A Daffodil for Eileen

by

Michael Graeme

"And while there is such a power in the world, I know there will for ever be a warm light at the end of the lonely valley....."

 

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A Daffodil for Eileen

by

Michael Graeme

I didn't understand the problem. I mean this was the only village on the island and no more than a dozen houses at that, so why was this man looking at me, as if I were an idiot?

"Eileen MacKenzie," I repeated. "Can you tell me where she lives?"

He backed away and peered around the half closed door of his cottage as if at any moment he were going to shut me out. He stared suspiciously at my small parcel and shook his head. It was hopeless. I had a ferry to catch and I couldn't afford to be wasting time like this.

"Try Father O'Donnel," he said, pointing a wavering finger down the road. "At the Church House. It's Father O'Donnel you'll be wanting."

Dark curtains of rain were blowing in from the wild Atlantic now as I trudged along the village road. I turned my collar to the wind and checked my watch, still anxious about the ferry. If I missed it there'd be another night's lodgings to beg.

He was the fourth person I'd asked. Each had appeared friendly at first but then, it was if I'd suddenly sprouted horns. It wasn't hostility - more caution perhaps - I don't know. But whatever it was, it had something to do with the package I was carrying and with the name: "Eileen MacKenzie."

Fortunately, Father O'Donnel was more receptive - a small, middle aged man with a distinguished crop of white hair, he eyed my package discreetly and placed a friendly hand on my arm.

"You'd better be coming in," he said.

But there was something leisurely in his manner that set me on edge. "I'm in a bit of a hurry, Father - the ferry....."

"Ah, the ferry," he said, brushing aside my concerns with a sweep of his arm. "Don't be worrying about the ferry."

He sat me down in a cosy little parlour which seemed to doze under the heavy ticking of an ancient clock on the mantle.

"Eileen MacKenzie," he said, sinking himself into a deep armchair, opposite. "You're sure that was the name, now?"

"Yes, Father."

"And you've something for her?" He gestured with his eyes to my parcel. "May I see it?"

At first I wasn't sure. After all I'd been told it was for Eileen. But if I wanted his help, I would have to trust him. Carefully, I peeled away the brown paper and laid the contents on the table between us.

Suddenly he seemed lost for words, as if he'd just witnessed something beyond imagination and for a long while, he just stared. But it seemed silly to me - almost absurd - the pair of us silently contemplating what was, after all, a single, mud-caked daffodil bulb.

"Can I ask how you came by it?" he said at last.

I could see he wasn't to be rushed so with another nervous glance at my watch, I told him how I'd first come to the island yesterday.

"It was for the walking, Father," I explained.

He nodded his encouragement and I went on to tell him how I'd been walking most of the day in the north - a place so wild I'd seen not a soul all day and heard only the sounds of the wind and my own breath as I'd tramped the empty hills. Then I told him of the storm that had whipped up suddenly, colouring the land with dark intent - and the hailstones like golf-balls that had sent me scurrying blindly for the shelter of the nearest valley.

"I didn't care which way I went," I told him. "So long as I got out of the storm."

But it was the wrong end of the day to be taking excursions. It was late and I was off course. Whichever way I turned now, it would be dark long before I reached safety. What was I to do?

That's when I saw it, down the valley - a single warm light.

"I was desperate, you see, Father. Even though my map said there was nothing there, I headed straight for it, ploughing across country, keeping my eyes focused on the light, as if I were a ship at sea. You can imagine my relief when I finally came upon an isolated croft.

Dripping wet and breathless, I hammered on the door.

"It was a grey old man who answered - kindly looking and well into his seventies. He was dressed in rough working clothes, the like of which I've never seen before - and he had this strange far-away look in his eyes.

"'Can you help me?' I asked him. He smiled and, as if he required no further explanation, he showed me in. He sat me in a corner by the fire where I could dry out and then made himself busy with some soup he was boiling up in a big black pot.

"'Have you farmed here long?' I asked him.

"'Aye,' he replied, quietly as he handed me a chipped old bowl. 'You'll take some supper?' he asked.

"I thanked him as he filled the bowl from a ladle and then I watched as he withdrew to the shadows, at the back of the room.

"'It's a desolate spot,' I said to him. 'I was surprised to find anyone living here - there's nothing on the map, you see.'

"'A heart once touched by love knows no desolation,' he replied, mysteriously."

Father O'Donnel leaned forward suddenly at that, gripping the arms of his chair, his eyes almost popping as if he'd just gone over the top of a roller coaster. "You're sure that's what he said? You're sure now?"

"Quite sure, Father."

And indeed I was for in a strange way I'd known exactly what he'd meant. I'd known that desolation you see - felt it still sometimes in all my lonely wanderings. But him? No. I remember looking at him, at his weather-worn face pulsing and fading at the whim of the firelight and into those far-away eyes. He'd been touched by that love - a thing so rare, so precious most of us spend a lifetime just searching for it. Eileen!...And yet there was a twist of sadness also.

"From the warm glow of an oil lamp - the lamp that had guided me down from the hills, I began to take in the room. It was a time-capsule, Father - as if the clock had stopped a hundred years ago. The walls were black with soot and it was cluttered with farm tools and pots and pans. There were bits of rope and sacks of stuff and I could smell kerosene.....

"As it grew late, I remember him bidding me goodnight and slipping quietly into his back room, taking the lamp with him, leaving me to the smokey warmth, to the firelight and to the sound of the storm blowing outside.

"I settled down for the night, using my rucksack for a pillow and covering myself with a blanket the old man had left me. I snuggled beneath it, complementing myself on my good fortune and cursing the map-makers for their carelessness in missing such an oasis of comfort in the midst of such emptiness.

"And in the morning, when I woke, there was a bowl of porridge and a dish of tea at my elbow. The door was wide open and the sunlight was pouring in. I ate hurriedly and went outside, stiff and aching and with my lungs burning from the smoke. The old man was digging in a small cultivated plot by the door.

"'I'll be on my way then,' I said, toying awkwardly with a ten pound note - something for his trouble, you understand. But he pushed it away - gently, mind. Then he lifted a bulb from the earth and passed it to me carefully with both hands - like someone passing the communion cup, Father.

"'For Eileen,' he told me. 'For Eileen MacKenzie.'

"'But where?' I asked. He didn't seem to hear. 'Eileen MacKenzie,' he repeated.

"But it's a small island. He could only have meant the village and if that's all he wanted in return for his kindness, then I was happy to take it. So I wrapped it carefully and went on my way.....Simple! Except no one seems to know who she is."

I looked again at my watch. The ferry would be docking now. I had to hurry. But Father O'Donnel sat, lost in his thoughts for what seemed a nail-biting eternity. Then he rose suddenly and asked me to follow. "You'd better be bringing that with you," he said,
nodding towards the bulb.

He led me from the house, a little way down the lane and through a gate into a quiet cemetery. There, in a corner beneath a giant Yew, he showed me a simple grave with the plain stone bearing the inscription:

Eileen MacKenzie
1750 - 1795

A heart once touched by love
knows no desolation



They were the words of the old man. But the dates! She'd been dead for two hundred years!

Father O'Donnel knelt down and stroked the grass by the stone. There were little shoots appearing, bright green and thrusting. "You should plant it here," he said. "With the others."


"The others?" I knelt beside him and took out the bulb which was itself beginning to send out its own tiny green shoot. "There's something I'm not understanding, Father."

He dug away a little of the rich, black earth with his hands and I lowered the bulb into place, pressing the earth back around it.

"Eileen was in love with a crofter from the North," he explained. "But she died before they could marry."

"And the old man?" I asked but he didn't seem to hear.....

"Afterwards, every year, the crofter made the journey to the village to plant a single daffodil bulb on this grave....."

"But..."

"....a kindly soul, they say, with a far-away look in his eyes. He died a grey old man and his croft fell to ruins..." He placed his hand on my shoulder. "Are you getting the meaning, son? The croft you described is nothing but a pile of overgrown rubble in a lonely valley full of daffodils."

"Then I made a mistake," I said. "I must have slept at another croft - in another valley."

He shook his head and smiled kindly. "No one lives in the north," he said.

Then perhaps I'd hit my head in the dark, slept under a rock and dreamed the whole thing. But I didn't look as if I'd slept under a rock. I'd spent the night warm and dry. And there was the daffodil!

That's when he told me of the others who'd passed this way over the centuries - all strangers like myself, each bearing a daffodil for Eileen and telling tales of a welcome in the hills and of a warm light at dusk where in reality there was nothing. It was a legend in these islands and it seemed I had just become a part of it.....

Standing beneath that giant Yew with Father O'Donnel, I was left in no doubt that something extraordinary had happened to me. Perhaps, being as I am, a twentieth century man, I should've been paralysed with shock or stricken with disbelief. Instead though, I felt as if the mists had parted for just one fleeting moment, allowing me to peer beyond, into the great unknown. The love the old man shared with Eileen two hundred years ago is with us still. And while there is such a power in the world, I know there will for ever be a warm light at the end of the lonely valley and a comfort from the storm.

Father O'Donnel looked up suddenly. "The ferry," he said. "You'll be missing the ferry!"

"Ah....There's no hurry, Father," I replied, for somehow the ferry just didn't seem important any more.

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~ First Published May 1995 ~

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The story behind the story

Tales of travellers finding a welcome in places which later turn out to have been long derelict are the subject of folklore and many a corny ghost story. But a story along these lines had been nagging at me ever since an experience in the remote Western Isles of Scotland. After walking alone through a mist covered landscape of dark hills and barely glimpsed mountains for most of the day, I had finally come down to a secluded bay where a lone cottage sat facing the sea. As I approached, a man appeared. He looked odd, old fashioned somehow in the way he dressed. Alas, unlike in my story, he did not invite me in but suddenly turned and bolted himself inside the cottage, a gesture whose unexpected hostility added to my feeling of isolation.

Some time after my walk I was perusing the tourist shops in Fort William and came upon a book by a long dead writer who had lived in those parts. There was a photograph. The hostile crofter and the writer shared a startling likeness. It was a coincidence, but for a moment I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck, and I had the feeling of having walked into realms more remote than I had first thought. The experience impressed upon me the fact that there is a mysterious power in such lonely places. It can frighten or it can inspire - it's all a question of interpretation.

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Copyright M Graeme 1995

m_graeme@yahoo.co.uk