Place - A hidden valley in Cornwall
Date - 650 AD
Her footsteps were silent, only their imprint in the dew-ridden grass marking her passing. Ferns swished aside and sprang back into place as she moved along the tiny pathway through the valley. Far below, the river snaked silver on its endless journey, its banks strewn with meadowsweet and rushes, and apart from the call of a buzzard wheeling silently overhead, the whispering river was the only sound to be heard.
It was high summer and although still early the sun had long since begun its journey into the heavens, having risen over the craggy outcrops of granite above her. All was as it had appeared on many a summer morning, but today something was different. The air held the shimmering of expectation as the last of the mists burnt away, as though the valley was holding its breath.
Elana paused at the grey standing stone which marked the pathway and the nearing of her journey's end. Now she was fully grown, it was exactly the same height as herself and as she passed she unconsciously, out of habit over the years, laid a hand upon its rough surface. At this hour it was still cool, but later, on her return journey when the sun had reached its height and begun its descent, it would feel warm and comforting.
She was almost there now. Almost at the sacred spring she tended every day of her life. The occupants of the village understood her duty, which had been passed down through the generations. The care of the sacred spring, the healing, life giving water which never failed even in the hottest of summers. On more than one occasion the spring had been the saviour of the village.
Elana knew this place was special for she was bonded to the spring, and although she visited it every single day, she never failed to feel the shiver of energy as her feet neared the site, for she was in essence approaching a part of herself. A place undeniably linked to her very soul.
Date - June, 1999
The shrill of the mobile phone broke through the heat of the morning as Ellie made her way through the ferns along the tiny path which led to the Holy Well Chapel. Angrily she switched it off. They could all go shoot themselves. It would only be work, never giving her a minute's peace. Couldn't even come home to Cornwall for a few days without them bothering her. She was tempted to throw the wretched thing into the ferns, allow it to be swallowed up in the swaying banks of green, but common sense - or was it merely conditioning - made her slip it back into her skirt pocket.
Ellie's ruffled feelings were soothed as the magic of the valley began to work on her. She couldn't believe she hadn't been back for so many years. How could she have left it so long? University, followed by a job in London and now, five years on, she had found success. Money, car, promotion. But happiness? The question whispered through her mind, fed with memories of the valley from her childhood when it had been her playground. It had nurtured in her an energy which the child had not understood and from which the adult had been separated for too long.
Beneath her the river snaked silver amongst the rushes and meadowsweet and a buzzard circling on high gave its own mournful cry. She paused for breath and found her hand on the grey standing stone. A farmer had hung a rickety gate on it which swung permanently open, as though any attempt to close it would result in its demise, and as her fingers felt the slight warmth of the stone she found to her surprise that now she was fully grown, the stone was exactly the same height as herself.
As she turned the final bend in the path, the grey slate roof of the tiny chapel came into view before her, then the walls hewn of Cornish stone. Soon she reached the little wooden gate and was inside the enclosure, swamped with a feeling of coming home, of finally arriving at a safe and tranquil place. The chapel looked just as she remembered, and as she raised her eyes to the roof silhouetted against the blue sky, Ellie noticed a clump of grass springing up from between two slates, waving in the slight breeze.
Beyond the building was the Holy Well itself, still and crystal clear, and as she approached she could see the moving reflections of the water causing waves of light to dance on the moss covered stone arch above it. From here the water ran through the chapel and under the altar, to reappear on the other side in a tiny basin, above which a door was set in the wall over a granite shelf. This was where people used to leave offerings to their saint. She knew all of this, had known it all of her life. How could she have forgotten its existence for so long?
There was a new door at the entrance now, no longer the rickety one she remembered, but even this was showing the test of time, its rich wood already faded. She slowly pushed the door open and as it swung silently inwards, breathed a sigh of relief. It was just as it had always been. The cool air rushed out to engulf her and the altar, a plain slab of granite balanced on four rough hewn stone supports, stood beneath the window at the far end, surmounted by a simple cross.
The sunlight filtering through the tiny side window gave the small chapel a welcoming look and without consciously thinking of what she was doing she removed her sandals and walked to the altar. Someone had placed a jar of wild flowers there and a shaft of sunlight struck the water, making the glass sparkle and giving the foliage an inner light. Slowly, she placed her hands on the cool stone and closed her eyes.
The first thing Elana did each day was to wash her face and hands in the bubbling water which sprang from the rocks, forming a pool in the rough bowl of granite, and then she entered the building which the villagers had erected around the altar.
The altar. When she touched it she could feel the power shimmering beneath, for the spring had been directed to run underneath it. Four uprights of Cornish granite and a great slab balanced on the top, all simply covered with a rough shelter, but it was enough. This was her temple, the home of the spirit of the spring. As she touched the stone slab, the tingling in her body told her that today the power was incredibly strong, bubbling beneath the surface, waiting. But for what she didn't know. She had never felt it like this before, attuned as she was to its ebb and flow which changed with the cycle of the moon.
After some time she stepped outside. The day was darkening. What had been a bright summer's day was now almost twilight. The sky was dim but all around the horizon was an eerie light and it had become colder, a chill wind blowing from the east. The valley seemed to be waiting, holding its breath in anticipation of some terrible event. Frightened now, she retreated into the building and placed her hands on the altar, feeling the energy stirring restlessly beneath her fingers.
She felt the tremor of their footsteps first, and it was as though the tiny hut quaked at their arrival. They had thrashed through the undergrowth, trampling the ferns and small trees which she and the other villagers were so careful to preserve. Then she heard their voices, rough and harsh, no reverence for the place they were infiltrating, and then two men appeared, framed in the tiny entranceway and she realised how vulnerable she was, a woman alone, with only the sacred spring for protection.
She realised from the shouts outside that there were more following and that soon the building would probably be alight, after they had dragged from her temple and forced her to watch its desecration, probably followed by her own.
She stood facing them, her hands on the altar stone although it was behind her now. The energy trickling through was her only comfort, the knowledge that whatever happened would only be the pain of mortal flesh. But to watch them desecrate her sacred spring would be the demolition of her very soul and that she would truly be unable to bear.
She realised that although the energy was strong today, it alone could not save her. As they advanced she saw very clearly the look on the faces of the two men, saw them laugh, the light of conquering and greed in their eyes and she could do nothing but stand with her hands upon the stone and silently pray.
Over the following weeks the memory had remained with Ellie, although at times she had tried to forget, but always it crept back into her mind and she would find herself quietly reliving it, oblivious to everyday life going on around her.
The moment she had placed her hands on the stone altar she had felt a stirring. Not a blinding flash or rush of energy, but simply a stirring, as though something which had long been asleep had at last reawakened. And she had felt her body respond. Not a jolt or an electric current, but a tiny tingle, a response from deep within, and she had felt alive and vibrant, as though for the first time she was in the place where she belonged.
As the day of the solar eclipse approached, Ellie received many invitations from well meaning friends. A festival, a boat trip, climbing to the top of a hill. But none of them had interested her. She simply hadn't been able to summon the enthusiasm for an event which was no more than an excuse to party - Christmas come in the middle of August - and when asked to work on that day she had agreed. She felt unenthusiastic and listless about the eclipse and couldn't see why everyone else was making such a fuss.
But as the day approached Ellie felt a strange uncertainty that she was doing the right thing after all. It wasn't just that the office was almost empty. Telephones rang, computers beeped, life continued much as ever, but something bothered her deep inside. There was feeling of anticipation within her. She realised she was waiting for something to happen, holding her breath almost, but she didn't understand why, and it wasn't until the evening before the eclipse that she suddenly realised she had to go home to Cornwall after all.
She spent the night behind the wheel of her car. The traffic was every bit as bad as had been predicted. No one had taken the advice to arrive early and the entire population, Ellie included, seemed to have left work at the same moment and started the long trek to the West Country. She spent the night on the road, snatching a few hours sleep in a lay-by when she could drive no further, and was once more at the wheel of the car as the sun rose.
Finally the traffic began to move again and Ellie was left with some hope she might get there in time after all. The mobile rang shrilly and she realised she ought to be at the office, but she let it ring, strangely empowered by its persistent tone which she studiously ignored. It was late. So late there wasn't even time to see her parents, announce her arrival and change out of the work clothes she was still wearing. Out of sheer habit she picked up the phone and slipped it into her skirt pocket as she left the car.
The sky was already beginning to darken as she stumbled along the path. Again she was afraid she wasn't going to make it in time, but knew she must. Suddenly, getting to the tiny chapel before the eclipse reached totality was the most important thing in the world.
As she reached the standing stone she paused, fighting for breath. She leaned against it, her hand unerringly finding its resting place and as she caught her breath she tore off her shoes, flinging them into the bracken on one side. She felt lighter, freer as she continued on her journey, unconfined by the restraints of civilisation. Her hair had come loose from its pins and swung down her back in a way she never usually wore it. Breaking into a run she rounded the final bend and the chapel appeared before her.
As she thrust open the tiny wooden gate she realised that totality had almost arrived. The sky was darkening rapidly, birds had ceased to sing and a sudden chill breeze had sprung up. All around was a sense of silent anticipation. The world was holding its breath, and at any other time she might have found it eerie, frightening, but now there was only one thought in her mind. With her last ounce of energy she pushed the door open and hurled herself towards the stone altar, and only when she had placed her hands upon it was she filled with an overwhelming sense of relief and thankfulness.
When the surge of energy came it frightened even Elana, used to it as she was. It seemed to well up from beneath the ground, through the holy water, through the altar, into her hands and straight through her body. She felt it pause in her belly and then shoot out from her chest and from the top of her head. It was the same energy, strong, pure, feminine, alive, but it was a hundred times more potent and vibrant than she had ever felt it before.
It was so strong the men must have been aware of it, for a puzzled look had come over their faces, causing them to momentarily stop in their tracks. It didn't last long. They were barbarians, unattuned to the earth energy, but nonetheless, those few vital seconds during which they paused were enough. By the time they had gathered their scattered wits, the light, which had been steadily decreasing, was all but gone and the air outside was filled with shouts and cries of fear. Dropping their weapons, pointing at her and gibbering words she didn't understand, the two men turned and fled from the tiny building.
The energy surge ceased and Elana left the altar to move outside, instinctively knowing she was safe. It was night. The stars were out and where the sun should have been shining brightly, was a black hole in the sky, surrounded by a fiery halo.
When Ellie emerged from the chapel, totality was over. She surveyed the scene before her, bands of light and shadow shuddering up the valley as the moon passed from the face of the sun and suddenly everything seemed so blindingly simple she couldn't believe she hadn't seen it before. This was where she belonged. This was what was important in her life. The telephone rang shrilly and she took it from her pocket. For a moment she looked at it as though she had never seen it before, and then she drew back her arm and flung it away from her, a modern day sacrifice to the life she was leaving behind. As it arched through the air it turned and the black plastic casing caught the sunlight for a brief instant before falling into the ferns of the valley. Where it landed she could not tell, for it caused only the swiftest shiver of green fronds and then it was gone forever, and she knew with sudden relief that no matter how hard she might search she would never find it again.
After a while she knelt beside the water and washed her hands and face in it, as she had done so many times in the past, and she could feel the energy sparkling in the sunlight on the water. Ellie knew her destiny in life now. This was home. This was where she belonged.
And the spring bubbled from its secret place deep beneath the ground as it always had, stronger now than ever before, for Elana had returned at last.
Published in Quarterly Women’s Fiction 1999
The well chapel was actually just outside the totality line of the total eclipse of 1999, however the area of totality could be clearly seen from the site.