Saelig Tales (Part 2)
Rotherfield had been captured at Gallipoli and held in a Turkish jail full of Armenians, Greeks and Kurds (then known as Saracens). The absence of any other British prisoners struck had him as strange, and only later did he learn that he had been held apart from his countrymen deliberately. The Turks started moving him further and further east until he ended up in Kars, a God-forsaken huddle of dun-coloured buildings where, for nine months out of twelve, snow and ice ruled.
One day, while he was breaking rocks on a barren, rain-swept hillside, he was approached by a man carrying a long stick He walked with a slight limp and was aged around forty, though it was hard to be sure. Rotherfield had never talked about this before, but now his gaze encompassed the vicar as he described the visitation.
‘He wore a short, pointed beard, like a Renaissance aristocrat or stage magician. His eyes were black and almond-shaped, his skin olive. He greeted me by name in English and then he handed me a card. I wiped the sweat and rain from my eyes to read it: The House of Dhu’l-kif, Rum Milet 786 A, Fanar, Istanbul.
‘Then I realised where I had seen him before – at Gallipoli. He had been on a ridge not fifty yards from me, and he just stood there, outlined against the sky in his Turkish Army battle-cap and greatcoat. It was a miracle he wasn’t shot straight off, yet as the sun fell into the sea, releasing its redness over everything, he lit a cigarette and started to smoke in a most leisurely manner. Though my rifle was loaded and ready I did not shoot him, yet I could not tear my eyes away from him. Sunset gave way to intense darkness. There was no moon and I began to shiver with the damp and cold. I assumed that the man had gone back down into his trench, though I couldn’t be sure; he had vanished with the light. For all I knew, he might still have been there, staring at me.
‘When I returned to the present and looked up, I was shocked to discover that the bearded figure who had handed me his card only moments before had disappeared. The hillside was covered with boulders, rocks and piles of scree and I supposed that it might have been possible for him to hide, but although I scoured it with my eyes hour upon hour, I saw no one emerge on the slope.
‘Some weeks later, I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of clanging. I was so exhausted from stone-breaking that I always slept like the dead. But now consciousness came. There was a party of soldiers at the door. At least, I assumed they were soldiers; they had that bearing and they were holding guns. They were clad from head-to-toe in black. Long, black cloaks and leather boots. They stormed into the hut but despite the noise they made and the light from their torches, not one of my fellow-prisoners stirred. They were still snoring away, some with incongruous smiles on their grizzled faces. The other odd thing was that the soldiers’ armaments were at least fifty years out-of-date. Things might have been getting pretty dire for the armies of Europe, but not to the extent of being reduced to the muzzle-loading muskets of the Crimean War. And so these were not regulars of the Turkish Army.
‘I was still only half-awake when I felt a hand on my left shoulder and realised they had come for me. I grabbed my greatcoat and stumbled outside. The bitter air smelled of stale lemons and chilled the sweat on my skin. I felt utterly hopeless. I was three thousand miles from home and the woman I loved.
The shapes of the prison huts loomed like dolmens into the sky. Dawn was a thin line on the rim of the eastern horizon and down in the valley, the minarets of the town caught the first light. The only thing that kept me going as we trudged across the dusty black mountains of eastern Anatolia was the thought that my captors evidently did not intend to kill me quite yet. The men spoke not a word. When I indicated that I needed to urinate, they paused and allowed me to do so, but I was never allowed out of their sight. As the light grew stronger, I tried to make out their faces but somehow my senses could not hold on to any of their features. They seemed like the landscape; rugged, swarthy and endlessly repetitive. All of them wore the same style of moustache. I wondered whether they were deserters, but then how could they have managed to get into the camp, torches and all? It had been strange that no-one had stopped us – unless they had killed the sentries. I had seen no bodies, no blood, no sign whatsoever of a struggle.
‘All those months in the prison-camps, breaking stones and eating food that tasted like old leather, had weakened me and I breathed with considerable difficulty in this high terrain. I was certain of one thing. The mysterious figure whom I had seen twice now, was not among this group.
‘It was almost noon when at last we stopped and sat among some rocks. The men laughed and talked amongst themselves in a language which I didn’t recognise. It was the first time I had heard them speak. They unwrapped some provisions and began to eat and drink with gusto, offering me nothing, although I was slumped on the stony ground, my limbs shaking, salivating uncontrollably.
‘After about fifteen minutes, I heard a bugle blast, a sound that brought back terrible memories of the trenches. The bandits – for that was what they must be – leapt to their feet and gathered up their bags, guns and flasks; for the first time, there seemed to be some measure of urgency to their actions. They marched me to the top of a ridge, on the other side of which I expected to see yet another endless plateau. However, it was quite different. A breeze blew into my face, much fresher than any I had experienced since my incarceration. I suppose I was lightheaded with exhaustion and hunger – but I felt as though, if I stayed there for long enough, the skin of my face, and thence the rest of my being, might at last begin to heal. I let my eyelids close and then open again. Before me was a vast body of water, so broad that I could barely make out the far bank. Tiny waves coursed across its surface and with every roll of crest into trough, the colour of the water seemed to change from turquoise to deep blue.
‘On the near bank, a small sailing ship was moored. The bugle must have sounded from there. I was taken down to the ship where I was met a man of medium height clad in the same rough, stained clothes and black boots and with an identical regulation moustache as the others. I was certain that in the tiny box cabin, there would be hanging an old wooden musket.
‘The vessel had a single, large sail and its prow curved upwards almost in the shape of a scimitar, so that it reminded me of one of those pictures of ancient Greek ships I had seen in picture-books as a child. As the hull coursed through the waves, I let my arm hang over the side and felt the spray leap up onto my fingers. I tasted the water. It was fresh and clean and I scooped some up and drank. I could have drunk the lake. The men were laughing and pointing at me. First the obsolete muskets and now the archaic ship; I felt as though I coursing back in time.
‘There were some islets in the lake and we avoided those, but after about an hour of rapid sailing along the keel of the wind, I saw that we were approaching a larger island with a jetty, where we moored. I was soon treading a path that led up a steep hill which turned gradually into a small mountain. The peak was of that grey stone which is the natural bedrock in those parts. Flaky, yet very hard.
‘Eventually we came to a ruined church, octagonal in shape. I had spotted similar buildings when I had been brought by horse-drawn truck across the wastes of Erzurum to the prison-camp, but this was by far the largest and most ornate. The stone was decorated with elegant carvings of beasts, both real and mythical, and long, curling fronds of exotic flora. These old churches had been built of white sandstone, quite different from the indigenous slate. We stood before a wooden door, carved across its entire surface with exotica. The ship’s captain produced a large, pig-iron key from his greatcoat. At first, the door would not open and four men had to lean their combined weight against its bulk before the hinges began to creak.
‘It was cool inside, and musty. A few small animal skeletons littered the stone flags before the altar. The men removed these with incongruous reverence. They indicated that I should sit on the uppermost step and then, without a word, either to me or to one another, they left, closing the heavy door behind them with considerably less difficulty than it had taken them to swing it open. It closed with a finality which made my heart quiver. Their footsteps receded up the mountain path and then there was almost complete silence. Almost, because from outside the church came a choir of birdsong. I had never heard so many different tones.
‘I wondered how the dead animals had managed to enter, given that the stained glass of the windows was intact. I wondered whether there might be a cellar, with a drain or suchlike. But if they had managed to get in, how had they been trapped here on the stone flags? I shuddered, drew my arms around myself and pushed the thought from my mind. There, in the strange, eight-sided church, I was completely alone. Apart, that is, from the pictures.
‘Behind the altar and that at the opposite end of the nave, the walls were covered with frescos. At first, I thought these were the usual stylised Byzantine images, for the sunlight which penetrated the stained glass illuminated only small sections at any one time. As I gazed more closely, I began to make out other images. The bearded faces of Saints Cyprian and Cornelius and the bleeding, disembodied, yet grimly smiling caput of Cecilia all hung suspended from a great arc which billowed backwards into the stone, an omphalos whose peak was not visible in the fresco. The right eye of Saint Cyprian seemed especially black and hollow and I remembered those old mystery-books where just such a hollow was actually a spy-hole. That made me wish for a torch that I could shine up into the face of the converted magician of Antioch, to prove that the eye had a socket!
‘Between the religious icons were mythical beasts and flora similar to those which had been carved into the stone walls of the church. There was something about the lines and curves made by the bodies of these animals which seemed to resonate with the arched brows of the saints and with the whole structure of the building. It was strange that I should have been receptive to such things; after all, I was half-starved and hadn’t had much more than a sip of water since I had been frog-marched from the prison-camp, which even though I had been there for so long, now seemed a world away.
‘I did not even consider attempting escape; surely if there had been a way out of there, then those poor beasts would have found it. And even supposing I had managed somehow to wriggle out of the church, where would I have gone? The island had seemed utterly deserted, and the vessel that brought me there must have left hours ago. Yet in that ancient space, an immense sense of peace descended upon me. I could feel its weight press down on my shoulders and on the muscles of my scalp, my brow, my eyelids, which seemed, then, to bear the same brushstrokes as those of the saints.
‘I awoke with my tongue fixed hard against my palate, my head pounding and one side of my body frozen. In the trenches and in the prison camps, it had never been completely dark. The lamps would shine upwards from the trench-lines, creating the eerie effect of a fire in a burning grave. Which I suppose is exactly what those damned places were. And the camp guards had always kept torches burning around the perimeter, to prevent anyone getting any ideas about slipping out. I had forgotten just how dark it gets in the countryside. I grew up in the heart of the country but only a few months of war made me into a different person; even my memories had changed, some slipping away, while others fashioned themselves into great idols in my consciousness.
‘Only a wan light staved off pitch darkness. I could make out the darkened glass of the windows, but could see nothing of the pictures which they bore, nor any details of the wall-frescos. I rose stiffly to my feet. I had no memory of falling asleep. The last thing I could remember was gazing up at Saint Cecilia, right into those doe-brown eyes of hers. There had been something cold and distant about the beatified ones. I had seen so many men perish without meaning in the mud of Flanders, Alsace, Thrace. The old masters knew that we are born into air, we dwell here, perhaps we spawn, then we die. To attribute individuality or significance to this husk of flesh is hubris. They knew romantic love to be little more than a conjoining of lust and the sublimated infantile need to be taken into the warmth of another being. That was all. Their saints were appropriately distant, emotionless; sometimes a half-smile might play about the lips of the female ones, yet when one glanced back at the image, the smile would be gone.
‘I needed water. If I didn’t get water, I would die. I had one more day, perhaps two, then I would slip by degrees into unconsciousness. I found the font by touch. I turned my wrists with the thumbnails facing forwards along the rim so that I would be able to pull myself back up when I had finished drinking. Closed my eyes. Bent down. Let my head sink into the bowl.
‘Dust. I spat. The foul taste of something dead. Feathers, hair. I spat again. The font was empty. Had been, for years. It had become a place where small animals came to die. I felt that I would vomit, but did not even have the strength.
‘Now my spirits sank lower than ever and my mind became utterly flat. I cannot say that I was depressed; in those days, no-one used the word. I had become incapable of feeling, or thinking, anything. Inasmuch as being consists of an idea propelled by desire and directed by the will, in that deserted church on an uninhabited island in the vast desolation of eastern Anatolia, the being known as John Rotherfield was an emptied cup.
‘I lay on the stone flags and gazed up at the chapel roof. My eyes must have become accustomed to the near-darkness, for now I saw that, like the walls, the arches and beams of the roof had been carved in the shapes of exotic birds and beasts and other semi-mythical beings. The tiredness which for so long had remained incipient became overwhelming. My eyelids slipped shut and I fell into dreams seamed through with some elusive logic.
‘I moved through several layers. In the first, the images and feelings were disordered fragments of my journey to this place: the man on the ridge at Gallipolli, my bandit escorts, the grey mountain peaks, the turquoise lake, the dark confines of the prison-camp, the red-and-black hell of the trenches. Images of the trenches had pursued my nights unremittingly for months on end. Now they were muted, as though I had not been personally involved. It was like watching a silent, monochrome newsreel.
‘Gradually these visions faded away and in their place, came sensations from home, from this land of ours. Its bubbling streams, long grass burned by the English sun to a ripe gold, the sound of a wooden boat rocking against a decaying wharf. The smell of lichen and moss, the taste of barley in the wind after the scythe-men had swept through the fields, the incomparable bruising of the plough against one’s shoulder, the smooth frequency of its transfiguring violation of the soil. The feel of the hot sky on the skin of my back. The smell of sweat. The sound of a jig eddying from across the valley. The groan of a tree as it falls to the ground. Yes, and you, Edward, long before you became a vicar of Christ, your face, that smile of yours, intense, yet shifting. And Caroline, in the days when she was beyond beauty, in a place where love can draw a man into a terror from which he must either escape and never return, or else to which he must succumb wholly, body, mind and soul. The silence which was in her. Her serenity.
‘And it was in this almost angelic form that she descended upon me, that day, in that ancient church. From the roof of the place, she descended upon me as a fearsome archangel of light, like Michael of the Sword, or the one who was greater than Michael. All I could hear was the sound of monks chanting in some ancient Germanic tongue.
‘When I awoke, it was still night. A moon must have risen, because the whole interior of the church was clearly visible. I was so weak and cold that I could not have moved from where I lay and so I simply gazed up at the scene which unfolded above me. Now, instead of the carvings, there was an enormous map. It was not that the gargoyles and other strange creatures, the fronds, fruits and flowers had vanished; they were there as solidly as before, but the lines and curves, the slopes and dingles formed by their solidity now seemed to lift from the dark surfaces of the wooden beams and to form a hovering structure of its own, separate from the roof. It was an ancient map, drawn in the manner of those times when the unknown stretches were marked with incendiary dragons and horn’d beasts of the sea. And as the giant chart seemed to occupy the entire church, it also came to fill my motionless body. The lines drawn upon the stone by my arms and legs and by the arcs of my skull and ribs and pelvis and the shadowy notion, around these, of my flesh, all of it had become merely a part of the great cartograph which had descended as though from the night sky.
‘Through the door of the church flowed the River Rother, its source lost in darkness, while above the altar lay the Hills above Arun Water. The stone convolutions around the chancel rose window now marked the sea-shore of my beloved English Channel. There were no towns on this map, no signs of human activity. I became part of the map of Old Sussex. Saelig Sussex. The Holy Land of the South Saxons. And within the contours of this land, along the banks of its rivers, upon the slopes of its hills, amongst the broken scree of its shore, there lay the patterns of my life, the architecture of my being. In the rocks of this unbroken, holy earth, there breathed the music of empty space.
‘And then, as I faded once again into a fitful sleep and into the sound of chanting, the map, the roof, became the face of Caroline. She was the reason I had ended up in that place. It was for the love of her I went to war, willing to give up my life because I knew that I would never be able to dwell within the beauty of her being. You, Edward, had poisoned everything that once existed between us.
‘Now she came to me, no longer the Caroline of flesh-and-blood, nor yet the Caroline of my dream. I cannot explain this: it was her, and yet it was not her. It might have been the face of any woman, in any time. Can you understand that? It was like one of those faces of the Madonna. They must have belonged to real women, yet they seem so stylised and anonymous.
‘Afterwards, when I wondered whether I might have hallucinated the whole episode, it came to me that Caroline’s face – the face, Edward, that you and I both knew so well – had become synonymous with… no, had become indistinguishable from the beatified visage of Saint Cecilia of Callistus. This was the presence I felt there, those were the arms which bore me to a side-chapel where I was given small amounts of water and later, bread and cheese.
‘When finally I awoke, three days and nights had passed since I had been brought to the church. I was rescued by some Laz fishermen who had spotted a light in the church and decided to investigate. In my very broken Turkish, I learned that when the first two men had pushed open the narthex door, they saw a woman’s figure bending over my body. However, as soon as they had moved into the nave, they saw that it had been an illusion created by the position of the altar, combined with the reflection of the moon on the gold of the mosaics.
‘I stayed in the Laz village until I grew strong enough to travel. Then, riding on a mule, I trekked across the lower slopes of the Caucasus Mountains until I reached the Aras River. There I was yet again held by a small group of Turkish soldiers, who fancied themselves as border guards. I was eventually rescued by some fleeing White Russians. My Turkish guards thought that they had come to attack the imploding Empire and so they ran away – presumably unaware that Lenin had pulled Russia out of the war. It was chaos. The Russians insisted that I accompany them through the snows and wastes of eastern Anatolia and help with menial tasks. The officers reminded me of ballet-dancers left hopelessly down on their luck, while the men had those rugged, determined faces one saw, much later, on Bolshevik stamps. In their eyes, they held the dusty madness of vast empty spaces. They were not Royalists – only a few months earlier, they had taken part in the February Revolution – but they had been forced out of their army units by the Bolsheviks.’
‘I know this story,’ Edward said, ‘all except for the mysterious bearded man and the church on the island. I can’t think why you haven’t mentioned them before.’
‘I have not yet told you all that I know. It is mine to tell, and I will tell it in my time.’
‘Go on then.’
‘After six months or so, I crossed the English Channel. The Armistice had been signed some weeks earlier by the same epauletted fools who had started it all in the first place. When I got home, everything had changed.’ Rotherfield shot Edward a bitter look.
‘She did grieve for you.’
‘She married the lawyer, far more suitable than a lowly woodcutter, I’m sure you and her father agreed there!’
‘What could she have done? She thought you were dead.’
‘And she didn’t marry you.’
‘She never loved me.’
‘But you encouraged her to marry the lawyer.’
‘I wanted nothing but her happiness.’
‘You wanted to make certain that if I did return, she would be beyond my reach. If you couldn’t have her, I wasn’t going to have her either. You couldn’t bear the thought of her giving her love to anyone else. And perhaps she was afraid of your intensity, your possessiveness. The lawyer was an easy way out, for her and for you.’
‘Those were difficult times, John.’
‘During those two long years, I constantly asked myself why I had not died like the others. I dreamed of her hair, like wheat, falling around my shoulders. The sapphire of her eyes hunted the sleep from my brain and I would hear her voice in the song-patterns of the rain. I could trace out her features in the sky. Yet she wasted no time. And you encouraged her. You opened the way.’
The breeze got up and flipped over some of the pages of the book.
‘You were my only friends. You and she.’
‘You wished your friend dead.’
‘Look into my eyes and tell me that. Put your hand on your holy book and swear to the god whom you believe died for you, and tell me that. And tell her, too.’
The breeze sifted through more of the pages and Reverend Synnott reached over and picked up the book. Steadying his left hand against the edge of the table, with his right he flicked through chapter after chapter, not really reading any of the words. The movement of the pages seemed to him like the motion of birds’ wings.
Without raising his eyes, he spoke nervously.
‘I will do no such thing. The very fact that you doubt me… You’ve never said these things before in all these years. I am not perfect. I never pretended that I was.’
There was a lull, which seemed to both men somehow unnatural, until they realised that the daytime birds had fallen silent and the night birds had not yet arisen. Rotherfield refilled his own glass and swigged down the draught.
To occupy this silence, and because he could think of nothing better to do, Edward began to read again.
The next set of manuscripts were discovered by the author near the base of the pyramidal tomb and had been somewhat damaged by moisture rising from the earth. Moreover, since they were of vellum, they had begun to swell and putrefy, so that as they were removed (with the greatest of care and attention), they resembled nothing more than those ballooning pantaloons known as ‘galligaskins’ which swath’d the hips of the fashionable around the year 1600. Such observation is notable in this context because the forthcoming section of text, although penned in archaic Black Letter, was created within the desmesne of that era.
Tis pon the first day of May’s ship
That lovers fair do dance and drink
Of nectar rose and mandrake form
And with joyfull sadness through mother’s belly
The dead raise hands in adze blade:
One sawyer, joined by a second, becometh oratory!
Then in southerly parts by Englande’s white shore
A gentle man doth pine by window-frame
For the maiden whose feet doth seam cross stone and sand
And whose smile like lune, half-risen, doth clasp his soul
In bounteous torment.
Yet like the moon, she flieth far beyond his grasp
And ever will remain so, till Day of Doom come to pass.
in the laste yeare of the reign of Goode Queene Bess, moste deare depart’d from this toil’d earth, didst live in landes to south of Wywurth one Lord Thomas Birkin. Lord Thomas, fair-of-face and scion of baronet, a man pass’d youth yet in action aged not, was not bethroth’d for reason of his master’s debts. Lord Thomas dwelt within the pages of his books, the loose scrolls of manuscripts anciente and of planns formulated by the hands of monks long-earth’d. His hair grew wild and he lived on stale ale and currants red and blacke, and stole the occasional hog from the merchant farmer whose lande adjoined that of his lord. Thomas was wont to pass many a night singing, with voice more beauteous than that of the galingale, in the long gallerie of his father’s mansion. One such evening, Anne, the daughter of Caburn the Joyner, was passing by.
‘What’s this I hear?’ she said, in voice low and strong. ‘A nightjar, or a thorn’d breast? Tis hard to tell, in these days of vers’d love. The young lord must be in love’s state most dire, yet his his love hath no object, his adze no timber to carve. What if I, like feather into pillow, mighte slip myself into his inner courte. Then mighte we be recompens’d for the day when the Baronet Birkin did caste from the lande our familie and many another whose forebears’ bones have lain within’t since ancient times. This loss hath plagued my deare father and made our lives vinegar and pewter. T’would indeed be a revenge grac’d with winter parlour galingale and metheglin!’
Scheming so, did Anne secrete her load of forest gatherings and contrive to porte herself, barefoot, to the lower roof of the Birkin mansion, where she didst proceed to dance in manner moste elegant and when through his fulle glass window, the Lord Birkin did spie her, he did grow transfix’d. With a great sigh did he thrust open the window and resume his song and though Anne did spie her long-haired lord she did assume that pretence of blindness which joyners’ daughters porte like woollen biggen and with arm arch’d long akin to yew bow, did she lifte the white cap from her pate and fling it in direction of its moon simulacrum. Her hair was longe and blacke and curious combed and plaited and flowed about her person as the waves of the night sea. Grammar, logic, rhetoric – trivium all – and yet more, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, quadrivium moste fine, all of these did shifte within the breaste of the unshaven Thomas. From that moment on, he resolved to dwelle within the love of this faery, to raise oak pon stone base, to seed garth among rank weed and with everie breath, to turn the great wheele of the post mill in the compass of the stars.
When he ope’d his eyes, the forme moste delirious had vanished and the nighte was blacker than ever. Yet within the longe gallerie of his forefathers, Thomas Birkin was akin to flame or sea-gust. He left his manuscripts as they lay, pon the broad hardbeam, went back to his bed-chamber from whence he gathered up his chattels and made off into the foreste of the May nighte.
But she was gone into air, and gaze as he mighte pon the flat spann of the foreste lake, Thomas could not conjure the face of the one he loved, any more than he might the words of the dead. The whole of the nighte did he sojourn there, yet she did not return and as dawn’s mournful light waxed over the lande, the lord’s son return’d unto his chamber where he slumber’d, restless and alone.
The next nighte, he did hang pon the likeness of her forme, gazing and singing into ayre’s darkness over the empty roof till the moon had set behind the brow of the hill. For hours longe did fine Thomas tarry, sat pon the great chimney stack, yet still no sign of his belov’d; not e’en the faintest breath rippl’d through night’s skin. The young lord was newly fayre shav’n and bedeck’d withe pokestick cambric, perfum’d leather cloak and heel’d shoes of the newest kinde, readied for to dance to the rosin’d wheele of the heavens. Just when he felt sleep rush over his mind, there stood his love of one globe turn. The joyner’s daughter appeared to him as a bud from the lower garths of paradise.
‘Thou art the moste perfecte being,’ he said aloud.
‘Sir,’ she gave reply, ‘how canst thou saye such a thing, for I am onlie the joyner’s daughter and my mother was the daughter of the miller who dwelleth in the wheeling oak poste-mill. The winds have not filled her sails for many a year and we are off to the filthe and labyrinth of the towne, in quest if not for silver, then at leaste for pewter’s bite. You, sir, are a noble lord.’
‘I care not, good lady, for the stops and kayles of this world, nor for farthingales and fore-smocks. Verily. I would make common cause with a joyner’s daughter or a millers’ grand-daughter, if you be she, as I would with mine owne salvation.’
The Maid Anne took Lord Birkin’s hand and they did dance for hour-upon-hour as the moon rose and fell and still they danc’d, ‘The Lusty Gallante’, ‘The Pepper’s Blacke’ and ‘The Shakinge of the Sheets’ until the verie stars in the firmament didst gather together closer than is naturale in these times and confere as in manner of old. The laste dance they did dance was ‘The Vicar of St Fool’s’.
The air was warm and hour-by-hour did they dance off their accoutrements until they were bared to the nighte, and still they danced. The maid’s hair, which at first trip had been curl’d high and dressed with bejewell’d caul and French hoode, now windblowne and free, wove about her neck and shoulders. And her Lord’s long hair mingled in manner moste strange with that of his angel. Any evil thoughte in their beings was drawen out, good and true, by the fire which swept o’er them. And they were like the seeds of the fig-tree spawn’d by Solomon’s Brothers. And with the rootes of the figgy green tree, their love grew along paths moste dark and unknow’d e’en to themselves. The wartes of their soules were pierced as though by lances; the boulders of their guts were rolled into sand; the sap colours of their heart, wound longe pon the skins of young bulls, told of plays and tales and poemes of love and death and musick. Then they lay together beneath the heavens and she remember’d her scheme and he, his vellum, but yet they did bring those geometers to minde merely as past course, longe caste asunder from the mainmast of the vessel pon which they did sail. From the Great Hall of the house, did they hear musick of kinde moste exquisite and beauteous, a fantasie issuinge forth from the stringes and tunnels of lute, pandora, cittern, recorder and viol, as composed by those archangels of Orpheus, Byrd, Bull and Gibbons. And as the lovers felt the musick in their bodies, they fancied they could heare, issuinge from far off on the foreste lake, the cry of a white swann. And then the sounde of the instruments faded, for though moste fayre and beauteous, all such are merely tools carv’d pon th’ends of fingers imperfect, while the voice of man or beaste be created in miraculous manner moste true by the breath of Almightie God. And so, as dawn’s pale sword emerg’d from the blacke waters of the voide, so did there strike up a swann madrigal such as had ne’er before been heard, and Thomas turn’d towardes his dream of twin nightes and address’d her, thus:
‘Mie love, thou art indeede a flow’ring garden, come late to mie life.
So it is I wonder if in truthe, whether this existence
hath reach’d its apogee and my soule returnst unto Paradise bosom.’
And she didst replie:
‘My lorde and master, it doth render great joye unto the bosom
of this poor and rankl’d place in which thou hast dwelt
A love moste pure and goode that swanns unblemish’d
Do wake before God’s allotted hour and sing His praise
As though t’were our Spem in alium.’
His surprise was yet of no-surprise:
‘How com’st thou, a simple tradesman’s daughter,
To know of Tallis and musick that twere compos’d some fifty years to thy rear?’
She laughed the laugh of a joyner’s scion and to him replied:
‘Sir, tis thine owne musick that doste sweet’n my rear
And raise the ayre of our union to madrigal of all nature.’
And Lord Thomas didst engage withe her in this manner:
‘But what evil, my love, can there be in this, thy breast of rime pure
Caste from Heav’n’s frame?’
And she turn’d away her fine-bon’d face as poste-mill spun pon breeze,
‘I cannot saye that which has slow’d in oxbow dregs
To pile as weed and murd’rous stem
For the joyner’s daughter would ne’er breathe ill pon thy fayre
Any more than she would pon her babe, not yet borne.’
He pulled her forme towardes his lips, but not for kisses sweet.
‘Tis good, thou speaketh in ayre and madrigal, and not in riddle and maze moste devilish,
For tis the wierd of a good man to lose track and rope to Paradise
When caressed in th’arms of a counterfeit!’
She spake through stale ale breeze, which caused his bodie to shiver and shudder:
‘I am no simulacrum, mie goode lorde! My love for thee is true!’
And he in loving embrace did gather her tresses,
Blacke and twyn’d like bend and flow of stream moste ancient,
And whisper’d such wordlings in her lug that she didst blush and
Since the memorie of her maidenhood was set in vellum muscle of her heart,
And Goode Anne of the Poste-Mill did lifte herself, more seraphim than succubous
And rais’d her throate, her mane, like laste of Philomele, jug, jug, tereu!
So that all the byrdes of foreste and lake did awaken and flutter and dart, blood-red
Around the rose-stemmed limbs of the two whose breathe and beat like leaf and stem
Didst arise but from one source, one quill:
Remember nothing but this: That o’er the tenebrous waves of death’s
There are many burninge lamps which light the waye; yet none is greater
Than the lighte of the sky which doth proclaim the olde at an ende
And the rise of Love’s Queendom pon all, stone and glistening lip of daye.
And so singing, they didst love again as the lande didst awaken into breathe and songe of summer’s morn, after which, to scape arch’d houndes and falcones of the hunte so plann’d, she didst hasten away. The next nighte, the third of those related in this passage, the Goode Maid Anne did not come to the Lorde Birkin, though once, as midnight struck iron, he did fancie that he smell’d her skin, like flower’d verse of poesy petal, brush gainst his nare. Nor did she come unto him on the next yet, nor the one after that, and he grew thin and lived once again in his bed-chamber, but now he hadst not e’en his manuscripts from which to drawe succour. As winter fell upon the lande of Sussex, so did the foreste lake by Jacob’s Poste freeze o’er and when the bedraggl’d lorde didst venture one morn to walk pon the water of the pond, he sat and brushed away the powder of snow and he remembered the nighte he had danced with the maid moste fayre and he remembered her skin which was softe as the snow pon his and he caste in minde her e’en which were bluer than the face of the winter sky mirror’d in the lake. He broughte to minde the legend of Birkin Hall, which tolde of a skulle most horride that did emerge from the old priest-hole on certain nightes, but onlie to those besott’d heavily with the musk of love, those drawn upwards in tall reveries of musick, or else those verie neare to deathe, the three states thus apportion’d being closer to one another than skin be to bone. The skulle was said to be that of some longe-dead priest, or monk, or such-like fiend! Thank God! Master Thomas had never set een pon said white ball caput. He gazed at the heavens and then sighed and his sigh blew yet more snow off the clear ice of the pond. He glanced downe into the darkness of the lake. Rising from the darkness, as on that first nighte of May, he saw her face, whiter than ever before, rising towardes his. And beside her face was another, smaller, hairless, and by the cup o’ Chanctonbury, the tiny face was that of Thomas Birkin. And verily, his twin love didst make its lips into the shape of a smile, in manner moste akin to that of a lady.
Author’s note: Anne the Joyner’s Daughter went from that place and sat by the forest lake, gazing into the water as dawn filtered across the sky. Soon after, she found that she was great with child and some months later, she went to live with her grandfather, the miller, and her child was born into this world of betrayals.
Though nightly he waited upon his roof and many times sat by the pond during the years that followed, Lord Thomas Birkin never again saw the joiner’s daughter.
In his dotage, when Master Cromwell’s Roundheads came to sack what was left of Birkin Mansion, they found him naked and almost blind, lying half-dead by the window of his bed-chamber, clutching a bundle of dirty rags. When their New Model Commander investigated further, he found, wrapped in the bundle of rags, a lock of fine, black hair which was not dirty at all, but gleaming and fresh as the night it had been severed. The old man gazed up at the cuirass’d Roundhead Officer and thought he saw something familiar to his recognition, but though he tried hard, he could not make out the face.
The vicar laid down the book.
‘I think it’s time we parted for the night.’
Rotherfield shook his head, slowly.
‘I want to hear more and besides, I want to pluck and eat a fig or two.’
‘The fig-tree is out of season,’ Edward said, ‘has been, for years.’
But already, Rotherfield had arisen and stepped outside the gate. For a minute or so he remained out of sight behind the high stone wall, searching the wizened branches for fruit.
The Reverend Edward Synnott leaned back against the wicker of his chair and closed his eyes. The port had mulled itself through the fibres and convolutions of his brain so that behind his clasped lids, he felt a sensation like mild giddiness, a subtle shift in space and time which one might feel in the midst of a dream. From somewhere in the forest came the high-pitched warbling of a nightingale. His ears had grown accustomed to the noises of the woods, the steady, pulsatile flow of the river and the soft friction of the leaves, the random interruptions by owls, nightjars and sleek-backed rodents scurrying through the undergrowth. He had sat on this chair each evening and listened for close on fifty years. The sequence of notes varied, subtle differences growing as the night wore on, until it was these unrepeated tones, and his silent anticipation of their arrival, that came to define the entire symphony. And tonight, Edward felt that the substance of his brain had grown to be like that of an animal and that he was receptive to absolutely everything that was occurring, or even which might yet occur, within the body of the forest. Night was his time. The separate tenebrosities held between the pages of the books in his library, each one an individual darkness, or the silent wind within an organ-pipe, or the unseen whorl in the wood of a living tree. They had sung to one another all night, yet somewhere in that warm August blackness Edward had lost the other two, had lost them forever. And it had been as though he had lost his own soul.
‘See – I found some! Three, actually; small, but definitely edible.’
Rotherfield was standing above him, his six-foot frame blanking out the constellations.
The figs were the size of nightingale’s heads, and livid green as though the inner substance of the fruit had been sucked through the integument. Without thinking, Edward accepted one. It felt soft and downy in his palm and through the skin it was as if he detected a faint pulse. He dismissed the thought.
‘You’re sure it’s alright to eat?’
Rotherfield made no response.
Edward felt the architecture of the night becoming distinctly oppressive. Quickly, he bit into the fig.
The fruit was gritty between his teeth and tasted slightly pungent, though not unpleasantly so. Edward chewed slowly.
‘You’re not hungry?’
Rotherfield shook his head.
‘I want to hear the next section. I want to hear the end.’
Edward sighed and a shiver coursed through his body, which reminded him of the pressure of his back against the wood as the boat had moved gently through the black water.
‘Look, why don’t you read it for yourself? I’ll lend it to you,’ he said.
‘I had my fill in Anatolia.’
‘They grew on the hillsides. The White Russian platoon virtually lived on them. That, flat-bread and yoghurt.’
‘There are worse things to live on.’
‘I followed the man with the face.’
‘Man with the face…?’
‘I tracked down the address on the card he gave me to a derelict house on a backstreet of Constantinople. The door had not been securely fastened and I broke in without difficulty. It was one of those tall buildings with a central courtyard and barred street-windows. On the top floor I found a pile of ancient manuscripts written in languages I had no hope of comprehending.’
‘The tongues of the dead sing on through eternity.’
‘Somehow, I knew with certainty that these drawings and texts represented the combined wisdom of Alexandria and Baghdad. The Bibliothèque of Baghdad, with its twelve thousand volumes, much of the learning of the ancient and mediaeval worlds, was flooded by the terrible nicor, the brother of the first and greatest of the Mongol Khans, and a sizeable proportion of the people of that city having sought refuge in the subterranean plexus, suffered the same fate as their books. I could see all this in the old vellum manuscripts, just as I had seen the map of my homeland in the dark roof-beams of that octagonal church on the island. I resolved to remove these manuscripts to a safe place known only to myself. I knew that I had been guided here for a purpose. The last page I looked at bore the semblance of a face which I felt I had known for thousands of years. It was the face of Sinan the Architect, who centuries earlier had built mosques in the shape of poems. Seeing his imprint there, in the filtered half-light which rose from the surface of the Bosphorus waters, I understood that I, too was part of a long poem, of whose verses I would only ever catch faint glimpses.
‘The number of manuscripts was so great, I decided to return the next day with cart and horse. Which I did. But I was unable to find the house again. Perhaps it had never existed. I scoured the streets of Constantinople, but found not a trace of those miraculous drawings, musical notations and Dark Letter texts which I had touched with my own hands. I had now lost two loves in my life, and wandered through the city streets of Old Byzantium, half-crazed on aniseed liquor, until I collapsed from total exhaustion. I awoke, days later, in a madrasah, where the students did their best to heal me.
‘The day before I was due to leave, they took me into a room without windows, empty except for a life-size brass head. They said it was a replica of the head of Khizr-the-Green, who had only ever appeared in spirit form to poets, saints and prophets. And there, before my eyes, they performed some incantations and they made the head talk. The language was Turkish, so I got a few words. A noun, a verb, a phrase, nothing coherent. Something about a mill shaped like a mosque and a long ship and a lake.’
‘How odd.’ Edward looked sceptical.
‘I know what I experienced. It was something from ancient times. The brass head was hairless. It opened its eyes and parted its brass lips and talked for about twelve hours; it emerged from silence in daylight and when it sank back again into dumb metal it was day once more. This was no dream, nor anything I previously had understood as reality.’
This last was uttered in a whisper and now Rotherfield paused and closed his eyes. Edward could see the globes slip and dance beneath the skin of the lids, so that after a while, each began to resemble a tiny brass head. And then the whole integument seemed to be inordinately stretched across the bone of the woodcutter’s skull and his silvery hair was akin to strands growing lank from the scalp of a corpse. Edward shuddered and blinked to dispel the image. When he looked again, Rotherfield was staring at him.
‘I live with this knowledge, that once I touched upon the greatest of all treasures, the language which lies beneath all languages, and that its secrets are lost to me. I have cut wood since that day. I have searched for the beauty of line and the music that lies in the creation of silence. I have searched for love through other means. So read on, and since you are in part the cause of all of this, then sing the words which the author of this small tome has penned; whether they be false or true, we will listen.’
The vicar’s face grew pale as the falling moon. Automatically, he picked up the book and began to intone the words which his eyes followed, tracing out the architecture of letter, phrase, sentence, as though he were reciting a passage from the Holy Book.
He felt as if he had not space enough in his body to breathe. In the shallow boat, that night beneath the new moon, Edward Synnott held his breath until the moment he knew that he would burst into fragments of himself and scatter across the streams and forests and lakes of old Sussex. And as for the other two, since he could no longer see them, he listened for the sound of their breathing. He became dizzy and fell asleep and when he awoke, his companions had gone. He rode on the current until he spotted an oxbow and steered towards it, using the small tiller at the stern. He was about to leap out of the boat onto the dry bank, when he heard a sound coming from the river. Afterwards he thought it had sounded more like a song but at the time he wasn’t certain. He had thrust his body back down into the stinking belly of the boat, the better to listen.
© Suhayl Saadi