On Saturday mornings, unless she was volunteering a few hours at her church function, Flora Henderson stopped in at the Gibbons’ red brick farm house. Each visit she brought with her a plate of warm baking, scones or oatmeal muffins. She handed the plate to Eldred Gibbons, her offering to chat in private with his invalid father, Jacob.
Once arrived, Flora insisted first on a quick hoovering in the downstairs rooms. In the parlour she always paused before the sky blue cremation urn that held the ashes of Jacob’s wife, Abigail, dead four years now.
While Flora busied herself, Jacob sat at the kitchen table, musing over a news article in Farmers’ Digest. Occasionally he paused to scratch at the stump of his amputated left leg. Eldred would sit on the veranda and practice his fiddle playing. The Irish airs lifted him above the hovering shadows of weather and crop prices.
As she stored away the vacuum cleaner, Flora fastened on the beautiful musical phrases. She closed about Jacob, wished she could make him rise up whole, with two healthy legs. She saw herself helping him gather fresh eggs from the henhouse for market sale. Shortly, Eldred would summon his father and Flora onto the veranda to share a pot of tea and a bite to eat. Flora said that her sister’s girl, Lillian, was coming for a visit and would enjoy hearing Eldred’s dance band at the Pennyworth Hall. “Maybe you’ll get to meet her wee folk.”
Occasionally Eldred left Flora and Jacob to their tea and conversation, and drove the Chev pickup to the family cemetery along the Towbridge side road. He struggled with the look of abandonment, and the rusty gate that swayed on broken hinges.
Four weathered limestone grave stones faced a meandering creek bordered with leaning swamp willow. He paid particular attention to the marker at the summit of the incline. When he was a toddler his father would bring him here, guide his tiny fingers over the lettering and read aloud: John Henry Gibbons, born Killimore 1821 died 1904. Beside John Henry lay his two wives and an infant daughter. Jacob always muttered his greetings to their ghosts that strolled in the creekside shadows. The little boy ran wary eyes over the hillock, and thought his father was play-frightening him.
On a hot June day Eldred was working his shovel end around a leaning grave marker when a grey Mazda sedan pulled close to the gate. The woman driver called to him. “I wonder, could you direct me? I seem to be lost.”
Eldred beckoned the woman forward. In the trembling heat she seemed to shimmer along the hillside, all shiny and glittery, barely touching the ground. Her overlarge necklace flashed shamrock green. Then she stood before him, fresh faced, smiling and looking as if she had just folded her wings and settled, as a butterfly might. “I’m Lillian Cummins, and I’m looking for my auntie Flora’s place. Henderson. Ninth concession road…” She brushed a strand of hair from her forehead: chestnuts in autumn ripeness, Eldred thought.
Eldred introduced himself. As he talked out directions, Lillian studied his working tools, then the grave stones. “Is part of your family buried here? Are you the caretaker?”
“Caretaker. Handyman. Sometime confidant, if the ghosts feel like talking. Days like this they’re off in the woods, enjoyin’ the cool.” Lillian Cummins turned his comment in her mind, then surrendered to his teasing smile.
She said, “I’m stopping over for a sketching tour, farm scenes and nature subjects… ” A warmth came into her voice, inviting confidentiality and trust. “Someday my work will be good enough to show in a gallery.” Softly now, drawing forth Eldred’s cooperation. “I’d love to make a few sketches of this place. And I promise to leave … everyone… undisturbed.”
“Come along any time. Evening light is the best, along the ridge there.” Eldred leaned against his shovel handle. “While you’re here, you might enjoy a Saturday music night out. Meet the neighbours.”
She gave a tilt of her head. “Will you be there?”
Eldred nodded. “I play fiddle with the band.” He pointed toward the upper grave stone. “The fiddle’s his. John Henry’s. He brought it from Ireland. We’ll get you tapping your toes in short order, old ballads and love songs.”
Lillian thanked Eldred again for his help. She seemed to drift away, into the diaphanous heat. Eldred watched her go. His father’s infrequent urgings tumbled in his head: “Get yourself out, find a nice girl, take your mind off the burden of your old man.”
Then he turned toward the new-cleared graves. Bantering: “Now, don’t you lot be causing mischief when she sets in here for a spell.”
The Pennyworth Hall stood near a rural crossroads, the sole reminder of a once thriving pioneer settlement. In the Great Depression Vince Pennyworth used it as a barracks for his itinerant orchard workers. With recent upgrades to the kitchen, it hosted occasional political rallies or fund raiser dinners.
Eldred played in a four piece band called Celtic Mystery that served up a mix of Scottish and Irish folk tunes. Nearby farm folk came, the elders to catch up on local news and their sons and daughters seeking a possibility of a fledgling romance. Volunteers from the Women’s Institute managed the sale of sandwiches, cakes and light drinks.
For the next two Saturday nights Eldred watched in vain for Lillian to appear at the dance. He buried his waning hope beneath a veneer of feigned nonchalance. During their breaks Mickey Stoughton their drummer pulled out a folded real estate magazine and gazed on a cluster of photos. “Here it is, boys. Ol’ Mick’s retirement dream – comfy fishing lodge, hundred miles north, rich with bass and lake trout.”
On the third Saturday after Eldred’s meeting with Lillian, when the band was halfway through The Belle from Belfast, he spotted her edging toward the
beverage counter. Silver bangles on her right wrist sparkled as she tipped her Styrofoam cup toward him. His bow danced over the fiddle strings.
At the end of the set Eldred introduced Lillian to the band members. “Auntie Flora has been showing me the local sights,” she said to him. Her dark eyes glowed. “I have some sketches to show you.”
They were country scenes anyone could recognize: a Massey tractor rusting amongst weeds; a horse’s head leaning over a cedar rail fence; a farmhouse kitchen half door. Each drawing showed a sudden element of whimsy: a field scarecrow wearing polka dot overalls straddled the tractor seat; a leprechaun stretched himself between the horse’s ears, grinning around a corn cob pipe; draped over the kitchen door, a child’s apron and a curious fairy peering out of the flour speckled pocket.
Eldred chuckled at the impudent scarecrow. Would the little girl heed the fairy before she put on her apron? The sketches transported him into a Wonder-land, where elfin creatures made mischief and demanded to know your dreams.
He pointed to the leprechaun. “These little folk… do you add them as you’re working?”
She shook her head. The blue and green ceiling lights made her appear fragile and airy. “It’s easy. I draw what I see.”
“What you see?”
“As I’m drawing. This little fellow, I saw him, stretched out there as you see him now. He spoke to me… very pleasant and kind, he was.”
Eldred furrowed his brow. “Go away… he actually spoke? All right, what did he say?”
“What they always say. Follow the rainbow, over the next valley. There’s the pot of gold waiting for you.” Her mouth curled in a smile. Of remembrance, or teasing?
Several times Eldred drove them to locales that offered appealing sketching subjects. One day they followed open meadows toward a deserted farm.
A weathered barn stood amidst clumps of thistles and a rusting cultivator. They passed into a storage area strewn with hay forks, leather harness, dented milk cans. He picked up a spindle from a child’s broken chair. He imagined screams of delight as chaff-dusty children played their summer games in the hay mow.
Tell her: I’ll arrange a studio setting in the house, shall build oak shelves for your brushes and inks. Swirl of your green-gold bracelets will brighten the rooms. We’ll welcome the wee folk when they come calling…
He kicked idly at a coil of grease stained rope.
Mid-August: The band were gathered backstage when Mickey announced his purchase of his dream fishing lodge. “Mr. Friel invites me up any time to work on upgrades – and later, maybe, a friend to help out.” He would be leaving the band midweek, he said.
The next Saturday morning Flora arrived at the Gibbons’ farmhouse to find Jacob sitting in a rocker on the veranda. Eldred was inspecting a gauze bandage over the middle finger of Jacob’s right hand. With a tug of resentment she set aside her plate of brownies. She wanted to be the one to oversee Jacob’s nicks and scratches, his bandaging and healing. Jacob turned the talk to Flora’s niece.
Flora settled herself into a wicker chair. “I should have tended her here when she was little. Might’ve saved her a lot of grief when she was growing up.”
Eldred said that Lillian seemed taken with the quiet, enthusiastic to sketch on her own somewhere.
“That independence has served her well.” Flora was silent for a time, as if pulling up distant memories. “There was no love in that household between husband and wife, where it should be when a child is present. Lillian had no friends that would come round, never went on sleepovers, no picnics at the beach like her classmates would enjoy.”
Eldred listened intently. “How did she cope with the loneliness?”
“She found her wee people. Fairies and sprites, even a few goblins. She met them in her own private places, gardens and quiet pathways. She drew them in her school notebooks – playing at hoops, talking with their pet rabbits. Lillian would tell me their names and snippets of their conversations. She loved their company. They saved her from a long fall into some black hole of her mind.” She stood up from her chair. “I want to shake out those rugs on the parlour floor.”
Eldred finished cleaning up the supper dishes. He told Jacob that Lillian wanted to sketch some views from the cemetery, he would trim around a bit while the light held. “If your ghosts go carousing, Pop, we’ll watch out for them, yes?”
He pulled his truck near to the rusty gate. Lillian was seated on a woollen blanket, facing John Henry’s stone marker. She held the open sketch book on her lap. She called a welcome to him.
Eldred lifted a sledge hammer and a spool of wire from the box of the truck. He walked along the incline toward her. “Been here long?”
“Not very. I wanted some quiet time with our residents.” She examined the drawing in her book. “Do you have any family stories? John Henry, what kind of man was he?”
Eldred rested the sledge hammer. “Stubborn. Had to be to keep his family one step ahead of all the dying in the Hunger. But his fiddle gave him hope when
the crops were in drought, or the kids turned sickly. Most like, it saved his spirit from ruination.”
Lillian patted her leather tote bag. “I brought us a Thermos of tea. For a nightcap.” She arranged the Thermos and two plastic cups beside her blanket. A breeze stirred the hillside grass.
Eldred sat beside her. The hot tea drove out the muscle fatigue from his shoulders. He should ask her now: Might she be thinking to stay here, with him? And his father. He would stress that it’s not like the ol’ boy would be living forever. He said, “Well, how’d it go?”
She handed the sketchbook to Eldred. John Henry’s grave stone filled the left third of the page. Along the right edge hovered the spectral face of a man. Broody eyes narrowed in wistful questioning.
Eldred gaped at the apparition. “Go on. Tell me I’m imagining this. It’s your… artist’s fantasy. Tell me I’m right.”
Lillian looked at Eldred’s ashen face. “It’s John Henry. Your great-grandfather. He was curious, came closer to ask what the fuss was about.”
Eldred struggled to keep his composure. “Enough, now. I told you of the ghosts wandering here. But I was only joshing. They aren’t real. Pop thinks so, or says he does.”
“Well, John Henry is here. I’ve met him, and if I stayed longer, I’d bet the two wives would come peeping about.”
“What do you mean, if you stayed longer?” The breeze curled along the hill, east to west: it brought the tang of pine bark and leaf mold
Lillian poured off the dregs from her tea cup. “Mickey has invited me to join him, get a taste of wilderness living, and offer a pair of hands with his camp makeover. I’m handy with a paint brush, not so good at wallpapering.” She packed the Thermos and cups in her tote bag.
“So that’s it? You won’t be coming back?” Eldred heard his voice as someone else’s, far removed from his own.
“It will be a good move, don’t you think? If I work hard I can create a few pieces for a regional gallery there.” She leaned forward and cupped his head in her hands. She kissed him on the mouth. “You’ve been a darling in showing me around, giving me your time and patience.”
Eldred looked on her sketch book, held by the animated face there. They were real, these hovering spirits, Eldred realized. They were real to Lillian because she had opened her mind to them, allowed them access to ease her solitude. Eldred had a quick, stabbing vision of his future here, his father’s death and his coffin lowered into the ground and his mother’s ashes beside him. He saw himself working in the heat of continuing summers, righting a skewed marker, replacing the rusted gate. It seemed a blessing to him now, that he could so honour John Henry’s enduring legacy in bestowing on him, Eldred, his own gift of joyous music.
“Don’t go,” he said. “The farm’s a going concern. You can do your painting here. We can make a gallery in the house. There’s plenty of space.”
Lillian studied John Henry’s likeness. Then she turned to Eldred. “Will you bring your fiddle here, to play of a time?” A knowing smile, brave in its tenderness, brightened her face.
“Indeed I will. For the littl’uns, and the ghosts. Together, all of us.”
He drew her into him, inhaled the scent of her warm hair. The breeze curled along the hill, slid through the rusted fencing and folded along their shoulders, firming them to the grassy knoll.