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:
* * * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * * *
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.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Now loose the dipper from its golden chain!” cried the small gray bird. “It is no longer needed here, for the last draught has been drunk. A place awaits it in the sky.”
As if fully understanding what was to be done, the boy unhooked the cup from its leash and raised it over his head. For a moment he held it there, flashing and sparkling in the shift and play of the mottled light. Then without a word he reached back and hurled the dipper into the sky. I watched it go like a streak of lightning through the morning air, surprised to see its speed apparently increasing the further and higher it flew. Straight through a gap in the ranks of marching clouds it passed, out to a place where the sky was of a particularly clear and deep blue color. There it stopped and affixed itself to the ceiling of the world. From where we stood we could see it twinkling down on us serenely from its seat in that pure and lofty dome, glowing with an ever greater intensity, a bright new morning star.
As this star passed momentarily behind an advancing line of fleecy clouds the small gray bird leapt suddenly upward from his perch at the margin of the well. In the air above our heads he burst into flame and became the terrible Firebird once more. I heard his voice as I had heard it long ago, like the roar of many waters, calling me to follow his leading. Turning, I saw the red and flickering light of his blazing wings reflected in the smooth, calm, expectant face of my young companion. I slipped my hand into his and together we began to walk up the slope, toward the dark eaves of the outermost trees, never taking our eyes off the fiery figure in the sky.
* * * * * * * * * *
In response to her call my friend sloshed away through the shallow ripples and went running up the beach toward the well. When he had gone, the golden-haired girl, who still held me in her arms, turned and laid me down in the water at the foot of the cradle. Feeling impotent, abandoned, and helpless, I burst into a tearful wail. But in the same moment I realized that I could not remain in that condition long. At another time – before reaching this place beyond the sunset – I would certainly have surrendered myself wholly to it. But everything was different now.
So strong was the draw of the well and the wood, so sweet the children’s song, so great the promise of things to come, that I was compelled, quite apart from conscious thought or will, to reach the shore somehow. With a great cry, I heaved myself up on hands and knees and began to crawl forward, discovering in the process that it cost me surprisingly little effort to do so. I went slowly at first, splashing and gurgling in the salt water; then faster and faster and with greater assurance until, upon reaching the point where the wavelets lapped the shimmering strand, I found myself rising to my feet and taking off at a run toward the stone well.
The small gray bird blinked at my approach, greeting me with a solemn nod of his head. Hands outstretched, I ran to the well’s edge and fell laughing against its cool stones just as the boy lowered the silver dipper down into the mossy darkness. Astounded at my own strength, I pulled myself up over the ledge and peered down into the shaft. As if in reply, the well breathed its airs of dewy freshness up into my flushed and heated face. At the smell of the pure spring water a burning thirst awoke within me. Keen with the desire to taste its cold sweetness, I threw back my head and shouted with joy as my friend, smiling down at me, drew the dipper up by its golden chain and held it to my lips.
What a draught that was! Transcending all identifiable flavors, yet containing within itself the savor of flower and fruit, of sand and stone, of sharp little blades of grass; pure, clear, and radiant as distilled white light; the essence of heaven in liquid form. Even before it touched my lips or tongue, its fresh and heady odor, redolent of both the pines on the beach and the tang of the sea, struck itself into my nostrils with such force that it seemed to pierce my brain. Scales fell from my eyes. My whole body filled with light. I felt as if I had begun to see for the first time.
The boy dipped again and drank from the cup himself. As I watched, a change passed over him such as I had never witnessed before and cannot rightly describe. His physical form assumed an appearance reminiscent of the vibrant, shimmering bodies of the Watchers in the valley of blue glass at the edge of the sea. While remaining solid to the touch – this I tested by reaching out and laying a hand on his arm – he grew gradually luminous and transparent. His face began to shine so that I was tempted to fall down before him in adoration. But before I could carry out my intention I saw his eyes grow round and suddenly knew that he was beholding the very same changes in me!
I stepped away from the well, holding one pulsing and shimmering hand up before my face as the effects of that draught of well-water swept over me. Inside and out, from head to toe, I felt myself growing lighter and stronger. Trembling, I turned and looked off toward the wood above the beach. I shook myself, scattering splinters of light across the ground and over the gray stones of the well.
* * * * * * * * * *
She fell silent again, but not for long. I saw her studying me intently and knew that she could see the question in my face. I needed – or wanted – to know more. So did my companion, the boy who had been the man on the raft so many long ages ago. It was he who put my thoughts into words.
“Please,” he said, his face turned up to hers. “Why the scar over the place of his heart? What does it mean?”
“More than I can say,” she answered. “And far more than you are prepared to hear or understand. But among other things, it means what all scars mean – that he was wounded. More: that the wounding, though past and healed, has left its mark. It means, as I have already told you, that he has become like you. And in so doing he has opened up the way for you to become what you are now – in other words, like him. This wound, this drink from the well, this loss of one eye to enhance the power of the other – all of it has made him a tiny child, here beyond the sun, here at the meeting place of sky and sea and land. Here and everywhere it is Christmas morning. See! He is in the cradle!”
With that she smiled, touched one hand to my cheek, and laid the other on the boy’s shoulder. “Now up the beach!” she said. “To the well and the wood! There’s no time to lose! The others are already far ahead of you!”
Indeed they were. As if from a great distance I could hear their voices drifting to us from the forested bank:
Hush! Hush! See how the child is sleeping!
Hush! Hush! See how he smiles in dreams!
* * * * * * * * * *
Within the canopy, under a coverlet of purest white wool edged with red satin, upon a downy pillow embroidered with thread of gold, lay a child of unearthly beauty. I saw his single eye, as it were a lucent cerulean orb, no bigger than a marble yet deeper than the sky, a little world within itself, cunningly and marvelously made. Where the other eye should have been was no empty socket or sunken lid, but rather something I cannot quite express – something like a star, a point of light of such intensity that I could not look directly into it, a flower of pure luminescence blossoming and unfolding gently outward. It was as if I saw again, compressed, miniaturized, and refined within the apple of that eye, the circle of the sun-gate at the edge of the western sea. The skin of the child’s face was like ivory or marble divinely infused with the suppleness of living flesh, solid and real yet somehow bordering on the immaterial, pellucid and radiant and warm in every pore and cell.
This child lay gazing up at me, his lips parted in the hint of a laughing smile, his little arms stretched out upon the coverlet, his tiny hands open as if in a welcoming gesture. His gown of white linen was unlaced at the throat, and where the garment stood open I saw the scar of deep wound just above the place of his heart.
Seeing that scar, I turned to the three ladies, my eyes filling with tears. The dark one knew my thoughts.
“He is much changed since you last saw him,” she said in reply. “And yet he is the same. His promise, too, remains and has been kept, and your calling fulfilled. For look! Here are the two of you, met together against all hope in this place beyond the setting and the rising of the sun! You have seen him with your own eyes! Christmas morning has come in at last!”
At this I smiled, yet still I pointed persistently at the scar. The lady nodded.
“Yes. He has been wounded to the heart. He has also suffered the loss of his eye. Such is the price he paid for a drink from the well at the edge of the wood. But mark this! His loss has not become the cause of darkness, but rather a perpetual spring of near insufferable light. And if you will accept it, this light is the same light that you and so many others have sought after and followed your whole lives long, whether knowingly or unknowingly. It is the light by which you have made your way to this place. That eye – or lack of an eye – is the star before the dawn. It is the sun-gate at the edge of the sea through which you passed so recently and yet so many ages ago.”
She bent to caress the child’s forehead, then looked up at me and continued.
“That drink from the well, the cost of which was so great, has made him what you see him now to be. He gave his eye and drank the draught that you and all these others might drink it too. He drank it long before coming to your window and enticing you to come out. Indeed, he took that cup before the foundations of this or any other world were laid.
“And now that you have seen and heard these things, there is one thing more you must know: what you have lived, suffered, seen, and felt in following him to this place has been none of your own doing. It is only the outbranching and effoliation of the root that was planted when he gave his eye and chose to take that drink.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Holding me in his arms, the boy splashed forward a few steps, the cloak of heaven-blue trailing behind him through the rippling wavelets. After handing me to the girl with the circlet of spring flowers in her golden hair, he knelt in the water and bowed his head before the three ladies. In answer, the dark one stooped to kiss him. But she of the auburn hair – the dove – raised his face to her own and spoke:
“What gift do you bring?”
Without hesitating, the boy stretched forth his hands. In one he held the red clay lamp. In the other was the basket of golden apples. These the lady received from him with a gracious nod. Then he got to his feet and, unfastening the shining brooch at his throat, took off the cloak of heaven-blue and held it out to her. She smiled.
“Rich and precious gifts,” said she, laying the lamp and basket inside the cradle and draping the cloak over the canopy. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. And all good gifts to the Giver at last.”
Then she turned and looked at me where I lay waiting in the girl’s arms.
“And you, my child,” she said. “What gift do you bring?”
Though my peace had been so deep and my repose so complete, I was shaken to the core at the sound of her voice. My thoughts and feelings fell into disarray, and I was stricken with the unbearable realization that, of all that unnumbered multitude, I alone had been left, the last and the least, with nothing to give.
I opened my mouth to give expression to my distress, but nothing came out. This was no great wonder, of course, for I was well aware by now that I had been reduced at last to the condition of a true infant; that is to say, a non-speaker. I had come to that place where one is left with only the truest means of communication – the eye and the cry – and I understood that words could no longer avail me. Looking straight into the lady’s face, I let out a desperate wail, straining with all my might to tell her that I had nothing to offer, but that I wished to be given myself.
She silenced my cry with an upraised hand. Beaming pleasure and approval at me out of her opal eyes, she nodded to the golden-haired girl, who immediately carried me to the cradle. With a single sweeping motion she drew the curtain aside as the girl, still holding me close, knelt in the water beside the little bed. Then she crooked a finger and beckoned me closer.
“Your wish is granted,” she said. “Come and see.”