The Portal

Artwork © by Jef Murray

Artwork © by Jef Murray

The land surrounding Shaker Village in Kentucky might have been pulled fresh from the pages of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales. It encompasses rolling hills, small farm buildings, pleasant forests and streams, and ’round about its many pastures are dry stone fences that have stood for centuries. In a few spots along these fences, those who built them creatively worked round portals into the stone so that one could stoop down and see through the fence to the pasture or roadway beyond.

Passing one of these curious spots on a walk the other day, I was reminded of a tale I once heard regarding them; or at least, regarding one of them in particular. It was told me by a local fellow—Michael, I think his name was—in the Trustees’ Hall one night when Lorraine and I were supping there. It was a curious story about a very young woman who worked in Harrodsburg, but who dearly loved Shaker Village. She had no real family (Michael thought she might have been an orphan), and she had moved to Kentucky because…well…because the countryside here simply called out to her. And she loved taking long walks through the Village, never minding if there were reenactments going on, or festivals, or hayrides, or even Elves and Hobbits strolling the dusty paths until late into the evening.

Her name was Wendy. She was a quiet, introspective soul, and she managed to eke out what little living she required by working at a local print shop. The proprietor was quite kind; he seemed to understand her love of the Village, so he often let her off work early so that she could hike the wild trails there.

All was well with Wendy until, on one particularly chilly October afternoon, she was strolling away from the Village beside one of the dry stone fences, and she came upon one of the round portals that I have mentioned. And it was only then, and perhaps only because of the peculiarity of the weather at the time, that she noticed a curious thing: although the day was chilly, overcast, and damp, the light shining through the portal was bright and golden. It struck her as quite odd. Puzzled, she knelt down and peered through the opening in the stone wall; and at that moment, her life was changed forever.

For, you see, there on the other side of the wall, Wendy saw, just as clearly as you or I might see the sun rising on a clear winter’s day, a young woman looking right back at her. The girl was dressed in unusual garb, as if she was one of the costumed folk that sometimes attended festivals in the Village, but she seemed just as startled to see Wendy as Wendy was to see her.

“Oh, hello!” said Wendy.

“Hello!” the young woman replied.

At that point both of the young women did exactly the same thing; they stood up so that they might speak to each other over the top of the fence. But that is also when they received a shock. For, as Wendy stood and peered over, all she could see on the other side was damp pastureland rolling gently away from the road. There was a bit of fog and a donkey in the distance, but no other living thing, and certainly not a cheerful-looking young woman wearing a cloak.

Incredulous, Wendy bent back down and peered into the hole in the fence once more, and just then the other young woman did likewise. They both started speaking at once:

“How can you be there?!” asked Wendy.

“Why can’t I see you over the fence?!” the other young woman asked.

They both then promptly stood up to look over the fence once more, suspecting some sort of illusion or, in Wendy’s case, that she must be asleep and having the strangest sort of a dream. But, nothing had changed; the pasture and the donkey were still there. And although she could actually lean over the fence and look down at the grass directly below it on the other side, there was no young woman hiding at the base of the stones.

She stooped down for a third time, and the other girl was back.

“What’s your name?” Wendy asked her.

“Rowena,” the girl replied. “What’s yours?”

“Wendy.”

“Well, how are you managing this trick, Wendy? Or am I just dreaming? I suspect that the mead my brother gave me at dinner must have put me sound asleep, and that you are just a fairy tale spun of herbs and honey….” Rowena’s voice was sweet and musical.

Wendy was disconcerted by the girl, who appeared to be near her own age, or perhaps a bit younger, but she liked her immediately. If you have ever encountered someone in your life to whom you took an instant liking, but you didn’t exactly know why, you’ll know how Wendy felt. Even though Rowena had something like an English accent (to Wendy’s ears, at least), and she seemed to be wearing an outlandish outfit, Wendy thought suddenly that this sudden tug of affection must be what it felt like to have a sister of her own.

“I am not a daydream, Rowena, but I don’t know how I can possibly explain your being here in front of me! Let me think. So, you aren’t able to see me over the top of your side of the fence either, correct?”

“Correct.”

“Well, what can you see?”

Rowena stood up for a moment and the space in front of the portal was left open. Beyond the fence, Wendy descried golden pastures, not unlike those she might have seen over her own fence, but in Rowena’s world it was sunny, and the sky was a clear, deep blue; there also appeared to be sheep grazing in the distance. After a few moments, Rowena’s face reappeared.

“Well, I see pasture land…and sheep of course. And I think there’s a cart coming up the road from the west.”

Wendy stood and looked to her right. There was no cart coming. The road was empty and muddy. She stooped back down again.

“There’s no cart coming on my side at all!”

“It looks rainy on your side,” said Rowena. “Is it?”

“Yes, it is. But it’s sunny where you are?”

“Certainly! We’ve had not a bit of rain for two weeks!” Rowena laughed musically.

“But where is ‘there’? And, who are you? I mean, where did you come from?”

It took the two some time to sort everything out, but it soon became clear to Wendy that, as impossible as it might seem, Rowena lived in completely different world: in a place called Ladydale, on the edges of the Blackshear forest. It was mostly rural countryside, but Rowena’s father was a knight of sorts, and theirs was a prominent family in the nearby town. At least, that was the best Wendy could make of what Rowena told her.

Rowena herself seemed to be fascinated with what Wendy shared about Kentucky, and about the Village and the surrounding town. She didn’t seem to know anything about automobiles, or what a print shop was, or—and this caused a big lump to form in Wendy’s throat—or what it must be like to live on one’s own without a family.

“But how ever do you take care of yourself?! Don’t you have friends there who love you?”

Wendy stared off into the autumn mist on her side of the fence. She immediately thought about the print shop owner, but other than him, no one came to mind. Wendy considered that, although she wasn’t particularly shy, she was a very quiet person, and this sometimes came across to others as unfriendliness. Her many months of living on her own had always seemed to be about movement; from one town to the next. There never had been time to make friends, and she knew next to nothing about her own family; her real family.

Wendy shook her head, and for the first time since she was a small child, she felt tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Oh dear! Oh dear! Now look what I’ve done!” said Rowena. And as Wendy was wiping the tears from her eyes, Rowena reached through the portal and touched her arm.

“Here, I have a handkerchief,” she said, and Wendy took the soft cloth and daubed at her eyes. They sat in silence for a few moments.

“I’m sorry,” said Wendy, “it’s just been such a very long time since I’ve talked with anyone. You must think I’m very strange. I mean, you live with your mother and father and brother, and you have such a…well…such a lovely life it seems. And everything you’ve told me about Ladydale makes it sound like something right out of a fairy tale, and I do love fairy tales. I’m an orphan you see, so I’ve never really known what it’s like to have a loving family around me. Are there no orphans in Ladydale?”

“There are orphans everywhere, I think. But, in Ladydale, we try to take care of them. We have a special holiday once a year for those whose parents have been lost or who are in need of a family, for whatever reason. The whole village gathers, and we feast and play games together. And after the feast, any child in need of a home is taken in by a family, and they are raised from that day forth as a son or a daughter of that household.

“But everything here isn’t perfect, Wendy. For instance, I’ve never had a sister, and I’ve always wanted one. I should love to have someone like you as a sister; someone who is strong and can take care of herself and is wise and can teach me things. I’d like that very much!”

Wendy laughed. “I’m not so sure how wise I am, but I’d like that, too. I never wanted to live alone; I’ve just never known much else.

“Nevertheless, we seem to have one big problem: I am living in one world, and you’re in another one entirely, or I’m very much mistaken. And this hole in the fence is far, far too small for either of us to fit through, even if we wished!”

“Well then,” said Rowena, “we’ll just have to find a solution. I’m sure something can be done. I mean, I can’t imagine we’d have met in such a surpassingly strange way for no reason at all—unless it was part of some bigger plan. Maybe this is our destiny: to find a way to either get you over to Ladydale or get me to Kentucky!”

“I think Ladydale sounds better,” said Wendy.

“Then Ladydale it shall be! I’ll ask father; he knows some of the King’s counsellors, and even some of the wise folk who travel through our realms from lands far, far away. One of them is just bound to know something about magic portals!”

“Do you think so? Have you ever heard anyone speak of such things before in your world?”

“To be honest, no….” The two girls looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“…but…but,” said Rowena, gasping for breath, “I have heard of other strange and magical things! And, come to think of it, Azarias may be able to help us!”

“Azarias? Who is he?”

“A traveler, a story-teller, and some say a very great magician. He knows every language spoken by men, and elves, and dwarves…”

“You have elves and dwarves in Ladydale?!”

“Sometimes. Don’t you have them in Kentucky?”

Wendy shook her head. She glanced away from the hole in the fence and looked at the bleak landscape around her. She had always loved Shaker Village, but now its charm was dulled and muted by the grey autumn mists. “How wonderful it would be,” Wendy said aloud, “to live in a world where elves and dwarves and magic were all real….”

“Oh, but Wendy…they are! They truly are!”

 


 

Wendy and Rowena made a promise to come back to the portal the next day, and then the one after that and the one after that. Soon it became nearly impossible for either of them to think of missing their visits with each other. They shared stories, admired each other’s clothes, and even shared their favorite foods: Rowena brought mead, and wild mushrooms, and ripe cheeses; Wendy brought maple-cured ham, and saltine crackers, and tuna in cans, and salsify.

The two women were temperamentally near-perfect complements, as Wendy’s quiet moodiness was lifted by Rowena’s sanguine spirits, and Rowena’s frivolity was tempered by a growing compassion and love for her new friend.

The weeks passed, and still the two met each day. And each day, Wendy’s yearning to experience Ladydale for herself and to meet other members of Rowena’s family and community grew, and her satisfaction with her own life in Harrodsburg withered. The economy in Kentucky was not good, and even though her job at the print shop seemed secure, there were many people out of work; Wendy noticed more and more people asking for handouts in the streets. She tried to be as generous as she could, especially with people that she personally knew, but there were many others she did not, and some of these frightened her.

Nevertheless, she continued her daily visits to Shaker Village, and after some weeks had passed and winter was peering over the edges of autumn, she was startled to visit the portal one evening and find Rowena there with someone else.

“This is Azarias,” said Rowena, nodding at the elderly man sitting beside her. “You remember? I told you that he might be able to help us….”

“Oh, yes, I do remember! I’m very happy to meet you, Mr. Azarias,” said Wendy.

“Just Azarias is fine, my dear,” said the old man, “and I’m delighted to finally meet you! Rowena has spoken of no one else since word of your situation reached me.” His long hair was grey, and he had a closely cropped beard. His green eyes were kindly, and he took Wendy’s hand through the portal and kissed it gently.

“But this,” he said, gazing at the portal, “this is something I’ve not seen in many, many ages of men.” He stroked his beard and brushed his fingertips against the stones of the portal, whispering words Wendy could not understand as he did so. Blue sparks sprang from the stones as his fingers passed over them.

“What year is it in your world?” asked Azarias, abruptly.

“2014,” said Wendy.

“Hmmm, 2014. I think that’s just before…ah, yes…that’s not good, not good at all.”

“What’s not good?”

“Let me think. Might I take hold of your hand once more, just for a moment?”

Wendy reached out her hand, and Azarias held it lightly in his own and closed his eyes. Wendy felt a curious sensation, a slight dizziness, and she saw shapes flitting through her mind, almost as if a dream was intruding upon her waking consciousness. Then Azarias released her hand and the sensation passed.

“Rowena, I will need to retrieve certain tools in order to do so, but I believe I can help you and Wendy, if that is what you both desire.”

“Do you mean you can bring Wendy to Ladydale?” asked Rowena.

“If she wishes it, yes. But this is no trivial matter, and it must be carefully considered. We can only bring her here once, and she would, thereafter, be unable to return home again. The portal, once used in this manner, would henceforth cease to be.” Azarias peered intently through the portal at Wendy. “So you see, my dear, you will need to carefully consider whether this is something you earnestly desire.”

Wendy lifted her gaze and looked around her at Shaker Village. She still loved it; but would she miss it and all of what she had known in her own world if she decided to leave? She looked back through the portal and saw Rowena’s glowing face.

“I do desire to come, but I need a little time to be sure, and to prepare myself.”

“That is as it should be, since, even if you wished to come immediately, I would still be lacking the time and tools to make it so. But….” Azarias hesitated.

“But, what?”

Azarias glanced at Rowena and whispered something into her ear. Rowena went pale.

“Is that true?” she asked Azarias. He nodded. “Then she must come over at once! We cannot take any chances!”

“What are you both talking about?” asked Wendy. “You’re making me nervous. Is there something wrong?”

“No, my dear, nothing that can’t be managed. We have until tomorrow at the very least, and perhaps a bit longer. Do you think you can decide by then? In any event, even if you are unsure, you must meet us again here before sundown. Is that understood?”

“Well, yes, I think so. But, what’s so important about sundown?”

“Just trust Azarias, Wendy,” said Rowena. “He’s…well…he’s seen something that might happen on your side after tomorrow, and it would be best if you were here, at the portal, before then.” Rowena glanced at Azarias and he nodded back at her.

Wendy was not an anxious soul, but she remained curious, and concerned. “But, you’re sure I have until then? Is there nothing more you can tell me?”

“I would prefer not to,” said Azarias. “Events in time, and especially those that involve other worlds, can so easily be disrupted by second-guessing them. If you can, dear, try to trust me. Come tomorrow before sunset, and I’ll be able to explain everything then, regardless of what you decide.”

“And do, do decide to come here and be with us!” said Rowena. “I don’t know why there seems to be no magic in your world, but there is here, and you’ll be so happy! You will be my sister, and I yours! Do come…do!”

“Thank you, dear Rowena! I do so want to…but I must be sure. I’ll be here tomorrow in any event. But if I am certain that I wish to be in your world, should I bring anything with me?”

“No, my dear, nothing other than any keepsakes you may wish to retain. Everything else you need in Ladydale will be provided to you by Rowena and her family,” said Azarias.

“Thank you. Then, there’s nothing more to say…I’ll see you both tomorrow, yes?”

“Yes, my dear. We’ll be here. Oh, just one more thing: have you a cloak? Something that you can put around you for warmth and to hide you from prying eyes? Yes? Then bring that along too. And, remember, you need to be here by sunset, whatever decision you come to.”

 


 

Wendy returned to her apartment above the print shop, deep in thought. She didn’t notice the two young men watching her ascend the stairs. Nor would she have noticed, even if she had bothered to look out her window, that the two panhandlers seemed to be spying upon her apartment from the street.

Wendy spent the evening looking through her possessions, and she soon realized how little truly bound her to her world. Her most cherished possessions were her books, and she searched through these until she found exactly three that she thought she could not live without. The first was the Bible that her mother had left her. The second was a collection of beloved fairy tales that she had had since she was little; she had found it in an old antique store when she was very young, and it was the first book she had ever purchased. The last was an epic fantasy novel that had been given to her by the kind shopkeeper; it was his favorite book in the world, and one she thought Rowena would love.

The next morning dawned chill and grey once more. Wendy went down to the print shop as usual, but when a quiet moment came, she asked if she could speak with the shopkeeper. Timothy led her back to his desk and listened to her story; Wendy could not refrain from telling him the full tale, since she was sure now that she would not be returning to the shop again.

“Well, my dear,” Timothy told her, “I knew something was up with you. It always seemed to me that you were here for just a short while. I realized early on that you had found something at the Village that you were meant to find, and I am delighted that you have found it! Is there anything I can do to help you? I mean, are there any doubts you have about leaving that I might be able to quell?”

“But, I thought you would be astonished at what I’ve told you!” said Wendy. “You make it sound like magical portals are an everyday affair!”

“Oh, no, I don’t think they are, but I suspect they are not as rare as you seem to believe. There has always been magic at the Village; that’s why I love it, too! But I have to say I do rather envy you the chance to go to a world filled with elves and dwarves; what fun!” Timothy beamed, and then he stood up.

“I’ll be happy to give you a ride there after work, my dear, if you’d like. But, would you mind my giving you a goodbye hug now rather than then? It will be easier on me, for I shall miss you, and I don’t expect we’ll have much chance of keeping up once you go….”

Wendy gave the shopkeeper a big hug, and she saw tears in his eyes. She realized that she had come to love this man. “But maybe, just maybe,” Wendy thought to herself, “I was supposed to love him. Maybe all of this was planned from the start.”

 


 

The trip to Shaker Village that afternoon was uneventful, although the weather remained grey and foggy and snow was expected. Timothy kept asking Wendy if the few things she had with her would be enough. She assured him they would be. He said he would offer her money if he thought it would be of any help to her, but he rather suspected that Ladydale folk, if they used money at all, would only recognize gold and silver as payment.

“And I’m afraid I’m completely out of silver pennies,” he chuckled.

They arrived at the Village parking lot just as the evening was settling in. Wendy left Timothy’s car, came around to the driver’s side, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You’ve been very good to me,” she said.

“Remember me to Rowena, and to that wizard fellow,” he replied, “and I’ll keep you in my prayers. I know all shall be well, but I’ll be keeping an eye on the Village in case any more of those portals open up anytime soon.”

Wendy waved goodbye to Timothy as he drove away, and then she turned toward the Village road. She didn’t notice the battered Chevy that had pulled into the parking lot, nor the two seedy-looking young men that emerged into the gloaming and followed her.

Wendy was nearly at the portal. It was just getting dark, and she glanced anxiously at her watch. Sunset was at 5:21 and it was just now 5:15. She then noticed the date: it was December the 13th. “Saint Lucy’s Day!” she exclaimed, “what a wonderful day for travelling between worlds! Saint Lucy, pray for me!”

She reached the portal and stooped down. Azarias was there, with Rowena. They seemed relieved.

“I was so worried you weren’t coming!” said Rowena.

“Yes, and so was I,” exclaimed Azarias. “Have you decided?”

“Yes, I have. And, yes, I want to come with you!” said Wendy.

Rowena clapped her hands together in joy.

“Then, my dear, there’s not a moment to lose,” said Azarias. “Rowena, contain your excitement, you’ll have plenty of time to express it once we are finished…”

“What must I do?” asked Wendy.

“Sit down on your side and draw your cloak up around you. I’ve already prepared everything. Now, reach your hand through to me.” Wendy put her hand through the portal. But just then she heard a twig snap, and she looked down the road. The two young men were walking rapidly toward her.

“There are two men coming,” she said to Azarias.

“I know. Ignore them. Grasp my hand.”

Wendy held the wizard’s hand tightly and closed her eyes. Her head spun, and then she heard, as if from a very great distance “Now, let go, dear. You are safe….”

His words seemed to fade as she released his hand. She opened her eyes. She was sitting on the grass, just as before, but the air was warmer, and the light, though fading, was not grey, but gold and blue. For a moment she thought that the wizard’s spell hadn’t worked, but then she saw Rowena sitting next to her, and in the next moment they were hugging each other tightly.

“It worked! It worked!!!” Wendy said.

“Welcome home!” said Rowena.

After a few moments the girls stopped hugging and Wendy looked around her. “But where is Azarias?” she asked.

“Gone,” said Rowena. “He told me that, in order to bring you here, someone from Ladydale would have to take your place. He’s on the other side now.”

Wendy looked horrified, then glanced through the portal. But all she saw was the golden light on the other side of the fence; the portal had closed. “But, that means he’s stuck there! I didn’t mean for that to happen! It’s not fair to him!”

“Well, he didn’t seem to mind—he is a wizard, you know—besides, he said that there was some business he needed to attend to on your side. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine! But now, we must get home. Mother and father and Rowan are all desperate to meet you, and I expect you’re famished; I know I am!”

The two young women stood up and began the short walk back into town, arm in arm, laughing and bringing smiles to all they waved to in the gloaming. And Wendy noticed that the evening star was shining brightly before them, leading them home.

 


 

That is the essence of the tale as it was told to me by Michael. I was curious as to how he had come to know so much of it, since it seemed to me that there were virtually no witnesses to most of the events of the last days of Wendy’s time in Harrodsburg. But Michael insisted that the tale was true. He had heard much of it from the shopkeeper, Timothy, who was a regular visitor to Shaker Village; also, he was reasonably sure that he had met Azarias, at least once. But, aside from these, there was the matter of the two cats.

Shaker Village, despite having been a functioning farm in its heyday, never had had a problem with rats, and the proprietors had always declined offers from local farmers and households to provide cats in order to control their populations. But, the morning after Saint Lucy’s day just a few years before, two black cats had suddenly appeared in the Village. No one knew where they came from, and every time Village folk tried to give them away or take them to an animal shelter, they would reappear again in the Village. You are very likely to see them there to this day, prowling about the stoops of the Village Dwellings in the cool evenings and rolling languidly upon the sun-warmed stone steps.

Michael claimed he had asked Timothy about the cats, since the timing of their appearance seemed to link them to the events surrounding Wendy’s disappearance, and here is what he was told:

“Oh, yes, yes, I’d forgotten all about that,” said Timothy. “You’re quite right you know, the cats were involved. And in fact, I was there. You see, when I dropped Wendy off and started to leave, I noticed the two men getting out of their car. They made me uneasy, so I pulled back into the parking lot and followed them. Sure enough, they seemed to be trailing her along the road toward the West Family Lot. I saw them round the corner in the road, near where the portal was located, and when I was able to see them again, they were closing in on Wendy, who was sitting on the ground in front of the portal…or so I thought.

“What happened next is difficult to say for sure. I saw a bright flash of light, and the person I thought was Wendy stood up, but it couldn’t have been Wendy, because the figure was far too tall. I heard a word of command spoken, and then there were two more flashes of light. The two men that had been there were gone; in their places were two black cats. The beasts were terror-stricken, and they immediately shrieked and bolted away and took shelter in the bushes beside the road.

“I came closer. The figure beside the fence stepped onto the road and I could see that it was an elderly fellow with long grey hair and a beard. He had a stout walking stick that he leant against.

‘You’re the shopkeeper, aren’t you?’ the man asked.

‘Yes, I’m Timothy. But who are you? And what has happened to Wendy?’

‘Ah, I think you already know the answer to both of those questions. Come, let’s go back into town. I’ve much to learn from you about Kentucky….’”

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About the Author

Jef Murray was an internationally known Tolkien and fantasy artist/illustrator and counterfeit essayist. His paintings, sketches, and writings sprout sporadically from the leaves of Tolkien and Inklings publications (Amon Hen, Mallorn, Beyond Bree, Silver Leaves, Mythprints) and Catholic journals (The St. Austin Review, Gilbert Magazine, The Georgia Bulletin) worldwide.

Jef noted that, contrary to all sense and sensibility, his images wended their way into The Magic Ring: Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque and Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien by Hilary A. R. Tolkien.

Jef passed on to life eternal on August 3, 2015.

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