|Story Title:||Miles To Go Before I Sleep|
Pale Blue Dot, Part 1
Billy summons his courage once more; will he be rewarded or rebuffed? Buffy and Annie go to the south of England with Dawn to meet Gertie Greenbriar. There aren't a lot of screencaps in here because Gertie's house and the town she lives near are pure imagination. Oh, bugger! Now I have that Willy Wonka song in my head! Come with me, And you'll be, In a world of Pure Imagination ... I need some chocolate.
Narration Referenced: Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p86BPM1GV8M&feature=colike
|Thanks:||Thanks to YOU for reading! Without you none of this would mean anything! Giant thanks also to Anona for betaing this chapter, including her grammatical and punctuation corrections, wonderful commentary, and final review. Also thanks to Capella42 for her insightful suggestions that made the whole story better. All mistakes are mine because I simply cannot stop fiddling right up to the very last moment.|
|Rating / Warnings:||
After dinner the evening of the ‘paint party’, Thursday, September 8th, 2011:
Billy sat as his computer and stared at the blank email screen. The little flashing prompt seemed to be mocking him – laughing at the lack any actual words beyond the ‘To’ and the subject.
It looked lame, even to him.
Sue-Ann had called the previous night, while he was grounded. Buffy wouldn’t let Bess call him to the phone. Grounded means grounded, she’d insisted. Bess hadn’t even told him about it until just after dinner tonight. His heart sank – he’d missed his first chance to talk to Sue-Ann since she’d left. He hadn’t emailed her before, but now he felt like he should do something. What if she thought the grounding was just an excuse? What if she thought he didn’t want to talk to her?
He sighed, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. His stomach was doing that flopping thing again. He felt like he’d swallowed a pound of thumbtacks and they were all trying to escape through his bellybutton. What should he say to her? What if she didn’t really want him to email her at all? What if she’d been glad that he hadn’t gotten on the phone last night? What if she had given him her email just to try and placate him and stop him from crying like a big baby? What if she laughed when she saw it and just deleted it? Or worse, showed it to all her friends and they all laughed.
His dad’s encouraging words flitted through his mind. Stuff about how brave he’d been to chance giving his heart away and how brilliant love was when things worked out. Did his dad really have any idea how it felt to have a pound of thumbtacks doing back-flips in your tummy? Billy couldn’t imagine that he did. How could he? After all, he’d always had Mama.
Billy opened his eyes again and looked at the blinking prompt. Blink, blink, blink … You’re so lame, it seemed to be saying, its tone mocking.
“I am not,” he argued with the computer screen, trying to sound confident. “She said I was her friend and … I’d always be her friend and … something about hen’s teeth. She said to email any ole time and she’d email back, lickety-split.”
But if she really wanted to email you, why didn’t she get your email address? the blinking prompt argued back silently.
“Maybe she would’ve if I hadn’t … run away,” Billy countered with a pout.
The blinking prompt seemed to roll its eyes and sigh. If she really wanted your email, she could’ve gotten it from Bess last night, the prompt pointed out.
“Shut up,” Billy told it, narrowing his eyes angrily at the blank screen. His one blackened eye throbbed when he did that – he stopped. “I’m a Scooby pup,” he contended. “I’m brave and … strong and … stuff. Mama says I’m like Papa – and she’s a Slayer. Sue-Ann’s a Slayer too … so, if I’m like Papa, then … I just have to do what he would do,” Billy reasoned, still talking to the silently mocking computer. “What would he do?”
Send ten thousand emails and fill up her inbox, the blinking prompt offered helpfully.
“Yeah, but he said to just send one … so … it needs to be really good,” Billy insisted. “Like … a poem or something from Shakespeare,” he suggested aloud, looking at the books on his bookshelves. He didn’t have any Shakespeare, but he knew there was one downstairs.
Too uppity, the prompt advised. What if she doesn’t read Shakespeare? She might think you’re snooty.
“I could write her a poem then,” Billy suggested and began to type:
‘Your brown eyes are sweet,
like chocolate kisses.
Your hair is soft,
and smells so delicious.
To see you again,
would be better than Christmas.’
When Billy paused, the blinking prompt began to gag and choke. What are you trying to do, make her throw up? it asked Billy.
Billy sighed and hit the ‘back-space’ key a bunch of times until the screen was blank again. “Fine … no poetry.” He pursed his lips and moved them from side to side as he thought. “Maybe a quote from Star Wars … just … casual, like Papa said.”
You’ve already done all the good quotes from Star Wars when she was here. You don’t want to bore her to death.
“Right. A different series then … Harry Potter or … Lord of the Rings,” he suggested, then typed: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,’ from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’.
Too gooey and abstract … what does that really mean, anyway? the blinking cursor complained, although it didn’t retch like it had at the poem.
“Fine…” Billy sighed and changed it to one of his favorite humorous lines from ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’: ‘There's no need to call me sir, Professor.’
He waited. The cursor just blinked at him – it didn’t make any more snide remarks. Billy smiled to himself and changed the subject of the email to: ‘Bet you don’t know this one.’
He stared at it for a few more minutes, waiting for the mocking prompt to come up with something derogatory, but it stayed silent. He nodded to himself – it was casual, like Papa had advised … and, if she remembered the line, it would make her laugh. If she didn’t remember the line, then it would drive her crazy and make her think about Billy the whole time she tried to remember what it was from. It was a win-win.
Billy suddenly noticed that the thumbtacks in his stomach had settled down and had stopped doing gymnastics routines. Billy’s smile widened and he clicked ‘send’. Now, he just had to wait and see if she would really reply. Just how long was a ‘lickety-split’, anyway?
He’d just gotten up from the computer when the email notification binged at him. It couldn’t be …
He sat back down and looked – it was! It was from Sue-Ann! His brow furrowed though, it wasn’t a reply to his email … unless she’d changed the subject. As he opened it, the nervous back-flips began in his stomach again.
Subject: You’ll never get this one!
‘There's no need to call me sir, Professor.’
She’d sent him the exact same email – the exact same line, from the exact same movie, and at the exact same time! The thumbtacks turned into fairy wings, and Billy felt his heart flutter with giddy laughter.
Next day, Friday, September 9th, 2011, mid-morning:
Buffy gave Spike one last kiss, promising to be back soon, before stepping through the open portal, following Dawn and Annie. As she emerged from the white, swirling light of the ethereal doorway, she was met with a chilling wind, which cut through her t-shirt and jeans like a knife. She set her backpack down, quickly pulled on the jacket she had draped over her arm, and looked around. Just one second before she’d been standing in the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, and now she was standing at the center of a ring of giant, prehistoric monoliths: Stonehenge.
Dawn stepped up to the open portal, commanded, “Finivi!” and the wind whipping around the portal died. Then the swirl of glowing, white light slowed, and finally the white light morphed to a sparkling, kelly green. Within a few moments, the amulet around her neck seemed to suck the green light back from the portal like a vacuum cleaner, closing the portal.
Annie and Buffy watched in awe. One moment there had been a doorway to Sunnydale there, and now there was nothing but thin, cold air. Dawn had opened … no, strike that, she had created a doorway using the mystical energy that linked the Hellmouth in Sunnydale to Stonehenge along the earth’s ley lines. They had taken a single step and traveled thousands and thousands of miles. It was like magic, perhaps it was actual magic. Although it was the only magic that Dawn could do, it was a pretty good trick.
“This way,” Dawn called to Buffy and Annie as she started for a black sedan that waited not far away.
Annie looked around wide-eyed. She didn't want to leave the prehistoric monument quite so soon, but this trip wasn’t about seeing Stonehenge; it was about meeting Gertie Greenbriar. She sighed and fell into step behind Dawn, still looking around as she went, trying to take in as much as she could. Buffy fell into step behind Annie, and they all trudged through the damp grass towards the waiting car.
Dawn would need to be going home soon, so, even though it was a school day, Buffy and Spike allowed Annie to skip once again – it wasn’t like she couldn’t make up the assignments. Before she’d come back with Spike and Xander, Dawn had called Giles and told him she’d be gone a ‘few days’. She didn’t want to go back so soon, she loved the feeling of being part of a real family, loved spending time with Buffy and Spike and all the kids, but she didn’t want to worry Giles either. She’d told Spike and Buffy that she needed to go back Sunday, so if they were going to meet Gertie, they needed to get on with it.
The driver of the car, a twenty-something, average-looking man with sandy, wind-swept hair, got out of the hired limo and opened the trunk of the car as they approached. The three travelers handed their backpacks to him and he settled the bags in the trunk while they opened the back doors of the car and climbed in. He gave them speculative glances as they clambered into the back of the car, but had been in the limo business long enough to know that you didn’t ask questions of your fares … like what they were doing out here, basically in the middle of nowhere, without transportation.
When the man settled in behind the wheel, Dawn leaned over the front seat and confirmed what she’d told the company over the phone when she’d hired the car the previous day. She went over where they were going with the driver and the most direct route to take, and he agreed, speaking in a thick, working-class London accent that mimicked Spike’s. With that handled, she settled into the backseat of the car with Buffy and Annie. It wasn’t a large stretch-type limo, simply an E-class Mercedes sedan, but it was plenty large for the three of them to fit comfortably in the back.
“It’ll take a couple of hours to get there. We can stop in West Lulworth at the Dandelion Bistro for lunch before going to Gertie’s. Their beer-battered fish and fat chips are to die for,” Dawn told them.
“Do you always plan your trips around where to eat?” Buffy wondered.
“Well, duh!” Dawn replied, laughing. “Gotta keep up my strength, ya know. All that heavy lifting really takes it out of a girl.”
“Where does Gertie actually live?” Annie wondered as she watched the large rocks of Stonehenge fading from view behind them.
“She has a cottage on the south coast. It’s … out of town,” Dawn hedged.
“And she doesn’t have a phone?” Buffy asked for possibly the hundredth time since they’d began talking about this plan two nights ago. “Wouldn’t this have been better if you could’ve talked to her first and … explained things a little more clearly before we just showed up on her doorstep?”
Dawn shook her head. “No phone. Her electricity comes from a windmill, so does her running water. She’s very … out of town. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t know us. Trust me; Gertie’s never met a stranger.
“I got a message to her that a Slayer, her sister, and her daughter would be coming today for a visit. That alone was a monumental effort. I had to call the Coven, who called one of her neighbors, who contacted her on the short-wave. There’s no way to go into more detail than that when you’re going through three people,” Dawn explained.
“And there’s nothing else you can tell us about her?” Buffy asked, slightly suspicious.
Dawn chuckled a little and shook her head. “Gertie must be experienced to be appreciated. Plus, she needs to get a true reading off you. If I told you more about her, it would taint your expectations and she’d be less likely to open up with us. She’s very intuitive … maybe empathic. You really need to go in as a blank-slate … or as blank as you can get. It’s better that way – she can feel the real you that way.”
“What if she doesn’t like the real us?” Annie asked, worried.
Dawn smiled reassuringly. “She will.”
The drive to the coast was filled with endless views of fields, farms, and forests. Lots and lots and lots of them. There seemed to be every shade of green ever imagined spread out across the land, from deep-dark forests to the bright, fresh green of winter rye just sprouting in the fields. Interspersed in the emerald landscape were towns, large and small, quaint and modern, but mostly there were just endless fields of rolling hills, some dotted with sheep, some with horses, some with cows.
The driver dropped them off at the Dandelion Bistro in West Lulworth, and agreed to pick them up in about an hour and an half. Thankfully, it was past lunch hour and the restaurant wasn’t too busy. They were able to get a table and had a fine meal of beer-battered fish and fat chips, although Dawn refused to allow Buffy to even ask for ketchup or tartar sauce. Dawn sounded very much like Spike as she pointed out that this was not McDonalds and all that was required was salt and vinegar. Sigh.
After dining at the bistro, the girls took a little time to walk down to the cliffs and marvel at Lulworth Cove, a breathtaking natural wonder on the south coast, formed over millennia by the erosion caused by waves and glacial runoff.
“There are other awesome things to see around here too,” Dawn told them. “It’s called the Jurassic Coast, and there are all sorts of rock formations, like the Durdle Door, which is this giant natural arch on the beach, plus caves and rock stacks. They’ve found tons of fossils here … I don’t remember what all, but the cliffs span the Mesozoic Era. It’s like a geological dig, only it’s already mostly dug out for you by the sea and rain runoff.”
“Troy would really love this,” Annie observed as she picked up a rock off the path they’d walked down. She was amazed to see the impression of some long dead creature or plant on the smooth face of the rock. She put it in her pocket to show Troy later.
Buffy nodded her agreement. Standing atop the high cliffs, looking out over the water made her feel very small in comparison. She’d spent so much time in Sunnydale sometimes she forgot how big the world really was. Except for the five years she’d spent traveling alone, hunting Vengeance Demons in the Wish World, she’d spent her entire adult life living in Sunnydale. They really needed to start going on more trips as a family. She’d never even seen the Grand Canyon in person. That was just wrong.
Despite the chilly fall air, the women rolled the windows down as their driver – his name was Jeremy, they now knew – wound the car along the narrow road. Annie let the air brush against her face as she breathed in the English countryside – it also helped with the car-sickness she was starting to feel from the winding road. They’d back-tracked a bit away from the coast – there was no coast road here like they had in California – and were back in the middle of the emerald-green fields of Dorset.
She was nervous about meeting Gertie and her trepidation made the beer-battered fish feel like it had come back to life in her stomach. It started flopping around in there … trying to get away, trying to jump back into the sea. What if she couldn’t do what Dawn could do? What if she couldn’t ‘get’ what Gertie was trying to teach her? What if she never could figure out what crystals were ‘in tune’ with her chakras? What if she didn't even have chakras to tune in to? What if the witch didn’t even like her enough to try and teach her?
Annie took a deep breath of the fresh air and tried to calm down. She’d been so happy to find out that there was another person in the universe like her – another Key – but now, she wasn’t so sure that was a good thing. Annie wasn’t the only freak the monks had made, but now there was someone to be held up and compared to – what if she didn’t stack up?
She kept her eyes trained on the countryside as it sped by. There were fewer and fewer houses the further they went – there were even fewer sheep an cows, it seemed. Then suddenly, they came to a town, of sorts. There was no warning, no ‘outskirts’, no cheap motels or seedy bars announcing its presence. One moment there were only fields and the next, just as you crested the rise of a hill, there was a town. The sign near the road read:
Welcome to Space Station Earth!
~ Leave no trace ~
T – 2 – T
As they drew closer, it became clear that the sign had been fashioned out of empty two-liter, plastic soda bottles which had then been somehow strung together and then painted in bright colors. Beneath the words the (apparently) universal recycling symbol had been painted. Annie knew what it was because it looked like the stencil on the blue bins that sat unused in the garage at home: three green arrows going in a circle around a blue earth.
“What does that mean?” Annie asked, pointing at the sign. “T-2-T?”
“Trash to treasure,” Dawn explained. “It’s actually the official name of the town now: T-2-T. It’s a community of Earth-friendly artists and craftsmen. They repurpose things that people throw away and basically turn garbage into works of art … turn trash into treasure.”
“Huh…” Annie mused as they made their way down the main … and pretty much only, street. Being Saturday, there were quite a few people on the sidewalks, walking from one building to the next. “It looks like that craft fair we went to with Willow and Tara that time in Portland,” Annie mused.
As they drove slowly through the town, Annie saw what Dawn was talking about in the items displayed in the shop windows and on the sidewalk itself. She saw wreaths made out of colorful, old china plates and saucers arranged in a circle and apparently glued to some sort of frame. There was a coat and hat rack that used mismatched, women’s high-heeled shoes as the ‘pegs’, and a giant butterfly made out of pieces of trim and picture frames, and had what looked like a banister or table leg for the body.
“The buildings were actually an old army complex of some kind,” Dawn continued to explain. “It was built after World War II as some kind of early warning station for a nuclear attack. The artists live upstairs and display their stuff for sale downstairs and on the sidewalks. Mostly they’re just open on the weekends and holidays,” Dawn continued as Annie watched the treasures pass by. “People come from all over to browse and buy stuff. Some of the more popular artists have gotten commissions from different towns, mostly to promote recycling.”
“So, is this where Gertie lives?” Annie wondered as they passed a shop that offered wall-hangings made out of old wooden window frames and shutters – some painted in bright colors, some looking deliberately old and distressed.
“No … not exactly, although this is where her friend with the short-wave radio is. She lives … out of town,” Dawn explained.
After they left the small town of artists, the GPS on the dash gave up trying to tell Jeremy where to go – it had no idea where they were. After driving another fifteen minutes or so, and at Dawn’s urging, Jeremy turned onto a small dirt track, which looked more like a walk or bike path than a road. The going was slow as he tried to avoid dropping the tires into deep, rain-washed gulleys in the ‘road’ and scraping the undercarriage of the luxury car on the rocky terrain.
After what seemed an eternity, they emerged from a stand of evergreen trees and were met with nothing but blue. A horizon of blue sky and blue water seemed to merge right in front of them. The dirt track turned sharply left just before the cliffs. If you happened to miss the turn, it would really ruin your day. After turning, they serpentined around boulders and rock out-croppings until the trail stopped in front of a house that seemed to be built directly into the side of a cliff.
“This is it,” Dawn announced as she opened the door and stepped out of the car. “Jeremy, we’ll need you to wait … or you could go back to T-2-T and come back in about, ummm … maybe three hours or so.”
The driver shrugged. “Go’ no problem waitin’, miss,” he replied as he got out and retrieved their backpacks from the trunk.
Annie got out and surveyed the scene as she took her pack from Jeremy.
To the south was the sea … or ocean … or maybe it was the English Channel, she wasn’t really sure – it was water and seemed to go on forever. The cliffs were steep and straight down – there was no access to the water here, no beach, like there at been at Lulworth Cove … unless you wanted to repel down like 007 or something.
To the north there was another cliff jutting up towards the sky. Back where they’d come down on the dirt path it had been little more than a small rise, but here it was steep and tall. Between the drop-off to the sea and the white cliff-face that rose up like a wall, was a flat area just wide enough for a modest house to perch … perhaps forty or fifty feet wide.
At first glance, the house itself looked like it had been carved into the cliff at its back, but upon closer inspection, Annie could see seams where large, white limestone blocks had been stacked one upon the other to make the walls. It looked like the same builder that had built the great pyramids had made it; stone on stone, perfectly fitted one to the next with no mortar visible, at least from a distance. It was square and blocky and cold-looking – like a cell block or maybe a square igloo.
A rough-hewn, tall, wooden door was set into the center of the block wall, and narrow windows lined the very top of what must’ve been the second story. There were no windows down lower at all. It would’ve looked uninviting if not for the garden that spread out in front of it.
A footpath to the front door passed under an archway that was set into a short, stacked-rock wall that framed the front garden. On the outside of the rough wall grew evening primrose. The yellow flowers danced in the breeze, which spread their sweet fragrance out across the narrow expanse of flat ground between the sea and the cliff. The path was paved with flat, irregularly-shaped pieces of the same smooth limestone that the house was made of. It was lined on either side with aromatic, English lavender plants, all sporting deep-purple spikes of flowers above the green foliage. The trellised archway was covered in rose vines. Delicate-looking, fragrant, pink roses hung in clusters from the brambles and formed a roof over the entryway. The whole effect drew you in. The colors, the textures, the fragrances, and the dancing, smiling flowers seemed to say ‘Welcome’ without words.
On the other side of the house, the top of a windmill could be seen spinning in the sea-breeze: Gertie’s electric generator and water pump. From where she stood, Annie couldn’t see anything else that might be on the other side of the house, like perhaps more gardens. She could see no way to get to the other side except to go through the limestone structure. The back of the house was flat against the cliff; the front of the house actually jutted out about three feet past the sheer drop-off that plunged into the sea. It looked at once precariously perched and unmovable. It seemed like a good storm could crumble it into the sea but also looked like it had been there a thousand years and would be there a thousand more.
The strangely contradictory house, at once cold but inviting, fragile and permanent, did nothing to ease Annie’s nerves. If anything, it unsettled her more. What type of person would live here, so far from anything, and in such a harsh, possibly dangerous, place?
As Annie and Buffy followed Dawn up the footpath, the remnants of an obviously well-tended summer garden spread out on the side of the walkway furthest from the sea. The plants were spent, dead or dying, the vegetables nearly all picked. A few small birds fluttered up in surprise as the trio approached, apparently caught helping themselves to whatever had been left by the gardener.
On the sea-side of the footpath, a still-vital herb garden sprawled out against the background of blue sea and sky. Not one inch of space had been wasted, and Annie recognized many of the same plants that she’d seen growing at Willow and Tara’s house. Herbs used for spells grew alongside those for cooking; stinging nettles and thyme rated equal attention and garden space. Some of the herbs were growing in oddly shaped, colorful, clay pots while still other plants were growing in ‘repurposed’ containers: coffee cans, metal desk drawers, soda bottles, teapots, and cracked, bone china tea cups. Annie’s favorite bit, however, was tucked into one corner: a butter-yellow claw-footed bathtub, a baby-blue toilet, and a porcelain pedestal sink in pink. They had all been converted into planters … and the plants seemed perfectly happy with the arrangement. Annie thought of Mrs. Katz, and made a mental note to suggest such re-purposing to her dad when they got home.
Although the combination of disparate items in the garden was odd, it seemed to work. They made the garden look quaint and eclectic and perhaps even a little eccentric – it was impossible not to smile at it. Despite all the repurposing, most of the plants grew directly in the earth. Annie noticed the ground here had been built up with dark, rich, loamy soil, unlike the poor, rocky sandstone that existed on the other side of the short, stone wall.
Dawn reached the large door and picked up what seemed to be an overly-large, round, iron knocker and let it fall once. Annie tried to swallow back her nerves and assure herself that Dawn wouldn’t have brought them here if she didn’t think Gertie would be welcoming. But, as she looked around at the lonely landscape, she had to wonder again who, other than a crazy hermit woman, possibly one with a hundred cats, would live here?
The wait for the door to open seemed interminable to Annie, but Dawn didn’t knock again: she just waited patiently, as if this was an old habit. The only sound was the unending crash of waves on the rocks far below them. It was hypnotic if you concentrated on it; you could almost feel the ocean ebb and flow just from the sound.
Annie had no idea what to expect – Dawn had given them no clues – so, to say the woman that opened the door wasn’t what she expected would be silly, but it was true.
Even though Dawn was as tall as Spike, this woman made her look short in comparison. Annie guessed that Gertie must be six feet tall. She had a willowy build – thin and straight, like a reed, but not frail. She made Buffy, even with the weight she’d lost over the summer, look like a buxom, curvaceous vixen in comparison. It was like Olive Oyl meeting Jessica Rabbit. On some women, the lack of curves would’ve been boyish; on Gertie it seemed more fairy-like … like Tinker Bell or Titania.
Gertie wore a light-blue, sleeveless, gauzy dress with a v-neck. The hem fell just above her knees and was trimmed with crocheted fringe in midnight blue. Around her shoulders was a shawl to ward off the cool fall air. It matched the fringe: intricately crocheted and midnight blue. A colorful, beaded belt was tied loosely around her middle; it only served to accentuate her waif-like waist. Her feet were bare; her toenails unpainted. The woman’s legs and arms seemed incredibly long, but they weren’t emaciated – in fact, from what Annie could see they looked strong and lithe. She had rings, mostly silver with a few sparkling gems, on all ten fingers and two of her toes. She had an amethyst crystal necklace and matching long, dangling earrings. Her left wrist sported more silver bangle bracelets than Annie could easily count, and her right wrist was encircled in a multi-colored hemp bracelet with some sort of shimmering beads interspersed along its length.
The woman’s neck was long, like the rest of her, and it made Annie think of a swan. Her face formed a perfect oval; her features were delicate and held no makeup at all. Her skin was pale, creamy-white, and flawless, like that of a porcelain doll. Her cheeks were tinged in pink, as if they’d been kissed lightly by the sun; from working in the garden, Annie figured. She was attractive, Annie decided – not a Cover Girl, but pretty enough ... until you got to her eyes. Her eyes were extraordinary. Her eyes drew you in; they were eyes that inspired poets to write epics and artists to paint masterpieces.
Shaped like almonds, Gertie’s eyes seemed slightly too large for her thin face. At first Annie thought her irises were the color of green shamrocks flecked with pale lilac, but when the witch shifted her gaze from Dawn to Buffy, the color changed. Annie thought that her eyes were reflecting the colors around her – but neither Dawn nor Buffy were wearing green. Now that Gertie was focused on Buffy, her eyes appeared to be the color of plums: a deep, rich purple, but still flecked with pale lilac.
Dawn and Buffy were talking to the willowy woman now, but Annie was only half-listening as she studied the woman standing in the doorway. She momentarily gave up trying to figure out what color the witch’s eyes were and continued her perusal.
Gertie’s hair was long – waist-length – thick, perfectly straight, and the color of platinum. It was not platinum-blonde like her dad’s; not bleached or peroxided, or even the natural towheaded blonde of the twins. Gertie’s hair was pure silver-white: the true color of the precious metal platinum. It was parted in the middle and flowed down her back and over her shoulders like a sheet of liquid, pearlescent satin. It shone in the sunlight and, like her eyes, seemed to pick up color from things around her.
There were no deviations in the color from top to bottom, but Annie was sure it was natural … for the most part. The part that Annie hoped was not natural were the three pink streaks, each about half an inch wide, that began at Gertie’s center part at the top of her head and flowed all the way down the considerable length of her mane – two on her left side and one on the right.
Annie tried to judge how old Gertie was, but was once again conflicted. The white hair seemed to suggest that she must be old, but her face was smooth and bore no wrinkles. The pink in her hair made Annie think she might be fairly young, but the set of her shoulders gave her an air of confidence and poise that wasn’t often seen in very young people. Annie guessed she could be anywhere from twenty to … fifty. She couldn’t narrow it down any further than that.
When Gertie’s luminous eyes turned to Annie, the girl froze. Annie could see the color of them now, and it surprised her a bit. They were silver-gray; not quite as dark as storm clouds nor as light as cirrus. The flecks of lilac she’d seen sprinkled about in them remained and gave them a glittering, metallic quality. They seemed to shimmer, like liquid mercury or whatever they used to turn glass into a mirror. Annie had never seen anyone with eyes that color before.
Those mutable eyes seemed to penetrate directly into Annie’s soul. The girl was vaguely aware that someone had asked her a question, but she hadn’t heard what it was or even who had asked; Gertie’s eyes were blocking everything else out. Not even the sound of the ocean reached Annie’s ears for a moment – there was utter silence. She felt like she was inside a bubble or one of those isolation booths they used on game shows, cut off from the world.
Annie shivered. The witch’s eyes felt cold and hard on hers. Like her house, they were stark and uninviting, hard and formidable … but then the woman smiled. The cold suddenly dissipated and a soft zephyr flooded Annie with warmth. The sound came back; the hum of crashing waves lapped gently against Annie’s eardrums, birds chirped somewhere nearby, her mom was telling her to say hello in a tone that Annie knew meant it wasn’t the first time she’d said it.
Gertie’s eyes were no longer cold or stark, but shined with warmth and welcome. They looked green again, like they had when she had been looking at Dawn. There was even a hint of bemusement in the lines that now crinkled softly around their corners. Dimples graced the woman’s cheeks as her smile widened into a toothy grin and showed a small gap between her two front teeth. Completely gone was any hint of starkness or hardness – all that remained was warmth and welcoming.
Annie stepped forward and extended her right hand. “Hi, I’m Annie,” she offered, and Gertie took Annie’s smaller hand in both of hers.
The witch’s hands were large, her fingers thin and long but gentle and friendly. They felt warm on Annie’s hand despite the cool fall air. The bangles on Gertie’s wrist tinkled against each other when she moved, and the rings on her fingers glinted in the sunlight, sending shards of colorful light bouncing around the doorway and over the four women standing there. She gave Annie’s hand a friendly squeeze, then released her hold and swung the door open widely in silent invitation for them to enter.
The inside of Gertie’s house, just like everything else Annie had seen here so far, was a study in contradictions. Unlike the stark, cold exterior, the inside was warm and cozy. The whole first floor was one large room: kitchen in the back against the cliff, and living area in the front, next to the sea. There was a bank of two-story-tall, floor-to-ceiling, curtain-less windows that looked out over the water. Annie hadn’t been able to see these south-facing windows from the west side of the house, which is the direction they’d approached from. There were no lower windows on any of the other walls, just this one, which jutted out over the cliff and the water below. The other walls didn't really need more windows, as these seemed to bring the blue of the sky and water right into the house.
The sun shining in through the wall of glass lit the whole area in a flood of warm, crisp light. The half of the house nearest the sea was open all the way to the ceiling of the second story. There was a spiral staircase off to one side that led to a second-floor balcony, which formed the ceiling over the kitchen. Annie supposed Gertie’s bedroom was up there.
The interior of the house was a smorgasbord for the senses. For the eyes there was a rainbow of colors. There was no ‘color scheme’; it wasn’t all blues or greens or earth tones, but every color in the rainbow graced the textiles, including wall hangings, pillows, and rugs. For the nose there was the aroma of bread baking and incense burning – something spicy and pumpkin-y. Annie thought it smelled like fall and the holidays, and it made a stronger feeling of warmth well up inside her. For the ears the sound of the waves below could still be heard, and some type of Hindi or Asian music played softly in the background. It was relaxing, unusual … very Zen.
For the touch there was a plethora of textures. Giant, rough-hewn wooden posts and beams supported the balcony that was the second floor. A philodendron vine with shiny, unnaturally-large, green leaves flecked with yellow climbed halfway up the center post. The other two posts were wreathed in deep-green English Ivy. There was no doubt the plants were real, not silk or plastic imitations.
There were more plants in colorfully-painted, oddly-shaped pots – the same type of pots Annie had seen outside – on either side of the giant windows. Spider plants hung in baskets from wrought-iron stands, their babies cascading down in graceful arcs. The white, delicate flowers of a Creeping Charlie plant trailed across the floor, the leaves of several prayer plants soaked up the light from the windows, waiting for evening to come when they would fold their speckled hands closed as if in prayer, and African Violets bloomed in profusions of color.
The limestone walls were smooth as marble but much of it was covered with intricately-woven tapestries. Some had a Native American theme, while others appeared Celtic, and still others looked a lot like the front of the mansion had when they’d left: free-form psychedelic.
The furniture, an over-large couch and two arm chairs, all faced the windows and all seemed to be handmade. The sturdy, wooden frames were constructed of gnarled tree branches and sun-bleached driftwood. All were piled deep with soft, quilt-covered pillows, and seemed to call to guests, inviting them to come in and sit a spell. There were more large pillows strewn about on the floor around a low, square, wooden table that looked solid enough to support the weight of a circus elephant.
The floor was paved with the same smooth limestone as the walls, hard and cool underfoot, but there were more hand-woven rugs, like the tapestries on the walls, strewn about, adding interest and warmth. A large, shaggy, oh-so-soft looking rag-rug graced the area in front of the sofa. It made you want to kick your shoes off and curl your toes in its deep pile. The source of the blankets, tapestries, and rugs was tucked away in one corner of the wide-open living area near the kitchen: a hand loom. A partially completed rug or wall hanging was rolled around a large spool at its back.
Along two walls of the kitchen were sturdy wooden shelves going from the floor to the ceiling, which in that area was about twelve feet high as the second story balcony was above it. The shelves were lined with canned goods. Not in cans, mind you … in jars. Home-canned goods. On one side of the kitchen the jars held the colorful bounty of the summer garden that now stood brown outside in the cool fall air: yellow squash, green beans, red tomatoes, purple beets, orange carrots. On the other side of the kitchen, the jars were packed with dried herbs, flowers, and roots. Somehow, even the storage of food added to the ambiance of the room. The appliances in the kitchen all seemed to be fairly new and sleek stainless-steel … another texture to add to the contradictions of the interior. The backsplash around the counters, however, appeared to be made from hand-painted ceramic tiles, each featuring a different herb or flower painted on a Baltic blue background. They looked very old.
Annie was just starting to feel more relaxed, as if all the surprises that could hit her had passed, when Gertie began talking. Of course, Gertie had been talking earlier, to Dawn and Buffy, but Annie hadn’t really been listening or paying attention.
“Have a sit down, then,” she offered her guests in a soft, lilting, Irish brogue, waving hand at the couch and chairs. “Fancy a cuppa Rosie? Sorry, don’t have any fizzies, but I’ve got a mineral, if you’d rather.”
Annie just stared at Gertie. What the heck had she just said? Was that actually English? A few words sounded familiar, but they didn’t make any sense. Despite not being able to really comprehend what she’d said, Gertie’s lyrical voice was just another sensory experience to add to the list. Her accent wasn’t thick or hard, but opulent. She spoke with rich, full ‘r’s and lavish vowels that made you want to hear her talk some more. Annie was suddenly sorry she hadn't been listening earlier.
Buffy bit her lip and looked at Dawn for help, wishing Spike had come along to translate … he was so much better with all these foreign languages than Buffy was.
Dawn smiled and nodded as she took a seat on the couch. “Tea would be great, Gertie … with milk and sugar?”
Annie and Buffy nodded their agreement and joined Dawn on the couch.
“Brilliant – jus’ let me wet the tea. Be at home with ya. Have a gander ‘round. View’s bloody brilliant-like,” Gertie offered, waving a hand at the bank of windows. “Can peer righ’ down on the rocks, you can. Like lookin’ inta the Earth’s soul, it is.”
As Gertie headed back towards the kitchen, Dawn motioned with her head at Buffy and Annie. They all three stood up and walked over to the bank of windows. Gertie was right – it was pretty ‘brilliant-like’. Bluish-green water slapped against white rocks that had fallen from the steep cliff face. It splashed and foamed, then momentarily fell back only to surge again. It would’ve been dizzying to stand close enough to the edge to see this view, but behind the glass they could just enjoy the endless rhythm of the sea.
Gertie came back and stood by the window with them as she waited for the water to heat for the tea.
"It’s beautiful,” Buffy offered, giving the witch a smile.
“To be sure, but more than that … spiritual … a sacred balance,” Gertie replied reverently. “Tis where soil, water, and air converge. It’s Mother Earth’s life-force … her synergy. Can ya feel it?” she asked, looking pointedly at Buffy.
Buffy’s eyes went a little wide and she turned back toward the window. “Uhhh … yeah … maybe.”
Gertie smiled patiently. “Ya don’t be tryin’, Buffy. Open your inner eye t’ see what your mortal eyes are blinded to.”
Dawn suppressed a small smile; she’d heard that enough times in her life.
“Right … inner eye,” Buffy mumbled. “I think I saw that on TV once. It’s a third eye in the middle of your forehead, right?” Buffy joked.
Gertie laughed and the sound was almost magical, like choral bells ringing joyfully on a distant moor. “That be for Twilight Zone, I reckon,” she chided Buffy. “For us common folk, it lives here,” Gertie explained, still smiling as she placed a closed fist over her heart. “Close your mortal eyes an’ look from inside yourself … see through the eye o’ wisdom.”
“Right,” Buffy agreed, unsure what else to say. Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath just as a kettle began to whistle on the stove. Buffy could feel and hear Gertie move away, and she blew out the breath, then looked at Dawn. “What the hell is she talking about?” she asked her sister in a whisper.
“Intuition … instinct, guts … heart,” Dawn explained. “You really should be able to get it easier than anyone, Buffy. You go by instinct all the time.”
“Yeah, fighting demons,” Buffy hissed, her voice low. “Not feeling … ‘Mother Earth’s synergy’. Seems like an invasion of ole Mom’s privacy to me, anyway. I wouldn’t want anyone feeling up my synergy.”
“Except Spike,” Dawn teased, grinning.
Buffy rolled her eyes and shook her head as she looked back out the window … using just her normal, mortal eyes.
Annie chewed on her bottom lip, worrying it steadily with her teeth. If her mom couldn’t get this, how was she supposed to? Annie closed her eyes and tried to feel the Earth’s synergy – mostly, she just felt her heart skittering like a frightened bird in her chest. This was not a good sign, not good at all.
This and the next chapter were originally one giant chapter. The reference to Carl Sagan's narration will make more sense in the next part, but I thought Gertie would appreciate having both chapters keep the reference. I hope I didn't bore you with the description of Gertie's house. I'm not sure we'll ever get back here to visit it (I envision Gertie coming to SunnyD later rather than us going back to Dorset) and my muse just really wanted to carry me through it all in detail.
Next: Tea with Gertie.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi
distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But
for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home.
That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard
of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our
joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic
doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and
destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love,
every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of
morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader,"
every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of
dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
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