Emily Lewis’s van bumped and bounded along the rough dirt road to her new home on the banks of Little Deer River, the multitude of boxes packed tightly into the back of the vehicle representing the entirety of her worldly possessions. Everything Emily cared to salvage from her old life in the city, and all the baggage she was still willing to carry from the train wreck of her breakup with her former partner Isabella.
Between rain corrugation and potholes the journey was a bone rattler without doubt, but by no means intolerable. And certainly not rough enough to dampen Emily’s spirits, for at the end of this road lay new hope and a fresh beginning. The chance to start all over again, far from the turmoil and clamour of the big city just like she had always dreamed. Emily sought to reassure herself as she bounced around in the driver’s seat.
“I’ll get used to it in time….”
And as the van struck a particularly deep rut in the road, the van bucked and Emily bumped her head on the roof.
“….but maybe I could look into getting the road graded and dressed….”
“….maybe Liliana could help me organize something.”
Emily had followed the highway out of the city as far as the Markham road exit, and then by way of Coleraine, on to the small town of Burnham. She stopped for a late lunch and to pick up a few supplies at the pleasant little town, and to briefly check in with Liliana before finally continuing along Markham Road to the Little Deer River turnoff.
Burnham was a pretty little town, nestled in a region of coniferous foothills that stretched away to the nearby mountains. It was neat and well cared for and had a unique kind of feel to it, like it was well loved in a very particular kind of way. Almost cherished, like some kind of living heirloom. And Burnham was also possessed also of a singularly eerie atmosphere, a certain sanctity or perhaps even separateness from the rest of the world.
In fact the entire Burnham valley felt as though it were in some sense adjacent to, rather than entirely within reality. Emily speculated that the queer impression was probably generated by the dense, boulder strewn pine forest which enclosed the town on all sides. Its haunting presence absolute and unbroken, save for the passage of the Little Deer River through the northern part of the hamlet.
Insurmountable transportation problems had preserved Burnham’s ancient pines from deforestation. And even though the entire region had been mercilessly logged, Burnham had miraculously remained untouched. And this sense of preservation and separateness even seemed to transfer itself onto the very character of the town’s inhabitants. Burnham people were remarkably warm and welcoming, very accepting for country people. Which geniality contrasted wonderfully against the uniquely spooky feel of place, providing a juxtaposition of conflicting impressions that delighted Emily to no end.
Emily had experimented with small town life before several times, but thus far without success. For she was, even by her own estimation at the very least unconventional in many ways. And she could even concede that in some aspects of her character she could even be a little unyielding, perhaps even somewhat staunch.
And rural people themselves tended to be rather uncompromising and generally slow to trust newcomers, and always therein lay the problem. Emily simply did not conform to the social patterns people seemed to expect of her, country people seemed to find her abrasive or even aloof at first blush. She was of course no such thing, she simply had her own way of doing things and refused to conform simply for the sake of conformity. Who she was should be good enough without having to phony up a fake but publicly palatable persona, and on this principle she was unmovable.
Emily’s unconventional fashion sense also seemed to put people on the back foot, Emily had urban counter fashion stamped all over her. Fashion was to Emily no less a valid form of personal and artistic expression than any other, and she delighted in juxtaposing the conservative and antique with the modern and bold all in the same outfit. But her ensembles seemed to confuse people and challenge their expectations. Especially combined with her taste in hairstyles, which might best be described as rather alternative and possibly even a little severe.
But Burnham had been different, everyone Emily met had welcomed her warmly and helped her feel at ease from the moment she first arrived, in spite of her appearance. Which after loading the van, combating city traffic and making the four hour journey out to Burnham, was somewhat dishevelled as well as challenging.
It would appear that for as odd as she may be, Emily Lewis was good enough for Burnham people just as she was. And this was just as well, because Emily Lewis was determined to build a new life and put down roots, and she intended to do it here amongst the haunting pine forest of Burnham Valley. The plain fact was that Emily had fallen head over heels in love with the eerie beauty of the place, and simply could not imagine a more perfect home for herself.
Emily’s career as an artist perpetually dragged her back to the city, in spite of her best efforts to escape the noise and the turmoil of big city life. But things had been working out remarkably well for her in recent times, her pieces were selling well and fetching the kind of prices that she was still coming to grips with. The long years of striving to build her profile and reputation were finally starting to yield success. Hopefully she could escape city life for good this time, and live the idyllic rural life she had craved for so long.
Garnering the attention and respect her work demanded had been a long and slow process, but at last there was a steady and consistent demand for her pieces. Finally her work was being taken seriously, finally she was being taken seriously as a creative entity.
Emily had grown accustomed to the struggle and uncertainty familiar to the emerging artist, and truth be told she never imagined that she would ever see this level of popularity. Of course success had always been her ultimate goal, but she had never projected too far into how she wanted the future to look. She had plans of course, but Emily was very much a woman in the here and now.
She had fuelled her creativity with faith and courage and had always trusted that the future would unfold on cue, and it appeared that her faith was finally being validated. Of course good representation had helped, and the agony of a broken heart had done wonders for her career in the last couple of years. The pain of separating with Bella had equated to proliferation and a certain cruel but beguiling beauty and sincerity in her work. A stark sincerity which seemed to capture critical attention, and a certain brutal quality which appeared to hold that attention and inspire enduring fascination
As she speculated on her old life Emily’s mind carelessly wandered to memories of her tumultuous years with Bella. She felt a stab of distress and the frantic panic of separation anxiety, and tears appeared unbidden in her eyes as Emily wandered too far into memories of the past.
It had been a year now since Emily and Bella had broken up for good, and it still hurt despite the passage of time. It was getting easier lately without doubt, but she still felt pain from time to time, she still felt the ache of withdrawal. She and Bells had been together for more than ten years, since they were seventeen. In a lot of ways they had grown up together, found their true selves and made their place in the world side by side. But that was the problem, they had grown in radically different directions and arrived at separate destinations.
Neither of them was the person they were when they first came together. Back then Emily was an energetic artist full to the brim with anger at injustice, and determined to point out that injustice as loudly as she could. Determined through her work to incite debate and catalyse action. But in time her anger had evolved into a more powerful articulacy, and she became less Quixotic in her desire to challenge the world. She was delighted now to be the rust which erodes the archaic and brutal edifices of societal conformity, rather than the wrecking ball that smashes away the derelict backwaters of outmoded thought.
And Bella, the once upon a time rave queen had metamorphosed into the quintessential corporate woman. Destined for great things and going straight to the top, all tailored suits and professional ferocity, consumed by ambition and single minded determination. Embracing the very corporate beast that Emily was striving to see brought down. They had simply become oil and water, what they wanted from life and where they saw themselves going had driven them in radically different directions. Their paths in life had simply diverged too far for them to walk side by side anymore.
Emily allowed her mind to dwell on the past a little too long, and she found herself compelled to pull over to wipe tears from her eyes. Even now she still occasionally grieved for the loss of who she and Bella once were. Emily slammed her hands against the steering wheel in frustration.
“Fuck you Bella…!”
“….I loved you.”
Emily allowed herself to cry for a minute or two before gathering herself together and continuing her journey. It wasn’t Bella’s fault, and it wasn’t her fault either, it just was. It irritated Emily that it could still hurt her like this, but she knew better than to keep the pain suppressed. Bella was gone, and that life was gone, it was all in the past now. And for as much as it hurt, Emily’s thoughts were fixed firmly on the future. The possibilities were exciting, this time she wanted to settle down, maybe for good. To put down roots and make a new home for herself, and begin living her life on her own terms.
Emily turned her thoughts from the past to her new life, to her place by the river, and the nearby town of Burnham and also to Lili McCarthy. Emily had met Liliana on her first trip out to Burnham, when she first came to look at the old place by the river. Lili ran several businesses based around the old livery stables and warehouses in the heart of the town. She ran a hybrid book store and antique shop, a café that operated through the day and a restaurant which operated Friday to Sunday evenings.
She also owned a small open gallery, showcasing local arts and crafts and mostly run by volunteer contributors. In addition to this, she co-owned the local pharmacy and news agency with a woman named Lorraine Watson, or Rain as she liked to be called.
And as if this were not enough, Lili McCarthy was an inveterate tinkerer. One of those natural born mechanics who simply have the knack for keeping things going. Whether it was a generator, car or computer Lili had the kind of mind that could deduce the problem and find the fix. She maintained a workshop behind the old stables, that was filled with old cars and miscellaneous machinery which seemed perpetually in a state of restoration.
Lili thrived mostly on the steady traffic of weekend visitors from the city, seeking a little distance from the clamour of city life. Things were always slow in the winter of course, but come summer time Liliana pulled in more than enough revue to keep body and soul together. And to keep more than a few of the local kids in steady, if somewhat seasonal employment. And so integral to the life of Burnham was Lili McCarthy, that she had become a kind of unofficial town mayor. She had a lot of contacts at the shire offices in the nearby town of Coleraine, and she understood enough of the machinery of local government to get things done.
Burnham simply wasn’t big enough to sustain its own local council but was administered as part of the shire of Coleraine. And Lili made sure the little town was looked after, and she made damn sure Burnham didn’t get forgotten in the council budgets.
Everybody in town knew Lili McCarthy. She was well respected and generally regarded with great affection. She loved Burnham with all her heart and was a driving force in its preservation, and Burnham for its part loved her in return.
And Emily could surely see why, Lili was energetic and eminently capable, concerned with the wellbeing of the community as a living entity. She was by no means a busy body, she just seemed to be the one that people turned to for help, the one they could always rely on. Lili was strong and resourceful, able to get things done decisively without being overbearing or aggressive. Lili simply had a particular way of helping people along to the right decision.
Emily liked Lili, she liked her quite a lot in fact. She was smart and well read, gregarious but without excessive ebullience. There was a kind of calm warmth to her, but also a depth which suggested that she carried some emotional burden. A hint of some kind of sadness or loss, a broken heart perhaps? Although Liliana was by no means a melancholic figure, quite the opposite if fact. And again there was that juxtaposition, that odd duality that so endeared Emily to Burnham. And so endeared her to Lili McCarthy.
Lili was kind of rugged looking in general, certainly no stranger to a hard day’s work. But she was beautiful as well, very beautiful in fact. She was tall and broad featured, shapely and obviously strong. But with the most classically delicate and refined features that contrasted handsomely against her considerable stature.
Some might describe Liliana McCarthy as a sturdy or substantial woman, perhaps even burly. But Emily could think of no more delightful a prospect than to be gathered up in those strong arms and wrapped up in the woman’s embrace. The simple truth was that Lili pressed all the right buttons for Emily, just thinking of her lent an extra beat to her heart.
Emily remembered the first time she had met Liliana, she was sitting on the front porch of the old stables with a chainsaw on her lap, swapping out the old chain for a new one. She remembered being taken quite by surprise by the gorgeous face that looked up from the task to return her greeting. At first blush she looked rather incongruous in grubby work clothes and boots, her hands slick with two stroke fuel and bar oil. But that was who Lili was, industrious and capable and usually at least a little grubby from work.
Lili had invited her in for coffee and they talked for several hours, and Emily and Lili had connected right away. They each had enough in common to be interesting to one another and enough in contrast to be compelling too. But more than that, there was a certain chemistry between the two, and sparks seemed to fly in the best possible way. They had talked that afternoon as though they had known each other for a lifetime.
Lili had introduced Emily to Rain and a couple of locals who drifted through the café as they talked. Everyone knew her, and everyone seemed to love her, Lili was quite something. Emily wondered, Liliana said that she lived alone and wasn’t married. She and Rain didn’t seem to be a thing….Maybe?
“First thing’s first.” Emily declared, putting her idle speculation to one side, in deference to taking things one step at a time.
The road was now running along the banks of the river, the hauntingly gorgeous Little Deer River. The thought of building a new life in such a magical place, excited Emily right through to her bones. Lili had put her in contact with a local named Hannah Miller, who worked odd jobs here and there doing whatever needed to be done. She worked part time for the department of fisheries and wildlife, mostly survey and tagging and tracking work. But she made ends meet taking whatever odd jobs came up.
Hannah could turn her hand to just about anything, and Emily had hired her to fix up the old place by the river, to get it into shape while Emily settled her affairs in the city. The property had become overgrow and a little dilapidated since it was last occupied, and the house was badly in need of work, especially the roof. There were lot of general repairs to be done, and a fresh coat of paint would certainly help.
The old house was structurally in surprisingly good condition, but superficially it was a shambles. It was in pretty good shape inside and was fully furnished with aging but sturdy and well constructed furniture. But the place would need a hell of a lot of cleaning up, before it was acceptably habitable.
It wasn’t too far out of Burnham, as the crow flies at least, indeed Emily could have walked the distance to Burnham in less than an hour, were it not for the impossible terrain. The property was supplied with town water, and although the house was connected to the electrical grid and phone lines, everything was old and in a state of disrepair. But Lili had even helped Emily to get a linesman out to make any necessary repairs, and get her properly connected and in touch with the world.
When she had first looked at the property, it was so overgrown that it felt like the middle of nowhere. But Lili had helped her work things out, helped make a possibility look like a potential reality. And Hannah had been happy to take on the work and was delighted with what Emily was offering to pay in return. Emily hoped she had done a good job, Lili said she would be well worth the investment, and that was good enough for Emily. She would find out soon enough either way.
The road had narrowed now and was nearer the sloping birch lined banks of the river, compelling Emily to slow the van down. As she was negotiating a serpentine bend in the road, something by the river caught Emily’s attention. A flash of bright colour amidst the dark tones of nature, that compelled Emily to stop and investigate.
Emily brought her van to a halt, pulled on the hand break and immediately became aware of the song of a multitude of birds. It was coming from down by the river. Emily recognized their distinctive sighing song. ‘Poor will, poor will’ went their jaunty lament.
Through a gap in the birch which obscured much of the river bank, she could see someone down by the river. There was a young girl sitting on a fallen tree tossing stones into the rapid flowing waters, a whippoorwill perched beside her like it was a tame pet.
“May as well make friends sooner rather than later.”
As Emily killed the engine she perceived that the girl was singing a pretty tune, in harmony with the song of the whippoorwills. Emily waited a while, listening to the words before she disturbed the stranger.
My hand in yours
Till the end of our days
Your hand in mine
Until we part ways
The tune was haunting and strangely mesmerizing, and the girl’s voice, was overwhelmingly gorgeous, simultaneously sweet and profoundly melancholic. Emily closed her eyes and sat quietly, listening to the girl’s wonderful song. The tune seemed to ease her burdens and carry her away, to transport her to a peaceful place within herself. And Emily was more than happy to allow her spirits to be raised up by the enchanting tones of that wonderful voice.
Lonely I’ll wait
By the wild river’s run
Until you return
Until you come home
It was an impossibly beautiful moment, the kind of experience that stays with a soul for the rest of their lives, but it was over all too soon. And as Emily snapped out of her reverie she noticed that the girl was looking at her with a bright smile on her face.
“Hey” She called out.
“Hey” Emily replied.
The girl jumped down from her perch and landed sure footed on the stony river bank, the whippoorwill fluttering from its perch to alight on her shoulder. So it was a pet.
Emily took in the girl’s appearance as she approached the van. She wore cowboy boots and a denim jacket over a floral summer dress. She hitched up her skirts to prevent them snagging on the undergrowth as she ascended the bank.
The way the girl moved was graceful and deliberate, rather like a dancer. And the flowing motion of her nimble and dexterous gait was oddly captivating. There was the most curious fluidity to her approach, as though she somehow walked within the world rather than upon it. As though she were in some sense more real than reality, or reality perhaps somehow less corporeal than her. Her skin was a pale ghostly white save, for the blush of her cheeks and the abundant freckles which dusted her face. Her hair was extraordinarily long and slightly curly, and cast in the most brilliant bright copper.
Her eyes were locked onto Emily’s every step of the way. They were the most remarkable and vibrant green. So big and bright, and so mesmerizing. And the closer she came, the more profoundly beautiful Emily realized she was. There was a beguiling quality to the girl’s appearance. Something…
Emily struggled to find the right word, something ethereal or maybe spectral? The way her skin glowed so vibrantly and her hair shone with such brilliance, it had to be a trick of the late afternoon light.
Eventually the girl arrived at the van, her striking bright green eyes looking directly into Emily’s. So penetrating and mesmerizing that they seemed to look right into Emily’s soul.
The girl waved the whippoorwill off her shoulder and it flew away into the evergreen woods. The girl rested her arms on the open window of the van door, and leaned in to face Emily.
“What’s your name?” She asked in her sweet bewitching voice.
“Hey Emily” She smiled “I like your name it’s pretty.”
“My name is Laurel, Laurel Lee.”
Emily felt light as a feather, and her heart began to flutter as she lost herself in those bright green eyes. Being in the presence of this girl was the most singular experience, paradoxically exciting and fascinating, but strangely stultifying and distracting as well. And she was just so damn gorgeous that Emily felt a thrill of fascination that set her heart racing.
“You’re pretty Emily.”
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
Laurel Lee stepped a few paces back, held the skirts of her dress in her hands and turned round several times for Emily’s consideration.
“Thank you Emily” Laurel beamed brightly at the reply.
She leaned in close to Emily once again.
“And did you like my song?”
Laurel Lee was entrancing and her voice eerily hypnotic, quite literally so. The world seemed somehow to fade out of focus around her until the only thing that seemed real was Laurel Lee.
“So you’re moving into the house on the river bank?”
“Yes” said Emily, recovering her wits somewhat. “Do you live around here?”
“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime Laurel….”
“For sure Emily. I could come visit with you sometime, I could come sing for you if you like.”
Laurel Lee leaned in closer still, her bewitching green eyes mere inches from Emily’s.
“Would you like me to come sing for you Emily?”
“Okay Emily, then I’ll come around sometime.”
The girl began singing again as she stepped back from the van, her eyes still locked on Emily’s. The whippoorwill returned to its perch on her shoulder as she turned and began walking away.
My hand in yours
Till the end of our days
Your hand in mine
Until we part ways
And then the strange girl was gone, as though she had never been in the first place. It was strange, Emily didn’t see her leave exactly, she just wasn’t there anymore, and neither was the haunting lament of the whippoorwills.
Emily pulled herself together like she was waking from a daydream.
‘Was that real…?’
‘….did that just happen?”
Emily’s mind felt oddly confounded. She remembered stopping the van, and she remembered crying…
And then there was….
It had been a very long day, and Emily reflected that maybe she was overtired. Emily shook her head and took a deep breath.
‘Imagining things now….’
‘….I really need to get some rest.’
And with Laurel Lee now vanished from her mind just as abruptly as she had vanished from her sight, Emily started up the van and headed for home.
She’d finally made it, Emily Lewis would be home soon.
This is an excerpt from a work in progress titled
Thank you for reading