Wednesday, 25 August 2010
Grandmother did warn me I suppose. I was young and thought I knew better as so many of the young do. Now I sit and sigh and in the wards the nurses come and go, talking of old Mr di Angelo....
I used to play in the Wildwoods as a boy. The stream chuckled and gurgled through the trees and their living columns reached, as it seemed to me then, ever upwards. I would stroll through them imagining that I was Robin Hood or a hunter of something wild. The deer would vanish before I got to them, but I saw them once in an enclosed meadow, grouped together grazing gently. They looked up cautiously, but I stayed still just watching them, entranced by their beauty. Once or twice I heard a chuckle that was not the stream but never found the source of that merriment.
As I grew older in my boyhood I explored further into the wood and it was then that my grandmother warned me of the wall and the gateway.
"You'll know it my dear, there is a long wall of stone and a gateway. You can go through the gateway during the day or the night, but if you go through it at twilight - at dawn or dusk. Why then you are lost, for you will enter the faerie country and that is not a good place to be for anyone, especially a child. If you will wear a piece of iron or keep with you your penknife it will give you some protection. But if you eat or drink anything there, you will fade into their realm and never return to us," she said.
I thought she was telling me stories and when she implied that I was a child I was cross. For I was of an age when I could not wait to grow up. I regret that now, but it is too late for me. I was warned.
I had gone into the forest the next day with a rucksack filled with food from the pantry. A game pie, cheese sandwiches with cucumber a bottle of elderflower, bags of nuts and raisins and a large piece of cake. For I intended to find the wall and the gate and to dare the faeries. Such is the folly of youth. Such was my youthful folly.
It was mid-morning when I headed out and by the time I was high on the hill and crossing the meadow it was already past midday. I stopped and sat upon a fallen tree to eat a little. I had the sandwiches and some of the cake and being full, I continued on my way. The sunlight was dappled falling through the trees to the forest floor and I sang as I walked for it was so quiet but for the birdsong. I felt almost as if I were being watched. I crossed the stream and after a little while I felt sure I was being watched, but no matter how quickly I turned I saw nobody. Only the grey-green trunks of the trees that seemed to almost breathe in the stillness. When a squirrel sprang from one tree to another and sped upwards, I jumped and then laughed at my fears.
The afternoon wore on and a little after five o'clock I came out of the thickly growing trees and found myself on grass with trees growing more sparely and there ahead of me was the wall. I paused to look at it and catch my breath and marvel. I guessed that it had been built a long time ago. Grandmother had said that it was there when her mother was a girl. Beyond it I could only see the sky and a few trees, but it was still light enough to see. I felt nonetheless a vague uneasiness that my boyish bravado pushed aside. Still I put my hand in my pocket to close my fingers around the reassuring penknife there.
Then I straightened up and took a deep breath. I was no child to be frightened by old wives tales. Either side of the gateway I could see there grew two trees, oaks both of them. As I got closer to the gateway I could see that the grass my side of the wall stopped and beyond there was a pathway and a few trees. I stopped at the gateway and peered through.
The pathway went straight ahead and entered more trees through which in the distance I could just make out some kind of structure. I backed away from the gateway and sitting beneath one of the trees I had a brief supper of some of the game pie and the cake. As I sat and ate I heard a rumbling that seemed to grow louder between the trees. A coach and four came through the trees heading towards the gateway. The coach was fabulous and beautiful almost as if it were made of plants. The steeds however were large glossy black beetles that paid no attention to me at all, much to my relief. I had never seen beetles so big before. They and the coach seemed too big for the gateway. I was sure that they would get stuck within it, but as they passed me they all seemed to shrink and went through with room to spare.
Another rumbling announced another coach, this time pulled by foxes who also ignored me. But the occupant of the coach glanced out at me as she passed by. I caught a glimpse of a high collar, a pale face with a mossy green tint and dark deep eyes that seemed to pierce the gathering gloom of early evening. Then the coach was past and through the gateway. I pulled on my rucksack, felt for the penknife in my pocket and walked towards the gateway at six-thirty that evening of August 1863. I pulled my collar up against the evening chill and strode boldly through the gateway.
As I did so, I felt something shift deep within me and I noticed that the setting sun had suddenly shifted to a rising one. Again I felt that vague uneasiness and again I pushed it aside. I strode along the side of the pathway not wishing to be in the way of any other coaches or carriages. Three others passed me and headed towards the mysterious structure in the trees. One pulled by deer, one by large squirrels and the third by pheasants. The fourth, pulled by six fine stags drew up alongside me and the window was let down. A beautiful being with flaming red hair like the light of a dying sun, skin as pale as new milk and eyes as green as leaves with the sun shining through them leaned out of the window and smiled at me. There was if I am honest, something of the predator in that smile and something of whimsical amusement. Like a cat toying with a mouse it has caught. Yet, in my youthful amazement at her beauty I saw only that smile as one of kindness. It most certainly was not.
"My dear, so far from home? And whither will you go?" she asked me.
Somehow I knew than to be casual with her, call it my survival instinct.
"I am heading for the building in the trees my Lady," I answered her.
She opened the door to the carriage and moved back into it, inviting me in. Her beauty and the dazzling gorgeousness of her dress and the coronet she wore struck me as I gratefully accepted her offer. Still, the first words that sprang to mind as I got in beside her were - ''will you walk into my parlour?' said the spider to the fly'. I dismissed them and sat trying not to gaze into her eyes. I was well I did not for as green as they were, they were also deep like pools and I would have been lost in them very quickly. She leaned back and took a deep breath and grimaced quickly, like a ripple passing over a pond. She seemed disturbed by something, I know not what, but said nothing to that effect. Instead the stags dashed onwards and the carriage entered the trees passing through them at speed until we arrived at the building.
It was a grand structure like an Elizabethan mansion house yet somehow not quite the same. The wooden beams were covered in ivy and from between them it seemed to me, a multitude of creepy crawlies seemed to dart and move over the surface of the building. It seemed to be there and yet not quite there. Substantial and yet without any weight or structure at all. I followed the Lady inside and felt instantly out of place. Within the hall were similarly elegant beings to the Lady, dressed in the most beautifully delicate clothes that seemed somehow familiar but just beyond the reach of memory. Many of the ladies dresses seemed to change as I watched them from one thing to another. A collar would shrink and the cloth would change colour and texture. All about me was constant movement and restlessness. As I passed a group of people, a woman fainted and a man coughed as if he were choking on something. I wondered if they were making a point about me being there. But my Lady led me through by the hand. The feel of her fingers was cool and almost like holding a bunch of twigs in my hand. Her skin felt dry and papery, not soft like my mothers. It was not the feel of work-hardened hands that still has some softness in them, but something without blood or flesh.
Then music began and the large chambers fell silent. The music wound itself like the ivy about the house, like smoke spiralling upwards into the cool mists of an autumn morning. I knew that this was not my world, but somehow it seemed strangely more beautiful and sickly at the same time. I felt lulled by the music, almost drowsy, yet at the same time already dreaming. The Lady began to dance with another gentleman, a slow genteel dance. Her face did not change and by the light of the large chandeliers her face at first seemed ghostly, her eyes like deep holes in snow. Almost like a death mask. Her high lacy collar seemed to close about her elegant throat and flare at her jaw and chin until it resembled nothing so much as a head on a platter.
"Will you take a little wine and some food?" an gentleman asked me.
His face was the grey-green of the trees I had walked among and his smile was bloodless. Again I had the sense of a predator sizing me up for food and yet he seemed kindness itself. I declined, for after my supper earlier I was sated, but I declined politely. I felt a growing sense now of danger without quite knowing why. Then my hand was taken and I was pulled easily into the dance. The music, once wistful and winding was now sprightly and joyous. I danced, oh how I danced!
Every step felt light and fiery at the same time. My heart thrilled in every beat to the music that wrapped itself about my very bones and soul. The violin and the flute, the harpsichord and drum, all conspired to sing of wondrous things. Of summer mornings with the dew-silvered grass and the crow calling across the fields. Of the high, wide blue of spring mornings and laziness of drowsy summer days. Of blackberries bursting with sweetness in late summer and autumn. Of the deep comforting drifts of snow and the trees whispering in a breeze. All the living breathing fields, woods and lakes was in that music and in the dance. The fish in the streams, the bats in the dusk, the fox cubs playing and the badgers snuffling for food; the otters joy in the water; the crows lazy glide and the gulls flight over the wild sea. I danced to it all and for it all and found it there in the music around me.
When I paused briefly, a cup was pushed into my hand but somehow I could not drink and put it down. A plate was pushed into my hand then and various foods placed upon it.
"Eat up, drink deep and we'll dance some more!" someone said into my ear.
Yet I could not eat or drink somehow. Something inside of me recoiled from it. The music was still inside of my head and then I heard it amidst the music - a long moan of despair. Only then did I shake my head and feel the cloying cobwebs in my brain as if I had fallen into a deep sleep. Suddenly all the elegance and finery about me seemed dangerous and cruel and sickly. I fought to keep from being sick then. Instead I strode from the hall calmly and with my dignity. Fingers reached out and plucked at my coat but I gently disentangled myself. Hands fixed themselves about my arms and voices bid me come and dance, but I needed fresh air and pleaded so.
When I was free of the building I ran. Tears then started out of my eyes and stained my face in my terror. I fled along the pathway to the gateway and almost threw myself through it. There on the quiet darkness of the night I collapsed as if dazed. When I awoke in the dark, the faint light of morning appearing, I struggled painfully to my feet and staggered homewards.
My old home was occupied by new people in strange clothing, who yet took pity on me. They were shocked to hear my name and asked me many questions that I could barely answer to their satisfaction. All I could think of was how my grandmother had warned me.
So I sit here now in this large home for old people, smelling of age and death and slow decay and remember only that distant dusk when I came upon the gateway. Sometimes, on a summer night in my room at dusk I hear music and tears come to my eyes. Nobody else seems to hear it, but it tugs at me so much. So this early morning when it is not quite dawn, I have returned to the wall and the gateway. This time I shall cross into their realm and never return, for there is nothing for me here now. All that I once knew is gone.