The Great Grot Quest

It has come to my attention recently that instead of wandering from day to day as retirement is happy to permit, in the New Year, I should instead point myself in new directions, try new trails. The glut of years has made this difficult however. By now there are very few roads I have not travelled, albethey laden with detours along the way, and there are very few promises I’ve made to myself that I haven’t abandoned, or more often, forgotten when the path turned an unexpected corner. I’ve learned that about myself; others have learned that about me. People should know better than to suggest the pursuit of novelty to an old man.

Age is the enemy, I suppose; it is not pneumonia -the ‘old man’s friend’ I had read about in medical school, nor is it necessarily the forgetfulness that smooths the gradual loss of bark along my gnarling trunk. No, I find it is the thicket of years that blocks some routes from easy access. And yet… and yet I am still curious about what lies just over the hill ahead. I do not need a special day to start me off -Age, at least, has taught me that.

Still, I’m glad for an excuse to unroll my curiosity once again, and this time, unlike Jason searching for his Golden Fleece, or the conquistador Juan Ponce de León and his hunt for the Fountain of Youth, I have resolved to resume my quest for an Elfin Grot like the one where Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci had her wild wild eyes shut with kisses four. I wasn’t expecting to have to do the same job or anything, but the idea still intrigued me. Age often harbours those kinds of hopes, I think.

I live on an island with heavily forested trails snaking along the flanks of what people from the prairies like me are pretty sure is a mountain. I’ve been here long enough to have explored most of the trails, but hope springs eternal when you’re looking for a grot.

 This time of year however, snow also lies eternal on the upper reaches, so I decided to confine my Grot search around the bare rocky cliffs that I can see from the pasture behind my house. Well, barely… I mean they’re further than they look from the porch, but that’s a part of the adventure, I think. Another part is deciding what actually constitutes a grot, and whether there any clues to look for when you’re getting close. The belle dame gathered roots of relish sweet, and honey wild, and manna dew along the way, but finding that kind of stuff is pretty hard if you don’t know what they look like; and anyway, maybe they’re seasonal.

After trudging uphill along several trails with no grot prospects except the bones of something that was more likely a deer than an elf, I decided to change tack for a while and bushwhack my way up to the foot of a cliff I didn’t recognize as the one I’d seen from home. Mind you, lots of things look different when you’re up close; I make a point of never standing really close to the mirror when I’m shaving for example -I think maybe it’s a Covid thing. I imagine cliffs are no different really, but they’re dangerous because of falling stuff -including you if you’re at the top.

But something felt mysterious when I stood at the bottom of this cliff. For one thing, there was an old cedar tree that seemed to be almost kneeling at its base, as if aeons ago, the lower part of it had been damaged by a falling rock and only later had managed to reach upwards with one of its branches desperate to service the sky. The horizontal part of the trunk was a natural bench and so I sat on it while I decided whether or not to abandon my search until another day.

I began looking out over the heavily treed slope through which I’d struggled, when I heard a rock tumbling down the cliff face behind me and I ducked behind the tree for cover. And that’s when I noticed it; you only see what you didn’t expect when you look in places you’re not expected to look, eh?

Carved in the bark of the vertical branch that was now the trunk, was an arrow that wrapped around its girth towards the cliff. It would have been easy to miss I suppose, but having nothing else to do I thought I might be on to something. The rock having landed several feet away, and there being no rattle of anything else on its way down, I glanced at the cliff behind the tree.

I’m not sure what I expected to find, but apart from an old yellowed roll-your-own cigarette butt on the ground -a really old one with no filter or anything- there was a narrow crack in the rock with something coloured in it way at the back. I watched it for the longest time, hoping it wouldn’t move -there was no way I was going to risk a hand in there if it was a snake or something. But after a minute or two, nothing stirred so either it was a yellow snake that had time on its scales, or it was elfin gold. The thought that it might be an autumn leaf blown in there and was privately composting didn’t really occur to me for some reason; of course I was on an grot search, so the error was excusable under the circumstances.

I reached in as far as I could, but my fingers aren’t what they used to be and I had to look around for a twig, or a long stick to use as a tool. I’d seen monkeys on TV documentaries fish out insects from termite mounds with sticks, so how hard could it be? Man-the-tool-maker kept swirling around in my head as I inched the stick ever further into the unknown.

Finally, I felt something crackle. Does gold crackle? Does a hidden manuscript crackle? I could hardly wait to get the stick out, but obviously monkeys are better at it than me and it took three or four swipes before I got my prize. Or, rather, it got my stick: it was the gooey remnants of an Oh Henry chocolate bar wrapper, the ‘H’ and ‘e’ clearly but crumply printed on the remnants.

So, I’m not sure if what I discovered was the remains of a more contemporary elfin grot that Keats wouldn’t have bothered with, or something even more special than that. Had somebody had their eyes shut with kisses here, or am I just a romantic fool needing a grot to service?

I don’t think I’ll give up the search for a more bespoke grot, but at least I made a decent start at following my New Year’s resolution this year. I’m hoping for an unopened box of raisins the next time, though. A person can get awfully hungry on one of these Grot Quests, you know…

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