It was dark beneath the tree-trunk. Charlotte momentarily panicked and pushed open the old trapdoor slightly, relieved to see the familiar garden still there with its lush grass and swaying red roses; sunlight dancing through the serrated leaves of the ancient oak. Enough light filtered in for her to glimpse steps disappearing, seemingly down into the very bowels of the earth. At first glance they looked man-made, but then she realized that the roots of this arboreal Goliath were naturally shaped that way, as though the stairway had been formed over hundreds of years, from a far distant era when the oak was a young sapling.
It was by chance she had found the trapdoor. The cottage had been dark and stifling that morning and the shady arbor provided relief from the hot, August sun. Leaning back against the trunk of the old oak with her lithe young legs stretched out in front of her seemed a comfortable way to relax and enjoy “The Red Bandanna,” a new novel from the pen of her favorite author, Caroline O’Hara.
If that spider had not run across her foot, causing her to drop the book and leap up with a squeal of fright, catching her knee on the rusty, iron ring buried deep in the grass, she would never have known to scrape away the soil and expose the strangely constructed cover that lifted so easily when she tugged at the hoop of corroded metal.
Caroline O’Hara was forgotten, “The Red Bandanna” left lying on the grass, as Charlotte, careful to check there were no more spiders or other creepy-crawlies, squeezed her slender, youthful body through the opening, allowing the trap to drop shut above her.
It was then that she had panicked fleetingly, but it had been easy to push the hatch open again; and now as she closed it for a second time, a strong sense of calm and peace descended around her, as she realized all was not total darkness. A diffuse glow – slightly pinkish, she thought – lit her surroundings, and as she looked about her, the old tree seemed even larger from the inside. She found there was lots of room to move about, even stand up, and it was much less cramped than it first appeared.
The light definitely filtered up the stairway. Pausing only to brush soil from her dress, Charlotte inched forward, placing her foot on the top step. The treads curved round to the left, like a spiral staircase. At first she hesitated on each one, as though expecting something to happen, but as nothing did she quickly gained confidence and began to descend more rapidly.
They seemed to go on forever. Eventually, even the deepest roots of the old oak were left far above and she noticed all around her was solid rock, of which the stairway had become a part. Finally, the steps ended and Charlotte found herself facing a long corridor, stretching into the distance. The light was brighter and pinker now, so much that she could not distinguish where the corridor led. But undaunted, she began walking slowly forward.
To her utter amazement, with each step the corridor whirled past at alarming speed. After only three paces, yet sensing she had traveled an enormous distance, she found herself in a huge, domed grotto, empty except for a simple wooden bench placed exactly in the center of the cavern.
Charlotte was not the least bit tired, but she thought the seat was obviously there for a purpose, so she walked quickly over and sat down, searching about for any indication of what might happen next. The grotto yielded few clues. Its roof and sides appeared to be solid rock. The corridor through which she had been propelled so rapidly was still visible, but there seemed no other way out and little reason to stay seated much longer. The diffuse pink light was all about her, but its source remained elusive.
Quashing a slight sense of disappointment, Charlotte was about to rise and retrace her steps to the old oak, when right in front of her she noticed two exits she hadn’t seen before. They were much smaller than the corridor, not very inviting, and looked like two, very large, rabbit holes.
A wry smile twitched at her lips as she was reminded of her favorite childhood storybook. The thought of Alice’s adventures with the White Rabbit made her pinch herself, almost involuntarily, to ensure this wasn’t all a dream. Nevertheless, she thought, if they were rabbit holes, the rodents inhabiting them must be very large. She was halfway to her feet, when from a distance, the sound of singing caused her to sit down again rather quickly.
She listened intently. The sound drew closer. It was high-pitched, like a child’s voice, and soon she recognized the song. Once, when she was a little girl, it had been her favorite. She remembered marching up and down the living room as her father sang the lively piece to her in his manly baritone voice:
“This old man, he played two…he played knick knack on my shoe…with a knick-knack paddy-whack give a dog a bone…”
A rhythmic drumbeat accompanied the song and set her feet to tapping out the tempo. She quelled a desire to leap up and march about, as she had done as an infant. It rapidly became obvious that the sound was emanating from the left of the two rabbit holes.
Before Charlotte had time for further conjecture, there was a muffled scuffling, and from the hole emerged a three foot leprechaun in a huge green hat, purple jacket, and plaid trousers. The two sticks in his hands beat a steady rhythm on the drum slung from around his neck. Charlotte watched gleefully as he marched back and forth across the floor, singing his heart out.
“…this ole man, he played three…he played knick-knack on my knee…”
He ignored her completely until, as the last stanza drew to a close, he strode to a halt in front of the bench, bowed low, and with a huge toothy grin, proclaimed:”Top o’ the mornin’, Charlotte; ‘tis a pleasure singin’ fer yer, to be sure!”
She had always believed in fairies and pixies. Leprechauns were her favorite elves. Her mother hailed from the South of Ireland and had often nursed Charlotte to sleep on her knee with enchanted tales of Irish folklore and the mischievous antics of the leprechauns. Now, she laughed aloud as the elfin figure once more beat at his drum and strode resolutely back and forth across the grotto floor, singing in a high, falsetto tone, made more musical by his drawling, Celtic overtones.
“…this old man, he played four…he played knick-knack on my door…”
Charlotte, spellbound, found herself drawn into the march and the song. She fell into step behind the fairy, clapping her hands to the pulsating drumbeat as the cavern sides echoed their strident duet. With each new verse, the leprechaun marched faster and faster, back and forth. Charlotte had trouble keeping up. She began to feel quite giddy. Her companion was still singing, though much more rapidly now.
“…this old man, he played ten…he played knick-knack on my hen…”
Finally, reversing direction, he caught hold of Charlotte by the arm, and marched at high-speed straight toward the grotto wall. His tiny legs were no more than a blur and Charlotte, having long given up singing, gasped for breath as the leprechaun dragged her forward until she was certain they would smash headlong into the rock. She braced for the crash and shut her eyes, but was unable to prevent a startled cry escaping from her lips.
The river was beautiful in the sunlight. It was just as she remembered it as a child, when she had dangled her toes in the cool water while her father fished for rainbow trout. It was her favorite vacation place. That last vacation, the one just before the illness took her mother away, had been here in the pretty Maine village snuggled among the hills, not a mile from this very spot. Charlotte blinked; the sun dazzled after the gloom of the cavern. She looked around for the leprechaun but he had vanished, as had the grotto. How had she gotten here? What was happening to her? She felt a sudden deep sense of loneliness and knelt down on the river’s bank, stifling a rising sob.
“Why do you cry, Charlotte?”
The voice was feminine, soft and caring, just like her mother’s. Charlotte looked up, but apart from a beautiful Siamese cat standing on the riverbank staring at her, there was no indication who had asked the question. She looked about, her eyes searching for the origin of that gentle voice.
“The time for you to find that which you seek is not quite yet, Charlotte.”
The girl started, unbelieving. The voice was in her head, as though she was reading the cat’s very thoughts.
“I…I don’t understand.”
She stammered over the words, confused, and beginning to wish she had never opened that trapdoor under the old oak.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she heard the cat say, “Once you reach the time of realization, all will be revealed to you.”
“What do you mean…the time of realization?” Charlotte was so bemused she never questioned whether the cat would understand her, “Who are you?”
“My name is S’ai Chin. I am all who have ever loved you; all you have ever loved.”
The cat nuzzled its head against her shoe. Charlotte stroked the soft fur, causing a deep growling purr to emanate from the animal’s throat. Siamese were her favorite cats.
“Am I dreaming, S’ai Chin?” she asked.
“In a sense, you are dreaming,” the cat replied, “but after the time of realization you will stop dreaming and you will be with all of us. First, though, you must go back…to the time of realization.”
“Back? Back to the garden…back to the cottage?”
The cat seemed to nod, “Yes, back to the cottage.”
“But…but…” the girl looked about her, “…how? The grotto…the corridor…they’ve gone….how can I?”
“Listen to the wind…” The cat had stood up and was slowly walking away through the bulrushes, “…close your eyes and listen to the wind…”
“Wait!” Charlotte jumped up to run after the Siamese cat, but to her chagrin it had completely disappeared. She floundered about, searched vainly through the bulrushes for any signs of the animal. Eventually, disappointed, she sat down again and watched the deep, dark river-water swirling quickly by.
The sun felt warm on her shoulders and Charlotte closed her eyes. She was weary and lay back to rest. The wind sighed and whispered high in the treetops. It seemed to call her name, just as her mother had long ago, before the illness took her.
She heard her father’s voice calling, then her brother, and others she knew…even her favorite dog, Samson. She had cried over Samson for weeks when he was run over by the truck, on the road outside the cottage….
The voices swirled and intermingled in her head. They soothed and comforted her. She felt safe; so safe, she sensed drifting off into fitful slumber, so warm…so good…so relaxing…
The sound woke her. It was a car door slamming shut. Dazed and a little bewildered, Charlotte looked quickly about her, but the garden was just the same with its lush grass and swaying red roses, sunlight still dancing through the serrated leaves of the ancient oak. ‘The Red Bandanna’ was lying on the grass at her side. She smiled knowingly. So it was just a dream after all.
A distant sound of voices drifted from the cottage. We must have visitors, she thought. Leaving “The Red Bandanna” lying in the grass, she jumped up and walked quickly along the narrow, twisting pathway that led across the lawn and past the flowerbeds, towards the front door. A large, black hearse was parked on the road behind the hedge. Charlotte, eager to identify the visitors, barely paused to notice it before passing through the front door and into the living room. “Daddy!” she called, “Who’s come to call?”
Her father was not in the small room. A long polished-wooden box sat on trestles occupying most of the floor, so much that the furniture had been pushed back against the walls. There were five people, three men and two women, and they ignored Charlotte’s entrance, which was – she thought – a bit rude. The women seemed upset. One of the men was trying to comfort them. She remembered he was Frank Haslett, a neighbor from the farm down the lane, and the other two women were his wife and daughter.
Two of the men were dressed in black suits and appeared to be about to move the box. One of them reached out to close the lid. Charlotte, unnoticed by them, walked over to look inside.
The woman was old, at least in her eighties. She lay clad in a simple white shift, rheumy hands clasped to her bosom, but no embalmer’s art could hide the heavy wrinkled creases, the blue tinge of thin lips closed in death.
Charlotte’s scream never reached the ears of those within the room. Neither were they aware of the girl reeling backwards away from the coffin. It all came flooding back: the doctor’s diagnosis, the same disease that took her mother; the lonely hours in a hospital bed, when Frank and Betty Haslett and their daughter were her only visitors, for she was old and there was no-one left alive who cared about her; the glare of the operating theater highlighting the surgeon’s head as it shook hopelessly when he said, “She’s gone. We’ve lost her; better inform the mortician.”
She remembered leaping from the operating table, screaming desperately that she was still alive, not dead, but they refused to hear her and she panicked. She ran…ran as fast as her young legs would take her, all the way back to her cottage, her beloved cottage with its wonderful, beautiful garden.
Now she was running again, out of the cottage, down the path, over the lush grass, past the swaying red roses until, panting slightly, she stopped in front of the great oak where the sunlight danced through serrated leaves.
She remembered the words of S’ai Chin, “…after the time of realization you will stop dreaming and you will be with all of us…”
Was this the time of realization? Frantically, she searched through the grass at the base of the old oak. Her fingers closed around a book; “The Red Bandanna”. She tossed it aside, searched again until her fingers found the rusted iron ring. With one swift jerk she opened the trapdoor, climbed inside, and without a backward glance, closed the trap behind her. Deep down, far away in the bowels of the earth she heard a faint, familiar sound…
“…this ole man…he played seven…he played knick-knack up to Heaven…”
The workman finished nailing the “For Sale” sign to the gate. Idle curiosity led him through the garden, down the narrow, twisting pathway that led past the flowerbeds, and across the lawn towards an old oak that towered majestically into the blue sky, sunlight dancing through serrated leaves.
The garden was overgrown. His foot disturbed something lying in the long grass near the base of the old oak. He picked up the book and grunted disinterestedly. Not his sort of book. Strange, though, it was hardly marked. It couldn’t have been there more than a day or so.
He wondered who had left it there. Not the old woman who owned the place, that was for sure. She had been dead and buried two months or more. He wiped dew off the cover before slipping “The Red Bandanna” into the pocket of his dungarees.
Not his sort of book. Maybe his daughter would read it.
© Copyright 2004 R J Adams.