An air of deep unusualness greeted him, as he opened his door on a blustery autumn morning and set out to walk through the woods. The chestnuts were falling and a profusion already lay like a barbed, yellow-green carpet around his feet, as he pushed on gently up the hill and deeper into the ancient woodland.
What makes some days so mysterious he wondered and others so mundane. What spirits walked this day, what strange winds blew. A man not given to flights of fancy, a staunch supporter of rationalism and the scientific endeavor, he nonetheless found himself on occasion given over to profound transcendence of the ordinary and transported elsewhere.
And on such a day as this, adventure beckoned, that he knew. Something about the sky seemed out of kilter. The winds blew as if with some intent, driven not by physics but by some other less explicable force.
Was it whispering he heard or merely the rustle of autumn’s leaves. What moved, what dwelt behind the trunks of ancient oaks. Who or what seemed to lead him on up the steep and rutted byway, deeper into the heart of the forest.
There was a wildness here, something not quite safe. As the winds buffeted his body, so some feeling tugged at his mind. Time seemed fluid and the 21st century had receded elsewhere, perhaps where it belonged. Certainly it had no place here or now, no purchase on this day, no call upon a mind transported altogether elsewhere.
He knew the place well, or so he thought and yet today all seemed very different indeed. Little sign of human habitation and the world did not mourn its absence. A few red kites battled the currents high above the tree tops, a fox loped by in front of him. Ahead in a sylvan clearing, a white stag stared at him with intent, seemingly about to speak. Instead it tuned as if beckoning him to follow and that he did, telling himself that in any event their paths lay in the same direction.
On a day such as this he was released from the cares which so often shackled his mind. Free to roam in hidden places and to witness happenings found usually only deep in the imagination. His mind empty of the customary banality of the world and open to wonder and enigma.
He waded through the leaves and chestnuts at his feet and followed the sinuous path taken by his guide for what seemed like hours, although his grasp on time seemed tenuous at best. Every now and then the stag would stop and glance backwards, apparently to ensure his continued presence. The noble beast seemed to speak without words, to comfort and reassure as the journey reached parts his follower was unfamiliar with. Surely, he thought, he knew every inch of this forest and yet it seemed to stretch ever on and into territory he did not recognize at all.
Eventually they emerged into a clearing, and the stag bowed gently and left him standing within sight of a building of some considerable beauty he had never before come across. Of flint and stone and clearly of ancient origin, it seemed to serve some spiritual purpose and yet was not quite like any church or temple he had ever seen before. Unworldly arched windows stretched towards a slate roof, their heavily leaded panes thicker at the bottom than the top. A sign, he assumed, of their great age. A tall square tower loomed large over the pitched roof below it and may well, he thought have contained bells. Oddly enough, there was no clock face, nor was a sundial anywhere apparent. The significance of this absence struck him immediately as did the profusion of carvings around door and window frames, which evidenced forms from the finest bestiary he had ever seen.
Sweet notes from a stringed instrument drifted from the huge oak door on the south side of the building, which stood ajar, inviting him to enter. Such a door he had rarely seen, massively constructed from whole timbers and studded with impressive iron bolts and intricate serpentine hinges.
The portal surrounding the door was of golden stone and richly carved with ornamentation which seemed at once familiar yet strange. Figures of men in battle dress, wielding swords and maces. Some dressed in chainmail, some in full battle armor. Most in helmets of various design, some pointed, some rounded, all with coverings for cheeks and nose. Men of peace were there too, sages perhaps and learned of letters. Priests maybe of some other worldly belief system, portrayed holding books and scrolls. One had a bird perched on his shoulder, an eagle perhaps. Another an elegant hound at his feet. Learn-ed looked these men and most of them kindly. Not those who would willingly bear arms it seemed.
And animals, such animals were carved on this portentous surround as seemed designed to protect and guard what or who lay within. Great lions and dragons stood reared on hind legs, satyrs and fawns, centaurs and winged horses were carved into the doorway in such fine detail that they almost seemed to come to life as he stared at them.
A clear voice joined the resonance of the lute, though in what register he was unable to say. The voice washed over him, a strong alto perhaps or a clear bright baritone. Or perhaps a mixture of all. A madrigal it was, of great beauty both sad and happy at the same time and all manner of moods in between. Time stands still, sang the voice. A song of love no doubt, but to whom or to what did not seem to matter – the sound was all encompassing and seemed to fill every corner of his mind and body.
“Enter, Eustace” said a voice as the song came to an end. “Come sing with me a while”. Eustace pushed open the door and the lutist stood on a low dais, dressed in forest green in a style which he supposed was mediaeval.
“I am Flavio” said the musician, “You are expected”. Yellow haired, Flavio was tall and elegant and as to gender perhaps neither quite one thing nor the other. In such places, gender counted for little, all seemed as fluid as time itself, all seemed to meld and melt in a manner which was not quite physical. The feeling was of energy and mind, of transcendence and some realm more ethereal than that which encompassed the everyday reality of timetables and combustion engines, offices and factories.
And so they sang. Eustace and Flavio sang and sang and sang. And they were joined by voices which came from all around – glorious sopranos, and tenors and deep, deep basses. And all registers in between.
And as the sweet notes rang, Eustace realized they were no longer inside but outside on a bright green lawn as smooth as the finest bowling green. And it was autumn no longer – spring had come again and winter left out altogether.
“Come, join us Eustace” said Flavio, gesturing to a circle of beings assembled around a grand old man, also dressed in the deepest and brightest green of the forest. And all around his golden chair sat the animals and men from the stone portal of that door through which Eustace had entered this world of beauty and grace.
“Welcome Eustace”, said the magisterial figure from his golden throne. “I am the Mage, although I have been called many things. I am Maker and Taker, Beginning and End. Come, sit with me a while.”
As Eustace took his place on the warm grass beside the great seat, he was overcome with a sense of solemnity, although at the same time he was aware of great joy and laughter. No fear did he feel, no, certainly not that. He had come, he realized, to the origin of all, although how he knew that was a mystery to him. It seemed in the air all around him – wisdom and peace and certitude. Kindness and joy.
“Where am I?” stammered Eustace, “Why am I here?”
“You are in a place that many have dreamed of”, said the Mage. “The Origin, you might call it, the Infinite. A place from where all comes but which many choose to deny. And many have forgotten. Have you forgotten Eustace?”
Eustace looked puzzled. “Somewhere deep down I feel I have come home” he said. “I can’t explain it. I have been in some other place, yet I belong here”.
“We all belong here” said the Mage “And our task is to convince others. It is not an easy charge Eustace. Do you feel up to it? Will you help me? Think on it. Take you time. Now, drink, and eat and we will talk again.”
To one side of the clearing lay tables laden with good things of all sorts. Fruits and nuts, vegetable dishes of many kinds, some piping hot, some cold and refreshing. The tables overflowed with sweet drink and clear water, flowers and wines and foods to suit every palate.
The Mage rose and led the assembly to the feast and Eustace drank and ate and was welcomed by beast and man alike. And women and children joined the throng and all manner of beast and animal seemed represented here.
When all had slaked their thirst and assuaged their appetite, the music began again and a joyous throng of voice and instrument filled the air as night set in and the stars filled the heavens.
The Mage sang in a rumbling baritone and as his voice rose in joyous harmony with those around him, it seemed to bring the stars and moons into their very existence in this sky so foreign and yet so familiar to Eustace at the same time.
Sleep must have overwhelmed him at last. It had been a long day and a tiring walk. Filled with great wonder and emotion, he lay his head on the grass and the throng whirled around him. And around, and around. Voice and instrument, starlight and moonlight, drink and good food, smell and colour blurred together in a glorious synaesthesia of the senses. And then quiet and calm and warmth. And a gentle, crackling fire in the hearth.
Eustace was at home when he awoke, drowsing in his little sitting room, in his worn and comfortable old arm chair in front of the fireplace.
“Have I dreamt?” he wondered “Have I been out of the house at all?” He remembered setting out that morning on a blowy autumn day, but much of the rest was a blur. A dream.
Until, that is, Eustace glanced down beside his chair and saw a perfect oak leaf fashioned out of pure gold. Which seemed to hum ever so softly in the quiet evening light of this warm and familiar room.
It was a fastening from the great green cloak of the Mage.