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The Fields of My Childhood by Katharine Tynan

 

They lie far away, gray with the mists of memory, under a veil of distance, half-silver, half-gold, like the gossamer, so far that they might never have been save only in dreams. They are not nearly so real as the Eastern world of the stories I read yesterday, but I know where they lie—common fields nowadays, and seldom visited. Yet, there was a child once who knew every inch of them as well as the ant her anthill, or the silvery minnow her brown well under the stone cover, to which one descends by ancient water-stained steps.

The fields are there, but their face somewhat changed, as other things are changed. We were little ones when we came to live among them, in a thatched house full of little nests of rooms, the walls of which were run over by flowery trellises that made them country-like even by candle-light. Of candle-light I have not much memory, for we went to bed in the gloaming, when the long, long day had burned itself out and the skies were washed with palest green that held the evening star; and we slept dreamlessly till the golden day shot through the chinks of the shutters, and we leapt to life again with a child's zest for living. At the back of the house there was an overgrown orchard, a dim, delicious place where the gnarled boughs made a roof against heaven. It was our adventure, time and again, to escape through our windows and wash our feet in the May dew before we were discovered. One whole summer, indeed, these revels were hindered by a bull which was pastured on the lush herbage. But how entrancing it was to hear him roar at night, close by our bed's head, or to see his great shadow cross the chink of moonlight in the shutter! Sometimes he ate the rose-bushes that wreathed our window, and, rubbing his gigantic flanks against the house-wall, bellowed, while we shook in bed in delicious tremors, and imagined our cosy nest a tent in the African desert, with lions roaring outside. I remember the rooms so well: the chilly parlour, only used when we had grown-up visitors, for we were there in charge of a nurse; the red-tiled kitchen, with its settle and its little windows opening inward; the door that gave on a grass-grown approach; and the stone seat outside, where we sat to shell peas, or made 'plays' with broken bits of crockery and the shreds of shining tin pared by the travelling tinker when he mended the porringers. I remember the very cups and saucers from which we drank our rare draughts of tea—delicate china, with sea-shells on it in tones of gray, the varied shapes of which gave us ever-new interest.

As I look back, I can never see that house in unwinking daylight, though it was perpetual summer then, and never a rainy day. Rooms and passages are always dim with a subdued green light, the reflection, I suppose, through the narrow windows wreathed with verdure, and from the grass and the plaited apple-boughs. But the spirit of improvement has laid all waste, has thrown the wee rooms into ample ones, has changed the narrow windows for bays and oriels, has thinned the apple-trees for the sake of the grass. There was once a pond, long and green, with a little island in the midst, where a water-hen had her nest. I always thought of it as the pond in Hans Andersen's Ugly Duckling, and never watched the ducks paddling among the reeds that I did not look to the sky to see the wild geese, that were contemptuously friendly with the poor hero, flecking the pearl-strewn blue. The pond is filled up now with the macadam of a model farmyard. Iron and stone have replaced the tumble-down yellow sheds, where we drank sheep's milk in a gloom powdered with sun-rays; the two shrubberies have gone, and the hedge of wild roses that linked the trees in the approach to the house. Naught remains save the thatched roof, many feet deep, the green porch over the hall door, the stone seat round the streaky apple-tree at the garden gate, and the garden itself, where the largest lilies I have ever seen stand in the sun, and the apple-trees are in the garden-beds, the holly-hocks elbow the gooseberries, and the violets push out their little clumps in the celery-bed.

But the fields. It is only to the ignorant all fields are the same; as there are some who see no individualities in animals because they have no heart for them. Here and there hedges have been levelled and dykes filled, and now their places are marked by a long dimple in the land's face. The well in the midst of one has been filled up, despite the warning of an old mountain farmer that ill-luck would surely follow whosoever demolished the fairy well. Over it grew a clump of briar and thorn-trees, where one found the largest, juiciest blackberries; that too is gone, but, practically, the fields remain the same. There is the Ten Acre field, stretching so far as to be weirdly lonely at the very far end. Every part of it was distinct. You turned to the left as you entered by a heavy hedge of wild-rose and blackberry. There the wild convolvulus blew its white trumpet gloriously and violets ran over the bank under the green veil, and stellaria and speedwell made in May a mimic heaven. I remember a meadow there, and yet again a potato-digging, where we picked our own potatoes for dinner and grew sun-burnt as the brown men and women who required so many cans of well-water to drink at their work. Where the hedge curved there was a little passage, through which the dyke-water flowed into the next field. It was delightful to set little boats of leaf and grass upon the stream, and to see them carried gaily by the current down that arcade of green light. Some of the inquisitive ones waded after them, and emerged wet and muddy in the next field. I preferred to keep the mystery of the place, and to believe it went a long, long way. For half the length of the field the water flowed over long grass that lay face downward in it. To see it you had to lift the grass and the meadow flowers. Once we were startled there in a summer dusk before the hay was cut, when all the corn-crakes were crying out that summer was in the land. As we threaded the meadow aisles, a heavy, dark body leapt from its lair and into the dyke. It was a badger, we learnt afterwards, and its presence there gave the place an attractive fearsomeness. Half-way down, where a boundary hedge had once made two fields of the Ten Acres, the low hedge changed to a tall wall of stately thorn trees. Below their feet the stream ran, amber, pellucid, over a line of transformed pebbles. By this we used to lie for hours, watching the silver-scaled minnows as they sailed on. At the far end there was watercress, and over the hedge a strange field, good for mushrooms, but which bore with us a somewhat uncanny reputation.

Across it you saw the gray house-chimneys of the lonely house reputed to be haunted. Opposite its door stood an old fort on a little hill, a noted resort of the fairies. Any summer gloaming at all, you might see their hundreds of little lamps threading a fantastic measure in and out on the rath. I never heard that any one saw more of them than those lights, which floated away if any were bold enough to approach them, like glorified balls of that thistledown of which children divine what's o'clock.

At the other side of the Ten Acres was a fantastic corner of grass, which was always a miniature meadow. There swung the scarlet and black butterflies which have flown into Fairyland, and there the corn-crake built her nest in the grass. It was a famous corner for bird's-nesting, which with us took no crueller form than liking to part the thick leaves to peep at the pretty, perturbed mother-thrush on her clutch. Sometimes we peeped too often, and she flew away and left the eggs cold. We saw the world from that corner, for one could see through the hedge on to the road by lying low where the roots of the hedge-row made a thinness. We should not have cared about this if it were not that we could look, unseen ourselves, at the infrequent passer-by, for the hedge grew luxuriantly. Further down it became partly a clay bank, and there on the coarse grass used to hang snail-shells of all sizes, and, as I remember them, of shining gold and silver. The inhabitant was the drawback to all that beauty, yet when we found an empty house, it was cold, dull, and with the sheen vanished.

Across the road was the moat-field, the great fascination of which was in the wild hill that gave it its name. What the moat originally was I know not. I think, now, it must have been a gravel-hill, for it was full of deep gashes, of pits and quarries, run over by briar, alight with furze-bushes. It must have been long disused, for the hedge that was set around it—to keep the cattle out, perhaps—was tall and sturdy, and grew up boldly towards the trees that studded it at intervals. There was no other entry to it except by gaps we made in the close hedge, and, wriggling through these, we climbed among briars and all kinds of vegetation that made a miniature jungle overhead. Near the top we emerged on stunted grass, with the wide sky over us, and before us the champaign country stretching to the plains of Meath, and the smoke of the city, and the misty sea. Southwards there were the eternal hills which grow so dear to one, yet never so intimate that they have not fresh exquisite surprises in store. We threaded the moat by paths between the furze, on the golden honey-hives of which fluttered moths like blue turquoise. The dragon-fly was there, and the lady-bird and little beetles in emerald coats of mail. And over that the lark soared in a wide field of air to hail God at His own very gates. Bitter little sloes grew on the moat, and blackberries in their season; and if you had descended into one of the many cups of the place, even long before the sun had begun to slant, you liked to shout to your companions and be answered cheerily from the human world. The moat had an uncanniness of its own; it was haunted by leaping fires that overran it and left no trace. You might see it afar, suffused by a dull glare, any dim summer night. So have I myself beheld it when I have crept through the dews on a nocturnal expedition: and though one of the commonplace suggested that it might have been the new moon rising scarlet behind the luxuriant vegetation of the moat, that was in the unimaginative next day, and not when we discussed the marvel in the scented darkness that comes between summer eve and dawn.

Then there was the well-field, where a little stream that fed the well clattered over pebbles, made leaps so sudden down tiny inclines that we called the commotion a waterfall, and widened under a willow-tree into a pool, brown and still, where, tradition said, had once been seen a trout. For sake of this glorious memory we fished long with squirming worms and a pin, but caught not even the silliest little minnow. This small game we used to bag, by the way, at will, by simply lowering a can into the green depths of the well, where there was always a tiny silver fin a-sailing. Once we kept a pair three days in the water-jug, and finally restored them to their emerald dark. The well-field was in part marshy and ended in a rushy place, where water-cresses grew thick, and a little bridge led into the neighbour's fields. There we found yellow iris, and the purple bee orchis, and fox-gloves.

Hard by was Nano's Field, which we affected only in the autumn, for then we gathered crab-apples, of a yellow and pink, most delightful to the eye. And also the particular variety of blackberry which ripens first, and is large and of irregular shape, but, to the common blackberry, what purple grapes are to the thin, green variety. And again, there was the front lawn, where the quicken-berry hung in drooping scarlet clusters above us, as we sat on a knoll, and a sea of gold and white washed about us in May. But the fields make me garrulous, and if I were to go on they that never tired the children might weary the grown listener. Said I not they were seldom visited? Yet their enchantment is still there for happy generations unborn. The children and the fields and the birds we have always with us. I would that for every child there might be the fields, to make long after a dream of green beauty, though the world has grown arid. Because the dream seems so sweet to me I have gossiped of it, but have not named half its delicate delights, nor some of the great ones: as the romps in the hay fields, the voyage of discovery after hens' nests, the mysteries of that double hedge that is the orchard boundary, and the hidden places in gnarled boughs, where you perched among the secrets of the birds and the leaves, and saw the crescent moon through a tender veil of enchantment while yet the orange of the sunset was in the west.

 
 
 

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