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Children's Stories
by Margo Fallis
A Picnic In the Heather


Tiny bits of pale purple burst out from tight buds, filling the delicate branches with clusters of heather bells. For as far as the eye could see, the hills looked like a sea of rippling waves, pinkish-lavender, and dotted with whitecaps of daisies. An occasional bluebell bobbed up and down on the swells.

"Letís sit here, Grandpa," Maggie urged, pulling on his bony hand to get him to sit down.

"All right, lassie, this looks just fine," he said.

He began to lower his tired, sore body. Before he reached the ground, Maggie stopped him in mid-air. "Wait, Grandpa. Let me spread out the blanket first." She shook the woolen blanket and laid it on top of a patch of heather. The maroon and pine green colors blended in nicely with the heather. "Okay, Grandpa. You can sit down now."

He bent his knees and fell onto the blanket. He set the woven straw picnic basket down on the heather and stretched his legs. "Come here, lassie," he called to his granddaughter. "Come and see this view."

Maggie threw herself down on the blanket next to her grandpa. Her long brown pigtails whipped the air. He slid his arm around her cardigan-covered arm and pulled her close. He pointed towards a loch, far off in the distance. "Thatís Loch Ness. Itís very deep. See how black the water looks from here?"

"Loch Ness? Thatís where Nessie lives. You donít think sheíll come after us, do you, Grandpa?" Maggie asked, looking up into her grandpaís eyes for assurance.

"No, lassie. Nessie stays in her loch," he chuckled, hugging her tighter. "Look very closely. Can you see that pile of stones that looks like part of an old castle? Well, thatís Castle Urquhart."

Maggie repeated the word, sounding it out, "Urquhart. Thatís hard to say, Grandpa. Urquhart."

Grandpa sighed, as if remembering something, perhaps from his younger days. It caused a wave of nostalgia to ripple through his heart. "Over there," he continued, pointing another direction, "is where your mum was born. Thereís a tiny cottage there. Oh, she was a bonnie wee bairn, your mum."

"Iím hungry," Maggie cried out, bursting her grandpaís train of thought. "I want a sausage roll! I want some shortbread and some Ribena with it," she demanded.

Grandpa laughed and squeezed her tight. "Aye, lassie, weíll eat, and then I want to take you to the cottage. Will you go wií me? I want you to see something."

Maggie nodded yes, and then announced, "Letís eat." She reached into the picnic basket and pulled out some sandwiches. "What kind of sandwiches did Gran fix for us?" she wondered. She pulled the paper off and peeled off the top piece of bread. "Watercress and cucumber?" she looked, quizzically. "This must be for you, Grandpa," she said, handing him the sandwich. She reached in and pulled out another. She peeled the top layer off. "Ham and cheese, with lots of Branston pickle," she laughed. "This is mine!"

She set her sandwich down on the paper, on top of the blanket, and kneeled over the basket. "Here are the sausage rolls. I love sausage rolls, donít you, Grandpa?" she asked, handing him two of them. "Mmmm, they are delicious," she said, taking a bite of one. "Oh look," she added. "Gran sent us a bottle of HP Sauce too. Iíll pour some on the paper and we can dip our sausage rolls into it," she giggled.

The two of them sat quietly eating their lunch. The sky was filled with fluffy tufts-of-cotton clouds being swept along by a gentle breeze blowing inland from the sea. A few black ravens with bright orange beaks flew over them, cawing and squawking, as if they were debating to come and invade the picnic, but out of respect for the serenity of the moment, chose to fly on. Now and then a whiff of heather-scented air was sent their way.

"Grandpa?" Maggie asked, "What do you want me to see at the cottage? Is there something pretty there, or something scary?"

Grandpa laughed out loud. "Silly wee lass. Thereís something I want to show you that reminds me of your mum; something very special to her, and to me."

"Letís eat our shortbread and have a drink of Ribena, then weíll go. Do you like Ribena, Grandpa? I love black currant. Do you?"

"Yes, Maggie, I love Ribena too." He reached for the glass bottle filled with the thick, deep purple drink, and for two plastic cups. He popped the lid off and poured the liquid. It splashed and sputtered as it flowed into the cups. "Here you go, lass," he said, handing her one of the cups. "Now be careful. Your Gran wouldnít be happy if you spilt Ribena on her good blanket."

"Iíll be careful, Grandpa," she said, grabbing the cup and gulping it down. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Maggie took four pieces of shortbread out of the basket and kept two, while handing the other two to her grandpa. She ate them quickly, delighting in the buttery, sugary taste. She brushed the crumbs off her fingers, making sure they went on the heather and not on the blanket. She looked at her grandpa and started giggling. "Grandpa, youíve got shortbread crumbs on your face!" She reached over and brushed them off. Maggie noticed that his chin needed a shave. It was rough from stubble. "Come on, Grandpa. Letís go to the cottage."

She jumped up and pulled on Grandpaís hand. He stood, feeling stiff, yet not in pain. While Maggie gathered all the rubbish and put it in the basket, he shook the blanket off, folded it up, and then set it on top of the closed picnic basket, carefully, so that he could still hold the handle. "Letís go," he said. He took Maggieís hand in his and they headed towards the cottage.

It was a long walk, but mostly downhill. At the bottom of the hill was a small burn. The two of them stopped and watched it. It was so quiet that the trickling of the small brook seemed to hypnotize them for a few moments. They listened as its dark, peaty water danced past them. "Be careful not to get your feet wet," Grandpa warned. He stepped over it. Maggie jumped and was quite proud that she made it.

The silhouetted form of the cottage up ahead gave Grandpa comfort. He knew that soon heíd be able to rest. Maggie, in all her youth and innocence, let go of his hand and ran off towards it. "The cottage, Grandpa. Iíll race you. Iíll win," she bragged. Grandpa was quite happy to let her win.

Maggie reached the cottage first, as expected, and peered inside through the still clean glass pane. "Grandpa, Hurry. The cottage is filled with spider webs and dust."

He began to trot as fast as he could and soon stood next to Maggie. He peered in the window. "There are a lot of webs, arenít there? Hmmm. Come around back," he said, grabbing her hand and walking towards the back of the cottage. Maggie noticed the red berries hanging on a rowan tree. She saw yellow gorse, or broom, as Gran called it, growing in patches. There were hawthorn bushes with small pink wild roses on them.

Grandpa stopped. In front of them was a swing. It was attached to a sturdy branch of an oak tree by long pieces of weatherworn rope. The seat of the swing was nothing more than a wooden board with two holes drilled in each side. The rope was woven through them and tied with large knots. "A swing!" Maggie exclaimed. She ran over to it and climbed on.

Grandpa walked behind her and began to push her. She held onto the ropes, even though they were dirty feeling and damp. "I used to push your mum way up high when she was a little girl. See that branch up there, by your feet? She used to be able to touch the leaves. Can you?"

He pushed her a little harder. She started pumping with her legs and soon was swinging high. Grandpa stood back and watched. "Iím going to touch the leaves, Grandpa," she cried out. She stretched her legs and struggled to reach the yellowing autumn leaves. "I did it! I did it!" she proudly called out when she grabbed a leaf between her feet.

Grandpa stood watching his granddaughter, but what he saw was his own daughter, a little girl with long brown hair, in pigtails, just like Maggies. Instead of cries of "Grandpa!", he heard cries of "Poppa!" A tear trickled down his wrinkled cheek, dripping to the ground. He missed the days gone by. He missed his daughter.

"Grandpa, Grandpa, push me," Maggie giggled.

"Aye, lassie," he whispered. He took a deep breath, wiped the tears away, smiled a big smile and waked over to push his precious granddaughter.

After several swings, Maggie jumped off. She flew through the air and landed on the grass, right on her knees. She fell forward, giggling.

Maggie and Grandpa spent the next several hours at the cabin. He chased her around the gorse. They picked some strawberries that were miraculously growing in the place the garden once was. Juice dribbled down Grandpaís chin onto his shirt. Maggie tried to wipe it off, but ended up making a bigger mess. "Grandpa, Gran isnít going to like this. You made a mess," she scorned.

"Weíll no tell her, will we, lass?"

"No, Grandpa, we wont," she whispered, putting her finger to her lips.

The old croft was thoroughly explored by Maggie, though it was small and didnít take long. Grandpa showed her where the beds used to be and which one was her mums. He showed her the old fireplace and how they had to burn peat to stay warm and cook. "How did you get the peat?" Maggie asked, inquisitively.

"I had to go and chop it outside. You find peat near the burns. Oh, it smells so sweet as it heats up. Will last for hours," he explained. Maggie squeezed his hand. "You go and play for a while, Maggie. Iím going to sit here and think."

Maggie ran outside. Grandpa watched her picking buttercups and sniffing them. "Aye, Maggie. Youíre like your mum, you are," he sighed to himself.

After a while, Grandpa stood up and called his granddaughter. "Time we be getting home now, lass. It will soon be twilight."

She came running and handed Grandpa the picnic basket. They walked towards home. "You know, lass, that at twilight, the fairies come out, donít ye?"

"Fairies?"

"Aye, fairies. Have ye no seen a fairy before?"

"No, Grandpa. What do they look like?"

"If we hurry, we might see one, dancing over the loch, or through the rowan trees. Highland fairies like rowan trees."

"Letís go, Grandpa. I want to see one," Maggie urged.

They tromped through the heather, over the hills, past the burn, around the shores of the loch. The sun was lowering behind the horizon. Instead of a velvet blue sky, fingers of maroon, pink, reached across the sky. "This is the perfect time," Grandpa said, stopping on top of a hill. "Look, down by the loch. Can you see the flickering lights?" he asked the girl. He pointed to a cluster of trees. "Thereís one. Sheís at the rowan tree down there."

"I see it, Grandpa. I see it. I see the fairy," Maggie said, excited. She jumped up and down. "Itís flying around the tree. Look at its wings. They are silvery."

"I see, lass. Sheís eating the rowan berries."

He squeezed her small hand. They stood, captured in silence and wonder, watching as the sky darkened around them. After a few minutes, Grandpa looked up. The sky was darkening. "Time to go, Maggie," he said. "We need to head for home."

"All right, Grandpa, but can we come and see the fairies again?"

"Aye, lass, weíll do it again, soon."

Smoke billowed from the croft as they approached. Gran was waiting at the door. Maggie ran to her arms and she took her granddaughter inside. Grandpa stood near the ancient oak, gazing into the heavens. Knowing she was listening, he whispered "Goodnight, my lassie," to his daughter, and went inside to join the others.


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