Carlos Perona Calvete is a thirty-year old Spaniard living in Maastricht, the Netherlands (soon to move to Luxembourg). He works in the field of project management and has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior. To date he has published a poem titled “Europe’s Son” with the Society of Classical Poets and a short story titled “Enkidu” in the Scarlet Leaf Review, as well as publishing on the Piccioletta Barca website.
Oats and Ashes
And neither was Lady Liberty in their depictions shown only as Amazon with single breast exposed, but also as astonished and trembling muse, adumbrating by her hanging lamp the timid beginnings of wisdom with a waxy light down the dark corridor of some ancestral estate. Our estate, replete with treasures long forgotten. Upon her frame a boundless delicacy, a tender query on silent lips the answer to which I thought to know when from that fevered dream she became my own dear one. No longer the muse of a holy fable but the wife of this holy life. Life made holy by her, by the light hung from slight and marble fingers after slight and marble wrist. The answer to a wordless question in this wordless brute of flesh - so much the native of paradise the one, so vicious and forgetful the other. And yet this vicious one remembers. By the light of her hanging lamp I remember.
With this vision and reality ends a year-long period of affliction under the hot yoke of fevered dreams. Today I can write from the privileged perch of success and the uniquely clear view of the past which it affords. And clarity is itself my prize. Those dreams I mentioned, they yielded a terrible obfuscation of even waking life. But the pains which they caused were at first less a consequence of their content then of my knowing what they represented. You see, I am the scion of a proud and ancient family. I do not mean a rich family. Nor do I mean a family of decrepit aristocratic holdings. I mean a solid family. We have prospered by honest work and good fortune. But we have suffered also, for my father, like my grandfather and a line going back several generations, endured a congenital form of madness which makes its first intrusion through the dreamscape when we turn thirty. Quickly it begins to lacerate our waking life. I speak of a madness. It does not affect the body, insofar as that may live on as much as in ordinary men. If anything, we enjoy – although this latter is not altogether the right word – some advantage of longevity over the average person. But we have become accustomed to producing heirs to the family estate at a relatively young age that we might raise them as far as we can, leaving the rest to our spouses, the ever-sacrificing wives and mothers of this accursed house.
Now, the specific content of the madness in question is, I can imagine, a matter liable to raise some interest in the detached reader. I will detail it so far as I can, although it is a morbid subject, gaining knowledge of which required some labour on my part, for none wished discuss it. So far as I have determined, over the course of only three years, and as the dreams grow more traumatic, more forcefully impressing themselves upon daytime impressions, the men of my family gradually become convinced that everything ordinary is in fact an illusion. That there is really no such thing as a person, making decisions, interacting with other people, and that all of the various objects we see have no genuine relation to our thoughts about them. Indeed, it is all a trick of the light. It is a fancy which has entered into the mind. The truth is that nobody except one’s own self actually exists. Indeed, one’s own self doesn’t either. The mind perceiving this illusion is an accident. An electrical discharge lasting longer than usual. There are no people, there are instead phenomena the character of which is quite straightforwardly unintelligible. And yet, in spite of its entirely alien quality, we can glimpse one truth about it: it is monstrous. There is no such thing as a human person, no succession of day by night, no world. No, none of that. But whatever is real, is grotesque. A further element here seems to be that at a certain point one begins to believe that one is a (very unfortunately, but entirely accidentally, self-conscious) planet, or something to that effect. One is inhabited – in fact, composed – by entities of some sort who would suffer greatly were one to commune with the fantasy of the world any longer. One becomes bound ethically, for ethics continue to apply somehow, to remain perfectly still in order not to disturb these legion creatures. No amount of pleading by the illusion that is one’s wife or children will sway the subject from his duty not to destroy the dwellers – the constituents – of this bizarre teeming complex which he is, and which should not be aware of itself in order to suffer about the affair but, well, there it is. Hitherto one’s belief that one was a person in a world with family relations – an absurd series of concepts – has led one to engage in all sorts of actions, to pursue all kinds of ends, to move, and movement is a terrible, destructive force which has been wrought on the creatures, the legion of little ones. This I pried from my mother, who remembered my father describing it during his descent. It was my only testament of disaster. My only roadmap to the inevitable.
What my mother could not tell me concerning the onset of this grave delusion, because she had never been told herself, is that it all begins with a strange recurring dream in which one is visited by a woman who sits at the feet of one’s bed, places a hand on one’s suddenly exposed leg, and simply repeats the words – in a tone that seems to want to be sensuous, or to mock sensuality - “tend the little ones, tend the little ones”. Oh, those little ones. Those fiendish multitudes, those hiding secret scaffolds of every nightmare’s architecture. It seemed to me that the images this expression conjured – of sharp-toothed gnomes or clawing miniatures, of inhuman conspirators whispering behind human thought – was something profoundly anchored in the human soul, for otherwise it could not inspire such movements of fear in me. I did not wish to look with open eyes at the nightmare, not because I was afraid of her, the woman – the sight of her was at the very least comprehensible – but because I did not dare to see her odious little ones (hers, or maybe she was theirs). No sooner does she speak her devil’s prayer than the skin and meat begin to turn granular until one’s body turns to ash, not by ignition, but by force of meticulously concentrated insinuation. These turn each particle of the body against every other, and in becoming isolated they drop whatever moisture previously bonded them into one fabric organism, so that they are dry as ash. So too the mind, which is a teeming confabulation of audible screams, every thought, every impulse, however unimportant in the light of sanity, becomes a commanding voice at once tyrannical over one’s awareness and agonistically at odds with the rest of the murderous hive to which the mind is now transformed. And soon, ash as well. Soon, death. But not yet. First the teeming. Or perhaps ash and death are not the end. They are not the result of the rage which possesses every thought to sharpen itself against the rest. Rather, every flake of ash is still alive and still enraged, yet it has so separated itself from the rest, and from the water of life which binds together, that it is entirely alone and entirely dry, and so cannot act, cannot move, for there is no longer any ligament, nerve or muscle, no mechanism of movement at all. But inside, incommunicable, unknowable, it remains alive, it remains enraged. This is the final stage to which my fathers must be condemned: to move not, to allow no outward sign, and yet to perceive each atom of their minds, fully alien and fully hateful. Cast a cold eye, reader, on life and death, and read on, ride on past markets and graves, but can you so easily cast a cold eye this colder fate? It is a difficult thing to look upon future insanity from present sanity.
Evidently my forerunners had not considered this an appropriate level of detail to share with their spouses. I do not know how the subconscious mind speaks to the conscious in order to announce the full character of impending insanity by way of so suggestive of formula. But I feel assured that if the impression which has rendered so many of my antecedence wantonly paralytic is as consistent as it is, then this first symptom, which I had now began to experience, must be as well. I am likewise ignorant as to how these words gradually produce in the listener a disintegration of the sense of self so complete as to cause him to consider himself a pure accident in relation to the teaming plethora of beings that apparently constitute his body and mind. But such is the result. In these terrible words spoken by that terrible would-be seductress at the threshold of sleep, is contained the whole of my house’s ruin, the end of sleep and wakefulness both.
Yet I am exceptional in one regard. The symptoms began before they are reported to have done so in any past case. Owing to this fact, and to my uncle’s severe tutorship – for he was self-charged with taking hold of my education after my father became unable to do so, overseeing my lessons within the estate – I had never had the opportunity to secure a future for our line. Where others had toiled to produce an heir and quickly pass on something of themselves, I had not. I would soon be mad, and the house would have no youngling to await his turn of the curse.
Before the beginning of madness, I considered my next few years with generous expectancy. I would fill them with finding a wife, starting a family, and surely my uncle would let off my education enough to allow the enterprise, for he knew as well as I the necessity of the thing. Gradually I would go into the surrounding villages more frequently and meet people beyond our grounds. For now, however, my only escape was inside the embrace of the surrounding gardens, and tended always to a certain tree, my refuge since I was a boy. It was a powerful oak whose green always looked gold to me, and whose branches would filter the day into a cool and luminous pool, so much in contrast to the stuffy interior of the house.
At night I often walked our halls awake – but with no more attention then had I been sleepwalking – until I was outside. Awake, but from within sleep, lucidly dreaming around the house. Through the corridors made narrow and dark and dusty by crowded nightmare phantasmagoria, sliding, squeezing out of the long trap as though I were a snake. Then I was beaten into greater lucidity by the naked sky, her stars like fists above me in the hours of darkness and the minutes of gold before daylight hides them. Stars like fists. The wind, cold as river water, is their falcons, perched on resting huntress hands and gliding down to take me. Better to be hunted by this stellar cast of angels than haunted by dusty nightmares indoors. But they are converted. The firmament is baptised. The celestials are recruited into an army of mercy in these, the end times. Every night as a child I dreamt apocalypse. Dreamt a final good. Dreamt the conversion of every nature. Maybe it isn’t all a dream. Maybe there are secret allies in the sky, in the wind and river. I felt ignited by their high, white light, I felt the heat of an invisible midnight sun which does not consume what it burns.
Weather out of the body or in, I know not, but often during these nocturnal recesses I would climb my tree. Through haunted corridors and greeting starlight, through sleep, up I would go, up its branches like a ladder. The easiest path was marked by a streak of autumnal gold leaves running through its green immensity. The very top perch was a perfect view of the Earth, the sky’s own native terrace. From there it seemed to store all life’s roots. But the magic of these nights was soon taken from me. Replaced by the witch and her little ones.
Now before the beginning of my descent, indeed, nearly immediately before, a strange visitor came to the estate. I went to the door and found a vision of keen eyes and timid manners. She was a young lady who I let in, asking if she had business with my uncle or perhaps my mother (although the latter had not taken visitors for many years, and had for some time reduced her contact even with me, such was the contagious effect, cumulative in its severity, that my father’s condition was reaping upon her – there was, though I will not dwell on it, a relative paralysis also in my mother, traumatized as she was by the long expectancy and eventual culmination of her husband’s tragedy). The visitor had not come with any merchandise and had about her not an inkling of salesmanship. Finally, I coaxed her into the astonishing confession that she had come to see me. Me? I do not think that in all my life I had ever received a visitor. But as her lips began to part as though parched with a thirst to pour out some pressing declaration, my uncle appeared out of his study and quite unceremoniously bid her leave. He was a tall man, seemingly lacking all muscles and composed entirely of bone and hypertrophic tendons, not imposing in the physical sense but difficult to resist in his determined resolution not to acknowledge other people as anything but impediments to his ever-pressing business. So violent was his manner that she was unable, finally, to remain steady enough to finish articulating any part of her intended news. “Don’t you know this boy belongs to me!” was his vampiric utterance, emphasizing the last word as though she should know him. Indeed, I felt then that the two recognised each other, and that his later hand-waving about her having been but a beggar, about my knowing better than to let such ilk into the house, and bid for me to resume my studies, were all a bit of a theatrical put-on.
Catalyzed by the strange visitor and our un-climaxed meeting, I began leaving the house regularly – always without my uncle knowing, for he considered my education a full-time employ. My business was to find explanations and, in weaker moments, consolations, from what could have been parental figures in the surrounding villages. Of course, the topic at hand could not be broached directly, family secrets could not be revealed, but the issue of suffering, fear concerning the future, even of madness and, beyond this, of curses, could all be discussed. It is difficult for one who has lost a father to gauge, even scientifically and detachedly, the character of mature manhood. We hear of the wisdom of old men, but in what exactly does it consist? I do not mean to say it is difficult to acquire its habits and attitudes, those invisible tapestries woven with appropriate guidance over many years. I accepted that such might be irrelevant to me given my impending descent into insanity. But at least I could make some account, some short-list of aphorisms to summarise what are, in general, supposed to be the lessons of the life I would not live. Yet all I encountered was surface grime. Angry men raving about life and its indulgences, the hypocrisy of rules and limitations, and the need to simply follow one’s heart, follow it until it is nearly choking one’s tensed and vein-throbbing throat, for they were angry indeed. Other old men would say the same things in softer tones, for they were not angry, but flaccid and melting at their seams. And sad, always sad. They all criticised or threw a hand up at the recent violence which had swept some of the larger townships, but would unanimously conclude that the young were right to do as they did and save themselves the frustrations of life. I was quite uninterested in the specifics, the politics, of all that, having enough on my mind.
Still, I continued journeying out and unavoidably observed the developing character of a sort of revolution affecting the hamlets. It was a turmoil as if to matching my own troubles. The cities were overcrowded, conditions ever worsening, and the once-humble builders of familial fortifications in the country were now seen as a privileged class, their homes and holdings to be shared out and the country turned into a suburb of the always sprawling centers. But that was nothing. I was aghast to find inscribed in banners and announced vociferously from rasping throats, that same devilish formula which each night drilled a little deeper, like a drop of water secure in its ultimate victory, upon the stone of my sanity.
I have already mentioned that mine is not a house of vast aristocratic landings. My station was once an ordinary one in these lands, which are so replete with castles that our neighbors will say of a thing which is of no great importance that it is like owning a castle in the land of the bards (which is the name of this country). To this proverb they give the additional meaning of disparaging our castles, for they are no castles at all, they say. Indeed, this is so. They are homes. It was our way that each man and woman would be king and queen in a confederation of stony enclaves. But of late the phenomena of grand cities has come about, with their stacks of people upon people, and as they grow, they eat, and the spaciousness of our guarded gardened wilderness is a ripe and ready thing.
Somewhat more distressing than the inexplicable use of my nightmare for their politics was the simultaneous realisation that my madness had progressed beyond what familiar sights, the corridors and gardens of the estate, had let on. For a known object maintains an anchor in our perception of it. I know the chair, the portrait, the window. Madness has a hard time affecting muscle memory and the automatic interactions with things we have known since childhood. But now, exposed to entirely new streets and the faces of strangers, it was plane that my awareness of ordinary sites was thoroughly distorted. Some of what I narrate, therefore, will bear that imprint, insofar as I cannot well distinguish what I saw from what it was that I was seeing, so to speak.
For I saw columns of ash from the mouths of old men with shoulders like cotton washed out by the moon. Ash-flakes looked like butterflies in their beards, pretty words born burnt-out, and this despite the absence of any fire. It is not so exceptional a thing to have a father driven mad, I thought, for an entire generation has turned out mad. Ash almost looks like marble by moonlight, but marble doesn’t fall when the wind gets blowing. They don’t stand, they hold no roof. Forget their talk of palaces and temples. Their ash scatters like snow, like winter falling on homeless, roofless, naked children looking for Christmas, for the fire of a hearth. No, the old men of this country have no fire, they hold up no chimney, they are no atlases, but generous nature by heaven’s mandate has given them Hesperides for daughters all the same. I saw one. She guards gold sugar, gold skin and seed. Guards it for this insane Adam to come back home to Eden. But he isn’t coming empty handed. I have trophies for that new Jerusalem, that heavenly Rome.
And I saw naked young men dressed in ash and spit crowding the streets, coming at me littering plastic wrappers from the riottm they were buying. They thought their ash was armour and pretended it was new, like they didn’t get it from the old ash-talkers, old men, mad salesmen of a generation that built no homes but talked a good game. The ash-dressed boys tried to strip whoever they met and throw their burnt-out dust at them and spit on them. At least it was not all dry. At least they spat. At least there was the insinuation of giving life to ash, although obscenely. And this they reflected by the calligraphy of glossy posters with pin-up goddesses holding pitched forks. Old revolutionary standards recycled for the occasion. They dress in ash but wish for water, and they are from the city and rail against the country but their standards portray a farmer’s garrison, they listen to bitter men but put women on their flags.
I saw all this with the eyes of a psychotic break and ran as far as I could. I hid a while in a cave on beaches in the sky lapped by waves of cloud. It landed at an airport and so I began my sojourn as an exile. I was gone. I know not exactly how much my will and personality contributed to this rash decision. Surely it was mainly the produce of madness. But that didn’t much matter. I had gone to an airport, I had bought a ticket, and I had left. I had left the home of tragedy, I had left the country, haunted country, where the cause of tragedy was now the slogan of revolt. I knew not what the connection was. I knew not whether it was pure hallucination or genuine impression. I did not care to find out. I only knew and I only cared to be away from it. And yet some of those places I now travelled to reminded me of the old nightmare, for I had flown to the cities, and came to know these, one by one. Their tall grey buildings, each alone, each identical to the rest, were too much like the mute ashes filled with incommunicable rage which I had imagined in the throes of anguish.
Still, I was away, and over the course of the next several months, the dreams became less frequent. They did not come nightly, but weekly, and then monthly, and then, after about a year, they were gone. But I would not return. I wrote letters to my mother which, I hoped, she would keep from my uncle and his judgement. I let her know I was well, and inquired into the things of our home. But no, I did not return. Not yet. I was waiting. My expectation – all of my hope – was to reach the age at which my predecessors had, for so many generations, fallen definitively, bedridden by insanity. Well now, do you know what? The date of my 33rd birthday came and went. I had done it. Still I waited another year on top of this. Mercifully passed the months, and in all that time I never hallucinated the way I had before leaving. By my return every trace of mental instability had left me.
I arrived without telling anybody. I wished first of all to meet my mother, who I surprised and who greeted me tearfully, and hugged me and wondered at my having evaded the curse. “Perhaps it is this place. Perhaps if your father and I had left...” she wept, and we agreed I would not stay in the house. I would not again lie were so many had lied in living sepulchers. The air was not good there. Instead I went to town, where the revolution continued much as it had before. Except that I did not see them dressed in death, but in plastic-like accoutrements of the present fashion. Other things also were now less literal than metaphorical to my eyes, for visionary delirium had mercifully left me.
I decided to get myself a room at a hostel, and be near my mother. As I began looking, I saw something which almost cast me into the darkest fears I had experienced before my happy exile. Was it a hallucination? Yet as I fixed my eyes upon it, and upon its surroundings, I knew it was real. It was consistent in texture, proportion, and movement with everything else. There, across a crowded street, was the lady of those terrible long-gone dreams. She was there. Her long mouth and thin lips, the broken angles and sullen cheeks. I described her thusly even though, by any conventional account, she would make a beautiful, if striking, image. But to me she was dread herself. I saw a certain mock of disgust affecting the outsides of her mouth, a slight flaring of the nose, a distortion owing to the angle and affect with which I regarded her which caused the face to seem impossibly long. Then, as I waded through these thoughts, I saw, coming beside her and speaking to her as an old acquaintance, my own uncle. I observed the pair from behind passers-by so as not to be seen. They were arguing. Something had happened to upset my uncle. They resolved to go and began walking together. I followed as furtively as I could. This was easy at first but became more difficult after they took a smaller dirt road out of town, so I hid behind a tree and stayed there until I saw where they were going. Having lost sight of them, I continued walking until I arrived at a cottage. As there was no other structure nearby, I concluded they must have entered. This was confirmed when I heard my uncle’s shrill school-master sing-song. He had developed this tone despite apparently only ever having had me as a pupil, or else it was simply his manner of speech.
“How is it that with all these potions and spell books you cannot find him?”
“Do not be short with me.” Answered back the voice of the woman, so different from the monstrous whisper I remembered, and yet the same. “You are the one who lost him. He was not so much as to leave the house. I cannot appear to him if I do not know where he sleeps. Anyway, is this not, in its way, a fortunate turn? If he never comes back, the house is yours and you may simply give it to the coven.”
“But he may come back.” He let fall upon these words the full weight of some jaw-clenching frustration, “And come back a man, at that. Possibly even with wife and child. Then everything will be delayed another generation. Then you will not have me to help you.”
“If he does return, we will resume driving him mad, and if that doesn’t work we will simply take the estate. We have aroused enough people’s frustrations to make that viable. You see? We have contingency plans, unlike you. You were careless. Ever since you allowed that girl into the house and we had to step up our plans lest he fall in love. And you! We will not forget what you did.”
I heard as if the faintest whisper in response and was struck in my chest by a sensation painful and familiar, so I looked in through the window ever so slightly and saw the girl who had come to the estate all those years ago. She was chained by her ankle to a post near a stove and was brooming the floor.
My uncle made some final caustic remark and started towards the door. I quickly hid again, this time behind a thicket, and watched him leave. I considered what to do and eventually saw that the woman left as well. This was my opportunity. I went to the window again, leaned in and made eye contact with the young woman. Her face was pale white when it met me. Then, like a rosy sprite, she leapt towards the window, but the leap was not completed. She stopped herself and stood as if suspended by surprise.
“You recognise me.”
“You came to the house that time.”
“You wanted to tell me something.”
“Well... tell me now!”
“I... you are the heir to that house.”
“Yes. But from what I have gathered your mistress and my uncle do not want me to be.”
She shook her head, “Not just you.”
“They have driven my ancestors mad.”
“Not them. The ones who came before. The coven has wanted those grounds a long time.”
“They took my home. My father gave up his title in contrition.”
“What did he do?”
“Nothing!” A passion flashed from her face and she furrowed her brow for the first time, “But they made him think he had. They can do that. Many a crime was not committed in the flesh, or in control. False memories are their chief weapon. They cast illusion. They carry us away in dreams. They make us think we have done terrible things. If you cannot tell the difference between being told something and thinking it yourself, or between thought and will, you will be deceived. But with you the deception is different. One of your ancestors was made to think he had committed atrocity, but he would not reap the punishment upon his children by giving up their birthright. He only left to live a life of repentance. So, they engineered another strategy.”
“How do you know all this?”
“They brag about it. The mistress of the coven and her fellows.”
“What then? They opted for slowly driving us mad?”
She nodded sadly. That a creature so clearly deprived could give herself up to so effortless a surge of compassion for me warmed my heart. I had to free her at once. I climbed in through the window and began to hit her chain with an unwashed pan. Then, she raised a hand as if to stay mine, and pointed to the keys, which were hung from a hook on the wall beyond her reach. Cruelly, just beyond her reach. Having liberated her we both left and determined to face peril together. I resumed my efforts to find lodging, now fit to accommodate both of us, and decided upon a beautiful manor with a sign at the entrance indicating room availability.
“Excuse me,” I said to the receptionist “is this a hotel? It has the air of a house.”
“Oh yes, must tend to the little ones, you know. The farmers who lived here were evicted to make room, lots of people from the cities, you know. They want a piece of country living too. Not fair to hold on to a piece of land generation after generation. Things change.”
The revolution, it now seemed, was carving out cheap apartments, hotels and time-shares from old country houses for the brimming city. It was a business opportunity of the first order.
“Who are the little ones?” I asked, mustering up some measure of courage, for I had never used those words out loud.
“Well,” the lady hesitated, not really wanting to describe herself or anyone else by what now must have suddenly seemed to her, partly due to the tone of my inquiry, a demeaning title, “that is, they had it too good out here!”
The little ones, it seemed to me, was not a self-descriptor that anyone identified with, but more the term by which, subconsciously, without interrogating the matter too much, they designated others on behalf of whom action had to be taken.
Once we were settled my companion explained things a little further. It seems the coven made it its mission to take our home. To this end they would appear in dreams and hypnotize us into disintegration. But my uncle had been a new opportunity. He was to prevent me from contracting marriage and having children so that, once mad, he would take the estate by right, and give it over to the coven, gaining for himself a position of outstanding authority therein.
“She appears to you in a seductive form to draw you in.”
“Seductive? She is death.” I said, causing the vapour of a smile to appear on her usually somber face.
“But why by age thirty three?”
“It is their belief that a man should be morally ruined by his 33rd year, and that whatever injury is inflicted at that time he should not be allowed to recover from.”
“But why our estate?”
“Some places have a special significance in their philosophy. Of yours they say that the founder of your line was a member of one of the armed guilds, the fencers, charged with the protection of nearby towns. Indeed, they say that he founded that guild, and this after a most perilous and perplexing adventure. I know not how much is coded fable, but what I heard I will relay: Long ago, somewhere in this country, though few if any still know where, there stood a great tree which survived the flood of whose waters it is said that Noah was spared, and Dardanus among the Greeks, and Manu according to the sages of India. A mystical sorority whose origin is lost in the days of the patriarchs was entrusted to guard it, and vouchsafe the fruit thereof, which ripened only once in every twelve generations. Now this became more frequent as the generations of man grew shorter, for mortality encroached upon him with a fury of diseases and degraded living. But it was believed that the golden fruit held the secret to reversing the calamities of history and returning the species to its lost longevity. Dark times grew darker, however, and it came to pass that wicked men became marred in their understanding and would see darkness in light, evil in righteousness, until they came to see the tree as their enemy, and burnt it to ashes. But they only burnt the tree down after trying to use its shade as a sacrificial ground, its trunk as a blood totem. First, they took people there to be slain. And to witness, also, that none would feel free of guilt for the murders. And the fruit turned red and bitter and died before ripening. In this way, they declared that they had mixed nature with human labor, the fruit of the tree with the blood of humanity.”
“Because they knew the tree was old, from a time before the deluge, and in their twisted way they believed they were honoring it. The earth was hard to their touch. These were times of struggle, for humanity was dim in knowledge. And so, through a familiar mistake of the human perception, they concluded that they should kill to gain life, that offering up another’s breath to the divine would gain them favor, and that in order for all to benefit they should be bound together in the spectacle of murder. They had no faith in receiving the provisions of life, and thought the world a closed system with only so much life to go around. For each boon gained, someone would have to be slain. But the tree made itself terrible in their sight, and shook its roots until the earth shook with it, and twisted its bark into the forms of their fear, scenes of starvation, until they thought it a demon growth and resolved to burn it down. In truth it but reflected their darkened minds, for they had cultivated such horrors in themselves. In this way it escaped the terrible cult, and made them killers of a tree, of a thing that does not die, of itself, rather than of each other. The sisterhood was only able to salvage a single bloom thereof. This they guarded for another turn of the generations, until it was stolen by a cunning serpent, who swallowed it whole, and entered a mountain to hide. They called on the men of the village nearest to the mount that the serpent had fled to, and one hearkened their call. He was promised a seed from the fruit if he could retrieve it. He would have to enter the mountain through a watery sinew which flowed out, swimming against the current, yet without making noise so as not to warn the beast of his advance. Once inside he would have to climb the rocky escarpment, for the snake had hung itself at the higher apartments of the hollow stone, so the high priestess of the guardians had seen, for she had entered after the snake in spirit while in a trance.
‘I will turn you into an eel that you might enter swift and silent.’ Said that sibyl to the man.
‘How then will I reach the fiend, and how will I strike against it, if I am naked as a fish?’ he asked,
‘When you have entered, speak to me in your mind, and I will make you into a hawk, that you may quickly fly up, armed with sharp beak and talons. However,’ she warned, ‘when you are in its presence, ask the mysterious serpent if it be a good Genie, a spirit of among the friends of mankind, and entreat it by the Great Spirit to return the fruit to its rightful holders.’ In this way, she said, he might be able to avoid killing it, and thereby leaving traces of a magical being on the earth, which can be used for ill by sorcerers. It was also possible that the entire business of stealing the fruit was a means to test its guardians, and also to test the man himself. But he did not trust enough, and so did not undress to be made into an eel and enter the mountain where the reptile slept, for he feared facing the serpent without a weapon, disbelieving also that once inside he would be made into a hawk with beak and talon as weapons. So, he walked against the stream with sword attached at the waist, and in so doing alerted the creature who, hearing the splashing, awoke. Once inside, he found that the serpent had crawled down to meet him. He was struck dumb by its venomous eyes, shinning as if by their own light, a light not of the sun but of some infernal abode to which they served as twin gates. Taken by so strong a terror, he did not recall to ask anything of it, or to entreat or otherwise pause in his work, but simply thrust forward his stabbing blade and immediately delivered it into death. As the monster succumbed, it turned to ashy smoke, revealing itself to be other than an ordinary snake. The force of those fumes burnt the fruit in its belly, until only one seed was left. Now, the great initiatrix of the guardians and her fellows would not take back their word, and so the man was given that final, precious seed, for he had retrieved it, although not by the proper means. He would be its guardian now. He planted it and built his house nearby, which is the estate of your family to this day. The story goes that despite his lack of trust, the man and the high priestess had developed feelings for each other. But this could not be pursued, such was the propriety of the sisterhood. However, she gave the man a lock of her hair and, for sorrow at their parting, it grew back grey thereafter. For his part, he buried the lock with the seed that was so precious.”
“A streak of silver like yours?” I noticed.
“It runs in the family. Twelve generations would pass before the new tree yielded fruit again. The twelfth turning has come to pass, and you are the thirteenth. With you it yields its fruit. That is why there is no more time to wait. That is why I came to speak to you that day.”
“They said all this, the coven?”
She let fall her eyes in a grave gesture, “Some of it, but most I learnt from my mother. The sisterhood did not disband, neither did it go far. It set itself up nearby, and my mother, descendent of the high priestess, told me these things in stories when I was a little girl. But she died young, before I was old enough to learn her ways, and so, without her protection, and knowing none of the magical arts myself, the coven was able to drive my father mad. I hid myself a long time, and finally appeared to the coven as a poor wretch in need of money, determined to work for them and be near to them, to learn their plans and somehow thwart them from within.”
“Who is the coven, then?”
“They are the result of your ancestor’s mistake. He was to deal a deathblow only if necessary, and not out of haste or fear. For when a magical being is killed, especially if it is killed by one who is not in control of his passions, it leaves behind traces. There were those who knew lower arts, as there have been in ages since. They are descended from the party who first burnt the tree down. These went into the cave, called by the power of the serpent’s death, and made pouches of the remains with which to practice the casting of illusion. That is how they enter dreams and create impressions in the minds of those who cannot distinguish the real from the imaginary, or their own will from the thoughts placed in them by others. Few can resist.”
“Why do they hate the tree?”
“They reject the immortality it grants. They have been instructed by evil spirits that true immortality is gained in the dream-worlds, in illusions woven from thoughts, which their occult sciences allow.”
“I think I know the tree.”
We went together by night, climbing over the fence around my home’s gardens, to avoid detection by my uncle. Purpose driven, I picked oats from my oak, climbing up the streak of gold, dropping them carefully below where she caught each one so that it would not thumb and placing them gently down until there were enough for both of us to carry, and we escaped again. The sun began to rise a few hours later, and so we took these into town to be milled, and with the flour she made a bread of golden baked hue, of which we both partook, mixing nature and human labor, and the enjoyment thereof. That very night as I fell asleep, I thought of how our mission had given her hope, for after we had arrived with my shirt folded up and holding oats like a bag, I had seen a smile on her face more complete than I have ever seen her display before. But as this thought began conjuring lovely dreams, it was interrupted by the shadowy body of our she-nemesis, which had just become palpable to my drowsy awareness. And when a weight was felt near my legs and I began to pray, and to speak with my companion inwardly, and a hand of cold slighted my skin, that tense silence was cracked a thousand times by an inhuman shriek, and I saw that my entire body was aglow and that the shadow presence burnt and was gone. At this I was awake and shot up in bed, seeing my companion sitting up also.
“I heard you in my mind,” she said, “and in a dreamy form went to you, against my former slaver.”
I only saw my uncle one more time after that. I had gone into town and was reflecting on the profound change making itself felt all about. The urban sprawl that so angrily had railed against the privileges of the country in space and continuity of family occupancies was now taken up in a different battle. As it had been in past times, new homes of stone and wood were being built in a labor of brotherhood. Old men who previously spoke were building with the young. The revolution was changing colors. And among these transformed scenes I saw my uncle inside a carriage, legs propped up upon a large metal-bolted chest, evidently intending a long or permanent journey. I asked my mother about it, and she told me that he had decided he should leave now that I was back, my education being complete. He must have known accusations would ensue if he stayed, and perhaps the coven had made known to him what my accomplice and I had accomplished. Speaking of which, she came to live with me at the estate, which is how this story began. Before long, as we were busy letting in new life, opening windows and airing halls, we were faced with the striking image of my own father, sentinel-like visage of my tenderest childhood, heavy hand on the timber frame, walking down the stairs from his ancient chambers in the upper rooms, clear-sighted and with an expression of keen observation I thought I must have imagined, like a dream of virgin memory, for over many years I had only seen stoic fear in him during my visits to his bedroom. He simply appeared and began confessing to having not a clue how he could have been swallowed up by such nonsense for so long. Well, the tearful celebration and explanations of what had happened that followed over the next days were met at their heels by a letter from my beloved’s father who, apparently, had likewise recovered his wits and was eager to apologize for having given up their home on account of an entirely invented guilt. He was invited to join us at once and we likewise regaled him with what had transpired.
And it has come to pass that here, in this estate, for the first time in many generations, is born a curse-less heir. The house transformed by this, transformed like the life outside. Transformed by its shinning pregnant lady.
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