Saelig Tales (Part 3)
This is the account given by a certain Curate Johnson of the village of Wywurth regarding an incident which was said to have occurred, during the late summer in the Year of Our Lord, 1881. The original manuscript was discovered in an empty bottle of porter found at low tide, lodged in one of the sea-caves, which, once every twelve hours, form the most extrematous parts of this ancient land of Sussex. At first, though no liquid was found in the bottle, the ink seemed to have faded away, so that to the curator of the local history museum the yellowed paper resembled vellum. When placed in complete darkness, however (and this is attested to by the curator, three Parish Councillors and the Grand Master of Wywurth Masonic Lodge), the ink, which later was found to have been drawn somehow from the sap of the fig-tree, gradually became visible once again; and thus was the account deciphered and committed to print by these officials. Oddly, when the scroll was subjected to daylight, or even to artificial light, the writing evanesced again, only to re-appear when placed in the dark room.
‘That cannot be,’ cut in Rotherfield. ‘How could they have read it, if they were in complete darkness?’
The vicar shrugged.
‘Perhaps one of them was blind, and could decipher the course of the ink by touch.’
‘Hah! Very likely! Typical theological dissimulation.’
‘Shall I continue?’
‘Yes, yes. Go on.’
The manuscript remained in Wywurth Local Museum until 1940 when, as a matter of security, it was removed to a place unknown. Since the related paperwork was destroyed during the war, the fate of the so-called Saelig Manuscript (sometimes also known as The Daughter of the Wind) is now unknown. There have been reported sightings from as far afield as Azerbaijan, Pantelleria and Odessa, but the author has no means of verifying these alleged sightings. The sections which appear in this book constitute, in part, translated copies from the original manuscript, but since the author was unable to complete this process, he has had to rely on his memory and on accounts related to him by various country folk. Unreliable as they may be, they are reproduced in seamless manner, because the author believes that oral histories hold deeper truths than it has ever been possible to apprehend through the written word.
I, who do go by the name of Henry Francis Johnson, am curate of this ancient parish to the good vicar known around these parts (and no doubt also in the parts hereabouts) as ‘the hunting parson’, the Reverend Brightling Fulthrope. I am not an educated man, that is, I am not overly-educated like our good Vicar Fulthrope, yet I did attend the Dame School and am school’d by mine own good hand, and I do know of life’s viccissitudes to the span of any man in this short sparrow’s flutter. Herein does this poor, mortal hand relate a tale of absolute and wondrous verity which did manifest as happenings one summer’s night and day, some seven years ago this Lammas.
A sight most common around these parts is that of a tallship wi’ topgallants fluttering along the line of the horizon like the great wings of an albatross. In one day’s span, they cross the edge of our world and then vanish as though they had never been. On this Lammas Eve of which I write, the wind had dropped so low that the sea was more akin to lake than ocean. It was as though for the full twenty-four hour, the incoming tide did not turn. The ship sailed in the Devil’s direction, from west to east, but barely had it reached one third of the way across this line of coast, when it seemed becalmed and moved no more.
I was busy attending to St Cuthman’s. The tower was the oldest part of the building and had carried heavenwards the prayers of thousands of folk, rich, poor, learned and illiterate; it had survived Dissolution and Reformation, Civil War and the shadow of Boney’s fleet. But now, without the attention of a master stonemason, there was little doubt that it would not retain its current form beyond the end of this century. The bells, in particular, were in dire need of repair; they had been forged of iron in Saxon times and the metal was very near rusted away, so that the danger (should the ringers be bursting with barrel liquor) of their coming loose and tumbling upon all and sundry was not so very far from truth’s oratory.
Though the shadows were growing long over our small parish, the wind still had not got up and the sea remained becalmed. As I walked towards my humble dwelling at the opposite pole of the village from St Cuthman’s, I saw that the ship had moved not one half of a degree, compass-wise, along the horizon. However, it seemed larger than before and this seemed strange to me, until I realised that in the absence of a prevailing wind, the incoming tide was drawing the vessel straight towards the shore. Though there was no breeze and the Lammas Eve remained warm, yet as I gazed across the darkening waters, I shivered.
I have never married and next Gooding Day, God-willing, shall I reach my sixtieth year. Unless there be a drowning haar over the coast, from the back window of my house it is possible to make out on the Great Hoe, the Giant Man of the White Way, carved by some pagan ancestor of ours in a time before books, perhaps even before words. To my front is nowt but the sea and the invisible darkness of the French coast. Oftentimes, on Figgy Sunday or All Saints’ Eve, have I knelt and prayed out-of-doors, facing southwards, I know not why, and sometimes, though my eyes be closed and my palms clasped in reverence of our Saviour, yet I find that I can see, as through an elder copse, things which in this physical world of ours remain invisible. On one such night, I did see the Bendin-in of the great mackerel nets. Though, in my reverie, Vicar Fulthrope did bless those nets and the fishermen who cast them on the waves, yet the corks which kept the long webs afloat and concertina’d through the water, all of a sudden changed into bones. The mackerel, which danced in the thousand, turned from silver to red and the bread, cheese and beer of celebration lay uneaten on the beach.
The very next day, a great storm did blow up and all but one of the fishing-boats sank, with the loss of twenty men, some of whom had reached to within a few yards of the shoreline. Though God be in everything, yet sometimes, I think that the sea is without God. Please do not suppose that I myself am mired in those peasant fears which, this past fifty year or more, have been banished from the heads at least of those who have letter. Though I be but a lowly official in this very ancient Church, I am yet one for science and the new ways of thinking: I have seen too many of our poorer folk shackled like pack animals to superstitions. I carry no shepherd’s crown in my pocket. On no occasion have I so much as drawn breath on these matters in the presence of the Reverend Fulthrope, who is most opposed to such wantonness of the spirit in his parishioners. All is best left to the Almighty, who will see all books balance justly on the Ultimate Day. Nonetheless, as I listened to the water lapping on the stony shore, I fancied that I could make out the creaking of the ship’s ropes and timbers and I had the queerest apprehension of some dreadful misadventure hanging like the shadow of the new moon. I drew my cassock around my waist and hurried home and drank a jug of hot, spiced ale, that my sleep pass without fancy.
I was woken from darkness by the sound of banging. I thought one of the shutters had come loose, so in night-dress, and porting pewter-and-candle, I went out to make certain. One shutter had indeed come away from its fastening and I battened it back down. Since the night was warm and windless, it struck me as odd that a shutter should have come loose. My candle fluttered. I held my breath. A pale moth crossed my path. The sea was dark and heaving and there was no moon. I let my breath run out into the darkness. There was a hand on my shoulder. Sharp, cold, bony. I dropped the pewter. The candle rolled along the ground, came to a stop and sputtered, but did not go out. Prayer would not come. I turned around. Stepped back, a cist-length. My eyes had not yet grown accustomed to the pitch black of the night, but I was just able to see the top half of a man’s face, disembodied, floating. Then I realised that a black scarf was wound around his mouth and nose. I was able to discern that he was tall, clad all in black and that his limbs hung somewhat loosely about his frame. He was slightly breathless. His hair was bound in a second scarf.
‘Curate Johnson, I’m darned sorry to wake ye, sir. I didn’t intend to scare ye.’
‘You know my name?’
‘Never mind about that, sir. Just a-mind what I say. There’ll be no harm comin to thy good self nor to any body on this night’s world.’
His voice was not familiar to me. I know all the parishioners of Wywurth and most of them in the hamlets round abouts, too and yet, there was something about his form, there, in the summer darkness…
‘I knocked on thy door, good curate, but thee must’ve bin good and truly clasp’d in sleep’s swarthy arms, for thou didst not awaken. So I was a’tryin to tap on the glass of yon window.’
‘What do you want, man, at this ungodly hour?’
He stepped towards me. I moved back, but halted when I felt against my bare heels the beginnings of the slope which led from my cottage down to the sea’s edge. He held up his hand.
‘Don’t thee fret, now. It’s just we want ye to cast open the doors a’ the church a’ Saint Cuthman’s for the night.’
‘What do you want with the church? There is no lead on its roof, and precious little gold on the altar. Just a few flowers and some old hymn-books.’
‘Never you mind on that. Just bring with ye the keys an come wi me.’
So I went indoors, quickly changed my clothes and drew down the heavy, iron key-ring from its hook above the fireplace.
I had taken care seldom to have been in St Cuthman’s alone at night. Mark you, as I said earlier, I’m not a superstitious man, but there are limits and the brain is a funny thing once it gets going. By the Lord, even our own minds are not within our control!
The place smelt as though it had been closed, not for the few hours since I had locked up earlier that evening, but for centuries. I knew the interior of St Cuthman’s like my own hand, yet somehow, on this night out-of-joint, everything seemed unfamiliar. I wondered whether I might be dreaming – the ale had been good and strong – but the night air on my face had been too real and the oak doors of the church had been still warm from the sun’s touch. And there was something else. At the insistence of my ‘guest’ we had taken a circuitous route, skirting the field enclosures to the north. On several gateposts were hung linen bags, filled with what looked like large joints of meat and loaves of bread – freshly-baked, I could tell from the odour. My companion had removed these bags and given me some, while he carried others himself, so that by the time we reached the church we both were panting and sweating like dogs.
‘I am not a young man,’ I said, and sat down in the nearest pew.
How strange the place looked! The altar was half-hidden in shadow, while to north and south the transepts were carved hulking things, more Saxon in style than truly English. There had been an old Saxon church on the site of St Cuthman’s, but that had been burned down during the Danish raids many centuries ago and of the original, only the tower and bells remained. No-one ever ventured up the tower after dark; apart from the rational danger of losing one’s step and falling, there was a story concerning a haunting by a White Friar who was reputed to appear on particular dates in the old ecclesiastical calendar. Apparently this monk did no-one any harm, but simply wrote all night at high speed using a metal stylus or such-like. In the morning, scrolls of vellum had been found blowing across the floorboards of the belfry of the tower. I have never seen any of these; over the years, successive vicars are said to have burned them in secret. I do not believe in this rubbish, and I repeat it here merely to illustrate the point that, especially for a country person, as my companion most certainly was, to be venturing in the old church at this hour on Lammas Eve meant something very untoward was going on, here, in this village of Wywurth where I was born and where, no doubt, in the balm of the soft, sheltered soil of St Cuthman’s churchyard, I shall await the universal Resurrection.
The man had not waited with me but had gone on ahead and disappeared behind the High Altar. Suddenly, there were shadows everywhere and the sound of scraping heels and, aye, in that House of God, there was cursing and taking the Name in vain. What seemed to me like hundreds of men, all garbed-up in double scarfs just as the first, were entering through the old doors and heading for the tower, the entrance to which lay behind the high altar. They carried sacks and barrels, some so bulky they had to be hoisted upon two men’s shoulders, and beautiful gilt and silver caskets, the like of which I had only ever seen as a child in picture-books of fairy tales. Some of the boxes they carried had stamped on them words in a foreign-looking language. The parts of their faces that I could see were coarse and some bore terrible scars, as if from cattle-brands, across their foreheads. None acknowledged my presence – for which I was moderately grateful – and though I scrutinized them as much as I dared, I was unable to recognise any as being from hereabouts. The largest of the objects which they brought in was an ancient plough, so heavy it took fully twelve men to hoist it onto the chancel floor.
After what seemed like hours, they had all left, apart from one, the man who had made me come here. He now approached me, limping as though from some old injury.
‘Good curate, sir, you are free to go – but mind, now, go only the way by which we did arrive here and at all costs avoid the main street of the village.’
I nodded and rose.
‘Tomorrow – today – is Sunday,’ I said. ‘The bell-ringers will be up early to sound the Sabbath and Vicar Fulthrope always inspects the bells before they are rung.’
The sound of the man’s laughter echoed like blasphemy through the dark stone church.
‘You needs not worry about that,’ he said, and though he still wore his scarf I could tell that beneath it he was grinning from ear-to-ear. ‘Just say nothing to man nor beast and no harm’ll come to you or to nobody. This church be a horn a’plenty!’
And so saying, he turned away.
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘I will need to lock up. If I leave it like this, the vicar will ask questions.’
‘Just go on home, Mister Curate, and remember this night as a dream. Be thankful I didn’t send ye up the tower where the White Friar busies himself.’
‘I don’t believe in the White Friar,’ I snorted. ‘That’s no more than a tale invented by smugglers to keep good folk away on certain nights.’
He came towards me and took hold of my collar with both hands. He was a good six inches taller than I and his breath smelled of red wine and Latakia baccy. His expression had altered. The bonhomie had vanished.
‘Now, don’t you go blabbin about! Don’t you be a damn’d fool!’
He glanced around, as though he was aware of the blasphemy which he had just uttered and which had been absorbed into the sandstone. His next words were just as taut, but spoken in a whisper which was more like a hiss.
‘In a bricked-up priest-hole at foot o’ the tower, there lieth a skeleton which, come Hallows’ Eve, doth talk and sing. No-one goes by the wall there. Tis said by those who sip from Chanctonbury Ring that the cold bones do converse wi’ the bees and that the wing’d ones take the form of a naked young woman and dance a hornpipe on a dead elder branch to the music o’ an invisible, devilish fiddle! Tis said that the Queen o’ the Beggars is married on a black river barge to the King o’ the Rooks and that the ghostly choirs o’ Didling do sing full-throated at the walls.’
He was working himself up into a frenzy and his body was shaking all over. I noticed that he had cut himself just above the left eye. It was not a deep cut but it had bled and the blood was freshly crusted over.
‘Would you let go of my coat, please?’
Slowly, he relaxed his grip. His hands fell to his sides and he slumped like a pig’s bladder in that Heaven-and-Hell game where all the village fight over a ball, running and falling and wrestling for miles through the wealden clay. I knew then that he, too, was not a young man and, moreover, that he had led a life of dissolution.
‘Tis harder for us land smugglers than for the ones who wade aboard ships. We are more like to be caught. There are precious few watchmen in the sea.’
‘Why d’you do it?’
‘There’s always the possibility that we might strike gold. Besides, everyone needs to eat. E’en a curate!’
‘Yes, but we all have God.’
‘I never once saw God put bread into a starving bairn’s mouth. Never once.’
‘There are honest ways of earning a living. Millions do it.’
‘Millions are slaves.’
‘And you? You are free?’
He sighed, and his scarf blew outward from his face in the shape of a cloud over a hillock.
‘Beneath the life which you see, there is another life and beneath that, another, and so on, until, like the great traveller, you ask yourself, what is this life, but the thinnest film on the surface of a lake, blown away as easily as by the flap of a dragonfly’s wing?’
He stopped talking and the silence of the ancient church swamped everything; pews, transept, altar, vestry; and its source was the door, hidden in darkness, which led to the tower. I felt the centuries pile with the corpses into the wooden pews, those upturned faces, illumined through the bodies of stained-glass saints. Bearded Saxon kings, transported miraculously to Golgotha hill. Forgotten music lingered in the blown sand images, in the creeping of the tides, in the scratch of stylus on skin.
I whispered, ‘Who are you?’
The man receded into the shadows. I wasn’t sure whether it was I who had stepped back, or he who had moved closer to the altar. I could no longer make out his face.
‘Yesterday, I conversed with the bees and danced with the mackerel Today, I run with the smugglers. Tomorrow, I will fight in an obscure war in some exotic land.’
‘Who are you?’ I repeated.
He shook his head, and went behind the High Altar.
I should have turned and left that church which once I thought I knew. I ought to have hurried back to my low cottage and closed the door against the darkness and against all of history’s knowledge. I could have buried myself in dreams of another life, or of lives untold. I am a humble man, a curate of the church of St Cuthman’s in the village of Wywurth in the Pevensey March of the county of Sussex. My entry is of this world and my exit shall be of the like, of that there is no doubt. Yet perhaps in the life of every man, there is a moment when thought and action become one, where matter and spirit are united for a brief shadow’s span beneath the arc of a new moon. Before I could stop myself, I was tearing after him along the cold flags, some of which were the roof-stones of the hollow tombs in the undercroft, and up the tower, up the spiral staircase, now crammed almost full with boxes and crates. It took all my strength to clamber up to the top of the tower. I pushed open the door to the belfry and then, barely pausing to catch my breath, I climbed up the ladder to where the old pig-iron bells swing in the wind.
Up here, there was a chilling breeze which tasted of salt. The floorboards were half-rotten, and I steadied myself against the cold metal arc of one of the bells. At first, I could see nothing, but then as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I made out his form, standing by the opening which lay between roof and walls. He was facing away from me and was gazing out over the village and beyond, towards the rustling leaves of the forest, and the lake which lay like a dark eye at the centre of the land. The floor was covered in boxes, crates, cases and sacks of all kinds, some of them stamped across with large letters, black and red and quite unintelligible. I wondered how he had managed to get all the way up the tower and across the pile of smuggled goods so quickly and so easily, but then I supposed that he was used to it, hiding, dodging, dancing. He struck a match and lit a long cigar. The white smoke curled upwards and assumed form most lithe and danced at the belfry window, and I felt a great sadness. He did not turn to face me, but I saw that he had removed both scarves. Long, black hair swirled around him, intertwining with the smoke.
‘In the depths of winter, when the lake is frozen over, I can see my own face, rising.’
‘You are no smuggler.’
‘I have been many things, I have travelled far and wide,’ he said and his voice was seamed with emotion. ‘And yet, always I return to this place of my beginnings where the words are written in blood and feathers.’
‘Does the vicar know of this?’
He laughed. ‘The vicar will receive a case of good French wine and a box of fat Cuban cigars. There will be no service today, as he will be ill; nothing serious, he will make a rapid recovery.’
‘And this has been happening…’
‘For years, good curate. It is an arrangement.’
‘I had no idea.’
He spun round. ‘You are outside of the text, Curate Johnson. You shall die when the time comes and your death shall be an ordinary one.’
I shuddered. He had shifted his position in manner subtle as a conjuror, and now was leaning against the massive iron bulk of the major bell. His form did not wholly obscure the bell, however, so large was the holy monster.
‘Not… not tonight?’
He shook his head and I thought I saw the flicker of a smile.
‘You will live awhiles yet, I fancy.’
I nodded, more than a little relieved, for that courage which had drawn me up here had quite slipped away.
‘Hidden within a tomb is a casket and in the casket is a head.’
‘A head?’ I repeated.
‘Sometimes the head is of brass, sometimes of flesh and bone. When the time is right, it sings of many things; of that which is past and forgotten and of that which is unknown and yet to come.’
As he spoke these words in a low, almost soporific voice, something odd began to occur around the bell.
I rubbed my eyes in an attempt to clear the image. Yet my vision was quite lucid, as was my mind: this was not a dream. I struggled on.
‘What have you to do with this… this head.’
He had moved back again to the window.
‘I am in the song, nothing more.’
‘You are sung into existence?’
‘As are we all.’
The surface of the iron was changing, shifting, as though it were a plate of molten metal. And in the grey haze thus evinced, I swear I saw the naked form of a woman, tall, and beauteous to behold. She grew larger, until her face filled the image. Suddenly, talking to this strange man seemed the only way for me to keep a hold on reality. My tongue was stuck to my palate. I forced it to move.
‘You said that I was outside.’
‘In a manner of speaking, yet we are all caught in the bat-and-trap of stroke and dot.’
‘Are you…’ my voice trembled as I said this, ‘are you the White Friar?’
He laughed. Now that he had on no scarf, I could see that he had an inordinately large skull and that his hair was tousled as though he had lived for years in the wind.
‘I am a traveller: one moment smuggler, the next, merchant or lover or dancing spirit. Why not a monk of the Most Saelig Order of Saint Benedict?’
The woman had become smaller again and now, facing her, was the figure of a man, also naked. They were swaying together, or dancing, I could not decide which.
‘Is something distracting you from our conversation, good curate?’
‘I don’t know,’ I began, and then an impotent anger welled up inside my chest. ‘I think that you are mad; either that, or a prankster.’
He shrugged. ‘Perhaps I am both. Do you see the casket at your feet?’
I looked down and sure enough, there at my feet was a silver casket which I hadn’t noticed before. He handed me a key.
‘Open it!’ he commanded.
I glanced quickly towards the bell, but the image had faded and the surface had returned to hard, cold metal.
I followed his instructions.
Beneath a velvet flap was a roll of something that looked like an old piece of wood. Carefully, I drew it out. It was a scroll of some sort, tied with a ribbon in like manner to a deed or other such legal document.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
He said nothing. I could barely make out his eyes. I undid the scroll.
The sheaves fell from my hands and scattered on the floor. There must have been enough to fill a book. I scrambled around, trying to collect them up as they blew across the belfry. He laughed again.
‘These, dear curate, these pieces of skin after which on hands and knees you scramble, are the last remaining works of Master Aelfric, great architect of Wywurth, he who sang churches in the shape of love.’
I was breathing so heavily as I gathered up the sheaves, that I had no idea what he was saying.
‘Do you understand?’
‘I… I’m sorry. I’m not a young man. Coming up here… all this.’
He rushed forwards again and though this time he did not grab my collar, his face was so close to mine that I could almost feel the stubble on his jowl.
‘Stretch yourself. For once in your miserable life, leap off the belfry and fly!’
I stepped back, alarmed. I tried to steady my voice.
‘Why have you come here, this night?’
‘Why have you?’
‘I was dragged out of bed!’
‘Like stone was I dragged from vellum, through love, death, music.’
‘There is no music here.’
He brought his arm around in the shape of an arc, as though in that one sweep, he were gathering all of the country; the moot lands of thane and ceorl, the swans’ roads, the bone-houses, the spheres of spinning poste-mills, the trace of a dancer’s steps on stone, the dark hiding-places of priest and smuggler, the flow of generations across land and water into the forgetfulness of the House of Life that is the final honouring of the dead. And in that arc, as though from a great distance I found that I could hear the trip and stamp fantasie of naked soles upon the bare stone flags of the long gallery, the ash and lime songs of scops and the scratch and tear of skin against pig-iron bell ringing dully on winter’s morn of the Dark Strangers, and I was cleaving rock on a hillside in a strange and distant land and the guns of hell were screaming all around me. And a voice boomed in my ears and shook the bones of my skull till I feared it surely would split apart.
‘And then turn to the east and bow humbly nine times, and say then these words: ‘Eastwards I stand, for favours I pray.’ Then turn three times with the course of the sun, then stretch yourself along the ground and say a dark bede.’
And in the midst of all of this, I did fall into a swoon and when I awoke the man was gone and I was lying, half-frozen, on the belfry floor. My mouth was filled with the pungency of ripened corn, and the cool breeze carried with it the taste of stale pig-fat, mixed with salt blown off the tops of new-risen waves. My thumb and the first two fingers of my right hand were covered in dried black ink of type most pungent and the small joints ached as though I had been writing all night. I massaged my fingers back to life, blowing onto them in a vain attempt to warm the flesh. As I prepared to make my exit from the tower, I walked past the bell. It was then I noticed that inscribed upon its dark, iron surface, was the image of two elongated, figures. I moved closer and brushed away an accumulation of dust and dirt which had accrued in the lines and hollows. As curate, I had ascended the tower of St Cuthman in times numbering the hundreds, but never before had I set eyes upon any such image. Yet this imprint seemed to have been burned into the substance of the bell for many long centuries, so pronounced was it, and yet so faded. The style belonged to the period of Good King Alfred, when those of our ancestors yet to have ben brought into the ways of Our Lord are said to have carved the ungodly horses, men and demons up on the white hills of the South Downs. On the bell were etched a man and a woman, their forms set in relation to each other in such a way as to connote that they were dancing. The face of the woman I recognised from the night before, though still I did not know who she was; however, as I ran my index finger along the lines, it seemed as though I had known the man’s visage for longer than I had known my own.
I hastened down the steps of the tower and quickly locked the church and made my way back home, carefully avoiding the village. That Sabbath day, no bells were heard in Wywurth and no service was held. When next I ventured into St Cuthman’s, it was as though nothing had happened. One evening, a few days later, I found a large cask of red wine and a box of cigars at my doorstep.
The first of the night birds began to sound out. The vicar put down the book. The two men looked at each other. There were no words between them. Both were back fifty years, floating on the face of the river which flowed over stone and reed. A silly summer’s day in deepest Sussex. The Pevensey March.
At first, the three of them sang as one, Edward’s voice being almost a Russian bass, while John’s was towards the baritone and Caroline’s a mid-alto. Though none were trained singers, they were all young and filled with health and happiness and their lungs pushed the air through their throats so that to each one of them the noise of the river was almost drowned out and all they could hear was their song.
As I walk’d out_one day, one day, I met an a-ged man by_ the way;
His head was bald, his beard was grey_His cloth-ing made of the cold earthen clay, His cloth-ing made of the cold earth-en clay.
I said: Old man_what man are you? What country do you be-long un-to? My name is Death; hast though heard of me_All kings and prin-ces bow down un-to me, And you, fair maid, must come a- long with me.
I’ll give you gold,_I’ll give you pearl, I’ll give you cost-ly rich robes to wear, If you will spare me a_ lit-tle while, And give me time my life to a-mend, And give me time my life_to a-mend.
I’ll have no gold, I’ll have no pearl, I want no cost-ly rich robes to wear. I can-not spare you a_lit-tle while,_Nor give you time_ your life to a-mend, Nor give you time your life to a-mend.
In six months’ time this fair maid died. Let this be put on my tomb-stone, she cried: Here lies a poor,_dis-tress-ed maid;_Just in her bloom she was snath-ed a-way, Her cloth-ing made of the cold earth-en clay.
And so the boats sailed on through the forest, along that stretch of river where the current slackens as the land beyond its banks broadens out and grows flatter. The trees – yew, elder, willow, oak – were in full, dark leaf and the branches overhung the oxbows which had been formed many thousands of years earlier when the great glaciers far leagues to the north had melted and the river been created, much as in the tale of Noah. And the land and the waters, both, had moved again and had changed since Saxon times and by the long reign of Queen Victoria, the sea, once some seven leagues distant, had swept up to the very foot of the hill on which St Cuthman’s Church had been built.
The boats began slowly to drift apart.
Edward ended his song with great gusto (it is possible to sing thus about death only when one is in the first flush of life) and then stared up at the sun through the leaves. The creaking sounds of the boat’s hull filled his ears, and he fell asleep. He dreamed of a great tower, around which were being played games of Nine Men’s Morris and Bat-and-Trap. He dreamed of Gooding women, their breath turned to smoke in the frozen air, carrying meat-and-raisin pies and sugar-loaves shaped like conical tombs to one another’s houses through the snow on the Day of the Feast of Saint Thomas Didymus; of Wealden houses where, at dead of night, lovers crept downstairs and through the servants’ gate and ran towards the owl eyes of the dark woods; of the bottomless lake where the ghost of the green nicor screams in coiled poisoned agony; of eleven thousand virgins chanting and skipping to draw the seeds up through the corpse’d earth; of shoals of gleaming, silver mackerel caught in the long, corked nets of fishermen in boats bedecked with ribbons and flowers; of magical Yule babies roasting in elder log fires; of shepherd’s crowns, grinning on the mantelpiece; of a naked man climbing up a cliff-face to collect honey out of a cranny; of the horns of spiced ale blown over swarms of bees as they hived on living branches; of ancient, wrinkled demons who danced around the Ring of Chanctonbury and who offered ten-foot long suet puddings and fire wine to the eleven thousand virgins…
When he awoke, his boat was stationary. He levered himself up and peered over the edge. The other boats were nowhere to be seen.
Panic rose like a spring flood into his throat.
They must have gone on without him.
Edward had ended up at the end of a stagnant oxbow. Gnats and dragonflies danced courtship rituals across the transparent skin of the grey water. Deep down, near the shifting layers of river-mud, the water had remained unchanged, unmoving, for centuries. The prow of his boat was wedged in the mud of a bank, too steep to climb. It would take all his effort to push the boat back into the water and row all the way back to the river proper. But he was unable to make out the main body of the river. He had heard that Mychelham Water had never fully been cartographed. Even the horn-rimmed men from the Ordnance Survey, with their dividers and compasses and stiffened suits had had difficulty; the mud was so shifting, the land around it so oily and fickle.
As he tried to trace the chain of events, the whole day reduced to a blur.
They had gone off together, the three of them, in their rickety rowing-boats. At some point along the river, he had fallen asleep. He tried to catch his dreams, but they were elusive as river reeds. What if the others had drowned? He shuddered. But the river was slow-moving and both Caroline and John were excellent swimmers. The three of them had often leapt into the forest lake and for a delicious, skin moment, had died in its dark, freezing waters. But rivers were different; like snakes, they changed form constantly while yet remaining the same, they sought out points of weakness, then wound their reeds around ankles and necks. Edward felt so drained, he wondered if he had the strength to row the boat homewards. Then he had the vision of a dream, which seemed real: John and Caroline, naked and joined on the felled trunk of an ancient yew. What once had been the upper end, the growing end, of a tree was now submerged beneath the waters of the Mychelham, while the thousand year-old trunk reared into the sun-scaped air, malevolent, green shoots sprouting from its centre. And as their bodies shifted, one upon the other, their skins rubbed into the bark and merged with the skins of other, earlier lovers. Each whorl of wood bore the rune-marks of such conjunctions, all the way back to when the abbott had leaned against its trunk and dreamed of three long-boats dancing in the spume of the river-mouth and of a Roman fig-tree sagging with fruit. The faces of all the lovers, past and future, were turned as one toward the slowly-flowing water and their breath was the air which danced across its surface and formed bubbles that pulled carp and trout and roach up from their dark holes and into the sunlight. Then the vision evanesced and Edward was left, cold and sweating and alone in the bottom of a rotting boat. He felt a fist of rage in his belly. Possessed by his own dark spirit, he leaned over the rim of the boat and spat into the river and watched the spittle swirl and merge with the cold water. He picked up the oars and began to row, not knowing whether he was going up or down stream, towards home or away from it. He needed to immerse his body in an act of total physicality. He did not notice the pair of rowing-boats, half-sunk like crocodiles in swamp, nor the massive tree-trunk toppled into the river, nor the shape, like an archetypal majuscule, of two lovers pressed upon its surface, nor the runes which their corpses carved into the wood.
It was at the moment when he knew his body could row no more that Edward found the river again. He let the oars fall into their metal sockets, slumped back and watched the wispy clouds sail through the blue. Gradually, the pain in his chest subsided. And it was then that he had heard the song.
The vicar shifted in his seat. His body felt as though it was turning slowly to wood. Rotherfield spoke first.
‘You saw us that day, you saw us and you told.’
‘I saw nothing. Yes, it’s true. I did love her. Even though I always knew that she would never want me, that I would never dance in the notes of her song.’
‘So, was it repentance, or revenge?’
Edward shrugged. ‘The worst betrayals, the ones for which we suffer all our lives, are those of which we are least aware. Ultimately, we betray only ourselves.’
‘I went to war, became no more than a worm in the swarming mud. I volunteered for death. That’s why I stood up and watched the man in the greatcoat. Even now, I don’t know whether he really existed.’
‘That’s not what you said. You didn’t mention standing up yourself. And you said that, later, he handed you his card. What about the prison-camp, the ruined church, Saint Cecilia? The brass head, the wooden house in Constantinople? The chants, the manuscripts? Caroline.’
Rotherfield pointedly ignored him. ‘I thought, if he’s able to stand erect, then so shall I. And on the prison hill, when I turned the card over, it was blank.’
‘We heard you were dead.’
‘I was never more than a ripple on the surface of time. I was already as nothing.’
‘Not to Caroline.’
‘Life goes on: she married the law-giver.’
‘And plays the church organ.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard her play.’
‘She plays with such sadness. Her fingers dance runes along the wood, the bone.’
‘She no longer sings?’
‘Never.’ Edward took a deep breath. ‘John, we are different people now, different than we were then.’
Rotherfield shook his head. ‘I think not. We dance the same dances and sing the same words, over and over again.’
‘There was something wrong with each section of this book,’ Edward cut in. ‘Were I to submit the text to an Anglo-Saxon scholar, a Tudor specialist and an expert in early nineteenth century south coast smuggling, I’m certain they would expose it as a fake – and, I might add, written by a man who lived a fake life.’ He paused, then raised himself up and half-arched the upper part of his body over the edge of the table. ‘You wrote this, didn’t you? You are its author.’
A crescent moon had just emerged from behind the clouds. Rotherfield gazed up at it. ‘My body was never found.’
‘Caroline received a box of Latakia cigarettes and a musical score for church organ. A score which she has never played. Cigarettes she has never smoked.’ The vicar picked up the book and brandished it at the woodcutter. ‘And decades later, from the sale of Birkin Mansion, the last inheritance of Caroline’s long-dead father, the last remaining stone in the doorway of the old Saxon earls of the South, there came this book. She couldn’t bring herself to destroy it. Perhaps she had hoped that some stranger would buy it and take it far away.’
‘I think it’s time I left. Dawn will be upon us soon.’ Rotherfield rose. ‘But before I go, I want to ask you one question.’
The vicar’s face sagged, as though all of his years had descended upon him at once. He remained silent.
‘Did you really see us?’
Edward shook his head. ‘I heard your song, smelled your love on the river-wind. And in the dark reeds of the oxbow, I foresaw your death.’
Rotherfield nodded. ‘Then you, too are in the text. In the last chapter. Read it, when I am gone. Then give it to Caroline. Ask her to play the score ‘The Palace is Beautiful’. It is a perfect unity of the mundane, the human, the instrumental. No living soul has heard it for three thousand years.’ And gathering up his axe, he limped away. And as Rotherfield passed through the outer gardens and orchards and approached Mychelham Water, his form took on the aspect of a shadow, a moving pyramid that merged with the uncertain light and became imperceptible.
In the distance, smoke from fires lit by drovers rose into the opalescent dawn. There was a hint of charcoal in the fresh morning air.
Edward bent and lifted the small pile of logs, walked stiffly into the house and locked the door behind him. Going straight to his study, he placed the wood in the grate, took a taper from the mantelpiece and lit it with his cigar-butt.
When the hearth-stone was burning to the touch, he grasped the book and flung into the rear of the fire.
Note: ‘The Dream of the Rood’ (anon), p. 232, is translated from the Old English by L. Iddings; ‘The Wanderer’ (anon), p. 235, is E. Hickey’s translation. Both appear in Translations from Old English Poetry, Ginn and Company, Boston, 1902. ‘Death and the Lady’, p. 268, is from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs.
© Suhayl Saadi