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The Magnum Opus

August 21, 2008

Yes indeed, here’s the third draft of my short story:

Finding Solace

To feel the soothing touch of a loved one, to feel the warmth of a caring embrace, to feel the presence of a human being but once again… would you kill for that?

***

Beware, lest you incur the wrath of the Fair Folk, my grandmother used to say. We all laughed at her, we always did. Yet we loved her stories. Crouched together before the hearth we listened to tales of beauty unheard of, of passion, of valour, of sorrow. But did we actually believe?

Of course we didn’t believe.

It all started… I wish I could tell you when it all started, but the passing of years mean less and less
to me as they go by. I was born and raised in the shadow of Bryn Myrddin, in the countryside of Wales. If I could still remember, I’d tell you about my family. I would tell you of my parents. Of how wonderful they were. At least I think they were. I like to think they were. And I would tell you of my little brother. And my two sisters. Or were they three? I do not know, and I am sad to say I do not care. For this story is not about them. It’s about me.

We loved to play, me and the other boys. Blue-eyes, Hopafoot, Sunshine. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember feelings, voices, some odd features. A pair of eyes, a swollen foot, a blonde fringe. Our favourite game was hide-and-seek and that, that is where it all began. At a simple little game of hide-and-seek.

My favourite hiding place was deep inside the woods a few hundred yards from our little hamlet. Walking through an enclosed sheep pasture you could get up on the far side of the hill, of Bryn Myrddin, and there amid the gnarled old beeches and dense thickets of ferns was my favourite spot in this world. There was something eerie about that place, especially during the autumn when milky white wisps of mist emerged from the deep reaches of the woods to caress my cool skin. But that was not the true cause of the mystical charm of that place. No, the true cause was the ancient well.

Maybe well is the wrong word to use. It was more of a natural stone basin, not more than a fathom across. If it had been carved by nature or the hands of man I do not know but by then it had at least become part of the surroundings, continually being filled up by a small brook that was purling down the hill. There I used to sit – with my back against the well and the rippling of the brook singing in my ears – for hours while the other boys were vainly overturning every single hay stack back home in search of me. I never saw a living soul there, neither did I ever tell anyone of it. It was my special place in this world, only mine. Or so I thought.

I hadn’t even reached the well when I realized something was not as it should be that day. I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first but as I delved deeper among the beeches I felt that something was wrong. Really wrong. Maybe it was the song of the blackbirds in the usually so silent woods, maybe it was the out of place scent of apple blossoms, or maybe it was the chilling touch of the mist on a summers eve. But nothing of that unsettled me as much as the woman I found sitting with her back against my well.

Of all the things hidden deep within my memories of the past, two things stand out. Two things remain clear and free of the shadows of oblivion. It’s the well. And it’s her.

So, where should I start? The eyes, the bright, shining eyes? The flowing mane of hair? The divinely smooth skin?

No. I shall start with her voice.

“Who are you?” she called out as I entered the clearing. The sky seemed to ripple above us as her harsh words tore through the air. There was something uncanny about her voice. Something distinctly inhuman. It was like iron clanging upon iron, and a deep echo remained long after she had fallen silent.

“Who are you?” she demanded once again, her voice rising to a ghastly shriek that made my blood freeze. I was dead frightened. Paralyzed. I couldn’t but watch this fell woman staring at me with her bright blue eyes, glistening with a frosty shine.

“Who dare defile this place?”

I didn’t see her get up but suddenly she was standing right in front of me, just some two feet away. The curious scent of apple blossoms nearly overwhelmed me as she came closer, her pale pink dress flowing in a wind from nowhere.

“I’m just a boy”, I stammered at last. Then I closed my eyes and fell down on my knees to await judgement from this fey woman, her pallid face framed by flowing jet-black hair etched on my retina.

“Why have you come here… boy?”

Her voice was calm, resembling a soft breeze rather than the thunderous roars of before. But I still wouldn’t look up. I hid my face in my hands. Weeping tears of fright.

“I come here to be alone”, I sobbed, “to find solace.”

“I wish I could find solace in loneliness”, she replied thoughtfully, her voice sinking to a deep, soothing whisper.

“I’ll… I’ll… just go home and let you be”, I sobbed desperately.

“No”, she whispered. A cool breeze caressed my skin and one smooth finger touched my forehead. “I’ll leave you… alone.”

And with that the scent of apple blossoms was gone. The chilly winds were gone. The singing of the blackbirds was gone. At long last I opened my eyes. The mists lingered. But I was alone.

***

My memories grow dim at this point. The pictures fade into a deep darkness. Thick layers of mist seem to separate me from the world I once knew. The mists yes, ever the mists. They seem to have become my faithful companions, my friends, my lovers, my family, my fate. But even though they have clouded my mind’s eye, my feelings keep running free of their reins, ever as passionate, ever as painful as once they were. And I shall never forget how I felt upon coming home on that fateful eve.

I was sure the others must have been found hours ago when at long last I came staggering back to the hamlet. I returned to the barn to join them but no one was there. I searched all of our usual haunts, but no one was there. I called out their names: Blue-eyes, Sunshine, Hopafoot, poor little Hopafoot, I shall never make fun of your limp again if you’ll just show yourself!

But no one was there.

As the blackness of dusk shrouded our hamlet I finally returned home. Tears of anger, spite and fear were burning in my eyes as I entered the place I had always believed would be my bulwark of defence against the horrors of the outside world. How could I possibly have imagined I would receive my deepest wounds in that very place?

The scent of dinner lay thick in the air when I entered and I felt a pang of disappointment as I saw they had started without me. Mother and Father were there, and little brother, my sisters, and Grandmother of course.

“I’m home”, I called out, a ravening hunger burning inside me.

No reaction.

“Mother, I’m home”, I shrieked, my hunger overshadowed by agony and fright once again.

Still there was no reaction.

I fell down on my knees, tears streaming and beastly claws tearing at my heart. “Look at me”, I sobbed.

Then, at long last Grandmother looked up. She seemed to be gazing at a spot behind me for a moment, then with a sad look upon her face she turned back to her plate. The others hadn’t stopped eating at all.

At that moment I realized there was no chair for me. Howling like a dying animal I dashed into our bedroom just to come upon my worst fear.

There was no bed for me.

However, slamming the bedroom door open gave me just the sign of life I had desired. As I sat there in what had once been my bedroom, alone with the ever-growing anguish, I heard one thing.

The silence.

They had stopped eating. I heard hushed whispers, and not even the fact that I couldn’t understand their words seemed to bother me then. Father stood up and closed the bedroom door. Shut inside my old bedroom a curious feeling of glee drove away my pain. With a twisted laughter I slammed the door open once again.

I am ashamed to admit it, but at that moment I savoured every inch of Father’s horror stricken face.

In a sudden rampaging rage that deafened every sense I unleashed all of my anguish and sorrow upon the kitchen. I could describe clattering of plates, dusty clouds of flour, breaking of furniture or haply the shrieks of my family. But then I would be lying. I don’t remember that. I remember but one thing. And that is the feeling of satisfaction as I looked upon the havoc that I had wreaked.

Though, that sense of satisfaction didn’t last long. Minutes later I found myself running out of the village and springing into the inky darkness of the night time woods. I was tripped by roots and stones, scourged by branches and twigs, and burned by an ever-growing fire in my lungs. But I kept on running, kept on striding, kept on springing, until I fell down exhausted on the very top of Bryn Myrddin. For how long I lay there, I do not know.

***

When my memories grow clearer again I was far away from Bryn Myrddin, further than I had ever been. Maybe I had already crossed the sea I do not know, and neither does it matter. I had become alien to all humanity, be it in Wales, in France, the New World, the sun-scorched South or the furthest East. The first years were nothing but an escape from the world and myself. Every day I found new hamlets, new towns, new cities, but nowhere did I belong, and for every human being that saw right through me I sank deeper into despair. Too juvenile of mind to really understand a deathwish I kept on fleeing. As the years passed by the thought of ending it all did descend upon me every now and then. However, there was something more important. I needed answers. I needed to know, needed to know what had happened to me. My flight turned to a search, no, a hunt. A hunt for the woman who had started it all.

Year upon year passed by. The cities of mankind reached for the heaven above. Black clouds of smoke veiled our world. And nowhere did I find her. Not in Wales, not in France, not the New World, not the sun-scorched South, nor the furthest East. I could have wandered for eternity, but fate list something else. At long last she found me.

***

I was awakened by birdsong this morning. Looking up at the dawning sun I found myself amid a whole choir of blackbirds greeting me with shrill tones. An odd feeling of content growing inside I stood up to greet them.

“Where’s your mistress?” I called out and as one the blackbirds set out towards the east. Tirelessly I followed them over fields and through woods with a fresh breeze of spring caressing my face and not until the sun had reached its highest point in the sky did we stop.

I am sure numerous ages of man must have passed but she hadn’t changed at all. Resting against the biggest apple tree that I have ever laid my eyes upon she silently contemplated me with the same bright blue eyes as had haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember. White and pink petals of apple blossoms seemed to be snowing from the gnarled branches and a bright pink layer of leaves lay as a blanket upon the ground. I wanted to rage, I wanted to hate. I wished for an all consuming frenzy to rise within me but all thoughts of anger and spite were deafened by her calm gaze. A long moment of silence and stillness passed by before she finally spoke:

“Won’t you sit down here beside me, boy?”

The last traces of hatred died within me as I heard her voice. This woman, the monster and demon of my ages of solitude was pleading. She was pleading to me. Slowly I walked forward but I stopped a few steps away from her.

“Are you afraid?”

I nodded slowly. Yes, I was afraid, but I didn’t know of what.

She offered me a weak smile and answered my nod.

Silence.

At last I cleared my throat and asked the question that had plagued me for so many years:

“Who are you?”

“Call me Eglantine.”

“Is that your name?”

“No.”

Silence.

“Do you have a name, boy?”

“I did.”

“You don’t remember?”

“No.”

Two crystalline tears trickled down her cheeks.

“I am sorry.”

“What did you do to me?”

“Won’t you sit down beside me?”

“No.”

She nodded slowly and contemplated the pink blossoms before her.

“You are fae-touched, boy.”

“What… do you mean?”

“That was the greatest dream of the heroes of old.”

“But I am no hero of old.”

She nodded once again and for a long while the silence was broken only by the faint rustling of falling blossoms.

“No one believes in the old stories anymore”, she sighed at last.

“What does that have to do with me?”

“That’s why you don’t belong, boy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Humans don’t believe we exist, therefore we don’t.”

“Beware, lest you incur the wrath of the Fair Folk”, I whispered to myself.

“That’s right”, she replied with a short nod.

“Are there more?”

She shrugged hesitantly.

“I’m the only one left.”

“Why?”

“Most of my kin faded away as humanity ceased honouring our sacred oaths and groves, as humanity ceased believing.”

“And what about you?”

“I linger. I cling to this ghostly life.”

“Why?”

“Because I fear… what lies beyond.”

Silence.

“Won’t you… sit down beside me?”

“Yes.”

I walked the last few steps and sat down to her left. Smiling sadly she grasped my hand with icy cold fingers.

“Thank you.”

We sat like that for a long time. But I had one question left. One that my soul was burning to ask.

“Is there anything I can do?”

After what felt like an eternal silence she finally nodded.

“You can master the art of humanity.”

“What is that?”

“The thing that truly sets us apart. The thing that a faerie would never do.”

“Is it hard?”

“No. But you have to live with it ever after.”

“I would do anything.”

“Anything?”

“Yes.”

She let go of my hand and stood up with more tears trickling down her cheeks. Turning her back against me she started walking away.

“Wait”, I called out, “what is it? The art?”

She span around and met my gaze one last time.

“It’s perfectly simple”, she sneered. “What do you humans do that no one else would? You kill each other. It’s the art of death.”

And with that a violent gust of wind whipped up the fallen blossoms to a cloud of pink and white. When they had finally lain down to rest again I was alone.

***

To feel the soothing touch of a loved one, to feel the warmth of a caring embrace, to feel the presence of a human being but once again… would you kill for that?

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