There was a car parked in front of the grocer’s when Diarmuid came down from his apartments above the store to open for the day. It wasn’t a car he recognized, and no one was waiting outside for the store to open. He went on about his duties for a while, stocking some shelves with deliveries from yesterday and weeding out the bad produce. The car caught his attention from time to time as he walked about the store. It was a Tuesday, so chances were it would be a slow day and he had time to wander over to see Barnaby to ask if he knew anything about the car. Diarmuid put a note on the door saying he would be back in a little while and began the short stroll to the post office.
It was a particularly lovely day. The sun was shining after several days of rain, and it promised to be a warm day. The pavement was steaming as the sun warmed it, which gave everything a dreamy air. The leaves were still piled high around the town, though most of them had finally fallen from the trees. The clear morning sunshine made all the colors sharp and brilliant. There were days that epitomized a season, and today was one of those: a perfect Fall day.
Barnaby was drinking a cup of coffee behind his desk in the post office and reading the newspaper. He looked up and smiled as Diarmuid entered.
“Morning,” he said.
“Good morning. Have you been out this morning?” Diarmuid asked.
“Not as of yet. Why?”
“There’s a car parked in front of my store, but no person to go with it.”
“Hmm. That is odd. School’s off today for Veteran’s Day, so it’s not one of their guests. Have you asked Cormag?”
“That was my next stop.”
“Well, then, let’s be about it.” Barnaby refilled his mug of coffee and made up another one for Diarmuid and together they exited the post office. Steaming coffee in hand, they discussed the coming end of the season and plans for the annual Thanksgiving dinner as the walked the short distance. Cormag was just rolling up his gas station door as they approached.
“Gentlemen,” he said as he walked to turn on the pumps.
“Has anyone been by for gas or service?” Diarmuid asked immediately.
“No. I’m just opening, but no one has called or rung the bell. Was someone looking for me?” Cormag asked.
“Diarmuid says there is a car parked in front of his store, but no person to be found,” Barnaby clarified.
“No, they are off today.”
“So, where’d it come from?” Cormag asked.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Barnaby replied.
“I will take a walk and see if I can find anyone. Cormag, would you watch the store for me while I am out?” Diarmuid asked.
“Then I take my leave of you both. I will let you know what I find.”
Barnaby and Cormag waved him off and he walked back to get his coat. It may be warm eventually, but here at just after eight in the morning, it was still quite cool. He expected to be outdoors for a while. The walk into the woods took about and hour and a half round trip, and that was the first place he was going to check. He also picked up his heavy maple walking stick as he left his apartment. He didn’t expect to encounter anything untoward, but this was enough out of the usual that he decided to be cautious and prepared. In the time they had been in Harold, he could count on one hand the amount of times her had needed to employ any sort of force against another person. One on hand, that made him quite happy. On the other hand, much of his training had been going unused for decade upon decade. At times he felt sluggish and slow, like he was growing lichen in the absence of real things to do. Perhaps he should return to training again. Or maybe taking up jogging or trail running like some in the valley had taken to doing.
These thoughts brought him to Fancy’s walk. The house looked as it always did. Clean and tidy and empty. He continued down the sidewalk to path into the woods. He doubted anyone who was up to something shady would have left their car in the front of the grocery. The only time they had dealt with someone trying to use their woods for illegal purposes, they had brought their cars directly into the forest. Diarmuid was hoping that the car had stalled and finding nothing open in the small town, they had decided to walk on to the next town. But he still had to check.
The path in the woods was damp, but not muddy. It was shaded for most of the way, and the chill was penetrating. It was also not much of a path. As far as he knew, the three of them were the only ones who knew it. At most it looked like a deer trail, perhaps. The walk involved a lot of stepping through brush and pushing aside branches as one worked their way deeper into the forest. This was on purpose. If someone did perchance follow them into the woods, it was quite easy to vanish from view and leave the follower wondering what happened. With no discernible path, it was hoped they would turn back. It had never really been put to the test, however.
The entire forest smelled of damp leaves and decay. Oddly, it was a clean smell, unlike the smell of decay in the city. He had visited many cities in his years, and he never understood why people chose to live on top of each other that way. The presence of so much of everything and so little of the earth was overwhelming. The smells in particular nauseated Diarmuid. He preferred to experience only the smell of a fire without having garlic, fish, and flowers layered on top of it. No smell was ever singular in the cities.
A deer bounded across the path and Diarmuid halted for a second to wait for its offspring. Sure enough, moments later, two small fawns followed their mother down the hill into the forest. He watched them disappear and then continued down the path. He had made this walk hundreds of times, perhaps more. Every time he found things to admire in the forest. Deer were not unheard of, but a doe with twins was unusual. He felt very privileged to have seen them. Diarmuid often wished for a change in his life, but while he waited, he was pleased to have such a lovely place to call home. Of all the places he had lived, Harold had been the only one that felt like home in all these years. It was easy to see the good here. That hadn’t been the case with all of the places they had lived. He was a naturally positive person, but some places had tried even his ability to smile.
Diarmuid rounded a final corner and the forest opened up into a clearing. In front of him was a small valley, surrounded by low hills on all sides. As always, the sight of that valley prompted a deep breath and a sense of relief. A grove of evergreens stood in the center. The cool green branches of the blue spruce trees looked so close as to be interlocked, but Diarmuid knew that there was enough space for a grown man to push through. That grove is where he was going. As he crossed the clearing he noted that it was unusually quiet. There was normally quit a bit of birdsong and the occasional squirrel barking. Today, however, aside from his footsteps crunching through the dry leave and grass, it was silent. He looked around for a hawk or other predator that would usually induce such quiet, but saw nothing.
He pushed through the needled branches and into a second smaller clearing. In the center stood a maple tree, its branches brilliant with vibrant red-orange leaves. Not a leaf seemed to have dropped from it. Much as today was a perfect fall day, this tree was a perfect fall tree. Tall, vaguely tear shaped, and robust looking it stood out strongly against the backdrop of the blue spruce grove that ringed it. A gentle breeze rustled its leaves. Diarmuid changed his stance to a guarded one, hands tight on his walking staff, when another man stepped out from behind the tree. Both men regarded each other with surprise. Diarmuid felt as though he had been poleaxed. How had anyone found this place?
“Hello, there,” he ventured.
“Hi. You’re Dermot, right?” the man asked. Dermot’s eyes widened in further surprise.
“Indeed I am, sir. What finds you out here this morning?”
“I was here a few weeks back for the Harvest Festival. I’ve been coming for years now. The woods around here are spectacular,” he explained, “I had the day off, because of the holiday, and thought a hike sounded like a good idea.”
“It’s a lovely day for it.”
“It is! I parked in front of your store. I hope that’s okay.” The man seemed distracted and excited.
“Absolutely. Traffic is pretty slow on Tuesdays.”
“Great. Anyway, I followed a deer path here. Pretty old one from the looks of it. You get a lot of hunters up here?”
“Not really.” Diarmuid was keeping his expression carefully genial. In all the centuries the three men had been on this journey together, this was the first time someone had found their way to the tree.
“Huh. Anyway, I followed the deer path here, and I saw the spruce grove. I thought I heard someone crying in here. Nothing here though, except this tree. This amazing tree.” He looked up at the tree with awe.
“What’s your name, friend?” Diarmuid asked.
“Nolan. Nolan James.”
“Nice to meet you, Nolan. You say you’ve been coming to our little festival for years?”
“Yeah. My ex-girlfriend brought me up here one year. I loved it. I’d love to move up here eventually. Not Harold of course, there’s only the one house, right? But one of the other towns maybe.” Nolan kept his eye on the tree while he talked. “Why haven’t the leaves on this tree fallen yet? Everything else is bare.” Diarmuid’s trepidation was growing as the man prattled on.
“Probably just protected from the wind by the spruce grove. Don’t get much snow in this spot either.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess so. I wish I’d brought my camera. This tree is stunning. It’s… well, it’s perfect.”
Diarmuid smiled. “It is, at that. I’m about to head back to town, want to walk with me?”
“I think I’ll stay here for a while. This place is a good antidote for the city. Peaceful.”
The leaves on the tree rustled gently. Nolan smiled and took a seat on the ground near the base of the tree. Diarmuid watched this for a moment. The young man had no camera and seemed genuinely interested in just basking in the glow of the bright tree. He leaned on his staff for a while and chewed on his lip. He was hesitant about leaving him here with the tree, but he appeared harmless, if a bit excitable. And Diarmuid needed to get back as quickly as possible to discuss this with Barnaby and Cormag. He was feeling a little excitable himself.
“Alright then. I’ll make sure to check back here if I don’t see you by afternoon, Nolan. Be safe.” He addressed this as much to the tree as to the man. Nolan waved his hand in goodbye without looking at Diarmuid.
His walk back to town was swift, and without stopping to gather up Cormag, he made a beeline for the post office. Barnaby looked up in surprise as Diarmuid crashed the door open in haste. Without pausing to greet Barnaby he blurted, “A man has found his way to the tree.”
This is part five of a short story/novella. I will be posting parts every Tuesday until it is complete. It is by no means finished, so please share your questions/comments/suggestions.
You can find the previous parts here:
The Story continues here: