November 4th, 1949
I am so excited. I can only imagine how you are reading this letter—- I assume you have slept late, as always, and the postman has dropped it by and you are scratching your head and squinting at it (because I do not think you ever get letters—- I cannot remember any). But before you see my name and react, my darling, just imagine this:
A forest stiller than any forest has ever been. Gray dawn light pours through the trees. They are slender, with smooth gray trunks. The sky is contemplating snow, loosing a few flakes just to see what it’d be like. And in the center of the trees, dark and crumbling but magnificent, are many columns, and part of an old, old arch.
Is it not beautiful? It is. I know it is, cause I’ve seen it.
Don’t be angry. I know you’re sure to be angry, you’d be mad not to be, but please don’t. I can explain. Promise.
The reasons for my silence are many, and I am sure that if I were to sit down and write them all out it’d take at least another couple of letters. I suppose that if you were to hold a gun to my head (and I am reasonably sure you would not), I’d say the motivations for my incommunicado status would be:
1. Financial matters. They are, as always, a bit dicky. Certain accounts must empty into certain other accounts, which must then be split up into other accounts only to be later pooled in an account that is there and certainly not here, and etcetera. Bit like making sausage, really.
2. People were quite eager to get their mitts on the money generated by all these accounts. However, after a somewhat unwise investment, all accounts experienced a sudden and very thorough cessation of funds. One day it was just all zeroes, all across the board. Very startling for me. As such, I had to duck out of the London scene and seek clemency abroad, like many a picaresque romantic before me.
3. Also, once I knew this surprise was coming, I did not wish to spoil it.
But for now just be a good sport and know—- I will be forthright here—- that there is a tangible, genuine part of God’s green earth that will soon belong to yours truly, and what is mine being also yours, it will also beyours. A piece of countryside, of wilderness, a secluded cabin to call our own. Darling, it’s wonderful. It will be wonderful, when you get here.
And it is also quite possible that I have bought us a part of history. And I mean that. History that is as real and as tangible as the land it is carved into. History of great controversy, of great achievements, of great victories and failures. And they are all buried here! I can see them out the window as I write this. Well, part of them, at least. The idea is tantalizing.
I will admit, this portion of the gift might make it one of those gifts one secretly gives to one’s self, to a certain extent. But I do have my own interests to look after, you know. I can’t allow myself to be bored out here living your dream in these pastoral hills and valleys.
Ah, well. I believe I might’ve given it away. I’ll let you ruminate on it for a while. Give you something to do.
Brush up on your French. And keep yourself healthy. You’ve a trip ahead of you. More details to come when matters settle.
November 23rd, 1949
Well, my God, darling. I expected many things—- gratitude, shock, foul language—- but I never expected that.
For starts, you know my heart could never belong to another. From the day I first laid eyes on you, I knew my troth was thoroughly plighted. I am in fact scandalized and shocked to hear your recriminations. Why would you ever think I ran out on you with someone else? I’d sooner die. Though I am sure it wounded you for me to make my departure without a decent good-bye, please know it wounded me a thousand times more. I fretted that you’d leave me, or find another—- but it sounds from your rather intense language that you have not.
So I am, regardless, cheered.
Money issues did help me face facts, though. I did not have a future in London. Never did. I am a tender young scholar, a historian, not a hard-bitten, keen-eyed rounder. I had to leave. But, I was flush just enough to make some of our dreams come true.
Because you are correct, Laurence. I have purchased Anperde Abbey. I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned that bit about the French.
Well, I suppose I should say I’ve bought what’s left of the fucking place. It took me nearly three weeks to get here, trains and trains and trains, and now that I’ve got here I find there’s almost nothing left except for the ancient house that once belonged to the old marquis, which is a reeking, soaking dump of a place. Bunch of rats had been squatting in there, gave them the boot (or the broom). Suppose it’s my fault. I’d never seen a picture of the place. Only read about it from old Prothgar, and he always was a loopy bastard.
I wrote my last letter, and am writing this current one, from the pantry, which is the only room that doesn’t have water pissing down your neck at all hours of the day. There are strata and strata of wallpaper on top of one another, all wilting and drooping—- flowers bow down to show foxes, and behind those soldiers, and so on—- it’s wallpapers, all wallpapers, Laurence, all the way down. Bet if you got an interior decorator he’d shit himself. There’s some furniture, not a lot. Iron lawn furniture’s the only thing I trust. I dragged it in and put it around the old stove and got a fire started quick. Took me ages. Don’t remember my schoolboy camping days that well, I suppose.
This place apparently stopped being an official estate sometime in the 19th century—- though, really, who knows, because this whole country is still in shambles. Records aint what they used to be. I bought the property from a farmer who hacked a section of the forest and planted onions willy-nilly. Fucking onions growing in the courtyard, the driveway, everywhere. You should see them round the outhouse. It’s absurd.
But part of the abbey—- just part—- still remains. If you did not have your eyes open you would’ve never seen them. The columns, I mean. Eighteen columns, black and gray with age, standing among the tree trunks. There is an arch at the end, where the entry would have been, I think. Oddly silent place. Nothing moves there. Everything else drips with snow and ice, but not there. There the snow stays frozen. No tracks, even. Just white. Didn’t want to walk there at first, even though it was why I bought the place. Felt like I’d be using a Gainsborough as a coaster.
But I couldn’t contain myself, and I did some digging when I first found it. Naturally, didn’t get much, what with me using only the old des mains and the ground being solid as a rock. Thought I’d gotten frostbite from clawing at that mud. But I can tell there’s something down there. There’s got to be. Cannot wait to find the foundations, or whatever else is there.
Do you recall reading about old Prothgar, Laurence? Archaeologist chap who beat me here by a lifetime or so. I probably made you read about him, to be honest. (Apologize.) Bit of a nut, everyone thought, spending his time out in this wet, cold country. But I am convinced that if the whole Franco-Prussian thing hadn’t popped up he would’ve struck solid gold. Which I will now, of course.
Listen, Laurence, I know you have your doubts, and you are perfectly right to have them, what with this all coming out of left field and all. But you always wanted a country house and though I know this one is in a right state it’s nothing you and I can’t handle. The hills around here must be splendid in spring and summer. The village nearby is charming. Parts of it—- the parts that weren’t blasted apart by the Jerries—- still have a lot of the medieval architecture about it. (Some of the locals seem pretty medieval themselves, to be honest—- think bathing still hasn’t caught on here.) But the milk is divine, and the cheese miraculous. Wine’s good too. Can buy a magnificent bottle of Beaujolais for pocket change. Only thing that keeps the damned cold out of me.
I know it might seem like I’m asking a lot of you. Uprooting one’s self and running out to the frosty fringes of the continent all on the bidding of a shamed lover is a tall order. But I know you, Laurence. I know you’re not happy in London. Advertising is not a career for someone with your talent—- it is a prison, and if you stay there your skills will rot. You’ve tried to convince me otherwise before, but it never worked because I knew you were only trying to convince yourself. You are an artist, Laurence. Come to this place and I will take care of you and you can paint and draw all day long if you wish.
I do notice that you have not mentioned whatever your friends and family have said about my offer. I don’t need to ask—- I know perfectly well what they think of me. But, do you know, I can’t blame them. Looking back on my life from here, I see I have not often acted well, and though you do know I love you, you must also know that I have not treated you well, not always. (Viz the last three months.)
I will make amends. Come here to me. You will love it, I am sure of it. Though it’s pretty bastardly harsh here in winter I bet it’s going to be a sight in spring. It will inspire you. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “idyllic” until I got here. The homes have got fucking stables, for Christ’s sakes. Big ones. Don’t you want a horse? I’m pretty sure I can get you a horse. Probably from the locals. Give em a watch or some fancy beads and they’d give me their daughters.
Not that I’d want them.
Yours, forever yours,
December 9th, 1949
Understand completely. Your health remains paramount. Don’t let it trouble you. Though I do miss you. Need something warm at night out here. I swear, the sheets are so frozen in the morning they crack and crinkle when I roll over.
But I am overjoyed to hear your answer. Quit today, quit tomorrow—- hell, you’ve probably already quit by the time you’re reading this. Take time for your health, Laurence, but otherwise, do not hesitate.
However, I have been rereading your letter, and I resent a lot of your implications, Laurence. Maybe all of them. I am not desecrating history—- I am a trained archaeologist and medievalist, and just because I skipped school a few years short of the necessary degrees doesn’t mean I lack the proper skills. Also, I am a handyman and an outdoorsman and an adventurer as needs fit. A true Cambridge man adapts, that’s what we always said, and so it is.
And speaking of Cambridge men, you’re proving yourself a pretty piss-poor one if you don’t remember anything about this place except what I jabbered on about. I am especially offended that you doubt the value of my investment. This here, my dear son, this place I am currently sleeping, writing, eating, and shitting in, could turn out to be one of the earliest Christian establishments in Northern Europe. It pops up in a few places, but chiefly the interest comes from a mention, albeit in a somewhat side manner, in the writings of Medardus. Talks about “a small abbey or chapel near Metz whose origins are unknown and whose priest is forever absent.” (I quote from memory. Translation’s always been a bit hinky.) This would have been around 534 A.D., give or take a couple of years, as one has to when dealing with such vague stuff. But for years no one was entirely sure what the hell he was referencing there.
I’m almost positive he meant Anperde. Can’t be anything else. But that’d make it a landmark, Laurence, a forgotten landmark. Those are the best kinds to discover. This place was around within spitting distance of Christ himself!
Though Prothgar was here first. But the hell with that old trout.
It is an odd place, historically speaking. Right in the heart of Clovis’s territory. Can’t imagine how much blood has been spilled here, either back in those wars or the past couple that sometimes still seem to be going on. And to think it all now feeds onions. Hilarious.
The abbey has a lot of history itself, though. There are a couple of stories people still tell about it at the village when it was up and functioning. (Can’t have been the original abbey. So it must have been rebuilt, I suppose—- but when? No records show. V. exciting.) My French is awful rusty, and what I know aint polite, but I plan on mining the hell out of them when I can.
Speaking of mining, I did some digging around the abbey’s remains. Tough as shit in this weather. Wished to die from abt. 3-7 P.M., judging by the sun. (My watch stopped the second I started digging, the cheap little shit.)
Thought about it. Dying, I mean. Just lying down, letting the time wash over me. Silly thing to think. But I did finally strike some of the original foundation. Stones are green and gray, thousands of microorganisms livin’ in them, I’m sure of it. Thing is, it’s about three feet down, which is an awful long way to dig all on your lonesome.
Am not deterred, though. I shall unearth it, and whatever it hides.
Here is the odd thing, though—- do you know, I recall being sure this place was also mentioned by Saint Remigius. Think so, at least. Read half the stuff the old holy bastard ever wrote, so you’d think I should remember. But, if memory serves, I think he had some rather unpleasant things to say about it. Can you check that for me? Perhaps send part of the old library? Would appreciate it.
It is good to be back to real studies. Makes me regret ever leaving the fold of academia. Always thought I could’ve been a star. But then I’d never have met you, Laurence, and that’d be a pity. Just be all boxed up, pouring over books. Souls like mine and yours were never meant to be indoorsy, were they, which is why I am here and you are en route.
One other thing—- since I was in no mood to war with the ground anymore, did some examining of the columns. They are quite old, almost worn away. Am unable to identify the crosses on them. But one—- don’t know which, exactly, as this structure doesn’t adhere to any layout I’m familiar with—- has an odd thing in the middle. It’s a carving of what looks like a man holding a triangle into the sky. Strange. Don’t know it. Can you do some checking?
Much lonesome love,
December 23rd, 1949
Please stay in London as long as needs be. I don’t need your lungs failing on you. Wait out the winter, if you need to. I will send you finds—- just let me know—- and I will wait here. I’ll be lonely, but I have things to occupy myself.
Made lots and lots of progress over at the ruins. I have bought tools and ropes from the local tradespeople and have dug out almost half of the original foundation of the abbey, or at least I think I have. If I ever unearth the altar I will kneel at it and thank fucking Christ this place is so small. I generally gauge it would have been twenty feet high and about fifteen feet wide. Not sure how long, but narrow. Almost makes me think of a greenhouse. To our modern eyes I’m sure the abbey would seem a bland little building, but in those savage days I bet it would have been a marvel.
The tradespeople I bought my equipment from did seem quite interested to hear where I lived. When I told them I’d bought the old marquis’s house, they asked very keenly if I’d had any callers. I wasn’t sure what they meant—- sales people, I asked, or visitors from the town? We bumbled over it a bit (wish my French was better) but I believe they said there were children whose families live in the forest (like gypsies or travelers, I suppose) who play tricks on nearby residents. Except no one really lives nearby anymore, so that would just leave me. I told them I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them, and asked ‘‘em why the police didn’t just go in and send all the bastards packing. That just confused them.
I think they said children. Either way, I have seen no one in the forest.
That’s not the most interesting thing, though, darling—- I was examining what I think might have been the inset for the dais when I found a hollow or gap in the floor behind it. It is not an unintentional hole, I am sure of it. It is a door. It goes somewhere. Perhaps a crypt? Not sure. It is filled up with hard, frozen mud, and I have a bad time of it, but sometimes I put my ear to the stone floors, tap on them, and hear something hollow. Maybe I am imagining things.
Little disappointed to find none of the books you sent can identify the carving on the column. Disappointed because I don’t know it, yet only a little because I might have found something new—- more on that in a bit. I wonder about that triangle, though. Is it a blade? Not sure. Frustrating.
I do keep finding artifacts around the ruins, however. Lots of iron and bronze bits. Not sure what they were. Think I found about half a cross. Stored it safely. To think what I touched—- what I found—- will be in a museum one day.
But one—- and this really is astounding so please keep it under your hat—- was found totally whole.
It is a sickle—- a little hand sickle. And it is still in marvelous shape. It appears to be bronze but I have a lot of trouble believing that because how the hell could a thing like that last so long? I found it west of the ruins, just by about two dozen yards. I cannot imagine what else is in this hill.
I have spent long hours examining the sickle by candlelight. It is quite heavy, so heavy it hurts my hand to hold it (perhaps I do have frostbite). It has many engravings, many of them quite sharp—- cannot stop nicking myself. Ceremonial use, almost certainly. The engravings are unclear, but I believe they depict a man using it in some sort of funeral ritual. He stands over the body and uses it to sever them from something—- it appears a bit umbilical. Perhaps it is the life force, or something. Need to read my Frazer again. The blade-idea would make sense, wouldn’t it, in connection with the engraving on the column of the abbey—- but this engraving is totally different. They’re from two different eras, clearly.
Anyways, not sure what the hell a thing like this was doing around a Christian abbey. But you know how these pagan faiths tend to blend with Christianity when it first pops up. It’s what makes the Irish so entertaining.
I shall keep this treasure hidden under my mattress. It’s mine for now. The intellectual world can have it later.
I do wonder what I must look like to the locals wandering by. (They do not wander by, ever. Not sure why. But if they did.) I sit out here in the frozen forest with every surface peppered with candles and lanterns, digging away. Covered in snow and mud. They would think me a ghost or a madman, or the ghost of a madman. Perhaps I am.
If I can find documented proof that this is what I believe the abbey to be, though, do you know what it would mean for us, Laurence? Why, I could win my way back into Cambridge. I could have old Nettles (the bastard) eating out of my hand. I, a lone adventurer, an unhappy exile, would have gone wandering and brought back one of the greatest medieval discoveries in recent times. I’d like to see the looks on their faces then.
But, of course, I wouldn’t actually go back to Cambridge. I’ve had my fill of that. I’d do it because I am a scholar and I pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, all that rot.
It’s true, though. To walk where saints and kings once walked is nothing short of divine to me. I brush my fingers across lost times like a harpist across her strings. Suppose I’m just a fool that way.
Or perhaps I like my sojourns in the forest. It is an odd place. Plays tricks with your head. On the outside it seems like just a little clump of trees, about five acres of them. But on the inside it just goes on and on. It takes me a while to find the ruins every time. Maybe I have no sense of direction.
Or perhaps it is the stillness. I have never been in a place as still as the center of the wood. It is untouched.
Concerned about the lanterns, though. I am sure I always put them out, but the other day while walking back to the house I spied some lights on in the trees. White ones, like many candles. Thought I’d left some unattended. Even though it is wet, never know, could start a fire. But I wandered over there and found there were no lanterns at all, unlit or otherwise. Must have been imagining things due to exhaustion.
I know I should wait for spring. But I just can’t, darling. Patience was never an easy virtue of mine, and besides, you know me. I never catch ill.
Merry Christmas. Wonder what Christmas was like out here in those days. Probably killed and salted all their livestock when it got too cold. That’s the yuletime for you—- a grim celebration right before the monstrously brutal winter months. It’d be like looking down the barrel of a gun.
This lands wishes to eat you. To eat me, I suppose. It does not know I am a modern, civilized chap. Again, I imagine blood seeping through the snow and the mud. Blooming into the bones of the world.
The cold and the damp and the dark do strange things to a person.
Christ, I would kill for a neighbour. Just someone.
January 1st, 1950
Happy New Year, darling! Hopefully this will be a fresh and happy one for us. New life over here, away from gossip and spying eyes. I cannot wait.
V. sorry RE the “never catch ill” comment. Meant no offense. You know I am enslaved to you. Do not be so sensitive, I beg you.
I am glad to hear you are doing well, though. Do your stretches, get outdoors. Though this winter is no fun here without gas, I am sure these climes will be better for you than London. I talked to the locals about spring, and summer. It puts a light in their eyes. It is glorious here, I am sure of it.
This place might also be right fucking strange, I will admit. I think someone must be playing with me, but I don’t find it funny—- someone’s mucking about at the ruins, and not just me. If you doubt me, know this—- a whole fucking corner of the wall has appeared, overnight.
Yes, a whole corner. About three or four feet high at the tallest point, and about six feet long. I was trudging through the forest to it yesterday morning and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thought I’d gotten turned around, gotten lost. Fucking mad bit is that the bricks that compose the corner do not look new at all—- same gray and green discolourations, same stone type. And they do not look like they’ve been disturbed. It’s like they’ve been there for ages. Couldn’t believe it. Perhaps it’d been hidden before and a tree had cracked under the frost, revealing it. But saw no tree, or anything that could’ve hidden it. Consider my head scratched.
That is not the only thing. Found footprints in the snow outside the house a few mornings back. Coming from the forest. Looked like the fellow—- whoever he or she was—- stood at the treeline, facing the house—- watching me? But the feet were so tiny. Maybe those children the merchants talked about, but I haven’t seen anyone in the forest at all. Gave me the fucking creeps, I tell you. I’d suspect the locals, but the locals never come here. They still regard the abbey as sacred, unapproachable, despite it being basically a bunch of rocks by now.
Am warming up to the locals, and they to me, slowly. I’ve been playing the good foreigner and buying a lot of beer for folks. (And, before you ask, not on credit.) Discovered they do not refer to the abbey as Anperde, but as “Année Perdu”—- Lost Year. I asked why, and one of them—- Albert, who, despite being a fat, boasting, boor of a creature, is quite likeable—- laughed as if I was an idiot.
I suspect they hold me in some contempt, as perhaps they should, for I am a rich little lordling swanning in here and trying to set up shop. But Albert, I think, has attempted to take me under his wing, and I reluctantly obliged. He took me to a card game the other night, which, since you know my history, was quite unwise. But I will have you note, Laurence, that I resisted. Though they seemed a beerish bunch and soused out of their skulls, and thus easy pickings pour moi, I did not rumble up some cash and plunk er down. I did not.
I should have gone home, really. Suppose I wanted to test myself. But Bertie had a bit too much tipple and insisted I accompany him to a favorite house of his, and I, being a little tippled too, did so without really thinking what sort of house a salt of the earth person like Bertie would visit in such a state. But I figured it out right swiftly when we walked in the door and a comely (I guess, though I am no expert) girl turned and asked us somethingen francais, and Bertie roared something back at her, and she, with the air of someone putting out candles for company, went and popped her tits out.
Well, I was astonished. About fell over. Never in my life had I ever expected to be in such a situation. Made a lot of apologies, talked of some girl I had far away I’d promised myself to, all that moony-eyed stuff. The girl didn’t seem to care, and neither did Albert, who shrugged and began negotiating the necessities for a poke.
I laugh about it now, but I can’t imagine what it’d be like to go for girls. Quite happy where I am, think you very much.
Have no fear, Laurence. I abstain, entirely.
Miss you. Couldn’t last til midnight, but be assured my last thoughts were of you, raising a flute of champagne to the moon. My bones ache, and not solely from work. This place tires me out. Found a bunch of gray hairs the other morning. I am silvered—- it is as if the snow is seeping into me.
February 9th, 1950
Oh you do natter on like an old maid sometimes, Laurence. Albert is harmless. And I remain untempted by any queynte, however cavalier and comely its presentation. It remains unpleasing to me. And shouldn’t I be more worried about you? Haven’t you always referred to me as your “exception”? How did you put your college days—- you had sex with girls, but fell in love with boys?
Yes, that was it. And to think you’re the jealous one.
But enough of this. Though I do love our quarrels, I have more important things to discuss.
I will start with good news. After several weeks of work, I have successfully excavated the entirety of the foundation of the abbey. It is almost exactly as small and rectangular as I’d originally estimated. Bit dull, shape-wise. I have also cleared away much of the door in the floor behind the dais.
It is stairs, Laurence. But I have never quite seen stairs like this before. They are very steep, with each stair being nearly two feet tall. It makes no sense to me. The average human heights were much smaller back then, due to malnourishment. They were tiny people, really. But these stairs, which are very much man-made, of course, appear to be made for legs so long I can’t imagine them. Certainly not the stumpy little things they’d have been running around with.
And then there are the carvings in the walls of the staircase. I have seen a lot of Medieval Christian carvings, and I have seen no precedence for what I’m finding here. I mean, Christ should show up in at least a couple of these carvings, right? Christ, or Mary, or some saint. But no. They are carvings of the moon, and the stars, and a great endless forest (I think) with huge trees that stretch on and on. And one bas-relief shows there is a house in the center of the forest, a huge, low, wooden thing you imagine pagan kings lived in, with big
bonefires bonfires all around it.
All told, the carvings look a little like a map. And if the map is right (and it is not, I am sure), it suggests that the abbey lies in the center of someone’s fiefdom. But I have checked and rechecked my books, and all of them and all my knowledge of Swabia and Austrasia suggests nothing like this. I am not sure what to think about it. Perhaps whoever built this abbey, or at least the stairs, was mad as a fucking hatter.
I am also not sure where the stairs go. I have not found their end—- they just keep going down. I have trouble recalling my school days on this point, but I don’t remember many crypts being this deep, not here.
So, these things are interesting but confusing. But the issues with the trespassers have also increased. Many, many more footprints in the snow in the woods. And someone threw a fucking party. In my wood.
Yes, a party, Laurence. I know because I found ragged paper lanterns hanging in the trees one morning, and there was evidence of a huge fire in a nearby glen. The whole place stinks of fouled wine and a few other odors I cannot lay my finger on. And whoever it was, they piled heaps and heaps of ivy about the glen. I’ve no idea what they could have used it for, besides to sit or lay upon (or worse).
I am considering reporting them, whoever they are. Maybe it is the gypsies the locals told me about. Don’t know how the police work here, but I wonder how receptive they’d be to someone like me. And maybe I don’t want them sniffing around anyway. Prefer to remain undisturbed.
Hopefully you will be so confused or distracted by this report, Laurence, that you will not mind when I say I had a pint with Bertie again last night. But before you grab your pen in fury, let me say he was of great use. He filled me in on exactly why they call the abbey “Lost Year.”
He told me, rather inarticulately (and with a lot of help from other locals—-though their versions all conflict, the bastards), about an old folktale from back during the Hundred Years’ War. Apparently some English soldiers had captured the town and were harassing the locals (we are so good at that, aren’t we) when finally one of the villagers—- a young girl—- could bear it no more. She warned the soldiers they should leave by nightfall, or face dire consequences by morning, etc. They laughed, naturally, and took no heed. And in the evening the girl, wrapped only in a blanket, walked barefoot through the snow to the abbey. No one—- not the soldiers or the villagers—- knew what she set out to do.
She did not come back. And what she did there, they do not know. But when the villagers awoke, not only were the soldiers gone, but so was the snow—- in fact, the flowers and trees were all in bloom. It was spring. And when they sent someone to the next town to ask what had happened, their messenger discovered it was not even the same year—- they’d fallen asleep in one year, and awoken in the very next. It was as if the winter, and the soldiers, had simply popped out of existence. The girl had managed to throw the village forward through time, it seemed.
Here’s the fun bit, though: for the rest of the year, the entire village dreamed of a girl dancing in a cave with crystal walls. Just dancing back and forth, forever and ever. They could not see her face—- that was a blur to them—- but they were sure it was the peasant girl who left to go to the abbey. Yet some of the villagers claimed they saw feet in the cave, huge ones, as if the girl was dancing at the feet of a giant enjoying the show. Some of Albert’s friends said this, of course, was old fatherly Dieu, watching his miracle go on and on, but others protested—- they said the dreams did not feature one set of feet, but many. These they interpreted to be saints or angels, or whatever.
They expected me to be impressed, but since I have read just about every miracle story under the fucking sun, I was not. I mean, Saint Denis carried his own head to Montmartre, for Christ’s sakes. These things get pretty wild. What really irritated me, though, is that usually the saint or clergymen or whoever is behind the miracle is at least mentioned in these stories if not the protag, but Albert had no knowledge of any at all. I asked who it was who’d staffed the abbey, and who worshipped there, and he could not answer. I asked if he knew if the abbey was even operating or standing then, or had the girl simply gone to the ruins, and he told me not to take it so seriously, for it was only a story. Point Albert.
When I went home that night (bit drunk) I stood out back and watched the forest for a long time. I tried to look and see if any of the trespassers were there. Could see no movement. Looked eerie in the moonlight. Frozen ground glitters. Remember thinking there seemed to be stars in the trees.
I am not sure why, but I went and fetched the sickle. So heavy, almost felt like it was drawing pinpricks of blood from my palm. It is a hungry thing, I feel.
Was so ossified I waved it around a little. Fucking dumb thing to do with a priceless artifact. I laughed and pretended to slash the moon in two. And do you know, my good Laurence, that I was so utterly tippled that for a moment it seemed as if the moon had blinked? Like I’d just turned out all the lights in the night sky, and then they’d come back on.
I laughed again. It is good to be drunk in a strange, beautiful world. Made me think of when we were drunk during the blackouts. Sitting there in the dark city, moonlight washing the buildings. Hushed voices all around. Our bellies full of brandy. It was so mysterious, so secret. I held your hand to my cheek and took a draught and what we did in the dark no one saw.
I wonder if I knew then, in that moment in the blackouts, that it would be something worth treasuring, and knowing this I focused on it to make sure it was a future memory, one I could always look back on. Perhaps in this way our past can communicate with our futures, backwards and forwards, like Aldis lamps blinking across a dark countryside. I smile to think of that moment.
I smiled then too, drunk with that sickle in the frozen back yard. After the moon I waved it at the wood. Whooped like a boy. In the time before, I’d made the light in the moon go out. Yet this time when I waved the sickle, it made the lights come on—- the frost in the trees glimmered, and suddenly I saw a single yellow flame glinting through the trees.
I stopped then. Can hypothermia cause such oddness? Wasn’t sure. But I fled back inside and put the damn sickle back under my mattress.
The worry drained out of me when I returned to the memory of our time in the blackout. Probably did old Onan proud, I admit. Always get handsy when I’ve been drinking.
February 28th, 1950
Congratulations on your arrival in Calais! My God, Laurence, I had no idea you were even coming. Must have mixed up the fucking letters, I suppose. Anyway, am relieved to hear you are well. You are being honest with me, aren’t you? You are well? Either way, welcome to the Continent! Do you feel more urbane? I bet you will be a total snot when I see you, brimming with condescension and insults. You will soak up the French like a sponge. Bastard.
I cannot wait to tell the marquis about this. I will bring it up later when he administers my restorative. He is quite interested to meet you, Laurence. He says he missed the house having a proper owner, and a family, and though we are not quite a family he feels we should do.
I admit, I am still unable to figure him out. Besides myself, he is probably the oddest man I have ever known. This morning I found him in the gazebo again on the outskirts of the wood. (At least, I think it was the outskirts. It took some trying, though. I walked along the edge of the wood for what felt like hours, but saw nothing. Then I went in and walked through the wood, but saw nothing, except the ruins. Wondered if I’d gone mad, which is something I’ve been doing a lot lately. It was only when I finished my work at the ruins and wandered in what I thought was a northerly direction that I saw the gazebo in the trees. I remember thinking, in a very silly manner, that perhaps the only way to find the marquis’s gazebo is by walking through the arch of the ruins, as if the wood on the other side of the arch is different. And before you ask, I had not been drinking.
His gazebo really is such a splendid sight, Laurence. But I would not call it beautiful. Though the ironwork is divine, and the ivy is lush and gorgeous, the overall structure is brittle and unsettlingly skeletal. I suppose you could say the same of the man himself, though. He was not wearing his close-cut black suit, as he was last week, but a thick velvet coat of dark green. He was stretched out— - even lounging—- at the table, sipping tea and playing Patience. He really is more our sort of people than the locals. It will be nice to have him as a neighbour. And he has the most beautiful card set, Laurence—- his kings, queens, and knaves are all the Rouennais originals. His King of Diamonds, for example, is clearly modeled on the busts of Julius Caesar, and they are all so finely wrought!
We had brandy (his is marvelous) and played gin rummy together, totally ignoring the cold, and he asked me the usual questions, how I was doing, how was the weather treating me, etc. I told him about my progress on the abbey, and, as always, he finds this terribly amusing, like I am a child showing him my sandcastles. I am not irritated, though. Not sure why. Perhaps it is because he keeps referring to my progress as a party. It’s like he thinks I’m setting up dinner stations rather than digging myself stupid in the dark and the cold.
(One reason the work seems to be going well is that I have the very weird sensation that more and more of the abbey keeps appearing the more I work.
I am rereading what I just wrote…... It makes a superficial sense—- I mean, of course it would—- but what I really mean is that the more I work, the more the abbey appears to assemble itself, as if it is digging itself out of the hill. A stone here, an engraving there. It calcifies in the trees like a crystal in standing fluid.)
Anyways, speaking of parties, I confirmed it was indeed he who threw the one in the woods the other week. He informed me he had played host to some guests from out of town, and this had required an evening out, but though I asked him where they were from, and I do recall him explaining at great length, I cannot remember exactly who he said his guests were or where they were from. This happens rather a lot with the Marquis. I am not sure if it is because he talks so much, or if I have been on my own for so long that I cannot keep up with normal conversation.
He apologized for making a mess of things out in the forest, and said next time he would make sure to invite me. Didn’t occur to him to stop throwing these fucking parties altogether, cheeky snot. I asked him why he didn’t just throw the parties at his house, and he just laughed (his laugh is charming, dismissive, infuriating, all at once) and said people get lost in it too much. He is still missing a few guests from several years ago, he told me. Naturally, this made me ask where his house was, and he waved generally at the northern horizon. I said I had not seen it, and, again, this amused him.
He is quite keen, in his own distracted way, to know when I finally reach the bottom of the stairs in the abbey, as if I am his hobby. I said if he was so interested then maybe he could contribute a little, for surely a wealthy man like him could afford some laborers. He went dead quiet at that, and swiftly changed the subject. It was like I’d offered to go dancing with him on the town.
Like I told you, he is a fucking odd duck. Marvelously eccentric. You cannot be friends with such a man, but it is such fun to know one. I cannot wait for you to meet him. Maybe we will get to stay at this house of his.
Speaking of his house, though I am sure there are no significant structures to the north of the forest, when I walked back home I swore I saw something in the trees. Again, they were like lights, but I was sure I’d put out all the torches and lanterns at the ruins. And these did seem too high. Much too high. Several dozen feet off the ground, in a straight line.
I lost them in the chilly fog. Didn’t think much of them. But on my way back, I realized they did look a bit like torches set in the side of a house. But if that was so, the house would have been miles long, which is of course just ridiculous.
Perhaps it is my loneliness that has made me so loopy. Were it not for your letters and my brief visits with the marquis, I am sure I’d go starkers.
Oh yes, he said something odd about you this morning. He held a card to his forehead (it was King David), thought, and said you would come here soon enough, but not in the way either of us expected.
I believe he fancies himself a prestidigitator.
March 9th, 1950
What do you mean, who is this marquis? I told you all about him in the letter before last.
Unless, of course, it arrived too late to catch you. That must have been it. What a frustrating way to hold a conversation. We are both moving targets—- two dates in the past talking to one another, unaware they’re fading, never catching up, never really the present. Makes you a bit anxious to think about, really.
What a pity. I did such a good job describing him.
Anyways, the marquis. I suppose I must repeat myself. I met him what must have been three or four weeks ago. I was working on the abbey when I heard someone playing music. Sounded like a lute to me. Terribly pretty, but also terribly sad. I’d never heard anything like it—- hadn’t heard music for so long that at first it struck me dead. After a while I went hunting for it and stumbled across his gazebo.
I have described this curious structure already, so you can imagine how flummoxed I was to be marching through the trees and see this thing emerge from the oaks. One day I will map this place out so I can nail everything down precisely.
He was seated in the center of his gazebo, on the ground, playing a mandolin—- not a lute. Well, I just stared. Partially because it was so odd, partially because the song was so pretty. His mandolin had so many strings on it—- more strings than any stringed instrument should. It hurt to hear him play it. The song scraped the inside of my skull.
When he was done he looked up at me, not surprised at all, and said, “Ah. You’re finally here.”
“Oh?” said I. “Am I meant to be here?” I didn’t think it odd that he spoke English at the time.
“Well, there is no better place to be than here,” he said.
I guess I could not argue with that. Can’t argue with the marquis at all—- says such strange things.
“What is this doing here?” I said, and pointed at the gazebo.
He looked at it. “Standing,” he said, “at a bit of an angle, I think.”
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“My house,” he said.
“There is no house around here,” I said.
“There is,” he said, “because you put it there.”
“Did I?” I said.
“Oh, yes.” Then he hooked his finger and made a slice through the air, and laughed.
Now, I have always got along with nutters pretty well and this time was no different. Once you adapt to their loopy cadence it’s really just a matter of keeping up. I noticed he had a bottle of port and he saw me looking, offered me a glass. I accepted, sat, and chattered, mostly about who the hell he was and what he was doing here.
He is a self-styled marquis. It has been almost a month since I met him but I still have yet to know his real name. He is a bit like that gent we knew in Cardiff who insisted we call him “the Duke” though he was no such thing. He carries himself like a real aristo, though. He is a very tall man, six and a half feet, and he favors blacks and grays and greens and generally very ornate clothing. His hair is white-gold and his face is quite patrician: big nose, disapproving mouth, amused eyes, noble brow, all that nonsense.
“I am here,” he told me finally, “for a winter party.”
I told him he’d missed Christmas and New Year’s by a couple of weeks.
“That depends upon the calendar,” he said.
I asked him which one he kept to. Did he follow the Chinese calendar? The Zoroastrian?
“Oh, the sun does her dance,” he told me, “waltzing across the sky at her canter. But what really matters is who plays the tune.”
“And who is that?”
“You,” he said. “After all, you’re the one throwing the parties around here, are you not?”
“I am?” said I. “How do you mean?”
“It’s you who scrapes the mud away, isn’t it? You who brings up the bones?” He pointed into the woods. I looked and saw the ruins of the abbey through the trees. I didn’t know what the hell he meant, but his port was good so I stuck around.
At least, I think it was the port. Perhaps I was just so starved for company.
He asked me how it was going, and I told him it went well, though it was wearying me. “Of course it does!” he said. “The very work ages you.” He produced a silver mirror and spun it to show me my own face. And do you know, Laurence, that when I looked I saw myself, of course, but my face was gray and pale, and my hair was dotted with silver? I know I’ve seen more gray hair recently, but I did not know it was as much as that. I suppose I needed to see it in daylight, away from the damp and darkness of the house, for me to realize the toll my efforts have taken on me.
I expressed, rather profanely, my degree of shock at the changes. The marquis had a lot to say about the changes—- bunch of poetic rot about how “the world is a vale of tears and our passage wounds our being”—- though he made it sound as if the cause was not the type of work, which is quite grueling, but where it was taking place—- as if the ground was sucking it out of me, just as it’s sucked up the blood of all the men who’ve surely fought and died here.
He told me he had just the thing I needed, and he went over to a white wood chest, opened it up, and took out a small flask of dark red fluid. He poured me a snifter, said it was a restorative, and I, who after all have never really turned down a drink of any kind, said salut and quaffed it.
What happened then is quite difficult to describe. It tasted quite nutty. Then it tasted quite spicy. There was a cold feeling in my stomach, and then, though I stayed in the same place, things then seemed to change around me.
Let me try and explain it:
My vision blurred, making it appear as if the number of trees doubled, or even tripled, forming an immense ceiling above me. Then my vision stopped blurring, but the number of trees did not decrease—- they just stayed there, as if the forest had several times as many trees. The sky was suddenly dark. I looked up, and (you probably think me mad right now but I will just keep going) I saw it was night, but I could see lights under the trees ahead—- torchlight. There were tents there, shabby ones made of skin, and the forms of people standing about, watching something (I remember the sound of someone weeping), and—- this is when I knew things had gone loopy—- I saw the abbey.
But it was not the ruins I knew so well. It was complete, whole—- a small dagger of a structure made of dark gray stone, like the color of a cloudy sky at night. It was more marvelous than I’d ever imagined—- every surface was covered in bas reliefs and sculptures, like the whole thing was meant to tell a story, and though it was a fanciful reverie I wished I was closer so that I could see it.
The weeping grew louder. I saw movement in the doorway of the abbey. Something was coming out—- or up. And though I could see nothing of it, I felt a terrible dread at the arrival of that figure. I did not want it to see me there—- and it would see me, I was sure of it. And though I did not know what it would do, I feared it more than I’ve ever feared anything in my life.
Then the cold feeling in my belly left, and I was back in the gazebo again, holding the empty glass.
The marquis was chuckling, and he said—- “You look quite energized.”
I asked if he’d just fucking poisoned me.
“Obviously not,” he said, “for you are still quite alive. Actually, I think, you are quite a bit more alive than you were.”
He showed me myself in the mirror again. And I did look a little—- dare I even say it—- younger. My hair was darker, my skin more flush.
I asked what had happened. He said he’d just given me a restorative. This did not satisfy, so I pressed further—- what was it I had drunk?
He answered: “A moment, of course. A small injection of time cures most ills, I find.”
I asked him what he meant by that. He thought for a moment, and said, “What if I were to say that time functions like light, in a way, bending around dense spots, spots with gravity?”
I said that if he were to say that then I would say I did not understand a fucking jot of it.
He laughed. “A true answer. Most people assume time is static, stiff. A linear structure in which one moment occurs after another. They do not realize that it tends to stretch and bend at certain moments, and in certain places. Places with history, with eons of past, affect it more than others. Around these places, it becomes…...fluid. Much like this port.” He swirled his glass around to show me. “If you have the correct amount of know-how, and if you are in a place with enough gravity, you can displace certain bits of one’s time.” He pushed two glasses with about the same amount of port together. “You take two people with the same lengths of time, and with a bit of effort…...” He tipped one glass into the other. “…...then one’s life is lengthened, and the other shortened. Do you see?”
I was so perplexed by his speech that I could not answer. But he did not notice my confusion: “Good!” he said. “I am happy.” Then he refilled my glass of port, and he took out his deck of cards, and asked if I wanted to play bridge.
Like I keep saying—- he is a fucking odd duck.
I swing back by his gazebo every now and again, frequently for his restoratives. I really do not comprehend what they are (and I cannot believe his explanation), but I swear, they make me feel so much better in the mornings. I am so limber, so strong, and I don’t feel cold at all. Perhaps he is or was a doctor. I have not had any more strange visions upon imbibing his drink—- and though I know this must not reassure you, I feel disappointed. I want to see the abbey again. I want to know what it was like, way back when. After all, that is the reason I am here.
Oh listen to me—- I have gone raving mad. I forget it is a hallucination—- possibly caused by some kin to the la fée verte—- and not an actual experience of the past. Because that is what I felt it was, afterwards—- I thought that upon drinking that restorative (a “moment,” as the marquis put it) I saw a past moment of that very place.
I can already hear you getting wound up by all this. I know I am a rather unbalanced and unpredictable chap, but just know that although this is all true (I swear it is true) I am safe and most of my day is occupied by simple digging and reading. I am not in danger at all, except perhaps to cold and loneliness.
This brings me to the really exciting discovery—- the stairway.
I suppose some of the mud must have melted, because the stairway had a cave in, sometime around February 10th or so. And it has revealed a first room!
I say “first” because the stairs keep going past its doorway. There must be more down there, I am sure of it. Anyway, I find my first suspicion was correct: it is a crypt. This chamber was a resting-place, or a tomb of some ancient king. Bloody tall bastard, too—- there is a stone shelf nearly seven feet long upon which I assume he once lay. However, he is long gone—- no bones, no jewelry, not a sign of any flesh. I presume this place fell prey to graverobbers before the mud collected here, probably during a flood.
There are many pictorial engravings on the walls of the tomb, however, and I assume these depict the gent in life. Tough to read by torchlight. It appears as if he was quite the huntsman—- he leads many a woodland sortie across the black walls. Also got a bit of Bacchus in him—- lot of wine and roasting dead things. A brace of tits and, naturally, some proud, protuberant cocks. (Were a man to wield a member of such size I am sure he would die of blood loss in an instant. Still, I admit I am a touch jealous.) In some he wears a crown of animal horns—- king of the wild hunt, I guess. Some of them make me think, however, that he was not the king, but sort of a court sportsman—- as if he carried on in order to entertain or please powers even greater than he. Interesting.
But the nature of this art, and its subjects, makes me wonder—- does this place predate the arrival of Christianity? Nothing about this place makes me think it a goodly, God-fearing sort of site. Too much killing and fucking for that.
I have made rubbings of the engravings, Laurence, and at night I sit and pour over them by candlelight. I wonder—- the fellow who chipped away at these, day by day—- he surely meant for these to be seen, to be remembered. Did he ever know he was speaking to me? One of the frustrations of the past—- forever a one-way conversation.
Yours, as always,
March 30th - 1950
Well aren’t you a wet blanket. There is nothing “disturbing” about any of this. What I have discovered under the abbey is really quite normal, even a bit dull. I’ve seen worse and weirder engravings. People in the old days got up to quite the same level of badness as we do today—- if anything, we outdo them. Just look at Berlin, for God’s sakes. Or if you like, Laurence, look at the boating parties we all went on during our school days. Those were right fucking decadent, if memory serves. Though I smile at the thought of them.
And we are just as odd as the marquis, Laurence. Why else do I want us to retire to this tiny corner of France? We’d be prosecuted in England, my love. What would our neighbors say of us?
I chatted with the marquis again today. I think he is one of those academic fellows who becomes obsessed with one subject and withdraws from ordinary life to study it. In this case, his subject of preference is time, of course. He assumes that, since I am a historian (of a sort), I will be sympathetic to him, but he does not realize that he sounds, well, fucking mad as a hatter.
This last discourse was on the folklore of the abbey. I told him all the stories I’d heard about it from the town, and he nodded along affably, but said, “Naturally, there are a few non-Christian stories about the abbey. Well, one. But it is quite a good one.”
I could tell he was eager to tell it, so I indulged him and asked him to regale me.
“Well,” he said, with no small amount of relish, “the story goes that the abbey is actually a burial site. A barrow. There are people—- and quite a few of them—- buried underneath it.”
Since this corroborated my experiences with the crypt, this beginning piqued my interest.
“They are kings, of a sort,” said the marquis. “But kings of time itself. They are the people who first created time, or so the story goes.”
I asked if he meant they were gods, and he shrugged. “I suppose that in certain situations, there is little difference between a king and a god.” He continued with the story: “At first the world was a static, cold place. Nothing happened—- nothing had happened—- it simply sat, hanging in space. But then the kings awoke, and they and their various court officials began to build the structure of time, much as one builds a network of irrigation, in a way. And when they were done, and the world began to move forward in time, they retreated below the earth, and slept. It is said that they awake every once in a while, often to perform a good deed at the behest of some poor person. But otherwise, they sleep, and sleep quite deeply.”
I asked that if he believed this, then did he think that the very Christian story of the peasant girl in the Hundred Years war was untrue?
“Did I say that?” he said mildly, and smiled.
Besides this, our relationship has been quite amicable, along with most other events here.
Please don’t spend your time in Paris reflecting on me and my situation, unless they entertain you. My heart freezes to hear of you locked up in a room all day, recuperating with nothing to occupy your mind.
Perhaps I will have something more interesting to say in the future. We shall see.
April 1st, 1950
Let me first say, Laurence, that I really, really, really do wish I’d made copies of my letters. I wish I could read back over them and see exactly what I thought of my experiences at the abbey, and in the woods. Then perhaps things might make more sense now. Maybe they make more sense to you than me—- you may have more perspective than I do. Because things have changed here, but I cannot tell precisely how they have changed.
I no longer think the abbey was an abbey. I believe it was called such because it was a place of ceremony and ritual to the local peoples, and when Christianity swept over the continent, its terms and appellations naturally got tossed around like flour in a bakery.
I do not know what the abbey really was, or is. And while I do not know who worshipped here, or how they worshipped here, I think I might have an inkling.
I say so because I think I have met some of them. I believe they are still here, Laurence. They came to me.
It happened last night. I was in the house, sitting in front of the stove, trying to stay warm. Snowed like a bastard, it did. Over half a foot to be certain. The snow does curious things to your eyes when it comes down like that: it’s like there’s a gray-white sea out your window, rolling up and down.
And during one of its rolls, I thought I saw a face in it, pale and white.
I stared out the window for some time before I realized I was not wrong. There was someone out in the snow, staring in at me.
I had not and have not bought a gun, but I wished I had then. There was something about that face—- so white, and so still—- that I found quite unnerving.
But I got up, put my boots on, and went outside. The sound of the snow was like radio static—- just an immense, sustained hiss. I couldn’t see much further than ten feet ahead of me, yet during the gaps in the snowfall I thought I could discern someone out there, watching me.
I took a lantern, and lit it. It turned the snow into golden streaks. I walked forward, trying to see.
I stopped about twenty feet away from them. It was a person. I say “person” because I still do not know their gender. They were hugely tall, over six and a half feet (maybe on stilts?), and they were dressed in layer after layer of rags, all gray and black and muddy. On their face they wore a simple, white wooden mask with large, dark eye holes—- yet I could not see any eyes behind the mask.
I looked at them. They looked at me. I looked at the ground behind them, and saw footprints leading away to the forest.
I asked them if they were the marquis. For I thought he, being an oddball, was playing a joke on me.
But they did not speak. Only stared. For some reason I felt ashamed to ask them such a thing. They seemed weirdly noble, and proud. It is difficult to describe now, away from the dark and the snow and the lantern light.
They raised one hand—- I remember the fingers were very long and white, with dirty nails—- and waved to me, much as a child would.
I waved back.
They dropped their hand. We stared at each other. Just us and the roar of the snow. The world felt terribly large and white and empty.
Then they gestured to me to follow, and turned and walked towards the wood.
I suppose you must think me fucking insane, and you may be right to do so, but follow them I did. I went into the forest in that snowstorm, with the night so black it almost weighed down on me. I did not think at the time, as I do now, that I could quite easily become lost and freeze to death. I do not really know what I was thinking at all. Things seemed suspended—- with the appearance of that person in the rags, all the normal rules of the world were off.
I lost them almost immediately. The snow was so thick that my little lantern was no more than an infant beating upon a stone wall. Yet they left footprints, and I was able to follow these through the trees. Their path was curiously winding—- I remember crossing the same frozen stream several times, and seeing my face in its reflection each time. Sometimes I thought I saw little faces in the forest, faces rendered in ivy and tree bark and old, worn stones, and they made me think of the tiny footprints I found outside the house long ago. But I forgot about them when it became quite clear where they were taking me.
It was the ruins, of course.
The person was waiting for me when I got there. They were standing so still it was hard to imagine them ever moving at all. They stared at me as I walked towards them, and after a while I did not feel comfortable coming nearer.
I asked them why they had brought me here. In response, they simply stepped aside.
On the piece of black stone behind them (I believe it had once been part of the southernmost wall) was a plate of chicken. My chicken. I had eaten half of it, and left the remainder there. Forgot about it, I guess.
I stared at it. Then up at the person. I told them I did not understand—- did they want the chicken? When they did not answer, I said they could have it, though it was probably frozen solid now.
The person rotated, stared at the chicken, then back at me. They nodded, bowing slowly, and their comportment was so stiff and regal I felt as if I had just agreed to something very serious, though I could not understand it.
I asked them where they were from. They looked at me for a while, then pointed back at the abbey.
I knew then they were mad. Had to be. They were not from the abbey, whatever that meant. Perhaps they were pointing in a general direction, but I did not think so.
Yet when I looked at the abbey, I saw, to my disbelief, that more of the building had appeared.
The stairs in the dais were no longer simply a hole in the ground: there was a doorway there. An arched stone doorframe, standing free of any wall and built around the entry into the underground crypt. And what I found so terribly strange about the doorframe was that despite standing independent of any wall, the space inside the door was completely dark, as if it was a door leading into the side of a building, but there was no building there—- there was only the doorframe, and the snow, and the dark.
I asked the masked figure if they were the one who kept messing with the ruins in the night. Was he one of the people in the forest the villagers warned me about, the ones who kept playing games?
The person shook their head.
Then who was it who kept adding on to the ruins, I asked?
They raised a finger, and pointed—- but at me.
I said I did not understand—- I had only dug out bits and pieces of the ruins, and I began to point them out, saying that trench here and this section there. But when I turned back to them, the masked figure was no longer standing far away—- they had somehow silently approached, and were now directly in front of me.
They looked down at me, and I up at them. I still could not see any eyes behind the mask—- just darkness. I could not even hear them breathing.
Then they lifted up one hand, and with two fingers touched me on my brow.
I saw something then—- a vision, I suppose. It was a girl, very young, not more than fifteen or so, dressed in awful rags and covered with mud, dancing in the dark. It looked like she was dancing in a network of caves, twirling from chamber to chamber, and she moved so fast I could not see her face, but I could not think she was happy.
She would always dance. She always had been dancing. She is dancing now. I knew this as soon as I saw her.
Then I remember a voice, soft as snow, saying— - “Tempus est somnium.”
When I awoke, it was completely dark. I was on a stone floor. I looked around and saw a bit of light nearby, and could barely discern the image of stairs in the dark. I was in the first room of the crypt, I realized.
I walked out of the crypt feeling very dazed but not unpleasant. I saw no trace of the figure in the white mask, nor any footprints—- course, I wouldn’t, it was snowing too hard for them to stick around.
I did find my plate on the wall of the ruins, but the chicken was gone.
A thought came to me then, one strange and beyond articulation, but the right one, I felt. It was like having a curiously illogical conviction in a dream, one that makes no sense but one you cannot not ignore.
I turned around. The stone arch was there, though the darkness within it was gone—- it was transparent, as it should have been.
I walked back down the stairs, but passed by the first chamber, and kept walking with my hands out in front.
I found my conviction was correct—- the frozen mud had caved in further. There were more stairs now, many more than I recalled. And as I felt the wall on my side, I found a second door had been revealed.
I did not go in. I did not wish to. I did not want to see what was written on the walls of that place. I turned around, walked back up the stairs, and returned to my home.
It was not a dream, Laurence, nor a fit of delirium. It felt too real for it to be unreal, if that makes any sense. I do feel terribly lucky to be alive, however, having slept out of my house in that awful storm.
But I do wonder what it all meant. Something happened last night. I am sure of it.
When I shambled home, still feeling quite loopy, I remember being very troubled by something—- I was sure the person I encountered was powerfully connected with the abbey. At first I thought they were worshippers of that place, whatever it is or was, some present-day version of whoever came before—- farmhands who have maintained the same rituals over centuries, something like that.
But I began to wonder—- was that person a worshipper? Or were they the thing, or the manifestation of the thing, that had once been worshipped in this place?
April 4th, 1950
If you have written a response, I have not received it yet. Laurence, I hope you do not scorn me for what you believe to be madness, even though I am pretty sure I’ve given you every reason to. Everything has gone mad, true—- the abbey, the forest, even the house—- but I have not.
I hope you have not traveled to France only to abandon everything. To abandon me. That I fear more than anything this strange place has to offer.
Though it might give you no comfort to hear that the marquis has corroborated all of my suspicions. He called upon the house the morning after my encounter with the person in the mask, bearing a basket of breads and cheeses and a bottle of Chianti. He invited me out for a picnic, and we dined in a little glade in the forest I did not really recall coming across before. It was a cloistered little place, with huge oaks reaching over and around us, and naked fruit trees of some kind scattered across the center. I remember remarking that it was not quite as cold there as it felt in the rest of the forest, and the marquis agreed.
It felt different there. Older. It is hard for me to describe now.
The marquis commented on it—- “Does it not feel,” he said, “that some parts of these woods are older or younger than others?”
I said I supposed that was true, but was that not the case of any forest—- some trees, naturally, are older than others.
He laughed. “That is not what I meant, and you know it.”
After a few glasses of wine he asked me, fairly straightforwardly, if it was true that I had received a “visitation.” I said I was not sure what he meant, but I related the developments of that strange evening to him. He seemed quite amused and pleased to hear my tale. “So you left an offering,” he said. “Unintentionally, perhaps, but one readily accepted.”
I said I did not know what he meant.
“Oh, posh,” he said. “You know. These proceedings, these rules are written on your very bones. A celestial from the furthest reaches of the Orient could stumble across that place, yet even he would understand the nature of it. Certain interactions do not change, least of all these.”
I asked him how he knew these things.
“Come now,” he said, and he smiled. “You are not so thick.” He reached into his basket and produced an item I had not noticed: it appeared to be the corpse of a coney, beheaded and belegged and be-whatevered, however huntsmen do it. It was quite blackened and charred as well, yet when the marquis took out a little knife and carved open its belly a thin rope of thick blood poured out, as if the roasting had made a little pot of blood in the stomach of the creature and caused it to percolate like coffee.
I was quite disgusted by the sight, but the marquis laughed, and there was something not quite mean in it but definitely unpleasant. “It drinks it up, of course it does,” says the marquis as it soaked into the ground. “This place is hungry. All places of gravity, of depth, are hungry. They draw things to them, draw them down, down to the dark. You should know more than anyone.”
I asked what he meant by this.
“My dear fellow, did you not age twenty years laboring at those stones?” he asked. “When I showed your face in the mirror, it did not lie, nor did I—- you came here a young man, a boy, yet as you labored the seconds were sucked out of you until you were a man of forty, fifty, perhaps more.”
I asked if he meant I was dying.
“Dying? No! Well, no more than your kind normally is at any point. No, your moments, your seconds, your very time was being consumed. Just like your little adventure in the woods—- you offered it unintentionally, yet it was very much accepted.”
Accepted by whom, I asked?
To this, the marquis simply pointed into the woods at the black stones of the abbey. “Not by whom,” he said. “By what. How else do you think the abbey was reassembling itself? I told you, time is fluid here. It can be displaced—- years taken off one person, and put into something else. Sometimes a building, sometimes…... otherwise.”
This statement so astonished me that I was unable to respond for some time. Did he really mean that simply by spending so many hours at the site, that the abbey itself had plied years off of me, and used them to restore itself? And when he said the “restoratives” he gave me were a “moment”—- did he mean he was giving me my time back? I ask you this, Laurence, and you will certainly think me barking—- is it possible he is not mad at all, but has figured out a way to tally and transact time, much as an accountant moves money from one account to another?
The marquis, growing bored, jumped to his feet and began to climb a nearby tree, much as a boy would. Things had become so surreal by this point that I did not remark upon it at all. He was up there for some time, wrestling with the branches, before he came back down with a pocketful of apples.
I faintly asked him where he had gotten them. He laughed and touched the ground where the coney’s blood had turned to mud. “If you offer the right things,” he said, and gestured to the trees above us, “you get rewarded. It might be late winter here, but with the right push, it can be spring where you wish it to be.” He bit into the apple, grinning. “The proper respect and overtures are always necessary, but if you know them it is like tickling a woman’s cunny—- with the slightest amount of effort, the world opens to you like a flower.”
I recall answering that since I had never personally pursued the described act I would have to take his word for it.
“Now our interactions change,” he said. “The ones between you and I. You have been touched, anointed. You have given and received. You have slept in my chambers. And you gave us life.”
Though there were many confusing things in what he said, I focused on one—- us, I asked?
“Oh, yes,” he said. “There are many more of us who have awoken in this place. You did your little bit with the sickle, after all, which started the avalanche, now didn’t it? And, of course, there is the rest of those down below, down the stairs. But it takes quite a bit to wake them. You could not wake them with months and years, as you gave the abbey—- it would take eons. However long the stars burn in this sky. More.” He held out an apple to me. I noticed his hands were smeared with the rabbit’s blood, as was the apple. “The others wish to meet you.”
Who, I asked?
“Those you have awoken. Did I not say that I was here to throw a winter party? And I am here to throw it for you.” He held the apple out further to me. “Come. Do you accept? To a historian like yourself—- someone constantly plagued by the barriers of past eras—- it would be a holy pilgrimage. And besides, you do not seem the kind to decline festivities of any sort.”
Well, I suppose he was right about that. And though I found it foul and horrid, I felt I could not turn down the man’s gift. I took the apple and bit into it, and though I expected it to taste putrid it was actually quite sweet and salty.
I said yes.
“Excellent!” he cried. “It’s agreed. I will be calling upon you in some near evening.”
I am not sure what I have gotten myself into.
April 13th, 1950
I write this quite terrified.
I am not in any danger—- at least none that I know of. By all rights I appear quite safe. After last night, I doubt if there is anything conventional left in this world that could frighten me. And I am not terrified of anything that may be waiting in the woods beyond my home.
Rather, I am terrified of the consequences of touching my pen to this paper and writing to you. Because I do not wish you to leave me.
I believe I may have done something very bad, Laurence. I never wished to. I never wanted to. But you must understand the circumstances under which this happened. You must understand what has happened, and why I did what I did.
I tell you this honestly. I tell you this though I will surely sound quite insane. And I tell you this knowing that it may do no good, because for God’s sake you have not written me once this month, and this terrifies me more than anything, anything in the world.
Listen, and I repeat I tell you this totally honestly, as you will see.
Last night the marquis came to my door. He was very jovial, and he told me that tonight was his party for me, and everyone was waiting. Everyone, I asked? He laughed and said yes, everyone, everyone. Everyone would be there.
I must get ahold of myself. I must make this readable for you.
I put on my coat and my work pants and boots and walked out into the frost with him. I looked to the forest but saw no lights. Saw no one waiting for me. Just black trees.
He led me in. Incredibly dark there. Had never seen such darkness. Was like floating in ink. The deepest seas.
Asked him where he was taking me. To his house? He said no: “It would not be wise to take you to my house. You would not last long there. We are going to my old meeting place, my old stomping grounds.”
Where was this, I asked.
“Not where,” he said, “but when.”
He led me to another glen in the forest that I had never seen before. Like the glen where we had our picnic, it felt slightly warm there, as if it was summer but only in that place. The glen was round, and all around the edges of the glen were stone seats, facing in. Must have been more than twenty of them. Hard to see by moonlight.
Oh, the first ones here, said the marquis, very dull, very dull. Must let them know we’re here, he said.
He went to the center of the glen where there was a large stone bowl. Though I did not see him put in any timber or kindling, and I did not see him produce any spark or flame, soon the bowl was filled with bright fire of a very orange color.
That ought to do it, he said. Then he said to wait. Said we’d have more here soon.
Apologies if this is hard to read. I am shaking. Not drunk. Wish I was drunk.
We waited in the glen for a long time. Then I heard a great amount of shuffling from the woods. Leaves scraping on branches. Feet on stones. Dozens of ancient paths through the wood coming alive.
Then I saw some of the stone seats were filled, though I had seen no one arrive to fill them.
Could not see much of them. Do not remember much of them. Not sure if I wish to. I saw or think I saw men, very large and filthy and many of them nude, but the men had heads of stags and rams and boars, or other things I could not identify. I saw women with robes of starlight and faces furred or eyeless, old women with skin like tree bark. In some seats I could see no one but the firelight cast shadows on the ground as if someone was sitting there, and if the shadows were true then I was glad I could not see them, terribly glad.
I asked what was going on.
He said, do you not remember the story I told you, of the people sleeping under the hill?
I looked around at the people in the stone seats. I was shivering from fear. I said—- then they are real?
Who, he asked?
I said—- the kings of time?
He laughed. Yes, he said—- but these are not the kings. We are all are but minor officials here. Courtesans. The kings, they sleep. But we have been awoken, and are we not enough?
He walked to one of the stone seats and sat. He said, Oh then we are all here, we are all here together again at last, and when I looked at the marquis I could not see anything but his silhouette, and he reached down beside his chair and lifted something up and I saw it was a crown made of antlers. He suddenly seemed so much larger then, huge and towering in his chair, and when he leaned forward I saw his face and I saw
No. Will not put this to paper. I cannot.
He said Here we are brothers, Here we are sisters, here is the man who swung the blade and woke us from our long slumber. He parted time for us, and we rose up, and we are grateful for it, are we not.
And they said in a voice like leaves on stones, Yes. Yes, we are.
He said, He lost time to this holy place, lost it to the stones and the arches, but we have given him time back, we courtiers—- we have fed him moments, seconds, months, and kept him hale and hearty, have we not.
And they said, Yes, we have.
He said What do you say, my young sir, my brave comrade.
I did not know. I asked them what they wanted of me.
Nothing! he cried. Nothing but for you to be joyous. Nothing but for you to be glad. You have awoken us. You are hungry, are you not—- you wish to learn of time, to see its innards, to understand how it works. We can show you. We helped to build it, long ago. Come with us. Cross with us through fields of many times. It will be a glad hunt.
I said I did not understand.
He leaned forward again, and again I was forced to turn away. He said—- You do not, but if you come with us then you will. Come with us. Come with us and play with us. Your kind is forever bound to the workings of time, but tonight, be free. We will show you. We will give you wisdom and knowledge unheard of. We will take you to places unknown for centuries, millennia. Come with us.
I looked at them. They were so strange and savage. I felt I could not say no.
I told them I would come.
When I answered they all stood without a word and began to file out of the glen. The man in the crown, who now seemed to be a giant, grinned and picked up a long shaft. I saw it was a spear. He gestured to me, and said, Come.
I ran with them.
I cannot say where I ran. The skies and surroundings changed so often. I saw mountains, fields, glaciers. Homes built of mud, wood, clay. Places that looked Roman, places of tents made of skins, places that looked like they were made of bones. Buildings of paper, and corded wood, and grass. And endless, endless forests.
I panted to keep up with them. But whenever the scene shifted, I felt renewed. I could run forever.
They could bend the time in front of us. They could take one second of us running and stretch it out until we had run miles and miles and miles. They were forever. I was forever. Every moment and no moment.
And then I saw we were not simply running, but chasing something.
It was an animal. Something like a stag or a hart, with skin of milky white. It glowed in the darkness like the moon itself. It jumped from place to place just as we did, running among the endless years.
It was so beautiful. I did not wish to see it harmed.
But the man in the crown sprinted forward, closing in, and I saw his arm rise and his shoulder pivot, and there was a glittering of metal in the sky.
The animal fell, a spear protruding from its hindquarters. It did not bleat, but simply stared at us, sadly.
We circled around it, we mad bunch of monsters. The man in the crown reached out to it, and said Wake up. Wake up, please. Wake up. Then
I just cannot
I am so sorry Laurence
I will tell you. I will tell you.
Then the air became milky, shifting before me, and then it was not a hart, but a young woman. A young woman with dark skin but pale fair hair. She was alive, unwounded. She was naked. And she was beautiful. So beautiful. I had never felt such a way before but I could not take my eyes off of her and Laurence, oh Laurence, please I am sorry, I am not a monster I tell you but I am sorry.
Things changed. We were back at the glen with the circle of seats. There was a stone altar near the middle. And on it was the girl.
Go to her, said the man in the crown of antlers.
I looked at him. I understood but I did not want to understand.
She has been waiting for this moment her whole life, said the man in the crown of antlers.
I asked—- what is this?
It is a ritual, he said. You wish to understand the nature of time. We can show you.
I asked—- who is she?
She is a creature of great age, he said. Go to her. Take her. Taste her. She will show you.
I could not do that to a person, I said. Not against her will.
He laughed. He asked—- who ever said she was a person?
Then who is she, I asked?
She, he said, is yours. She has always been yours. She has been waiting for you.
They were all watching me. I began to shake. And then it was as if I was outside of myself, and I began to remove my clothes.
I approached her. As I did, things went milky again.
She was a woman again. But not so young. Now she was thirty. Forty. Yet still beautiful.
Then things changed again. She was mature now. Fifty or so. Still beautiful, in a handsome way.
Then again. And she was an old woman. Withered. Tiny. Frail.
Again. A corpse, reeking.
Again. An infant.
Again. A young girl.
Again, a teen with slight breasts and the barest hint of
My Lord, My Lord forgive me.
Forgive me Laurence.
They made me do it. They made me. They said I had to. If I wanted to know. And I said I did not want to know, I did not want to know their secrets, but you know I did Laurence, you know I always did.
And so, with her changing, always changing, I
Yes. I did.
I did it.
Please forgive me Laurence. I do not even know what I am anymore. I have run underneath so many skies, through so many times. I have seen too much. But I am here again, here as I have always been, a shabby little man living a shabby little life in this crumbling house, and I love you I love you so much, and I am waiting for you, I am waiting for you to answer me, and I am sorry, I am so sorry.
Please forgive me. Please.
April 17th, 1950
You do not answer me. You say nothing. Do you not forgive me? Have I confirmed everything your friends have ever said about me? Do you hate me now? Understand that however much you hate me, and however much that hate is deserved, it is not as much as I hate myself. I have not gone outside of the house since. I do not wish to be this thing. I wish to be with you, and be loved.
Please answer me. Write me something. Write me anything. Excoriate me, berate me, tell me what you think of me, just tell me something, something. To see your line upon a page would be to see the sun break through the clouds.
Please, Laurence. Please.
April 20th, 1950
Word came from Paris today.
They have found you. They have had you for over a month but they did not know who to
I don’t even know why I write this. I will never mail it.
April 22nd, 1950
I will go and fetch you tomorrow
I hope I die along the road, in a gutter
All of th
April 24th, 1950
I have brought you here, Laurence. You are finally here with me in this house. But I am not glad to write this. You will not read it.
You have not read much of what I wrote. All my unopened letters were stored with you. With your clothes, your belongings. Photos of me.
I write this because I feel I must. I maintain the image of an ordinary day, another day of work, a day where everything is fine and good and you and I are fine and good. As if you are still in London, and not here.
This is how we chip away at our unlivable lives—- piece by piece, second by second. The illusion of gaining ground.
I look at you a great deal. You look nothing like I remember you. Did your lungs and your disease wrack such a havoc upon your beauty? Or is this what death does to us? I cannot see you in it. I can see no sign of the boy I loved in this thing that lies cold in this box. I cannot imagine it ever having been alive.
I want to believe that the things that have happened here, the things I have seen and done, can be connected to this. I asked the doctors over and over again, but they said just TB, just the TB, he’d been fighting it for a long while you know.
I only have a few weeks before the winter is truly gone and I must bury you. But where? Who will come? How shall I mark you? How can I ever give you what you deserve?
I wish I had never written to you. I wish I had gone and stayed gone. I wish all my letters had been lost.
I write, and write, and write, to keep out the time, like a man plugging a dike.
April 25th, 1950
The days are endless, but they go nowhere. Is this their glamour? I wish it were so.
I work. I wait.
There is so much nothing.
April 25th, 1950
If death be a thief in the night
filching trinkets, toys, tchotchkes
rearranging our rooms
without a word
then how shall we know what is stolen
and what is simply lost?
How will we know what we are losing?
Or will it be a sense of slow forgetting
a creeping doubt that comes
upon entering a well-worn room
I do not remember this.
I do not remember any of this.
Do I fade slowly
like old furniture in the sun?
Perhaps so. But what I hope
is that the one thing I will always remember
always always always remember
is how he smiled in the mornings
as if pleased
it had not all been a dream
May 1st, 1950
I have decided. There is a way.
I realized it when I went back to the forest for the first time in what felt like years. I found the ruins very easily, for now they are not ruins—- the abbey is complete.
It has built itself, out in those woods.
I remembered what the marquis said—- time can be displaced. It is fluid here—- taken from one vessel and placed into another.
I walked through the abbey, down the stairs. The first room was empty, as always. I went up the stairs, then out, and I kept walking until I heard the sound of a mandolin, and saw the gazebo.
The marquis was seated on a chair I had not ever seen before—- a savage, ugly thing made of animal horns. He was not the clean, smart-looking man I recalled—- he was larger, bulkier, cheeks flush and eyes wild.
But I did not care. I did not care what he looked like, or what he was. And even though he greeted me quite happily, I demanded to know if he had anything to do with it.
He asked me to clarify, and I told him.
He grew solemn. “My prediction was right, then,” he said. “No. No, neither myself nor my kin had anything to do with your friend. The world works as the world works. Time eventually runs out.”
But this was why I had come to see him. I began asking him my questions. He grew more dismayed, and tried to ignore me, but I would not allow it.
He admits that there is a way. But it has its price.
“The nature of time is not like fairy dust,” he told me. “It cannot do anything and everything. What is gained must also be lost.”
I said I did not care. Was it possible or not.
“It is,” he said. “It has been done before. The last was when a girl came to them, and asked them to save her village. They obliged, but the girl never came back up the stairs.”
I remembered Albert’s story. But what the marquis said troubled me.
“They” obliged? Not him?
“I cannot do it,” said the marquis. “I am a minor courtier. I do not have such control.”
He was quite reluctant, but I was persistent. “Those who first built time into this world,” he said. “Those who sleep, far down below.”
I asked him to arrange a meeting with them.
He paled. “I would never attempt such a thing,” he said. “It is unthinkable.”
I became quite irate then, and grasped him by his lapels and demanded he tell me. He did not appear alarmed at all, and said, “There is a way. This forest is filled with many older times, yes? I have showned you. You know. You ran through them, did you not? Well, there is a tool that can be used to navigate them. An item your predecessors used to sift through the eras.”
I asked him where I could find it.
“You already have it. You have used it. We would not be here if you had not. If it had just been you working at the abbey, it would have eventually sucked you dry, and only gotten itself half built. But then one night you did something to accelerate everything. Don’t you remember?”
I released him. Thought about it.
I returned home. It was dark. I did not go out again.
Now I write. And wait.
May 2nd, 1950
This morning I awoke, reached underneath my mattress, and retrieved the artifact I had hidden months ago: the little hand sickle.
I looked at its engravings again. At first I thought it was used for funeral rites, severing a man from life, but now I know better—- it severs a man not from life, but from the temporal world.
And if it can sever a man, why not a place? I looked at it and wondered if this crude thing could part the forest—- as I perhaps did by accident once—- and bring an older moment of time bobbing up to the surface.
What is magic but an alteration of the physical world? And what force alters things more than time? Even in its most passive state, it eats mountains, builds continents, strangles streams and directs oceans. Time is perhaps the purest type of magic, if any magic could be said to exist.
And I thought of you, Laurence, and I thought that if it is a magic then it is a terrible and beautiful magic indeed.
I walked to the forest with the sickle in my hand. As all the times when I entered the forest by myself, it was merely trees—- no mysterious glades, no circle of stone seats.
I walked until I came by a thawing stream. I was not sure what to do. So I shut my eyes, raised the sickle, and swung it down.
There was a stabbing pain in the hand that held the sickle. The trickle of the thawing stream turned to a babble. The air felt warmer, and there was a breeze.
I opened my eyes.
It was spring. Trees were in bloom. The stream was a river.
I looked at the sickle in my hand. My palm and fingers were bleeding as if the metal had cut into me with the motion.
I heard a noise, a gentle slap of water. I looked and saw that in the middle of the river was a long, thin boat with many oars and a tall, square sail.
There were men in the boat, hairy and filthy and dripping. They looked up and saw me standing on the bank, and stood up and stared. If I astonished them, they did not show it—- they simply looked. Perhaps they had seen many strange things in this region.
I asked them where I could find the people who could alter time. They might have understood me, or they might not have—- they just shook their heads. The boat turned around a bend, and was gone.
I shut my eyes and swung the sickle again.
The sickle stung again, the babble turned into a roar. I opened my eyes and saw four ragged people opposite the stream from me. They were washing their clothes, scraping the fabric with stones. They saw me and froze. I believe they were terrified, and I did not know what to say.
After a minute one of them raised a hand to me and began chanting in a soft language. I think he might have been praising me—- me, a wayward boy from Cambridge.
I looked at my hand. The blood was pouring out of it now.
I turned to matters at hand, and again I asked where I could find the people who could alter time.
They did not answer, just kept chanting.
I shut my eyes, raised the sickle, and swung it down.
The pain was so sharp I thought I’d lost the hand entirely. I gasped and looked and saw the red was down to my elbow. As I stared at the wound—- it was as if the sickle had eaten into my flesh—- I realized I did not hear the stream anymore.
I was in the forest. But it had changed to a forest so dark and primeval I am not sure if we know anything like it in our time. The trees were like buildings—- their canopies were so thick I did not know if they blocked the sun or if the sun had not yet been made in this time. There was no grass, only tangles of immense roots and cold, moist earth.
There was no one. I was alone.
I called out a hello.
Then there was a twitch in the forest. Someone emerged from behind a tree.
And I knew them.
It was the person in black with the white mask, the very person who had accepted my “offering” of cold chicken. They saw me and waved, again as a child would, but there was recognition in it.
I was surprised. Was this not a much, much, much earlier era? Should they know me at all? But then I remembered that to these people, the minutes and seconds and millennia between then and now are insignificant—- there is no barrier between the past and the present to them. If anything, they exist in all moments, simultaneously.
I waved back.
The person walked over to me. Though I could not see their face, their bearing was terribly sad. They leaned down to me, and once more they touched my forehead.
Again, I saw the vision of the peasant girl dancing in the caverns. The caverns were huge, enormously huge—- lipid piles of gleaming limestone, smooth, sloping stalactites the size of columns…... But then the image seemed to withdraw away, and ascend up a set of stairs, as if I was running up the stairs backwards.
They did not speak on this occasion, but I understood them—- I had gone to the right time, but the wrong place.
When I opened my eyes I was back in the forest in front of the thawing stream. My hand was no longer bleeding—- it ached, but it was whole. I did not know if the pain had been a dream, or if my visitor in the white mask had mended me somehow.
I went to the abbey. I had not yet been inside the finished building. Ordinarily I would have been absolutely mad to get inside, to experience history as the ancients had, but then, having seen what I’d seen, and lost what I had lost, the urge was totally absent.
I walked inside. The walls were crawling with images. And some I knew—- like the carvings of the giant holding a triangle up the sky.
It is not a blade they hold up to the sky, but a gnomon—- the oldest method of carving up the hours.
I wondered then and wonder now who it was that carved it.
The doorway and the stairs were still there. I know now that it was never a trapdoor, never an incidental entryway to a crypt—- what is down those stairs is the reason why the abbey is here, and why this place on earth behaves the way it does.
I walked down the stairs in the dark, past the first and second chamber. I came to where the next few steps were filled with earth.
I did not bother to shut my eyes this time. I raised the sickle, then swung it down.
There was a stabbing pain in my hand. I heard no sound, but when I felt ahead there was no obstruction.
I continued down.
I had no light, so I could only stumble in the dark. I felt doorways on other sides of me. Each time I felt one I would stop and listen for the sound of something or someone breathing—- for had I not gone back far enough for the people who once occupied these chambers to be there once more? But if those things breathed, I did not hear it, and if they were there and silent, they either did not know I was with them, or did not care.
I kept walking.
Each time I came to an obstruction, I swung the sickle, parting time as a reaper does wheat in the field. I do not know how many times I did this. Just down, down, down, and further and further back.
Until finally the stairs ended. And I saw light.
It was doors. Huge, huge doors, doors the size of skyscrapers. I cannot imagine how such doors could fit underneath the earth.
There was a pale white light seeping from the crack at their bottom. I put my ear to the doors and listened, and I thought I could hear footsteps.
Not footsteps. Dancing.
Someone on the other side of the doors was dancing. And I knew who it was.
I wanted to knock. I wanted to ask them to help me. But I had things to attend to first.
So I went back up the stairs, and returned to the house, to where you are, Laurence.
I am writing this beside you now. I have moved you to the bed. It was quite a lot of work to move you, Laurence, but I think you would prefer to find yourself here, rather than in any box. It would be such an unpleasant surprise.
I have taken care to dress you in pajamas. Your toiletries are by the bathroom sink. The mirror is clean, as is the sink. I have cooked a good batch of French onion soup for you, which is waiting downstairs in the kitchen. I hope it is still hot by the time you awake.
This should feel different. It should feel strange to write to someone not knowing if they will read it, or how they will feel when they read it—- but perhaps all epistles are perfect expressions of that curious nature of time, in which, very occasionally, two distant and different moments can bend towards one another and brush just slightly, just the merest kiss, and become one.
Perhaps it is the same with people. For what are people except for stores of time?
I believe this is the case. I hope it will be. If not, then what I am about to do will not succeed.
Once a girl went down those stairs and, I think, asked what she found at the bottom to take her remaining time and use it to push her village into a moment when it was safe. And now, like all of us, she dances, though she does so at the mercy of things I do not understand.
I hope to do the same. I am so happy I had my chance with you, Laurence. It seems long ago, but it was not, not really. Why, from here it seems like only yesterday. Isn’t that nice?
You are asleep now. But soon you will wake. I have collected my letters and placed them in this envelope. The one I write now will be the last. I will put the envelope here, next to the window, and I will write something on it to catch your eye.
I hope you see it. I hope you read it. I hope you come to understand. And I hope you will be happy. Because, let’s be frank, my dearest, your life has never exactly been the better for having me in it. I think you can live a better one. And you will live it, with the time I plan to give you.
Do not go into the forest, Laurence. There is nothing for you there, and I am not there, not in any real way. I will take the sickle with me, and I will ask them to remove the abbey, if they can. I do not know what they will do to me. But I think I will be dancing, dancing in that cavern, yet please know, Laurence, that my only thought for all those years, however many they may be, will be of you.
One moment reaching to another, forever and ever, never grasping it. But that’s the way it always is.
Yours, and always yours,