Continuum – Episode Twenty-Six: Reflections

In the previous episode:

Dag Swenner’s health is improving as he follows the wild river, seeking first signs of civilization.

Meanwhile, Sala’s insistence that Celeris is a figment of Alanee’s imagination has induced him to materialize, and Alanee learns that he is Hasuga, dressed in a form she finds attractive.  His appearance is too much for Sala, so Hasuga blanks her memory of their meeting.

Alone in her chambers, Alanee discovers her powers:  using telekinetic energy, she can move the heavy silver ball, and now the mysterious mirrors beckon…

“Well?”  Ellar settles an ebony statuette she has been examining on her desk.  “What is the explanation?”

“There is none, Lady.” Sala shrugs her shoulders.  “She insists the man she calls Celeris bedded her last night.”

They are in the part of Ellar’s apartments the Mediant calls her study, a small offshoot of her main reception area.  Here she spends most of her waking hours, working at a large oak desk and admiring the collection of effigies and small busts that adorn the walls.

“There was no man with her?”

“No, Lady.”

“So what conclusion may we draw?”   What ails Sala?  Ellar’s mediator stands sullenly before her, a recalcitrant schoolgirl called before her principal.  There is no flicker of challenge, no answer in her eyes.

“That she imagines him, Lady.”

“That is an explanation, then, is it not; an imaginary bedfellow?  The strain, one supposes.  She is under a great deal of stress.  She insists upon it?”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Very well.  Thank you Sala.”

“I may go?”

“You  may go.  Return to Lady Alanee later, say, at six o’clock.  Stay with her then, if you can.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Oh, and Sala?”  Sala is already on her way to Ellar’s door. She turns.  “You are wise enough in the ways of the world, I am sure.  You would be able to tell if Lady Alanee had, in fact, spent her night with a man, wouldn’t you?”  Sala does not reply.  “Well, I am asking your opinion: did she?”

“I cannot be sure.”

Sala departs, with Ellar’s discerning eyes scrutinizing her every step.  The alteration in the young woman’s posture, her voice, even her look is inescapable:  where now to place her trust?  While Sala is watching Alanee (will that still be possible?)  who will be watching Sala?  These questions may not detain her:  Valtor’s insistent message on her summoner is calling her to High Council.  Sire Trebec, recently returned from his mission to wrap up the Dometian affair, has prepared his final report and she, as a member of the Council, must attend.  She does so with some misgivings, knowing that on the Domo’s recommendation Alanee has been excluded from this gathering, which is setting something of a precedent, for it will be the first time in history that a full Council has convened without a Seer.

Alanee, meanwhile, is occupied with matters far removed from her station as Seer.  She is quickly acquiring the trappings of a member of The City’s privileged inner circle.  Unable now to walk freely in The City and shop for herself, she has no difficulty in selecting a reputable interior designer to attend her.

Prinius, it transpires, is a friend of Tocatta – a very close friend, if Prinius’s perspective is to be believed.  And certainly everything about his manner and bearing would seem to confirm that perspective, for he is dressed with the same careful precision, the same elaborate care.  His perfume is intense, his eyes warm, their earnest stare almost hypnotic.  A crescent moon of long grey hair flies about the fringes of his red fedora, for he is not young, and his long nose is purplish in hue and inclined to drip:  yet he illustrates his suggestions with expansive, eloquent gestures and he motivates like a heavy rainstorm, so that within a very few hours the inexplicable white suits have gone from Cassix’s grim walls to be replaced by brightly coloured hangings, while druggets temper the severity of the flagstone floor.  A pair of comfortable red leather couches have discovered space for themselves, adjacent to a low table in warm rosewood, above which naked lighting has been sacrificed to something altogether friendlier and more responsive.

He can do nothing immediately for the stone walls themselves:  “All that writing to be scrubbed off, then plaster panels, my dear Lady, are absolutely essential!  I will attend to it.  And graphics – something rather pretty I imagine?”

Or for the more idiosyncratic furnishings of the room:  the mirrors:  “Oh my dear!”

The large spinning disc of undecipherable purpose:  “A certain brutal charm.  One could always persuade the unwelcome guest to recline there.”

The silver orb:  “Quite impressive, really, though I would imagine completely useless?”

– or the doorless wooden edifice that dominates the inner side.  “That!  Oh Habbach!  I couldn’t even begin!  One might cover it with something; a tent, perhaps?”

On the whole Alanee is sufficiently pleased: when she surveys the beginnings of Prinius’s transformation over a late lunch ordered in from an exorbitantly pricey restaurant, she feels a certain satisfaction: it may never look like a home, but at least Cassix’s old cave is a little less habitable to bats.

Left to herself once more, allowing the clouds of loneliness to close in, she greets a summons from her door chime as a welcome sound.  She answers it half-expecting Sala to be standing there, rather than a deferential young man with a parcel in his hand.  It is the book she ordered the previous day.

Alanee tips the young man for his trouble and thanks him.  When unwrapped, the book nestles cosily in her grasp; leather cunningly distressed into eloquent age, blank unlettered pages mellowed at the edge, roughly cut, a lock not rusted, but so convincingly worn it might easily trace its ancestry through two thousand years, all exemplars of the forger’s art:  a book which until now she has only seen inside her head, made manifest. It is so deceiving as to give her mission substance and purpose, and new hope for its success.  She conceals it beneath a chair in her bedroom for the moment, while she plots her next move.

Is it the book that draws Alanee’s thoughts back towards Cassix’s mirrors?  She is suddenly reluctant to sit on that ancient leather chair, to face the three angled reflections that fill one end of the wall.  Whether the three further, smaller mirrors behind the chair deter her, or whether there is some more obscure reason she cannot know.  Nevertheless she takes her place in their midst and once seated she can find no justification for fear.  The whole thing looks and feels like a museum piece – they are mirrors, no more, no less.  What were Hasuga’s words?  ‘Gain their trust.’  Without the slightest clue what that may mean, she studies the large centre glass.

At first, the images she sees seem no more than different aspects of the room created by angles in the glass; however, it crosses her mind that she is looking not at first-hand reflections, but deflections from the mirrors behind her.  Yet, if that is so, why does her own reflection not appear anywhere?  She is sitting between the smaller and the larger mirrors, so how can her image be missing?  The answer may never have come to her had she not chanced to direct her gaze upward to where, concealed by changes of level in the ceiling, are more mirrors:  not just three but a whole battalion of them!  So…. the reflections she sees are being thrown back and forth, up and down, between all of these surfaces.  It is a wonder after so many journeys that they bear any resemblance to reality at all!

‘Gain their trust.’

Half-consciously using her new-found kinetic sense she finds she can fractionally change the attitude of one of the glasses.  Instantly the images alter.  In one glass now she sees a reflection of the city gardens; in another Prinius’s new wall hangings show up perfectly, in the third the strange wooden room with no door appears.

Alanee alters the angle of one after another of the glasses, fascinated by the finesse she can achieve, and their effortless synchronisation.  In part she is playing, revelling in her new-found abilities: yet there is rightness in each adjustment, a process that seems to involve switches within her mind.  And something more…

 Her fingers stroke the old leather of the chair.  Does she imagine it or is there a worn indentation where her hands rest on each arm?  On a whim she goes to a bag of items the  drabs retrieved from the watchtower, selecting from among them those two stones Cassix gave her.  She seats herself with a stone beneath each hand.

There are no revelatory flashes of insight, no journeys to the stars; just a tiny white spot upon the spinning metal of the disc on the wall beside her, and the micron-thickness beam of light that creates it, lancing straight from the mirrors above her head.  In the third mirror before her, the wooden room appears.  One end of the room has somehow acquired a door, and the door (a whole carved panel hung upon great iron strap hinges) is opened wide.  So little should be distinguishable in the gloom of that windowless interior, but one thing clearly is.  Upon a simple chair inside the door sits a very old, very thin man in a hempen smock.  This man’s gnarled and twisted limbs speak of age as an old tree speaks – of weathered suffering; of the ravages of the seasons.  The sockets of his eyes are hollowed, his skin as dry as ash.  He is unmoving:  his bones of fingers clasped before him, his head bowed.

Shocked, Alanee turns to look directly at the wooden room.  There is no open door.  It looks as unassailable as ever.  So, the combination of stones and mirrors can transform their reflections and the stones provide the switch.   Setting her teeth, she tightens her grip upon the stones.

She does not instantly recognise what she sees.  The Balkinvel reflected in the glass bears little relationship to the village she once, not long ago, called her home.  And she does not expect to see such a picture – why should she?  She is several thousand miles from the Hakaan – it cannot be a true reflection.  Yet she sees it:  it is there.

The Terminal is there:  there and burning, with the roof half-gone where flames lick through and a pall of black smoke rising into the angry sky.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

No-one douses the flames:  there is no bucket-chain, no anxious crowd.  It burns unattended – it will burn to the ground.  A village street that might be deserted were it not over-run by rats, creatures not given to exposure yet so frightened they run in the open, running for their lives, and cottonweed everywhere, un-swept, neglected.

The gap where her own house once stood; the house of her friend Shellan, its windows broken and door swinging in the wind.  Old Malfis’s immaculate garden overrun with weed; so quickly!  Did the old man die?  House after house empty of life – where are they all?  The Makar, Carla, Paaitas, Namma?  A pain stabs at her heart.  Her village; her life, destroyed.  Why? 

“Hasuga!  Did you do this?”

“I?  No, Alanee, not I.”

Then, before eyes becoming attuned to horror, the curtain falls, if curtain it be.  Some veiled nemesis descending from that sky, spinning and purging as if culling a memory.  Alanee sees it in the mirror; sees what Ripero saw, in that second when the love of his life was taken from before his eyes.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

Do the mirrors move by the insistence of her thoughts, or upon some impulse of their own?  They tilt towards the heavens – not greatly, but enough;  dragging her awestruck eyes above that scything whirlwind, high into the atmosphere, through the jagged, ragged lightning and the black moil of rage into a calmness of the palest blue.  She sees the cloud-base as another country: white mountains with black anger at their base, rolling hills, pleasant valleys basking in a gentle sun.  And before the mirrors’ eye they take upon themselves a life, so for an instant she might be gazing down upon fields, rivers, brave little towns clinging to those insubstantial wisps of vapour as if they were real:  chimneys smoke, men go out with ancient tools to till the red soil, and children!  She has never seen so many children!  They play in the streets, follow the plough, shout and laugh among themselves as if they have no cares at all!

Only for an instant.

The white line begins as a livid dot of such intensity it burns her eyes, spreading laterally, a swinging blade to level everything, scythe everything away.  Its signature screech obliterates all other sound, drowns the cries of those who, in the seconds before the coming know it is the end of all things.  From its epicentre white death rises to a cone, a burning ball:  then silence.

Alanee can bear to see no more.  With all the force of her mind she snatches her grip from the stones, turns the mirrors back into her own world.  The white spot on the disc disappears.  Her heart is so full it can hardly stand the excess of compassion and pain exuding from the glass: the mirrors seem to have some kind of empathy, some sort of life-force of their own.  They seem to be regretful, but surely that cannot be?  She remembers that once as a child she believed inanimate objects such as carvings or even farming machines could feel and move.  They never did, until now.

For a while she paces, pours herself a drink, then two.  With every step she tells herself the things she witnessed cannot be true.  Balkinvel cannot have been destroyed so fast; the work of a thousand years undone in a few cycles.    She was in such a low state she saw predictions of doom.  If she can change her own mood, the predictions will become more optimistic too.  Alanee knows nothing of Ripero, or how his village and his life was wiped away.  So she has no precedent for the horror she has seen befall Balkinvel, and the cloud-land vision is so preposterous she must dismiss it as fancy.

With the aid of a couple more drinks, by the time Sala visits Alanee’s humour has changed completely.  Paia, she has decided, is a very acceptable spirit:  she applauds Cassix’s choice, not guessing that it was a choice made for very specific reasons.

#

A first citrus tint of sunlight feels its way across the valley, casting the spark that will turn the waters of the river into a necklace of gold.  In long shuffling shadows night creatures bury themselves, finding tunnels into wombs of safety.  Dawn is chill of a depth no other chill can match.  It sends icy tendrils into bone.

From his perch behind a veil of acacia Dag has a panorama of all the river basin spread out before him.  Last night he began to climb, having made a decision to leave the river and gain the summit of a hill that rises behind him.  When he first heard the voices, he had yet another thousand feet to go.

He has followed the river for days now; hunting or fishing for food.  In all that time he has seen no sign of occupation, though the land is fertile: there is no track, no tell-tale smoke haze in the sky; nothing.  Then, suddenly last night, pushing his way through a thicket of bracken on the green hill, he heard sounds, distant chatter, undistinguishable as any form of language, but certainly, as he thinks, human.  Remembering his fugitive status, the acacia became his inhospitable bed for the night.  Now, in the dawn, he listens; he watches.

Yes, the voices begin again with the rising of the sun.  Few at first, then a rising clamour.  Whoever these people are, they are obviously neither hunting for food nor afraid of discovery, whilst he, Dag, cowers behind his cloak of foliage suppressing shivers as best he can.  Here, the wide bowl of the valley is some six miles across with mountains to the further side, their snowy peaks already blushed by the rose of sunrise.  The trees no longer reach to the waterside, for the river has grown languorous.  It meanders now, lazy amid bogs of poppy-rich meadow grass and reed, host to fronds of willow, a footing too uncertain for the stalwarts of the forest.  Colour is everywhere; hydrangea and cyclamen, Acacia and tulip, rhododendron and cornflower.  And still of the owners of the voices there is no sign, no life other than that of a dappled deer on the opposite river bank, far away and oddly so much bolder than he, as it takes dancing steps towards the water’s edge.

Almost beyond Dag’s powers of sight, the river turns southward around a gentle hill which juts out into the widest part of the watercourse: a promontory topped by a random scattering of trees; a tulip or two, a walnut, an umbrella pine.  As the light of morning gathers it reveals some detail of this higher ground:  there are features there which, even from this distance, seem strange to Dag’s discriminating eye – the grass is more evenly spread, there are no bushes or rocks to break up the line.  He tries a simple trick:  closes his eyes, turns away, then turns to look again; and yes; there is a movement there, two far-off figures so small at this distance they are little more than dots!  They move as children might in play, to and fro about the grassy slope; running, perhaps?  They are minute, but not so little that he cannot distinguish the human touch.  People!  For better or worse, good or ill, he cannot avoid civilisation forever.  The time has come.

Glad of action, Dag thinks he will move closer: stay hidden until he learns more.  Who are they?  They should be Dometians, but he is unsure how far he might have travelled, whether he might have strayed into the higher valleys of Eastern Braillec.   Whoever they are they must have heard what happened to their fellow citizens, so they would know and understand whence he came.  And this is his concern, for with Ripero he saw too plainly the fate of those refugees on the Dometian Plain.  Though his heart would guide him back to the Consensual City, in his head there is a warning.  Does the City wish him dead?

He has no time to do more than form his plan before choice is taken from him.  From nowhere, it seems, a figure rises before him, a figure with bright feverish eyes tearing aside the branches of acacia.  From behind him other unseen hands snatch and pin his arms.  A loop of thick twine binds them into captivity.  By the strength of many he is thrust face forward into the sun.  And what he sees draws a cry of disbelief from his lips…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credits:

Arto Martinem from Unsplash
Stacey Gabrielle-koenitz-Roselle from Unsplash

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-five Purification

The story so far:

Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help.  The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her.   Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.

Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm.  He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.

Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm.  “Joe, dear!”

“Aunt – telephone the police.  Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can.  Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”

Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression.  “Do it for me – please?”  He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.

In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week.  The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand.  He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.

As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.

“You bastard!”

Oh, god, not now!  His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.

“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!”  Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share.  “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here.  You got to go!  You got to go now!”

Joe was speechless.

“Take Emma with yer.  I don’ want ‘er.  I told her.  She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that!  You got to leave now.”

“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  Nothin’ you must do, boy.  Charker Smith’s after yer.  Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up.  He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un.  You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”

What did Joe feel?  Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now.  He searched frantically for inspiration.  “Then help me, Tom!  Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker.  I must!”

Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief:  “Settle with ‘im?  Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer!  You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker!  What’s the matter with the’?  See here:  Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy.  If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have.  You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”

Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute.  “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that?  If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more.  I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it.  I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now!  The answer’s there, I’m sure of it.  Let me through, please?!”

It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom.  Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too.  Tom was ever a man of action.

“You mad?  All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though.  We’ll take mine.”

“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”

“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy!  Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”

“Wait, then!”

Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his.  They were in motion before he could even shut his door.

The Cortina flew.  It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none.  He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.

“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you.  I knows that.  Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while.  ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see.  ‘Twould have been alright then.”   He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker.  “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew.  I knew.”

The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect.  Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant?  Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane?  They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.

“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!”  Tom urged him.

“There’s a window open round the back.”  Joe grabbed the bag of tools.

“No need.”  Tom rejoined.  “Front door’s open – look!”

Someone had been there!  Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run.  The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.

“Petrol!  Somebody’s torched the place!”  He shouted.  “Come on, quickly!”

Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency.  Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release.  Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave.  “In there?”  Tom asked.

“No, this way.”  Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door:  it dragged open.  “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”

The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.

“I’m drinkin’ down there now.  I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it.  He’s pissed silly.  He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.”  Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could.  “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”

“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied,  “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along.  But I didn’t work it out, the first time.”  Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat.  “Look at the ceiling!”

“What of it?”

“It’s dry – well, almost.  There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone.  Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here.  So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall:  “Give me a hand, will you?”

Tom jumped forward, lending his weight.  Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.

“…Is an extra room!”  Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.

The big cupboard had concealed a doorway.  In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.

“This here’s a hatch!”  Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them.  “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy.  There’s no goin’ back through there!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How come I never noticed this afore?  You must be able to see ‘un from outside!  ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon.  That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?”   Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust.  He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.

“There she goes!” Tom cried.

The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight.  Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury.  The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.

“Good glory!”  Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous.  Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat.  Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.

Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom.  The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay.  On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.

The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat.  A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps.  Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.

“Who’s there?”  Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”

Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one.  The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom.  “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain.  “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here.  The place is wringing wet!”

But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature.  “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy!   Gives me the creeps, this!”

His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire.  Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space.  Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.

“Sacrifices?”

“This aren’t witchcraft.  This ‘ere’s paganism.”  Tom voice wavered..

“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!”  Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.

Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart.  All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.

“See that?  Black arts, boy.  Devil worship!”

But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.

Tom saw it too.  “Oh, Jesus!”  He said.

Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died.  There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took:  a child, no more than five or six years old.  Tom’s expression asked:  who?  Why?  Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear.   As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.

Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.

“He’s here!”  Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un!  Lord God, stop ‘un!”

Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone.  Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom?  Who can you see?”   Tom’s expression was wild.  It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice.  Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.

Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room.  He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past.  The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape.  Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.

Strong hands thrust him back.

Tom, barring his way.  Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate.  “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard?  In my bed, was it?  Was it?

The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite.  “No Tom, not in your bed.”  Joe gulped in the fresh outside air  “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her?  I can’t do that.”

Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed.  “Love ‘er – you?  You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”

Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer.  Smoke rushed past him, stifling him.  He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.

Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’

Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

“Burn he will, die, he shall…”

Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.

“You?  You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser.  I loves ‘er, see?  An’ I can have her now can’t I?  ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”

So shall it be.  In stillness and calm – in acceptance:  through the gateway of pain is a better place,  so shall it be.

Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf;  Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…

No!  No, not yet.  Not here, not now.  Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!!  Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself.  “She loves you, Tom.  She was always yours.”

And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? –  the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it.  For she had said to him:  “I shall try to smooth your path…..”  and she was true to her word.

Tom’s face creased.  “It’s not true.  ‘Tis not true!”  But his demon had left him.  Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks.  His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.

“F**k it, Joe!”  Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.

“Roll!”  Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him.  “Roll, you bastard!”

#

Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road.  Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens.  Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him.  Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Snow

victoria-xmas-cardSome stories demand attention.   Any writer can find them – or rather, they find him, eagerly salivating little gangs that pounce each time he opens his laptop and switches on.  Headlines, oddities, issues that invite comment, or exercise a turn of phrase.  Stories that beg to be told.

So here I am, staring at the keys.

Christmas stares back at me.

Christmas makes it abundantly clear:  it does not beg to be told.  All it wants is to be put back in its box.   Its greatest hope is to be left in peace.   Over the centuries it has been written about incessantly; it has been turned over, forensically examined, boiled down and put into test tubes, sculpted by the greatest, depicted by the painty-est (yes, I know it’s a new word – I just invented it) and sung without mercy.

There is nothing about Christmas we do not already know.

We know that St. Nicholas began a legend when (allegendly – another new one, do you like it?) he dropped bags of money down the chimneys of a deceased friend’s daughters to save them from penury.  We know the first Christmas trees were religious symbols Eastern European people hung upside-down from their ceilings (or medieval equivalent) as appeasement to evil spirits, just as ‘decking the halls with holly’ dates back to days when the dark woods were never far from our doors, and we needed to be sure our friendly sprites and fairies would feel at home when the party started.

We are aware our celebrations are intrinsically pagan, and early Christians hung their own festival of Christ’s Mass upon them for convenience, because it was easier to get converts if they didn’t try to impose additional celebrations on people whose winter resources were limited.   They understood even then that Jesus was not born on December 25th:  they argued about His actual birthday from the very beginning.

So where is the new angle?  What startling revelation can I bring?

I have seated Christmas on my window sill, hoping a little cold air will wake it up.  It just stares at me, blankly.  Beyond the glass, Washington Irving’s rotund red fellow ho-ho-ho’s at me before fading away; heading back, presumably, to his inhospitable den at the North Pole.   How the hell does he cover Australia in midsummer from there and still get home before dawn?   Albert and Vicky smile regally from their cardboard portrait, the first Christmas card, before disappearing into an envelope to be despatched by a postal service that hasn’t been invented yet, making me wonder – was it an ill-advised penchant for adorning our Christmas trees with lighted candles that stimulated creation of a national fire service?

“No.” Christmas assures me.  “Insurance companies created the first organised fire brigades.  Nicholas Burbon initiated one after the Great Fire of London to protect properties he insured.  The first organised municipal brigade was probably Edinburgh’s, in 1824.”  It squirms in a weak attempt at enthusiasm.  “That’s something new for you!”

“But nothing to do with Christmas.”

“Oh, well then.”  It appears to be dropping off to sleep.  I give it a prod.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, WHAT?”

“I want a new angle.”

“There isn’t any.”

“Just something – anything – a bit different?”

It tucks its chin into its chest, adopting the shrivelled appearance it always has just before twelfth night, when nearly all its needles have dropped off.   “Snow.”  It mutters.

Snow.

Snow, of course, is the great enemy in Eastern Europe’s icy winter heart.   The Germanic peoples of history knew all about snow – the white blast that drove them to huddle within their huts, sealed up and buried, for the winter of the year.   It was an enforced hibernation, a somnolent wait for the coming of spring, and a habit as old as time.

Equal in tradition was Yule (the Nordic houl), the time of the hunt.  It began once the huts-on-the-steppeharvest was gathered in, and, just like the harvest, it culminated in a great feast – the feast of Yule.  Carcasses kept frozen by frost could be stored, so as to provision the months of incarceration.  Given a good hunting season, whatever was left over was consumed in feasting, sending celebrants to their hovels with full stomachs and hopeful hearts.

The Yule Festival – kept more formally by the Romans as ‘Saturnalia’, equally an occasion for seven days of self-indulgence – had added significance, for peoples of early times, as the winter solstice; important for those who relied so heavily upon the mood of the sun, and therefore a religious occasion:  of course, wherever there was a religious occasion the witches could be expected to put in an appearance, so it was a time of superstition and fear, too.

Perhaps it was that weak underbelly of terror that the Christians, four hundred years after the time when Christ is said to have lived, latched onto in the spread of their gentler creed; but it took all that time before Yule could be reborn as Christmas.

So there’s my angle.  It isn’t really new, and I’m sure you knew it already, but I thought I should just remind you that whenever someone laments Christmas’s ‘commercialism’, and insists upon the ‘true message’ of Christmas, it is you who has the moral high ground.   It is the time of the solstice and it is a feast:  the Romans gave gifts at Saturnalia, and so should you.

Christmas looks at me archly.  “Can I go back in my box, now?”

“Yes, of course.  Until next year, at least.   Oh, and thank you for ‘snow’.”

 

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