Anna gazed out the window and listened to the whirl of the wheels while the bus speed down the highway. She tucked the mauve afghan around her legs when she stretched across the empty seat beside her. Her brown eyes became misty when she thought about her mother’s last few days. Her mother had smiled at her daughter and held her hand while they talked about happier times. Anna kept her feelings bottled up inside during the day when she concentrated on her kindergarten class. Anna smiled when she thought about the cheerful card the children made for her near the end of the school term. Another teacher helped the children keep it a secret. Anna sighed and brushed her auburn curly hair off her face. An extended holiday was what she needed. Anna smiled thinking about her Great Uncle Henry Hunter’s letter. There was the rustling of paper as she took it out one more time. She read it so many times that she almost memorized the contents. There were regular letters before and during her mother’s illness and something about the last letter disturbed her.
Dear Miss Anna Sage,
I have treasured the photo’s you and your Mama sent over the years. I was grieved by the news of your mama’s passing and know how you must miss her.
I am well considering my age but do have bouts of rheumatism but always walk up the mountain every day. I am relying on my cane more and more with each passing day. You possibly remember that I hired Patrick, a young lad from the village, to look after the sheep and goats. He has proven to be a valuable helper who I rely on more and more with each passing year.
I would like to see you one more time before my maker calls me home. Can you take time out of your busy life to see a cranky old man?
Great Uncle Henry
It has been a long time since you have been here so the enclosed information might be useful. No excuses because there is a bus ticket for you. I will send young Master Patrick to the bus station to meet you. He will guide you up the mountain to my humble home. It gets dark early at night and most buses come in the evening. Please let me know when you are coming. I will also let Mrs. Sullivan know when you will arrive so she can arrange with Mr. Smyth to bring your luggage up the mountain in his pony cart. He clings to the old ways as do I. I am looking forward to seeing you once more and hope you can stay for a while.
Anna folded the letter and put it in her purse and listened to the buzz of voices coming from the back of the bus. She kept the picture of Great Uncle Henry’s charming little cottage on her bedside table and had never considered him cranky. The times he visited with her Mother he told interesting stories of his youth and made her teddy bear bounce on his hand. Anna never figured out how he did it and he wouldn’t disclose the secret.
Anna gazed out the window at the rolling hills as the bus rumbled along the narrow winding road that twisted and turned through the green hills. People paused in their work and waved when the bus passed. It was scenic with little white cottages with neat flower beds and vegetable gardens. The thatched roofs glowed in the afternoon sunlight. The green hillsides were covered with scrubby trees. Sheep and goats grazed peacefully almost disappearing behind the trees at times. Little children ran and played on the many paths that wound around the trees.
The sun was low in the sky when the driver announced Paradise was the next stop. It was a suitable name because it was a scenic place with all the trees and little white cottages. The sky was a mixture of blue and pink. The little white cottages glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. The creek’s water sparkled as it snaked its way through the village. It was the main water source and villagers caught fresh fish daily. It was quiet now, but doing the day it was bustling with activity. The sun set early in the evening when it disappeared behind the mountains. Would there be time to make it to her great uncles before sunset? As they pulled into the station, Anna gathered up her things brushed her unruly shoulder length hair into a a ponytail. She pulled out the photo of Patrick who was supposed to meet her. The face of an impish young man grinned at her. Well, at least she would be able to recognize him because it was a recent photo.
The bus depot looked deserted when Anna got off the bus. Anna swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat when she looked around. Where was Patrick? Had he forgotten? Anna was the only one getting off the bus at this isolated little hamlet, and within seconds the bus pulled out again. She strolled across the empty wooden platform towards the brown depot and went inside the homey little place. The heels on Anna’s boots clicked on the wide planks as she crossed the room towards the ticket wicket that appeared to be deserted.
An elderly man came out of the backroom. “Are you Anna Sage?”
“Yes,” Anna’s eyes widened as she looked at the short subby man standing in the doorway looking her way. Who was that?
“Patrick has been delayed, but my pony cart is outside. Can give you a ride to your uncles.” He took his corncob pipe out of his mouth and tapped it in an ashtray. “My name is Mr. Smyth.”
“Thank you. I would appreciate the lift,” Anna shifted her heavy suitcase to the other hand before she followed Mr. Smyth towards the front door.
“Mrs. Sullivan sent baking, so she doesn’t have to go up in the morning. So come along.”
The front door creaked behind Anna as she followed him out. A stalky black pony stood patiently waiting with the reins loose on the cart. There were a few old trucks and cars parked along the narrow empty street. They passed white cottages with window boxes containing Geraniums, Ivy and Baby’s breath that trailed over the sides. There were white picket fences in front of each cottage with neat veggie gardens close to the front doors. A few faces peered out windows as they drove past. They rode along in silence listening to the creaking wheels and the tap-tap of the pony’s hoofs on the cobbled road. In a few minutes, they started to climb the narrow winding road past velvety green pastures dotted with goats and sheep. The sky was a mixture of blue, mauve and pink as they climbed higher. Even though Anna had been a child the last time, she came here nothing had change. Everything was as Anna remembered.
Anna’s thoughts were interruppted by Mr. Smyth’s voice. “There is a sharp turn in the road so best hang on.”
Anna griped the side of the cart as the pony abruptly pranced around a sharp turn past a thick row of willows. There in front of them was her great uncle’s cottage half-submerged in the hillside. The thatched roof almost disappeared into the green hillside. Mr. Smyth guided the pony through the archway covered in red roses, filling the air with fragrance. The sturdy little cottage built out of hay bales covered with thick layers of plaster blended into the hillside. Anna’s thoughts wandered back to the last time she had been here helping prune the roses which were Great Uncle Henry’s pride and joy. They formed a dense hedge covered with pink and white blossoms filling the air with a sweet fragrance. The sound of a dog barking brought Anna out of her daydream. Great Uncle Henry sat on the step with a black and white border collie by his side. It hadn’t changed since she last saw it and was almost like time stood still. What a contrast between the modern bustling city Anna left two days ago, and this quaint little cottage tucked into the side of the hillside. It was what a lot of people called living off the grid. As they turned the corner, Anna noticed the solar panels on the roof surrounded by wildflowers and grass. So, he had gone modern after all.
“Well, lass here you are at long last.” Great Uncle Henry stood up leaning on his cane. “You must be hungry. I made a mutton stew.”
“There is a large basket of bread and pastries from Mrs. Sullivan,” Anna leapt down from the cart and retrieved her luggage and basket.
“Good, good. Bring your things inside,” Great Uncle Henry motioned towards the open doorway. “Set everything inside and sort it later. I was waiting for your arrival and haven’t eaten yet.”
Anna stacked her suitcases and overnight bag in the small entryway that lead into the kitchen and a small sitting room. She followed Great Uncle Henry into the cozy sparsely furnished kitchen.
The white wood-burning stove stood against one wall with open shelves above for dishes, and a variety of pots and pans hung from the exposed wooden beams above the stove within arms reach. Clusters of herbs, garlic, and onion hung nearby. Anna hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she smelled the stew that made her mouth water. The small oak table in the middle of the room was set for two. The white bowls were placed on green plates with wooden salad bowls in front. A pitcher of lemonade was in the middle of the table alongside a cream pitcher, sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers and cutlery in a glass jar. A bowl of salad was in the middle of the table beside a basket of sliced homemade bread. Anna’s mind drifted as she glanced around the room for a few minutes. Anna glanced at the loft ladder in the little alcove. Floor to ceiling bookcases were crammed with books. She loved cuddling in the overstuffed burgundy chair, on rainy days, in front of the bookcases. The sound of Great Uncle Henry’s voice disrupted Anna’s daydream.
“What happened to Patrick?” Great Uncle Henry asked.
“He had to help his father. By the looks of that pile of luggage, it was my cart that was needed after all. The lad didn’t forget. He fetched me, though,” Mr. Smyth turned towards the door as he prepared to leave. “The Mrs. will have supper on the table, so best be going. See you all later.”
“Come, come, my dear. Supper will get cold,” Great Uncle Henry took the white soup taurine, full of stew, off the warming shelf above the stove.
“It smells delicious,” Anna pulled off her blue jean jacket before sliding onto the bench behind the table.
“So, young girls wear pants these days, do they?” Great Uncle Henry ladled stew into the white bowls.
“Not at work but for traveling and every day,” Anna buttered a piece of bread.
They ate in silence the only sound was the clicking of silverware on bowls. Great Uncle Henry’s dog wagged his tail creating a slight breeze.
They were nearly finished their meal when Great Uncle Henry commented. “Well, guess I can agree to that,” He mopped up the gravy with a piece of bread before he lit his pipe. “Hope you don’t mind. It’s one of my few pleasures. Doc. doesn’t agree though and thinks I should quit. At my age, I figure I might as well enjoy what I can.”
He puffed on his pipe for a few minutes while they visited. He knocked his pipe on the ashtray as the conversation continued while they cleared the table. They did dishes in silence the only noise was the clattering of dishes and cutlery. When they were finished it was impossible to see anything outside because it was as black as tar out there. When the dishes were put away Great Uncle Henry settled down in the living room with his paper. Anna started to take her luggage into the loft. After several trips, Anna stacked everything near the built in dresser under the eaves. She looked around the cozy room that had a window looking out over the yard and mountain beyond. The back of the cottage was like a cave with thick plaster covering hay bales. The room was cool in summer and warm in winter.
Anna looked at the double bed tucked against the back wall and realized she was tired. It had been a long week and the two day bus trip had been tiring because her sleep had been interrupted with all the stops and starts at little towns and villages. The fluffy feather tick looked inviting and after Anna got her last suitcase and said goodnight she undressed and climbed into bed.
It was late when Anna woke with the sun streaming in the side window that looked like a porthole. She had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow and slept soundly. The sounds of a barking dog, baaing sheep and clip clop of many hoofs on the cobbled courtyard blended into her daydream Why were the animals in the yard? Then Anna remembered that this was when Patrick would be taking the sheep and goats up to the high pasture and would only leave a few goats and babies behind to graze the grass on the nearby hillside. Great Uncle Patrick always kept a few females’ nearby. He put the milk in the freezer so he could make soap. Anna lay there listening to the commotion until the bantam rooster crowed lustily. She slipped out of bed when she heard voices. Anna realized that Great Uncle must have company. Anna dressed and looked out the window before closing the shutters she had thrown open last night. Then Anna saw Great Uncle Patrick surrounded by a group of children. He leaned on a girl’s shoulder and was heading towards the mountain. Of course, he was going for his walk. The village school was out now, and the children always flocked around Great Uncle Henry to hear his stories. If she hurried, Anna would catch up because he wouldn’t’ walk that fast.
Anna opened one of her suitcases and took out her camera before heading down into the kitchen. Anna decided to explore and put her things away later. There were still biscuits, rolls, and fruit in the basket. When Anna opened the small green fridge, she took out the pitcher of cold goats’ milk and poured a glass. She hadn’t had any for a long time and missed it. As soon as Anna ate an apple and a biscuit with jam, she set out to join the others on the mountain. Anna knew the trails like the back of her hand.
It wasn’t long before Anna caught up to her uncle and his companions. “Oh, look who’s up,” Great Uncle Henry said with a grin that made his white walrus mustache bob up and down. “Did you find something to eat?”
“Yes.” Anna took a picture of the distant hills that looked like a sea of blue with the wildflowers growing in the meadow.
“Do you remember Gloria Peterson?” Great Uncle Henry asked as he paused and leaned on his cane.
“Little Gloria?” Anna looked at the girl with golden pigtails hanging down her back.
“Not so little now,” Gloria answered. “I come up to help your uncle every day now that the babies are bigger and can help Mother.”
“How is your mother?” Anna asked as they continued up the rocky hill.