It is bluebell time in England. The slender, dusky blossoms appear in late April or early May, after the snowdrops and crocuses have gone back to sleep and before sun loving, more vivid flowers bloom. No red, yellow, or orange interloper interrupts the cerulean swath carpeting the forest floor.
This mild spring day Joseph and I drive to the hills where the forest is thick and the bluebells thrive. Hedges line the narrow road, so that all we can see as we ascend is the ribbon of road curving in front of us. It is as if we were alone in the universe, driving back through time.
In a sense, we are. Bluebells, archaic survivors of the ice age, first sprang to life before the seas rose and separated the British Isles from the continent. The thicker the patch of flowers, the more ancient the forest, and this patch is very concentrated.
Joseph says country people believed fairies and pixies lived among bluebells, so where they clustered, enchantments lurked. He warns me not to be lured by their ethereal beauty to pluck a blossom, or I could be trapped by pixies and doomed to wander with them for a hundred years. He says he would miss me.
And, they said, if a bluebell rings, it means a death is imminent.
Today we will take the risk. At a gap in the hedgerow, we pull into a parking area carved out of the forest, relieved to see no other cars. We are alone.
The moment I open the car door Spud, our boxer-mix mongrel, bursts out to begin exploring this foreign territory, while we slip on our boots. Joseph, a true Brit, has green Wellingtons, those ubiquitous knee-high rubber boots worn only in the British Isles. I declare my independence by wearing cobalt blue.
It is cool, but not cold, and the red-earthed path beckons us to wander. It leads under a canopy of trees into a magical world. Light filtering through the leaves creates a dance of shadows rippling like sun on the sea, bright periwinkle shifting to muted blue-gray and back again as a mild breeze riffles the tiny bells.
I pause here and there to take photographs while Joseph continues one slow step at a time, leaning lightly on the cane he has resisted using for so long. My gaze follows him, a tall, slender figure of a man still, despite his weakening heart, as upright as the ash and oak that line the path.
Blackbirds’ lighthearted songs percolate through the trees surrounding us. I hear no whispering pixies or tinkling bells. Spud trots ahead, stopping to sniff a promising trail or lifting his head to catch a passing scent. Otherwise, it is as if the world in the valley has disappeared.
The tiny flowers here are deep purple English natives, not their paler cousins that wandered over from Spain. I photograph them up close to capture their delicate, curling petals. I photograph the mass of blue leading deeper and deeper into the woods, and I photograph Joseph. In his green jacket and tan cap, his white curls nestling around his ears, he seems a part of the forest too.
I run to catch up with him as he stands, both hands on his cane, immersed in the beckoning, sky-like blue. I slip my arm through his and together we breathe in the tantalizing sweetness of the flowers, the rich fragrance of moist bark and earth underfoot. Each breath seems a farewell.
In the field beyond the woods sheep graze on fresh grass, new lambs hover close to their ewes. A breeze brings us the faint tinkling of a bell.