“Loonie, hold my arm,” said Rork’s gran.
He caught up to her and held out his arm, wondering at her asking for help. She was a small, compact woman, less than five feet tall, agile and energetic into her eighties. Rork towered over her, and she had to reach up to take his arm. It was rare for her to ask for help, and he noticed she was flushed, her lips pursed with breathlessness.
She’d insisted he drive her to forage for nettles in the woodlands surrounding their Highland village. They walked slowly through the spring-soaked grass, one of her hands in the crook of his elbow, the other resting in the pocket of her pinny as her sturdy shoes crunched windfallen leaves. Heg-beg, she called nettles, and lopped the tops to use in concocting a tonic they drank each spring – Rork, his father, and his gran.
Rork scrabbled for his smartphone in the back pocket of his jeans. He wanted to write a few notes to help him code later.
His gran squeezed his arm. “Rork, the Fergus,” she said, “that machine language will wait. Right now, I need you to keep an eye out for —”
She was interrupted by a thought or a spasm and stopped walking for a moment, standing still and closing her eyes.
“Gran, are you —?”
“Don’t,” said his gran, holding up a hand. “I can’t abide any fussing. It’s why I —”
She didn’t finish her sentence.
Chastened, Rork kept silent. Her urgency unnerved him, and he concentrated on looking for nettles, a tall plant with serrated leaves and stinging hairs. The plants were not easy to harvest, which was why he carried a pair of gardening gloves and kitchen shears in his backpack.
His gran dragged on his arm. Rork slowed his step. The muted sun pierced the cathedral of oak, pine, and ash trees, casting into beatific light a small clearing to their right. His gran breathed out with effort. She gave Rork a reassuring smile and linked her arm tighter with his.
Rork and his gran stood under the canopy of trees for long seconds, minutes, inhaling the tang of ancient pine. His gran relaxed her grip on his arm, her eyes flitting about the clearing like Small Blue butterflies, rare and striking with their bright blue wings, white margin, and dark fringe. Rork loved his gran’s curiosity. Her interest in the things around her. Even the nettles were worthy of her wonder. But worry prickled the back of his neck. She seemed slighter. Less. Should he say something to his father? His stomach knotted anxiously. His father was the opposite of curious. His cold indifference made Rork want to run away from home. If it wasn’t for his gran, he might have.
His gran’s eyes, like balefire, found his. “I especially feel your grandfather in the woods, in doing the tasks we used to do,” she said with a shake of her pin-curled head. Rork had only a dim memory of his grandfather, how he used to tease Rork about his tousled head of hair like flame flower.
“Life and death go side-by-side, you know, loonie,” said his gran. She chuckled softly. “How that man could natter.”
Woodland light burst into smaller particles, twinkling.
Rork didn’t understand. It wasn’t like his gran to dwell on the deceased. Usually she only remembered them during the high holidays, and he felt her wavering at his side, like a boundary was blurring between past and present. What was she trying to tell him? What was she preparing him for?
Rork tried to lead his gran to a fallen tree to rest. She braced herself with one hand on the tree but remained insistent, pointing to a clump of nettles just off the path. While she waited, she lifted her face to the sun-dappled light of the clearing, her other hand resting on the front of her pinny, fingers poised near her throat.
Rork crouched down to pluck the veined leaves. Although semi-cultivated, nettles grew best in patches near busy areas of a trail or outbuilding. The garden gloves stretched tightly on his hands but protected him from the many stinging hairs. He followed the vine-like stems, crawling along the loose earth to reach for more leaves. In warm weather the plant’s catkins would grow tall with budding brown or yellow flowers. He hoped his gran would be happy with the harvest. He thought it’d make enough tonic to see them through the winter. Maybe she was in need of tonic? And that was the purpose of the outing? He hoped so. He was concerned about her. She didn’t seem herself, and Rork hoped the tonic would restore her. He was looking forward to an afternoon in the kitchen with her.
The kitchen was his gran’s domain, a place where she was quietly and emphatically in charge, and Rork had many happy memories of helping her bake bread or oatcakes, cauldrons of soup or mince and tatties. Endless cups of tea. Steam from the stove and fragrant food, much laughter. Rork and his father had only basic kitchen skills. When his father was home, he would wander into the farmhouse kitchen for a cup of tea and a taste of whatever they were making. Rork would catch his father’s eye over the head of his gran, and there’d be a moment. An out of the ordinary, isolated moment. A moment when they felt like a family. Rork was happiest in his gran’s kitchen. She was the connection between his father and him. The only language they spoke.
In the woodlands, Rork sat back on his heels to gently arrange the plants in his backpack, careful not to crush the soft leaves. They reminded Rork a little of mint but without the distinct smell. Still, they were wonderfully fresh and green, like shade on a hot day. He got to his feet unsteadily, his hiking boots shifting in the soil.
“Gran,” he said, opening the pack wide for her to see the verdant pickings. Looking up, he saw her perfectly illuminated by the sun’s rays, light dispersing around her in a hazy halo that seemed somehow to also buzz. Or maybe Rork imagined it, but words stuck in his throat at the unexpected sight of his gran—glowing.
“Och,” she said, barely above a whisper, as if in surprise. “Are you coming for me, then?”
Rork grew alarmed. Who was she talking to?
Suddenly, his gran folded to the ground and lay peacefully on her side, head pillowed on the bend of one elbow.
“No!” yelled Rork, startling the birds from the trees. He cinched the backpack and flung it onto his back. In three frantic strides, he was lifting his gran in his arms, holding her gently under her knees and head. Her cheek rested on his chest. He lifted her, lurching back the way they’d come, willing the car to come into sight. She was heavy with collapse, and fear made Rork’s heart race. The sound of his own panting was loud in his ears.
“No, no, no,” he kept saying. With superhuman effort, he got her into the backseat, laying her tenderly on the cushion, using the backpack as a bolster against the door. As he made final adjustments, his gran gripped his hand fiercely. Surprised, Rork sucked in a breath and stared into her opened eyes.
“Find a way —” said his gran. Rork leaned nearer. He could hardly hear her.
“What?” he asked.
“Find. A. Way. To. Connect,” she said, haltingly. Her eyes stuttered and closed, and the strange buzzing from before returned.
Rork climbed into the driver’s seat in shock, not sure what to do or where to go. His clumsy thumbs could hardly operate his phone. “Da,” he said, his voice breaking as his father answered. “It’s gran!”
“Bring her home,” said his father, abrupt as always, somehow understanding what Rork was too incoherent to put into words.
“But Da —”
“Bring. Her. Home,” repeated his father, and then added in a gentler tone, “I’ll call the doctor.”
by Tori Grant Welhouse
Genre: YA Fantasy
In the mystical Highlands of Scotland, Rork, missing his beloved gran, wakes up with the ability to hear voices. And not just any voices. Fantastically Rork can hear voices of the dead, which lead him to a charismatic banshee and a colorful near-death survivor. The three are bound together in a time-tested banshee tradition with perhaps a side-goal or two. In the course of their adventures, they are pitched into an otherworld of before-death, after-death and in-between-death.The Fergus will appeal to fans of ghost stories, parallel universes and life-not-being-how-it-always-seems as in the worlds created by Laini Taylor, Stephenie Meyer or Helene Wecker.
Tori Grant Welhouse is a poet and writer from Green Bay. Her most recent poetry chapbook Vaginas Need Air won Etching Press’s 2020 chapbook contest. Her YA paranormal fantasy The Fergus won Skyrocket Press’s 2019 novel-writing contest and will be released Summer 2020. She is an active volunteer with Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.
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