John Horne

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If you'd like to start at the beginning of the book, you'll find all the chapters listed in order on the main page for Another Way Home

I: The Journey Begins

August 13th, 2007 · No Comments

Garyth was suddenly torn from a pleasant dream landscape of his mind’s choosing to the cold reality of predawn darkness. The sky was just beginning to lighten but the forest around him was still utterly black. He listened intently, knowing that some sound had awakened him. Fully alert but completely still, he reconstructed the clearing in his mind and probed it with his ears. The sky had become a shade lighter before the distant crowing of a rooster broke the silence once again. The familiar sound was both a comfort and a sorrow to him. It banished the thought of danger but turned his mind toward thoughts of home and all its friendly comforts. He was a little disappointed in himself for missing familiar things after being away only two weeks. He even missed the common­place irritations, like his sisters’ chatter at the breakfast table. Homesickness would have given way to self-pity if thoughts of breakfast had not reminded him that he was hungry.

He had built a fish trap in a stream a short distance from the clearing. If things had gone according to plan, his breakfast should be waiting. Garyth reluctantly pushed back his blanket, stretched, and looked around. Forest shapes were becoming clearer. He was pleased with the campsite; near water, but not too near. Water noises masked other sounds, which could warn of trouble. Skills and instincts developed over years of protecting a goat herd from predators kept him alert in this unfamiliar country. After satisfying himself that no animal large enough to leave deep tracks had entered the clearing during the night, he set off for the stream.

His handiwork of the previous evening was exactly as he had left it. A fence of sticks, spaced to offer little resistance to the current flow, slanted across the shallow stream where it had a sandy bottom. The fence was placed to guide fish into a small enclosure. Forest saplings and bushes had provided plenty of sticks which he had easily sharpened and pushed into the sandy stream bottom. Construction of the trap and enclosure had consumed several hours, but the payoff could make it worthwhile. He had bagged no small game now for two days and had finished off the last of his smoked rabbit for lunch yesterday.

As he drew closer he could make out half a dozen large trout against the downstream curve of the enclosure. He had prepared a gate of woven twigs, which he picked up as he crept toward the water. He stealthily placed the gate across the narrow opening, trying not to panic the fish. Next he retrieved the long forked stick he had sharpened as a gig and moved in to claim his catch.

He succeeded in getting five of the six fish, ending up soaking wet and exuberant. He cleaned the fish, then gathered the wet sticks of the trap to make a slow fire for smoking the fish. Two trips were required to get everything back to the clearing where he revived his campfire. He cooked and ate the two smaller fish, enough to carry him many a mile. The other three were split and left to smoke while he returned to the stream to bathe and then stretch out to dry in the early morning sunshine.

By late morning the smoked fish had dried enough to keep for several days, so he broke camp and headed back to the road. Continuing south, he watched for the farm from which the rooster had crowed. Rounding a bend in the road, he spied a tidy homestead set well back. The house was small but the barn was large enough to indicate some prosperity. A couple of hounds came out into the road to announce him, more noisy than threatening. He knew the dogs were happy for a little excitement and tossed them each a piece of smoked fish. They were fast friends by the time he was halfway to the house.

A movement at the corner of the house caught his eye. A child had been watching him and had suddenly turned and disappeared around back. Soon a woman carrying an infant appeared with the child close behind her. The woman wore a work dress, faded but freshly washed. As he drew nearer, he could see the child was a girl of about eight years, wearing a dress she had almost outgrown. The woman was young, a little shorter than Garyth, with a round, smiling face. Her brown hair was pulled back and covered with a plain scarf.

“Welcome traveller,” the woman called, holding out her free hand, palm up, in the customary greeting. “We saw the smoke of your fire this morning, and Gwen here went down to see what was going on.” This made Garyth blush, remembering his after-breakfast wash and lying on a rock to dry while his clothes were spread on another to dry. Gwen peered from behind her mother with an impish smile that seemed to tell him he had no secrets.

“My name is Meg,” Gwen’s mother continued, “and what do you call yourself?”

“My name is Garyth,” he answered. “I caught some fish in that stream this morning and I’m wondering if you and your family would like to share ’em.” Garyth realized that Gwen, and by now, Meg, too, knew about the fish. He had begun to feel some unease about catching them so close to the farm, as though he had been trespassing.

“The fish would be welcome for sure,” Meg said with genuine interest. “My men have been too busy with clearing and planting this spring to do any fishing. They’ll be back soon for some food and a rest. Your fish will make a fine lunch. Now come around back and tell me and Gwen and little Merl the tale of your journey while we wait.” With that, she turned and led him around the side of the house to a large spreading tree in back. The tree shaded two rough benches and a stool beside a spinning wheel. The tail-wagging hounds ran ahead of them and flopped down on a couple of spots of bare earth in the sparse grass under the tree. A cow was picketed behind the barn in a small meadow at the edge of the forest. The rest of the backyard was taken up by a vegetable garden surrounded by a stick fence to keep out rabbits. Garyth was glad to see a fence was needed for he had not seen any rabbits for several days. He made himself comfortable on one of the benches and looked around. A few chickens wandered around nearby looking for insects.

Gwen had never stopped grinning, and Garyth wondered if she was always on the verge of laughter or if her morning spying was a huge joke for her. She sat at the end of Garyth’s bench, swinging her feet that didn’t quite make it to the ground and glancing in his direction without fully turning toward him. She was skinny and seemed built for speed, like a deer.

Garyth assumed by “her men” that Meg meant her husband and sons. He was not long into his story when a short, husky man and a boy of about 11 years appeared on a path that came from the woods in back of the barn, both dirty from the morning’s work. The boy was leading a horse. Gwen spotted them immediately and sprinted over to fill them in on developments. Meg’s husband approached smiling.

“Greetings, I am Meron and this is Bern,” he said. “Gwen says you are a good fisherman.”

“I’ve come up empty-handed plenty of times, but this morning I had some luck,” Garyth answered, removing the smoked fish from his pack.

Bern led the horse to a trough near the well and drew water to fill it. He drew a second bucketful so he and his father could rinse the dirt from their faces and hands. Meg went into the house and came out carrying a basket with tin plates, cups, and fresh baked bread. Gwen filled a pitcher at the well and drew up a wooden butter box, which was kept suspended in the cool depths.

By the time the lunch was set up, Garyth had explained his fishing technique to Meron and Bern. The family offered thanks before eating in a way that made him think once again of his own family. He wouldn’t eat any of the fish since he had stuffed earlier, but the fresh bread and butter were like a feast. He explained that he was on a journey to find his kin, whom he had never met, and exchange news. He told how his parents, along with his aunt and uncle, had come north about twenty years ago from a town called Lowell, far to the south, and had been too busy on their farms to keep in touch with distant relatives. For their part, Garyth learned that both Meg and Meron had grown up in a village about fifteen leagues to the southeast. They had chosen the hard work of hewing out a farm in the forest over staying close to family farms and familiar village life, so they well understood how children could grow up without contact with extended families.

After the meal, they made themselves comfortable in the shade and continued to talk.

“It was very hard and lonely, at first,” Meg reminisced. “The road was just a rough trail. But Bern and Gwen came along to give us some company, and no small trouble.” Gwen had almost stopped grinning and Meg’s remark, spoken with a wink, caused the grin to reappear.

Meg continued, “The land is good and we have been blessed. There are people moving about now and farms further out. We don’t have to take our produce into the village if we don’t feel like it, for neighbors will carry it in for us. It always sells quickly so it’s worth their while.” Garyth learned that the road led to a village called Woodton, about an hour’s walk south.

Meron was very curious about the country to the north, having travelled far enough in that direction to catch a glimpse of distant peaks. When Garyth had completed his tale, Meron asked if he would stay a few days and help with removing some stumps from a new clearing.

“It will be hard work and no pay, but you will eat well and we may be able to pass along some wisdom of the country that will make your journey a little easier.”

Meg added that she thought Garyth looked a bit famished, perhaps needing a little more than what he hunted and caught, and that his clothes could do with a little mending here and there. Garyth was surprised that the request appealed to him since he had been so anxious to leave his work at home. But traveling in unfamiliar surroundings kept him tense and he was beginning to wonder if small game would become scarce as his journey took him into more populated country. He felt quite at home with Meron and Meg and he would be able to relax despite the hard work that Meron promised. He could spare a few days in better company than his own shadow.

After the stumps were pulled out, Garyth stayed until the clearing was ready for planting, six days altogether. The work was hard but he could see that his effort doubled the rate at which the new field was cleared. Several rainy days helped to soften the ground for stump pulling. Meg outdid herself baking for “her men” and caring for Garyth’s meager wardrobe. Garyth admired Bern’s enthusiasm for the work and loved Gwen’s grinning inquisitiveness. Merl was about the age of his own little brother and it was great fun to make him laugh. He found that he liked the way Meg and Meron treated him as an equal and the children looked up to him as an adult. He neither held back nor complained as he sometimes did at home. Evenings were short since the work was so exhausting, but the midday lunches under the tree behind the house were wonderful times of stories and games.

Early on the seventh day, Garyth set out well provisioned for further travels. He carried a list in his memory of friends and relatives of Meron and Meg who were sure to give him a night’s lodging for news of them. He had also learned to identify edible plants, roots, and berries of the midlands, as well as the plants and animals to avoid. Gwen and Bern accompanied him as far as Woodton riding the work horse. When he bade them farewell, he felt as though he was once again leaving his family. After watching them ride away, he followed the road out of the scattering of houses and into the countryside.

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