Grandma was famous in our South Wales valley of Llanadwen, and all the valleys adjacent, as a spiritualist, a fortune-teller, and a specialist in the brewing of herbal remedies, as well as other potions to cure ills that were not of the body. I had lived with her since my parents’ divorce, which was longer ago than I could remember.
My mother taught Natural Sciences at Lady Hawtrey’s Academy, an elite girls’ boarding school in Hereford, situated in the mansion house on the expansive estate that had belonged to that lady. An intellectual and suffragette, she had established the school in the 1920’s. Mam came home to Grandma and me every other weekend. She had not inherited Grandma’s gifts. Sometimes they skipped a generation, Grandma said, and she was looking for signs in me. I was fifteen and so far they hadn’t appeared. “You’re a late developer, Arianwen,” she said. “You’ll come into them eventually.”
After the divorce, my father had moved to Cardiff. He was a GP and he claimed that Grandma’s thriving business, as well as her “demonstrations of malice” towards him, were bad for his practice and his sanity. I visited him during school holidays and he sent money to Mam for my support.
My grandfather had never lived with us. He was a coming-and-going person, a traveling salesman, selling kitchen appliances door-to-door, and offering other services as well, Grandma was sure, if a husband wasn’t home and the housewife attractive.
“How can you know that?” my mother had asked her.
“A little bird told me.” Another of Grandma’s skills was her ability to communicate with non-verbal creatures. When I was ten years old, a little bird told her that Grandpa had become a bigamist. “I’ve long thought ‘enough is enough.’ He’s on the far side of that now,” Grandma said, and she put him out on the road permanently, and that was the last we saw or heard of him until now, five years later, we received the news of his passing. He had died in mysterious circumstances, the policeman informed us, in a remote spot up on Aberteleri Mountain. “What could possibly have taken him to that out-of-the-way place, Ma’am, do you have any notion?” Even more mysterious, the autopsy revealed no physical reason for his presumably sudden death.
“He had a bad heart,” Grandma said at the inquest.
“Indeed he didn’t, Mrs. Cadwalladar. His heart was sound.”
“I didn’t mean bad in that way,” Grandma told Mam and me afterwards.
He was buried in a plywood coffin with no funeral, only we three at the cemetery, and none of us really mourning. “Good riddance,” Grandma said. “He’ll trouble me no longer.”
At the cemetery gates, her mood altered. “On the other hand, it’s well known that spirits of the dead come back to haunt those who’ve injured them.”
“Why should you worry?” Mam said. “Aren’t you the injured party?”
“I didn’t have a minister at the grave. He might resent me for that. He was a chapel-going man, albeit a hypocrite, lead tenor in Hebron choir when I met him.”
“You call up spirits,” Mam said. “Surely you can oust them as well?” She was humoring Grandma. She didn’t believe in spirits herself.
“Those I call up are obedient to my will. His would be devious, defiant, unyielding.”
“No worries then,” Mam said. “You’ll beat him hands down.”
“Don’t ask me,” Grandma told the detective who came to our door a week later and introduced himself as, “DCI Rolands, Ma’am, summoned from Cardiff to further investigate your husband’s puzzling demise.”
“My late husband was always a puzzle to me, DCI Rolands, as were his whereabouts. Even if I wished to do him harm, I wouldn’t have known where to find him. You’re welcome to come in, however.”
“I believe you wholeheartedly,” DCI Rolands said when Grandma had seated him at our kitchen table where she served him herbal tea and poppy-seed cake and sat opposite him, twisting a lock of her auburn hair around an elegant finger, her lovage-leaf green eyes fixed on his face. “I didn’t credit rumors of magic or malefaction for a minute, Ma’am. It’s just that it has come to light that a passerby recalls seeing the deceased enter your house a day or two before his body was found…”
“And would’ve seen him leave again in five minutes if they’d waited. I assure you I wanted nothing to do with my faithless husband. Surely you don’t suspect I murdered him and then transported his corpse all the way up the mountain?” She released the lock of hair and it spun into a long curl on her neck.
“Of course not, Ma’am. Questioning you was not my idea. The Chief Inspector insisted. I’m sorry to have troubled you,” and as Grandma showed him to the door, “If you’d let me, I should like to make amends. Could you fancy a dinner in Cardiff one evening?”
Grandma, at nearly 60, still possessed abundant hair, smooth skin, an upright posture, and a sprightly walk. There were potions for maintaining youth and beauty, too. They sold well, though with more modest success for women who hadn’t started off with Grandma’s attributes.
“Thank you for your generosity,” Grandma said, “but I must decline in such delicate circumstances, recently widowed, you know. It wouldn’t be seemly.”
“Ah…quite. Understood. A pleasure to meet you, Ma’am. Sorry we shan’t meet again.”
“A married man, for sure,” Grandma said when she returned to the kitchen, “wanting a bit of carrying-on, a common failing among the male sex. It’s a rare one of them decent enough to refrain, and even the decent can be persuaded. The inclination’s in all of them. Have you noticed that no man wears a wedding ring?”
“It’s not the custom in Wales.”
“And who do you suppose decreed it wouldn’t be the custom, and for what reason? Ponder that, Arianwen.”
“Did Grandpa really come here recently as DCI Rolands said?”
“He did, one afternoon while you were at school. Wanted to reconcile, if you please. Fallen on hard times, he said, and come to beg my forgiveness. ‘Go and beg at the roadside,’ I told him, and I sent him packing, as you heard me assure that detective. From the goodness of my heart, I did give him half a loaf of bara brith, a favorite he never could resist, but I warned him, ‘You’ll eat nothing more from my hand ever again.’ Now, Arianwen, let’s be light-hearted and go blackberry picking.”
Grandma baked an excellent bara brith, stuffed with sultanas, raisins, and dried cherries, and frequently gave a loaf to one of her clients that contained additional ingredients to those required in the recipe. It was a pleasant and easy way to ingest a remedy—or, I now thought, an untraceable poison, if need be. But she also baked perfectly innocuous bara briths for Mam and me and kept a batch in the pantry. Surely she had given one of those to Grandpa. After all, she couldn’t have known in advance that he would visit. Could she?
Grandma and I lived in the countryside on the outskirts of Llanadwen, in an old stone cottage standing on the road to town. In the garden surrounding it, Grandma grew herbs for her remedies and flowers for her potions and, more mundanely, vegetables for our own consumption. Beyond the garden were fields and woods, and the path I cycled on to school every day in fine weather, passing hedgerows filled with honeysuckle, trees filled with birds, blithely singing. On days when the rain poured and the wind blustered, which were frequent in Wales, I stayed home. I could have waved down the school bus but Grandma always said, “Go or not, it’s up to you,” and I preferred not, and instead spent those stormy days in our cozy, aromatic kitchen, helping her chop ingredients and writing labels for her jars: “For toothache,” “For headache,” “For stomachache,” “For heartache.”
She also allowed me to take down the rare old books on the shelf by the window and sit at the table turning pages. They were all of them on necromantic subjects and the texts were beyond me, but the copies of pen-and-ink drawings of myriad plants, herbal and flowering, were detailed and exquisite. She had acquired them from her friend Nudd Awen who kept the Thirteen O’ Clock bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, and who also advised her on purchases, “being a learned man himself, steeped in matters arcane,” Grandma said. He was another man with an inclination for Grandma, but she respected him more than the rest. In fact, Mam and I guessed he’d aroused inclination in her, for she always came home in a merry mood, with her hat askew and curls escaping from her bun, and saying, “He brews a formidable elderberry wine, Nudd.”
One afternoon when I was mitching school, we were chatting as we worked about my father’s plan to marry the woman he’d been courting for several years.
“She’ll be your stepmother,” Grandma said. “She’ll always be there when you visit. Tell me if you won’t like that and I can put a stop to her.”
I thought of Grandpa’s mysterious death and answered, “She’s nice enough. She makes Dad happy.”
“His happiness or lack of it is unimportant,” Grandma said. “Tell me if she ever isn’t nice to you.” She frequently told my mother and me she would do anything for us, no exceptions, even if she had to be unscrupulous.
In her defense against the implications in that last word, it’s important to say, she helped a lot more people than she hindered. Her herbal remedies were extolled. People came from all over to seek her aid when doctors had failed them. Her love potions had changed hearts and minds in favor of those previously unnoticed or spurned.
In the afternoons, by appointment only, she gave private consultations, reading palms, or tealeaves, or the Tarot, customer’s preference. She always sent the applicants away happy, for she told only the good news directly, euphemizing the bad in a manner that pleased rather than disturbed. For example, seeing the lethal mark that struck across Mr. Dakin’s lifeline, she said, “You’re destined to make an unexpected journey quite soon, Dewi bach. Put your affairs in order before you leave this country,” and Mr. Dakin went home believing that his son in Australia would send for him at last, or he might win the football pools and embark on a world cruise.
Her Friday night séances packed our parlor, so renowned was she for her ability to summon the spirits of departed loved ones to comfort the grieving. I had often peeked in on these gatherings and seen how she enthralled her audience, speaking in voices not her own, male as well as female, children’s too, and even a baby’s babble. On one occasion when I was eavesdropping behind the half open parlor door, she barked like a dog. Not because anyone had wanted to call up a departed pet. They all wanted humans, but as Grandma explained to Mrs. Evans, the supplicant, spirits don’t always come back in human form. “Didn’t you notice,” she said, “that although Eurin sounded like a dog, the pitch and tone of his barking were human?”
Women were nodding their heads in agreement with Grandma, except Mrs. Evans, who said, “I can’t believe that was my husband.”
“Then tell me this,” Grandma said. “Didn’t he breed Welsh corgis? Dog fanciers came from all over to buy his pups.”
The audience was nodding vehemently now, and Mrs. Prosser the Public House said, “I bought one from him myself, Maisie, a lovely girl doggie.”
“He had an affinity with canines. Why shouldn’t he come back as one?
Mrs. Evans said, “I want Eurin to come back human so he can speak to me.”
“He did speak to you,” Grandma replied, “ in dog language, that I can interpret. He asked me to tell you he’s happy. There’s a lovely green meadow he frolics in, and sunshine all the time, and he said he’ll tell you more next week. Now, see here, he won’t come again if he thinks you’re disappointed in him.”
“You want him to come again, Nell,” Mrs. Jones the Post Office said.
“I suppose I can get used to it,” Mrs. Evans said. “As long as I don’t have to bark back to him.”
One way and another Grandma made a lot of money. With my father’s contribution added, and my mother’s salary, we were well off, and Grandma spoiled me with everything I wanted. “Name it and it shall be yours, delight of my life.”
She’d told Mam the same, only changing the pronouns. “Just name him and you shall have him.”
But my mother didn’t hold with love potions. “If a man is attracted to me, I’d prefer it didn’t happen through devious means.”
“But you’re making no effort to attract, teaching and living in a girls’ school like a nun in a convent. You’ve got my looks even though you’re not favored with my powers. Men would be drawn if you gave them a chance. So what’s wrong, Lili? You’re too young to be celibate. Let me help.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Mam said. “I just haven’t met anyone I fancy.”
Until she did. Mr. Islwyn Trefethic taught History at Llanadwen Grammar where I was a student. His daughter Crystin was in Form Four like me, and one of my best friends. Every year, he co-directed the annual school play with Mrs. Dawes, our English teacher. When we performed Lady of Marvels in June of my fifteenth year, Grandma and Mam came to see it. I’d obtained a small part as handmaiden to the heroine Lady Rhiannon who, in The Mabinogion legend, brings about all that she wishes for, including a change of husbands, by the power of her magic. Mrs. Dawes introduced the performance, and at the end, Mr. Trefethic gave the thank yous, to her, to the cast, and to the audience, and presented Mrs. Dawes with a bouquet and a bow.
As we walked home, Grandma said, “I approve the theme of Lady of Marvels. A person shouldn’t be tied to a spouse he or she is not happy with. You spoke your line well, Arianwen. I hope you absorbed its wisdom.”
My single line, apart from a lot of saying, “Yes, M’Lady,” and curtsying, was, “Lady Rhiannon, go where your heart already resides.”
“Who chose that play?”
“It was Mr. Trefethic’s turn this year.”
“Ah, interesting. I wonder if he had a personal reason.”
My mother said, “Mr. Trefethic is a fine figure of a man. Courteous and well- spoken, too. I could fancy him if—”
“Could you, Lili fach?” Grandma was thrilled. “Ages since you’ve said that.”
“You didn’t let me finish, Mam. If he wasn’t married, I was going to say.”
“Married!” Grandma’s tone was scornful. With our family history, she had no looks on marriage. “That can easily be put out of the way. Husbands leave their wives. Didn’t mine? Didn’t yours?”
“And you called them both rotten for it, proper bewtis, you said, we were better off without them. ‘Decent men don’t behave so’ were your exact words.”
“Don’t behave so without reason, I should have said. Given a reason, a decent man can be persuaded. And I have the means to persuade.”
“Don’t meddle with Mr. Trefethic. I won’t take a man from his lawful wife.”
“Lawful is a shackling word, Lili lovely. It means a person is bound, that’s all. Is he happily married? I noticed his wife didn’t come to see the play he directed. From what I hear, she hasn’t been seen with him in the past year. What do make of that?”
“Nothing,” Mam said. “It’s not my business. It’s not yours either.”
It was not my mother’s official weekend off. She’d come on Friday to see me in the play. Next morning, she was leaving. As we stood on our doorstep, waving as she got into the taxi that would take her to her train, I said, “That’s a coincidence, isn’t it? Me being best friends with Crystin and Mam thinking she could fancy her father.”
“It’s a sign, Arianwen, not a coincidence,” Grandma said. “Some things are meant to be. We only have to study how to facilitate their happening. Now get ready. Your bus will be here soon.”
Every Saturday I went to Llanadwen to meet my friends and go to a film matinee at the Queen’s Theater Royal and to Bracchi’s Café afterward to drink cappuccinos and flirt with boys from school, and then we girls went to Crystin’s house to play records in her huge bedroom and practice the latest dances she was learning from her private Dance and Deportment teacher. Mr. Trefethic made us welcome and didn’t complain about noise. Mrs. Trefethic hadn’t appeared in a long while.
“I am ready,” I said.
“Not if you want to pack your pajamas.”
“Really, I can stay the night with Crystin?” She had never let me before. Previously, she’d wanted me home on the 9 o’ clock bus that dropped me opposite our cottage. I raced upstairs to pack an overnight bag.
As she accompanied me down the path, the motive for Grandma’s change of mind emerged. She said, “I’ m allowing this on one condition, Arianwen. I want you to observe Mrs. Trefethic. She must show herself eventually if you’re there until morning. Watch her behavior to Mr. Trefethic. I want a report when you return.”
That night, when the other girls left, I had supper with Crystin in her kitchen. Mr. Trefethic joined us. Mrs. Trefethic did not. I’d had no glimpse of her thus far. After supper, Crystin went to say goodnight to her mother wherever she’d sequestered herself, and I went up to my friend’s room to unpack my bag. I’d be leaving next morning after breakast. I hoped Mrs. Trefethic would remain as reclusive as always, sparing me the role of spy and informant.
Then Crystin came in. “Ari, my Mam wants to speak to you,” she said. “She’ll come to you in the parlor.”
When I was seated on the parlor sofa, Mrs. Trefethic came in. Immediately, I saw why she’d kept to herself for a year. Her left side was partially paralyzed, her arm dangling uselessly, her leg managing, with difficulty, to limp.
“I’m sorry to shock you, Arianwen,” she said. “I had a stroke last year, and I avoid people since then, but I want to consult you.” With a heavy, clumsy movement, she lowered herself down beside me. “It’s well known that your grandmother is a healer. Many people in Llanadwen claim she has cured them. I’m wondering if she can do anything for me. I’ve given up on the medical profession.”
“I don’t think she can, Mrs. Trefethic.” I said, for it struck me that Grandma might take her condition as proof of an unhappy marriage—a burden to Mr. Trefethic, she might say—and thus reason for the meddling Mam forbade. “She’s had no experience with strokes. She might prescribe a treatment that will do you no good.”
“Ah well, even if her remedy doesn’t help it can do no harm. Will you tell her of my condition and ask her to think about me?”
“Their marriage might still be happy,” I said when I’d given Grandma the message. “My Chemistry teacher had a stroke three years ago and it hasn’t stopped her from living a good life.” She’d never consulted Grandma either, being a believer in science like Mam.
“Obviously, Mrs. Trefethic’s life is no good,” Grandma replied. “I can work with that. Leave me, Arianwen. I need to consult my reference books.” As I went out of the kitchen, she was muttering, “…focus on persuading him…before I deal with….”
Next morning, one of her tomes lay on the kitchen table, a sprig of lovage inside it as a bookmark. Grandma was out gathering herbs so I opened it. The chapter title on this page, To Achieve Desired Effects on the Subject’s Mind by Supernal Telepathy, worried me, but when I read on I found this: “The power weakens as distance increases. Therefore, the first task is to draw the subject near, to within a radius of one mile.” She would never be within a mile of Mr. Trefethic. His house was five miles from ours, Llanadwen School was three, and nowhere in between where a meeting was likely. My mind was at rest.
The following Friday, when my mother arrived, she said, “Sorry I’m late. You’ll never guess who I met in town. Islwyn Trefethic stopped me in High Street. ‘It’s Arianwen’s mother, isn’t it?’ he said, and after we’d chatted a few minutes about interests we share as teachers, he invited me to have a cup of coffee at Bracchi’s café. By the way, Mam, he appreciates the bara brith loaf you left in his office as thanks for Arianwen staying the night.”
“So the two of you found out how much you have in common.”
“Not so much that we’ll become more than friends,” Mam said, “so you can take that smug look off your face.”
But I was worried again. By being in my teacher’s office and thus achieving the proximity supernal telepathy required, and through ingredients in her bara brith—a potent combination—Grandma had aroused Mr. Trefethic’s inclination. He would want to be more than friends. Shouldn’t I warn my mother? But then I’d cause ructions between her and Grandma, and Grandma would turn on me, the telltale. We three had never quarreled. How dreadful might the outcome be? Trepidation was stronger than conscience. I chose to remain silent and guilty.
Three weeks passed. My mother continued to arrive late on Fridays. I continued to worry whether Mr. Trefethic’s inclination would evoke hers. Grandma made no further comment to Mam. She’d once told me, “Enchantment is like a seed, Arianwen. When planted, it thrives best in the dark.
In the first week of July, a new an pleasing occurrence diverted me. Riding my bike to and from school, I was used to seeing country creatures, cows, horses, and lambs in the fields, a variety of birds in the trees. Cycling home on Monday afternoon, I met a blackbird perched in a hazelnut tree, singing so thrillingly, I stopped to listen, enraptured, until he flew away into the wood.
He returned next morning and again in the afternoon. That blackbird continued to appear every morning and afternoon that week, on the same branch and at the same times that I passed by. On Wednesday morning I stopped my bike and whistled back to him, to the tune of If I was a blackbird. The actual blackbird had fallen silent, listening, his bright, intelligent-seeming gaze fixed on me. Then he recommenced singing, and the tune indeed mimicked the one I had introduced.
I knew from an early age that I was to inherit Grandma’s gifts, and one of them, as I’ve said, was communicating with non-verbal creatures. Might this punctual and constant blackbird be proof that my power was coming? Might I be making a new friend? I decided to give him a name to see where that got me. “Telor!” I called that afternoon. It was an old Welsh name for boys meaning Singer. “Telor, come with me!” and I started cycling homewards, looking back to see if he was following. He was not. He stayed perched on his branch, but his head was turned to look after me.
At home, I told Grandma, “There’s a blackbird I meet on the path every day. He sings to me, and he sounds almost human, as if he were carrying a tune. I whistled If I was a blackbird, and I swear he whistled it back to me.”
Grandma stopped stirring the pot simmering on the stove and gave me her full attention. “It’s a sign at last. Your power is sprouting.”
“That’s my hope, Grandma. But the power isn’t strong in me. I wanted to bring him home to live in our linden tree but he wouldn’t follow.”
“You’re not versed in the procedure for attraction. Here’s what you do. Tomorrow afternoon, take a slice of bara brith. When your bird appears, tear the slice into pieces and toss them under his tree. He will swoop down and consume them. Then start cycling home, scattering more crumbs behind you. To strengthen the spell, whistle the blackbird tune also. He will follow.”
I did as she instructed and Telor did as she’d predicted, pecking up the bara brith crumbs and then coming after me. When I entered the garden, he flew to the linden tree and perched on a branch.
In the kitchen, Grandma was at the window. “Do you see him?” I said, expecting her to be pleased, but the face she turned on me was scowling.
“We’ve made a dreadful mistake, Arianwen. You’ve heard of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That thing out there is a bad love clothed in blackbird feathers.”
“No, Grandma, you’re mistaken!” I cried. “Telor is a good creature. His nature is joyful and friendly. There’s a rapport between us.”
“Now hark to me, genethig,” she said, “and as I’ve always known what’s best, believe me. See how that blackbird is larger than most of his kind? Observe his proud way of holding his head up and pointing his beak high. Notice, too, a trace of unusual white feathers around his neck.”
“All features that make him so rare and handsome.”
“He was handsome, I’ll grant him that, and he did have a fine singing voice. His wing-tip collars were always pristine. His comportment was that of a man full of himself.”
“You think the blackbird is Grandpa!”
“He’s come back to haunt me as I foresaw at his graveside. You haven’t come into your power after all. You’re as easily beguiled as the next giftless person. He’s using you as a pawn in some plot he’s hatching. Look how he’s preening himself and taunting me.” On his perch, Telor was whistling and singing with gusto.
“I have to stop him, but I must bring him close to make that possible. It will require craft and ingenuity. Tomorrow I’ll confer with Nudd.”
That evening while she was holding a séance, I went down to the linden tree. Telor was asleep, his head under his wing. I called his name and he untucked himself and looked down at me.
“You can’t stay here, alas,” I told him. “You must go far away. My Grandma has dark intent towards you.”
He was listening. He’d cocked his head to one side. His golden-rimmed eyes gazed at me gravely. Then he raised himself up, spread his glossy wings, and sprang into the sky, soon to vanish in the direction of the woods.
Next morning, Grandma dressed in her going-out clothes, a fitted gray silk costume that showed off her figure, lavender velvet lapels on the jacket, a bunch of fresh-picked lavender in the brim of her jaunty boater. She would take the bus to Hay, in the opposite direction from Llanadwen where she never went. “What need? I have no wish to meet in High Street clients I see often enough on my doorstep.” Beuno Bevan, the dairy farmer, brought milk, cheese, and eggs, and our other food supplies were delivered by Dafi the Co-Op, both going out of their way in service to Grandma.
“No need to consult Nudd,” I said. “The blackbird’s gone. Look out of the window.”
Not seeing Telor didn’t convince her. “Your Grandpa was wily. He’s hiding, thinking to fool me. He’ll be back.”
What if she was half right, and Telor, pining for me, did return? I decided to stay home from school and keep watch. Morning wore into afternoon and he didn’t reappear. I missed him, but I felt mre glad than sad. I had saved my friend’s life.
Grandma came in, perfectly sober. She had work afoot. “Nudd was most helpful as usual,” she said. “He advised me that you must be my proxy, Arianwen. I will inject the antidote to your Grandpa’s malevolence into a loaf of bara brith. You must scatter the crumbs on the window ledge, and I must go out, Nudd says, so he doesn’t sniff my vengeful olfactory aura. Now, where is that bird of ill omen?” and she strode across the kitchen to the back window.
“He seems to have gone, Grandma,” and in the nick of time.
“Indeed he has not. Come and see.”
Telor was perched in the linden tree. When he saw me, he burst into song with as much hywl as ever. Either he had failed to understand my message, or his attachment to me was too strong for his blackbird brain to rule his blackbird heart.
“How he defies me,” she said. “It will take only a minute for me to do what I must, and then it will be up to you, genethig,” and she went into the pantry.
As I waited, I thought of Grandma’s endearment genethig that meant “little girl” or “maiden,” a pure and innocent creature. A maiden I was, and pure, I hoped, but innocent no longer. Recent events had brought new knowledge, and with it had come dissidence. Standing at the kitchen window, listening to Telor sing, I knew I must pit my fledgling power against her virtuosity.
Behind me, she said, “I’m ready.”
She had placed the loaf of bara brith on the table. “Let him see you tearing pieces from it and spreading them on the window ledge. Then call him. He’ll come to you. I’m going to spend the afternoon with Nudd. He’s promised to explain his latest research, alchemy applied to humans. So intriguing! Such an advanced inquiry! An occultist non pareil is Nudd. Whn I return, I expect to see an evil spirit laid.”
I watched until I saw her board the bus. Then I went down to the linden tree where Telor waited. How could I make him go? A notion came to me: the best way to communicate with a bird must be through song. I stood back, throat raised, and sang a ballad I’d learned in Music at school, changing some of the words to fit the circumstances: “Here lives a woman fair to see/ Take care, oh take care!/ She can both false and friendly be/ Beware! Beware!/ Trust her not/She intends harm to thee.”
“Do you understand this time?” I asked him. “You must go away and not come back, never, ever. This is farewell, dear friend.”
As before, he cocked his head. Then—I swear!—he nodded. Emitting two long, piercing notes, as if to sound the two sad syllables of farewell, he opened his magnificent wings, flapped them like flags waving, and rose into the sky, swiftly to become a mere black speck.
I scattered bara brith crumbs on the window ledge in case Grandma returned, and then I rode my bike to the tree where I’d met Telor. There was no sign of him. I had imparted my warning successfully. The first of my gifts had materialized.
“Is it done?” Grandma asked as soon as she came into the kitchen, and seeing the bara brith crumbs, “Where is his corpse? Death should have been instantaneous.”
“He didn’t come near. But he has been gone since shortly after you left.”
“My olfactory vengeance must have lingered,” she said, “and alerted him. Possibly, it was sufficient to frighten him away forever. All the better. I prefer not to use extreme measures so long as we are rid of him.”
Loyalty to Telor impelled me to contradict her. “You’re wrong, Grandma, Telor wasn’t Grandpa. Proof is that I never loved Grandpa and I did love my blackbird. You wanted to kill my first creature friend.”
“He was a trickster, genethig hoff. I will get you a real creature friend, a lamb to raise, or a puppy dog. Not a kitten, mind. Cats are self-serving and crafty. They tell more lies than truth.”
And like you, the have no qualms about killing birds, I thought.
In the evening, Mam arrived. It was her weekend. She was even later than usual. This time, Grandma questioned her. “Another coffee tête-à-tête? You’ve met quite a few times now. Any progress to report?”
“Not of the kind you hoped for. I’ve told Islwyn we can’t meet so.”
“Can’t meet? Darling silly Lili, that’s perverse. You’re denying true love.”
“I don’t know about true love. It is true I was tempted, but here’s what I’ve learned, Mam. Allure can’t win over a firm conscience, and I’ve discovered I have one. I’m late because I went with Islwyn to meet his wife. She asked me to bring her to see you. I did my best to dissuade her, but she’s determined. They’re outside. She’s slow walking from the car so I’ve hurried ahead to warn you to deal fairly with her.”
“They’re on the path,” I said. I was near the front kitchen window so I saw.
Mam left the kitchen, saying, “Best I get out of the way now. Don’t do her harm, Mam.”
Grandma came beside me to watch Mrs. Trefethic approach on her husband’s arm. “Should a woman be living in such misery?” she muttered, and then, “Firm conscience, my arse. She had to get out of the way. Of course allure triumphs. My mistake was dealing only with his scruples and overlooking hers.” She went to open the front door.
“A good day to you both,” she said, “though I can see it isn’t for you, Madam. A sorry state you’re in, alack.”
“We’ve come, Mrs. Cadwallader,” Islwyn Trefethic said, “to ask you to help my wife. Specialists say they can do nothing more. We hope you can. You are our last resort.”
“From now on, I shall be your first,” Grandma said. “Don’t worry, for certain I can aid you. Will you walk into my parlor? We’ll confer.” She ushered them in and then shut the door on me, saying, “Private.”
My mother called me upstairs. In the bedroom we shared, she said, “Pack your belongings. You’re coming to Hereford.”
“My belongings! How long am I coming for?”
“Indefinitely. We have to part from Grandma, Arianwen. She believes she’s infallible and that can lead her into dire mistakes. She’s about to make one with Mrs. Trefethic. The only way to stop her is to remove her motive, and that’s what I am. I have to keep away from Llanadwen, and keep you from her bad influence. You’ll live with me and attend Lady Hawtrey’s.”
A few weeks ago, my mother’s decision would have plunged me into anguish. I would have rebelled fiercely. Now I felt no roiling emotion. What she said was true. Believing her judgment impeccable, Grandma had intended to murder Telor and make me her accomplice. The outcome would certainly have been dire for Telor…and in a different way, for me. It would hurt me to part from her. But I no longer trusted her. I started bringing my clothes to the suitcase my mother had opened on the bed.
When I’d packed and we went downstairs, Grandma was in the kitchen chopping herbs. “I’ve diagnosed Mrs. Trefethic,” she said, “and she’s agreed to the treatment I’ve prescribed. I’m making up her first dose now. Arianwen can give it to Mr. Trefethic at school on Monday.”
“Arianwen won’t be going to school on Monday. I’m taking her to Hereford to live with me. And you can stop your chicanery with Mrs. Trefethic. I won’t be showing my face in Llanadwen for a very long time.”
Grandma dropped her knife. She slumped in her chair as if Mam had punched her. “Don’t speak so, Lili! Don’t break my heart. How can I change your mind?”
“By changing yours,” Mam said. “At present you’re a dangerous woman, and negligent too, regarding Arianwen. Her academic record is patchy, Islwyn informed me. ‘It’s all the days she’s missed,’ he said, ‘due to her chronic anemia.’”
“It was only in bad weather I kept her—”
“Excuses won’t serve. I’m not blameless, either. I’ve been leaving it all to you. Now I’m taking over. A sound education will cure her anemia.”
Next morning, my mother woke me at seven o’ clock. “It’s too early,” I grumbled. “Town Taxis won’t be open.”
“Grandma will phone a local man. Get washed and dressed.”
“Grandma is calling someone? But she doesn’t want me to leave.”
“She wants to get on my good side.”
When we went downstairs, Grandma was coming from the parlor where the rarely use black telephone perched in a dark corner. It existed only for emergencies. Words sent into air, she opined, were subject to baleful forces.
In the kitchen, she said, “I will show you I’ve changed, Lili. I’ll put Mrs. Trefethic on a course of healing remedies. By summer’s end she’ll be so much improved, I trust you’ll let Arianwen come back to me.” She hugged me and whispered, “I’ll be sending you a sign sooner, cariad. Heed it.”
A car horn hooted. “How could he come so fast?” Mam said. “It’s only minutes since you rang.”
“I told you he’s local.”
“But the nearest local houses are still closer to Llanadwen.”
“It’s an out-of-the-way house in the opposite direction. Do you intend to cross-examine me, Lili, on such a trivial matter?”
“Come on,” Mam said to me. She wheeled my suitcase. I carried two bags. All my possessions were in that luggage, but my heart lagged behind. I had to rip it away from Grandma. She stood in the garden as we went down the path. Our driver was a stranger. I’d never seen him before. But then, as we got nearer, he looked somewhat familiar…as if I had seen him, but not often enough, or too long ago, to place him.
He bid us, “A good new morning to you, ladies,” and gave Grandma an army salute as if she were a general and he reporting for duty. As he stowed my bags in his trunk, I looked back at Grandma, weeping, waving a spray of rue and rosemary she’d plucked. Their symbolism was for my mother’s benefit, but Mam wasn’t moved. “Get in, Arianwen,” she said. “No need to prolong Grandma’s melodrama.”
As we drove towards town, our driver said, “Going to Hereford, I hear.”
“I teach there,” Mam said, “I’m taking my daughter to live with me.”
“Hereford’s a fine city, wara teg, but there’s no beating the Welsh countryside. Your girl will suffer heraith, I’ll wager. Tell you what, I’ll give her a memento to take with her,” and he startled us by bursting into song.
It was a well known lament he gave us, that ended with a promise: “We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides/ We’ll keep a welcome in the vales/ This land you knew will still be singing/ When you come home again to Wales.” I was nearly in tears. He couldn’t have picked a song more likely to make we want to rush back to Grandma.
“You have a fine voice,” Mam said. “Your choice of song, however—”
“Lead tenor in Llanadwen Male Voice Choir. People pay well to hear us, but I’ll give you ladies a free concert out of my fondness and esteem for your mother.”
“You’re a neighbor of hers,” Mam said, “and yet I haven’t met you before.”
“There was no call before. Now, young miss looking so melancholy, what song would you like to hear?” In his rear view mirror, his dark eyes framed by gold-rimmed glasses were looking at me keenly.
“She doesn’t want another, thank you. You’re upsetting her.”
“I do want another!” I was beginning to suspect this driver was more than he appeared.
“I’ll give you one about a blackbird. Listen well now,” and as we entered the town he sang, “Morning has broken, like the first morning/ Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird/ Praise be the singing/ Praise be the morning.” His fine, thrilling voice soared out of the open windows onto the summer air, people in High Street pausing, lifting their heads to listen.
There was a message in that song, and I looked more closely at the driver, noticing his longish black hair, glossy with Brylcreem, his white shirt collar under a black pullover, and the way the way he held up his head, proud of his singing.
As we arrived at the station, I said, “You sing like a blackbird.”
Well that’s a fine compliment,” he said as he unloaded my luggage, giving no hint that he’d heard any insinuation in my remark. Yet, as far as it was possible for a human, he resembled Telor. He wasn’t a reincarnation, for Telor was still living. He was a carrier, just as Grandma’s bara brith was a carrier, albeit unbeknownst to its loafy self. This human carrier knew what he was up to. And I knew him.
I’ll be sending a sign. Heed it.
Only one person Grandma would trust with her message; only one person possessing the remarkable skill of transmutation, “alchemy applied to humans.” It was prearranged via a late night emergency call after Mam announced our departure. He was already homing in when Grandma pretended to make her morning request.
“Don’t forget, ‘Far away a voice is calling,’” he said to me as we left him. It was the first line of We’ll Keep A Welcome.
“What a peculiar chap,” Mam said. “No wonder he’s friends with Grandma. Birds of a feather.”
On the Hereford train, I decoded the lyrics of his blackbird song. “The first morning,” and “the first bird,” alluded to the first morning I met Telor, my first bird friend. First also meant more to come. There would be other mornings, other blackbird encounters, unhindered by dark intent. Grandma had let me know her remorse.
When a second taxi had dropped us at the school gates and we were going along the winding path to Lady Hawtrey’s mansion, my mother said, “You can stay with me in my flat until you feel settled in. Do you remember how much you liked those woods outside my back door? We picked hazelnuts and went bird-watching.”
Everyone lived in the mansion house, the girls’ dormitories on an upper floor, the teachers’ small flats on the ground floor. It was a long time since I’d visited my mother’s flat, preferring to spend my Saturdays in Llanadwen with my friends. Now I recalled the many birds in those woods, blackbirds among them.
“I made friends with a blackbird on the path to school,” I told her. “I taught him to whistle, If I was a blackbird. Can you believe that?”
“Blackbirds are famous for their mimicry, usually of other birds. Mimicking a human voice is less likely…but not impossible, I suppose.”
Definitely possible if that human knows how to connect. I’d practice during the summer. “I’ll enjoy hearing the birds sing. I’ll miss Grandma terribly though.”
“She has to show she misses you and me sufficiently to alter.”
“She will. Grandma’s always said she’ll do anything for us.”
I would be with her by summer’s end. Meanwhile, I would branch out on my own in the woods at Lady Hawtrey’s. Telor’s kin would be safe to draw near with a natural sciences teacher and a creature-communicator as neighbors. In time, I might train a whole choir of blackbirds to sing in unison….
If I were staying, I reminded myself.
Roberta Murphy was born and grew up in Wales, the setting for this story. She now resides in the U.S.A. Her two novels were published in the U.K. Her short stories have appeared in the U.S. in two anthologies, The Best American Short Stories and Abundant Grace, and in many literary reviews including The Baltimore Review, Feminist Studies, The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, MSS, Nimrod, Rosebud and The Chaffin Journal. She has been the recipient of an NEA grant for Creative Writing.