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On Autumn’s Fall and Winter’s Rising

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Let’s have a little game….

The evenings are drawing in, the temperature outside is ever lower, and soon the snows will come; but not yet.

Not yet.

I am hoping when you read this you are at home and maybe it is dark outside. I am hoping a first November gale is blowing, that leaves, brown, red, amber, are flying by your window. Perhaps it will be cold enough to tip the grass with frost by morning, perhaps not.

Are you comfortable now? Are you warm?

See outside – the street lights, cheerfully blinking? Can you picture how dark it would be if there were no lights – if there was no street?

Let’s take them away, then.

Now your central heating – let’s take that, too! Instead, you’re huddled by an open fire, but wait – the fire is in a clay hearth marked out by a circle of stones. The wood you burn is green. It spits and crackles. Can you picture that? Can you feel it?

There are no windows anymore! No double glazed transparency, no glass at all, no view of the outside dark: that is lost. Your ceiling, lost; your roof, too. Instead there is a thatch of straw or reed so badly bound it leaks steadily if it rains. Birds and the small creatures of the night live there, insects may drop in your hair from time to time – but even worse is the hole at the highest point of that roof, where the smoke of your chimneyless fire escapes. It doesn’t work when the wind is high. A choking haze fills your room, soot clings to the bare stone walls. The rain runs down them – drip – drip – drip….around the fireYou must ration carefully: save your food. Your supplies are mean and flavorless. Dried meat, maybe some root vegetables, whatever you can gather from the forest edge in the short hours of daylight – there will be nothing else until spring.

So you’ve had enough? You want to get out of this? Go to your door, it is a few nailed planks at best, at worst an animal skin that flaps like a whip in the cold wind. Outside it is so dark you can see nothing; not the fingers on your hand, nor the arm that supports them. You can only hear.

Yes, the night is full of sound. The trees of the forest reach to within a dozen yards of your room, and the wind howls through them like some soul demented. It is so easy to hallucinate when you are starved of proper food. What do you think you see, out there in the blackness? Stealthy shadows, unearthly figures? Dare you walk outside? The woods are full of wolves and bears – dare you walk outside?

Beneath your floor your ancestors lie curled as they were in the womb, long dead: bad men swing from gibbets atop every hill, the predators of the woods are hungry, and you do not have the superiority over them you once assumed was your due. On a night like this they will come close, very close. If they sense your weakness – if you are ill or old, they will not wait to be invited in. And still the wind blows, and the storm cracks: and when lightning cleaves the sky it terrifies because it is a thing too great for your understanding. No-one has heard of electricity yet.

So easy to envisage in your frightened mind witches flying in that night: so possible to imagine the touch of ghosts upon your flesh, the cries of your dead in the agony that waits them at the gates. So pardonable you should cower before the forces of the cruel season and call for those very ghosts, or to a god – to save you.

The envelope of time which embraces this world of the past and our cozy modern homes need be scarcely larger than two millennia; a mere speck of gravel on evolution’s road. Small wonder, then, that we have not really shed the cloak of superstition that wraps a winter’s night, when Loki’s laughter whistles through the rafters, when the flash of Wayland’s sword splits the sky – when the thunder of Thor’s hammer is heard to crash and echo in the hills. Though our minds have accepted the sophistications of the years, our instincts have not. It is easy still to recall that naked terror of winter and the long nights – just walk outside, just linger in the darker pools between the streetlights, listen – and imagine.

Odin’s cart is creaking along the ridge of that hill, gathering the bodies from the gibbets. The wild riders, Horsemen of the Apocalypse are galloping towards you on that wind, the snuffling whisper behind those trees might just be dogs, or wolves, or bear…..

Sleep well!

Now and then some small stimulus – a word, a question, something seen in passing – will set up a train of thought which doesn’t go away.  Though you might try to ignore it, put it back into that great filing system of grey stuff you’ve got crammed in your dome, it will keep coming back.

I wrote this in response to a Twitter question ‘have you ever had a supernatural experience?”

‘No chills, no horrors, just a presence – in one case, a girl in Edwardian dress, maybe 11 or 12, standing in a doorway watching me’.
 
So yes, I have.  I’ve had three.
 
Now immediately you open this particular Pandora’s jar you get pigeonholed:  people who might otherwise have respected your intellectual integrity begin to smile at you indulgently and change the subject;  people you’ve never met before suddenly become fast friends and passionate fellow believers.
 
Let me say right from the start that I am neither passionate about the supernatural nor a fanatical believer.  I simply witnessed three things which had no logical explanation, and the only reason I am re-telling the stories is to expiate the profound impression they made upon me. 
 
The curious thing about these episodes is their intensity, their relentless detail.  Whenever I remember them, which is often, I see them again with the sharpness of the first experience.  Now I know that memory moves from recollection to recollection:  that when we recall something we actually recall our last recollection, not the thing itself – I know all that.  Which is why I might believe something else is at work here – some different form of imagery.
 
Our home at that time was called Cobblers Cottage and there was no reason to believe that a previous occupant had not served as cobbler to the small village community that surrounded the house. I was writing at my desk and it was late at night.  I was not tired but I was alone.  My family had gone to bed.  At some stage something – a movement, a sound, maybe – prompted me to look up, turn to my right and see the young girl who stood in the doorway.  A long dress, a plaid shawl, dark hair.  Not a very striking face, though I still recollect every detail of it now, and certainly not the face of one troubled or in pain.  She stood as if she was waiting for me to follow her from the room.
 
In our youth a rite of passage was the ‘night in the haunted house’.  Now we had one, a genuine old grange that stood on the site of what had once been a monastry, close to the town where we grew up.  In the company of four friends I stayed the night there on a hard floor in a sleeping bag.  It was abominably cold, but that had nothing to do with unearthly powers. 
 
Insomnia and the need to keep our circulation going led us to explore.  The place was being converted into flats so parts of it were already altered from the original.   We opened many doors: only one sticks in my memory.  Behind it, despite the darkness, I saw a room with a long refectory table down the centre and benches to either side.  The room was deserted, apart from one occupant:  an old man in grey monk’s habit sat at the head of the table, facing us as we looked in.  We all saw him.  (BTB, in later years I actually occupied one of those flats without any strange experiences).
 
Now that’s two of three, and this piece is already long enough to bore the pants off the most tolerant reader, so I’ll stop there.
 
Three episodes all with a common element.  They were brief images – things seen for no more than maybe five seconds – yet they have left me with an imprint of their presence I cannot erase.  They leave me unable to deny, cold atheist that I am, that there are things in heaven and earth, Horatio, undreamt in our philosophy (horrible paraphrasing – sorry!)
 
All comments welcome!