An unusual romance in an unusual space, surrounded by autumn leaves and an ancient oak.
Blowing on my fingers, I regretted leaving my gloves at home. Sweat gravitated down my spine as I worked, but heat never quite reached my hands unless I wore my thick lined gloves. I pictured them hooked over the radiator, and sighed a jet of steam. I could have borrowed a pair but I preferred no gloves over that option. More fool me, I thought, eyeing my blueing finger nails.
As days for holding funerals went, despite being frigid, today was perfect: deep blue sky, a faint breeze that made the rainbow leaves flicker in the sunlight, and chirping as birds followed in my rake's wake. The earth around the new grave had been covered with the usual fake turf and I wondered how long it had taken to dig. The earth wasn't frozen yet, but the grave was in the section fully shaded by an enormous gnarled oak. I'd been advised not to clear that corner until last thing, or I'd be doing it several times over since the wind and the oak appeared to be in cahoots. Every time someone raked up the fallen leaves there, a fresh leaf rain fell as soon as their back was turned.
Leaving that corner until last didn't bother me, since it was an eerie spot. But I couldn't avoid it today since I was the sole leaf wrangler. Mathew's daughter had gone into premature labour and he and his wife had hightailed it down country immediately the call had come through, and Joe had broken his leg playing footy this morning. Father Mahoney phoned me first of the week-day workers because he knew I didn't have a life outside of work. Or, as he said, 'I know you always put the souls first, Connor.' I'm not exactly a religious person but I let him think that of me. It was better than him worrying that I had no life outside of work.
As I shovelled leaves into a large rubbish bag, I heard a surprised 'hello' and spun around, almost tripping over the prone rake. My initial worry that the funeral party had started to arrive faded upon spying Haldis standing beyond the stone plot opposite, clutching his burnt-orange leather notebook. The scarf wrapped around his throat like a cravat was the same burnt orange, not a colour every male could carry off but it suited him. I got out a stiffened smile, and flexed my jaw behind a hand. Quite aside from not having my gloves, I didn't have my scarf either and my face felt numb. 'Hi, Haldis.'
'I startled you,' he said. 'Sorry.'
'It's no problem.' Thankfully I hadn't fallen over the rake. I'd been in my own world, but probably my ears were frozen too.
'I don't think I've seen you here on Sundays,' Haldis commented.
'No, I'm usually off weekends.' I nodded over toward the oak. 'A burial today. Father Mahoney needed the leaves cleared.'
'And no one else could do it?' he surmised.
'Not the regulars anyway,' I agreed. 'I don't mind.'
'Do you get paid extra?'
Having worked the chilled stiffness from my jaw, I managed a real grin. 'I do.'
'And there's an added bonus. You're here.' And suddenly my shovel needed a close inspection because that pretty much pointed out the fact I liked seeing him. Which I did, but I hadn't exactly told him that or why. When I couldn't regard the shovel anymore, because clearly nothing was wrong with it, I looked up to find a shy smile on his face. That froze me a second and then he looked down at the notebook. 'Um,' I said, 'if you're going to sit over by the oak, I haven't cleared that area yet. I'm saving it for last.'
Haldis glanced up at me. 'I can help, if you like?'
'No way.' And immediately apologised when his face twisted with hurt. 'I didn't mean it like that. I meant... Haldis, you don't work here. No, no... I meant...' I shoved a hand over my mouth, face heating. Why couldn't the chill have frozen my stupid tongue? 'I'm an idiot,' I got out. 'Sorry. I meant to say that you've come here for peace and quiet, to write.'
A tiny smile curved his lips, so perhaps he didn't think I was a total jerk.
'I'll go and clear it now,' I said, turning.
'No, don't,' Haldis responded quickly. 'I don't mind the leaves. Come to me last. I mean, that corner.' He pointed and hurried off in that direction, but not before I saw crimson flushing his face.
My lips struggled, under biting teeth, to form a wild grin. As I shovelled leaves into the bag, I let them do their thing, but tried not to go overboard. Haldis making a hash of his own words did not mean anything.
And yet, the rest of my raking and shovelling seemed a lot less work and once I'd taken the various bags of leaves around behind the grey-stone church, I brought my tools to the oak. The giant tree was, in fact, the very reason for the church's presence. Legend told that the oak was part of a large stand chosen for milling. The floorboards of my rented room reputedly belonged to one of those trees. This oak remained because a young man climbed it and refused to leave the branches, no matter the tempt or threat. The locals finally declared that the tree would remain and the man descended. But once he got to ground, some of the axes were raised to the trunk and he leapt to intercept a blow. In atonement for his terrible death, the tree was spared and the church erected.
And now everyone who went near the oak displayed a certain amount of wariness - of the tree or of the possible ghost of the young man, I wasn't sure, but the area did feel odd. Or maybe I just let myself get carried away by the legend and the wind whistling through the gnarled limbs. Haldis never seemed to mind the atmosphere and so if I ever talked to him there I did my best to come across unbothered.
He looked up as I arrived, and smiled. He sat, leaning against the trunk, notebook open across his lap. A pencil rolled between his fingers. I yanked a clean rubbish bag from my jacket pocket. 'Here, you should sit on this. The ground will be cold.'
Haldis shook his head. 'It's not too bad. I'm on my coat, anyway.'
True, his bark-brown woollen coat was long enough to sit on, but I still said, 'don't blame me if your butt goes numb.'
A grin flashed over his features, making me grimace. I should just stop talking! So I thumbed over my shoulder and turned to get on with my work. The ground under the oak's reach had threadbare grass during spring and summer but was virtually dirt and rotted leaves during cooler months. That made raking reasonably easy, since nothing caught on grass and weeds. Or it would have if the wind hadn't plied its tricks. Every time I got close to a tidy pile I'd hear the rustle start from high above in the canopy, and I could only protect part of the pile with the rake before the rest of it whipped into funnels of red and orange, and re-settled like gaudy carpeting.
'Oh, come on,' I groaned after the third time.
Haldis chuckled from under the tree.
'You,' I growled, pointing. 'You could help, y'know.'
He stuck out his tongue. 'Should have taken up my offer earlier. Besides,' he added, 'I like watching you.' His eyes went wide. 'I mean...' He coughed, tapped the pencil into the notebook, and mumbled, 'you're giving me great inspiration for a character.'
That made me snort, and turn my back. At least he wouldn't see another wild grin flashing all over my face.
For the next half hour, instead of raking, I crawled around on my knees stuffing leaves into my rubbish bag like I was scraping up gold coins from a treasure trove. At least it made my hands warm. I needn't have bothered since the wind didn't strike again. Typical. I tied off the bag, wiped my forehead with the back of a hand. 'You're going to be here a little longer?' I called.
'Cool. I'm just going to drop this round back.'
I felt his gaze as I walked away, and wished two things: 1. I'd worn tidier clothes and 2. I had the guts to tell him how I felt. Especially since I got the impression he might feel the same way. 'Who'd have thought, huh?' I said to the bag as I dumped it in the shed. 'Finding a love interest in a cemetery. Bet that doesn't happen very often.' The black bag slumped with a swish next to its companions; I imagined it saying 'too right, Connor, but you go for it!' Probably what I needed was a good sleep since last night's hadn't been.
Oh, was I dedicated to my job. And as I walked back to the oak I knew that if I'd known Haldis would show up I'd have jumped at Father Mahoney's request even if I'd got no sleep.
Haldis sat cross-legged, the notebook closed and lying beside him.
'What? You've stopped because yours truly isn't acting the inspirational fool anymore?'
He shook his head slowly, giving a small smile, as I dropped to my knees near him, curling my hands into my pockets. Falling quiet, I realised how sheltered it actually was here under the oak. I tilted my head back, but the tree retained enough leaves that I was unable to see through to clear sky. I glanced back at Haldis and realised the insufficient light meant I couldn't see the colour of his eyes. And then I wasn't sure that I actually knew their colour, and before I could stop myself I'd asked him.
They went so wide I'd have had an amazing view if we'd been out in the cemetery proper. 'Blue,' he murmured. 'And yours are green.'
I nodded because any vocal answer would have been a croak. And then he ventured, 'you look tired, Connor, now that you're just sitting. I could have helped.'
An embarrassed smile creased my features and I ran a thumb down the side seam of my jeans. 'I'm too manly to need help.' And covered my face with both hands. Why was I so bad at this? It wasn't like we hadn't talked before! 'I am tired,' I mumbled, and hoped that might explain my apparent stupidity.
'Then why did you let Father Mahoney talk you into working? The double-pay can't be that attractive.' Haldis leaned forward a little, as if to enable a better peer at me.
I cracked a bit of a laugh. 'It's not horrendous,' I qualified, 'and as I said before, Haldis, I like this job. And I owe Father Mahoney anyway. He helped me out when I needed it.'
Haldis cocked his head. I wasn't quite ready to give an explanation so I said, 'and seeing you... well, I enjoy your company.' Somehow I managed to hold his gaze as I spoke, and the smile that spread over his face made me sure I wasn't barking completely up the wrong tree. 'What's your story about?' I asked before he could speak. 'You've not really got some silly nitwit of a graveyard grounds-man in it, right?'
He looked down at the notebook. 'A graveyard grounds-man perhaps. But not a silly nitwit.' He didn't lift his gaze, but watched his finger slide around the entire edge.
Overhead the leaves rustled. Please don't, I thought, and jumped as a single fire-red leaf fell on my shoulder. Haldis lifted his head quickly, looking startled. 'Sorry,' I mumbled, fingering the leaf. 'I find it eerie here sometimes.'
'Do you?' Haldis asked. 'How?'
I spun the leaf by its stem and shrugged. 'Not sure. A bit like the tree and the wind work together.' Well, that sounded stupid out loud. 'Sad, sometimes. And, well, lonely. Like the tree hungers for company. It's the only oak here, have you noticed?' Any minute now and he was going to find an excuse to bolt. I glanced over my shoulder at the new grave not far away. Peripheral vision showed movement and I turned back, ready to beg Haldis to stay.
He was holding out his scarf. 'You're shivering. Take this.'
'Then you'll shiver.'
'This coat's more decent than yours.' He tugged the collar up. 'Go on.'
So I took his burnt orange scarf, trying to hide how pleased I was. I wrapped it around my throat, tucked the ends into my jacket. 'At least this means I'll get to see you again,' I said. 'Because you know I can't keep it.'
He shrugged, but seemed pleased himself. 'Can I have the leaf?'
Haldis pointed at the ground near my knee. I picked up the red oak leaf, twirled it and then held it out feeling like I was holding out my heart. 'Of course, you can have it.'
'So we have something of each other's now,' he murmured, bringing the leaf to his nose as if to smell it.
I'd obviously got the better half of that exchange, but he acted like he had. He moved back to his notebook and carefully laid the leaf inside, and then we both shifted at the sound of a car pulling into the drive. Lord, I'd totally forgotten a funeral would shortly take place. I rose stiffly. 'I better...' I waved a hand at the church. 'Need to check that Father Mahoney's sorted and then beat a retreat.'
'I better too,' Haldis said. 'I can't very well loiter right next to a funeral.' He gave a funny grin.
He started forward, stopping when I touched his arm. Further out from the trunk, with more light, I got a good glimpse of his deep blue eyes. Before I could chicken out, I dropped a kiss against his cheek. 'Thanks for the scarf,' I whispered and then hurried away. Didn't dare look back in case I saw him wiping his cheek with a disgusted expression on his face.
The car belonged to Father Mahoney's assistant. I gave her a brief wave as I stepped into the stone building. Finding Father Mahoney in his tiny office, I announced, 'Julie's arrived.'
Father Mahoney turned from the window. 'Good, good,' he said. 'And the grounds look fine, Connor. Thank you for coming in today.'
'It's no problem, you know that.'
'I know it,' he said softly. He waved me out of the office and as he followed, asked, 'who were you talking to?'
'Out there under the oak.'
'Oh, Haldis. He comes here to write, says the peacefulness helps his muse.' I stroked the scarf at my throat.
I nodded. Father Mahoney cocked his head and I nearly got the feeling he was assessing me for craziness. 'Have you never spoken to him, Father?' I asked. 'I see him almost every day I'm here. In fact... in fact, Father, I kind of like him. You know?'
He arched a brow now and, with his head still cocked, the pose made me decidedly uncomfortable. Probably shouldn't admit those feelings to a priest. 'Um, forget I said that.'
'Connor Garrick, there's something I think you ought to see.' Though his tone was neutral, using my surname gave the impression that he aimed to show me an image of someone burning in Hell's fires and point out that if I didn't stop my 'ways' I'd be in for the same. And how could I say to his face, after all his concern, that I didn't care? Haldis and I had taken a step towards something today.
Over his shoulder he asked, 'what's your young man's surname?'
I stumbled over his use of 'your' and he turned to look at me. 'Um,' I said.
Father Mahoney smiled. 'Son, I believe I knew your orientation before you even admitted it to yourself. We' - raising his hands as if the pronoun encompassed his church - 'are not bothered by it. But this Haldis concerns me.'
'Why? He's not trespassing.'
'No, he's definitely not doing that,' Father Mahoney said gravely. 'You'll understand in a minute.' And he turned away again.
I followed him passed the pulpit, almost bumping into him when he stopped abruptly. He waved away my apology, and bent over a large stone. I saw the ring just before he reached for it and started to pull. My protest that he should let me move the stone stuttered to a halt when he lifted the slab like it weighed nothing. 'Wood,' he said to my gaping face. 'Painted cleverly.'
I inspected the raised slab and only once I'd knocked several times on the top and bottom was I sure of the material. Then I realised the opening revealed a set of stone steps. 'What's this?' I got out, stunned.
'A crypt,' he responded, sending me retreating several steps.
Father Mahoney held out a torch that I hadn't realised he was holding. I kept my hands to my sides. 'You want me to go down there?' I didn't mind the dark but closed spaces were something different.
'I'll come with you,' he said. 'But you need to see what's down there, Connor.'
'That's a nice scarf,' he said softly, and I knew what he was thinking--I hadn't arrived in it earlier.
'Haldis gave it to me,' I responded. 'I gave him a leaf. Bit of a bum deal for him, I think.'
Father Mahoney nodded, flicked on the torch and descended the steps. 'Come on,' I heard him say.
If he wasn't afraid then I couldn't be either. I followed as quickly as possible so I didn't lose the light of the torch, and sucked in my breath when I reached the bottom and realised I really was standing in a crypt. A stone sarcophagus took up much of the space. I think I might have gotten out 'wow' when I saw the tree carved into the lid. Father Mahoney stood on the opposite side and watched me.
'An... oak, isn't it?' I asked softly. 'The oak.'
'Yes,' Father Mahoney agreed. 'The legend is fact, Connor. This sarcophagus holds the body of that unfortunate young man.'
Another 'wow' pursed my lips but without sound this time. I felt a sense of awe being here, and a weird feeling of grief at the tragedy that had befallen.
'Come and read this inscription,' Father Mahoney said quietly, and I dutifully moved around beside him.
Haldis Seton gave his Soul to the Giant Oak so that it might live.
We give this Stone so that it might protect both Soul and Oak.
I read it twice before squawking, 'no way!' and backing up. Haldis was an odd name, but no way the Haldis I'd been falling in love with was this one.
'He obviously didn't tell you,' Father Mahoney commented.
I stared at him. 'You've got to be kidding! Father Mahoney, there is...' I cut off, brain in overload. 'He likes to sit under that tree.' I read the inscription again. 'I always thought it was spooky there, the leaves... I told him I thought it felt lonely.' I drew in a shuddering breath. Suddenly those thoughts made really freaky sense. 'Oh god, you're not telling me he is the oak? Father, please...'
'He's not the oak, Connor.' Father Mahoney rubbed a finger over the inscription. 'This is simply a form of spiritual peace for those who felt guilty. But Haldis obviously manifests. You were having a good conversation today.'
His tone made me look at him a little more closely. 'You couldn't see him, could you?'
Father Mahoney looked in two minds, but finally shook his head. 'Reports of actually seeing Haldis are few and far between.'
'But... people can feel him? That's what you're saying?'
'Yes. You're not the only one to mention the odd sensation around the oak.'
Somehow that made me feel slightly better. I stroked the scarf, froze when I realised the significance. 'You can see this?' I rasped out.
He nodded. 'It looks good on you, by the way.'
I made a weak 'ha' sound but didn't fight to release the scarf from my throat. 'I kissed him.' And then covered my mouth with both hands, shaking my head. 'Father Mahoney,' I whispered between my fingers.
'I love a ghost.'
'Yes, I believe you do.'
'Why... why are you not calling for an exorcist?'
'Why should I?' he asked. 'Ghosts exist, souls exist. You have some connection with Haldis that allows him to manifest to you, and you both to see, touch and talk to each other. Some things are beyond knowledge, Connor.'
Another weak 'ha.'
'I've suspected for a while,' Father Mahoney murmured. 'But wasn't sure until I saw the scarf and...'
'Because I didn't arrive today with it?'
Father Mahoney shook his head. 'Come upstairs and I'll tell you.'
'Tell me now.'
'Orange was apparently Haldis' favourite colour,' he said. 'Always wore something in it. And he loved the autumn, collected leaves so the story goes.'
I felt weak-kneed and then oddly pleased that my gift of the leaf wasn't as pathetic as first thought. 'Okay, so...' I trailed off but Father Mahoney nodded as if he knew I needed to get out of the crypt right now.
I didn't run, but only because the torch was behind me and didn't provide enough light to do a mad dash. When I got top-side I bent over like I was gasping in my last breath.
'Sit down, Connor, before you collapse,' Father Mahoney said as he lowered the 'stone' into place.
I dropped to my backside. 'I've been talking with him most of the days I've worked here,' I got out in a whisper. 'Why did you never say anything?'
'Early on I didn't suspect anything,' he responded. 'I thought you were simply talking to yourself, getting things off your chest like I'd suggested.'
I flushed a little. 'Then... so... today?'
'Besides the scarf, today I happened to see the kiss.'
The heat on my face probably made me the colour of Haldis' leaf.
'I hadn't really paid much attention before,' Father Mahoney said quietly, 'so I didn't notice actions, but I saw the kiss today. And I had a... moment. As if I'd caught someone's gaze.'
I didn't know what to say or do.
'Connor, I haven't revealed all this to hurt you,' he said quickly. 'I just thought you should know and... well, it felt like Haldis was asking for help.' He smiled. 'You see why we can't have an exorcism here? It'd be both of us gone, and what would happen to this place then?'
I managed a weak smile, then swallowed. 'What do I do?'
'Sorry, lad, that I cannot help you with.'
Annoyance pricked at me that he had shot up my budding romance with all sorts of weird stuff and now was bailing on me, but then I couldn't really fault him. Maybe if I'd had a good night's sleep... I climbed upright and looked around the church. 'How long to the funeral? Can I stay here a while, or do you need my help?'
'I don't need your help,' he said, rising. 'And you'd be welcome to stay, only you've got just a half hour.'
I nodded. 'It's okay for me to sit out the back then? For a bit?'
'Of course,' he said. 'Would you like to borrow some gloves?'
I shook my head. 'My pockets are fine.'
'I'll be here later, if you need me.'
'Thanks,' I whispered and made my way out the small back door.
The door opened into a paved, walled courtyard. A heavy wooden gate linked it to the car park while a half picket gate opposite gave access to church grounds. I perched on a cold stone bench and looked at my hands twined in my lap. Well, I hadn't been struck down for admitting in church I loved a ghost so that was a positive. On the other hand, I loved a ghost.
My eyes burned with unshed tears so I squeezed them closed, and the tears didn't seep out. I didn't know what to do, though I was crazily unafraid. All I could think of was me telling Haldis that it sometimes felt like the tree was lonely. And I couldn't stop thinking now that it was Haldis' loneliness I'd been feeling.
I leaned over my knees, buried my face in my arms. Not being an overly religious person I hadn't realised I'd had strong notions of ghosts or spiritual stuff, but here I was reacting far too calmly to a ghost, to a connection with one that very few others had apparently connected. I pushed out a sharp breath of air. I'd kissed him!
'I should have said something.'
'Yes, you should,' I responded without any sort of shock that Haldis had suddenly appeared. I didn't look up.
'I think... I think I should g-give this b-back.'
The hitching voice straightened me. Haldis stood by the half gate, holding out the red oak leaf.
'You... don't want it anymore?' I asked, hurt.
He swallowed, traced around the curves of the leaf with his other hand. 'I'm s-sorry, Connor.'
'Yeah, well, so am I, but I'm not giving this scarf back so you better not give up that leaf.'
At his expression of gobsmack I froze in shock, then gave what was probably a stupid imitation of a grimace-smile. And then I said, 'how many others have you given away scarves to?'
'W-what? N-none. Why would I?' And the gobsmack turned into pure puzzlement.
'Sorry.' My face heated. I was still making a natural fool of myself. 'Please sit.'
Haldis didn't look like he wanted to, but eventually deposited himself on my bench. He held the stem of the leaf in both hands and I realised he didn't have the notebook. I wondered briefly where that might be.
'So...' I began. 'You know I know.'
'And you know I'm really upset that you didn't tell me.'
Another nod, and he held out the leaf.
'Keep it.' Another brief wonder about where he'd keep it. 'Father Mahoney saw me kiss you, saw this scarf and decided it was time to clear things up. I can't have looked so strange all the other times we talked or I guess he'd have done it ages ago.' I twisted on the bench to face him, our knees coming into contact. Neither of us moved back. 'Why didn't you tell me?'
Haldis closed his eyes. 'I couldn't,' he said softly. 'When I realised I liked you we'd been talking so many weeks. I'd left it too late, I didn't know...' He drew in a soft breath. 'I didn't want to tell you and make you run.'
'You coulda given me a bit more kudos,' I said. 'Am I running now?'
He shook his head, but held himself stiff as if he thought I still might. When I covered his stem-spinning fingers with a hand, he jerked but I didn't let go. 'Haldis, my heart doesn't do... um, love very easily but I.. well, it's...' I drew breath. 'There's a small part of me really freaking out but the rest...' I pulled a face. 'The rest of me wants to keep giving you leaves.'
Haldis' gaze went to the leaf in our still combined grasp. I let him go, flushing that I couldn't stop spouting weird things. I worried that'd never change. A smile curved his lips. 'I used to collect leaves,' he murmured. 'I loved the colours. Most people wondered if I wasn't quite right...' He looked at me. 'I don't know what we do now, Connor.'
'Well... I do this.' And I kissed his cheek, lingering a little because he leaned into my lips. When I straightened I added, 'and you... if you have any power over that ancient oak, you'll ask it play fair with its leaves.'
Haldis regarded me as if there were two in the courtyard who weren't quite right. Which was probably perfectly right. I shrugged and smiled. He told me the scarf's colour made my eyes even more green.
Small fires burned on my cheeks and I felt ridiculously shy. And right here in the quiet, breeze-free courtyard I decided to put logic, common sense and my million questions aside, and simply go with my heart. I tucked an end of the scarf back inside my jacket, then recurved my hand over his, pleased at the smile that touched his lips.
Written for "A Romance Contest ~~ Autumn - Judging" , Autumn/Fall 2014
Word Count: 4869 (as at 16/10/14)
Woohoo! Honourable Mention
Terribly excited to be able to add this: