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For good reasons I have long since thought that walking between the high banks is to leave safety behind. This has always been so, although few seem to know the real reasons. Maybe if, like me, they saw the level ground inside the banks and their ditches not as just where the souls went after death but also where the souls of the yet-to-be-reborn awaited, then they would also see it as the place where what has been and what would be all share the same here as well as what actually is now. But that would be to understand that we as persons are not so easily distinguished from those we think of as not fully human persons.
Thinking such thoughts just as bare bones dressed up with sophisticated words is merely a mental jaunt. Like all places where my feet are in direct contact with the bones of the greatest of the Dea, I need to get beyond the dazzling first impressions, and sink more deeply into her thoughts. Do not be fooled if you think you see her as the white lady of the land, even if she tells you her name is Gwenevere or something seductively familiar. Even if you think she has walked up close to you, even if she has revealed to you the colour of her eyes, even – as some have told me – she has come up so close as to kiss you, you have only been seduced by a phantom of your own desires. Walk away, these are but images. Leave her standing looking upstream to whence everything arises, with her city of stones as the dwelling places for inviolate souls.
Whether snubbed or entranced, if you chose to remain in her place, to stay for more than the length of a day – perhaps as long as a season – then these illusory delights become one of an array of pleasurable experiences. Not the same experience repeated, but each a poignant insight into the richness of life which lies beyond having and taking, whether from need or desire. The commonplace becomes more satisfying than the most sustained erotic quest. Life itself is sufficient, as has been said so many times.
Beyond such experiences few people see a need to venture. Even the wisest of men choose to stay in the serenity of her beneficence. The souls too reside blissfully in their own awareness of her embrace. Except that this is her domain. She who makes herself present to you in the only way she can, through chimeras. Consider what you have seen of her to be a pretence – a presence devised by her according to your preferences. If you wish to see her eyes, then she will show them to you. If you wish to see her smile, she may reveal this also. But you will never tell you what she is smiling about. To her this question signifies only that you are prepared to follow her deep into the realms where people encounter those people who are not human in the way we are.
Of course there are people who do just that. There was the American who came here, who talked with me in the Red Lion at the centre of the stones. To me he was little more than a fresh-faced postgraduate student who could talk and talk and talk yet more about the Otherworlds. We saw each other often for a while, then less often, until he was never seen again. People asked me about him afterwards, or offered me their various reasons why he had seemingly disappeared. They were usually ingenious explanations too. Some said he'd gone back to the Mid West. Others that he'd met a rather seductive girl who lived in Paris. One person even told me he'd met a girl called Paris and moved to Texas. But there was only ever speculation.
Yet his passing over to the otherside was not sudden. He was healthy, he had a good constitution – as my grandmother used to put it – both physically and mentally. Like those of his motherland he had little sense of historical depth and, far from being over-involved in the whys and wherefores, he could be frustratingly superficial. But he had a capacity to soak up ideas which verged on the rapacious. To me it seemed he was most anxious when he was not finding out some new aspect to what he already knew in obsessive detail.
Perhaps, I have dwelt on his memory – and of those like him – too often. Together they are outsiders, forever other to what passes as the normal custom. But it is to such men that the goddess leads me. Or so I say to myself. But maybe I simply ignore the attentions of men who I dismiss as less suitable suitors. I do not dress to seek attention but not too many men fail to sneak a second glance if they can. By the standards of fashion magazines I am hardly a cover girl. Those who seek to flatter me say it is not that I have a stunning figure but rather something about the way I move that makes me so beguiling. I simply think of myself as a mirror for the goddess to show herself to men as she sees best. Through her contrivances my given name is that of the theotokos, the birther of god.
But there was something about him when I first heard him ordering beer at the bar. Of course it was the first impression of a trim, athletic body which drew my attention and, shall we say, intrigued me. Seeing him sub specie aeterni – from a chubby baby to maybe a gaunt old man – simply focussed more attention on his eyes. Only generations of wildwoods hunters and trappers could evolve eyes like that. And, as I was to his east when he first saw me, there was a moment when the source of all seemed to be reflected in those eyes.
'Have we met before?' he asked. I sat down beside him. Warm weather in May was once more my undoing, my own innate energies overwhelming the protection I put in place before stepping outside my door. He spoke again at the same moment as I broke the silence. We asked each other the same question simultaneously. I allowed him to answer.
As our conversation continued – although I answered few of his questions except with questions of my own – he told me of what he knew about this place, about its banks and ditches, about its stones, about what you could see when you were awake and what you could see when you slept within its confines.
'You know that the marmalade millionaire who once owned the manor house collected books about Scottish witches, the occult and related subjects such as erotica? I think he wanted to raise the Devil among the stones.'
I asked him why he knew there was erotica in his collection and he said he'd seen it himself. All the books were now neatly shelved in a library in Edinburgh, he told me, 'A very different sort of vibe to the little old bookshops in Paris where he bought them from'.
'Do you also know Paris?'
'Ah! Is that where we met before?'
I turned as if to look out the window. I felt those eyes caress my face with a warmth more intense than the sunlight filtering through. 'Implausible,' I replied. 'I have never got to know Paris in the same way I know places such as this.'
For reasons I did not appreciate at the time, a cascade of images of Paris streets – some that I recognised, some presumably forgotten, and some that I could swear I have never visited – almost washed through my mind. And with them the smells, and some of the clanging bustle of what to me was an irksomely noisy city. My vision settled suddenly in the darkness of a shrine to the Virgin inside the cathedral of her cult.
His question cut through this pleasure: 'What do you think it all means? What do you see when you are in sleep? You know, that kind of sleep on the threshold… '
'And you?' I replied. 'What do you see in that way, what has she shown you? Do we even know what we are being shown? Can we say that any of this is really there?'
'Ah, but when the spirit-helpers come with me, then I know that what I see is real. As sharp and distinct as everything here in this realm. There is no fading between what-is-dream and what-is-real.'
'And what about when the here-and-now sometimes changes into something else?' I said slowly, 'When the living people within this realm pass briefly, leaving no more trace of their passing than so many ghosts, while the spirits sheltering in the stones seem more real than you or I? Which of the realms are we in then?'
'It's how it all begins,' he said. 'Any corner of the street is both the first turn and the last, depending where and when you start. How does that fit in to your scheme?'
Nowhere. I tried again using more concrete examples, using a frame of reference I knew to be his own. 'We construct the past in ever-changing ways. Only a couple of centuries ago henges such as this were thought of as part of a brief period of pre-Roman existence for this land. Later, when antiquarians evolved their ideas of an Iron Age, preceded by a Bronze Age and preceded in turn by a Stone Age this place became a thousand years older. Then the Stone Age too became three ages. And then early attempts at carbon dating made everything another thousand years older. And then the re-calibration of those dates made everything even older again. And now there are enough radiocarbon dates for statistics to sharpen up the details, so to speak.' His attention had slipped elsewhere. 'Which of those pasts was real, and which was merely made up?'
'It's like bubbles coming off a boiling saucepan,' he said, turning back to me. The exceptionally petite barmaid who had caught his attention was old enough to be married to a chunky fellow who you really wouldn't want to mess with, I felt like telling him. But instead I thanked the goddess that he had chosen to start a conversation with me and was, seemingly, content merely to look at the youngster.
We met again and shared our dreams. He took most interest when I spoke of Parisian streets, and the flavours of the different brands of absinthe, la muse verte as he called them all, once more refusing to name those who should never be named. Our pasts interwove, although I sometimes felt that his dreams – that is how I thought of them, even though they were taking place in my sleep – made his past more real than my own recollections. As it were, my own experiences of Paris were recalled most strongly through his dreams. There was no map which equated to these mutual experiences, except that if there were even the vestigial sketches of such a plan then the crypt to the Virgin would always have been at the centre. It was the still point from which the illusory strolls along streets of uncertain reality set out. And, at least in the subsequent sleep, to which they returned.
His spirit-helpers dwelt in a realm that was nearer to the mundane one than that of the goddess. He, it seemed, had ventured no further than their realms – content to allow the certainties they offered him to suffice. As you may gather, I was content to allow him to remain there and never encouraged him to stray any further. I too would have acted as his spirit-helper had he wished. But, as always about such matters, you have to ask, you can never be asked. Only when the time is right will you ask.
It took me a long time before I could question myself about why I never helped him. We were still talking about our dreams although, as we met less often by then, this was less detailed. I was still sharing his dreams of Paris, although it seemed he shared few of mine. I learnt to wake up – or move on – before the end, when his erotic tendencies began to overwhelm the sense of place. Not that I disapproved of these inclinations, just that they began to involve other women – ones whom he really had met in that city on such walks – and I began to feel like a voyeur to his personal memories rather than a participant in anticipatory fantasies. To this extent his dreams were safe. Not that I seemed able to prevent them. Rather they seemed like welcome gifts, a present of reassurance or a promise of further charming favours. They were perhaps, as is said of the grace of god, not to be longed for but merely enjoyed.
He knew too that I was well aware of his travelling to both the Upperworld and the Underworld, as he conceptualised them. But we chose never to speak of his experiences there. Yet he had come half-way around the world, to this place, specifically because – as he put it 'it gave better access'.
We spoke of the inspiration of the east, the manifest energies of the south and the place to the west where ideas past their use-by date should be consigned. We were only too aware of the energies of the here and now, the place from which we could never leave. But we never spoke of the unseen energies of the north, the realm of all our preconscious thinking. Not the realm of the dark furies, as some think this should be, but rather of all that remains unseen and unheard yet nevertheless influences all our lives.
He knew not how each stone was alive. Alive with something other than fully human. Walking around the henge after darkrise, when the flickering light of a torch – the old fashioned type that offers a yellower and gentler light than the more modern ones – flows and ripples over the contours of the stone. Then the souls peer out clearly as faces. So many! Was it a place like here, another west land, where Dante discovered death had undone so many? Trapped, anguished, hungry, eager for the warmth of a human body. Their silent screams piercing the air like so many obsidian daggers, a collective wailing reflecting from stone to stone to stone, round and round and round the circle. He knew nothing of stepping between two adjacent stones to become fully immersed in the path of this supernatural resonance.
He knew nothing of swans until I told him some of the myths. 'That would be an example of the Earth Diver myth back among the Indian tribes,' he said, as if to confirm what was already certain to me. But he had no parallels to the swans who took the souls of the dead to the land of the dead, north beyond the north wind each Martinmass. And brought the souls of the about-to-be-reborn back again as the days once more started to lengthen, around the feast of Saint Brigit.
Latterly, the dreams of his I experienced were less often of Paris. More and more they were of wild swimming, swimming downstream in a small river. 'Yes', he had said when I told him. 'Yes, since I moved to Hungerford I have found a path down to the Kennet where I can swim.'
These dreams were less clear to me over the winter months. It was as if I was dreaming of him dreaming of swimming in the river. But then they began to become clear again. This was when the dreams of him swimming began to include swans. Once in his dream I had the sensation of diving under the surface of the water then looking underneath a swan at its paddling feet. 'Yes', he confirmed the last time we sat in the Red Lion together, 'since a swan has become my spirit-helper I am exploring the Underworld with them.' I told him that swans were known to attack canoeists and upturn them once the nesting season started. 'No, they welcome me', he said, 'I'm not worried.' 'But, you have not swum close to them in the nesting season. Take great care.'
Then his dreams stopped. Not, as before, when a few nights might pass before I dreamt another of his dreams. There was a palpable absence of dream where a dream should have been. There was heavy rain that week, for several days in a row we had at least one torrential downpour. The chalk streams that dry out in the summer months were running unseasonably close to the tops of their banks for May. I had put off going shopping for several days because of this but a gap in the weather tempted me out for much needed fruit and vegetables. I followed my usual route for shopping, halfway to Hungerford – but knowing that this time I would not continue any further. On the way back where the road ran closest to the little river I could see it had broken its banks.
Distracted by these thoughts I missed the usual turn just past where the brewery had been. Instead I came past the big mound and saw that the ditch around it had flooded. This happens so rarely I pulled into the parking area and walked back to look. And there on the water were swans. Several were already there. They saw me and approached. Several more flew across and skid-landed on the water making dramatic splashes. Each of them had their heads down, necks curved gracefully. I wept. Each swan seemed to me to be despondent, coming over expressing as much guilt as a swan could conceivably convey. I knew then what I had only guessed before.
Once they realised I had no bread to feed them they turned their backs and paddled away. I hastened back to the car to find the fresh bread I had just bought. I would happily have shared it with them as acceptance of their contrition. But by the time I had walked near enough to the water's edge they were taking wing. So much splash, splash, splashing to get airborne. 'Job done, job done' they honked to each other as they formed into a 'V'.
It was good bread. I opened a bottle of Burgundy to enjoy with it. But rather than become a simple rite of passing for him, as I intended, a priest stepped into the centre of my consciousness, turned his back to me, raised his hands and spoke in a deep Irish brogue 'This is my body, this is my blood,' with the emphasis much too firmly on the words 'my'. I drew the lines of fire between the five points and involuntarily cursed. He went, leaving behind an intense headache in the place right between my eyes where I had seen him. But the cloying smell of incense that he had brought with him lingered on. I thanked him for that appropriate gift.
There were no more dreams. By the autumn his transformation to the Underworld was seemingly complete. When the police contacted me it was simply to establish if I knew his whereabouts as, after several months of unpaid rent, his landlord had reported him as missing. They were perplexed as to why his mobile phone and wallet were all at his home. Nothing seemed to be missing except the front door key and maybe some clothes.
What I knew would make me, in their eyes, the prime suspect in a murder case. But their ways of knowing did not countenance my ways of knowing. A mutual feeling, I suppose. I simply stated that the last time we met was at the Red Lion, on a sunny day, and the weather had reminded me of the day when we'd first met. I told them which day I thought it was and the officer looked intently at a print out of a great many numbers with the names of various places hand-written in the margin. 'Yes', she said, 'from his mobile phone records it seems that's the last time he was here.'
When she asked directly about what we discussed and had we had any sort of argument I simply said, 'No. We met to discuss our dreams. It is hard to have an argument about dreams.' She smiled in a way that revealed she thought that even if we were a little bonkers we were harmless and also that she saw little reason to regard me as in any way the cause of his disappearance. If such were her thoughts then, in her own processes of deduction, she had indeed established some semblance of the truth, even if it was a threadbare imitation of the way our dreams had been interwoven. She probed about where he might have gone to and, to my knowledge, had he done anything like this before. Seemingly she had no reason to know that he went swimming in the river. No reason to tell her came into my mind while she and I spoke. I conveyed to her that I knew little about him except his dreams and his intimate knowledge of Parisian streets. Though I was careful not to reveal that his knowledge of Paris was conveyed to me mostly via his dreams.
He was, officially, she told me, a missing person. But, and I remember her pedantic-sounding phrase, 'as there is no apparent threat of danger to either the subject or the public, we consider these low risk and do not intervene.' She patiently told me that adults have a legal right to disappear, which sometimes can be heartbreaking to those left behind. I can only assume that something she had found in his flat had led her to believe we had been lovers. She gave me the phone number for an organisation in Hampshire who could offer assistance to people 'who might be in my position'. She was clearly struggling for the right phrase, not being able to put our relationship into a neat box such as 'lover', 'ex' or 'relative'. There was nothing I could have said to help her.
After the swans spoke to me the days shortened till the dusk and the dark dominated, inducing near-hibernation. I had no reason to walk again between the high banks out of the realms of safety. Not until an exquisite blue sky mid-morning in the second week of February seduced me. Then his dreams started once more. Only with a vague sense of presence until my path crossed the circle of the stones ringing the inside of the ditch. In this walking dream I followed the stones around, staying as best I could just to their outside, with the stones on my right and the ditch on my left. At the most solitary stone, the one most alone in the east, there the dreams became clear. Too clear. There was still frost on the side of the stone away from the sun. The twinkling whiteness brought the shape of the swan's neck frozen in the stone alive. The dream was overbearing. Simultaneously one of being trapped, hungry, eager for warmth – every state of anguish all in the same moment. I opened my mouth but could only scream with a silence so glass-like it sliced at the inside of my throat. A swan with the eyes of a hunter was begging me to lay over this stone to conceive a child.
This story was commissioned by Richard Freeman for Tales of the Damned, published by CFZ Press in 2016.
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