Saelig Tales (Part 1)
Ivy stretched over the walls of the Old Manse, covering the front of the building and most of the sides. Only to the rear was the foliage sparse, revealing patches of dun brick and Tudor oak. The green wooden door that once had been the servants’ entrance stood open. Occasionally smells of cooking still would seep from the kitchen window, but now the only scents were those of the red and white roses which grew up the walls of the small garden which abutted upon that part of the house. The foliage was of the old type, with flowers the size of a child’s palm. During the day they gave off a barely discernible odour, but towards evening, their scents would swell and flood through overhanging leaves of yew and elder, whose soft rustling fell almost into stillness as the light grew redder and the birdsong epiphanous.
A low iron gate set in the far wall led into the outer garden and orchard, which stretched right down to the slow-flowing Mychelham Water some hundred yards or so due east. On this August evening, smoke rose from the patio at the centre of the garden and coiled around the white canvas parasol under which the Reverend Edward Ingle Synnot was seated, partaking of a supper consisting of succulent green figs from a tree which stood on the other side of the garden wall, hard Danish cheese, freshly-baked bread and a carafe of finest Minho port. Between sips, he leaned back against the hard wicker of his chair and lit up an impressive Cuban cigar. Impressive, that is, if anyone had been watching this septuagenarian vicar, plus-fours-and-all, engaging in the typically bucolic pleasures of his Sunday evening. At that time on the Lord’s Sabbath, when prayers had been said, wafers consumed, and robes relinquished with not a small measure of relief, his sole companions tended to be avian or insectiferous.
The vicar switched off a transistor radio to which he had been listening, laid down his cigar and, stretching across the wooden table, picked up a leather-bound book. It felt light in his hands, its faded white leather smooth against his skin. Using the tip of his index finger, he traced out the gold-leaf letters of the title on both jacket and spine and then lifted his right hand and squinted at the finger-tip; using the other fingers of the same hand, with a clumsy elegance he donned a pair of gold-rimmed, half-moon reading spectacles, gazed at the white dust accrued on the whorls of his finger-pad, then sniffed it gently. His nose was long and firm, slightly rounded at its end, like the protuberance of a Henry Moore statue; his lips, once middling full, were pursed through long years of solicitude and intercessionary prayer; his eyes were the colour of well-seasoned oak. He removed a white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped the dust onto the cloth. He undid the clasp, allowed the book to fall open, lifted away the white satin bookmark and began to read. He read inwardly, but if one were to have looked closely enough between, say, the broad leaves of an old yew tree, one might have made out the harmonic movement of his lips and tongue. Perhaps a wandering white dog might have been capable of hearing the melody of his barely conscious vocalisation of the meanings which had been burned into the paper. Whether or not there was such a creature among the apple and pear trees of the orchard remains unknown, but the fact was that Reverend Synnot was no longer alone. Another man was sitting opposite him.
Edward only noticed him when the edge of the cigar-leaf most proximal to his fingers began to singe. As he stubbed out the cigar and glanced beyond the golden upper edge of a new page, his eyes caught the man’s face. ‘John!’ he exclaimed with an easy smile, ‘I didn’t see you arrive.’
The other swung back on his chair and folded his arms behind his neck.
‘Sometimes even the animals don’t notice me.’
‘Years of hunting for poachers?’
‘Aye. And for game.’
‘In the old days, parsons used to hunt along with the other men.’
‘Before my time, Canon Synnot.’
‘Mine too! Come on John, you’re as old as I – give or take a year or two. And you know full well that I am not a Canon, I have no cathedral around me, merely a village church.’
‘These days the passing of a year assumes an importance, both critical and melancholy…’
‘I see you’re cheerful as usual. A hard day?’
‘You choose to stay in your high steeple-house, protected for all eternity by the body of the Church Invisible.’
‘Less choice than calling…’
‘Bah! Rain on the window: pitter-patter, pitter-patter.’
John Rotherfield brought his hands down onto the table. They were large hands, calloused, the nails cracked here and there and with dirt ingrained into the knuckles. His hair was full for an old man. It looked as if it had been burned silver by the sun. His eyebrows were bushy and still black. Lines ran in every possible direction around his eyes, mouth and neck. He had come to resemble the crust of a dessicated planet which, aeons past, had been lush and green. Yet his frame was unbent and lithe. His gaze, fixed on a point behind and to the left of the other man’s jacket, was so intense that Edward had an almost irresistible urge to turn around. However, he knew that following Rotherfield’s deep blue eyes into whatever reveries he held within his head was a dangerous path to take; perhaps he was only looking at the climbing rose that had forced its tangled stem upwards against the crumbling brick ever since the days of Paine and Cobbett.
‘You look like you could do with a cigar and a glass of the red!’
And without waiting for a reply, Edward poured him a generous measure of port, filling the glass to the point of overflowing. Without spilling a drop, he placed it before the gamekeeper. For an interval during which it seemed to Edward that he could hear the ticking of the grandmother clock on the wall of his study far within the house, Rotherfield’s stare held him, as countless times it had held a pheasant, a deer or a snake. Yet it was he who looked away first. He threw back his head and gulped from the glass, his Adam’s apple pulsing up and down the trunk of his throat. Edward noticed that Rotherfield had leaned a small axe and a bag of sticks against the wall and shivered inexplicably.
Rotherfield lit his cigar. When he spoke again, his voice had dropped a quarter-octave.
‘What’s that you’re reading?’
‘Oh, a curiosity I picked up at the Sergison Manor sale a few weeks ago.’
Rotherfield reached across and took the book out of his hand.
‘The Architecture of the Blessed… who is the author?’
‘The name has been completely eroded.’
‘That’s strange, the title’s perfectly clear. There’s not even an indentation to suggest an author’s name was once there. What about inside?’
‘Nothing there either,’ Edward answered.
Rotherfield began flicking through the yellowed pages.
‘Strange…’ he said again.
Edward shrugged. ‘These old volumes harbour all manner of curiosity. I have one which has been printed in looking-glass type and illustrated in reverse pictures. I have to use a mirror to read it.’
Rotherfield put the book down close to his glass, glanced down at his boots, exhaled slowly and then looked back up. Edward, for reasons he found difficult to identify, felt compelled to speak.
‘Do you remember, John, when we were young – before the Great War, before I became a priest – we used to go down to the riverbank and lie in boats and read to one another and sing, you, me and…’
‘Of course I remember,’ Rotherfield cut in.
‘It seems like another life, now. So much has changed.’
‘Everything has changed.’
‘All that matters.’
‘John, it’s time, surely it’s time, to… not to forget, we could never do that, but to heal. Or at least to carry on, to realise that God’s scheme is unfathomable, that His face is ineffable as even it was to Christ on the Cross in his moment of ultimate despair.’
‘Pretty words, Edward. Ragged sermons. Old music.’
It was a conversation which they’d had countless times over the years, and they always reached this same theological dead-end.
In spite of the lack of a breeze, Edward thought he heard the sound of river water rushing over flat stones. He was aware of Rotherfield’s eyes on him, that penetrating quality they had, the manner in which they darted away as though suddenly aware of their power. An oppressive sense of animalistic scrutiny made him shift uneasily in his chair. It was as though the presence of this old acquaintance had disturbed the plumb-line of the equilibrium which he had made for himself in the enclosed garden, the equilibrium which, by extension, held together his life within the Church of St Cuthman.
Rotherfield’s eyes had not sustained the veined tiredness of old age. Nothing cracked the arc of their perfection. Edward felt the inadequacy, the banality of his own mud-brown irises. Never once in his seventy years had he perceived through those eyes the nature of God. Through all the gallons of blood-coloured wine and high-stacked ricks of bread, through sermons a million words long and christenings sufficient to drown half the host of Hell, cleavings and layings to earth enough to cultivate the seeds of a nation, not once had the Reverend Edward Ingle Synnott felt the living presence of Christ.
‘You have sought solace within the pages of your books and the resonance of your stone chancels, while I…’ Rotherfield’s voice quivered like an arrow-shaft in oak.
‘You seek it in the woods, in the bark of dead tree-trunks, in your quarry at the quivering moment of death.’
‘How poetic you are. How pathetic.’
‘I think you need another drink.’
The woodcutter sighed.
‘Perhaps I do.’
The vicar obliged.
‘Your cigar has gone out.’
Edward picked up the fat Havana, ignited its distal end and puffed away like a jazz cornetist until the smoke rose in perfect circles from the ends of the wrapped leaves. The birds now were of the evening: kestrels, curlews, night herons. Rotherfield breathed in deeply. He felt the garden roses fill his chest; and beyond, the sleeping ivy, the broad, grey beech; and the slowly rising veins of the yew began to course through his body where they met and joined with something that had burned there for years. In the depths of despair, nature had always redeemed him. Perhaps that was why, on the first Sunday of every month, he walked through the forest of Andrieda and crossed the Mychelham Water to take port and cheese and bread with the man with whom, in a manner of speaking, he had shared the same epoch. They would harangue each other and discuss metaphysical matters, or pore over treatises on nature or essays which purported to draw links between the exact geographical locations of various artists’ homes and their works. It had become an unofficial fixture in both men’s lives, these past ten years or so.
‘Read to me, Edward. Read as you used to do, among the hay and upon the green of the river-bank, when we were boys.’
‘I haven’t done that for years.’
‘All the more reason.’
‘Time moves on…’
‘There are at least three hours of daylight left. Time enough.’
‘Well, alright. I’ll read as long as I can manage. Sunday services tend to fray the voice.’
‘They fray my ears.’
‘Thank you, John.’
‘I hear the music, through the stone walls of your church. I feel the wind blowing through the organ-pipes.
The vicar did not reply but instead fiddled with his reading glasses, which tended to slip progressively down his nose; because he adjusted them so often, the frame had become bent, so that they tended to sit on the bone at a slightly skewed angle, which made the tops of his ears rather uncomfortable.
Edward flipped through the pages until he found the chapter for which he’d been searching. As though he were about to place the book upon a lectern, he carefully smoothed down the spine, cleared his throat and began to read.
‘It says that this section was translated by the author from the original Anglo-Saxon, which means that he or she must have been a seeker-out of obsolete tongues, of languages which are no longer spoken or written, of words which have slipped from thought. It takes a particular kind of person to devote a life to that which is no more. We did a modicum of Anglo-Saxon at Theological College, not enough for me to be able to decipher the original version of this text.’
Edward turned the book around to demonstrate exactly what he meant. Rotherfield leaned across the table and peered closely. He made out a series of oddly-shaped letters, some of which were familiar, others completely alien. It was as though the mundane letters which he used every day had become intoxicated by the passage of time. Some appeared to have been speared through the middle, others resembled thorns, gibbets, musical notes or intertwined fingers. The vicar resumed:
These are the works, in vellum, of Aelfric, Abbott and builder of the Church of Wywurth in the land of South Saxons, who died on the Day of the Feast of St Thomas in 872 Anno Domini. They were discovered sealed in an iron casket held within the walls at the crown-end of a pyramidal-shaped tomb close to the east line of the square chancel in the old churchyard of Oxney, East Sussex. The tomb was of more recent date, and so the assumption must be that the casket had been removed from its original place of secretion, which may have been somewhere beneath the church floor, and moved to the cist of one Sir Cuthman Harris, good Squire of Oxney who was born on the 10th March in the Year of Our Lord 1654 and who departed this world on 15th December in the Year of Our Lord 1729. The reason for its removal and deposition are unknown to the author.
These are the words of I, Aelfric, who is the Abbott of Wywurth in the Land of the South Saxons. For some twenty winters, since work on this most holy abode of God hath, with His Grace, been completed, I have been engaged in collecting and committing unto manuscript the songs and customs of this land of mine and of applying to said musics the principles and incantations of Pope Sylvester of Rome who lived among the Saracens in the lands to the south of the Dominion of the Franks and who learned there of many hellish things which yet might lead unto a knowledge of the perfect proportions of Paradise and the various lights with which said garden be illumin’d. Through rain and snow and pestilence and great temptation, have I laboured these twenty years in dark cloisters of the soul, and in my searches, I have travelled across very near the entirety of the Marks of the land of the South Saxons. I have waded through the shadows of wayside Roods, I have inscribed the dances and songs, vigorous and gentle, of the thanes and the ceorls and those, too of their womenfolk; these are folk of mine own stock and yet through this long quest, do I sense a great river flowing between mine own soul and that of the men who live and die around my cell. With crot, horn and monochord, I am as a wave pon the sea. I have grown separate even from the fellow-brothers of mine own abbey. They know little of my work and perhaps tis best that way, since they possess neither the wisdom to comprehend its span, nor the reason to put it to use. If they had their way, they might liken to burn such manuscripts as I create, for such as the Æcer-bót is believed by many in this land of ours to be works of the Devil.
And truth be written, I rest uneasy upon the labours of my stylus, for God knows what twists and coils and devilish airs may be assumed and read into even the most innocent of letters. The Word may have been issued from the moving spirit of Our Lord, yet having descended into this world of men, it is not trammelled with the good as oxen are to plough.
But these nights I must speed my labours, my reed must slip across bull-skin as wax floweth into the flame. A dark wind bloweth from the east, and I know not what our fate will be, a month from now. In this work I am ably abetted by one novice monk, Aetheric, whom very near from the cradle I did school in the arts in which my soul is embroiled through the course of this life. I work with said Aetheric in a space which lieth neath the beams of the tower roof and from this vantageous point can we witness the rise and fall of the sun and the moon and the sway and heave of the tides and rivers of the sky, and also can we spie any intruder, man or woman, thane or ceorl, who might emerge from the depths of the forest. In the past few weeks we have made out, along the far eastern rim, a long line of black and gold. These be the clinker ships of the North-Men with their golden beaks and their massed oars, scything through the white waves along the line of the coast. I have spotted the works of these brutes at close hand, when once I was travelling through the lands of the Jutes of old in search of some ancient manuscripts said to have been quill’d by none other than the Archbishop Elphege of East Kent. From my vantage-point, I watched Norse-Men storm into the town and slaughter all, even unto the whining dogs and gawking hens! They took the Archbishop into the square, where they cast him upright upon whole bone and horns of an ox, and then one of them struck him with an axe-iron on the head, so that with the blow he and the bony frame sank down. Then, him being still alive, they proceeded to slit his back with an axe, twice, and deep, so that he screamed as I have never before heard man or beast scream. Then they turned him over and hacked open his chest, again in form of two straight lines, running in angle parallel. Then they forced apart the rib-sticks of his heart-cage and left him there on the wealden mud of the village square, his heart beating to the white sky, his back broken into wings, to perish in the greatest of agonies. I had heard this devilish practice called by the Dark Strangers themselves, ‘The Rite of the Blood Eagle’. After they had completed their terrible deed, the savages did take the body and strip it of skin, laying it thus, raw and open, to the vultures and wolves and mad dogs who do follow the hoofprints of death wherever that great beast doth roam. On their left shoulder they carried an axe and on their right, an iron spear. Each man wore two gold bracelets on either arm and on his head, a gilt helmet. They were bearded and their faces were stamped with expression, most terrible and pagan. I hurried myself away from the awful scene and I did not stop till I reached the wayside cross which sits pon the east bank of the east tributary of the River Mychelham, which divides the lands of the Kentish folk from the marches of the South Saxons. There, as I lay down to rest, I smelled the river most foul and horrid. When I raised my head to look upon the waters, I saw that they did flow red. Yet I had to cross the ford, since if I had remained where I was, the Dark Strangers would surely have found my hiding-place and I would have suffered the selfsame fate of the good Archbishop. I waited a little, in the hope that the waters might clear, but with no sign of this impending, I took up my scapular in my arms and waded through the blood-drenched river. The stench of it caused my head to spin, so that I almost tumbled into the red flood. Yet the current flowed fast and I knew that if once I fell, I would be unable to rise again and would drown in the blood of Mother Church. So I strode on, all the while intoning a bede to Our Lord. At the moment when I felt that I could move no further, at the very middle point of the river, I closed my eyes and implored the skies to come to my aid. For I carried with me manuscripts most precious, which I had obtained that very morning from the most saelig archbishop, and if I drowned, they would be gone forever; the ink of their vellum would run and flow through the rivers of the land and be lost in the southern sea. But already my legs were turning to viscid water and I felt as though I would dissolve into the great river. At that moment, I heard the sound of a woman’s voice. It was a song which I had never before heard and the words were in a language which I did not understand, or else which now I have forgotten. On that fateful afternoon in the full-spated river, I found that I understood as though I had long known the words of this song, which, though mournful, was not akin to the funeral dirges of our age, but seemed to issue from a time, long past, or else, yet to come. The fluid of the music rendered unto my sinews the power to continue my journey, and so I was able to cross the river and return by these many leagues, to the abbey. I know not the explanation for this happening, nor yet who the woman was that sang so beautifully to me on that day. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit. I know not.
Aelfric sat at his desk by the opening between the sloping wooden roof of the church tower and the wall and as he gazed across the village to the rods of farmland which lay outside of ditch, bank and palisade, his eyes came to rest upon the ochre wastes beyond the yew forest. The great Southern Sea was some seven leagues away, yet he could smell its sharp blade. The day was hard and cold and clear and as it turned slowly to night, the freezing air settled in complete stillness over the surface of the forest lake. In the morning he would brush away the thin dust of snow from its surface and see himself as though he were lying on the bed of the lake. The sun had abandoned the eastern sky, yet its beams overflowed from beneath the horizon, turning the columns of smoke which issued from the Moot Hill to bronze. Aelfric imagined the smoke to be earthly angels, sent to protect the abbey from the depradations of the Dark Strangers. The thin trails hung unmoving in the still air, like the sung notes of the dead. As he moved about the belfry, Aelfric felt that he was the only thing on earth whose swing and metal had not been still’d. The smells of the village, smells of poultry and pigs, stale hay and green waste, wafted to the top of the tower, yet like the smoke they thinned as they rose. From where he was, Aelfric could not hear any of the chopping, shouting and grinding that would be going on below; such sounds as had accompanied the building of this humble and yet wondrous church. Aelfric had supervised every aspect of the construction, from foundation ditch to belfry roof. It would have been another man’s life’s work; under his hand, the church had been completed within a mere twenty years.
The plan for the building had come to him through a dream in the form of musical notches. Upon waking, he had grabbed his quill and rushed to his vellum, but once there, he had been unable to transcribe even one of the sounds he had heard. At first he had despaired, for the music had been beautiful and wondrous, but then he had realised that such celestial notes could never be scratched with the end of a bird feather onto animal skin. For twenty years the song had remained hidden in his head, and yet he had been able, somehow, to reach down as though through a dark firmament and follow that which was held therein and so, winter-upon-summer, his church had been built.
The basic plan was that of a Cross with arms of equal length. The main – north – portal was very plain, with a single rose window above it. The ceiling was vaulted and supported by pillars with ornamental shafts. The building was taller than it was broad and culminated in a large dome resting on spherical triangles. At times, especially when it was empty first thing in the morning and the light angled in appropriate manner, the Abbey of Wywurth seemed more like a cathedral than a humble village church. At the centre of the dome, a great golden sun beamed so brightly down upon apse and nave that the whole building seemed to be illuminated. Painted in faint outline behind the sun was a black, square-shaped rood. Most of the interior was unadorned, save for the east entrance. There, carved into the stone, and protruding from it, was the face of a young woman, complete with hair and neckband. Around the face grew tendrils of reeds and leaves of ivy and the whole was set above the door with the visage inclined slightly downwards so that it seemed as though the woman was gazing at folk as they entered. The bell-tower was reputed to be the highest in the lands of the South Saxons, and though he had not climbed each one and measured the rival steeples, stone-upon-stone, Aelfric believed this to be true.
The church had been built using huge sandstone blocks taken from the ruins of buildings of the Old Romans, blocks so heavy that it had taken eight yoke of oxen just to move them the fifteen leagues. He had no idea where the plan for the Abbey of Wywurth had come from, it was like no house of God he had ever seen or heard of, but it had succeeded, it stood upright, its dome and tower punched into the sky. The perfect music which he had heard in his dream was set now in stone.
Up in the chamber of the bell-tower it was as though he were enclosed in a cell, a monastic cell, yes, but more than that, an enclosed space like that which might exist in a book, or a song, or a tomb. Such a place might exist in the lower reaches of heaven, or the hinterlands of paradise. This land was indeed a holy land.
He sighed and, with a groan, raised his frame from the chair and rubbed his lower back; too many hours of poring over half-decayed manuscripts, styling notes into tablets of wax and finally, once all the calculations had been made and the courses of logic run, drawing reed across vellum beneath a tallow light. For several days he had neglected to shave, or even to follow the Rule of Benedict. As he had done many times over the years, Aelfric asked forgiveness of his Creator for these faults, hoping for some dispensation, given the urgency of his task: to complete the cycle of songs, musics and arithmetical calculations which would yield, if not to him then at least to some future scholar, the ability to dance in seamless, lacertine geometer across this land and thus to scry the future and even the nature of that most elusive of mysteries, death.
Aelfric went over to a low table and poured some wine from an urn into a blue glass, swung back his head and gulped so rapidly that it made him choke and cough. He wiped the back of his hand across his lips and drank some more. These past few days he had existed on wine and stale bread and his legs felt like fish-guts. All his brother monks had fled towards the lands of the West Saxons, which yet held secure, but he and his helper Aetheric had remained here with the intention of hiding the manuscripts and themselves until the North-Men had gone their way. Then they would re-emerge, knowledge and wisdom intact – qualities they would carry on their backs north, south, east and west. They had to stay to complete the work not so much because the Abbey of Wywurth was one of the last places where they might find seclusion and materials with which to continue; more because of the head of Alcuin, which could not be moved from there, e’en until Doomsday.
Aelfric tensed. Footsteps, growing louder. Three knocks, followed by four: it was their code. He went over and turned the iron handle. The door swung open, revealing a breathless Aetheric. The Abbott turned away, folded his hands behind his back.
‘Well, didst thou find any meat?’ he asked, sternly.
‘None, Master Abbott. There is nothing to be found for twenty acres in any direction. I spent the whole day searching.’
‘And didst thou return, empty-handed?’
‘Aye,’ Aetheric nodded. His eyes were bright with the dreams of youth and angels, but he, too, was unshaven and his face had grown long, his eyes red-rimmed with sleepless nights. ‘Except for this.’
In the opened palm of his outstretched hand, Aetheric held a sparkling piece of jet, cut in the shape of an eye.
‘What is it?’ Aelfric asked, taking the stone from him. ‘It is smooth and polished like jewellery, yet it is like none which I have seen. Where didst thou find it?’
Aetheric hesitated. ‘I was given it.’
‘Given it? By whom?’
‘By a mendicant with a flowing white beard…’ he sighed deeply, ‘and eyes the colour of the sea.’
‘And where didst thou meet this mendicant?’
‘Upon the ruins of Moot Hill.’
‘The ruins? But the hoolets do not inhabit the Moot. Who has ruined it? The thane yet guards it with his life.’
Aetheric shook his head. ‘No, Father Abbott. The thane has fled and only penniless wanderers now inhabit its hall. They are using the wood of walls and roof for fuel.’
Aelfric walked over to the gap of light. What the novice had said must indeed be true. Smoke, dancing lithe and curvaceous, was rising to such a height over the village as he had never before seen. It must be that, timber by timber, the building itself was being fed to the fire.
The shapes the smoke made against the sky resembled great thorns, or Viking axes, or demons, and the smell it gave out was of sulphur. It was as though Hellfire itself had descended upon Wywurth and upon the world, thought Aelfric, feeling the stone smooth and warm in his hand. He became angry.
‘What use is this stone, thou fool? It is a piece of trickery. What didst thou pay for it?’
‘One silver pening.’
‘What worth hath money, now? The eye hath special powers. It came from the lands of the Salernii.’
The Abbott’s face contorted. ‘I tarry all hours poring over these manuscripts, I scry blóts and bedes unknow’d e’en to the most learned amongst us, I neither eat nor drink – save for worm-infested bread and stale Communion Wine (for which I ask God’s forgiveness) – and thou, whom I have brought into the light of knowledge these past fifteen winters, thou wandereth among mendicants and render unto them compense for common rocks!’
So saying, he raised his arm and cast the stone to the floor, where it broke into eleven thousand pieces. There was a loud bang and the room filled with smoke so dense it caused their eyes to water. Then, as Aelfric made the sign of the rood across his chest, he thought he heard music. It was of the same rhythm as the music which the thanes played and to which the scops sang in the great Moot Halls across the lands of the Saxons. Yet this leoðsong seemed to issue from the very core of his being. It was soon as though his very bones were singing. Although he could not make out the words, they seemed known to him, as if they had once fallen from the lips of a lover. (Aelfric was surprised that this thought had occurred to him, since, even in dream, he had never possessed a woman.) The song was at once the rise and fall of the tide in spring, the sound of snow falling on a stone tomb, the spinning memory of long galleries and fire-shadows.
And now, at the same instant, Aelfric and his novice discerned the form of a woman dancing in the billowing smoke. A prayer dried on Aelfric’s lips as he watched her grow more substantial, until she stood before them, tall and willowy, her black tunic and mantle affixed with a brooch in the shape of a sun, a necklace of jet-stone and silver wire at her throat. Her eyes are river-fish grey, thought Aelfric. Her face, long and unnaturally white, reminded him of his own, reflected in the mirror of the frozen lake. The woman’s lips were moving. She started intoning the words of a song:
It was long, long ago -
Yet I recall – when at the forest’s edge,
I was hewn down and my stem removed
Resistless were the foes that seized me there,
They fashioned for themselves a spectacle,
Commanded me to bear their criminals.
Aelfric cleared his throat and addressed her. ‘From where dost thou hail, and for what purpose?’
She turned towards him and as she did so, her black hair came loose from its clasp and danced across her visage in manner akin to a leafy yew branch caressed by the breeze.
‘I am from the river beneath the mountain. I am from the Isle of the Sea-Calf where the fisherman turned the people from the raven to the speaking wood. My name is Aethelflaed. Within me, there rages the passion of eleven thousand virgins.’
Aelfric shot a glance at the novice, who lowered his gaze.
The woman continued, and it was as though she were singing her words.
‘Within me, O monk, the heart of Inge-land doth beat strong. I am in the grains of rock, in the silver of springs, in the time between tides, in the moots of the seas where whales and dolphins sing and spinneth tales. I am in shank of bull and breast of cow. I am in the eyes of the lover.’
‘Good maiden, dost thou reside also in the ink and gold of my manuscripts?’
‘The words which you have scratched across skin and beat into silver and bled into stone, those colours of earth which you have drawn from land and river will be burned and washed away, forever lost to those who come after you.’
Aelfric felt as though his legs were about to give way. He stumbled to his chair, and almost fell into it. The novice went to him.
‘Are you alright, Father Abbott?’ he said solicitously. ‘Thy pale face and silvery hair possesses a gleam more akin to metal than to man.’
‘I… I do not know, Aetheric. In the name of God, I do not know.’
‘Let me bring thee a drink.’ Aetheric lifted a tumbler to his master’s lips and the Abbot drank of the Holy Communion wine.
A little recovered, he continued, ‘Spirit of the dark stone, for mercy’s sake, pray tell us poor mortals what we must do to save the manuscripts, the words and songs of the folk who dwell within this life as from mark to mark. Pray sing to us as thou didst sing to me upon the bloodied ford, that summer’s afternoon.’
The maiden smiled and moved toward the two monks. She was taller than the tallest man in the village; she stood over six foot; and she progressed in manner light and subtle, hardly skimming the ground. Her feet were bare. She sat upon the other chair, rested her arms on the table and laid the soft, white skin of her palms upon the coarse vellum of the manuscripts.
‘Rest thy fear, good Father Abbott, for this winter’s day shalt thou attain the fruit of thy labours. Thou shalt perceive of such that only one mortal man hast seen before thee, and only one other will in days yet to come.’
‘Good lady, dost thou mean that I shall seek out and find safe places where this vellum might be secreted?’ She motioned across the room, toward the shafts of light which poured in through the wooden frame.
‘That, and much more besides.’
‘I do not fear death, only the pain of transition. I am old and I have lived here in this abbey for most of my life. I have prayed to my Maker most scrupulously through the Rule of Saint Benedict and if it is time for me to depart, then I am ready.’
‘Make not that mistake: I am not sliced from the finger of thy God.’
‘Then art thou…?’
‘I do not hail from the dark regions, nor from the talon of thy Beast.’
‘From whence, then, dost thou arise?’
‘Thou shalt gain apprehension of whither I do arise; for now, suffice it to say that I was here before thy God, before thy Devil. I am in the grains of the stone which thy novice didst crack, in the leaves not yet in bud; along the long roots of thine eyes do I sprout, through the blood coils of thy brain do I run. Abbott – I am in thine heart.’
‘Lord God, save us!’
‘Beyond and beneath salvation and damnation, there am I. Thy manuscripts sing the songs of my soul and of all the souls which dance and sail within mine.’
Aetheric now gulped down some Communion Wine. ‘Good lady, forgive me, but when I look upon thee I forget the vows I am to take. I grow dizzy…’
She reached out and took his hand. ‘Good novice, I will guide thee on the voyage which thou must undertake.’
‘Thy hand is soft, yet cold as ice.’
‘The journey is long, and though like Sylvester thou be on’t, yet thou wilt not perceive aught of the marks and crosses thereof.’
‘I care not. If the journey be into the light, what matter this beat of the sparrow’s wing? Death is but a mask on the face of the everlasting.’
‘Thy master, Abbott Aelfric, shall be the watcher. His soul has grown greater than most. No hlaford, no guardian of the loaf, can make this journey. No man who liveth in the joys of the mead-hall can venture pon such moots as this voyage will require; only the wraecca will be able to scribe that which he will see. He alone can save thee from the fiery jaws of the terrible green nicor, from the surfeits of this life.’
The Abbott gathered up his writing materials – vellum, reed and pigments – and sat alert at his desk. The light was still strong, yet at its fulcrum was a hint of the darkness which covereth all. He tied the rope tightly around him, so that his clothing seemed more shroud than habit.
The black-haired lady placed her hands upon the shoulders of the novice. Her fingers were long and bony, the nails like icicles on the point of melting. She drew him to the centre of the room. He closed his eyes and began to sway. She threw her head back so that her long mantle of hair swept like the wakes of a thousand long-ships across her tunic. Her mouth opened but at first no sound issued from her throat. Then, as Aelfric watched, the muscles between jaw and collar-bones began to pull and ripple and stretch and her head swung from side to side, as though she were in a trance of prayer. The movements grew until it seemed as though they would rip her skull from her spine. As a trickle of blood began to flow from her neck, she began to sing in a voice high-toned as a lark’s, yet strong as a raven’s. Aetheric who was now unclothed lay with his spine curved against the pig-iron of the bell, his skin glowing silver like that of the maiden. The notes from which the lines and strokes and dots that wet the vellum had arisen resonated in the Abbott’s skull. The white-faced scop began singing in his wanderer’s soul.
Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the giver of gold?
Where be the seats and the banquet? Where be the hall-joys of old?
Alas for the burnished cup, for the byrnied chief of today!
Alas for the strength of the prince! For the time hath passed away -
Is hid neath the shadow of night, as it never had been at all.
Behind the dear and doughty there standeth now a wall,
A wall that is wondrous high, and with wondrous snake-work wrought.
The strength of the spears hath fordone the earls and hath made them naught,
The weapons greedy of laughter, and she, the mighty Wierd;
And the tempests beat on the rocks, and the storm-wind that maketh afeard –
The terrible storm that fetters the earth, the winter-bale,
When the shadow of night falls wan, and wild is the rush of the hail,
The cruel rush from the north, which maketh men to quail.
Hardship full is the earth, o’erturned when the stark Wierds say:
Here is the passing of riches, here friends are passing away;
And men and kinsfolk pass, and nothing and none may stay;
And all this earth-stead here shall be empty and void one day…
Her song continued, yet now it was a reflection, a didymus, the form merely of a tale as she swayed back and forth with Aetheric the Novice against the metal arc of the bell and Aelfric the Abbott scribed faster than ever he had scribed, pigments and inks flying from the end of his reed quill. The music which he plyed in the form of words melded with the last rays of light which sleeked into the belfry like the blades of langseaxes. And as he wrote, the land itself rose up, chain upon perch upon rood upon acre, and Aelfric saw far into a realm where energy grows form.
Reverend Synnott laid the book, still open, upon the table. He sighed and sat back in his chair. His face was pale and his eyes flitted like bird seeking perch about the branches of the trees outside the garden.
Rotherfield watched all this. ‘How beautiful,’ he said, ‘and how false.’
‘Why false?’ the vicar asked, his pallor increasing.
Rotherfield shrugged. ‘The seeking after pagan gods or goddesses is as pointless as the quest for the Holy Grail. Myth, constructed out of a longing for meaning and structure, when there is none.’
‘Even space possesses inherent structure…’
‘Human life, it seems to me, is one great betrayal.’
Edward was silent. He concentrated on the crumbling upper edge of the wall some four feet above Rotherfield’s shoulder. The scent of roses was growing stronger, mingled with the inspissated odour of old brick. Soon night would sweep over everything, turn colour to formless black.
‘That day, before the war, when we took small boats down to the river, yonder…’ Rotherfield jerked his thumb back to indicate the direction of the river which flowed beyond the wood’s far edge.
‘We rowed boats often.’
‘That day was different.’ Rotherfield inhaled, looked around him. ‘It was a little like today: summer, albeit early afternoon, the sun shining, the heat pouring off the fields, along the branches of the trees, down the shallow banks and into the oxbows of the river.’
‘We were very young.’
‘Not so young.’
‘We had the idea of rowing for a stretch and then lying down in the bowl of the hull so that, viewed from the bank, it would seem as though the boats were empty, simply flowing with the current.’
‘It was silly idea,’ Edward said. ‘Dangerous, even on a slow-flowing river.’
‘The river was low with the dry summer. The reeds had risen almost to the surface, you could see them waft by like the notes of a symphony.’
‘You, me, and…’
The vicar sighed and thrust his legs out straight, leaned back on his elbows and gazed up at the sky as though he were back fifty years, in the narrow rowing-boat as it bobbed along in the middle of the river. The willows hung heavy over the water. He felt the rough, warm planks of the hull rub against his naked shoulders. Through the soles of his feet, which were planted against the arched walls of the craft, he felt the parting movement of the waters and at the same time, against the curvature of his skull, he felt them come together as though his passage had been merely a solitary bubble moving through their substance.
‘I dream of her, often. Even after all these years.’ Rotherfield’s voice was ragged like the black sky tearing back into stars. ‘Her eyes, her hair…’
‘…the smell of her skin amidst the leaves and summer heat. The sound of her voice a particular music.’
‘Stop it, John. Stop now.’
‘Her soul sings to me across the abyss.’
‘I cannot listen to this!’
‘Why not? Why should I stop? I will not stop, that you may feel less guilty. So that you, the grand Reverend of the Church of St Cuthman’s of Wywurth, vicar of all that he surveys, might continue to enjoy the odd summer’s evening with a man whom all these years he has considered a friend?’
‘Are we not friends, John?’
‘Do not patronise me using my Christian name like that! I am Rotherfield, the local gamekeeper-cum-woodcutter-cum-village-idiot.’
‘You were never an idiot.’
‘Oh yes, I was. I was the one who followed the clarion call. I was the one who leapt like a fool into the trenches!’
‘You haven’t brought any of this up for years. Why today?’
‘I don’t know. That story – it reminds me of something… I could smell the village with its wood fires and its snorting hogs, the stench of its sewage, poxes weeping from the skin, the creeping of the mud dead. I have been there.’
‘We all thought you were dead. There was no word for over two years.’
© Suhayl Saadi