Had to stay home today — woke up well before the alarm with my sinuses filling and a general feeling rottenness. Knew that I wasn’t going to be good at my job, liable to stumble and make too many mistakes, so I called in sick and slept for most of the morning and afternoon.
The cold in my head remains, but I do feel better. Able to tackle things.
I’m behind on my NaNo project already, but I decided to try something else tonight, and I’m happy-ish with the results so far. Going with first-person, present tense. And there’s a poem in it! Have a look, tell me what you think . . .
I cannot feel my toes, although I know they are still there in my sodden boots. The chill waters of the flood have soaked through my clothing and numbed my limbs. It’s difficult to keep my footing, but I must try. I wish it were daylight, but even that would not help me now: the river was dark even on the brightest days, thick with silt, and though its tide is falling back, the mud is thicker than ever along what remains of its banks. It sucks at my feet, clutching my ankles and threatening to leave me barefoot.
What good are your boots doing you now, as it is? Perhaps without them, you’ll make better headway.
His boots protect him from harm, from the jagged edges of broken boards and sharp rocks and nails. We need him to survive, not die from infection.
He’s nearly there. Nearly there!
I clutch at my head, rubbing vigorously at my ears, but neither my piteous groans nor my screaming silences the voices. Nothing does; not drink, not prayer, not confession nor tears. I had thought of jumping into the river during its turbulence, that the current tossing tree branches and wrecking bridges would wash them from my mind and bring me blessed peace, but they badgered me and they held me back, driving me from the physical precipice to the bounds of its lapping waves. And here, they drive me on. I am far from home. I know not where.
Right! Right! Turn to your right, man!
Will he see? Will he know?
There! Look down!
Madness. I was sane, once. I remember silence, and peace. I remember sun on my face and my son laughing in my arms. The taste of my wife on my lips, her hair scenting my pillow on our crackling stuffed bed. How are these thoughts still so real in my mind, in this fetid darkness and wet? There are bones dangling, floating, in the rushing water around my legs. I shudder, stumbling back.
Now I know where I am.
I have been here, many times in the past year.
Are these my son’s bones? My wife’s?
My hand shakes as I reach toward them, wracking sobs tearing at my throat.
No, not those. Look to their tombs.
Your son lives. He is not dead. These are fantasies, Simon.
Further on. Go on! Nearly there, now!
Lies or truth? What is real? I cannot tell. I was a man, confident and strong. I remember celebrating with my lads when my son passed the fifth anniversary of his birth, our songs marking the passage of an evening in the tavern. Weaving home alone, drink still firing my blood, longing for my wife in my arms, and turning right instead of left to take the shortcut through the glen. I forge ahead in the sucking mire of the churchyard, staring at the washed out holes of graves both ancient and new, stumbling as though still drunk.
I lose my feet and fall to my knees. The river and earth are one, here. The water is abating, leaving thick mud in its wake. Graveyard dirt has been washed away. A cold wind catches my wet face, and it is this moment that the clouds choose to part, letting the full moon lend me its glow.
Three coffins, stacked atop each other in a hole dug against a steep embankment. Stones once used to created a rough tomb have tumbled loose in the grip of an unforeseen current. When I touch the stained wood, I expect splinters to stick in my flesh, but there are surprisingly few. The wood is whole, except at the seams. Were I to place my fingers thus, in the cracked dovetail, the whole tower of death would follow the example of the stones once used to protect it.
But the whispers . . . I cannot ignore them. Like summer bugs at sweat, they swarm at my soul, stinging, dodging my swats. In spite of my horror at disturbing the dead in their sleep, an act already perpetrated by the river in flood, I am offered no mercy. The voices want the coffin wood.
They plead: It will be your greatest work. It will save your son and your wife from their own untimely graves. Such beauty in material is wasted underground, buried away from the life-giving sun. Your craft deserves only the best.
They threaten: You risk the life and health of your family in your reluctance! We will take our gifts from you, we whose world you discovered by chance and ignorance! Refuse us, and feel the wrath of the Little People for generations to come!
They cajole: The village will believe the coffins to have been taken in the flood. No eyes are about to see this plunder. You are excused from the sin of violating the grave, for the river has done this work for you.
And then the wind gusts again, cracking a tree limb from a nearby oak and sending it crashing onto the top of the tower. The coffins collapse in a splintering, splaying mess of planks, bones, and rotten cloth. A stinking miasma washes over me. I cry out, crawling back into the filthy water in a feeble attempt to scrub the infection from my skin.
After a time, gentle soothing words coax me around to the mound of planks and human remains. I am steady, now. The wood appears to glisten of its own accord, shimmering with an unearthly light. Every whorl and line glimmers, shining with more than the moon’s glow. It dazzles me, drawing me in, much as did the music and lights in the glen on my drunken walk home.
The first touch of my grimy fingers on the honey-coloured wood brings me the certainty of peace.
The village knew and had always told
In the glen may not you venture
When the moon is high and the cows abed
For the Little Folk are there for sure!
Be not alone when you walk the road,
Be sober and your prayers recite
When the moon is high and dew has fallen
Avoid the short path ’till past midnight.
Men who set forth a’night to walk the glen
Are lost to God forever amen;
The quick way to home is a fool’s goal
When the dancing Fey draw you in.
I hum the old song as I pile the planks into a stack. I am not bothered by the skeletons now. A thigh bone blocking a flat of glowing timber is easy to move aside, as easy as a useless twig. I leave the rotting limbs scattered on the clumping dirt, concentrating on on my task.
When I am done, the lumber is too much for me to carry. Orders whistle in my ears; unquestioning, I pull my sodden shirt from my body and tear it into strips. I select the thickest, roundest thigh bones and tie them to the bottom of my travois. My skin shrinks in the chill air, and I am shivering, but the voices comfort me, singing the song as I begin to drag my prize away toward my home.
Beware the place, beware the dance,
For less a man has sinned,
But the Wee Folk care not for your soul,
when the glen is lit within.
Faerie mounds and faerie rocks
The tales you know are true
Take care, keep to the road at night
Lest the one who’s lost is you.
Who the magic takes is but a trade
A changeling’s left in kind
But for the poor babe taken away
His mother will forever cry!
I reach home at the break of day, legs trembling from the journey through the longest night of the year. Though my heart wanted to go to every bonfire I passed in the distance, the Fae in my head had me tethered as surely as an oxen to a yoke, pressing forward into the dark. No celebration for me, no joyful drink with my lads, no warm bed to gladden with my sweet Beth. The hearth is cold and bare when I open my door, the cottage grey with early morning light.
I stand on the threshold, memories slipping past me as ashes on the breeze.
The midwife gesturing to let me pass, Beth holding little newborn Nathaniel all swaddled in her arms.
The table covered in wood shavings and unfinished carvings, as I’d left it before I’d gone to the privy, and Nathaniel grasping my tools in his chubby wee fingers, wanting to help.
The tears on my wife’s face when I wavered in the doorway, grass stained and stinking of drink, little knowing how much time had passed since I had taken the short path through the glen.
Or that the voices I had heard that night were not to leave my head.
I draw the wood and bones into the cottage and bar the door behind. Fasten the shutters. Blood and matter from my blistered fingers seals the latches against unwelcome visitors, those once-friendly folk who saw my plight for madness and counselled my wife to take our child and leave me for sanctuary with the church. They offer, time and again, to exorcise me, purge my sins, lift the burden of my other-worldly riders, but they do not know, could never know, the control the voices have over me. I am checked as a horse is, bidden in any direction and in any weather. Now, in kindness, they bid me to build a fire, as much to warm my own bones as it is to dry the coffin wood.
In gratitude, I pull the blanket from my empty bed and curl up in it before the fire. Wishing that in sleep, perhaps, there will be a release from torment.
The dreams that come take me back to the glen.
To the rustling meadow grasses and the rushing of the wind in the trees.
To the stars that twinkle so brightly, it feels as though they must loosen their grips and fall down, or else that I will fly up to dance with them in the heavens. With my drunken eyes, the stars have already flown down to the ground, perhaps to gather me along with them on their journey back to sky . . .
My head spins. The ground tilts. In the glen, there are no trees with which to steady my walk. I stumble over a line of mushrooms, the rounded caps looming large from the blades of grass, and fall flat on my back, grinning stupidly at the frolicking lights. There is music humming about me, jolly melodies that tickle my feet and give new life to my legs. I rise, refreshed, whooping and jigging merrily in time to the beat. The sun might rise and set a hundred times, and I might never notice.
When I awaken, it is with the terrible knowledge that it all happened. Notice the rise and set of sun? I might as well have noticed the grass growing, the lengthening of the beard on my face, the holes on my boots wearing through. But I never did.
Again, I’m not sure yet, but the whole point of NaNoWriMo is to get the draft done. You can’t work with an empty page, after all! And I already know what Simon is goingn to do with the coffin wood, on the orders of the Fae. Can you guess?