LXIV: The Last
There remains in my mind no clear notion of the length and duration of my fall, though to this day I retain the impression that it went on for a very long time. At first I seemed to be plummeting into the depths of the earth at a sickening rate of speed. I fell faster and faster by the minute. This went on for what felt like months and years.
At some indeterminate point there came a change. I sensed the rate of my descent gradually slowing. When next I was aware of anything at all, I realized that I was no longer dropping into the dark like a heavy cold stone, but rather floating and drifting on gentle airs like a feather in the breeze. Gradually it dawned on me that I had experienced something like this many times before, always in dreams: a long, precipitous fall ending at last in a soft and pleasant landing.
Slowly a sense of ease and deep comfort enveloped me. I lay motionless for a long while as these and many other thoughts passed to and fro across the surface of my mind. When at last I opened my eyes I saw that there was a wall beside me – not a wall of bricks and stones, but of paint and plaster, its smooth surface faintly overspread with the first gray glimmer of dawn. Affixed to this wall, just above my head, was a shape familiar to me from what seemed a long distant past: a small shelf covered with books, toys, and wooden knick-knacks. Under my head was a down pillow. Sheets, blankets, and a thick patchwork quilt were tucked up around my chin.
Throwing the covers aside, I sat up and looked around. I was in my own bed in my own room. Except for the stump of a candle flickering in the corner, all was softly dark. I jumped out of bed, my bare feet slapping the cold hardwood floor, and crossed to the window where I found the curtains drawn. Quickly I pulled them aside and leaned upon the sill, standing on tiptoe for a better view of the world outside.
The ground beyond the glass was covered with a blanket of pure white snow. All was still and quiet as death. The moon hung high and bright in the gray sky, and one star, huge and red as fire, shone brilliant just above the horizon. At the touch of a breath of wind three vague shapes flew swiftly out of the bare branches – leaves, I thought, though there was something distinctly birdlike about their fluttering movements. Away among the black trees two shadowy figures, suggestive of a man and a horse, were moving off slowly into the distance, fading gradually into the dusk and the mist. A faint red glow began to rise above the treetops at the edge of the world.
I shut the curtains and re-crossed the room. Then I got back into bed and pulled the covers up under my chin. Out of the corner of one eye I discerned the dim shape of a tattered book lying on my nightstand – a book I did not recall seeing there before. Looking up, I became aware of two pale orbs, like tiny stars enclosed within a pair of blue marbles, staring down at me from the bookshelf above my head.
“Is it Christmas yet?” I asked, gazing up at them.
“Hush,” said a familiar voice. “For you it is always Christmas; and for you Christmas morning is always about to rise. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.”
The two blue stars winked and blinked and faded. In the next moment they were gone altogether. The candle in the corner guttered and sputtered and went out. I spoke a word to the fleeting darkness. I yawned and stretched and blessed the rising light.
And then I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
His blue eyes flashed. He cocked his head toward the hill. Looking up, I saw the eight-legged horse grazing upon the green grass that grew around the base of the tree, just above the lintel of the great black door. Nearby a bearded figure with a tall slouched hat on his head was plucking the golden apples and stowing them in a big sack that lay open-mouthed beside him. Among the branches of the tree I caught a glimpse of the fleeting shapes of three birds: a raven, a dove, and a sparrow.
The bird’s eyes flashed again. I followed his gaze to the bottom of the hill. There, beside the darkened door, lay a long wooden ladder.
“I will!” I cried. “I will ascend! I will pluck and eat the golden apples once more!” But when I looked, the small gray bird had gone.
I ran, then, with all my might – ran to the foot of the hill and laid hold of the wooden ladder. Its rails and rungs were rough with splinters and nails, but I seized it nonetheless and flung it up over the gaping doorway so that its head came to rest among the roots of the great tree. Then, with my heart pounding in my ears, I began to climb, hand over bleeding hand, never taking my eyes off the golden fruit and the glossy green leaves of the tree.
I was reaching for the top rung when a great rusty nail pierced my palm. With a cry, I released my hold and thrust my hand into my mouth. As I did, the rung beneath my right foot gave way with a crack like the crack of doom. The wood splintered and dropped away in pieces. An instant later I was falling, down, down, down, faster and faster into the dark depths of the open door below.
* * * * * * * * * *
I came to my senses on the farther bank of the great stream. My friend was nowhere to be seen.
Stumbling to my feet, I squinted up through the falling snow to the top of the little round hill. Its summit rose smooth as the crown of a baby’s head above the surrounding snow-dusted pines. On its highest point stood a noble tree with great broad leaves that trembled and shimmered green and gold in the vibrant air. Directly above the tree hung the Firebird, his face like the rising sun, his tail the tail of a comet. So great was the heat under the canopy of his outstretched wings that I could see the snow melting and running in sparkling rivulets down the flanks of the knoll.
Without another thought I plunged in beneath the pines and quickly traversed the narrow band of woodland, emerging at length in the open space at the foot of the hill. Here I made an odd discovery: a rough cloth bag was lying on the ground just beyond the fringe of trees.
This bag, I thought – I’ve seen it before; and upon closer examination I came to the realization that it was the very sack from which I had once scattered seed over the level ground at the bottom of another round-topped hill: the one near my old home where I had first seen the eight-legged horse grazing in the moonlight.
A snatch of verse went flitting through my mind:
Plant it, sow it in the ground,
Cast it all away.
In its time it shall be found
And live again.
Approaching the hill in quest of a nearer view, I saw the branches of the tree bending under the weight of a crop of large golden apples. These I recognized in an instant as the same golden apples that had once filled the basket given me by the lady of the linen kirtle. At the tree’s foot stood a great door, like the entrance to a mine, a huge dark chasm gaping in the face of the hill. Beyond the timbers of its massive posts and lintel I saw nothing but an empty blackness.
“Yes,” said a voice at my ear. “It is just as you suppose.”
At the sound I gave a start and turned. Once again I found the small gray bird sitting on my shoulder.
“Just as I suppose?”
“Do you not? And did you not expect and hope that it would turn out to be so? That in its time all should be found and live again? Look up on the hillside. Tell me what you see.”
I gazed and bit my lip. “I’m not sure,” I said.
“Are you not? Then look again! This tree, as you have surely guessed, is the source of the apples that renewed your strength and youth. It is the Beginning and the End. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations.”
I pondered this a moment. Then: “Do you mean to say that I have simply come full circle?”
He clacked his beak and shook his head. “No circles,” he said. “Only spirals. Rising spirals. Will you ascend?”
I was longing for a taste of those golden apples. “Show me,” I said.
* * * * * * * * * *
From this point forward everything began to change at an alarmingly rapid pace. As we advanced, the gold-green of springtime quickly darkened into the broad-leafed shades of a slumbering summer woodland. The heavy seed-heads of the grasses and reeds along the banks nodded in the breeze and brushed our hands as we passed. The brook swelled and grew and became a green river.
At length we came to a pool off to one side of the stream. Leaning over its still waters, I caught my breath at the sight of my own reflection. As with my friend, so with me: my appearance was drastically altered. The likeness I now saw staring up at me was that of the princess I had seen so long ago in the mirror affixed to the inside cover of the little book. It was exactly the same as that unforgettable image in every respect except for one thing: the dark stain of imperfection was nowhere to be seen.
But even as I gazed a chill wind stirred the branches, causing me to shiver. At its kiss the leaves of the trees turned instantly to red and gold. A second gust sent them skittering over the ground. I reached for my friend but stopped short at the touch of his hand – the skin of his fingers was dry and withered with age! His face too, as I discovered upon turning to look at him, was deeply wrinkled, his hair long and grizzled, his beard scraggly and white. I fell back a step, hand over mouth, uncertain what to do or say.
There was no time to ponder this new development, for the river, now a rushing torrent, suddenly rose and swept the two of us past the bare white trees and out into a broad open clearing. Here the waters of the channel spread out and emptied into a much wider and deeper stream. Across this great river, amid a grove of pines, I glimpsed a small round-topped hill of an oddly familiar shape.
“This is the last barrier,” cried my friend as a fresh snow began to fall. “That hill is our goal, but we cannot reach it without crossing the river. Follow me! And whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand!”
I nodded and gripped it tightly. Feeble though he seemed to all outward appearance, it was with the energy of a bounding stag that he dashed forward into the flood, pulling me stoutly behind him. The water rose quickly, first to our waists, then to our chests, then to our armpits. After about ten steps we lost our footing altogether and were compelled to swim.
“Head up!” he shouted as I flailed about with my one free arm, desperately trying to steady myself against the force of the stream. But though I fought with all my might to stay afloat, it was of no use. The current was too powerful for me.
I opened my mouth to cry out, but the swirling waters silenced me. The undertow gripped me by the heels and dragged me under. A blinding swarm of bubbles stung my eyes while, in vain, I kicked and groped and tried to scream. I felt his fingers slip from my grasp.
* * * * * * * * * *
With a slight inclination of her head the dark-haired maiden indicated the low arch through which the blood-stained stream left the hall. Without a word my friend and I stepped down into the water and followed it into the shadows. Ducking beneath the mossy stonework of the wall, we stepped out into the cold.
The snow was flying thick and fast when we emerged among the heavily frosted trees of the orchard. Squinting ahead, I saw the stream go flowing straight as an arrow down an irrigation ditch between two rows of yellow pear trees. Above our heads the branches were alive with the silver wings of a thousand wood pigeons that cooed and clucked softly among the snow-covered fruits.
Glancing upward I realized that the Firebird had reappeared in the sky. I saw his flaming eye fix itself upon me as, stooping in flight, he dispersed the darkness with a single downward sweep of one flaming wing. Joining hands, my friend and I followed him out of the orchard and up the wooded slope beyond. Despite the cold and the snow, the water through which we waded (it never rose any higher than our knees) was as warm as a bath.
Soon we found ourselves once more among the wonders of the Christmas forest. The Firebird’s red-gold glare filtered down through the decorated pine boughs on every side. Snowflakes danced and glittered in the intermittent beams, illuminating the surface of the water. Multi-colored gemstones flashed among the pebbles beneath our feet.
But these marvels soon gave way to others. For we had not gone far before the richly ornamented evergreens gave way to a stand of towering oaks, elms, and alders, their twisted branches clothed in a light green mist of freshly budding spring leaves. The snow ceased. A light breeze caressed my cheeks and tangled my hair. The banks on either side of the stream changed in a moment from frosty white to velvety green, and the spaces between the tree boles burst into a profusion of color as primroses and asters poked their heads up from beneath the ground.
My friend squeezed my hand and I turned to look up into his face. What was my surprise to see that he too was undergoing a transformation! He had grown taller, his hands and arms more sinewy and muscular, his hair darker and thicker. On his chin appeared a faint shadow as of the first downy growth of beard. I touched his face, staring with wonder into his deep blue eyes. He gazed back at me and smiled.
Then we pressed on through the warm spring air.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Within the circle of light at the hall’s end was a raised dais. Upon the dais stood a great square four-poster bed of dark, intricately carved wood beneath a high-heaped bower of fragrant lily flowers. The canopy, curtains, and coverlets of the bed were all of scarlet silk richly worked with thread of bright red-gold. The sheets that lay turned back upon the coverlet were of the purest white satin.
As we approached the dais, we became aware of several objects lying on the floor beside the great bed: a battered helmet with a soiled and torn white sleeve affixed to its crest; a blood-stained and shattered lance; a belt from which hung a great sword in a scabbard laced with bands of white cloth; and a long, pointed white shield emblazoned with a red cross and notched with the blows of many hostile weapons.
When we drew near to the foot of the bed, my friend and I were arrested in our progress by the sudden realization that a figure lay there under the satin sheets: a tall, fair-haired man with prominent cheek bones, a high, serene forehead, a long, straight nose, and a square-set jaw and chin. He lay absolutely motionless, his eyes shut, his head propped high on three white pillows, his large sinewy hands spread out before him over the bedclothes. Bare were his shoulders, and the linen strips that bound his gently rising and falling chest were stained a deep red. Through gaps in the bandages a stream of bright red blood flowed down along his right side. Over the scarlet coverlet and the edge of the bed it poured, collecting at last in a large silver basin whence it trickled into a brook of clear bubbling water that ran out from beneath the foot of the bed.
Lully, lully, lully — again the voices of the children singing somewhere in the wood. At the sound, the man in the bed stirred and sighed deeply. We watched him for a few moments, marking the painful twitchings and workings of his mouth and jaw; then followed with our eyes the flow of the bloodstained stream as it ran across the dais, into the darker, further corners of the hall, and out through a low arch in the wall.
In that instant we became aware of the presence of another figure: a dark-haired maiden in a white gown who, stepping out of the shadows, came and stood by the knight at the side of the great carven bed. In the long tapered fingers of her right hand she held a silver needle threaded with a fine strand of silk. With this thread and needle she began to mend his bleeding wounds.
As she bent to her task, her patient stirred again and opened one eye. Turning in the bed, he fixed that eye upon us and we saw that it was no eye at all, but rather a bright point of light, a star of endlessly flowering unfolding brightness, a window into worlds beyond all worlds, even beyond this place of final wonders and shining dreams. In that light a standing stone appeared, a tall stela of granite, just behind the maiden and within reach of her left hand. Upon the stone we saw two words graven as if with a chisel of iron:
* * * * * * * * * *
“I am sometimes so taken with astonishment … at the unspeakable blessedness of some passing minute, that I could not have the heart to be unthankful even if I knew for certain there was nothing besides: nothing before that minute or after it, for ever and ever. And that minute, nothing too, as soon as it was over.”
— E. R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison
At length we saw a clearing in the wood. A shower of diamonds and rubies fell rattling at my feet as I brushed aside a low branch and peered out beyond the fringe of trees into the open space. At the center of a large paved square in the midst of a thickly planted orchard stood a large, high-built, steep-roofed hall, its walls of white stone and heavy timbers, its gables of carved and painted oak. The trees around it, which stood in neatly serried ranks, hung heavy with apples, pears, plums, and brightly flashing gems.
Looking up at my companion, I saw my own feelings of curiosity and expectancy reflected in his expression. Without a word, we joined hands and stepped out into the clearing. All was silent as we approached the imposing structure; no one stood on guard to keep the entrance. Seeing that one of the leaves of the massive double door stood ajar, we put our shoulders to it and shoved. It swung open as easily and noiselessly as a feather on the breeze.
Standing on the threshold and staring into the darkness within, we were overtaken from behind by a stiff blast of wind sweeping down out of the sky. Something soft and cold touched my cheek. I looked up to see snow just beginning to fall in the clearing, lightly frosting the trees and fruits of the stately orchard with a fine and glistening white dust. At the same instant a breath of air from within the hall, warm and scented with pine and roses, struck us full in the face and filled our nostrils with a heady sweetness. As if from a great distance we heard the voices of the children rising up again from the depths of the forest beyond the great house:
Lully lullay, thou tiny child,
Bye bye, lully lullay …
The warm and spicy sweetness of the air drew us in through the doorway, under the low ceiling of a paneled vestibule, and out into a vast, lofty, echoing space like the nave of a grand cathedral. As our eyes grew accustomed to the dimness we saw two rows of massy wooden pillars, huge as tree boles, marching down the length of the building in evenly spaced ranks and converging in a pool of light at the far end of the hall. Toward this spot we slowly made our way with light and reverent tread, careful all the while – though we hardly knew why – to preserve the velvety silence of the place.
* * * * * * * * * *
“It is never out of season to protest against that coarse familiarity with sacred things which is busy on the lip, and idle in the heart; or against the confounding of Christianity with any class of persons who, in the words of Swift, have just enough religion to make them hate, and not enough to make them love, one another.”
— Charles Dickens, Preface to the Cheap Edition of The Pickwick Papers, 1847
Here began the last and most wondrous leg of my fantastic journey, filled with marvels no tongue can tell. Here, as I threaded my way among the radiant portents of the silent shining trees, I felt as if a great hand were gathering up the all the varied strands of my serpentine wanderings and weaving them together into one magnificent pattern, a pattern wild, free, tangled, and yet as beautiful, significant, and permanent as the borders in an illuminated medieval manuscript. This, I know, must seem a strange way to speak about my feelings as I traveled through that wood at the world’s end, but I know no other words to describe the impression it left upon my soul.
On and on we went, further and higher into the forest, the path growing steeper and the trees more numerous with every step of the way. My friend and I spoke little, yet I knew somehow that we were at one in our thoughts and feelings. To our amazement, the lushness and beauty of the undergrowth on the forest floor increased dramatically as the trees drew closer together and the shadows deepened. At first the plush green carpet of grass between the trunks was starred with an abundance of tiny white flowers; but as we pressed forward the floral growth became more exotic, astonishingly vivid and variegated. Huge sunflowers bent their yellow heads in blessing above us. Poinsettias glowed red in the dim light. Mauve and lavender orchids strung themselves from pine bough to pine bough. Here and there the garish Bird of Paradise showed its red, yellow, and purple plumes among the branches. Everywhere nodded the kind lilies. The poppies, daisies, and primroses turned their smiling faces up to us as we passed. As the canopy grew thicker and the gloom deepened, tiny lights began to twinkle in the trees.
But these were only the first and least of wonders. For soon, as we walked on, brightly colored birds of every imaginable hue – scarlet, blue, violet, green, and gold – began to flash across the open spaces athwart our line of advance, singing to us sweetly as we gazed up at them in amazement. Nor was their singing like the music of the birds on the other side of the sunset; for they sang with human voices and in words of human languages. Some of those words were familiar and homey. Others were as beautiful as they were strange and unintelligible. At moments I caught snatches of verse that I clearly understood, some of which seemed to come down out of long-forgotten corners of my memory. At other times, though the words were utterly foreign – even otherworldly – they stirred in me nameless thoughts and longings that seemed for that fleeting instant to be but briefly glimpsed outcroppings of the bedrock of my being. By turns I found myself weeping with nostalgia and sadness and pure joy.
At length I came to the realization that these birds not only sang with human voices, but also had human faces – not cruel and vengeful faces like the Harpies of old, but kind, gentle faces, with soft wrinkles overspreading their features like the ripples on the surface of a clear, deep pool. As we approached, some of them hopped down to perch on the lower branches of the pines and firs and spoke to us words of greeting, comfort, and encouragement. Some wore pearled and gem-encrusted crowns upon their heads, others tall mitres embroidered with scarlet cording and thread of gold.
As I looked, I saw that the boughs of the trees were themselves decked with golden crowns and crystal orbs and silver trumpets and other bright ornaments and treasures of every kind. Nor was that all – for on closer examination I found that the pines and firs were also heavy with ripening fruits of every variety and color: apples, oranges, pears, peaches, pomegranates, persimmons, and even rich, dark clusters of dusky grapes.
* * * * * * * * * *
The bird soared skyward and hovered there a moment, splashing the shifting screen of passing clouds with a spray of burnished gold. The morning star flashed out and twinkled briefly above the tip of his right wing. Then he turned and flew off toward the wooded rise, the boy and I following at a brisk pace up the sloping shore, listening all the while to the song of the children as it rose from the distant reaches of the forest. The grade was steep but unobstructed, grassy rather than rocky. Everywhere around us were the freshness of the morning dew and the intermittent glitter of the sunlight dancing on the tips of the green grass.
Up and up we climbed toward the belt of pines, their Christmas scent floating down to us on the back of the rippling breeze. Halfway to our goal I stopped and turned to look out over the swelling breast of the sighing sea. Gone from that spot at the edge of the lapping waters were the three ladies. In their place I saw three birds spring into the sky and go winging their way toward the fragrant land. In the next moment the canopied cradle, wherein lay the wondrous child, rose slowly into the air, bathed in its own soft light. Then it, too, soared up over the strand, disappearing at last among the green and bristling trees.
At the sight of these wonders my friend and I quickened our gait. A minute more and we had broken into a run. Not long after, shouting and laughing, we crashed through a fringe of columbine and sweet meadow grass, splashed through the cold trickle of a tiny brook, and ducked beneath the shadows of the first overhanging boughs. From somewhere beyond the dark trunks and boles of the trees we heard the voices of the children fading away into the heart of the forest:
Come, all who are able!
Come, come to the cradle!
We pushed on.