As he walked the last hundred feet up to the cabin, he could hear the sound of someone chopping wood and a quiet tinkling sound. It was steep, more of a trail than a road, and he wasn’t in the greatest shape, but walking the last half-mile seemed preferable to testing his car over the rocks.
The chopping stopped and a tall, thin woman appeared around the corner of the log cabin.
“Who are you and what do you want?” she asked authoritatively, still holding the axe.
He took a deep breath, “Missus Fay, I am Desmond Roberts with the county health department.” He approached and held out his free hand. She didn’t move to shake it. He offered the stack of mail, and she took it, nodding thanks. He had originally been puzzled by the hand-lettered sign on the mailbox at the bottom of the dirt road, “If you’re going to the Fay cabin, please take the mail up with you,” but he had complied.
“You answered half of my question. How about the rest?”
“Well, you see we’re studying the water wells here in the foothills, and our records show that you have a well. We’d like to take a sample for testing.”
“What testing? What is it you want to know?”
He couldn’t place her accent. “It’s mostly general information about the water quality, bacteria, you know the general chemistry. We’re also getting data on uranium and radium in the wells, since there are uranium deposits all across the foothills.”
“So, what are you going to do with that information?”
He hesitated, “Some wells might have too much of some constituent, making it bad to drink, and we could tell you that. We might be able to get you some kind of treatment for the water or help you find another water source.”
The old woman chuckled and walked back around the side of the cabin. He followed and she drove the axe into the chopping block. “Let’s have some tea while we talk.”
The cabin was clean, pleasant, but a little dark due to the limited number of windows, which were open along with the doors. Homemade wind chimes hung from the eaves near the door and the windows, emitting the pretty tinkly sounds he had heard. The kitchen, at one end of the cabin, had a small table with three chairs and a corner sink with a hand pump. Bundles of herbs hung from the rafters and mason jars of beans and tomatoes lined a shelf. Behind a curtain made from blankets was an iron bed and some other furniture, including a large bookcase filled to overflowing.
She stirred the coals in the smaller compartment of the wood stove that dominated the center of the cabin, adding a stick of wood. She dumped the kettle onto the rose bushes next to the back door, and refilled it from the pump before putting it on the stove.
Sitting in one of the three chairs, he could already feel the heat from the stove rising. He looked at three arrowheads on the window sill. “Elf shot,” she told him. He wondered about the name.
“I moved here with my Clancy over sixty years ago. He sent for me from the home country.” She saw his look, “Ireland. It was pretty tough at first, but Clancy had a dream about the mine, and we got by.” It was dreamy smile, “Some of those times were magical.”
“Building the cabin was hard work, but we did it with help from some neighbors.” She looked a little sad, “They’re mostly all gone now. Living out here is too much work for most people, but Clancy and I, we liked the quiet and the stillness. Anyway, we had all the company we needed.”
It sounded romantic, he thought. The two of them alone in the forest in the early days of marriage.
“Once the cabin was built, Clancy worked the mine full-time. He was able to fix up the spring and after a few years, built the cistern and ran a pipe down here.” She eyed him closely, “There is no well, we just use the spring water.”
The kettle whistled as she set out two mugs and put tea in a china pot, then added some dried leaves she pulled from one of the bundles. “I hope you don’t need milk, groceries aren’t delivered until Friday.” He shook his head, and she put spoons next to the sugar bowl.
“I know what you’ll find in our water,” she said, “It’s a good spring, water’s clear and it’s got a good mix of minerals. Clancy and I drank it all our lives, so we know it’s pretty good for us. And the boys liked it better than that town water they had at school.” “Aiden, Brodie and Callum,” she said sadly, “those boys were a handful.”
“Where are they now?”
She paused to pour the tea and add sugar to hers. He could smell mint and something else in the brew. “Aiden died in Korea, and Callum in Vietnam. Brodie’s in Denver — he and Eileen keep trying to get me to move in with them, but I like it here.” She paused and looked him in the eye, “Company’s better.”
“I’m sorry,” he said fruitlessly, “about your loss.”
She shook her head, “The only thing certain in life is death, Clancy used to say.” She took a sip, “He passed about ten years ago. Died right up there in the mine, even though it quit making any money long before. They came down and told me, and Brodie came up and we buried him right in there.”
He sipped some tea and let her sit in silence for a few minutes. “How do you know so much about your water? About the minerals and so on?”
“Clancy was a miner, and had familiarity with assaying the ore, so he took a jug of water down to the chemist. He tested it and gave us a report.” She chuckled, “Then old Doc Johnson found out what was in it, and wanted to buy it from us. Said we could make a lot of money.”
Desmond eyed her closely, “Of course we couldn’t sell our water, there’s just not that much. But Doc and Clancy figured out that it was the radon and radium that made the water so powerful.” She chuckled to herself, “Anyway, Clancy has this idea that the ore from the mine, that’s the uranium, has lots of radium in it and makes the radon. So they come up with this scheme to put the ore in a jug, fill it with town water and let it sit for a week or two. It worked perfectly.”
“You mean that Doc and Clancy made ‘radium water’ using uranium ore?” Desmond was incredulous.
“You bet, and Doc sold it to all his patients. When all the water was gone, all they had to do was refill the jug and wait a few weeks. Most people bought two jugs so that they didn’t run out of the good stuff.”
Desmond was still trying to catch up. “This was a real doctor in town?”
“Oh sure. He was pretty old, but came from Germany where this was very popular. Had to change his name from Johannson, though, when he went through Ellis Island. He passed quite a few years ago, but once people had two jugs, they didn’t need new ones anymore and the trade died out.” She smiled at his stunned look. “I still have a few jugs out in the storage shed if you’d like one. Already has the ore, but no water since it would freeze up. You can take a couple, don’t have to pay. They’re of no use to me anymore.”
“Maybe,” He replied, “Thanks.” He paused, “Could you show me where you get your water?”
She pointed to the corner, “There’s the pump. It brings the water up from the cistern.” She thought a minute, “The rest is outside, and a bit of a walk. Is that okay with you?”
He nodded, and she went over to the breadbox on the counter and pulled out a loaf. She carefully sliced off two pieces, slightly larger than normal slices, and wrapped them in wax paper. Handing him one, she put the other in a pocket and headed out the door. “Just keep that until I tell you,” she said.
Desmond was slightly embarrassed that he was having to walk pretty fast to keep up with her. “She must be eighty or ninety years old, and she’s chopping wood and outpacing me uphill,” he thought.
He shook his head and noticed that there seemed to be something he couldn’t quite see fluttering around his head. He tried to swat it away, but it persisted.
“Don’t do that!” she ordered peremptorily, “Just let it be. They won’t bother you.”
He stopped, but could almost feel it behind his head. “Maybe I’m going crazy,” he thought and tried to keep up with her.
The trail was rough, but he guessed that it followed the buried pipe to the spring. Sure enough, after about a hundred yards she turned and stopped.
“I want you to sit here for a few minutes,” she pointed to a comfortable-looking log lying against a big pine. “I’ve got to go get them ready.”
He sat down obediently, and realized that he actually was pretty tired. The cool, freshly-scent of the forest and the long (for him) walk seemed to have an effect on him. He was aware of the something still hovering over him, but gave up trying to see it. He thought he heard some humming, a faint lilting tune, but figure it was the wind. It made him drowsy.
“Leave him be!” she cried, waking him up out of a peaceful nap. Mrs. Fay was standing in front of him looking bemused. He stood up and she beckoned him to follow. Still a little befuddled, he though he heard her say “elf-locks” under her breath.
Another twenty yards around a thicket was a steep slope, covered in berry bushes. At the base, rocks had been stacked to form a half-dome against the hillside. One side had a small wooden door wedged over a hole.
He started forward, but she stopped him. “First, take your bread and put it on the stump. Unwrap it first.”
He complied, and she led him over to the door. It opened with a little pulling and he could see a clear pool inside. She waved him on, and he reached in and collected a sample in the bottle he had with him. The inside of the spring was cool and damp, with the sparkling sunlight flashing through gaps in the rock dome. There seemed to be movement in the air, but the contrast of light and dark made it difficult to see anything specific. It was incredibly beautiful.
As he closed the door, he thought he heard Mrs. Fay talking, but she was alone when he turned. She seemed to be looking at something in the air, but quickly turned to face him. “What’s that tune you’re humming?” he asked.
She smiled, “Oh, nothing. Would you like to see the mine? It’s not far.”
He agreed and they headed across the bottom of the slope on a small trail. As he passed the stump, he noticed that the bread was gone, and she replaced it with her slice. The mine opening was closed with a rusted metal door and the waste rock made a large pile in front that tumbled down the slope. Various pieces of unused equipment were stacked under a small three-sided shed near the entrance, and a rusted ore cart sat on tracks just in from of the door.
“After the service, I couldn’t bear to enter anymore, so none of us go in now.” He noticed the lock.
The trail down from the mine was wider, but disused, so that it was more eroded and less easy to walk on. The tune had stuck with him, or maybe she was humming again. He had to watch his step, and became more certain that when he looked down, something was fluttering above him. In trying to see it, he stumbled and crashed onto the brush beside the trail.
Ms. Fay pulled him out with an extremely strong grip, and made sure he was okay, brushing off the leaves and dirt. “I told you to just let them be. They won’t bother you, you’re just the first stranger they’ve seen in a while.”
“Who?” he asked, “Who is they?”
She shook her head, “Oh, don’t mind me. I’ve been by myself for so long, I’m always talking nonsense.”
She picked up the pace, and he struggled to follow, trying to focus more closely on his footing. They quickly reached the cabin.
“Do you mind if I collect a sample from the pump?” he asked. When she agreed, he pumped it a few times to get fresh water and filled another bottle. He used a felt-tip marker to tag both bottles and put them back into his pack.
As he started to leave, she looked at him seriously, “Do you still hear the humming, the music?”
He thought a minute and realized that he did. It had stayed in his head like one of those earworm tunes that stayed with you for days. “I guess I do,” he said, “Kinda funny how that stuff stays with you. What was the tune?”
She just watched him as he realized he was hearing the humming, but it clearly wasn’t coming from her. He looked around nervously.
“Desmond, you should go now,” she started, “but I have a favor to ask you first.”
He nodded, still perplexed about the music.
“I’d like you to go in there,” she indicated the bedroom area, “And put your clothes on inside-out. I believe that will help with the music and make it easier for you to leave.”
He just stared at her, “What?”
“It’s a long story, and one you won’t really find credible, so you should just believe me and do as I say.”
He went to the pump, poured some water into his tea cup and took a sip, “Really? Are you crazy, or am I?”
She chuckled, “I don’t know about you, but I can guarantee you that I’m pretty cracked.”
That broke him up and he sat down and they laughed together. When they stopped, he said, “Okay, we’re both a little nuts, so tell me what’s going on.”
She hesitated, “Well, you may know that in the home country we lived very closely with natural things over many centuries. We all came to understand each other and learn the boundaries.”
Desmond wondered what she was talking about, and she saw it in his face, “The illusory spirits live everywhere, but only choose to be seen on rare occasions.” His bafflement became more apparent. “Do you know the word ‘sprite’ or ‘sylph’ or ‘nymph?’ ‘Fairies?’” He nodded. “Well, then. That’s more or less what we’re talking about.”
“They’re different over here, less contact with humans, I guess. Or maybe people here are less sensitive to nature’s ways.” She mulled that over a minute, “But Clancy knew them when he started the mine; indeed he believes they helped him find it, and helped him with the spring.”
Desmond couldn’t help himself, and nodded. It almost made sense … if you were crazy enough.
“They stay out of the cabin because they don’t like the tinkling. Before we figured that out every morning we’d get up with ‘elf-locks’, those tangles in your hair tied up with grasses and flowers,” she smiled at him. “They also like bread, so they tend to leave us alone if we bring them some as a present. Otherwise, they can mess with your mind and leave you befuddled. They know me and my family, but they’re still a little leery of strangers.”
She looked around, “It seems that they are confused if you wear your clothes inside-out and can’t really see you, so they leave you alone. It’s better if they don’t follow you when you leave.”
Desmond took a while to digest all this, but finally she said, “Well, look at it this way, I’m crazy and it will make me happy if you do this as I want you to. What do you have to lose?”
He guessed that maybe that was the best way to think about it, and went behind the curtain to switch his clothes out. Turning his shirt inside-out was not too much trouble, but getting his pants on that way was difficult. The pockets were weird and he couldn’t quite figure out how to arrange the belt or zip up.
He came out from behind the curtain and she looked him over carefully, “Very good. I think that will do it.”
Before he turned to leave, she gave him a hug, “Watch your step on the way down. It can be tricky.”
He nodded and started on the path. Hearing a noise, he turned to see her standing in her yard, holding out a crumpled piece of bread. The air above her hand was diffracted, insubstantial. She seemed to be humming a tune and talking to the empty space.
“Maybe crazy was the right term,” he thought, “for both of us.”
He was careful and the walk to car went without incident. The first thing he did was get his clothes back on correctly. As he climbed into the driver’s seat, he checked the rearview mirror, and something caught his eye. He turned the mirror to see his face. His hair was braided and tangled, and tied with bits of grass and flowers.
“Elf-locks,” he said and drove away.