarffer. He’s quite alone up on the hill and he was hit by the storm just like the rest of us but he’s not blessed to have such a loving person to look after him and see to his care.”
Nainy had stopped clearing the dishes and levelled a look at Genny, “You’re laying it on a bit thick I should think, Gwyn.”
“I’m not laying anything on. It’s just this morning reminded me that helping others is such a nice pleasant feeling and I wanted to prolong that.”
I chimed in, “We could bring him some of that nice bara brith that we made just yesterday. It is so very tasty and Mr. Lewis says you make some of the best bara brith on the island.”
“Mr. Lewis is given to exaggerating.”
“Besides,” Genny added hastily. “We needn’t give him any of Nainy’s bara brith. I don’t think he’d be all that hungry. There’d be hardly any left for after dinner tonight.”
Nainy’s sharp mouth shifted to a tight smile, “Now Gwyn, what about all this good will you seemed so intent on sharing not two minutes ago?”
And so it was that right after we’d finished with the dishes and cleaning up, we were sent on our way up the hill with the rest of Nainy’s bara brith wrapped tight in a clean linen and a cautionary warning.
“I wouldn’t let you go if I didn’t think it was safe girls. But just remember that if you want to go bothering the likes of Mr. Sarffer, then you best be ready. He likes to extract payment for anything he might say but you’re not obliged to make any agreement with him. Some kindness may be just what he needs.”
Genny waited to share a triumphant smile with me until the forest began to shade us from view. Her real triumph was that she’d cut us both a piece of the bara brith before our meal, in anticipation of our plan. The sweet success of our plot was made only that much better with such a delicious treat.
Mr. Sarffer lived higher up the hill than we’d gone before. Past the hill fort ruins and almost directly at the top. But not completely, because Genny told me that the very top of the hill had a strange pond, that was sure to be a fairy pond and was to be given a wide berth, as was to be expected with such things. Even though Mr. Sarffer did not live at the top of the hill, it still took us a good twenty minutes of searching for paths through the undergrowth before we stumbled into the little clearing the held Mr. Sarffer’s tumble down home. Tumble down might have been in inaccurate way to describe it. In truth, it was just old. The wooden planks that criss-crossed its sides were cracked and dark with age and the stone chimney that peeked out over the back of the roof looked as though it were both too heavy and too embarrassed to be an actual part of the house.
“Do you think the house might fall down?” I whispered hesitantly.
“Shh, Mr. Sarffer’s a woodworker. It may look decrepit but if he built it, it’s a solid piece of work.” She motioned me forward. “He’s probably in his workshop.”
The workshop seemed to have absorbed all the attention that the house hadn’t received. As though it were a parasite, sucking the life from the home to fuel the work. As we rounded the corners, I was struck by how much cleaner it was than I had anticipated. A few wood shavings and some shop rags littered the floor but other than that the shop was well used but very orderly. Mr. Sarffer’s back was bent as he tinkered with something I couldn’t see.
“Don’t just stand there girl. I heard your curiosity all the way up the mountain,” He still hadn’t turned around but his voice wasn’t as gruff as I imagined but instead seemed to slide about the room,oily and thick.
Genny approached with all the confidence I didn’t feel and set the parcel on the workbench just out of the way. “We brought you some bara brith, Mr. Sarffer.”
He immediately stilled and turned only his head to ask over his shoulder, “Mrs. Morgan’s bara brith?”
“Well, my cousin Viv and I helped of course.” Genny smiled.
Mr. Sarffer laid down what he was working on, “I guess now’s as good a time to stop as any.” He picked up the parcel then finally turned towards us and narrowed his eyes as he examined me. He was a lot younger than I had imagined. And while he had a beard that made him look older, I could tell he was younger than my father. It was the glasses too that added to his age but just as I noticed them he took them off, revealing eyes that seemed sharp but dead of emotion or care. He set them next to the small wooden spoon he was working on,.
I’d seen multiple “love spoons” as Genny has called them at the Mr. Lewis’ shop, in a case he only put out on Saturdays for the visitors. Tat for the tourists, he’d say. Those had seemed so beautiful to me at the time with their intricate handles depicting swirls and designs that looked exotic and strange whilst still seeming somewhat familiar. And it had puzzled me that Mr. Lewis had shook his head over them as if he had allowed a fish to start running the store. I realised now that they were they were infinitely inferior to that which Mr. Sarffer was carving. His subtle additions to the spoon were delicate and enchanting almost luring me to come closer and reach out to touch it.
“You’re the other one, are you?” Mr. Sarffer’s voice shook me from the temporary spell and I re-acknowledged the man standing near the workshop door clasping the wrapped package possessively in one arm,.
“The other one, sir?”
“The other grandchild,” Mr. Sarffer almost hissed and gestured ahead of him and Genny and I found ourselves being led to the tremulous building that was called a house. “I knew there was two of you but couldn’t imagine a world with two Gennys.”
“Such a place might shatter with perfection,” Genny retorted flouncing in and settling daintily on the sagging sofa.
Mr. Sarffer merely snorted and then cut himself a slice. “I’d offer you some but you’d just be overstuffed from what you’ve already had some on the way here.”
I glanced up sharply but Genny just laughed. “I forgot to tell you how Mr. Sarffer is, Viv. He just seems to know everything. Or he’s just very good at guessing.”
Mr. Sarffer swivelled toward Genny, the very tiniest edge of his mouth turned up for a mere moment before returning to his treat. “And what is it you’ll be wanting to know then?”
“We were just checking on you after that absolutely dreadful storm,” Genny said, casually.
Mr. Sarffer looked at her unblinkingly. Just looked and Genny, who had the confidence to ride out any sort of lie, began to crumble. This was why we hadn’t come before, why she didn’t like him. He was able to cut through the facade she’d built around herself and expose her inner most fear to the one person it hurt most to see it. Herself. And he wasn’t kind either. It was as if he knew what we really wanted and was extracting some sort of payment.
“I’ll not tolerate lies, Genny. I can’t abide liars,” He continued to chew in a monotoneous sort of way that made me wonder if he was eating just the bara brith or consuming a bit of her soul.
And that was what caused me to speak up. The moment Genny and I had shared under the fairy tree or the fact the Genny had come to my rescue on the train without realising it gave me the courage to throw myself in the line of fire because whatever it was he was doing, I couldn’t see her crack like that. “It was quite a storm. Are you ok, Mr. Sarffer?” I asked directly and full of the confidence that was shaking like water before a damn of twigs.
He stared at Genny a moment longer before directing his gaze at me. The full force of it was staggering. He hadn’t even really moved, just shifted his eyes but I felt as though I was struggling for breath or at least struggling to maintain my composure. I imagined this was how a snake charmer might feel, staring down a cobra, wondering when, or if, the strike would come. And suddenly, as if pulled from deep within me, the most terrible moments of my life seemed to play themselves before my eyes. My father and mother collapsed together in the doorway crying. The overwhelming sweet smell of flowers, only masking the underlying hint of abject sorrow. Dark nights lying in bed and staring at the ceiling cloaked in loneliness.
My hand slipped into my pocket and clasped around my shell and glass. Mr. Sarffer still hadn’t moved, still hadn’t blinked. But it was in that moment when my knees began to shake that a small familiar breeze danced around my ankles and swept its way up, straightening my back and building my strength.
The breeze began to weaken and I thought I might cry out in despair but then a small bell chimed. And Mr. Sarffer did something he hadn’t done once since I met him. He blinked. He blinked and glanced at the door. It didn’t seem to be enough because in the next moment he stood and brushed past up to check outside. When he returned, I steadied myself as he grunted and sat back down. He glanced at me and Genny before returning his attention to the food, “This is better than I remember.”
Genny sagged with relief and I too could feel my entire being ease slightly. I felt as though all my energy had been drained. Even nodding seemed to be a chore. Mr. Sarffer pushed himself back in his chair and glanced at me again, looking refreshed. His eyes briefly darted to where my hand still sat in my pocket, wrapped around the shell and glass.
“You came for a story, did you?”
Genny nodded. And Mr. Sarffer regarded us both evenly before getting up and walking out of the home. His bara brith was still only partially eaten and his thick boots causing echoes to ricochet off the walls. Genny and I glanced at each other and then she shrugged and followed him back to his shop. We both went, our hands tightly entwined.
He was back at the bench, bending over the spoon with a tiny chisel shaving away the smallest slivers. We stood at the door quietly, neither of us willing to go home empty handed after the horrible experience of Mr. Sarffer’s gaze.
“Young girls like a love story, don’t they?” he called over his shoulder. “Sit. Listen.”