Bobby Ells and Maggie Whyatt spent a lot of time hanging out in the dense forest surrounding the mysterious Lake Campelot. They weren’t supposed to be there, for it was private property and supposedly haunted. It was said the spirit of the owner who mysteriously disappeared in the lake one summer still lingered in his beloved Campelot Forest. But instead of keeping them away, the story about the spirit of the lake drew them to its pristine rocky shores.
An old pier, the boards washed nearly white from years of weathering stretched far out into the lake, where an early morning mist sat upon the sparkling clear water until the warm sun drew it up into the heavens. Sometimes they’d have to wait until nearly eleven o’clock before they could see clearly enough to dive off the end of the pier into the cool, fresh water. They swam there all summer long.
Giant pines and cedars shut out most of the sunlight on the forest floor surrounding the lake, where shadows grew long and deep even in the daytime. Bobby and Maggie were ten years old; they weren’t afraid of ghosts. For them, Campelot was a great place for summer adventures, and they met there every morning once their chores were done. They’d been coming there for the past two years. It was their favourite place to enjoy the summer. They had it all to themselves and their adventures never ended.
Their families had adjoining cottages nearby on the St. John River, a wide river that flowed into Lake Campelot. Every summer since they were little they played together and became the very best of friends. They only saw each other in the summertime, because they lived in different cities. But their friendship was something they both treasured.
Maggie heard small twigs cracking in the forest behind her, as she sat on the pier, her feet dangling in the shallow water near the shore. The noise kind of startled her at first, because she’d been staring at something she never noticed before in the water. About fifteen feet away from the pier, nestled against the bottom of the lake was a beautiful pale gray substance that caught the early morning sunlight and seemingly lit up.
“Hi Maggie, “ Bobby said waiving. Her long blonde ponytail poking through the hole in the back of her baseball cap hung down her back almost to her waist. She wore her usual navy blue hoodie over a pair of cut-off jeans that were frayed around the numerous holes just above the knee. He knew she’d have her bathing suit on underneath, because they always spent part of the day diving off the pier and swimming. They carried stones from the bottom of the lake to the top of the pier, and then searched in Maggie’s geology book she always had with her, to see what kind of rocks they were.
He was so glad she wasn’t like the other girls he knew back in the city. Maggie was more like the boys he hung out with at home. He knew she wasn’t into fancy clothes, makeup and chasing the boys around. She didn’t even spend hours on the computer, except when school was in and she had no choice. She’d much rather go to the park and catch frogs, or bugs, or ride her bicycle. She didn’t have any girlfriends at home; she just didn’t like the way they carried on. Her best friend at home was her Labrador Retriever, Jolly, and Harvey, a boy who had his very own telescope and told her about stuff in the universe she never knew was there.
“Hey Bobby, what happened to you this morning? You’re usually here first, and I’ve been waiting for more than a half an hour for you.” Bobby had thin legs, and never wore shorts. Today he had on his usual worn out denims, so full of holes there was more of his legs showing than there would have been if he had on a pair of shorts. His long curly brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and he wore his trademark navy blue and white kerchief, his worn old knapsack slung over his shoulder. She took off her sunglasses as he sat down beside her, taking off his shoes and socks preparing to dangle his feet in the water, “ I had to help my mom set up a couple of extra cots; my grandparents are coming out this afternoon for a few days. Geez, the water is cold today!” He stuck his toes in and quickly pulled them back out.
“Bobby, the water is cold every day. It just takes getting used to.” She laughed. “I want to show you something,” she said, pointing to the shiny gray spot on the bottom of the lake. “See that over there. I’ve never noticed it before, have you? It almost looks like it glows. Wanna wade over there and check it out?” Bobby craned his neck and used his hand as a shade against the sun to see what it was she was pointing at. He was intrigued when he spotted the odd looking stuff, but not crazy about getting wet this early.
“Maybe we should wait a little while until the sun gets higher, at least then we wouldn’t be risking hypothermia.” She punched him in the arm, “Come on, you big baby.” They kept on their sweatshirts; it was still a little chilly, after all it was only nine-thirty; the mist at the end of the pier hadn’t even begun to dissipate. They figured the water wouldn’t be much deeper than to their knees, so they agreed to go for it, but they removed their jeans first.
Bullfrogs chirped in the reeds at the other end of the lake adding an eerie echo to the quiet surroundings. The lake was perfectly still, like a giant mirror.
Maggie slid into the water first, slowly leading the way, as the cold water gradually got deeper. Bobby was taller than her, so it took longer for the gripping cold to reach the tops of his thighs, but when it did! “Holy crap!” He shouted.
Maggie giggled, “It must drop off a lot more here,” she said over her shoulder, “I’m almost up to my waist and we still have another couple of feet to go.” Bobby followed her, his body starting to get numb from the cold water. “It better not be much further, or I’m going back. I’m freezing!” Their voiced echoed into the stillness.
She’d just about reached their destination when she lost her footing, and fell into the lake, getting a thorough dunking in the icy water. She came up spluttering, “Apparently, there’s a very slippery spot right there.” Bobby laughed hysterically as he carefully moved away from the place she indicated. Maggie smacked the surface of the lake, sending a small spray of water at him. “You’d better be very careful Bobby! It could be you next.”
Soaking wet and very chilly, Maggie pulled off her dripping sweatshirt, “Well this isn’t much good now, “ she said, “It’s just making me even colder.” She tied the garment to her waist and stood directly over the shiny gray substance beneath the surface. Running her foot over it, she was surprised to find it very soft and smooth, like some kind of clay. The water was up to her shoulders, “I think its clay. I’m gonna see if I can pick up a handful.” She unwrapped her sweatshirt and tossed it to him, “Here hold on to this for me.”
She dove to the bottom while Bobby stood there shivering. The lake was way too cold for his liking. They should have gone fishing first. He’d brought some fishing line and hooks and they were going to make fishing rods from the limbs they’d carefully cut and peeled yesterday.
He could see Maggie on the bottom, tugging on the clay. After a minute or so she came up to the surface to catch her breath; “It’s hard to pull that stuff up,” she said, “Every time I pull on it, it feels like something is pulling it away from me. Must be pretty sticky stuff. Why don’t we both try?”
The last thing he wanted was to submerge his entire body into that lake, but he knew she was determined, and Maggie never gave up on anything she set her mind to. Besides, he was mostly wet now anyway, so he removed his sweatshirt and tied it to hers around his waist. “All right, let’s do this. But only one try, then I’m outta here.” They dove into the water and both of them tugged at the mound of clay. The clay suddenly let go and Maggie’s hand flew back hitting Bobby right in the mouth.
When they surfaced, his bottom lip was bleeding from the impact of her hand. “Oh great,” he said, “I got my first punch in the mouth from a girl.” He splashed some cold water onto his lip as Maggie held the unusual looking clay up to the sun. “Come on, let’s get out of this water before we both freeze to death. We’ll take a look in my book and see if we can figure out what this stuff is.”
Climbing back onto the pier, relieved to exit the chilling water, they quickly wrapped themselves in the thick towels they both carried in their knapsacks. Maggie placed the clay on the pier as she shivered inside her towel. The mist at the end of the pier was gone now, and the sun was nice and warm. “It won’t take us long to warm up; then we’ll go fishing okay?” Bobby nodded shivering; “I think I’ll skip our swim today. I’ve already had enough.” But he knew that later on the air would get very hot, and they’d happily get back into the cool refreshing water.
They chatted for a while before pulling on pants and extra t-shirts they always brought along. They spread their wet sweatshirts and towels out on the pier to dry in the sun. Then retrieving their makeshift fishing poles from beneath the point where the pier rested on the beach, they proceeded to tie some lines and hooks onto their poles. “I’ll get us a couple of worms and meet you at the end of the pier,” Bobby said, “You take our poles.”
Maggie headed back along the pier, stopping beside her knapsack to grab a couple of apples for them. Bending down to move her damp towel off her knapsack, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she uncovered the ball of clay they’d brought up from the bottom of the lake only an hour ago. What had been a misshapen ball of soft gray clay was now a little clay man with the happiest expression on his face, wearing a pair of short green pants, a brown vest laced up across his chest, and a funny looking little green hat with a long gray feather sticking out of the side. The little clay man was adorable! But darn that Bobby Ells, she thought.
“Bobby!” When she yelled a flock of ducks suddenly bolted out of the reeds down the lake, taking to the air with their fright. Bobby had been in the woods, gathering worms; he ran as fast as he could through the trees, branches hitting him mercilessly across the arms and face as he bolted. Maggie Whyatt wasn’t afraid of anything that he knew of, so whatever had made her yell like that must have been terrible.
She was standing on the pier, shaking her fist at him when he reached her. “What happened? Why did you yell at me like that?” Her eyes were flashing angrily, “Bobby Ells, if this is your idea of a joke, it’s not very funny. Now where is the ball of clay? And you can put this back in your knapsack!” She thrust the little clay man into his hands.
“What’s this supposed to be? I’ve never seen this before.” He really looked like he’d never seen the statue before. “Nice try, smarty pants, now what did you do with the clay? If you don’t give it back, then you’re going back into the lake right now to get more.” Maggie was getting tired of his silly game.
“You were the last one to have it. I saw you put in on the pier, right there. Honest, I never touched it.” He pointed to where he’d last seen the clay. Turning over the odd little figurine in his hands he suddenly realized it was getting warmer and warmer as he held it. “What the heck’s going on?” Soon steam began rising off the statue and it became too hot to hold onto.
He dropped the statue and it bounced off the pier landing with a splash in the lake. “Did you see that?” He held out his hands that still were pink from the heat off the little statue. Maggie touched his hands, her mouth open, unable to believe what she’d just seen. “If you didn’t bring that statue with you, then where did it come from?”
They froze when a moment later gales of laughter filled the air coming from seemingly all around them. A high pitched voice shouted over and over, “I’m free; I’m free; for all eternity! Once accursed by a wayward gnome, now I’m fee to go back home!” Maggie grabbed Bobby’s arm, “What is that? And where is it coming from?” Again and again the shrill voice repeated the rhyme, until it rattled around inside both of their heads.
Bobby was just as frightened as she was, “Something bad is happening,” he said, “we’d better get the heck out of here.” They grabbed their knapsacks, left their towels and stuff on the pier, and ran as fast as their legs could carry them. Bobby grabbed her hand and dragged her along; his legs were much longer so he knew she couldn’t run as fast as him, and he wasn’t leaving her behind. Through the dense forest they raced, until they couldn’t hear the voice anymore. They didn’t say a word, and they didn’t stop running until they reached the road beside their cottages.
Out of breath, and bewildered they flopped down onto a log beside Maggie’s driveway. “What happened back there?” Maggie’s face was flushed and sweaty and her heart was pounding in her chest as she wiped her brow with the short sleeve of her t-shirt.
“I don’t know,” Bobby said. His mind was racing, trying to reason with what they’d experienced. Neither one of them would admit it, but they were both thinking the same thing.
Finally Maggie said, “Do you think it was the spirit of Campelot? It had something to do with that clay, I just know it!” She suddenly jumped to her feet, ”Oh my God! I forgot my book!” Her father had given her that book a couple of years ago when he discovered how fascinated she was with geology. He told her she just might be a budding geologist. The book had cost fifty dollars, but he told her she was worth it. Now she had lost it!
“We can’t go back there,” he said, “What if whatever it was is still there? It could be dangerous!” He was absolutely right, but Maggie was determined to get her book back. “All right, we won’t go today then, but I am going to get my book back and if you don’t come with me you’re not much of a friend, Bobby Ells.” She was really laying the guilt on him, and he knew she never gave up on anything. She was too good of a friend to lose; he’d go back to Campelot with her tomorrow.
“I’m not going to let you go back there alone,” he said, “Besides, I left my favourite sweatshirt there too. We’ll go back tomorrow at noon, when the forest has the most light in it. At least if there’s something there we might be able to see it before it sees us.”
“Somehow that clay was transformed into that clay man,” Maggie was on a roll, “We didn’t bring that statue to the lake, and the clay mysteriously disappeared, leaving that statue where I put the clay earlier. Do you remember what that voice was saying?”
Remember it! He’d never forget it! He repeated the verse verbatim,” I’m free; I’m free for all eternity! Once accursed by a wayward gnome, now I’m fee to go back home!” The sound of that shrill voice still echoed inside Bobby’s head. “Do you suppose the man who owned Campelot had some kind of curse on him and ended up in that clay on the bottom of the lake? That would explain why no one ever saw him. Even if they searched the lake for his body, they wouldn’t have known he had actually become part of the lake.”
It was too wild to imagine, “Maybe a gnome once owned Campelot, and when the man bought the land the gnome refused to let him live there.” Maggie heard the grown-ups talking about how no one would ever able to purchase the land, because the man who owned it simply disappeared. He had no known relatives; therefore it was highly unlikely anyone would ever live there again.
“We agreed we don’t believe in ghosts, and now you’re telling me there’s such a thing as a tree gnome?” Bobby tried to laugh off the story she’d contrived, but he really had no explanation for any of it either. “You heard what the voice said, Bobby. He said he was accursed by a wayward gnome. What else could that mean?”
Bobby wanted to forget what happened, “Look, my folks are expecting me to be there when my grandparents arrive, so I have to go. I’ll meet you here tomorrow around twelve. If you have a baseball bat, bring it with you. I’m bringing mine.” He waived goodbye and walked down the lane to the next cottage, happy he didn’t live any closer than this to Campelot.
Sometimes the events of the day don’t catch up with a person until they drift away into their dreams in the middle of the night. That was exactly what happened to Maggie later that night. She was standing beside Lake Campelot staring out over the smooth surface, mesmerized by the moon and millions of stars reflected on the perfectly calm water. It was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen.
A gentle breeze suddenly arose, and she was lifted off the rocky shore. Floating over the lake, she could see the pier and tiny fish swimming around near the bottom even though it was nighttime. Closing her eyes she breathed deeply of the fragrant night air. When she opened her eyes again she searched for her reflection in the water, but it wasn’t herself she saw. It was the clay man of Campelot!
Oddly enough, she felt no fear. The little clay man was winking at her from beneath the surface, his tiny face fairly bursting with joy. Then she heard his voice, “It’s me, it’s me! Now you have set me free! I knew when I first saw your face that you would be my redeeming grace. For many years I lay below and watched you frolic to and fro. Now at last my spirit is free, and I’ll be ever grateful to thee.”
He reached up from the bottom of the lake and gently touched her cheek. She wondered how that was possible since she was floating at least fifty feet above the surface. But she figured anything was possible in a dream. In a voice she recognized as her own she heard, “Little clay man of Campelot, are you for real, or are you not? Did you beckon me that day, to free you from that lovely clay? Are you friend, or are you foe; this I really do not know.”
The little clay man arose from the lake, taking her hands in his, as he hovered before her, “Little Maggie we are friends and friends we’ll be until the end. You are welcome anytime, for Campelot by the lake is mine. I’m the clay man no one knew, that is of course except for you. Keep me always in your heart, and you and I will never part.”
“The gnome who made the awful curse discovered a fate that was truly worse. He was a nasty gnome, you see, who took his anger out on me. When the gnomes discovered what he did, they turned him into a tiny squid. Now he roams the sea alone, the forest is no longer his home.”
“In the forest never be afraid, for a trustworthy friend you have made. A tree gnome you will never see, nor will you ever come upon me. But I’ll be watching you my dear, and I promise you’ll have nothing to fear.”
His image shimmered like stardust shaken into the wind, and he was gone. Maggie had the best sleep she’d ever known.
When Bobby arrived the next morning, she met him at the end of the driveway. He came down the lane swinging his bat as hard as he could from side to side. “Where’s your baseball bat?” He asked. “Never mind, I’ll protect you”, he said. There was fear in his eyes, but he was going to face his fears to protect his friend. She was very impressed with him.
“You’re not going to need a bat, Bobby. I had a dream last night and I spoke to the clay man of Campelot. He promised to be my friend for life. He meant it too; I felt it in my heart.”
Oh no! Now she was losing it for sure. Bobby wondered if she’d told her parents about what happened yesterday. He sure didn’t tell his, because first of all he’d be in big trouble for trespassing in the first place, and then he’d be grounded for making up a story that was so far-fetched no one would ever believe it anyway.
Maggie could tell from the look on his face that he thought she was nuts, “Don’t you dare look at me like I’m some kind of nut case, Bobby Ells. I told you I had a dream and everything is going to be fine. You have to trust me. Now let’s go.” She stomped off indignantly ahead of him and Bobby swore that as long as he lived he’d never try to figure out girls!
The forest was very quiet and kind of eerie, and Bobby swung his baseball bat in front of him just in case. But Maggie felt more at home here than anywhere. She knew she was welcome, although she did wonder where the tree gnomes hung out in the forest, and where the clay man was right now.
When they reached the pier, they found their towels and sweatshirts dried and folded neatly. Maggie’s book lay on top of her things along with the tiny gray clay man they’d seen the day before. “How did that get back there? Don’t touch it Maggie! Remember what happened to me.”
But she reached down and gently picked up the little clay man, positive she saw him wink before she put him in her knapsack. “Let’s go home, Bobby, we’ll come back tomorrow and it will be as if none of this ever happened. You’ll see.”
© Annabel Sheila