Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Castle of Coloured Rooms.

“The tenacious wall which at this moment, and at all moments, casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself, aside from the conjectures it allows.”

The Wall and the Books, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by J.E.I.

“This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.”

The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allen Poe.

“When the worlds began, the Secret of the gods lay written clear over the whole earth, but the feet of many prophets have trampled it out. Your prophets are all true men, but I go into the desert to find a truth truer than your prophets.”

The Secret of the Gods, by Lord Dunstany.

Chapter 1.

My journey has brought me to a City of immense, abandoned ziggurats, whose gleaming flanks are now hanging gardens of verdant and riotous foliage, and through whose canyons, shifted in the black sibilant sea winds, go billows of sand over the old roads and signs. Many of the settlers are mesmerised by the voice of the black sea winds, and would gladly be buried under the sand, for the wind has told them of the pitiless hunger of the ocean.

This City is the strangest place. It is like that fabled ship I have read of, whose entire crew vanished, leaving their very suppers in the midst of mastication. The architects of the City have not vanished, however, but rather dwindled in number, and revoked all industry, all effort, and all motion superfluous to the bare maintenance of life. They are in the throes of passing away, and thus we have christened them the Dying Ones. There is some irony in this, for though they are certainly dying, this must be understood relative to the incalculable longevity of their own lifespan. They have been in this condition for centuries, and many generations of our time may yet pass before the last of them expires. I suspect that they are in some advanced stage of senility, some atrophy of vast and immeasurably ancient powers which is like to the dotage of gods. Their lethargy and quiescence is unshakable, and they lie before their screens like moths that have found a snug resting place, and remain stubbornly insensible of all that might rouse them. We who have fled the Estates are left to do as we please, and plunder the City’s provisions and artefacts as befits our whims and appetites. Under this most peculiar tutelage, our ragged and disparate community has gone the way of madness, and I am reminded constantly of such animals and wild flowers as might caper and blossom about the sober serenity of a mausoleum.

My journey has brought me to a square with a dry fountain at its centre, where I am subject at times to memories which cannot be my own. I recall the square in the full bloom and bustle of life, when leisurely travellers thronged the tables, drinking slowly in the heat of the afternoon, discussing a world of turmoil and hardship which had grown abstract and distant from them. They looked up at the magnificent old buildings, at lithe silhouettes flitting across the light of their gleaming high windows. The people of the street went about the tables in various guises, soliciting what generosity they could inspire or coerce. There were those beggars who possessed the dignity of affability, and those whose naked and desperate covetousness was beyond pity. There were many gypsies, some playing earthy, unfettered waltzes on guitars and accordions, others thieving with the swift precision of birds of prey, and others still flying into incandescent rages, and bestowing curses upon the air with precise motion of their fingers. Clowns gambolled and capered, and mimes avowed by gesture the presence of a variety of objects and situations invisible to the senses of ordinary men. The greatest of them seemed to avow the existence of an entire world, silent, invisible, and in some fashion congruent with our own. Perhaps it is this world which I inhabit now, or perhaps these things, after all, are only of my imagination; yet I swear I have felt, for the briefest instants, the sensation of how it was to live in times so altered from my own, that they are as like to other worlds entirely. But here, also, as the sand gathers in growing heaps, I must sift through those memories which I knew with certainty to be my own: those memories of my boyhood in the Estate, and my tumultuous passage through the Castle of Coloured Rooms, where even now the youthful players are taking their lots for the commencement of the Flogging Game, and the Elder Players in the White Room sit entranced in their long, slow stratagems. The Master watches intently over all of them, as he did in my time, without a glimmer of life in his profound and fuliginous eyes.

My endeavours here in the square are surely monuments of futility, and yet I am content, as it is said those sages were, who sat unmoving for a generation beneath the slender beams of tall trees. Whatever foods I require are brought me by the runaway who has fashioned himself the Scavenger, and daily wheels his trolley through the City, gathering provisions and curiosities from her abundant storerooms. From time to time, I am visited by one or other of the Masters, and we pass our time in conversation, or playing the game of strategy wherein icons identical in appearance, though differing in hue, struggle for the dominance of a chequered board. The Masters, I have learned, possess a strange mechanical sorrow, and take their only inordinate pleasure in games. Thus I am reconciled with my erstwhile oppressor, my enemy, it seemed, through whole ages of history. I am reminded of the old fable, wherein two warring deities end their age-old enmity at the Twilight of the World, so that they might die peacefully and begin it all again, for it is said that all things are kindled in their enmity.

It will not begin again for us. The sand will gather first, until those prodigious ziggurats are as squat cottages rising from its rippled floors. The architects of the City, who have been dying for centuries now, will surely draw their last breaths; then the ocean will draw immense toppling walls over the City, and if we are not forgotten entirely, we will live on only as myths that rational men will eschew.

Yet, as I have said, I am possessed of a strange serenity. Food is plentiful here, as the nobles I knew in my youth could scarcely have imagined. The City is of an extraordinary antiquity, and all its history, and the histories of the entire world, dance before my eyes, just as those youths in my alien memories, and I have but to summon them. There is also my own past, which I am committed to re-experience in this memoir, since those days will never come again, nor I ever return to the Estate. I have a heard a fable of a man who lived in the blistering heat of a desert city, and lead an existence of manifold suffering and misfortune. When he was a boy, he was bitten on the arm by a mountebank’s rabid jackal, and this attack left him with an eradicable scar. This scar, by some saturnine coincidence, resembled exactly the mark given as a brand to transgressors by the city’s hierarchs and magistrates. Now, it was known by all in the city that this man had received the mark only by unlikely misadventure, and had committed no sin, and yet the people were superstitious, and regarded even the jaws of rabid beasts as instruments of some higher order. Could they even transcend such fancies, the mark was nevertheless of such an instinctive repugnance to them, that they could not but shun the man, and regard him with a kind of unintentional aversion.

So he grew, a lonely and despised individual, and though his mind was prodigious, no fortune ever came to him in affairs of business, so he lived sporadically upon a variety of unrewarding activities, and sometimes even the alms of those merchants and hierarchs who wound their way through the city’s narrow, coiling, labyrinthine streets. His spirit, the fable tells us, was noble and proud as that of any prince, but life feed it no fitting matter, so that it inevitably grew cankerous with gall and envy. He took to drinking the secret wines sold by apothecaries, which had had livid, gnarled roots twining about the base of their bottles, and were said to transport the drinker to places paradisiacal and nightmarish. Time passed slowly for the man, and he seemed always to wander this shifting, vertiginous desert city alone, forming strange conjectures in his mind. Over a period of years, these conjectures cohered to form an overarching vision or mythology of persecution, which, despite the persistent reproaches of his reason, he came to believe as a matter of course, in much the same fashion as others are apt to believe more or less commonsensical and demonstrable things. He believed that there was another world, wherein he had a different name and a life more palatable than this one, but, for reasons which would remain eternally obscure, he had been cast out of that world, and into an unreal place where all things were inimical and hostile to his desires. It was, he reasoned, as though those who laboured over the design of places of incarceration, and turned their ingenuity to the methods by which the guilty are punished, had reached the very apogee of their art, and created a whole dizzying, teeming world which was in reality but a cell to hold a single individual, and a great, fathomless lash with which to scourge him. And as he wandered about the city, composing these strange fancies, he often passed a remarkable door set in an anonymous, crumbling wall, something of whose design always struck his imagination as a prodigious and alluring thing, and yet, hope having long departed from his soul, he never attempted to open it.

Many, many years passed in this fashion, until the man, sitting alone in a square with a famished fountain at its centre, resolved to kill himself. No sooner had he set his heart to this course, than a strange thing happened: the whole world was suddenly starved of sound and motion, and everything assumed the pristine stasis of a painting. The silence, in its uncanny abruptness, was like the rush of an ocean. Three peculiar figures approached him. These three were preternaturally tall, with faces identical and statue-like, as though culled from a common mould. He noted that they appeared to have no hair whatsoever. They spoke in an inharmonious and grating unity, and told him that everything he had intuited all along was the truth: he had committed a crime, and for this he had been cleaved from his natural life, and relocated to this unreal place, so to suffer untold agonies until a certain term had passed. This term being now expired, they were to take him back to his old life, and his true identity. The man, whose name in the desert city had been Jobim, wept abundantly, not because he was finally to be delivered from the great sorrows which had beset him, but rather from a heart-rending relief that he had not deluded himself through all those long years.

They set off, and Jobim saw for the last time the desert city, with its sloping, serpentine streets and alleys, and its towering mosaics of balconied apartments, over whose rails hung worn blankets and airy-hued garments to dry in the sun. There was no motion whatsoever in the city, and everywhere about the streets people were frozen like statues, as though time had stopped, with a kind of capricious insouciance, in the midst of a bustling afternoon like any other. Jobim saw many beautiful women he had once desired, and many men he had once longed to murder, denuded of all vitality and life in this fashion. He felt a strange, floating sensation, as one does upon the sudden acquisition of knowledge. He asked his guides what sin he had committed, and they responded that it would be unwise, and entirely without avail, to inquire into this matter. Finally, they came upon the door whose peculiar enticement Jobim had passed so many times, and went through it.

The door lead back to Jobim’s old life. He did know whether he would have gotten back had he tried it before, or whether it had lead nowhere until such time as the term of his incarceration was complete. Perhaps it was a feature of his prison’s architecture that he could always see the door, but never by his own volition open it, until such time as the three strangers came to usher him back. He returned to his old life, as all men do, by means of waking up, and as all men recollect the entirety of their memory upon waking, so Jobim knew he was really Alain, who had grown up and lived still in a temperate coastal city. His first impression was of the whiteness of the sky, and the chill in the air. He had been gone from his life for ten years, and in that time he had prospered greatly. He was by trade a mason, and while Jobim languished in the sweltering heat of the desert, Alain had rose to a chief foreman on the construction of a great wall about the circumference of the city. Like many other ambitious masons, he had made a considerable fortune in the years it took to raise the wall. He had married the daughter of a wine merchant, a tall, slim, elegant woman of fashion, and they had two sons.

The story might have ended there, where it not for a strange thing that happened to this Alain. It happened quite gradually, beginning with vivid dreams of the desert city, of its impossible geometry and architecture, its serpentine streets, and the dizzying maze of balconies stretching upwards, where row upon row of clothing flapped in a dry wind. He dreamt of the azure sky, and the pitiless sun. When he awoke, Alain knew that these dreams were not nightmares, as he might have expected, but rather assumed the character of nostalgic reveries. He thought of the women of the desert city, whose skin was a smooth, gleaming bronze, whose bodies were lithe and sinewy like tensed ropes, and whose eyes were like black suns. He thought of the exquisite and unendurable delirium of the apothecary’s wine, of how it had shown him prodigies of beauty and horror. Increasingly, the real world, wherein he had prospered, became unreal and opaque; he longed for his old prison, and for the fathomless lash which had raked his soul with the precision of an artist. It is said that he grew distant, and spent his last years searching his memory and imagination for the particular sin which might set him back to his old cell.

It may be that I am like the man in the fable, longing for my freedom when I am imprisoned, and for the familiar walls of confinement when I am free. It may be, simply, that there is much time to pass, and I am fond of telling such fables. However it may be, I must go back to my beginnings. I recall that the Elder Players in the White Room were apt to pass the long, slow days of their dotage whispering child-words and snatches of old nursery rhymes; perhaps it is this impulse, and nothing more, which has animated the worlds through which I have passed.

Where to begin is the most difficult question of all. When we search our memories, we find that that there was never any precise beginning, rather some point or another were we had already begun, and there was already much behind us. They say that the first people, who emerged fully formed from the mind of the Divine, knew the precise moment of their creation, and thus what it was to be nothing one moment, and to exist and be fully conscious the next. This mystery filled them with terror, until some time had elapsed, and then they found a certain beauty to it, and this beauty was the basis of the first temples. However, for the rest of us, there can be no such precision regarding our origins. We can only recall a time at which we recalled more time, as I have said, and in this sense memory is unbounded. To try and tell of the story of a life is like to consulting a dictionary, where we are lead from one word to another, and another after that. In this fashion, each memory begets more memories, until it would seem that a man would need a whole supplementary lifetime, merely to properly organise his notes of the first one. I have read the story of a middle-aged patrician who wandered through a garden, and therein smelt the fragrance of a certain flower which had grown profusely in the playing fields of his childhood. The fragrance of that blossom immediately triggered an oceanic flood of memory, and the man, moved by a kind of awe at the immense scope and brilliance of his mind’s retentive capacity, resolved to write down all of his memories. His great enterprise was doomed from the beginning, however, for his epiphany in the garden had so awakened his sense of the multifaceted complexity of experience, that he found himself lost in great digressive streams, and died before he had even completed his description of the flower’s fragrance.

To avoid such a fate as that, I will begin with a memory which, though probably not my first, is possessed of a sufficient intensity to deny all trace of opacity or embellishment. It is the memory of the day my mother brought me to the Garden of Antiquity, and the first time I laid eyes upon the Master. I should first say that I did know at that time what function the Garden served, nor what prompted my mother to go there that day. As to the Garden’s function, I will tell you now that it was the place where we laid our dead to rest. Among the many studies I have undertaken here in the City of the Dying Ones, I have found a particular fascination in the endless variety of custom pertaining to the dead. I have discovered evidences of a profound significance attached to the proper observance of funereal custom in literature of immeasurably antiquity, and it seems that this significance has remained undimmed through the ages, though the conception of death itself be utterly altered. The most common form has been burial in the shallow depths of the earth, in a wooden casket akin to that as might house wine, or some other goods, for transportation. The purpose of the casket I take to provide some modest comfort to the remains, though one might imagine them to be more or less unperturbed by such things, at that stage of life’s journey. Others, recoiling from the notion of the body’s putrescence, have chosen to have their remainders roasted in a pyre, till they be like the wistful contents of a chilly hearth. The remaining ashes were then gathered in an urn, so as to be ornamentally displayed among other bric-a-brac in the domicile of the deceased. It is comical to imagine one of our ancestors indicating their departed kin fellow by name, with a gesture to the space on the mantel between some sporting trophy and a cheap statuette of a crowing cock, to a little pot as might just as easily mount a sunflower, or a prickly and ageless cactus. Alas, it is perhaps wrong to laugh; we have always had difficulty locating ourselves, whether it be in some tangible body or elsewhere, whilst still living, and these difficulties are only compounded by death.

Still, there have been other customs. Certain kings of a distant antiquity were laid in pompous and magnificent mausoleums, after such a time as native arts had rendered their flesh almost imperishable, and all the spoils of their crown had been laid about them. I do not know if these measures lighted their passage to the next world, but the architecture of their tombs held a kind of immortality in the imagination of those who drank from the muddling elixir of antiquated mystery and forgotten lore. I have read of sea-faring peoples who placed their dead upon a ceremonial raft, and set them off to crest the foaming swells of the ocean, as oft they had in the living days. In the east, there was a spiritual people who burned their dead, and set their ashes flowing in the tide of the same holy river whose waters had anointed them as infants. So the countless dead have gone, to some or other of the elements, to earth, fire, or water; for myself, I can think of no better resting place than the sea, for all of us who grew up in the Estate dreamt of the ocean, with such ardour as only holy-men have dreamt of the ambrosial heavens.

Thus it is that everywhere, and in all times, people have held devoutly to certain types of funereal custom, and afforded the dead a dignity more universal and less conditional than the living. Where I grew up, cremation was an intractable necessity, since the space available to us for any kind of storage was sorely limited. The Garden of Antiquity was divided into a series of smaller gardens, and each of these sub-gardens bore the name and ownership of a family. After the cremation, the Master would take the ashes, and mix them with a special kind of herb in a ceremony preformed within the Castle of Coloured Rooms. This mixture was then scattered in the family’s garden, and thus each of those little plots, though they were scarcely bigger than our own cottages in Eliagard, contained many generations of the name which adorned the entrance. This always struck me as a prodigiously strange thing, when I discovered it; and yet, man is small thing, I suppose, when he has been roasted in the pyre, and only a fool would count grains of sand, though they be clutched in a child’s fist. Of the herb which been mixed with the remains, nobody knew what it was, nor had ever found it growing in any of the fields of the Estate, but it was said to help the ash mix with the earth, and of this admixture grew a very strange plant which the Master called the anima. The anima bore a fruit in springtime, which was like a large, swollen, luscious apple, but of a far more lustrous and glossy red than any apple I had ever seen. It was forbidden that any but the Master himself partake of this fruit.

I must have been about six or seven when I was brought to Garden. I suppose my brother was with my father in the fields, and my sister about her duties in Samersol. I see my mother wearing a grey smock, and a brown bonnet perched loosely over her long fair locks. I do not know if she actually wore those clothes that day, but she wore them frequently, and that is how I remember her. It was springtime, but the day I recall as chill and dreary. The sky was murky and white, the grass moist and silvery with dew, and a heavy mist purled about the river path. We were going by Samersol, and through the mist I could see great country houses and the fog-muted colours of glass ornaments and silver wind-chimes that hung in the trees. I knew that my sister was in one of those houses, but I did not know what she did there. I imagined that she sat by a great, blazing fire, reading stories from a book while a boy her age gazed at her, and mouthed the words of the story as she read. Perhaps she told me this, or perhaps I merely imagined it. I imagined all kinds of things about the houses in Samersol: that the people who lived there were like beautiful statues, or moving paintings, and everyday they did the same things, without ever aging or growing bored. I think that I actually believed this, and often pictured them in this strange, trancelike existence, their faces slowly forming expressions of surprise at things which had been said innumerable times before.

It is perplexing to go back to those times in my mind. Trying to recall how one experienced the world as a child is like trying to understand the mind of a stranger, for the thought of a child is a different thing to that of an adult, though they be the same person, or at least answer to the same name. An adult differentiates between things, and inquires after their origin. A child does this too, I’m sure, but not quite to the same degree. Perhaps it is that the child has only begun to ask those questions whose answers, accumulating slowly down the years, will ultimately cohere to form the densely organised and differentiated world they will experience as adults. However it may be, the world of a child is a different place, and it strikes me now that this world is closely akin to the ineffable unity of being sought throughout the ages by artists and mystics. Of my childhood, the keenest sensation I recall is that of places and things possessing a kind of untroubled inexplicability; a living, spiritual essence which pervaded all things, and expressed itself in some fashion unconnected with logic or even words.

It was through this world I went with my mother that day, and yet I felt I was going beyond it, for we had gone further than I had ever been from our home in Eliagard. We departed from the river path, leaving Samersol behind us, and began to climb a very steep hill. Though I did not know it then, we were climbing what was called simply the Hill, or the High Vantage, since it was the only elevated land in the Estate; the first dwellers had gathered there many cycles ago, and watched the Great Catastrophe turn the sky red. When we had reached the apex of the Hill, I saw for the first time the Estate laid out before me. I saw great fields in the south where animals grazed, and tiny, silent shapes of men drew plough ridges dark over the brownish soil. In the east, past those parts of the Estate to which I was hitherto accustomed, I saw such a prodigy as I will never forget: the Master’s Castle of Coloured Rooms. Many times in the course of this narrative, I will have recourse to describe the Castle, and each time I will fail to adequately convey its riddling majesty, for its architecture was the product of sciences beyond all our humble reckoning. It was as old as the Estate itself, and five times larger than our greatest village. It rose eight stories high, and its many turrets rose even higher, with candles burning in their narrow stained-glass windows. The roof of the Castle was a world all of its own, with outlying pathways going from turret to turret, and branching off chaotically within to circumscribe a maze of roof-gardens, miniature labyrinths, observatories, open yards where rusted astrological curiosities were gathered like baroque shrubbery, as well as countless other puzzling amenities, including a large tiled floor which resembled the chequered board of such a game which might have had men as its playing pieces, and careful arrangements of mirrors which became like blazing fires in the height of summer. I saw many tiny figures traverse the roof of the Castle that morning, and to my childish mind it seemed as though their motion was eternal and repetitive, as though each sought a particular place, but in going there passed through some turret or gate which rendered them seamlessly back to the point from which they had started, and so befuddled their memory that they went once again with undimmed determination to that same place.

As I saw all these things, I became aware for the first time of the great wall which circumscribed the whole of the Estate, and the immense evergreen forest which towered above it, and swathed the horizon as far any eye could see. Of course, I had observed parts of the wall many times before, and yet I think it was only at that moment, when I stood upon the Vantage, that I realized that this wall surrounded us, and represented the ineluctable limit to where we might go in the world. All this I experienced in an instant, this sense that the world was simultaneously much greater, yet more profoundly meagre, than I had previously conceived. I felt a dread of becoming like the guards upon the wall, and the squat shapes who went about the roof of the Castle, embroiled in their endless, unchanging assignments. I recall distinctly that I thought those things, but, being a child, forgot them just as quickly, and turned my attention to where we going. Beneath us, the path wound between the Little Wood and the Garden of Antiquity. Let me describe the Garden as it appears from the Hill. The shape of the Garden is oval, and it is enclosed in a stone wall of medium height, upon which a circular mural is painted. When I stood upon the Hill, the mural appeared a mere profusion of colours, of the bright, gaudy kind which are apt to appeal to children; indeed, my first impression was that the place must be some kind of playground. This impression, however, was quickly dispelled, for about the oval of the Garden stood three towering and ominous statues, and within the wall there was a dark canopy of unfamiliar and vaguely disquieting foliage.

The decoration of the wall, as I would discover upon many later inspections, was a very complex interwoven pattern, depicting the cycle of life in terms vegetative, human, and cosmic. At the foot of the wall, a layer of motifs depicted the seasonal life of crops and animals; this was overlaid with the life-cycle of human beings, from conception to death; the life of humans was overlaid with a rendering of the four Cosmological Ages, said both to pre-empt the history of the cosmos, and form a model of its overarching trajectory; finally, at the very top of the wall, each of these graduations was marked by a colour, following the sequence of yellow, red, black, and white. There is a suite of Rooms in the Master’s Castle, in which the children of the Estate are educated by the clergy, and young men play the Game of which I will vouchsafe more information by and by; these rooms are named after the colour which predominates in each, and they also follow this distinct and most puzzling sequence: yellow, red, black, and white. I do not know the precise meaning or purpose of this, though my long journey has denuded countless other mysteries and symbols, and robbed them of all opacity and majesty. The Master has asked me if this is not the object of all movement through time, or, if not its object, then its inevitable consequence. I do not know this either.

Towering statues stood about the oval of the Garden, as I have said, and these statues were older than the wall itself, and older by many centuries than anything else in the Estate. They were fashioned as objects of idolatry during the Heroic Ages, when men excelled in physical prowess, but had lost all knowledge of true divinity. It was said in our catechism that it took but three gods to engender the downfall of man. First, the Goddess of Pride and Concupiscence made men love themselves beyond all natural boundary; then the God of Rapacity and Gluttony made that excess of love long for ever more magnificent and hubristic monuments to itself; finally, a third god came, of a necessity imposed by the welcome extended to the previous two, and this was the God of War. It should be noted here that the design of many places in the Estate possessed a kind of subtle ingenuity of purpose, a didactic thrust embodied in the form and proportion of things. When I went among the clergy, they told me that allegory was a kind of sleight whereby an austere lesson might pass itself as an adventurous yarn, or a droll anecdote. Furthermore, the physical world was a kind of allegory which men walked through, and whose endless conceits they absorbed in a cumulative and mostly unconscious fashion. Others whispered to me that the Master had designed the Estate as a microcosm of the world, and wrought in its architecture as many puzzles and hidden resonances as were to found without. The positioning of the Garden between those aged monuments of long discarded idolatry was thus an invitation to mediate upon the immensity of time, a lesson in the capacity of time to strip the follies of the past bare, and finally, a warning of the inevitable consequence accrued by those who would entertain such follies as the pagan mind revelled in: a graveyard of the soul, and an eternal death of the spirit.

Those, at any rate, I take to be the lessons of the Garden’s geometry. However, as the child I was standing upon the Vantage, such conjectures were inconceivable, and I saw instead the God of War with all the visceral receptiveness of a child’s imagination. War had been sculpted as a two headed deity, a figure at mortal variance with itself. Its heads, simian in character and identical in appearance, glared at one another with an almost indescribable ferocity and violence. They looked, truly, as though they might escape their static stone canvass at any moment, and bite one another like ravenous hounds. The body, on the other hand, nude, muscular, and perfect in its symmetry, was a steady fulcrum of poised immobility and strength. It held in the right hand a towering spear, and in the left a shield, upon which was emblazoned an archer within a winged disc. I grew terrified, and turned back the way we had come. My mother, whom I remember as oddly distant and silent, clenched my hand roughly, and drew me slowly down the western slope of the Vantage.

A breeze rose up through the dry leaves of the Little Wood, a sound which seemed pregnant and prodigious in the stillness. Much later I would learn that the Wood housed an evil spirit, and that breeze, so quietly seductive, was his voice. Such, at any rate, was case avowed to children and the superstitious, for great conveniences were nightly made of the Wood’s secluded glades. None of this I knew as boy, and yet I felt the presence of spirits everywhere as we walked beneath the shadow of the statue, a barely perceptible horde which seemed to watch us, and whisper amongst itself as to the best means of our disposal. On the Garden wall, I saw a confusion of figures flowing into one another with the malleable ease of idle thoughts: lambs lay supine in fecund spring meadows, the bodies of males and females intertwined with an intensity of purpose, and flanks of winged divinities warred above them, in vast heavens which were as yet a void canvas upon which the universe would be wrought. We came at last to the gate, and went within.

The interior of the Garden is much like those green mazes which the nobles of long departed ages had erected upon their estates, so to pass the interminable hours of their leisure, and perhaps facilitate such intrigues as would beleaguer their bloodlines, and one day shatter the careless placidity of their days. The family gardens of which I have spoken were bordered by immaculately trimmed hedge walls, into which oval iron gates, with slender, coiling, vine-like limbs, had been wrought. It was these gates which bore the placard containing the familial name and crest, and the anima plants, nourished in their discarded generations, towered above the hedge walls, and cast sharp, disordered shadows over the path with their outstretched arms. We walked a little way along the path, and I gazed through the black iron tapestries of the gates, but all I saw within was a thick, greenish mist, in which the outline of the animas were barely perceptible. We came suddenly upon a lank and garrulous caretaker and his timid grandson. The caretaker had augmented his already considerable stature by means of a plaster-caked wooden footstool; thus elevated, he was busy trimming the topmost section of the hedge wall, applying himself to this task with the kind of rapt attentiveness a barber might bestow upon his most loyal and pernicious customer. The grandson, no less focused, caught the small trimmings as they fell at ponderous intervals, and deposited them in a wheel-barrow. The caretaker spoke to his grandson:

-He’s about today, lad, he’s about. I seen him and the child. Be careful when he’s about. Don’t look at him directly, unless he looks at you that way first. Don’t speak lad, unless he speaks to you, and then only say what’s necessary to answer his questions. But he won’t speak to you lad, he won’t hardly speak to me. He won’t hardly speak to the high nobles, and all the cant they put on him, all the high cant they put on him, and he just looks at them like he picked them out of his nose! Ha! Shush! They say he doesn’t speak to his bride, or the child neither. Some calls his bride the weeping widow! Shush! Some say he only talks to the hound, and even then, only to say a how-do every once in a blue moon! How-do, hound? Ha!

The caretaker’s head swivelled back along the path, and he registered our presence with a start. His grandson froze, with a sullen expression.

-Hello, mother, how do? Hello, boy. I’d welcome ye to the Garden, but she is open to all, and will welcome each of us, by and by. Ha. Some will be serfs, they say, some is for Samersol, and some for the court; so as the Game decrees. Some will join the hermits, and count the beans on a fig tree; some will play in the masques, and die anew each winter. But all for the Garden! It’s not such a grim thing, is it, mother?

My mother, who seemed quite nonplussed by the caretaker’s brisk and precipitate speech, nodded faintly.

-Aye, tis a fond place, like a baby’s cradle. People talk of life, as though it were it were the finest thing of all. But it’s not a thing at all, so far as I can see, for any thing I know has a back and a front, or a beginning and an end. A thing has a shape you could discern, either by the sight or the feel. None can discern a life or its use, like a workman discerns the tool in his hand, lest he knock the teeth from a child’s mouth, or fondle the head of a brick. None can discern a life or its use, like a workman discerns the tool in his hand, save for the Almighty alone, and mayhap the Master, if he has a mind at all. It’s always in the middle of some muddle, I find, except when you can lay your head on a pillow and sleep. The just and the wicked are the same for one half of their lives, the hermits say. Sometimes when I hear the soft sound of the breeze through the trees, I think that it’s all the departed souls, sleeping snugly like babes in the arm of the Lord. Other times, I think it’s just ordinary wind, no more sacred than would rip through the seat of my pants.

With that, the caretaker resumed his stool and his trimming, and his grandson readied himself once more at the wheelbarrow.

1 comment:

michael garrett said...

A very engaging short read that ended too abruptly for me, I was disposed to learn more.

Michael Garrett