This is a tale spelled out in fern-seed scattered on the ripples of a rockery pond…
The Lord-by-the-Sea arrived under a low roof of storm clouds. He halted on the threshold, frowning.
‘What are all these people doing here?’
‘And a good evening to you too,’ said the Pilgrim Woman. She stood at the top of the ladder to the garret, and tilted her head to the crowd below. ‘They have come to listen to the story – without being rained on.’
The Lord gestured for his servants to leave the door open. Some of the locals shuffled towards it.
‘It is my peppercorn story. A payment to me. For the use of my building,’ he said.
‘Indeed – and I choose to use it to shelter all those who come to listen. Those who walk here, those who come weary after a hard day’s toil, those who need something else but worry in their minds.’
‘And if I offered you a better home for the sole right to your stories…?’
‘You know what my answer would be.’
The rich man made a little harrumph in his throat. The servants shut the door against the coming rain. The woman sat on the top step and began her tale:
A gnome lived beneath the high hills of my homeland. After his day’s delving was done, his greatest pleasure was to gaze into the still pools of the caves. The reflections of the stalactites made a city of tall towers below the moors. Ferns and mosses and liverworts created a mirrored garden.
‘One day I will visit such a place,’ he said to himself.
Now the mountain he lived beneath was restless. That night she turned over in her sleep and her earthen covers rumpled and slipped. The gnomes fled deeper inside the cave system away from the light. All except one. This was his chance.
With his red hat pulled low over his forehead to keep out the glare, the gnome crept out of the caves. He scrambled up ravines, following the sound and smell of tumbling peaty becks.
In one fern-lined gulley, he paused to get his breath. As his eyes coped with the light , he noticed a toad squatting in the shadows.
‘Good morning to you, beautiful,’ he said. The toad blinked her golden eyes. She had never been called beautiful before. The gnome’s smile was so open she knew he spoke the truth.
‘I wish you well, kind gnome – but it is not a good morning for me.’
‘Why would that be?’ He moved closer, hoping to comfort the unhappy creature.
She looked down at the cracked mud around her.
‘My pond has gone and I have no home.’
‘Well, that is a pity. Neither have I, come to think of it. I am off to seek out my fortune in the city of towers on the roof of the world – shall we go together?’
The toad nodded and tears fell from her glistening eyes. A home lost and a friend gained – and all before midday.
The two companions scrambled and hopped their way ever upwards. The city was far off for their little legs and they grew hot and tired.
They came to a stream and found a small pool. The gnome let the toad bathe first to keep her skin damp. As she soaked and gurgled with pleasure, a tall shadow fell across the water. The gnome snatched up a stone.
‘Watch out!’ he called – and lobbed the stone at the dark shape. The toad ducked under the water, and a heron missed its meal. It flew off grumbling.
‘Thank you,’ said the toad.
The gnome shrugged. ‘You would do the same for me.’
‘Not with these,’ she said and waggled her stumpy webbed toes.
They carried on until they came to a bog. The toad hopped straight in. Then she looked back over her should er when she found she was alone.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘How am I going to cross that? It’ll suck me in in no time. Gnomes are very heavy for their height.’
The toad came back. She thought for a moment.
‘Jump from plant to plant,’ she said. ‘The roots will hold you up.’
The gnome made a leap onto a clump of tussocky grass. The bog wobbled and squelched – but he stayed on the surface. Hop and jump, hop and jump, they made it together over the bog.
When they looked up from all their effort, they stopped and gasped. They had reached the City of Towers. It was full of beautiful quarried and dressed stone, everything the gnome had dreamed of.
No-one stopped the two small friends entering the gates. They went further in – but the wonder of the place did not stop their bellies grumbling with hunger.
‘I can’t find any slugs or snails here,’ said the toad.’ and I’m drying up for lack of water.’
‘We will look for somewhere cool – and on the way, maybe I shall find work,’ said the gnome.
They had not gone far when a mason stopped his chiselling and called out to the gnome. The mason wiped his forehead and spoke politely.
‘I have need of a skilled stone-worker. I can offer you food and lodgings, Master Gnome.’
The gnome liked the man instantly. This was exactly what he needed.
‘Do you have a place for my friend?’
The smith shook his head. ‘My wife would screech like a peacock if she saw such a creature.’
‘I could find my own place,’ said the toad quietly.
‘Like you, I don’t leave my friends behind,’ said the gnome and they carried on higher into the centre of the city. The gnome found shade and damp gutters for the toad to keep cool and moist.
By late afternoon, they were both weary and starving. They paused in the shadow of a high wall.
‘I hear a fountain,’ the toad said. Her eyes turned dreamy.
‘So do I – and where there’s a pool, there may be a home for a toad.’
They squeezed their way through a gate into a lush garden. Ferneries, cascades and ponds filled the air with the scent of plants and water. The gnome admired the stonework. The toad leapt into action, hunting slugs and snails with speed and joy.
‘Hallo there, Miss Toad,’ called a gardener.’ You are just what we need.’ She pointed her trowel at a shredded hosta. ‘Would you like to stay here?’
The toad nodded – her mouth was full of juicy pests. Then she looked at the gnome, sidling off towards the gate. She swallowed before she spoke.
‘But what about my friend? I cannot leave him homeless.’
‘Can he do anything useful in a garden? I have to say, I do love his red cap amongst the plants.’
The toad gazed into the nearest pond, thinking as she watched the goldfish slide past.
‘He scares off herons.’
‘You’re both hired,’ said the gardener.
And so it was that the first gnome came to live in a garden. Many of his folk joined him over the years. They delved rockeries and made watercourses from puddled clay for the toad families. Gardeners have never forgotten – and to this day, you may find stone toads and gnomes hidden amongst the ferns.
The rich man sneered.
‘Such silly ornaments. I would never have one in my garden.’
Outside the storm rumbled. The people stayed inside, smiling and dreaming of slug-free gardens and jolly red hats.