Friday, September 20, 2013
Laree hoisted the pack off her back, and sat at the picnic table. She pulled out her guidebook, and the paper-wrapped lunch she had purchased from the tight-lipped proprietress of the village pub. The sea breeze blew her hair awry, and flipped the pages of the book. It's quiet here, she thought. Just a little too quiet.
Tired of the clamor of city life, sick of deadlines and traffic and pretending to please people, she'd thought a self-guided walking tour of the Shetland Islands would be a perfect vacation. She could explore at her own pace, think, write, dream, and get some good exercise and fresh air, too. It was beautiful, and she relished the freedom, but the first couple of days had been a bit more lonesome than she'd expected.
Laree curiously unwrapped her packet. She'd ordered the Ploughman's Lunch, thinking it sounded appropriately rustic. She was a bit disappointed when it consisted entirely of a baguette and a wedge of cheese. Oh, and a foil packet of chutney. What was chutney, anyway? Opening the packet, she sniffed it, and still didn't know.
"Mind if I join ye?"
A stocky man approached the picnic table, lunch bucket in hand. A few grey hairs stuck out at odd angles from under his cap. From the chaff stuck in his thick woolen jersey and the muck on his wellies, Laree guessed he might be an actual ploughman. She wondered what he'd have for lunch. "Be my guest," she said, waving at the other side of the table.
"You'll be mine, more like." He chuckled as he seated himself, then gestured toward the field nearby. "This is my place," he said, puffing out his chest slightly. "Been in the family for generations."
He opened a Thermos and Laree smelled the tantalizing scent of curry. She swallowed her envy and bit off a chunk of her bread.
The man eyed Laree's pack. "You're on a walking holiday, then?"
Laree nodded, her mouth full. This bread was tougher than she'd expected.
"Will ye be headin' across the troll-below?" He pointed at the sandy strip leading to a green island.
Laree frowned, and consulted her guidebook. She swallowed quickly. "This says it's a 'tombolo.' 'St. Ninian's Isle is tied to the Mainland by the largest active tombolo in the UK.'"
The farmer shook his head dismissively. "Well, we call it the troll-below. See, long, long ago, there used to be a bridge out to that island. Folks would let their flocks wander across in the morning to graze, then send the dogs to round them up at night. But if a goat crossed a little too early, or a little too late at dusk, a troll would jump out from under the bridge and catch it."
"Nasty bugger, he was. Some of the big billy goats could butt him into the water, but most of the little ones didn't have a chance. It got to be pretty bad. The villagers were losing kids left and right, and they didn't know what to do." He took a long drink from his other Thermos.
"So, what happened?"
"Well, St. Ninian came along to convert the heathens. But they were frettin' about the troll, and wouldn't listen to his sermons.
Finally he called the village together by the bridge, and told each person to dump a pail of sand on it. They were scared to go on the bridge even in daylight anymore, but they bucked up and did it. Then the good saint raised his hands and chanted. Before their very eyes, the bridge sank into the sea, and sand covered the whole way to the island. 'The troll has gone below,' St. Ninian declared. 'You need not fear for your flocks.' For good measure, he planted leeks on the island."
"Trolls don't care for goats with onion breath, see?" The man's face crinkled as he laughed. "They still grow out there. Should be blooming, as a matter of fact." He packed up his lunch again. "Well, have a nice time, miss. But mind your step on the troll-below. That troll hasn't been seen for centuries, but you never know..."
Laree wrapped up the rest of the tough roll and walked across the sand. Stray sunbeams highlighted the ruined chapel, and set the sea sparkling. She spent the afternooon exploring the island, with its oddly-named features. She didn't see any seals in the Selchie Geo, but there were plenty of fat sheep at Baaberg. She took pictures of the cliffs and holms, and gathered leek blossoms in the meadows. It was a glorious day. Finally, as the sun dipped low, she decided to head back to the mainland. She was skipping across the sand when she heard a voice.
"Who's that trippin' across my bridge?"
Laree skidded to a stop and looked around. A wild figure crouched on the strand, a dozen feet away. Its sandy hair whipped in the freshening breeze. Burlap sacks covered its back. Laree's heart thudded. There's no such thing as trolls, she told herself. Right?
"And don't say you're goin' across the bridge, up the hill to eat grass. I've heard that one before."
"How about leeks?" She brandished her bouquet.
The figure laughed and stood up. A tall young man stood before her, swinging the burlap sacks to the ground. His jersey and wellies were cleaner versions of what the old farmer had worn to lunch, and his eyes sparkled like the sea.
"My dad thought you might be hungry after your ramble. Would you like to come back to the house? Mum makes a mean billy goat curry."
"Goat?" Laree's mouth watered at the thought of curry, but was it a good idea to go home with a troll impersonator?
He laughed again. "Actually, I think it's chicken today. Come along. And bring the leeks. They might come in handy."
He swung open a gate, and Laree followed, thankful for new friends on the wild Shetland coast.