“The Man on the Hill”
“Hush now, Hannah,” Hannah’s Mother soothed. “Your Grandmother is very tired.”
Hannah stood tremulous at the bedside, gazing down at the frail form tucked away beneath the heavy covers. The curtains were drawn and in the dim light only the slightest rise and fall of the blankets revealed any sign of life at all.
“…Is she going to be all right?” Hannah asked.
Her Mother’s face was difficult to read. Hannah saw many emotions and expressions pass quickly across it. “Let’s just go downstairs for now and let her sleep,” her Mother suggested.
On the way through the door, Hannah said, “You didn’t answer my question, Mum.”
Her Mum looked down at her, and Hannah’s heart pounded suddenly. “Some questions,” her Mother replied, “have no answer.”
That evening, Hannah sat beside her open bedroom window, staring out into a humid summer evening. It had grown dark only an hour or so earlier, and since that time a sense of atmospheric pressure had built steadily. It carried with it a definite sense of impending storm. A sullen silence hung over the meadow behind the house; it felt like the world was waiting for something big to happen. Finally, around nine o’clock, Hannah heard a distant rumble of thunder and moments later a tremendous downpour began. Hannah held her hand out through the window and discovered that the water had a semi-tropical warmth about it. Meanwhile thunder continued to boom, but somewhere quite far off. Perhaps the storm will pass overheard, she thought. Maybe there will just be rainfall in this part of the world.
This thought had hardly occurred to her when a much louder crash of thunder resounded close at hand. It made her jump. At the same time, a great fork of lightning split the sky in two and lit up the landscape for miles around. Seconds later a second lightning strike hit the summit of Winding Hill, a mile beyond the meadow. Thunder cracked overhead as if the very sky threatened to tumble. It echoed and fell silent. The night was still.
It was strange weather, Hannah thought. What kind of storm came and went so quickly? Now even the torrent of rain was coming to an end, and as it did so the sense of pressure abated and a great quiet descended.
She continued to gaze from her window. Was she imagining it, or was there some kind of light on Winding Hill? As if someone were waving a torch about? As she strained her eyes to look, however, Hannah became aware of an unfamiliar sound from close by, somewhere within the house. She came away from the window and crossed to the door. She opened it a crack and looked out, and was dismayed to discover her Mother weeping outside the room where Hannah’s Grandmother lay close to death.
Hannah hesitated in the doorway, unsure of herself. She wanted to go out on to the landing and console her Mum, unsure at the same time whether she really knew how. She found herself looking simultaneously back across the room and out of the window toward Winding Hill, where there was indeed a strange light clearly visible at the summit. No longer waving like a torch beam, it had become still and steady like a light bulb. But Hannah could tell that this was no ordinary electric light. It shone out, a tiny point of concentrated glare.
Instinct told her to wait. She closed the door quietly and lingered by the window, watching the light. It seemed to call to her. A few minutes went by before she checked the landing again and found it clear. Hannah wasted no time scurrying downstairs and, finding the hallway also empty, put on coat and boots and slipped from the house.
The back lawn was sodden of course, as was the meadow beyond. But the rain had entirely ceased and she made quick progress through the long grass. The lights of the houses receded behind her; the strange glow on the hill drew nearer. Before very long, she was at the foot of the hill and starting up the winding path. All the while, part of her was thinking ‘I should be at home helping Mum’, and another part was saying ‘But I am helping Mum.’
About halfway up the hill, Hannah squinted ahead into the darkness and saw a very tall man descending the path toward her. Suddenly the clouds parted and the light from a clear moon bathed the hill. Hannah halted, feeling uncertain, but as the stranger approached his face broke into a beautiful and disarming smile and she relaxed.
“Welcome, Hannah!” he said, and his voice was quite loud and full of humour. “As you are climbing, I am descending, and that is how things are.”
“I saw a light,” Hannah said.
“You must grow accustomed to seeing light,” he said, “in many different ways and on many different levels. How else may we dispel night on earth?”
Hannah said nothing. She studied the man closely. He was well over six feet tall; he had a strong, commanding face and intense grey eyes. His hair was long and swept back from his forehead and he was dressed from head to foot in black.
“Did you arrive in the storm?” she asked.
The man did not reply. Instead he glanced up into the heavens, where the rain clouds were rapidly rolling away. A great scattering of stars had revealed itself. The visitor reached out and placed a hand on Hannah’s shoulder. She felt a gentle reassurance pass through her.
“Think not of the storm, nor its cloud of fury,” he said, “but look instead to the stars. For a storm is but a passing thing.”
Hannah’s heart trembled as if something deep inside was unlocking itself.
“The heavens are eternal,” he continued.
As Hannah watched, he lifted his hand from her shoulder up into the sky, and plucked a particularly bright star from the night. He held out his palm for Hannah to see. The star lay there, burning brightly, a tiny, impossible thing. The man stepped off the path toward the side of the hill and gestured. Below, Winding Lake lay calmly in the moonlight. He cast the star from his hand and it fell quickly from the hill into the water far below. Hannah watched a great ripple of silver light pass through the lake from end to end.
“Take my hand, child,” the visitor said. “There is nothing to fear.”
Hannah put out her hand and it fit neatly into the stranger’s own. A heartbeat later, they both stood close to the lakeshore, and Winding Hill loomed above them, a great shadow in the night.
The man produced a small, plain glass jar from an inside pocket and knelt by the water’s edge. He filled the jar to the top, placed a lid over it and held it up to the moonlight. Hannah studied it closely. The water glowed with effervescent light against the backdrop of the moon and stars. Her companion handed the jar to her, and she held it gingerly.
“This does not come with a list of instructions,” the man remarked. “Except, I suppose; use wisely.”
Hannah nodded. “Is this for my Grandmother?” she asked.
“Only you may be the judge of that, dear one,” he said. He glanced up at the hill. “Now, I must climb…and you must go home.”
The man smiled and Hannah once again felt reassured. She watched as he turned and walked toward the hill, vanishing almost immediately into the dark.
Hannah’s head was brimming with questions, but her heart knew a single purpose. Keeping a firm grip on the jar full of sparkling water, she headed home across the meadow. She noted the clouds steadily covering the sky once more, as if they had been given permission to continue with their business. Reaching the front door, she hurried inside, kicked off her wet boots and rushed up the stairs. She found the bedroom door half open and her Mother sitting on the bed holding her own Mother’s hand. Her face however, was, turned to the wall.
“Mum,” Hannah began, entering the room, “I’ve…”
But her Mother turned to face her, downcast and solemn. “Hannah, I’m afraid it’s too late,” she said quietly.
Hannah halted and looked at her Grandmother, all but concealed beneath the blankets. Her face was calm and peaceful.
The blankets no longer moved up and down.
Her Mother watched, her face full of sorrow and mercy, and Hannah slowly approached the bedside and looked down at the still form. Without really thinking too closely, she gently removed the lid from the jar and dipped her fingers into the water.
“What have you got there?” her Mum whispered.
Hannah did not reply. She took her fingers out of the jar and cautiously dripped some water droplets on to her Grandmother’s forehead. Her Mum said, “Hannah!” quite sharply and at the same time the door slammed shut with a resounding bang. Both Hannah and her Mother jumped. Hannah hastily replaced the lid on the jar and set it down on the bedside table. When she looked up, she saw her Grandmother standing just inside the door, semi-transparent, wearing an unearthly white dress that shimmered and shone. She walked slowly across the room toward the bed. There was a beautiful bouquet of flowers in her right hand. Hannah stared in amazement as her Grandmother came right up to her and held out the flowers.
“These are for you,” she said. “A gift from beyond the hill.”
She pressed the flowers into Hannah’s fingers and Hannah accepted them. Her Grandmother disappeared and a moment later sat up in the bed with a choking gasp. Hannah’s Mother screamed and put a hand to her chest.
“I’ve got work to do!” the old woman cried. She held out her hands and they glowed with light, much like the lake water in the jar. “The healing has begun!”