OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY

 

By UNA MONTGOMERY

    

The sky was grey and threatening; the hills looked bleak and hostile. But this was his chance. He climbed the low stone wall at the back of the cottage and ran up the heathery slope. As he ran he expected at any moment to hear someone calling him back as they had always done before. But this time his father was away from home and the talkative woman from up the hill had just dropped in with a fresh piece of gossip for his mother and she had a powerful thirst for tea.

He ran as hard as he could go until he knew he was out of earshot. But as he went on and on, he began to realise how high and far away the hills really were for no matter how far he ran, they seemed to walk backwards out of reach. His heart pounded and his lungs seemed to be bursting and he was more than a little scared of the strange silence around him. But he was not giving in.

He reached the top of the first hill and paused to look around. Before him lay a little declivity and then another, steeper rise. He had never been up there before for he was only five and his mother did not like him wandering too far away. He was her only child and she was a nervous woman who had never grown used to living in this remote place among the hills and Patrick had had to content himself with playing by himself round the cottage where she could keep an eye on him.

He had invented many exciting games for himself and always appeared happy with his lonely lot. Nobody guessed that he was filled with curiosity about what lay beyond the hills behind the house. He thought about them a great deal and imagined that on the other side there was a sunny little village with pleasant neighbours and plenty of children to play with. The more he imagined it, the stronger grew his curiosity until it had become a burning ambition to climb the hills and see for himself.

As he struggled up the final slope Patrick forgot his fear of the lonely silence for he was sure that any minute now he would see the village of his dreams and hear the voices of children shouting to each other.

He reached the top. Before him lay an immense stretch of moss and moor land. A cold wave of disappointment passed over him. There was no village; no sign of life anywhere. But then his eye caught a gleam of white in the distance and gradually he picked out the shape of a little cottage a long distance away. He stared at it, straining his eyes for any sign of movement, but there was none. However the distant blue haze might just be smoke from the chimney and he was full of curiosity about the lonely little cottage.

He hesitated on the hill top and turned to look back in the direction of his own cottage, which lay at the foot of the hill like a little matchbox. Above him in the big sky a lark was singing. Its tiny, sweet song made the whole lifeless expanse of land and sky seem emptier and more lonely and he felt very small and frightened. Whichever way he went, he was a long way from anyone. So he decided to go on.

As he ran down the hill towards the cottage the sky seemed to grow darker and more threatening and the whole empty landscape seemed to hold its breath and listen and watch his every movement. When he reached the lower slope where the hedges began, he kept closely to their shade. He wanted to see the cottage without being seen.

Within a few minutes, although they seemed like hours, he was quite close to the cottage. He crouched down in the shadow of a thorn tree and stared at the place. He was gasping for breath; a sick feeling clutched at his stomach; he was alone in strange territory and cold with fear.

The cottage was old and derelict; there was no sign of life at all. Patrick stared at it a long time, hoping against hope that something would move. It fascinated him and filled him with dread. He wanted to run away and at the same time, he wanted terribly to go and explore.

Keeping low in the tangled grass and brambles he crept slowly nearer and nearer till at last he could touch the cold, grey stone at the base of the wall. He inched himself up to his feet and moved across till he could peer in through a broken window pane.

There was nobody inside, but this did not relieve his feeling of terror. An acute sense of danger, which had been growing since first he came face to face with this deserted cottage, warned him to run for his life. But curiosity drove him and he was a very small, scared little boy as he moved along by the wall till he reached the door-step. He put his hand to the door and pushed. It creaked slowly open. Something moved in the gloom inside. Patrick screamed. The rat stared up at him. He could see its wet, quivering nose in the shadow. Then it turned tail and fled.

The big, lofty kitchen was dark and musty. Dust and litter lay everywhere. Among the rubbish he could make out the broken bits and pieces of what once had been a family's precious possessions: a chair leg, a broom without bristles, a broken basket, a rusted alarm clock, the head and shoulders of a china doll. People had lived here one time and there had been children, laughter and weeping. Now there was silence and dust and nothing moving except the scurrying feet of the rat.

Patrick no longer felt frightened. The gentle melancholy of the little house made him feel sad and yet strangely comforted. He began to explore in every nook and corner, turning over the dusty relics of a family story. Everything fascinated him, especially the old alarm clock which still had most of its works. He thought of taking it home with him and put it carefully on one side. Then his eye fell on the whistle.

It was on the mantelpiece, gleaming and not dust-covered like the other things. He reached up for it and, as his finger-tips touched it, some strange, haunting feeling ran through him. He did not know how to play a tin whistle, but he put it to his lips and began to blow.

The most beautiful music he had ever heard filled the room. It rose and swelled till it filled the whole cottage the very walls seemed to vibrate with the echo. The air misted with music till it was completely dark.

For a few moments Patrick could see nothing. Then the air cleared and he saw a big turf fire blazing on the hearth and the kettle hissing steam above it. The kitchen was bright and shining and full of laughing, singing, dancing people. He was in the middle of a cottage ceilidh.

"Come on, me boy", someone said, "give us a reel now". He had hardly started until they were on the floor again: young men and old men their faces shining with sweat, young women with their hair flying and old women with their long skirts lifted so you could see their petticoats. Even the little children were dancing in their own corner. They moved to the music of his tin whistle and the music he made was lovely and gay. He tapped his feet in time to the music and the heart in him was as light and merry as the dancers on the fire-lit floor.

Patrick awoke to find himself under an unfamiliar thorn bush. It was nearly dusk, but he could still see his own home at the foot of the hill. With scarcely a glance at the higher hill that loomed all dark and shadowy beyond the shallow decline, he turned his face to home. He ran all the way downhill and burst excitedly into the kitchen. His mother was standing by the window looking strained and anxious. He brushed her nervous reproof aside and began to babble out his strange story. His father, who had come home, looked at him in puzzlement as he rambled on.

"There's no cottage over there", he said. "I heard tell there was family lived there one time, but there's not hilt nor hair of their house left. They do say they were the great ones for the ceilidhs and dancing. But that was long before my time. They went to America at the time of the Famine. I used to hear my grandfather talkin' about them. But there has been no house there for as long as I remember."

"But there is, daddy," the child insisted. "Come and I'll show you."

"Very well, then", he promised, "we'll go and see some time when it's daylight."

The next evening his father finished work earlier than usual and when Patrick reminded him of his promise, he agreed to go. The mother thought the two of them were mad as they started out to cross the hills.

"The child will be tired out," she complained.

"I'll carry him when he gets tired," her husband reassured her.

When they neared the top of the high hill Patrick ran ahead, eager to point out the cottage to his father. The sun was setting and the whole sky and the hills were filled with a golden light. There was great silence and peace on the landscape and Patrick had no sense of fear or loneliness with his father just behind him.

He reached the top; and stared down across the waste of moss and moor land. There was no cottage; not even a trace of a cottage anywhere. His eyes began to fill with tears. Then he felt his father's arm around him.

"It was a dream you had, son," he said.

"It wasn't a dream," Patrick insisted, his voice sharp with disappointment. "It was there ..... down there where the bushes are. I saw it. I was in it. I saw the people dancing. I played the magic whistle."

"Of course you did, son," his father answered, "of course you did. Many's the time the like happened to myself. Many's the time indeed."

Before his father lifted him to his shoulder, Patrick took a last look out across the golden landscape. And, as he looked. the music of the tin whistle rose once more from among the clump of bushes and swelled and echoed around the lonely hills.

 

 

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