I was so excited to post I forgot to tell you the music. It's the good old Fisherman's Blues ~ that whoo hoo hoo at the end gets me every time!
Thanks for reading, I never know who will turn up. But I am so glad you did!
They strode by the passengers setting up picnics, and paused by what Gilbert assumed was the throne. It was a massive pine stump, silvered with time and dressed in moss. A back-cut made the seat, with a jagged shard of curling wood shooting up behind.
"Someone made a Dutchman cut," said Gilbert, brushing his palm over the moss, "I guess they wanted to guide its fall away from the railway line."
"Someone attempted a Dutchman cut," said Monty, "the holding wood is way too tall. It is splendid though. I adore happy accidents, don't you?" She stepped by the stump and dug her boot into the pine needles blanketing the slope. "We're heading up there. The throne is just a guiding post. If we go to the right of it, we can avoid the mountain spring. All these needles clog it up and it gets awfully boggy. Last time I lost a boot and it's such a trial finding shoes that fit. I have a very narrow foot!"
She was shouting now. In the time it had taken Gilbert to inspect the failed Dutchman cut, Monty had disappeared into the trees. He could just see the bottom of her red petticoat swishing under her skirt.
"What's up here?" he asked when he reached her
"Wouldn't you rather be surprised?"
"No," he answered frankly, "I've had enough surprises."
Monty stopped midstride, one foot dangling in the air. "It sounds like you have a terrific story to tell. In the original sense, I mean. It means causing terror or fright. From the Latin, terrificus, did you know that? So tell."
"Yes I did know that. I'm fairly well versed in Latin–"
Monty started moving again. "Not that," she sighed, her bucket swinging over her arm, "I mean your terrific story. I'd adore it if you told me, it's one of the things I collect–oh, and there's another!" Her hand brushed over his as she ran up ahead. In the next moment she was down on her knees and signaling to him. "I need the cheesecloth–and tread carefully."
Apparently, this whole detour had been for mushrooms. Monty tore off lengths of cheesecloth, then with great care the two of them filled pouches with Saffron Milk Caps and others with Slippery Jacks.
"These don't make me half as much," she said of the latter, "but at least they're a good size. Now keep an eye out for some Fly Amanita. Those are fairy mushrooms, you know with red caps and white spots–"
Gilbert had been wiping the slime from the Slippery Jacks on his trousers, and froze with his hands on his knees. "You're joking, aren't you. Those things can kill you."
"Oh good, so you know them," said Monty cheerfully. "There's a birch stand further up near Spitty Owl, hopefully we can find some there."
Gilbert was about to ask what in heck Spitty Owl was, but what would be the point. Miss De Vere Montmorency was on a mission and he had no clue how to stop her. He tagged behind, bundles of damp fungi in his arms. When he heard her whoop of unbound glee, he barely raised an eyebrow.
He reached the ridge where Monty danced in the dappled light of the birches, their leaves already turning. Among the fallen logs and leaf litter were dozens of orange mushrooms.
"Didn't I say I was lucky? I've never seen so many before! Wait–" she plucked a small one and examined the underside of its cap. "Is this a chanterelle or a jack-o-lantern? I forget how to tell."
Her eyes misted over with gloom so swiftly, Gilbert caught his breath. He recognized that look. Where a dream you never dared hope for was dangled in front of you, and then swiftly snatched away. He shifted his weight from side to side, feeling awkward and annoyed. They were only mushrooms, what did it matter? He wished he was back on the train.
"I know, we'll ask the Mister," said Monty, when Gilbert stayed silent. "I daren't show up without the fairy mushrooms really, but I believe my luck might stretch." Just as swiftly she was smiling again and leaped over the fallen log. "I hope he's got the water on, we don't want to miss the train."
The Mister lived at Spitty Owl, which was the name of the shack where he lived. A moldering log cabin in what used to be a clearing, crouching on top of the hill.
The door swung open at the first knock. "You got me Flys?" he said.
He was a giant of a man but shrunken inside himself as though his skin had got too big. His long, grey hair was yellowed with grease, but what Gilbert noticed most was his eyes. If Monty's were a smoky sky, the Misters' were Scotch mist.
"Is he blind?" Gilbert murmured as they went inside.
"But not deaf!" the Mister hissed back. His grubby hand clamped down on Monty's shoulder. "Who's that you brung with you–you sure he's not with the law?"
"As if I would," said Monty, prying his fingers away. "Your hands are filthy, Mister. And the collar on your shirt! What would your daughter say if she saw you?"
At the mention of his daughter, the Mister shrunk even further and stooped his big, square head.
"I been busy–you won't tell her, will yer?" he said meekly. "I got the water heatin', just in case yer could make it this moon."
"You can thank Gilbert for that," said Monty. "He's my knight in shining armour. Gilbert, allow me to introduce Mr–"
"No need for last names," the Mister said.
"I was going to invent one," Monty was indignant. "Today you shall be known as Mr Cross-as two-sticks! Now shirt off, I'll have to scrub it. I don't suppose you have a clean towel so we'll just have to do this in the sun." She rolled back her sleeves and dipped one elbow into the cauldron nestled on the open fire. "It's hot enough. Can you carry your chair?"
Gilbert watched, the pouches of mushrooms in his arms, while Monty bossed the old giant about. He whipped off a shirt that looked like it was being held together by sweat and dirt, and stuffed it under his hairy arm. Then with a cane in one hand and his three-legged stool in the other he followed Monty outside.
She had already set the heavy iron cauldron in the yard before Gilbert thought to offer his help. He dropped the pouches by the front door, it looked cleaner than inside the shack.
"I'll ah–I'll look for those fairy mushrooms, shall I?"
"Use the bucket, and wash it after in the mountain stream," said Monty, as she poured a cup of hot water over the Mister's head. "Can you smell that, Mister?" she brought out a sliver of soap from her pocket. "It's genuine Castile. You'll look like a real gentleman when I've finished."
On his walk back to the yard with a bucket of Fly Amanita, Gilbert could hear some pitiful groans.
"Yer doin' it on purpose," the Mister whined, as Monty dragged a comb through his hair. "I bet there's rake marks on me head!"
Monty ignored his complaints and asked him if he knew the difference between chanterelles and jack-o-lanterns. Gilbert took the hint and set off again to fetch some of the orange mushrooms they'd seen earlier. When he came back, the Mister was basking in the sun. His eyes were closed and his mouth was agape with a sort of drunken grin.
"He's always like that after a hair wash, like a cat on catnip," Monty said. "Can you tell me what the time is please, Gilbert?" She stood up and wrung out the shirt. "I should have put on my apron today but I get so hot in my sealskin coat–"
The Mister gave a wet snort. "You mean MY sealskin coat! You thankless, wily shrew! After all I done for you!"
The shirt twisted tighter in Monty's grip, it looked like she was about to strangle him with it. "He doesn't know what he's talking about," she said quickly. "That coat belongs to me."
"It's after three," said Gilbert, unsure what else to say. "We should get going."
Monty nodded and dropped one of the mushrooms Gilbert had picked into the Mister's hands.
"Chanterelle," he said sulkily, fingering the underside of the delicate cap. "Yer can always tell if yer look underneath. Chanterelles have fine forked ridges rather than gills."
The little glade was filled with peeling laughter as Monty clutched her sides.
"No gills! I knew I was right to call you Gilbert," she said glancing up at him. "And can we have them, Mister?"
"Yeah, yeah, take 'em all. So long as I got me Flys–and me water."
Monty pursed her lips at this. It was the first time Gilbert had seen her looking even vaguely shamefaced. If she ordered him back to the mountain stream he had a good mind to refuse. Though he wouldn't go so far as to call the girl wily and thankless, he was beginning to think the Mister had it just about right.
"We don't have time to pick all those chanterelles and fetch water," Gilbert said. "The engine could be refilled by now."
"Not mountain water, virgin's water," the Mister explained.
The freckles on Monty's cheeks disappeared into her blush, and with another low glance at Gilbert she returned to the shack with the bucket. A moment later she reappeared with the mushroom pouches in her arms.
"There. All done, I'll try to see you next month." She placed a quick kiss on the Mister's whiskery cheek. "Next time I'll bring a razor."
The Mister grunted. "Just bring me coat." He turned his white eyes to Gilbert. "You seem like a good lad, so take me advice. Stay away from the likes o' her."
The trolley with the empty water tank was trundling away when Monty and Gilbert returned. They slipped back into their compartment, he is his old place by the window, she on her knees beside him. The pouches were carefully opened and Monty unrolled more of the cheesecloth and began to brush over each one. She was wholly absorbed in the task, her small hand cradling each mushroom tenderly, as she hummed to herself.
Outside the passengers were grumbling again because they didn't want to get back onto the train. They were enjoying their picnics, it had been a lark, and were begging for another half hour.
"I guess they don't care so much about their connections after all," said Monty.
She blew the frill of her mob cap away from her eyes. Her brows were thick and tawny red, like maple syrup when it has been boiled. Gilbert was filled with a strange impulse to find out if she tasted as sweet.
He cleared his throat. "So what did he mean, this Mister? Why should I stay away from you?"
"You don't need a reason," she said, "If you want to sit somewhere else, then go."
"I've served my purpose, have I?"
"Hardly scratched the surface," she retorted. "I could think of a million other uses for someone like you. Admit it," she went on, "you had fun just then, like a puppy running after his stick. I bet you've got a whole lot of questions. I might even answer some–if you stay."
It was the sort of line that should have ended with her looking up at him, her smoky eyes all fluttering. Instead she kept brushing away the dirt on her precious chanterelles, though there was no more dirt that Gilbert could see.
The brakeman came by to count up the passengers and checked on Monty as he went past.
"No baby then, ma'am?"
"False alarm," Monty murmured, hiding behind Gilbert's knee.
He walked on, while Monty took the space where Josephine once sat. "I don't like riding backwards," she said, "I like to see where I'm going."
The two of them remained silent for a time. Monty shuffled into her coat. Gilbert took out a textbook from his suitcase and gave it a cursory flick before he tossed it onto the opposite bench.
"So, where are you going?" he asked as the train began to move.
"A shoe shop, though I suppose by the time we get to Kingsport it'll be closed. It's a setback but it couldn't be helped. I take this train whenever I can afford it, at every full moon. Down to the harbour and back again, roundtrip return."
"What's down at the harbour, what do you do?"
Monty tipped her nose in the air. "What do you do?"
"I'm a Senior at Redmond–"
"I don't care about that, I mean what do you do? What are you dreaming, who are you loving, what are you giving the world?"
She was looking at him now, with the sort of stare she clearly thought would make him wilt. It made Gilbert think of little Ruby, her ribbons and her ringlets, the way she would turn up on his doorstep and demand that he played with her. He crossed his arms and looked out the window. He was tired of games, he wasn't playing anymore.
"What's down at the harbour?" he said again. "Must be important. Can't be cheap taking a sixty mile trip every month."
"No, it's costing me a fortune, the sentimental fool. Look for me by moonlight, he said. And I have been, every full moon that I could manage for years and years and years. Down to the Northumberland Strait, because that's where they took him. Over to that diabolical Island!"
She had all the looks of a lovelorn girl, she even hugged herself. With her droopy mob cap and her too big coat, Monty appeared more in love with the loss than this 'sentimental fool', than she could possibly be with the actual boy. It was very hard for Gilbert not to laugh. He tried to hide it, but not very well.
"I've heard my Island called many things, but never diabolical."
"You're from the Island?" She seized his arm.
"I am," Gilbert nodded. "I've got potatoes in my suitcase to prove it."
"Whereabouts–do you know my Remy? He'd be twenty-one by now. He always said he would go to sea, do you live in a harbour town?"
"Never known any man called Remy, but then it's mostly farms where I live. We don't even have a store, we have to get our supplies from Carmody or Newbridge. Most folks my age can't stand its smallness, but I… I think it's the best place in the world."
Monty had been all ready to press Gilbert for more information, but the expression on his face made her stop. Forget almost handsome, Gilbert was beautiful. His hazel eyes were filled with sunshine and the sigh he made set the butterflies she was so sure had curled up and died, to fluttering around in her belly again.
"Oh tell me…" she breathed.
"Avonlea." He said the name like he was savouring its flavour in his mouth. "We have these rolling red shores on one side and rolling green hills on the other, and everywhere you go there's a helping hand…"
"Well, not everywhere," he said, thinking of the shoulders that grown a little colder of late. "I mean it's not heaven. But it's as close as God could make on earth, I reckon. We run a farm there, my father and me. Our orchard's one of the oldest on the Island. Grand old pear trees, and apples of course." He looked up, conscious that he had gone on too long, and saw Monty's brows tilting sweetly. "And cherries. We were famous for cherries."
"Sound like heaven to me," said Monty, dreamily. "But I can't imagine Remy being happy there. He said if it turned out he was being taken to a farm he'd run straight back to Hopetown asylum the moment he could. That was ten years ago, so he must have been adopted by a sailor or something, don't you think? I just thought… well like I said, he's twenty-one now, and I thought, this year… I thought…"
Her eyes brimmed with tears, and when Gilbert offered her his handkerchief she mopped her face swiftly before pocketing it.
"Perhaps he's gone to sea, are you sure you've never heard of him? Jeremiah Nym. That's not his real name. They give all the orphans who are left on the doorstep a bible name. When I first met him he'd been there ten years. Ten years, can you imagine? I'm sure you can't, not someone who grew up in a paradise like you. He was this bony, mop-haired boy, quite short but very sweet and terribly polite–I suppose that's why he was chosen. It never pays to be polite, I'd never have survived the Hammonds otherwise. That's the Mister's family. I escaped back there after Remy left me. His daughter was the one that put me in the Asylum in the first place. Her husband was a timber merchant, that's how I know about what makes a good Dutchman cut. Anyway, Mrs Hammond wouldn't have me back, she had given all of her children away after her husband died–and I had gone to such trouble raising them too! The Mister said I could do for him, as a maid-of-all-work, but then he got hooked by the law. He makes poisons if you didn't guess, and we have a sort of a deal. I come by every month to clean him up and give him some of my… water for his potions, and he lets me forage on his hilltop for all the nuts and mushrooms I can carry."
In the space where Monty drew a breath, Gilbert asked her what she did with all those mushrooms. But he never heard her answer.
He was thinking about Jeremiah Nym.