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Water, Stone, Heartby Will North
"You all right down there?"
Andrew Stratton looked up toward the cliff top, ten feet above his head, but the afternoon sun was in his eyes and all he could make out was the silhouette of a woman's head and shoulders, etched against a Wedgwood-blue sky. Stratton was standing on a narrow grassy ledge above the sea, which he shared with a loudly bleating, black-faced sheep. The shape of a dog appeared beside the woman. The shape barked.
"Um, yes," he called back. "I was just walking along and saw this sheep stranded down here."
"And you decided to join it?"
"Yes . . . well, no . . . I mean, I thought I'd try to help it back up to the top. But whenever I get near it, it looks as if it's going to jump."
"Do you always have that effect?"
From the slender shelf he and the sheep occupied, it was, he guessed, at least two hundred feet straight down to the Atlantic breakers crashing far below--so far, in fact, that he could barely hear the thudding combers above the whistle of the wind. He'd been walking along the cliff path just north of the Cornish village of Boscastle and had paused to watch the waves roll in and dash themselves to foam and mist on the jagged rocks at the base of the cliff when he'd heard the sheep. There was a scar of loose rock and torn vegetation where the sheep had descended to the ledge, on the theory, Andrew imagined, that the grass there was greener.
"That's Darwin's sheep, that is," said the voice above.
"You know the farmer?" Andrew was suddenly more hopeful.
He heard the woman laugh. "No, I mean that what you have there is the dimmest sheep in the flock, the one that has to die to protect the gene pool and assure the survival of the species."
There was something in her tone that implied she thought he and the sheep had more in common than just the thin sill of grass they shared.
"Any suggestions?" he called.
"Not a one. The general idea is to let nature take its course."
He let this sink in.
"Right, then," she said. "As long as you're okay, I'll leave you to it." And with that the head pulled back from the cliff edge and disappeared. He could hear her whistling as she crunched off along the path.
Andrew Stratton--professor, from Philadelphia--did not know a great deal about sheep. He hadn't a clue, now that he was down here, how he would get the sheep back up. Come to think of it, he wasn't at all sure how he'd get himself back up, either. He approached the skittish animal once more and it backed away again, its rheumy red eyes wild with fear, until it was perched at the very lip of the precipice.
He gave up. He turned toward the cliff face and started climbing, only to slip back almost immediately when a chunk of rock came off in his hand. He could almost hear his wife Katerina's voice--ex-wife, to be accurate: "Never climb shale or slate if you can help it. It flakes off and you fall." She had taken up rock climbing more than a year earlier--taken up with a rock climber, too, and left Andrew for him shortly thereafter. Now he remembered some of her safety rules: Plan your ascent several moves in advance; maintain three reliable points of contact with the rock before you reach for the next hold; test each hold before you use it to bear weight. He'd often wished, in the weeks following her departure, that there had been similar rules for protecting oneself in the case of domestic landslides.
In a few moments of more-careful climbing, he regained the rim and hoisted himself up to the footpath. In the far distance, he could see a figure, a woman, striding along the cliffs, a large brown and white dog running circles around her. For reasons he could not fathom, she was waving her arms, as if in urgent communication with the dog.
He looked down. The sheep had returned to munching, utterly oblivious to the fact that it would soon be out of grass and luck. The woman had been right: This was a very dim sheep--although in his experience, limited though it was to the few days since his arrival in Cornwall, in the stupidity sweepstakes all sheep seemed equally qualified. He resolved to tell the manager at the Visitor Centre in the village about the stranded sheep and let someone who knew what he was doing rescue it.
The day had begun pleasantly enough: He'd taken a guided tour of the Valency river valley. His tour guide was an expert who knew every twist and turn of the tumbling stream, every nook and cranny in the valley: the places deer came to drink early in the morning; the springs and bogs that were the best spots to find frogs; the pool of deep water where, if you kept very still, you could sometimes see fish hanging motionless below the mirrored surface. Her name was Lilly Trelissick, and the Valency valley was her favorite place in the whole world. Lilly was nine. She hated her name and preferred to be called Lee. Naturally, she called Andrew Drew.
Lilly--or, rather, Lee--was the only child of Roger and Anne Trelissick, who lived at Bottreaux Farm on a hill above Boscastle, a small village in a steep-sided, V-shaped valley on Cornwall's stormy Atlantic coast. On the lush pastures above the valley, Roger raised Devon Ruby Red cattle, a breed much prized for its flavorful meat, and Anne worked part-time as a freelance illustrator of children's books. Andrew was renting a seventeenth-century stone cottage off in one corner of the farm, which the couple had renovated. Roger and Anne's house was newer--Georgian, Andrew thought, given its tall windows and pleasing proportions. He suspected his cottage, which seemed to have grown out of the ground rather than having been built upon it, was the original farmhouse.
Lee Trelissick charged a small fee for her tours, payable in the form of an ice cream bar--specifically a Chunky Choc Ice--readily purchased from the newsagent's shop just up the main road from the harbor and conveniently situated near the beginning of the footpath up the Valency valley. A few steps downhill from the shop, just above the narrow stone bridge that carried the only road through the village, the Valency met the Jordan, a smaller river that tumbled down the lesser arm of the valley toward the sea. In truth, both were little more than streams. Normally, at this time of year--for it was high summer--water levels in both streams would be low. But August had begun with unusually muggy, sunny days punctuated by sudden, short rain squalls, so the ground was saturated and both streams were flowing picturesquely fast and full.
Below the bridge, the conjoined streams followed an arrow-straight channel neatly bounded by ancient, hand-laid stone embankments. The little river clattered over rock shelves, ducked under another, even smaller stone bridge, and then lost itself in the harbor. Eons of water relentlessly seeking sea level had exploited fault lines in the towering slate cliffs of Penally Point and carved a narrow dogleg gap that formed the harbor mouth. Tiny and tidal, protected by two massive stone jetties, Boscastle harbor was the only protected cove along twenty miles of wild, shipwrecking Atlantic coast. The harbor had once been a bustling little cargo-shipping port, supported a modest coastal fishing fleet, and, in the old days, trafficked in no small amount of smuggled tea, tobacco, and brandy.
Standing on the cliff above the harbor entrance on the day he arrived, Andrew had thought about exhausted fishermen returning home, pitching through the tide rips and coastal swells after a long day out on the heaving ocean, only to face the daunting prospect of negotiating the diabolical harbor mouth. The first hazard to avoid was Meachard Rock, a massive outcrop of ragged, knife-sharp slate several stories high and situated squarely in front of the narrow entrance. Then the passage turned ninety degrees to port and ran a good hundred yards north between beetling crags before turning another ninety degrees to starboard and around the tip of one of the jetties, finally reaching a tiny area of protected water. It would be difficult and perilous enough to navigate this approach with today's sturdy, snub-nosed, diesel-powered fishing boats; he couldn't imagine how they'd done it during the age of sail.
What was hell for mariners, though, was heaven for tourists. The tortured sedimentary cliffs, the crashing sea spray, and the scenic harbor netted the quaint old fishing village great shoals of visitors every summer. These days, Boscastle's economic survival depended on the tourist trade. August, with schools closed and many Europeans on holiday, was high season, the make-or-break month for the gift shops and cafes that lined the narrow street, the month that would measure how some of the residents would fare the rest of the year.
Lee, however, was having none of it.
"I can't wait till all these people leave!" she hissed between licks along the exposed vanilla core of her chocolate-coated ice cream bar. She and Andrew were standing outside the newsagent's, just uphill from the big car park that had been built along the north bank of the Valency to accommodate the tourists.
"And anyway, just look at them," she sputtered as another tour bus stopped to disgorge a stream of travelers who then waddled off downhill like so many overnourished ducks, "Bet you none of them makes it to the top of Penally; they're all too fat!"
"I dunno, Lee; keep eating those ice creams and you could end up the same way," Andrew said calmly.
The girl lifted an eyebrow. "You want the tour or not, Drew?"
Andrew laughed. "Okay, okay; you're the boss. Lead on."
Stratton had only been in Boscastle for a few days, but he'd already developed a fondness for the wiry little girl. There was nothing fussy about this kid. She seemed to live every day in the same worn khaki shorts, a T-shirt from someplace called the Eden Project, and olive-green rubber wellies--the better to wander through the woods below the farm and along the river's soggy upper reaches. Her arms and legs were bony and browned by the sun, and her sandy hair was cropped close to the skull, with a ragged fringe at the forehead. When she looked up at him, and especially when she smiled, her eyes narrowed to slits so thin he marveled she could see out of them at all. He never saw her with any other children; she seemed perfectly happy in her own company. And whenever he saw her crossing the fields beyond his cottage, her strides were strong and determined. No loitering among the meadow flowers or daisy-chain making for this one; Lee always seemed to be on a mission.
It worried him a bit that she wandered the countryside all alone. It was a city-dweller's worry, he knew, and, anyway, Anne had told him she'd long since stopped trying to keep track of her daughter. "She's a bit of an old soul, is our Lilly; she goes her own way," Anne had said, with what Andrew thought was a hint of awe, as if her daughter was something of a mystery to her. "Mind you, she's a good girl, smart and strong and trustworthy, but stubborn as a goat. And she either likes you or she doesn't."
Apparently, she liked Andrew. At least, he guessed she did, since most mornings he found her sitting on the stone wall by the gate to his cottage, facing the front door as if impatient for him to get a move on. She'd been there the first day after he arrived from the States. Jet lag had kept him asleep until nearly midmorning. Yawning, a cup of tea in his hand, he'd opened the top half of the split door at the front of his cottage and been greeted with "Who are you?"
He'd had no idea who she was.
"I'm Andrew; who are you?" he'd replied.
"Lee. I live here."
"No you don't; I do."
"On this farm, I do."
"I see. So Anne's your mother?"
"But Anne told me her daughter's name was Lilly."
The girl screwed up her face in disgust. "I hate that name."
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm renting this cottage."
"Are you on holiday?"
"Not really; I'm taking a course, starting Monday. It's like being at school."
"School? In the summer? That's daft."
"Oh, I don't know; I think I'll enjoy it."
"What are you going to school for?"
"Stone-wall building. I'm learning how to make walls . . . like the one you're sitting on."
"Why? We've already got plenty of them."
Andrew could see the door opening to a very long discussion, one he wasn't really prepared to enter, especially with an inquisitive little girl. The plain fact was, at least part of his brain worried that he was simply running away from his grief. That, and what he was sure were the unvoiced theories of friends and colleagues about why Kat had left him--was he a wife beater, a lush, a failure in bed? Why, he realized, was a very complex question. So he dodged it.
"Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Had some already."
"Like some more?"
"Nope. Gotta get going. Busy day." And with that, her curiosity apparently satisfied at least for the moment, the girl hopped down and dashed off across the meadow beyond the wall.
And ever since Wednesday, that's how their days had begun. He'd throw open the top half of the door and shout, "Good morning, madam!" (She liked that.)
"Guess what, Drew?!" she'd begin, hopping off the wall and skipping to the door. Lee seemed to think every new thought needed to be introduced this way: "Guess what?! The cat's had kittens." "Guess what?! Gonna rain later." "Guess what?! Dad's movin' the calves today."
Andrew had taken to answering. "I don't know, what?" just to tease her, but she just ignored him and launched right into the latest bit of local news. It was better than any morning newspaper. The news was always varied, interesting, and unexpected. It was a delightful way to start the day: a cup of hot, sweet, milky tea, and Miss "Guess What?!"
That's how today, Saturday, had started.
"Guess what, Drew?!"
"I don't know, what?"
"It's a good day for you to have my famous and ex-clu-sive guided walking tour of the river valley. Complete with sacred wells and witches!"
"Famous is it?"
"It is. Far and wide."
"How often have you conducted this tour?"
"Loads of times."
"Hmmm. Doesn't sound very exclusive."
"A few times, then?" he ventured.
"Nearly once!" she said, giggling behind her hand.
"Ah, now that's what I call exclusive. When do we leave?"
"Soon's you finish that tea, because--Guess what?!--Mum's taking me to Wadebridge this afternoon to get new wellies; my feet've got too big for these ones." She hopped around on one foot and shook the other by way of emphasis.
"Well, then, I guess I'd better get a move on. I'll just get my boots."
When he emerged again, a day pack slung over one shoulder, she was waiting by the gate.
"Where shall we begin?" he asked.
"At the bottom, of course. In the village."
Given that he knew there was a back route from the farm directly into the valley, this seemed odd to Andrew, but he didn't argue; he liked the girl's company too much. "Right, then. Down to the village it is!"
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