Chapter 4: The Island
Sally smelled heather and fog, not salt spray. Under her back was firm ground, wet grass.
Her eyes fluttered open. Lavinia, naked body slick with mist in the evening light, sat looking off at nothing.
“I’m back,” Sally said. “I’m sorry I crapped out on you.”
Lavinia said vaguely, “It’s alright, just glad you didn’t crap on me.”
The wind pushed wet strands of fog over them both. To the exhausted Sally, Lavinia’s face looked especially beautiful with her hair tossed by a sudden gust of wet wind.
Slowly Sally sat up but before she could do anything else, she had to eat. That bag of Dorritos and that granola bar had taken on mammoth proportions in her mind. Her trembling fingers pulled the coveted bar out of her pocket at last but her fingers were so stiff she couldn’t open it. The still naked Lavinia, body radiating blessed heat, took it from her trembling hands, ripped it open and fed it to her bit by bit. It was crumbly and crunchy and so sweet that Sally melted with relief and had only a tiny flash of resentment at being treated like a baby.
At last, she felt strong enough to look around.
To their left a sharp crag, almost a needle of rock, rose from the green saddle where they stood. But to the right was a lower peak, pillowed by green grass as if someone might actually make a home there. And heading straight up the side of that lower peak was indeed an uneven staircase of ancient grey stone, like a rock stair in a fairy tale leading to the cave of a sorcerer. The steps were weathered by wind and more years than Sally could imagine but still looked sharp as a dragon’s spine.
From partway up the steps came the clink of a chain railing tossed by the wind. The railing had surely been put up more recently. And that meant there might be someone living up there, and they might find some shelter. Even if it hadn’t, Sally could no more have resisted those magical stairs than she could have resisted a brightly shining package under a Christmas tree.
As Lavinia pulled clothes on, muttering about being “butt-ass naked,” Sally stood, nearly toppling over before she got her shaking legs under her. With even more caution than she’d thought she’d need, Sally peeped gingerly over the lip of the narrow saddle. Through the cold mist swirling, she could only see about twenty feet down in the evening light. But that dragon-back staircase came up from below, switchbacking out of the mists. It must go all the way down to the sea which she could hear hissing and slapping.
Lavinia’s voice came, still hollow-sounding, from behind her. “We actually went 20, 30 feet down that thing before I got us to stop and we came that close to just bouncing all the way down to the bottom, however far down that is. I carried you back up here while you were still out.”
What a strange thing: who could have built that fairy-tale staircase on such a desolate, windy and small island? Sally thought of the pentagram in her duffel: the same fate which led her to that pagan symbol now seemed to be leading her to some ancient gathering place of witches or wizards. She turned back to the steps which climbed resolutely to the lower of the two peaks. Lavinia was dressed now but stood strangely still. Sally nodded, and tilted her head toward the steps: she was ready to climb.
The stairs were steep. They must have been tough, those ancients who had carefully piled and wedged these rocks until they made a staircase stable enough to withstand the years. The steps themselves were wide slabs of rock, supported by carefully laid heaps of stone like small cobblestone walls. In places the supporting stones looked like they must come apart into a pile of rubble at any moment, but they had stood for centuries.
At the steepest part, where modern man had put up a chain link railing, Sally held onto the hanging chain and pulled herself up without shame. The mists made it impossible to see very far, and that gave Sally a comforting feeling of being sheltered and not actually hundreds of feet above the water with a steep drop all around.
Finally, there were only six or seven steps to climb. Sally forced her aching legs to bend a few more times and found herself on a narrow stone walkway which ran beside a stone wall like the outer wall of a castle so old that everything else had fallen away. There was a steep drop to the right. She shivered: the place looked completely deserted. But about twenty feet ahead the wall jogged a few feet to the right and in the joint between the two walls was a low doorway. She kept a hand on the gray and white splotched stones of the wall and walked toward the doorway, feeling like she were walking toward the castle of an evil warlock.
It suddenly occurred to her that there were no vampires around. The sun must have set while they were climbing the stairs, but this small island was completely clean of vampires!
She stopped and Lavinia bumped into her. “What?” Lavinia asked. She sounded spooked.
“Nothing, just, I realized, there must be islands all over the world too small or too far away from land for vampires to reach.”
“Hmm.” Lavinia sounded startled, but not as interested as Sally was. “Guess so. C’mon. In. If we can go in.” She seemed to be thinking hard about something else entirely.
It was hard to understand why whoever built this wall had built a doorway at all. The wall on her left jogged three feet to the right and continued unchanged. In the 90 degree jog the builders could simply have left a gap but they had felt the need to roof the gap with a single large slab, topped by a thin layer of smaller stones. This made a doorway so low that even Sally had to tilt her head to walk through. Lavinia had to duck her whole head and she muttered and seemed to be in a bad temper.
This wall turned out to be only a skirting wall enclosing a sort of sloping courtyard. In the pocket of clear air Sally could make out the bulk of a much thicker wall that spoke of hundreds of hours of men carrying stones. A tunnel pushed dimly and unevenly through that wall. Ducking their heads, they walked through that final passageway, Sally’s heart sinking further with each echoing step. She gripped the wooden stake tucked into her belt loop.
The women emerged into a surreal, twilit world.
Inside that heavy wall, odd humps loomed ominously like hooded figures. They were domes of piled stone rising to pointed peaks, a cluster of giant beehives. The place was as quiet and empty as a graveyard and the buildings were, in fact, like the cluster of tombs on the edge of a desert in a book Sally had read as a girl. It was clear that nobody lived there.
But Sally realized that instead of disappointment and dread, she felt some inner joy bubbling up. Was it just that exploring this stark ruin was keeping a comforting distance between her and that dreadful encounter in the Black Forest which she knew awaited her as surely as her father’s punishment when she’d been bad no matter how late she stayed out and how many nice things she did?
Partly it was because this place hardly seemed like a ruin! It wasn’t like an old castle or church fallen into decay. It had been stark and simple when it had been built and other than the grass and moss growing over some things, it was still as it had been.
But there was something else. She felt for a few moments a magic, a kinship through the years, a calling from ancient souls. Whoever had lived here, they’d been good people and they’d built this tiny town or shelter or whatever it was because they’d wanted to live good lives. She was sure of it, and it comforted her in spite of her disappointment that no hot meal or bed would be forthcoming. In fact, she and Lavinia could probably crawl inside one of these amazing buildings and lie down and sleep undisturbed, so that was a good thing.
These buildings were stark, severe and at the same time comically jovial. The inner yard was filled with rocks hacked and roughly shaped into dim forms of standing or kneeling men. She suddenly realized that the kneeling men were praying, that the standing men were saints and that this whole place was some kind of church or monastery, an incredibly ancient outpost of Christianity from the Dark Ages.
Lavinia, on the other hand, was skittish as a kitten, looking around left and right with suspicion, standing hunched and ready for anything. Sally turned to ask her to calm down.
Lavinia hissed, a sharp indrawn breath like she’d seen a snake.
Sally gasped, whirled back to face what Lavinia was looking at. Nobody was there.
But on one of the old beehive buildings was a white cross which glimmered faintly in the last daylight.