Thursday, March 02, 2006

Goodnight - sweet dreams




  The shadows were lengthening, and the shapes of the gritstone outcrops grew grotesque, like portents of evil spreading malevolently across the moorland.  Looking down at his feet, a man would fear it would be too late to get a room in any inn down below.  The ground was dark and without anything to cheer the human spirit.  Looking up, the better to lift his soul from some murky depth, the same man who might, upon seeing the approaching darkness, have lately sunk in thought, would have seen that the sky still had some remnant of day in it.
  Had he looked behind him, he might have seen another figure silhouetted against the western sky.  The figure would plunge down into deep trenches and gullies that drained the dank moor, and then emerge into the twilight and the comparative glare of the setting sun.  On the level, the elongated shadows of the rock outcrops enveloped the figure, as the gullies had submerged it.  Only when the shadows and gullies were cleared could anything be seen.  The figure, without a face, was without identity.  It took on the look of a featureless shape in the half light, shuddering involuntarily, as if remembering something from childhood, some legend told by a flickering fire, of these moorlands and the rocks that punctuated the vast plateau of wilderness, heather, ling, water and peat bog.
  No one walked on the hill that night.  The silhouetted form drifted across the moor alone, as it did every night.
  Below, in the houses of the village, curtains were drawn to shut out the night.  Food was prepared and eaten, the board was cleared, and families settled down for the evening, unaware that high above, a forlorn figure roamed the hills.  
  In those days, before the piano took pride of place in the middle of the brightness of the family, folks sat and recited tales that had been passed from old to young, from old to young, down through the ages.

  Most of these were well known, often being learned off by heart, even by those who only listened, especially by those who only listened.  If there was any variation of the story, even the omission of a seemingly insignificant detail, the younger listeners would cry out in protest, and the person narrating would have to stop and conform.  The little audience would brook no alteration of any kind.  These stories had over the years taken on an almost sacrosanct reverence as to detail as much as to outcome.
  What came first and next and last came as no surprise.  The tale now being told had been told a thousand times over, and eager young faces waited for what they knew by heart would come.  But tonight, the teller was not himself, was not altogether well.  After each utterance, his face grew pale and wan, and his speech seemed to fail him a little, as though what was about to follow gave him pain to recount.
  He had reached that part of the story in which a young man and a young woman, secretly resolved to wed, against the wishes of either family, converged on a pre-arranged spot aloft on Black Hill.  The night was not yet come, and the shadows lengthened visibly as the young man, his face reddened by the exertion of climbing to the spot, searched the skyline for any sign that his love had reached there before him.
  Stopping, the better to scan the darkening horizon, he saw not one, but two figures on the crest.  The one approaching the outcrop atop Black Hill, seemed oblivious of the presence of the other.  The second figure gained on the first.  Below, the watcher, now in some distress, and at pains to warn his lover, shouted to her.  His cry was borne on the evening breeze, and came to the ears of the woman as the plaintive cry of the curlew.  Little it mattered to her that the brown bird cried thus, and she trod lightly to the rock.
  Reaching the spot a little breathless, she turned to the figure approaching her.  Her thoughts were of him she had arranged to meet, and seeing the figure approach, laughed out gaily and shouted to him to hurry to her.
  At this point in the narrative, the teller, an uncle of the family at his feet, erred in the telling.  The more normal deviations heard in previous tellings were of the kind, "his voice was like a plover to the ears of his lover," rather than like the call of a bird of a different hue entirely, or, "the man cried out to his lover as the second figure reached her,"  rather than beforehand.
  Tonight, the unexpected fault lay in the personal narration.  This normally took the third person, as; "he shouted..she turned..the figure approached."  Tonight, the avuncular teller turned this to the first person, of the perpendicular pronoun, thus; "I saw a second figure on the darkening horizon."  and "I shouted to warn my lover of his approach."  The children so regaled looked askance at one another.  They knew things were not as always, but the substance, the approach, the cry out, the sound of the curlew to the ear, all were as usual.  At length, the eldest of the girls placed her hand on her uncle's shoulder to pause him in his flow.
  "You mistake yourself for him, uncle", said she, smiling into his now stricken face.  Seeing no flicker of recognition of her words, nor even a faint acknowledgement that she had even spoken, the girl came closer to her uncle's knee.  
  "Dearest uncle," said she, "I have oftimes heard thee tell this story.  Why comes this change now?"  The other children hungrily clamped on her every word, and stared at the distressed person more usually known for his jollity than this moribund expression he now displayed.
  "'Twas I," said the formerly cheerful relater of the tale.  The eldest girl spoke again, "But this is an old tale, Uncle, told to us from our cradles."  The other children nodded assertively.
  "And we know all the particulars of the story too," again more nodding from the children.
  "We know that the other one on the hill was the girl's elder brother, come to persuade her finally not to go away to wed her beau."  The children were still nodding, as if they would nod off their heads to their eldest sister's right correction to the story.  The uncle still looked grim.
  "But this is not how it was," the children gawped disbelievingly at their mother's elder brother.
  "That other on the hill was my rival, a man of such wit and charm that the birds would cease their singing to hear him hold forth, it was said."
  "Then tell us what became of him, of the girl," she paused as the last words stuck in her throat, "of you."
  "I shall," he said, and the girl resumed her place with her siblings sitting at his feet.  The children were now in absolute awe, in total silence.  Their attention, sometimes varying in its intensity as the old tales unfolded, was now riveted with this new revelation that this was the very man, their uncle sitting before them, who had lived out these changes to this old story.  
He went on, but slower now, and with more feeling in his voice than had formerly been the case.
  "I saw the figure, knew who it was, and also knew that if I did not hurry he would spirit her away from me, aye, even though well she loved me and I her.
  I bound up the last hundred feet of the hill, and observed my rival at his work, my lover almost swooning at his words.  I dashed forward apace and turning, he held her out to me, even as she had just been won by his words to her.
  'You shall not have her,' he shouted, and with that, he flung her down and stood against me.
  We fought each other that night, so hard, that we neither of us took any notice of her we were contesting over.  Down there at our feet she lay, while we flayed and swept the air with our clenched fists.  When my opponent muttered, 'Enough, she is yours,' I let him be and attended to her the subject of our quarrel.
  At first, I thought she had faded into a slumber.  Her eyes were closed, but her face obviously in some expression of pain.  I felt her temples, to feel the blood coursing there.  When I felt nothing save her delicate skin and wisps of her hair, I cried out.  My rival, now wiping the blood from his face and wiping his eyes as a child does when it has had a scolding, turned towards us from whence my cry had come.  He understood at once my distress and dropped to his knees before her.  He too had loved her well, more, who can say, for each man loves in his own way and to his own strength of feeling.  I had accredited him with being a scoundrel, yet here was he showing in equal measure how much she had meant to him, whose very life had thus departed.  How or why she came to be this way, we knew not, but discovered a deep cut above her left ear, and the remains of her fall, a widening pool of gore, spreading from her, blackening the earth.
  This was the beginning of our selfishness, not the beginning of our life together that we had planned.  Our own desires, our own appetites, our own love, it is true, had robbed her of a life of happiness, of life itself.
  She was like the dead, lying forlorn, without breath in her body, and with a loss of blood so mighty that had she remained with us she would have slipped away before any transfusion from us could be undertaken.  Her face was pale, white even, but it was more beautiful than I had ever seen it.  She appeared radiant with health, positively rude with it, and yet she was stone cold.  Not a flicker of life remained, yet withal, as we gazed down at her, the bloom seemed to return to her cheeks.  It was truly as if she were sleeping.  Would I had been so and this were just a dream."  
  Here the younger of the children at their uncle's feet cried out as if in some pain, which indeed they were.  His narrative, and particularly the short pauses and silences amid the words he spoke, too spoke to the children, for they were full of meaning.  They struck the child's ear as a tear strikes the gaze.  It brings on its own image.  The uncle was quiet for a moment, little hearts stopped beating, breaths were held, until he continued.  Whence he took up the tale again there was always a short rush of breath as the children so absorbed drew breath.  Their eyes widened with every turn and phrase.  This tale they would remember to relate to their own children.
  "But twere no dream.  All that had come to pass was real, alas the day.  There she lay, and here we stood, like two tigers whose bellies are swollen from the kill but still find there is much left.  We stared at her whose life seemed not to have left her.  He hunched down again and held her light wrist to see if any quick were left.  I could tell from his face and his bearing as he stood up that there was none.  I had not need to ask.
  Without speaking, for our eyes did enough that night, where words could not, we scraped a shallow depression in the dank earth and lowered her into it.  Covering her lightly with the brown earth of the hillside, and taking care to disperse the blackened, bloodstained mulch from the immediate spot, we offered each a small prayer to our maker.  Mayhap my rival, the other asked for this not to be discovered, I know not.  For myself, I can only say that I asked for mercy from Him who sees all, and for peace for her below our feet.
  We left that place together, silently, reverently, and not without remorse, for my part.  For him I cannot say, though to look at him it seemed the same for he.  Some yards below the crest we departed, swearing never to speak of this to anyone.  Tonight, I have broken that promise."
  Another cry and intake of breath from those listening.  Looks at one another, fear of what would come next.  The comfort of the expected was absent, and in its place trepidation, the fear of the unknown.  Tonight there would be little sleep for those most impressionable among them.
  "For long years have I held my tongue, until this night."  A voice came from those below.
  "But why come you to tell us now, Uncle?" said one, not the eldest.
  "For the reason," he paused to think, for this was not part of his intended narrative.  That he knew by heart, though he had never uttered a syllable of it till this night, "that some.." again a pause, "development comes to this place, where I was wont to think all had been settled.
  The night after, I returned to that place under the sky, where only the stars and Him look down upon us.  I longed to see her face just once again, so much I loved her.  I knew the spot.  Who could have forgotten it who had been so involved in her undoing.  The slight mound seemed flatter somehow.  I scraped away some earth and a few of the stones we had scattered to make it look not like a new scraping of earth.
  She was not there!"  A loud cry from the faces thrust up at his.
  "I looked again, scraping and feeling for her, but she had vanished into rarefied air and wind.  I returned whence I came, I know not how, for my thoughts raced this way and that.  Who could have done this?  
My mind flashed to him who had but been there with me a night before.  To his door I traced a path, and not without a little urgency.  Opening the door after my hard knock, he looked me dead to see my face.
  'Hast ought to tell me of her that lies not above?' I cried at him.  His look was enough, but he spoke.
  'What means this, that lies not above?'
  'What I say,' I said.  She lies not in the place we left her.'
He rubbed his chin.  His eyes looked to right and left that we had not been overheard by neighbours.
  'But why have you gone there again?' he asked me.  For reply I could only shake my head, for that I could never explain to one who had loved her also.
  'What say you,' I said.  He had nought to reply, only he fell back into his own vestibule, out of fear or numb shock, I know not, perhaps it was both that caused him to buckle so.  I pushed him inside, and shut the door behind me.  He sat in a chair, his eyes wild, his face at once white, blanched with if not fear then its close neighbour.
  Regaining somewhat his colour and his composure, he spoke up.
  'Come,' he said getting up, 'Let us go there together to make doubly certain.'  I nodded my assent and we left the house.
  Stopping not for want of breath, nor word to each, we reached that place quicker than we might have ever done at a more normal time.  The moon was full that night, and I looked quickly to her place in that cold grave we had scooped.  To my astonishment, it looked fuller that it had done only an hour or so before.  He hunched as he had before, scraping till he came to her face.  Looking up to me for answer, he bade me look at her whose place I had searched for but a short time ago.  There she was."
  The gasp from the youngsters was clearly audible, even to those in the next room, of whom that night there were none.
  "She was there, and appeared as if nothing had been to touch her sleep.
The stones I had removed to see her were nowhere to be seen.  It was as if I had never been there, as if I had never uncovered the earth to see her once more.  I stayed myself to see if it was in dream or in waking that this was happening.  It was no dream, and not for the first time, as I have said, I wished it were otherwise.  She was there.
  We left the hill, bolting down back to the lights of the village.  He rushed on, thinking, I have not doubt that I had troubled him, or had deceived him into false thinking of her place in her lonely grave. at any rate, he went his way back, and I went mine back to my own door.  Not that night, nor the next, nor indeed the next or the next after that would sleep come to me.  Whether it was for love of her I could not transport myself to sleep, I know not.  
Daytime came and found me in a waking trance, as if what I should have slept the night before had come to me in waking ours even as my eyes were wide open.
  I scavenged the world and everything in it for any word, though I said nought nor asked a question of any living soul.  I asked many to Him who knows all, but got nothing for answer, which is not to say He answered
me not, but only to say that if He did then it was not for a mere mortal to comprehend.
  Weeks I waited, never daring to go up there.  While my feet never strayed near her, my thoughts were never away from her.  But now, instead of thinking on our golden days together, the time we spent along river banks, watching as waterfowl darted to and fro with food for young, imagining our own children, and us tending to their needs as the bird flitting to the nest, instead of thinking on that, my thoughts were inclined to her in the grave, or not in the grave as I saw that night.
  Had we returned and found her still not there, an explanation would have been easier to come by.  There are men whose life's income is got by robbing such graves, even from consecrated ground, in which hers was not.  The fox, I have heard, will sometimes pull the body from a shallow grave, for such they were in ancient times, before custom and expedience bade us bury six feet below.  Yes, an explanation could be imagined.  Her own replacement in her grave was incomprehensible, impossible to explain, without recourse to some metaphysical theory of human substance.  That or the doubting of my sanity, of what I had seen with my own eyes.  The question I now put to myself was, 'Did I see the grave empty?' and 'Did my eyes deceive me?'  but to what purpose would I be tricked into thinking she was not there when in fact she was?  No, I resolved to keep to my course of explanation to myself; she was not there when I looked for her.  To think otherwise lay in the direction of insanity.  And in any case, since I could prove nothing, and since the only one without disinterest in the phenomena was he who had helped me bury her, my taciturnity was unchallenged; I need not say anything more, but to myself, ah."
  At this point, an interruption came from the young thronged at the narrator's feet.
  "But what about her family, Uncle?  Didn't they come to you to accuse you?" said one of the boys.  The other children nodded their approval of the question, as if the plausibility of the tale was in some doubt here.
  "You recall," he went on as he was bid, "that her family abhorred me, as Nature is said to treat a vacuum.  They would not hear my name in their house, nay, even in their proximity, I was told by her whom I loved so."
  Another pause, but filled this time, not by awed silence, but another question.
  "But when she did not return home that night, Uncle, was not thy name then mentioned as one who might know of her whereabouts?"
  "My name, it seemed, never came into the question.  She had been told never to speak or see me, and it was presumed by her family, that she never had, that from that day we had never trysted.  My name came not into the reckoning when she did not return."
  "Then whence did her family turn for illumination?" asked the eldest girl again, egged on by those who could not have framed the question thus.
  "The river was dragged along its bottom for several miles, and likewise the lodge from which the mill race turns its wheel.  That was partially emptied before men went down in the mud and the weeds to look for her."
  "Then said you nought, Uncle?" said the same who had just asked of him.
  "Nought, what could I say, that I had just buried her in a shallow grave on the hill above, that I and another suitor had quarreled even as she lay dying.  I could say nothing, and even if I wanted to tell, my numbed tongue, counseled by my brain would not allow it.  I had confined myself to silence, even at the expense of my partial memory of that night.  It is said that under extreme duress, the human mind will not allow thoughts that would damage, in the bringing to mind, to be even thought.  So it was with me.  It was as if I had experienced some unconsciousness on that night, and that now there was a gap in my knowledge of how things came to be.  No, I could not and did not speak.  It was as if I had never been there."
  "Then what conclusion did her family reach, Uncle?" was the next question.
The Uncle, expecting the question, rubbed his chin as if that would produce the answer.
  "Why that she had run off with the other, for he removed himself from the village for his own reasons.  Those reasons were perceived to be the same, and so the family presumed she had eloped with him who had rivaled me for her hand."
  "And still you said nought?"
  "I said nought.  I was not party to their inclinations nor their findings not reasoning.  I left well alone.  I only ask this; Could I have brought comfort by telling them the truth about their daughter?  Is it not better that they live to hope she will return one day?"
  "But she will never return, Uncle.  That is the truth on it, not thine own words to remove blame from thyself."  All the children looked at their uncle gravely.  He returned the same look.  
All was quiet as the subject was pondered by those in the little parlour.  At length, the uncle sat forward in his chair as if he would address his audience once more.  The youngsters, noticing this, grew hushed and seemed reverent.  They wanted to hear something that would absolve their relative, their dear relative, of culpability.  He was their uncle after all.  He was the brother of their dear mother, and they had all known and loved him since each in turn had come into the world.
  "After what seemed months, but was only weeks of speculation, it was said she had been seen in the village, roaming alone in those lanes and round those corners where we were wont to conduct and plan our secret life together.  
As soon as this news reached my own ears, I went out to those very places we had been to.  I waited, looked out for many a night, but she came not."
  "Did not her relatives also look, uncle?" said one.
  "Aye, it is true, they did, but they did not look in places known to us, for only we knew of our meetings there.  Still I waited, and still did they wait, but she came not again."
  "But you spoke of some recent development earlier, uncle," said the girl standing to be heard the better, and to make her point.
  "That I did, lass," he said, "that I did."
  "But what were the recent developments?" said the girl, and not without some impatience, for the tale, if it was a tale, and not some prolonged bedtime story to keep them all quiet before the time for bed came.
  "She has come again," he said somewhat gravely.
  "And think you she looks for thee, uncle?" asked the girl.
  "I cannot say, lass," he said, "but still she is abroad in the village lanes again, though I have myself not seen her."
  "But she is dead, is she not, uncle?"  Here a very junior member of the audience spoke up, the seeming incongruity of the situation prompting the question.
  "Aye, she died that night," said he.
  "But you said.."  The uncle did not let the child finish.
  "I know what I said," he said, "and now it is time for bed."  The clock chimed the hour as he spoke.
  "'Tis time to get up them dancers," he said, pointing at the stairs that led to their rooms.
  "Sleep well, children," he said, and laughed gaily as if all he had told had been nothing but a prank to get their attention, which indeed it might have got thine too.

                                                   Robert L Fielding


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