by Pam L. Wallace
The old man smelled of honeysuckle and ancient woodlands, and spoke in a querulous singsong. “Chime-child, eh?” He pinned Collum with his rheumy eyes. Collum shrank from crooked fingers grabbing for his homespun shirt.
“Takes one to know one,” the old man continued. “Born in the midnight witching hour, same as ye, whilst the bells rung for prayer. Special strong be ye, but p’rhaps not strong enuf. Take heed, now. Here’s a song to protect you.”
Collum wanted to turn and run, but something about the old gent’s gaze kept Collum’s feet firmly rooted to the ground. He wished his mum would return and rescue him, but she was down at the barn with the old man’s family, leaving the two of them alone.
He made Collum sing with him until the words were memorized. Finally, the door opened and the old man’s wife, Helen, thundered in. “Hush now, ye be scarin the beejeezus outta the boy. What’s on with ye, now? Leave him be.” She was stout and barrel-armed, and the wizened old man clamped his lips together and said not another word.
His auntie said Helen was a gate-keeper–whatever that meant–and had saved the old man from his evil ways. The other kids said old man Hugo was daft, but Auntie said no, the old man had all his wits, just that he had Samhain in his soul.
That’d happened ten years ago, when Collum was eight, but Collum still dreamed of the curious glint in the old man’s eyes. Since then, he’d learned a chime-child was said to be blessed by the gods, and possessed of certain gifts–foresee the future, see ghosts, foretell a death, among others. Collum didn’t believe it. Sure, there’d been that time five years back when he’d dreamed of Auntie, her eyes sunken and dull, and she’d died five days later. But that had only been coincidence. Nothing more. Besides, if Ginny O’Malley, the preacher’s daughter, ever heard such nonsense about him, she’d quit giving him that special smile, that was for sure.
Collum had managed to avoid old man Hugo since that day. So when Mum announced that Missus Helen had died and they were going to the wake, Collum came up with all manner of excuses, all of which Mum naysayed. “There bain’t nothing wrong with the old gent Hugo. At his heart, there’s goodness, never mind the talk. Go ye shall, Collum,” she said. And that was that.
Collum reminded himself he was a man of eighteen now as they climbed the steep trail that led to the Hugos’ cottage. He’d not be a-feared of a daft old man. When they arrived at the cottage, they found the old man ensconced in a high-back chair in the yard. Mum took his hand and expressed her sympathies, and a look from her drove Collum to do the same. “Heh,” said the old man, his hand leathery and dry, but surprisingly strong as he pulled Collum close. “How be the chime-child?”
The old childhood fear struck, and Collum’s breath jolted out of him. Dimly, from the corner of his eye, he saw his mum enter the cottage, leaving him alone with the old gent. “My time grows short,” old man Hugo wheezed, “And now ye be called. Choose wisely–wiser than I.”
From afar, a bell chimed, deep and sonorous. Collum’s vision dimmed. He entered another world–an old churchyard or graveyard, gloomy ruins ringed in mist. A wrought iron gate, sided by a fence of stacked stones, swung open. Through its wide arches bobbed the faint glow of a lantern. Three black-robed figures paced abreast, their faces hidden within cowls.
Collum turned to run, but his feet sank into thick, grasping mud. While he struggled for release, an odor of decayed woodland crept down the back of his throat. The robed figures drew closer, chanting in a deep, slow tone. Behind them, another figure followed, hidden inside a hooded cloak, but Collum caught a glimpse of yellow eyes darting this way and that, searching the shadows–seeking him. Collum felt a deep pull, mesmerizing, enticing. A dim part of his mind struggled, knowing should those eyes of Samhain find him, his soul was lost.
Collum began to sing, and it was only when he was halfway through the verse that he recognized it as the song old man Hugo had taught him all those years ago. A song of protection, Collum remembered, and he sang it now for all he was worth.
The robed figures passed him by without another glance, as if he weren’t singing as lustily loud as a banshee in the quiet of night. When the feeble lantern light disappeared, his legs came free. With his first step, the dream world faded, and he found himself staring into a pair of rheumy eyes. Old man Hugo was singing with him. “Served ye well, did it not?” he whispered.
Collum nodded, his mouth too dry to answer. His vision dimmed again. This time, instead of robed figures, he saw the old man, wizened and still, laid out in his funeral dress.
The vision faded. Collum pulled his hand from the old man’s with such force, he almost pulled him from the chair.
“Saw me, didn’t ye?” the old man asked. Collum backed away, his tongue tied by fear. “It be fine, Chime-child. I be ready to go,” he said with an emphatic nod. “Best ye marry that church gal, and git theeself a gate-keeper. The touch of Samhain always be but a breath away, trying to pull us’n chime-childs down to do his dirty work. Ye reach the other way, lad, like ye did today.”
Collum found it impossible to drag his gaze from the old man’s. He searched for words, unsure if he should curse or thank the old man. It soon became apparent words were unnecessary, for the old man’s eyes closed and a soft snore sounded. Collum tucked the blanket around the man’s legs and left to seek out Ginny.
Two weeks later, Collum was the first to sit by the old man’s bier. Chime-children watched over their own.
Pam Wallace lives with her husband in California. When not reading, writing, or kissing her grandsons’ adorable cheeks, she can be found in her garden trying to entice the fairies to come out. Although currently living a cat-less life, she will always consider herself a cat-person. Her short stories have been published at Daily Science Fiction, Shock Totem, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.