The Secret Castle

An abandoned Castle lies on the mountain peak a mile or so from the port village of Shoalhaven. It is surrounded by a Pine forest with thick Birch and Spruce trees. From inside overlooking the eastern balcony is a steep ravine that leads into the Mediterranean Sea. Outside, its bent towers skew into a turquoise sky. It has missing shingles that poke light inside its vast caverns like a kaleidoscope of what it wants to reveal. The interior of its many rooms and halls expand into what was once vast opulence. There are hidden stairwells that ascend and descend deep into the mountain. At the bottom of one, a large dome yawns over a platform where smaller boats can moor. There are openings in the rock where the ocean swirls around large boulders and amongst thick sea grass. Large fish from the Atlantic skulk past. Sometimes she stops to look at the fish; big, big fish, larger than her mother’s trawler. The ovals of their eyes shimmer and she sees her reflection in them.

She wanders upstairs in the tower rooms, with their desks and bookshelves.  One has many intricate glass ornaments. Another, large wrought iron lounges are covered in thick sheets. She picks up a brass goblet. Daylight glistens across its eight faces. She muses into the milky glare, twisting the goblet in her hand so the reflections animate. She sees reflections of her Mother and then her Father, an older man she later thinks was Grandfather. The goblet is returned and then the rank of fish scales in her overalls reminds her of the shimmering eye of the giant cod from below. She has left work undone back on the docks.

Great Grandfather was a fish monger before he died in a storm at sea. Locals say a Cetus was angered when the boats took too much from its feeding grounds. In return it ate them, and their boats. Mother, being superstitious of the weather, the water, and of course their bounty always returned one-tenth of the catch.

“We must give back to the sea,” the daughter imitated, walking from the room. Father wasn’t superstitious like Mother. The big fish got him too. So local legend says. “Fairytales.” She mutters.

She frequents the Castle to explore it, to open its doors to other worlds far removed from the stench of dead fish and demanding work. Among the many Pines, Birch and Spruce trees, the mountain mist and clouds conceal the ancient building. Great vines have grown up through some of its structures. Sunlight juxtaposes the bright crumbling sandstone archways against its dark overgrown paths; its obscure windows like abandoned railway tunnels are covered with moss and little white flowers. Her fishing basket waits alongside her boots when she is inside. The entrance houses handcrafted wooden arches which sprawl out in all directions. She runs inside following them, spinning around like being lost in the sun then collapses onto a plush rug when the dizziness makes her fall.

One afternoon in late spring after another row with Mother, she left for the forest. Mother’s angry voice spat bitter and resentful arrows that followed her up the mountain through the onion grass. Soon she was dreaming of fantastic adventures; of Castles with secret passageways, magic fish, and treasure. Enough for her to finally get out of this place. She didn’t notice the unusual winnowing of Jasper in the meadow. It didn’t even strike her as odd that the small owl was out of his nest in the afternoon. The mountain breeze was balmy, lifting the sound of crashing waves and water from far below. She crept around a rough Spruce tree and there it was. The afternoon sun placed a brilliant golden ink wash over the stones and rocks, running seamlessly through the carvings in the sandstone archways and gates. The Castle was warm and welcoming. She ran inside.

Outside the sun had sunk behind the canopy, its last  rays bouncing off the large slabs of sandstone. The grand ballroom was illuminated. Bright golden light splashed against the ceiling and rained down its splendour upon every surface and nook like molten gold. Tiny light faeries twinkled in the shattered chandeliers. Rays streamed across the vast hall in cumulous beams. She ran through the hall to the first floor balcony with the echoing of her feet slapping against the marble floor.

The Nanjahn waterfall poured with a rushing sound on the right, its silhouette breaking violently against the cliff edge. She could see her village a few miles along the coast. She leaned into the sandstone railing. “I am free!” she yelled out over the waterfall. And then it was dusk. She slumped against the rail and followed the waterfall down its long journey into the sea. “There are no sea monsters up here.” She thought about the giant fish. Her Mother’s ranting about mythical sea monsters and how we should watch the signs. Her Father scoffing at Mother’s superstitions. Soon the mountain mist would settle into the woods. The first stars appeared as the last layer of pink sky faded into the deep.

Jasper was perched upon a stone statue in the courtyard, hooting.  She saw him and smiled. He blinked and hooted softly. She craned her neck for one last look at the Castle. The cool night’s presence had already woken the shadows. Jasper flew ahead of her pausing to land on different branches throughout the wood. “You are my lucky charm Jasper,” She thought out loud. The mountain air exhales as mist begins to swirl about her ankles. Soon it will be overhead and too dense to see through. She searched for the small owl. His large eyes found hers. At the edge of the forest they watch the ocean fog bubble up the mountain. She scans the sky for stars to guide her. Her gaze returns to the field, she squints. There are boats in the sea of mist; trawlers – with fishermen casting their nets. Jasper soared out toward them to vanish from sight. Fog and mist collide in the field swelling to waist height. The stars splashed a silver highlight upon the tips of the onion grass, some of their long reeds like loaded brushes waiting to colour the canvas of white cloud beneath them. She waved her hands amongst the fog trying to find a path. Reed tips sway in the thick white when she sees a mass moving in the field. Her legs tensed. As it drew closer she began to mutter incoherently of her family’s superstitions. Wild cats and wolves stalk these mountains. As the creature approached she is relieved to see it is the giant fish from the sea beneath the Castle. It swims through the ocean of mist to meet her. Its large shimmering eyes watch her; its gills pumping the thick white mist like it was still deep underwater. Slowly it turned, parting the fog to reveal the path for her. She followed it down the mountain to the outskirts of the village; the fog opening and closing around them like an oar through deep water. Thick beads of condensation had settled on the fence railings. Her clothes slipped and threw her against the damp earth. Through the rails she watched the giant fish frolicking before the fishermen reel it in. The next roll of fog crashes over them and she sees them no more.

The morning light is bright as Mother pours tea. Her silhouette an abstract inkblot against the harsh backlight through the kitchen window. The water laps at the docks with the usual waterbirds cooing amongst themselves.

“Bird’s are flying up the mountain,” the old woman says. “In the middle of the day.”

“Are the fish not biting?”

“Perhaps the change has come early.” Mother stood at the sink watching the tide. “The nets must be moved.”

“What must we sacrifice this time Mother?”

They drink their tea. The old woman plonks her mug on the bench and walks out the door, leaving it open. She is half way to the docks when the daughter joins her. She does not tell Mother about the boat in the mist, or the giant fish. Soon Jasper visits and Mother gives him his daily fish scraps.

“That owl is good luck,” Mother says.

At Your Service

Twilight in Nightcap National Forest had passed when I first saw him on the fence stump in my front garden.  He wasn’t trying to get my attention, though plonking my teacup onto the kitchen sink with a clang didn’t stop the strong feeling of presence. Something in his eyes made me look, and then again. He perched upon the old stump demurely, his scruffy thick fur and whiskers gently shimmering in the underexposed picture I was staring at. How did he do that? There were no stars, moon or magical tripwires set out tonight. Cats cannot glow in the dark. I blinked. He was grooming himself, the shimmering gone. I was reaching for another teabag when a deep, well spoken voice asked me if he could come in, if I would be so kind.  I peeked around the breakfast bar. The TV was on mute. I stole a glance out front. A swift glimpse into the swirls of my seeing-bowl. Nothing. I backtracked to the laundry to scan the yard. All was quiet. The Tom sat proud upon the stump, his brilliant black fur draped about his shoulders complimenting his white undercoat. He was very handsome. We eyeballed each other. Then he leapt from the stump and stood up on his hind legs. My mouth agape he swaggered on over to my door. Dumbstruck, I unlocked it. This night was most peculiar.

‘Felix, at your service,’ he announced with a bow, continuing right into my lounge room.

*                                                                      *

I took a breath. I should take precautions. You see, witches are not ordinary folk. We may look like everyone else, but I can assure you that we are very, very different. And there was something very, very different about this cat. Along my hall live my thousands of books. I poked through some pamphlets and popped out my book of protection spells. My silver banishing flask came too.

The cat sprawled in my recliner. His presence had not affected the chessboard. An enchanted game, it was gifted to me by my circle. Practice they insisted, will keep me on my toes. The dratted thing had beaten me twice already yet Mr Cat was having much more luck. Like the Cheshire Cat with a good dollop of Huckleberry Finn mixed in.

“Ha Ha!” he swished his tail and sent the black knight galloping in to devour the White King. Oh the nerve! Felix looked up at my astonishment. With one hand clawing into the book of dispelling and the other in a vice grip around my flask I readied myself.

“You won’t need those,” he said, sitting up.

“Who are you?” I barked. “What, are you?”

*                                                                      *

We drank our tea as Felix conversed about labs, chemicals, tests and trials. Flashbacks of news reports about explosions, car crashes and ASIS crowded the warm air. My head began to swim with information overload. How extraordinary I thought. I must be mad.

“You are not going mad,” he purred, placing his teacup in its saucer.

His calm green eyes rested on mine. Then I began to see. Such a very long time ago, I had …

“Sam sent me here.”

“… a granddaughter.”

I did not need any protection from him. Felix was not a mage’s scouting minion or a trapped witch or cursed entity. He was my Granddaughter’s secret science experiment. Sam was wise to send him here. The Forest has lots of hidden nooks and crannies.

“Hmm,” I said, “We will need to change your name.”

“Indeed.”

“The name, Felix, it means ..”

“Lucky?”

“Lucky.”

 

 

Published in Northern Rivers Writers Centre Magazine, Northerly Jan/Feb 2016, page 14.

©Cath Piltz 2016