There was no response from the rower who kept rhythmically pulling the oars. Rosalyn kept hollering desperately until the person paused and seemed to look in her direction. But the rower resumed: whoosh, creak, whoosh creak.
Soon the boat came into sharper view, a long-armed, muscular woman propelling the dark green craft forward with light-coloured oars.
“Over here! Hello! Help!” called Rosalyn. The woman peered up, head cocked to the side. “Hello?” came her doubtful reply.
“Up here, on this cloud!” yelled Rosalyn with all the voice she had left, waving vigorously.
“I see you,” called the woman, “what on earth are you doing up there?” Then, without waiting for an answer, “Nevermind, we’ve got to get you down. I can’t get up to your height, but once I’m below you, I’ll throw you the rope. Hang on.” She resumed rowing, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she didn’t overshoot her mark. Once she was directly beneath Rosalyn, she grabbed a thick rope. “Catch!” she said, tossing it up with athletic ease.
A good foot of rope caught the edge of the cloud and Rosalyn was able to snatch up the end of it before it slid back down.
“You won’t be able to pull me up,” said the woman, “So you’ll have to swing down here.”
“What?” asked Rosalyn, looking wide-eyed at the boat and rower six or eight feet below.
“Can you tie it around your waist and ease yourself off the cloud?”
“No, I don’t think there’s enough rope.”
“Then wrap it securely around your wrists and I’ll pull you in to the boat.”
“Do I jump?”
“No! You’ll put a hole in the boat.”
“Will I float, once I’m off the cloud?”
“Gently fall, more like it.”
“I won’t capsize the boat if I miss?”
“Oh no, she’s a steady old thing.”
“So I’m going to slide off into mid-air?”
“I’m afraid so,” nodded the woman. “Either that or spend the night out here.”
A lump of fear rising in her throat, Rosalyn put the two backpacks on again and wrapped the rope tight around her left wrist and forearm and squeezed it with both her hands until her knuckles turned white.
“It won’t come undone from the boat?” she called anxiously.
“No, I’ve got a very firm grip. Down you come.”
Holding her breath, inching forward onto the wispy edge of the cloud, Rosalyn paused just before she could slide off.
“You’ll be fine,” came the woman’s authoritative voice from below.
With a sudden downward swing and a sharp tug, Rosalyn found herself swinging below the pointed bow of the rowboat.
“Kick your legs and I’ll reel you in.”
Somehow the air felt denser, halfway between water and air, and with a few strong kicks and the upward pull of the rope, Rosalyn was able to grab the gunwales and, with the woman’s firm grip under her arms, swing her legs up and into the boat. She tumbled in on all fours and sat up.
“Thank you,” she panted, more breathless from relief than exertion.
“But of course,” answered the woman, gazing at her from under straight dark eyebrows. She had black hair, laced with a few silver threads cut a into a practical, short bob. She wore a thick navy swater and slim riding pants that flared out slightly above the knee. Grasping the oars with her lean, veiny hands she said, “Now, what is a little girl like you doing so far from land?”
Rosalyn swallowed. “Well,” she began, “I fell onto that cloud because my brother fell through a puddle and I jumped in after him.” The woman’s eyebrows lifted skeptically.
“I mean, well,” stuttered Rosalyn. “I know it sounds unbelievable. He said he saw a ship or something in the puddle and when he jumped in, he disappeared. I may have seen him falling, I don’t know, it was just a reddish dot in the distance. When I jumped in, I lost sight of him and got stuck on that cloud. Do you think he’s somewhere around here on another cloud?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Hmm. We’ll look as we go, but I really couldn’t say.”
“His name is Jason. He’s only seven. Blond, blue eyes, he’s wearing a red and yellow raincoat and red jeans. My name is Rosalyn, by the way.”
“Enchanted,” said the woman with a polite nod. “I’m Gaétane.” She pronounced it Gah-eh-tan. Rosalyn repeated it to herself a few times, afraid she’d forget and embarrass herself by asking again.
The woman picked up the oars moved only one of them to spin the boat around. In no time, they were moving slowly but steadily back in the direction she had first come.
Rosalyn scanned the clouds they were passing, peering down over the side of the boat but saw nothing but a sky that was becoming increasingly overcast. After a while, it seemed that they were passing through a narrow channel of clear sky with towering walls of grey cloud encroaching on their passage.
“More rain tomorrow,” grunted Gaétane, who, marvellously, had been keeping up the same powerful stroke for the last half hour. “Nearly there.”
Moments later, a line appeared on the horizon and the dark outline of a dock jutted toward them. With a few expert pulls on the left oar, Gaétane drew up alongside its weathered boards. “Out you get,” she said.
Arms out for balance, Rosalyn stepped out cautiously and took hold of the rope that was held out to her. The woman jumped out, taking the oars with her, and tied the rowboat to a thick metal ring. Motioning with her head for Rosalyn to follow she said, “Come along. You’ll have to come to the house until we figure out what to do.”
Feeling shy and silly next to this terse, unsmiling woman, Rosalyn jogged after her to keep up with her rescuer’s long stride. They were ascending a sandy path that led to an enormous lawn cut through by a groomed gravel path that ended at the foot of wide steps up to a grand stone terrace stretching the length of the biggest house Rosalyn had ever seen, bigger than Forest Hill mansions her parents would drive by at night in December, to admire the Christmas lights. This house had two full storeys and third with dog-house windows set on the stone-shingled roof. The many rectangular windows placed symmetrically across the façade seemed disproportionately tall in a way, although it wasn’t until afterward that Rosalyn recalled noticing it.
“What a beautiful house,” breathed Rosalyn.
“Not like it was,” said Gaétane. “It’s a terrible expense and we’ve shut up most of the rooms. We still keep one extra room aired out in case of, well, just in case, so you’ll be comfortable enough.”
“Thank you.” Rosalyn felt bumbling and self-conscious in the face of all this apparent wealth. Were they expecting her to stay the night? Surely they could contact the police and get Jason tracked down and then, well, then she could wake up from this crazy upside down dream and get home.
“Should we notify the police?” Rosalyn asked.
The woman hesitated before responding. “Probably best if we don’t, but someone could make discreet inquiries. Maybe Andry if he brings the market delivery around this evening.”
“Why?” Rosalyn asked, puzzled and alarmed at the cryptic reply. “Isn’t that their job, to find missing children?”
“For most people, yes, but for us, it’s complicated.” They were now at a door around the side of the house, past the shallow steps on the left side of the terrace. It was a curious door, twice as tall as Gaétane. Down one side were a number of different handles, the highest of which came to Gaétane’s head and the lowest of which to her knee. She turned a handle at waist height and pushed open the wooden door, leading Rosalyn down a half flight of stairs into a square entry room. One side was lined with tall cubbies where shovels and skiis and what looked like a giant shoehorn were propped. Into an empty cubby Gaétane placed the oars. On the other side were thick straw mats and a bench. While the woman sat and removed her boots and put on a sturdy pair of grey felt shoes, Rosalyn looked around at the umbrella stand by the door, the terracotta pots with white mottled stains stacked in precarious towers and a potting table littered with dried soil and newspaper. The whole room had an air of frequent use, though most of the equipment was as old, or older than the unused tools her father had salvaged from his grandparents’ place and which now sat in an I’ll-get-to-it-soon heap in the garage.
She realized that her own flimsy canvas shoes were damp and probably coated with sand from the walk to the house. “Should I take my shoes off?” she asked.
“No, I haven’t got any slippers your size down here. If you’ll come through here, we’ll see what Marcella can do for you.”
Gaétane pushed open a door at the other end of the room and walked out into a long corridor. To their right, the wall was lined with cupboards and closets, to the left was another shorter hallway to a flight of stairs leading above. Now they were passing a room on the left with a long wooden table down the middle and a long buffet on one wall. The room was unlit, but the dust motes floating in the shafts of dim light from the windows high on the wall, gave it an abandoned feel. The next room, however, was warmer and brigher. Peeking around her hostess, who paused in the doorway, she saw a timbered ceiling, white washed walls and an emormous blackened cooking hearth on the far wall. A woman wearing a full black skirt and a striped blouse was sliding onions from a cutting board into a cast iron pot that hung from a metal hook over an open fire.
“Good afternoon, Marcella,” said Gaétane, in a tone of voice that implied ‘your attention, please.’
The woman at the hearth turned around without acknowledging the greeting, walked back to the work table in the centre of the room, deliberately placed the cutting board upon it, wiped her hands on her full apron and only then looked up with no trace of friendliness on her round, red-cheeked face.
“Good afternoon, Miss,” was her answer, though it sounded like ‘what is it this time?’
“Sorry to interrupt,” Gaétane said unapologetically, “but I found this young lady on a cloud when I was out rowing and she’ll need a cup of tea.” Turning to Rosalyn who was still half-hidden behind her, she said, “Well, come in and let Marcella see you.”
“Hello,” said Rosalyn shyly, wondering if the woman would look at her with the same open contempt.
“How’d you do, Miss,” said Marcella with a nod of her head.
“I will bring down some dry clothes,” said Gaétane, abruptly leaving Rosalyn standing with this other stern-looking woman who was clearly giving her the once-over.
“You mustn’t mind Herself,” said Marcella coming around the table. “I’ll hang your bags up here. My, I’ve never seen such brightly coloured ones and what a strong stiff material they’re made of.” She hung them a row of pegs on the wall where the longest apron Rosalyn had ever seen hung beside an old straw hat. Rosalyn noticed there was a second row of pegs below the first one from which a small umbrella hung. Everything here seemed to come in multiples, now that she thought of it. Even one end of the work table was a good two feet lower than the rest of it, and on the counter, or counters, lining the far wall (for they, too, were of different heights) sat several crocks with varying sizes of cooking utensils.
Marcella darted out of the kitchen and returned with a large grey blanket. “You slip off those damp things and wrap up in this while I get your bath going,” she said. “It’ll take some time and there’s no sense catching a chill while you wait. If you like, just nip into the old servants’ dining room next door, and you’ll be private enough. Herself won’t be down soon—goodness knows where she’ll find anything that’ll fit you. It’s been a long while since we’ve had a child at the Manor. Bring me back your clothes and I’ll hang them near the fire.”
When Rosalyn came back, clutching the blanket around her, Marcella had drawn up a stool near the fire. “Perch here, my dear. And I’ll take those,” she said holding out a hand for the damp clothing.
Trying to keep the blanket well wrapped around her to keep out the drafts, Rosalyn sat awkwardly on the stool and watched Marcella give her white t-shirt, pink mohair sweater, burgundy cords and striped socks deft shakes and hang them on a folding wooden clothes horse.
She talked on, friendly as could be, which unsettled Rosalyn, after her first impression of coldness. Clearly there was some animosity between the two women. Gaétane hadn’t actually come in to the kitchen, had she, even though it was her house? What had happened between them?
“Didn’t catch your name, my dear,” asked Marcella.
“Oh, it’s Rosalyn, Rosalyn Becker.”
“And where do you live, Rosalyn Becker?”
“Toronto,” said Rosalyn, “in Canada.”
“Is that so? I’ve never heard of it.”
Rosalyn wanted to say, “Of course you haven’t, unless you’ve fallen upward through your weird sky-sea into our world though a puddle.” But instead she asked, “And where am I, I mean, what do you call this place?”
“Well now,” said Marcella, unhooking a capacious metal tub from the wall and setting it on the floor. “This is the old Durocher Manor, and we’re near the village of Tybor-on-Mer. The nearest large town is the capital itself.”
Rosalyn didn’t contradict her, feeling awkward enough as it was. She watched Marcella light a fire from a couple of logs and several tightly twisted lengths of newspaper. Matches were ina metal tray with their round red heads all pointing neatly up. She struck one on the brick wall of the hearth and lit the paper fire-starters. As soon as the logs caught, she filled a large blackened kettle with water from a pump at the sink and hung it from a metal spring over the flames.
“They’ve been at me to get a proper cookstove," said Marcella, “but I say, this fire was good enough for your father’s and grandfather’s cooks and it’s good enough for me. I’m used to it. Do I want to be getting used to something new at my age? No, thank you. There’s been enough to get used to lately,” she said half under her breath, then turning to Rosalyn with a cheery smile, asked, “ Have you any brothers or sisters?”
“Just one younger brother, Jason. He’s seven. Actually, that’s why I’m here. I need to find him, and, uh, Gaétane, is that how you say it, said she couldn’t contact the police. Do you know anything about that?”
“Hmmpf,” she snorted. “Yes I do.”
“Well, I think we need to notify them as soon as possible. I’m really worried.”
“And rightly so. Just your luck to get mixed up with our bunch.” The woman sighed and brushed a strand of hair off her forehead, going to the pump to fill up a smaller bucket to dump in the tub. “There are other ways and means, anyhow. Why don’t you start at the very beginning and tell me everything. I’ll just go about my work, but I’m listening.”