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Stoneywish and other chilling stories

Joan Aiken



  Snow Horse


  The Road from Rushout Wood


  My Dad’s a plumber. STONEYWISH SANITARY, it says on the side of his van. He is a solitary, silent man, likes driving about and fixing people’s pipes; that way he doesn’t have to do too much talking.

  Stoneywish is the village where we live, half a dozen houses, pub, and church, set among a lot of huge thorn, hazel, and blackberry clumps in the middle of a rough, tussocky common five miles from Marston Wells.

  It’s a funny thing, in our village, none of the houses can be seen from any other; look from our kitchen window, you might be living in a wood. Perhaps that’s why Dad chose to live in the place.

  Three hundred years ago, Stoneywish was much bigger (Mr Lee, who teaches history, told me) but then almost all the people in it caught the plague. The County Sheriff ordered a big, high fence built all the way round the houses, and nobody was to be allowed in or out until the people had either died or got better. Most died.

  Our family wasn’t living here in those times. Dad came from overseas twenty years ago, his name was Xarzziq, which he changed to Chark. But I was born in Stoneywish.

  On the day that I was born, Dad was driving my Mum along the winding, narrow lane that leads from Stoneywish to Marston Wells to buy wool to make a shawl. It was a misty, wintry day. And there was a fellow in a sports car behind Dad on the road who was wild to get past – he kept spurting up close, weaving and honking on his horn, twisting and swerving and shaking his fist – Dad said he felt like a cow with a gadfly on its tail, and this impatient, pestilent fellow was driving him crazy with such a carry-on, and no way to let him by, the road being so narrow and twisty, all among the blackthorn and bramble bushes.

  Then – all of a sudden, rounding a big tangled clump of thorn on his left – my Dad sees somebody ahead of him on the road – a person, an old skinny fellow with a white beard, making his slow tottery way across, limping on a stick.

  Of course my Dad crammed on his brake – and at that the furious fellow behind comes swooping past, with a blare on his horn, side-swiping my Dad’s rear fender, so that Dad swerved violently across the road and ends up with his radiator jammed into a bramble-bush on the right-hand side.

  In a moment the sports car had zipped on its way, with a roar, and was out of sight. And the old pedestrian who’d been the cause of the trouble – to Dad’s amazement he wasn’t hurt at all, but had somehow contrived to shuffle across, just before the sports car overtook – he came to help see to my Mum, who was badly shook and shocked.

  “Ought to be sat in the stocks, that sort, and have rotten eggs shied at ’em,” says the old man. Meaning the driver of the sports car. And, “If you’d been born in this place, friend, you could have used your Stoneywish on him.”

  Dad, busy comforting Mum, paid no heed to this, thought the old boy must be a bit touched in his wits. How could he know, anyway, where Dad was born?

  Having managed to reverse the van out, back on to the road, and finding there was not much damage done, Dad turned round and made for home. The old man had limped off into the bushes.

  Dad soon forgot all about him.

  For that night I was born, and my Mum died.

  I’ve always been lame, like you see, so my mates tease me, calling me Rickety, instead of Rick. Rickety Chark. I don’t mind, not too much. I’m going into the plumbing business, like my Dad; plumbers are always in demand. They don’t need to have both legs the same length.

  But that’s one of the reasons why Dad is rather silent and keeps himself to himself. He misses Mum.

  Now, the strange thing is this: that old man who crossed the road, my Dad never saw him again. But I have seen him, different times. And most people who live in Stoneywish do see him, now and again. He’s known as Old Carpenter.

  If you pass by Farmer Westrupp’s big meadow, you’ll see there’s three milk bottles standing out in the middle. Morning or midday, they’re always empty. But by evening-time, somebody has always filled those bottles up. And then, by next morning, they are empty again. If you ask about them, most folk won’t answer. But some will say, off-hand, that they are for Old Carpenter.

  Mrs Sollett told me about him. She’s the widow-lady who came to housekeep for my Dad and take care of me after my Mum died. She’s old, and she has always lived in the village.

  “Old Carpenter’s been here since plague time.” she told me, when I was about four, and began asking questions.

  Sometimes, when you are walking on the Common, you get a flash in the corner of your eye – just a glimpse of someone tall as a beanpole, wearing white workmen’s overalls like a house-painter. Or you’ll see him stooping among the tombstones in the tangled graveyard, pulling out a dock or a bunch of ragwort. Or by the brook, poking with a hazel-rod at a snarl of driftwood that’s lodged against the buttress of the bridge. Or picking a ripe cob nut from the hedge. Just a quick glance at him, sidelong, is all you ever get; if you turn to look at him straight, he’s gone.

  “In general, it’s only folk born here that can see him,” Mrs Sollett told me. “I never knew someone who came from outside, like your Dad, to get a sight of him. Let alone hear him speak! That’s really uncommon. My husband’s grandfather used to tell us that he once heard Old Carpenter speak. But he’s the only other I ever heard tell of.”

  “What did he say, Mrs Sollett?”

  “Granddad would never tell us that.”

  “What did Old Carpenter mean, Mrs Sollett, about being born here? And the Stoneywish?”

  “Oh,” says Mrs Sollett, “it’s just a tale the children tell, handed down from the old days. You’ll hear it soon enough when you get to school. From that time when all the people were shut up inside the village and couldn’t get out. With the plague and all. That was a bad time. I reckon things got sorta curdled and fizzy in Stoneywish then, like bottled plums when they start to go off. Things went odd, went nasty. And it’s believed that every child born in the village since then gets a wish; if they live to the age of nine. The night before their ninth birthday they get the wish. And it’s called a Stoneywish.”

  “I’ve still got time, then,” I said. “But what’s a Stoneywish, Mrs Sollett?”

  “You can wish the wish for yourself, or for another person.” she says.

  “There’s a rhyme about it:

  Stoneywish, what’s your will

  Name it, child, for good or ill,

  Stoneywish, stoney way

  Never doubt, another day

  Sun or storm, shine or rain

  Home will come your wish again.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “Why, they say Old Carpenter (young Carpenter, he would have been in those days, and he really was a carpenter, people were named by what they did, then, your Dad would have been Mister Plumber) – Carpenter had caught the plague, but got better, as a very few did. So he was given the job of building the fence, twelve foot high, all around the village. And he had to live outside the fence, in a hut, when it was done; and men came every day from the Sheriff’s office, bringing food for him to throw over the fence to the folk inside. Well, it’s said, the people inside were angry, that Carpenter was free and they were not, and so they wished a wish on him, that he’d always seek, and never find. And, they say, that’s why he hangs about here, to this day – seeking, seeking, and never finding. There’s another rhyme that goes:

  Wish your wish for friend or foe

  The wish will follow wherever you go.”

  “Perhaps Old Carpenter wished a wish?” I said. “Maybe he wished that somebody, someone
he knew, would stay alive and not die of the plague? And then the wish came back on him? He stayed alive, on and on?”

  “Ah – maybe so. They say he was plighted to marry a girl, Sorrell Penfold. But she was shut up inside the village, and she was one as died of the plague.”

  “Mum’s name was Prue Penfold,” I said.

  “Ah, there’s always been Penfolds at Stoneywish. Your Mum would have been a great-great-grand-niece of Sorrell, I dare say. Maybe it’s because he was married to Prue that your Dad was able to see Old Carpenter that time.”

  As the years went by, my Dad took to thinking, more and more, about what Old Carpenter had said to him: “If you had been born in this place, you could have used your Stoneywish on him.”

  One day Dad said to me: “I’d dearly like to see that chap who hit my van get his desserts. It was all because of him that your Mum died. I’d like him to be punished.”

  “But, Dad, you don’t know who he was! And it’s seven years ago now. How could you ever trace him?”

  “If you were to use your Stoneywish on him, when it comes due,” said Dad, “that would trace him soon enough.”

  Then I saw how his thoughts were running, and that turned me cold to my backbone. Next year I’d be eight, and at the end of that year I’d have command of my Stoneywish.

  My friend Polly, she’d turned nine the month before, so I asked her about it.

  “What do you do, Polly, when you have the wish? What happens?”

  “First, you have to find out the exact time of day that you were born,” Polly told me. “I was born at tea-time – all my brothers and sisters were too, so that was easy. Then you have to go, all by yourself, to St Annadoc’s spring.”

  That was a spring over on the far side of the Common, where there’s a kind of a low cliff, and the water comes pouring out of a hole in the rock, and falls into a sizeable pool at the bottom. It’s clear and very cold and tastes of flint.

  “You go to St Annadoc’s, all by yourself,” says Polly, “and you take a twig of mountain ash, to keep off the bad things, and drop it in the pool. Then you drink, once, twice, three times, from the water as it trickles out, and you say,

  Whether I wish for foe or friend

  My wish will come back to me in the end

  Here’s my wish, time will tell

  If it be for ill or well.

  Then you wish your wish, and then you go home.”

  “What did you wish, Polly?”

  She giggled. “You’re not supposed to tell, really. But it’s all over now so it can’t matter. You know, they always say its best if you wish a kind wish for somebody else. Then, if it comes back on you, at least it is kind. Jamie Thatcher, he wished that whoever stole his Dad’s apples should break his leg; and, sure enough, young Ted Fowler had a motorbike smash, and he’s still in a cast in Marstone Hospital, and they’re pretty sure it was Ted took the apples; but then Jamie broke his leg, skating, so I reckoned that was a no-good wish. It came back on him. – So I wished that my Mum should have a treat, something that would make her happy. Dear knows, she works hard enough for us all, and never gets a single day off.”

  “And what happened? Did she get a treat?”

  Polly giggled again. “Mum told us she’s having another baby. And she’s really pleased about it! So I reckon that’s her treat. But what if it happens to me?”

  “Don’t be clung-headed,” I said. “Babies only happen to grown-up ladies.”

  What Polly had said, though, gave me a lot to think about.

  Dad kept on and on at me about the Stoneywish.

  “It’s your duty to your Mum,” was what he kept saying.

  “You couldn’t even run away to sea,” Dad said sourly. “They wouldn’t take you. Do something useful!”

  “Why can’t I wish that my leg would get better! Instead of wishing harm to some long-ago stranger? Maybe he’s mended his ways by now.”

  “He ought to suffer,” Dad said obstinately, “Look at the harm he’s done us.”

  My birthday comes in January. Snow and frost and bitter winds, chasing among the grey hoary clumps on Stoneywish Common. Christmas long gone by, and nothing to look forward to. But the weather didn’t keep Old Carpenter from his usual wanderings. Indeed, at that time I saw more of him than I ever had before: on the church tower, peering down through a snow-drizzle, or by the edge of Sligo Pond where the geese slopped dolefully about on two-inch-thick ice, or listening to the bleating by Farmer Westrup’s yard, where the straw-thatched pens were full of new-born lambs.

  And each time that I saw Old Carpenter I thought that he gave me a look – almost a nod, almost a signal – as much as to say, “I’d talk to you if I could, I’ve a message to pass on to you.”

  Only, what message could he have for me?

  Winter or no, his bottles of milk were always put out for him. Somebody always took care of that.

  Of course, at this time of year, Dad was wanted everywhere. Burst water-mains, frozen pipes, cracked tanks, over-heated boilers, pipe-lagging chewed up by starving house-mice – Dad was out all day, from long before the late, gloomy sunrise till long after the last foggy blink of the red sun before it settled down among the blackberry clumps.

  One thing, I thought: Dad’s so busy, he’s probably forgotten my birthday.

  But I was wrong. Dad said: “I’m coming with you, on Saturday, when you go to that wishing-well.”

  “But you can’t do that, Dad. A person has to go alone.”

  “I’m coming,” Dad said obstinately, and I thought, in relief, Well that will put a stopper on the whole business. And it won’t be my fault.

  But the very day before my birthday, Dad’s van skidded on a dreadful patch of ice on Friday Hill as he was coming home from a long day’s jobs. Mr Penfold was there soon after, and pulled him clear; there was another chap helping, but he didn’t wait to be thanked. The van was a write-off; and Dad was in intensive care in Marston Hospital.

  Mrs Sollett took me to see him. He was all rigged up with tubes and drips and drains, looked like one of his own plumbing jobs.

  Mrs Sollett tiptoed away and left us alone for a few minutes.

  Dad opened one blue eye and peered at me through bristly lashes.

  “Rick...” he said in a thread of a voice. “I’ve had a better notion... Lean closer now...”

  Just as he was finishing a nurse came in and said, “No talking, Mr Chark. Talking’s not allowed.” And Mrs Sollett said, “When can I bring the boy again?” and the doctor said, “We’ll see...”

  When I was back at home my friend Polly said, “Well, it’s a bit of luck that you can use your Stoneywish to wish your Dad better. That’s a good use for a wish. And it can’t do you any harm.”

  “That’s true,” I said. “But it’s not what he wants.”

  “What does he want, then?”

  “I can’t tell you...”

  I’d asked Mrs Sollett what time of day I was born, and she said five o’clock in the morning. A harsh time to have to go out through the scrunching frozen grass, with no moon, and a scalding wind, and no sounds for company but the hoot of owls and foxes squalling.

  Mr Penfold, Polly’s father, had lent me a fine big torch, and I wore my thick rubber boots and an old sheepskin-lined coat of Dad’s, cut down to my size. Even so, the cold fairly numbed me before I got to the far side of the Common. And when I came to St Annadoc’s pool, my rowan-twig rattled on the frozen surface of the water, and I saw that the flow from the hole in the bank-side had dwindled to a thick lumpy icicle and a slow, steady drip.

  What do I do now? I wondered. Break a bit off the icicle, or hold my hand under the drip?

  I held my hand under, counting up to fifty, and had a palm full of water. Drank, and held it again, and counted, and drank and counted, and drank again.

  “I wish that old Carpenter may find what he is searching for and rest in peace.”

  I breathed out the words, very softly, just above hearing level, then tucked
my freezing hand into my pocket, and started the long unhappy limping trudge back home. This way round was even worse, the wind against my face cut like a hack-saw.

  And I kept thinking, Did I do right? Was that really what Dad wanted? What made him change his mind?

  Then, as I plodded along, I began to notice that somebody was plodding beside me – somebody much taller, but thin, very thin, dressed in old white clothes that fluttered in the wind. Somebody who walked with a stick.

  “Did I do right?” I asked him.

  “The fence is down,” he said. “Now all may pass through.”

  He turned and looked at me full, for the first and only time, then drifted away in a white flutter on the icy gale.

  My father got better, and the insurance paid for a new van; but he doesn’t work quite so hard now. He will live with Polly and me when we get married.

  Children of the village still wish on their birthdays at St Annadoc’s Well, but not all of their wishes seem to get granted these days. Some do, some don’t.

  Old Carpenter has never been seen again in Stoneywish.

  Snow Horse

  A pleasant place, the Forest Lodge Inn seemed as you rode up the mountain track, with its big thatched barns and stables all around, the slate-paved courtyard in front, and the solidity of the stone house itself, promising comfort and good cheer. But inside, there was a strange chill; guests could never get warm enough in bed, pile on however so many blankets they might; the wind whispered uneasily around the corners of the building, birds never nested in its eaves, and travellers who spent a night there somehow never cared to come back for another.

  Summertime was different. People would come for the day, then, for the pony-trekking; McGall, the innkeeper, kept thirty ponies, sturdy little mountain beasts, and parties would be going out every morning, all summer long, over the mountains, taking their lunch with them in knapsacks and returning at night tired and cheerful; then the Forest Lodge was lively enough. But in winter, after the first snow fell, scanty at first, barely covering the grass, then thicker and thicker till Glenmarrich Pass was blocked and for months no one could come up from the town below – ah, in winter the inn was cold, grim, and silent indeed. McGall tried many times to persuade the Tourist Board to install a ski lift on Ben Marrich, but the board members were not interested in McGall’s profits, they wanted to keep their tourists alive; they said there were too many cliffs and gullies on the mountain for safe skiing. So between November and March most of the ponies would go down to Loch Dune to graze in its watermeadows, where the sea winds kept the snow away; others drowsed and grew fat in the big thatched stables.