Phoebe follows a sliver of light and discovers one who lives in darkness.
Every Saturday Phoebe rode her bike. Morning or evening, she would find herself taking out her blue bicycle and knotting her hair low enough to fit her helmet comfortably.
The wide plain between the towering Grampians and the last peak in the Great Dividing Range was quilted with farmland, creeks and wetlands. The paddocks of silvery, green waving pasture were criss-crossed with sheep tracks. Fields of wheat and barley grew lush and dark. The long flat roads were the perfect invitation to bike riding! Phoebe peddled along the bitumen road, feet pumping up and down, and the wind at her back, tickling her neck and wrapping her skirt around her knees.
Phoebe’s farm held a friendly position on the corner of the Five Ways. The main road crossed a well-used dirt road and a narrow sandy track joined at the corner. Some Saturday mornings she would ride around the smallest block of farmland to visit her aunt. This loop took two hours but she would not ride so far in the evening, as the darkness would beat her home. In the evenings she rode one way and then returned the same way, like stitching a lazy daisy.
Tonight, Phoebe peddled along the rutted, sandy road. This was the prettiest road, because it had curves, and there is nothing so lovely as the curve in a country road. Gradually the farmland melted into bushland and whispering clusters of buloke. Here the road formed a T and Phoebe usually turned homeward. But tonight, before she twisted the handlebars homeward, Phoebe looked west, to where the sun was low in the sky. A sliver of golden light danced in the corner of her eye. She looked through the white trunks of gum trees to see what it was. The light danced again and Phoebe walked her bike along the deep, soft sand towards it.
Here was a farm set back from the sandy track, half hidden by the pale clay bank of a dam. Behind two ancient mulberries two glass windows winked brightly in the sunshine calling her in a friendly way. It would be generous to call this tiny, dilapidated residence a house. Just as Phoebe was deciding whether to call it a cottage, cabin, shanty or shack, a wrinkled man in a cable knit cardigan and covered by a toweling hat, came out to meet her.
“It’s not often we have visitors dropping by,” he called out huskily. While Kenneth introduced himself, Phoebe apologized for arriving uninvited.
“Not at all. You’re down on the Five Ways, aren’t you? My wife is good friends with your Aunt Ellen, yes?” He nodded as he beckoned her along the path, “Come, come and visit a spell.”
Phoebe followed him around the corner of the tiny cottage and stepped through a fence made from corrugated iron sheets into a rambling vegetable garden of spring greens and tee-pees of curling pea and bean vines. Dark green strawberry leaves and plantings of carrots with delicate foamy foliage were intermingled with violas and marigolds. Beyond the garden were rows of lemon and orange trees. The driveway, which curved behind the house, was lined with apples, pears and stone fruits all in various stages of blossom and leaf. And escaping from the garden and creeping out into the paddocks grew flowers of every shade and colour.
Phoebe gasped, and called out, “Your flowers! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful!”
“For my bees,” he replied, “I have to keep my bees happy.” He called her over to a row of white, blue and yellow painted bee boxes.
His wrinkled smile beamed across the garden, more welcoming than those sun reflecting windows. "Come and see my bees!"
“Won’t they sting us?” She called out.
Kenneth chuckled softly as he bent down to pull up a trailing mess of Johnny-Jump-Ups and told her to rub it on her clothes.
“There now, they’ll think you’re just part of the garden,” he whispered.
Phoebe grinned. He gently lifted a lid and showed her the frames hanging neatly in place. The sun was growing tired and sending out deep gold and orange rays.
“It will be dark soon. Will they be able to find their way?” Phoebe asked.
“They’ll be back before the sun sets. But they don’t really mind the dark. The hive hasn’t windows or lights. But the bees don’t lose their way. They know every path and cell. It is all beautifully put in place for us to wonder at, Phoebe.” He talked on, about his bees and she marveled at their hive.
‘Can this place be real?” She breathed the sweet air, ‘this hidden garden of fruits and flowers and honey must be a lost piece of Eden.”
“Come inside and meet, Hazel,” Kenneth interrupted her thoughts.
The inside of the tiny cottage was very different from what Phoebe had expected, which only added to the magic of the evening for her. While outside was messy and sprawling, inside everything was tucked away neatly in baskets, bookshelves and kitchen cupboards. But it was quite dark, as the house was shaded by the old fruit trees outside.
Hazel sat in an armchair clicking her knitting needles and calling out. “Hello, coming in now?”
“Hello,” replied Phoebe breathlessly, “Thanks for letting me visit. I thought your garden was just beautiful. It is so dark in here. How can you see to knit! Can we turn on the lamp now or take you outside to sit in the garden. It is still light out and so warm this evening!”
“Oh no, my dear,” came her cheerful reply. “I never knit outside; the flies are too much of a bother. And I don’t mind the dark, my dear, I’m quite blind, you see?”
Phoebe quickly covered the two steps it took to walk across the tiny room and placed her hand on Hazel’s arm, who paused only long enough to push her knitting further up the needle. Phoebe made an effort to cover her shock. It was disquieting to find Kenneth’s wife hidden away in the dark, with such fountains of beauty just beyond the wall. The garden seemed less perfect now.
“But … you are so clever to knit… such tiny needles!… Does Kenneth read the patterns for you?” She tried to talk cheerily.
Kenneth and Hazel laughed, “I’m not the crafty type,” he explained.
“It’s all in here dear,” Hazel pointed to her grey head with a knitting needle. “I’ve knitted 12 matinee jackets already this year, and three blankets. These are just some socks for Ken.”
They shared a pot of tea, sweetened with Kenneth’s honey. Hazel told her about her children and her grandchildren and what the house on the Five Ways used to be like when Hazel stayed there as a child.
“I better start riding back,” Phoebe’s voice filled a gap in the conversation. “They will be wondering where I am.”
With a bag of lemons tied to her handle bars and two lettuces balanced on top, Kenneth helped push her bike past the sandiest part of the road to the harder track.
“Hazel was real pleased you liked her knitting. You must come again,” he insisted.
“I will! She is an inspiration, knitting all those baby jackets! She seems so busy and happy.”
“I think of Hazel as my queen bee, Phoebe. The queen almost never leaves the hive, she stays hidden in the dark and uses her other senses to navigate and communicate. She is set apart for a different purpose and when it comes time to lay her eggs, she lays them day and night. She is industrious! Just like Hazel. She never stopped her craft work, even after the accident.”
Phoebe was thoughtful, “But I wonder if I would be as brave, if I knew all the beauty I was missing and had to …keep on living in the dark. How can she?”
Kenneth was not sure how to answer at first, then he replied, “Sometimes we don’t need the light of the sun to see by, Phoebe. There is something other than light which guide us and all of nature.”
He was thoughtful before he spoke again. “Wait here.”
It took a long time for him to walk back to the tiny home and return with a newspaper clipping in his hand.
“Hazel knows this by heart, you take it now and read it and don’t be afraid of the dark, and don’t be afraid of living. There is always a way.” He handed her the paper, “Now start peddling!”
It was quite dusky as she rode home and the trees were weird shapes and strange shadows in the dark. She was glad to see the lights of home. She wheeled her bicycle into the shed and carried the garden bounty into the kitchen.
Phoebe brushed the sand from her feet, sat on her bed and pulled the paper from her pocket. It was part of a speech from World War II. She read,
I said to the man, who stood at the gate of the year.
“Give me light,
That I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness
And put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
And safer than a known way.
- The End -
(Poem excerpt from “The Gate of the Year” by Minnie Louise Haskin 1875-1957)
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