The House In The Hollow


Helen Kenyon

With illustrations by Mair Perring

Dusk was deepening. Shadows poured down from the hill behind the house to gather in the yard. The small stone barn looked insubstantial, its outline blurring in the twilight, merging with the huge dark mass of the oak trees which sheltered the cottage from the storms that came roaring up from the sea in winter.

Rosie let the curtain fall back and looked around the kitchen. She felt a warm glow of satisfaction now all the hard work of the renovation and re-decoration was complete.

On the kitchen table lay the remains of her supper: the empty plate with lamb chop bones and knife and fork placed neatly on one side, the bottle of wine, the half empty glass, the Siamese cat...

"Oh, Saffy," Rosie squealed, "No! You'll make a terrible mess!" The cry came too late. Leaving drips of gravy right across the table and the yellow-brown tiled floor, Sapphire fled with a bone, hid under the chair in the corner and began to crunch contentedly.

Mopping her way across the kitchen from drip to drip, Rosie spotted the suitcase. She paused, damp soapy cloth in hand, and stared at it without recognition. Which of the many people who had traipsed through the cottage that day had left it?

Rosie got stiffly to her feet and dropped the cloth back onto the sink. She tried to pick up the suitcase and for a moment thought it had been nailed to the floor. Putting more effort into it, she hoisted the case onto the table. The catches were stiff with rust, but after a struggle they sprang open. Inside were three books and -- no wonder the case was so heavy -- a large flat oval metal thing with a round handle on one end. Rosie wrestled it out of the case and set it down on the table.

She remembered now who had mentioned the suitcase. It had been the builder. The van with her furniture had just arrived and she had been too flustered to take it in at the time, but now it all came back to her. He had found the suitcase up in the attic while he was working on the roof.

She studied the metal object. She had never seen anything like it before. She could not put a name to it. Puzzled, she opened one of the smaller books. The typeface was old and on the fly leaf, she saw the date 1907, but she could understand no more; the book was in Welsh. So was the next book. The third, slightly larger than the others and bound in red, was equally frustrating but as Rosie flicked through the pages, a piece of paper fell out.

She unfolded it carefully and saw neat copperplate handwriting on paper yellowing with age. And with a leap of delight, she realised she could at least read this.

           Old Bethan Elias, aged 90 and clear in mind though rather frail in body, told me this story about Tyn Y Twll.           

Tyn Y Twll... Rosie knew that much Welsh. It was the name of her house, the House in the Hollow. This was a story about her house! She looked at the page where the paper had been. This looked like a translation from part of the book.

           On baking day, after the woman of the house had made enough loaves for the week, and while she as waiting for the bread to finish baking in the oven, she would always place the old gradell over the hob and make a batch of lightcakes or pancakes ready for the men coming in from work. In the evening, before retiring to bed, she would hang the gradell on the large nail in the porch. Mrs Elias told me that the fairies were in the habit of borrowing the gradell for their own baking, as they had no iron, and always repaid the loan with a few of their own cakes which, she told me, were particularly sweet and delicious.           

Rosie was delighted. A real fairy story about her new home! But what on earth was a gradell? She read the story again. Something made of iron that you baked small cakes on...

Then she realised exactly what the heavy oval object was. Gradell was Welsh for griddle, or girdle or skillet. The basic idea of baking on a flat stone or piece of iron over a fire must go back to the dawn of cookery and so the utensil had acquired many names in many different cultures.

An iron bakestone. And this one had been regularly used by fairies.

Elated by the successful move into her new home, fired by the wine, Rosie picked up the gradell and waltzed over to the front door. The soft damp night air met her as she stepped out over the threshold. Wind sighed in the oak leaves and across the field an owl hooted. Safe in a pocket of bright electric light, Rosie examined the walls of the porch. There was indeed a nail: a huge handmade one, about half an inch square, covered in so many coats of paint that it almost looked like a short stubby branch sticking out of the wooden porch wall. Rosie hung the gradell on the nail and stepped back to admire it. Yes, she would leave it there. And then when people asked what it was, she could tell them the fairy story about her cottage. She twirled back into the kitchen, closed and locked the door and putting out the lights, she danced up to bed.

Next morning Saffy woke Rosie by trampling round and round on the pillow, purring into her ear and butting her face gently with a small furry forehead. Rosie pulled on soft jogging trousers and a loose sweatshirt and fumbled her way downstairs. She opened the door and stood blinking in the bright sunshine, breathing in the cool smell of damp vegetation. The slate roof of the barn, silver with overnight rain, steamed gently in the sun. Saffy wove persistently around her ankles, silently demanding food. Rose stood for a moment, savouring the freshness of the new morning, a novelty to someone who had always lived in a city. And then she realised something was wrong. The gradell was gone.

Rosie stared at the thick black nail. "Oh no," she muttered. "Someone's nicked it!" It was not particularly the loss of the gradell that annoyed her, but the fact that someone had been here, either late last night or very early this morning. She had fallen for the myth that the countryside was still free from crime, that people could go out leaving their houses unlocked and return to find everything as they had left it. The brightness of the new day suddenly seemed slightly tarnished as she went back inside to feed Saffy.

Rosie had been out for most of the day exploring some of the bays along the coast and had finished up in the little town to buy provisions. Clutching a sagging cardboard box full of groceries, fumbling for the key in her pocket, she suddenly saw, right in front of her nose, the gradell. It was back on its nail. Rosie blinked at it, bewildered. Struggling the door open at last, she dumped the box on the kitchen table and came back out to the porch.

Black and solid, hanging from the nail as though it had been there forever, the gradell seemed to stare back. Below it, on the wooden bench, was something folded in a white cloth. Cautiously Rosie twitched back a corner to reveal seven small cakes. She glanced over her shoulder suspiciously. Come on! There were no fairies. Certainly not now, even if they had existed in the past. Someone -- probably one of the neighbours -- must know that old story about the gradell and was now playing a joke on her.

There was no sign of any movement, no sign of anyone watching. With a shrug, Rosie picked up the cakes and went back inside. They looked and smelt rather good and she was dying for a cup of tea.

Time slipped by smoothly at the cottage. Soon Rosie had settled into a routine. When she had sold her home in the city and moved to Wales, her plan had been to turn her hobby into a means of earning a living. It was beginning to work. Her woven hangings and embroideries were selling. So, after feeding her animals -- she was now the proud owner of two nanny goats and half a dozen hens in addition to Sapphire the Siamese -- she worked on her latest project for a while until the postman arrived. As Tyn Y Twll was the last house up the lane, several miles from town, he never reached her until almost lunch-time. Later, she usually walked down to the sea or up onto the mountain pasture above her house. Most afternoons she drove down into town to buy food or to post letters. Every Friday she put the gradell on the nail in the porch. Every week it vanished, only to reappear next morning with a small offering of cakes.

Rosie was both amused and mystified. She had still not discovered who took it. If it was one of the neighbours, they were very persistent. The gradell had been borrowed every week right through the summer. Even now, when most days the clouds touched the hilltops, heavy with rain, and the leaves turned to sodden yellow-brown mounds at the sides of the lanes, the gradell still disappeared each Friday night and returned each Saturday, along with the gift of honey cakes. A very determined and dedicated prankster indeed.

Rosie had tried waiting up with the porch light left on, chair drawn over to the door, ears pricked for any sound. No one came while she watched, but even on nights when she finally went to bed to the sound of heavy rain drumming on the roof of her loft bedroom, the gradell disappeared in the small hours of the morning. Once during her vigil, she nodded off for no more than ten minutes and on looking out into the driving rain, found the gradell gone. She had tried dropping subtle hints to neighbours, but either no one knew the story of Tyn Y Twll or they were not admitting it. Strangest of all, when in desperation she began to ask openly if anyone knew any fairy stories connected with her home and even mentioned the gradell, no one suddenly broke into a broad grin and cried, "Fooled you!"

One afternoon the excited barking of a dog brought Rosie from her work on a woven wall-hanging which she was creating for an exhibition. It had been misty that morning; the opaque curling whiteness had crept in from the sea in the night, hiding the trees and striking cold and damp into her lungs as she did her morning chores. But the late autumn sunshine still had strength to burn through the sea fog and now as Rosie put her head out of the porch, she saw Sapphire basking in her favourite spot on the sun-warmed slate of the goat shed roof.

A black and white sheep dog puppy barked his frustration as Saffy, knowing that she was secure, regarded him lazily through slit eyes. The cat stretched provocatively, well out of reach of even the most agile dog.
Rosie was just wondering who had lost the dog when Gwennie Jones from the farm up the lane, middle-aged, wearing sensible tweed skirt, woollen jumper and wellies, hurried in through the gate. She called the pup to heel and he came obediently, though reluctantly.

"Good afternoon," Rosie called in Welsh. After the long idle summer spent adjusting to her new way of life, she had decided she must learn the language if she was ever going to fit in properly. So, as the days had begun to shorten, she had enrolled for Welsh evening classes. Gwennie was one of the few locals who was prepared to spend the time to let her practise.

They discussed the weather and Rosie said suitably admiring things about the pup. Finally, Gwennie handed over the parish magazine, the real reason for her visit, but not before they had chatted for considerably longer than Rosie really wanted. When Gwennie finally took her leave and left, the dog trailing at her heels, Rosie hurtled into the house, grabbed her bag, coat and keys and overdue library books and shot back out to the car, hoping that she would make it into town before the library closed and her fines grew even bigger.

It was grey dusk when Rosie swung the car back into the yard. The headlights danced cross the stone wall of the cottage, glittered for a moment on the window panes, then died as Rosie switched off the lights and engine. She opened the car door and climbed out, only to duck back in again to retrieve her handbag and pile of new library books. Emerging backwards, trying to manage the books and at the same time fumble in her pocket for her door-key, Rosie suddenly realised she was being watched. A slender girl stood staring at her solemnly.

Rosie straightened. "Oh... Hello."

The girl said nothing, but still looked at her, rather accusingly Rosie thought. "I -- er... Can I help you?"

The child still did not speak.

"Did you want something?" Rosie was becoming flustered by the lack of response. Surely the child understood English. She knew many families spoke nothing but Welsh at home, but the girl would have learned English at school. She looked about ten years old so she must be at school.

The child wore a long green dress, the skirt reached to mid-calf and her shoes had a distinctly home-made look. A hippy traveller child? Rosie was beginning to feel at a loss. "Be' wyt ti eisiau?" she asked again in Welsh, in what she hoped was a bright and encouraging tone of voice.

Still the child showed no sign of understanding, though her forehead creased slightly, as though this time she was trying. Finally she moved over to the porch and pointed to the empty nail.

Rosie's hand flew to her mouth in sudden embarrassment as she realised she had rushed out to town in such a hurry that she had forgotten to put out the gradell.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry." Burbling excuses, even though she was sure the girl did not understand, Rosie fumbled the door open and turned on the electric light. She heard a faint gasp of astonishment and turned to see the girl staring around the kitchen, apparently awe-struck.

Rosie dumped books and bag on the table and taking the gradell, offered it to the girl. "What's your name?" she asked, trying to make friends. "Where do you live?"

There was only an uncomprehending look for an answer. Then the girl took the gradell with a faint smile that Rosie took to be gratitude and skipped out of the kitchen.

Rosie put her head out of the door. A whisk of a shadow disappearing round the tree and through the gate told Rosie which way the girl had gone. Feeling more than a little silly, Rosie followed.

Ten minutes later she had lost her.

Rosie had thought that she knew the surrounding woods and fields well. During the fine summer days she had explored the area around her cottage and retrieving escaped goats and searching for Saffy when the Siamese decided to go hunting rather than come in for the night had taken Rosie into corners of the nearby countryside she would never normally have found. But she had still lost the girl and, even more worrying, she had vanished while in plain sight.

One minute she had been there, a slender shadow in the strengthening moonlight, clear in the middle of a field, and the next moment she had gone.

Rosie stared around hopelessly. There were no trees and there was not even any long grass where the girl could have hidden. There was only a smooth dark turf-covered mound of rock and earth in the centre of the field.

The moonlight dimmed slowly as a cloud drifted across the sky. Rosie felt a trickle of cold sweat between her shoulder blades. A gust of wind from the sea brought a spatter of rain, promising more to come, and close by on her right an owl began to call: "Kee-wick, kee-wick." It was answered by a distant hoot.

Rosie suddenly felt like an intruder, unwanted and watched. Hurriedly she turned and set off back to the cottage, resisting-- but only with an effort -- the desire to run as fast as she could.

Next morning when she got up and looked outside, the graddell was back on the iron nail in the porch and the honey cakes were on the bench.

Time passed. Autumn hardened into a wet, wild winter. Though usually she was happier living alone, there were times when Rosie would have been glad of company, when the wind gusted around the cottage in the darkness and brought leaves fluttering against the window pane. Sometimes she could have sworn she heard someone moving around the yard, but most of the time she managed to convince herself that it was only the wind.

One thing had changed. Rosie now sometimes saw the people who came to collect the gradell. Usually it was the girl, and though she now smiled timidly, she still would not -- or could not speak. Sometimes it was an older woman and she would exchange a little halting Welsh with Rosie.

The bad weather kept her indoors a good deal and so Rosie read all she could find in the library and the local bookshop about fairies and other legends. And shut away in her cottage, sometimes alone for several days at a time, she even began to understand how people living long ago had believed them.

Finally spring came and Rosie could put the goats out to graze once more. The book said that goats were perfectly hardy and could withstand rain, but the goats had not read the book. They bleated pathetically at the first drops, demanding to be put back in the cosy goat shed. Rosie had soon tired of rushing out into all weathers to rescue them, and so they had mostly stayed inside while she had pandered to their every need. They had become like two elderly spinsters demanding room service in the best of hotels.

The bright greens of spring and the soft new leaves bursting into pale sunshine put an end to such indulgence, and the promise of fresh foliage to eat even persuaded the goats to put up with a little dampness.

And so today when she was returning from her shopping, it was the goats that gave her the first warning that something was seriously wrong.

She rounded a bend in the lane about half a mile from home and had to step hard on the brakes as she found both goats in the road. The white Saanen was looking rather lost and confused, but the brown and white Toggenburg -- always one to put her stomach before anything else -- was standing on her hind legs, wiffling tender leaves from the hedge into her mouth.

Cursing and muttering under her breath, Rosie squeezed the car into a gateway so she would not block the road and leapt out to catch her runaways. They came willingly enough and with a hand on each goat's collar, she marched them firmly back up the lane to her yard, all the time going over and over how they could possibly have escaped. "I know I shut the gate properly," she muttered to Blodwen, the white goat, "At least I think I did... So how did you get out?"

As she turned the goats in through her gate, she stopped, appalled. She felt as though someone had just hit her in the stomach and though her eyes saw the mess in the yard, it took some moments for her brain to catch up. Splashed across the barn wall in lurid red paint were the words, "English Out -- Wales is not for Sale." "Houses for local people" in both Welsh and English was daubed on her cottage. The rubbish bin had been tipped over and the contents spread over the paving stones. Her hens scratched about amongst the food scraps; the wind blew papers around. The gate to the goats paddock stood open.

After a long frozen moment of horror, anger kicked in. "How dare anyone!" Rosie yelled, and the goats jumped, startled but not afraid. Then she swung into action. With the goats back where they were supposed to be, she went straight into the house. Everything there was all right. No one had broken in. Relieved, she dialled the number of the police station and explained what had happened. After that she phoned Gwennie, to let her know what had happened and to find out whether they had seen anything suspicious. Then the reaction hit her and she began to shake, partly anger, partly fear. Someone had been here, messing around with her things, damaging her property.

The police were not much help. When the two officers finally arrived, they noted the damage and took statements from both Rosie and Gwennie who had insisted on coming down to offer moral support. Vague promises were made to look into the matter, but Rosie put more faith in Gwennie's promise that her husband and sons would take particular care to watch the house and yard as they passed up and down the lane. If they caught anyone lurking, they would see them off.

It was only the next day that Rosie saw the irony in her being a target for protesters. She actually had a lot of sympathy with their cause. Wages in the area were well below the national average; unemployment was high and many jobs were seasonal. The area relied heavily on summer tourists and profits were so slender that a wet summer could put someone out of business. But Tyn Y Twll had been a ruin for more than 30 years before she had bought it and begun restoring it. No one had wanted a little cottage miles from town with no facilities and a distinctly idiosyncratic plumbing and sewage system. Local families wanted new houses with easy access to shops and schools.

Rosie had done much of the restoration herself, only getting professionals in to do the work that was physically or technically beyond her. Gradually she had turned the house from a cold dank ruin to a comfortable home.

Tyn Y Twll had never been a holiday home where people came only for weekends and school holidays, their cars stuffed with supplies from the city, purchased before setting off because it was cheaper than buying locally. The house had never been left empty in term-time, a dead and silent gap in the living village. Rosie was becoming involved in local life; she prided herself on her growing ability to speak Welsh. "And my great-great-grandfather came from Wales originally," she muttered under her breath as she scrubbed at the painted stone, trying to remove the words from the barn. "Before he went to England to be a coal-miner. I couldn't help where I was born. I don't remember anyone asking me what nationality I wanted." Then finally reaction overcame her and she burst into tears.

Time slipped by. Days stretched into weeks and there was no hint of another attack. Normal routine finally lulled Rosie into feeling secure again. Perhaps the attack had been a mistake. Now they knew it wasn't a holiday home, perhaps they would leave her alone.

She was sitting quietly at her work one afternoon, when a soft tapping at the window made her look up. She saw the small face of the silent girl looking in. As soon as the girl saw she had Rosie's attention, she started waving frantically. Puzzled, Rosie put the fabric, silks and needle to one side and stood up, meaning to go to the back door to find out what the girl wanted. It was not Friday. It was not time to put out the gradell.

As she moved away from her work-table, she glanced out of the other window which overlooked the yard and saw the three men. Rosie froze in horror. They wore black balaclavas covering their faces. Two carried what looked like petrol cans and the third had a heavy crowbar in his hands. They were advancing on the front door. Fear held her motionless. They intended to burn the cottage. But surely they knew she was in here? And then, with another surge of horror, Rosie realised that they didn't. She had left the car at the garage in town to be serviced and had begged a lift back with Gwennie. If someone had watched her drive away, they may not have noticed her return. The absence of the car would make them think she was still out.

Rosie flew to the front door and flung it open. As she rushed out of the porch, the three men stopped, startled, obviously surprised to see her. "What on earth do you think you're doing?" Rosie demanded, hoping her voice sounded firmer and more in control than she felt.

"Get away from the house," one growled. "We don't want your type here. Take your money back over the border where you belong. You think you can come in here buying anything you fancy."

"I'll have you know no one wanted this cottage..." Rosie began when another voice, cut in, speaking slow and careful Welsh.

"Keep away from her or you'll answer to us."

All heads swivelled as one to see who had spoken. The silent girl had come running around the corner but had stopped safely on the far side of the yard, poised like a bird, ready to take flight if anyone tried to come near. But it was the man who held everyone's attention, in particular the bent bow in his hand with the arrow aimed straight for the man who held the crowbar. He was small, no more than five feet six tall, but he was lithe and moved like a cat as he stepped away from the goat shed wall, the better to keep an eye on the would-be arsonists.

A slight movement at the edge of her vision made Rosie look around and she realised there were three others, all with bows and all with short swords at their sides. Their clothes, plain shirts, jerkins and simple trousers, had the same homespun, hand-sewn look that the silent girl's had.

The man who had spoken called something to the others in a language Rosie had never heard before. The other three fanned out, keeping the hooded men targetted. Then in Welsh he said, "You will put down those things and leave here. And if you value your lives you will never return. We will always be watching. Rosie is our friend. She remembered the old ways when you and your people forgot. Wherever she was born it does not matter, she belongs here now."

The man with the crowbar leapt forwards. There was a loud thunk and Rosie saw a feathered arrow embed itself deep in the wood of the window box.

"Come one step nearer and the next arrow will pierce your heart," the leader of the fair folk snapped. The hooded man stopped and carefully laid the crowbar on the ground. He looked as though he had not taken the threat of the bows and arrows seriously before, but now he did.

The others, moving just as carefully, anxious not to provoke the fair folk to shoot again, set down the petrol cans and backed away.

"Now go!"

The men went. They moved cautiously until they reached the gate, then their nerve broke and they ran. Rosie heard the slam of car doors, an engine sprang into life and then with a squeal of tyres they made their getaway back down the lane towards the town.

The fair folk relaxed and the girl came running to their leader and threw her arms around his waist. She was speaking rapidly and smiled first at him, then at Rosie. "My daughter," he said with a grin. "She was the first to see the gradell back on the nail in the porch after many many years. Fionn really believed the old stories, about the time when humans still recognised the Fair Folk, though we teased her about it. We kept telling her that they were just legends and had probably never really happened. We have a story, you see, that the people who lived in this house had always been friendly towards us and would lend us the gradell for our baking day. We always repaid the loan with some of the cakes we made." Suddenly he stopped and raised his head like an animal scenting the wind. In fact he must have heard something for he called out to his men in his own language and they quickly melted away behind the barn and vanished up into the wood. "The farmer is coming," he said to Rosie. "But do not be afraid. We will watch over you. My people came to this land hundreds of generations ago. We were here before the Celts and before the Romans and before the Saxons. You are all newcomers to us. We only care about those who remember us and the old ways. Farewell. I'm sure we will meet again." He took the girl by the hand and together they walked away into the trees.

Rosie could hear the Landrover coming down the hill now and a few moments later it stopped in her gateway. Elwyn, Gwennie's husband, climbed out carrying his shotgun. His two sheep dogs bounded out after him, then came to heel and followed as he strode into the yard.

"Where are the bastards?" he growled, glancing round at the petrol cans and the crowbar. "I was out shooting crows in the fields above your land and I saw the three of them creeping in here."

"They ran off," Rosie said. "They -- er..." inspiration dawned. "They must have heard you coming."

Elwyn nodded gravely. "Cowards. Men like that are always cowards. They'll try to frighten a woman living alone, but won't face a man."

Later -- much later -- after Elwyn had taken her down into town to give another statement to the police, Rosie stood alone outside her cottage. Once she was sure Elwyn had gone, she went to the window box and, with some difficulty, pulled the arrow from the wood. The metal head was wickedly sharp. She turned it in her hands and it caught the sun, gleaming bright yellow. Bronze, she thought. Fairies have no iron. That's why they borrow the gradell. She turned and scanned the trees and surrounding hills. She could see nothing, no movement, yet she was sure that the fair folk would keep their promise.
Rosie opened the door. Saffy jumped down from the chair where she had been sleeping and came to rub around her ankles, welcoming her home.

(This story was first published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY, Issue #39, Spring 1998)


Revised on ... April 23, 2007, which was International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day