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Frelsi (Book Two of The Liminality), Page 1

A. Sparrow


  A. Sparrow

  Copyright 2012 by A. Sparrow, All Rights Reserved

  To Pop

  Chapter 1: Cwm Gwyrdd Farm

  Who knew that a Welsh goat farm could restore my appetite for life? It was a bizarre turn for me, but no more surreal than the weirdness that had gone on before I had ridden down here on the back of Sturgie’s motorcycle.

  The man who owned the farm, Renfrew Boyle, was a veteran of the Falklands War, a Royal Marine commando who had stormed ashore at San Carlos Bay and seized Mount Kent from the Argentineans. But that wasn’t how he lost his leg. He also happened to be a Type II diabetic with a fondness for cheesecake.

  Renfrew wore an old school, second-hand prosthetic cobbled from leather strapping and steel. He had picked up at a flea market for fifty quid after refusing the springy, high-tech carbon-fiber contraption the government had offered. He said it made him feel like a grasshopper.

  Renfrew made goat cheese that drew raves from gourmands and restaurateurs from Cardiff to London. Cwm Gwyrdd’s aged rounds won an award in 1999, and ever since the orders kept coming without the need for any marketing. People literally came beating on his door to buy his cheese.

  Sturgie, his nephew, had been in line to take over the cheese business, but that was no longer in the cards. He had left the farm that summer to pursue a degree in communications at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness. Shuttling me to Brynmawr on his motorcycle had been Sturgie’s way of making a peace offering to his uncle.

  When I showed at the farm unannounced, Renfrew had been skeptical and dismissive of this dirty-faced and broke American kid devoid of any useful skills. Why wouldn’t he be? But eventually, with the steady but inexorable pace of a glacier, he had come to appreciate my presence.

  Renfrew had a grand time mocking my noobness, but he also had vast reserves of patience and tolerance. He knew when to dive in to rescue me before things got out of hand.

  He had me doing things I never imagined. Trimming hooves. Mending broken horns. Pressing curds into cheese. Every day there was some new task I was expected to figure out on the fly.

  Milking time was when I really earned my keep. Since I didn’t quite have the touch, those does didn’t let me anywhere near their udders. So I functioned mainly in support, disinfecting the equipment, emptying pails, getting does in and out of their stanchions.

  Twice a day we went down to the barns. Each session took an hour and a half. With a hundred fifty goats, it could get pretty hectic.

  Most does hopped right up into the stanchions eager to be relieved of their burdens. When their udders went flaccid they got fussy and then it was just a matter of getting them out of the way for the next eager doe.

  Some goats wanted nothing to do with the stanchions, and it was like wrestling demons. I can’t say I blamed them. They reminded me of the wooden stocks the old Puritans used to punish sinners.

  These goats were Saanen and Nubian crosses, breeds whose milk produced the high fats and solids ideal for cheese-making. Saanens were big beasties, uniformly white or cream. Like little cows they were, nothing perturbed them and they minded their own business.

  Their alter egos, the floppy-eared Nubians, were the troublemakers, always testing the defenses. Their coats were uniquely splashed with ink blots of black and brown, so I got to know them as individuals not just interchangeable members of a herd. I came to love their curiosity and spunk.

  Otherworldly creatures, these goats. With those horizontal slitted pupils, how could you look at them and not think of aliens?

  I served as their concierge and bodyguard. I got them fed, brought them where they needed to go, kept them safe and out of places they had no business being—like Renfrew’s little vineyard.

  Some of the buggers had squeezed through a gap in the fence and plundered his vines, destroying a good third of the crop. When I had run to tell Renfrew he just tossed me a coil of stiff wire and told me to go fix it. At least it got me out of the evening milking.

  So here I was, weaving the wire in and out of each square of mesh and pulling it tight. My patch work was ugly and amateurish, but Renfrew wouldn’t care so long as it kept his goats out.

  It was a losing battle, if you asked me. His goats lusted over those grapes and did everything they could to get inside that fence. I didn’t blame them. Those grapes gave off a glorious aroma under that late September sun. I was tempted to nibble some myself.

  Folding the end of the wire into a hook, my hand slipped and it caught my finger. I winced and yanked it free. A large drop of blood beaded on the throbbing tip. I wiped it across my lips, salt mingling with the metallic tang of dirt and rust.

  I stepped back and surveyed my handiwork, already knowing it would be inadequate. These goats were crafty little buggers.


  And so, my strange life came to revolve around goats and slag heaps in the south of Wales. The daily rhythms and routines of farm life replaced my wandering. Natural replaced supernatural. But nothing could fill the hole in my heart that leaving Karla had made.

  The goat farm was supposed to have been a temporary haven. Karla had warned me not to stick around too long. I was supposed to have kept on the move, keeping one step ahead of our enemies including Edmund, her brutal, religious freak of a father who—lucky me—was newly added to my list.

  But I had gotten attached to this place. The kind and quirky people. My cozy space in a barn loft. Three square meals a day. If only I could have learned to like goat cheese (I never could get over that pervasive muskiness).

  They even gave me spending money—below minimum wage, but I didn’t complain. I was illegal, for one thing, and my needs were modest. This was a hard situation to give up.

  But there was another thing that kept me anchored here. Karla knew how to find this place. If I moved on, she would have no means of contacting me, just as I didn’t know where to find her in the great big city of Glasgow.

  Of course, not being able to find each other was supposed to have been the whole point of this arrangement. I guess the isolation was supposed to make us sad and desperate. That way our soul could surf down the spiral of deep depression into the Liminality or ‘Root,’ as I liked to call it—that nether place twixt life and death only the truly suicidal get to witness.

  Karla, you see, had given up on life. She was firmly committed to Root. She had friends there—Bern and Lille. And those friends had heard rumors of a community of souls who had found a way to take up permanent residence in its upper reaches, none of this flitting back and forth that us ‘surfers’ had to do. Frelsi, the place was called. I even looked up the name to see if it meant anything. The best I could figure, it was Icelandic for ‘freedom.’

  Root had been a revelation when it first came calling, offering me escape from a life where I came to dread every sunrise. Back then, I wanted the world to stop so I could get off. Root gave me an alternative.

  But I liked my life these days. I liked me and I liked this world I lived in. I didn’t want to feel so depressed some threshold of the afterlife comes after me. I didn’t want to die.

  And it hadn’t. Not since Inverness, in that train station where the bounty hunter tracked me down, had I crossed over into Root. My memories of it now seemed like wisps of some old dream.

  But I didn’t miss Root. Not one bit. I missed Karla. Five weeks apart felt like forever. I had no pictures of her to obsess over and my mental image had already started to blur around the edges. All that persisted was the memory of the way she made me feel when I had been with her in Root. I pined for more.

  Every day when the mail came, I would peek in Renfrew’s box, hoping for a letter or a po
stcard, something to let me know that she was alive and that I remained in her thoughts. But no letter ever came. I died a little, every day without her.

  You might think that the misery would build enough to send me spiraling back to Root where maybe I could see her. But there was too much hope in my soul.

  That was because of Sturgie, my trump card. He knew Linval, Karla’s cousin, who had driven her and her sister Isobel down to Glasgow the night we parted. And if Sturgie could tell me how to find him, chances were Linval would know how to find Karla.

  That was by no means guaranteed if Karla had moved on and gone to extremes to erase their path. But it was a shred of hope and enough to squash any chance of going to Root and seeing Karla under her own terms.


  As the sun fell behind the hills, I realized the Renfrew’s staff was all gathered in the milking barn by now, making do without me while I bolstered Renfrew’s anti-goat, grape defense system.

  I daubed my bloody finger on my jeans and tucked the wire cutters into my belt. Fence duty had excused me from the evening milking and I needed a break, so I took the path through the reclaimed slag heaps into the heights that overlooked the town.

  I liked coming up here to think. Brynmawr looked purer from afar. The falling sun glazed its rooftops and twinkled in its window panes. Not that it was an especially ugly or dirty town. Like any place, it had its quaint parts along with the warts. It had never been wealthy, but some fancy houses remained from the glory days when coal and iron ruled the local economy.

  The foundries were nothing but ruins now, jumbles of stone arches and chimneys. There were acres of overgrown slag heaps that could have passed for the burial mounds of giant trolls. Funny, how the slanting light of a September evening could make even a slag heap look pretty.

  The barren and blunted ridges stretching into the distance looked nothing like the Scottish Highlands, but something in the air triggered memories of my ill-fated jaunt up the Llarig Ghru. I wondered what faerie worlds lay hidden here, visible only to human souls on the brink of death.

  I decided to wait until dark before going down for dinner. The milking was likely done by now, but Renfrew had a habit of waylaying me for one last chore when my heart had packed it in for the day. Helen usually came to rescue me before dinner got cold, cursing Renfrew for exploiting me, telling me to put my broom down and finish up in the morning. Not that I was lazy or anything. I just wasn’t used to fourteen hour work days.

  She was a saint, that Helen. I mistook her at first for Renfrew’s wife, but their relationship proved nothing of the sort. They regularly traded flirtations but Helen was divorcee who wanted nothing to do with men anymore. Her best friends were a trio of lesbian painters who shared a studio loft in town.

  The farm’s entire staff lived on the premises and shared Renfrew’s dinner table. Besides Renfrew, Helen and me, there was Jessica and Harry.

  Jess was the enigma. She could be as bold as a pit bull and shy as a fawn. She would talk your ear out one day and clam up the next. She was young, maybe half Helen’s age but she had this battle weariness to her that made me think she was a lot older than me. Mid twenties, I would guess, though I could never find a tactful way to ask her.

  There wasn’t much to say about Harry, because Harry never had much to say. I took him for a simpleton when I first arrived, which only proved that all of my first impressions had been wrong. Harry was a jack of all trades and I mean ALL. Besides pitching in with the regular chores, he maintained Renfrew’s web page and handled all relations with the network of hoity-toity gourmet shops in Cardiff and London that stocked Renfrew’s cheeses.

  He was an ace mechanic too. He could fix anything from tricycles to bulldozers. I consulted with him regularly in my efforts to restore an old motorcycle I had uncovered from the junked heaped in back of Renfrew’s storage barn.


  As I watched the underbellies of the clouds turn pink, a twig crunched behind me. I jumped out of my skin as the very vision of a faerie princess came up the path, a strand of braided hair circling her brow like a crown.

  “Renfrew’s got a job for you,” said Jessica, gazing down at her feet and the nubs of grass in the overgrazed meadow.

  “Don’t tell me. He wants his manure pile turned.”

  “Nah. He wants you to drive to Cardiff. Harry was supposed to go, but he’s fallen out of the loft. He’s not going anywhere but the clinic.”

  “Oh man! Is he okay?”

  “He’ll survive. Broken ankle, Helen thinks. So anyhow, Ren wants you to drive his lorry to Cardiff. He’s got a shipment of cheese, needs to get to London.”

  “Why not you … or Helen? I mean, I don’t even have a license.”

  Jessica frowned. “Because you’ve got testicles and we don’t. Ren won’t trust a woman to drive his truck.”

  “Why not?”

  She shrugged. “It’s just how he is.”

  “But I’ve never driven on the left. I don’t even know the way to Cardiff.”

  “If it ain’t you, it’s gonna be him fiddling with that one good leg. One time his straps broke and he had to drive all the back from Pontypool in first gear.”

  “I don’t understand why he won’t he let you guys drive.”

  She shrugged. “What can I say? He says it’s a stiff clutch. Fit only for a man, the wanker insists.”

  “Uh … let me go talk to him.”


  Trying to talk Renfrew out of something he had his mind set on was like trying to convince a boulder it was a frog. He wanted his cheese sent to market and he wanted me to be the one to take it to Cardiff.

  The lorry was an old brick red Leyland with a raised bed and a canvas awning. It looked like a snub-nosed pickup truck, the cab shunted forward almost on top of the engine. It had to be at least thirty years old, but it didn’t look a day over twenty. I just couldn’t see myself driving it, but I didn’t have a choice in the matter.

  We sat out on a picnic table in the tractor yard sharing mugs of bitter while Jess gathered her things from the guest cottage she shared with Helen. My own quarters were in a converted loft in one of the barns. My toilet was an outhouse. I showered under a hose out back.

  It was a poor man’s solar heater. A sunny day gave me two minutes of tepid water in the afternoons, cold water when it was cloudy. Renfrew offered to share his bath, but I didn’t like intruding, though I might have to take him up on his offer if I was still around come winter.

  “I’m not sure this is a great idea,” I said. “That steering wheel on the passenger side really freaks me out.”

  “Oh, it’s nothing,” said Renfrew. “Five seconds on the road and you’ll have the knack. It’s no harder than combing your hair with your left hand. You just flip your brain around and it all becomes natural. You’ll have Jess by your side to coach you. No worries, lad. None at all. I had Sturgie driving this beastie before he was even twelve.”

  I got up and peered into the grimy windows of the cab, grimacing at shredded seats exposing the springs beneath. “How many gears?”

  “It’s a simple five-speed. Single clutch. Take care in the shifting. The upper gears are sometimes reluctant to engage. Other than that, it’s a piece of cake. The cheese is already packed. Two coolers on wet ice. A trial run for a new shop in Waverly.”

  Jessica appeared around the corner of the barn, clutching a large canvas bag packed with sundries.

  “So where did you want us to bring this stuff?”

  “Cardiff Central. Jess knows the way. Just do what she says and you can’t go wrong.”

  “Wait a minute, isn’t that a … a train station?”

  Chapter 2: Caerdydd Canolog

  It was already dark when I got the lorry started and popped it into gear. Jessica was in the cab with me, a thermos of coffee and fleshly baked sweet buns in her bag.

  Harry was back from the clinic, his leg in a cast. He and Renfrew, the pair of gimps, looked on from the lighted porch with wicked
grins, as if hoping I would mess up.

  If so, they were disappointed, because starting up a truck and riding the brakes as we rolled down a hill was pretty much idiot-proof. Helen had already trotted down to swing open the gate for us.

  When we reached the paved road, I went to up shift and found that Renfrew wasn’t kidding about that clutch. It resisted like someone had wedged a rock beneath the pedal. And when it gave way, it collapsed completely, like someone giving up an arm wrestle. There was only a narrow range near the top where it actually engaged the gears.

  Nevertheless, I managed to get it into second, and then third as we trundled down the main road. And I was doing it! Driving on the left. It was disorienting, making me dizzy and slightly queasy.

  The engine started to whine. “Feel free to shift, any time now,” said Jessica.

  I slammed down the clutch and searched for fourth gear. Jessica watched me struggle before sighing and reaching for the stick. “Here. Let me help.” She reached over and slipped the shifter into place with a firm jiggle and a shove. I engaged the clutch as smoothly as I could, my thigh trembling from the strain.

  The engine revved down. “Ah, that’s better,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just stick with this speed. You’re not in any hurry are you?”

  “It isn’t about me. The last train leaves for London at nine thirty.”

  “Well, it’s that not that far to Cardiff, is it?”

  “No, but I wouldn’t dilly-dally. You never know what we might encounter on the way.”

  I sighed. After what had happened to me in Inverness, my skin crawled at the thought of visiting another urban rail station. It was probably ludicrous to expect there to be bounty hunters looking for me at every train stop in the UK, but once bitten, twice shy.

  “Want to do anything, while we’re in Cardiff?” said Jessica.

  “Not particularly.”

  “But you’ve never been to Cardiff. I can show you around.”

  “Isn’t it gonna be kind of late?”

  “Not really, but….” Jess sighed. “What is it? Are you tired? If so, I can drive back. That way you can sleep. Just don’t tell Renfrew.”