Thin Places

“Coffee is served. 10 o’ clock and things to do”. With a smile, Polly handed Eustace a large and fragrant mug and sat on the edge of the bed sipping her own.

As he told her of the events of the previous day, she looked puzzled. “Perhaps you fell asleep in the forest and dreamed the whole thing” she said, “Things like that just don’t happen in this day and age. At least, I didn’t think so.”

“I know it sounds far fetched, but I think it’s more than a beautiful dream. It’s ancient and untouched round here. I can’t help thinking there’s a thin barrier between worlds in such places.”

A loud knocking on the front door interrupted their musing and Polly greeted the postman cheerfully. As she opened the door to him, the autumn sun lit the hallway and a few golden red leaves blew in from the front garden. “Thanks Bill”, she said and took the brown paper parcel he proffered. “Beautiful morning Polly. Something in the air today.”

It was a Saturday but be that as it may, Polly and Eustace strolled down to the workshop, taking the still wrapped package with them. The village was on a road to nowhere, isolated as it was in deep wooded countryside. No through traffic, which was just as well, as the few streets were graveled and this made the atmosphere all the more curious, far removed as it was from the hectic and distant outside world.

Many of the smaller stone cottages were thatched, an art kept alive here, and often as not the rooves were adorned with straw figures of cats or occasionally a hare, sitting upright and facing a companion. Their long ears pointing upward and seemingly ready to dance the rites of spring. A few of the grander houses were of mellow red brick or honey colored limestone with slate rooves, and some were surrounded by dry stone walls which enclosed their gardens like monastic enclaves of old. Rich and timeless beauty had been preserved in this place. It was a village where the unexpected seemed commonplace and the air was filled with spirit and energy.

The village greengrocer had an open shopfront, where the doors were rolled back and the produce displayed in wooden boxes for the world to see and the locals to pick from. Gleaming pomegranates hailed form warmer climes and Mr Solley had cut a couple in half, revealing blood red jewels within, the pips of this exotic fruit. Bright yellow bananas hung at the sides of the stalls, still on their stalks. Dates and starfruit, persimmon and durian were piled high, along with apples of the brightest red and plums of the deepest purple. And as to vegetables, bright orange carrots and their feathered tails of vivid green sat alongside fine round potatoes. Globe artichokes were placed side by side with fennel. Unseasonal rhubarb lay there too, neither quite vegetable nor fruit.

Polly filled several brown paper bags and handed them to Mrs Solley to be priced on polished brass weighing scales. Mrs Solley was short, rotund and jolly, with red rounded cheeks and a smile as wide and bright as could be wished for. She wore a flowery dress almost down to her ankles, and a long white apron.

Mr Solley was slim, small of height, bald of head and wore a brown cotton warehouse coat. The same comforting outfit worn by Eustace’s much loved carpentry master at his boarding school all those years ago. Brown cotton coats always reminded Eustace of the smell of glue, gently bubbling in a blackened pot on a small gas ring, and of the familiar scent of wood shavings. Though not as jolly as Mrs Solley, her husband was a kindly man of quiet charm and everything one could have wished for in the proprietor of a village shop.

“There you are my dear” said Mrs Solley, lowering the bulging paper bags into a more substantial carrier, which Polly held open with a smile. Polly taught the Solley’s young daughter at the village primary school and the two were wont to chat.

It was a village you see where everyone knew each other not only by sight but by name. It was not the sort of village where you had to avoid people. Not the sort of place where there ever seemed to be much trouble or tittle tattle. Of any serious sort anyway. It may well have been that the village flower show brought some rivalry to the fore, but the only real disputes were over the correct sugar topping for the cream and jam sponge competition.

It was a generous and warm hearted community, uncommon in a world so often filled with harsh competition. The hamlet lay in a rich valley and a stream ran alongside, skirting the village green and a pretty Norman church of flint and stone. On either side, a few fields spread up the slopes and were mostly given over to grazing, although lower down a little market gardening was in evidence. Soon enough the fields gave way to living forest, deciduous for the most part and managed not for commerce but to maintain the balance with nature which seemed so very right in this enchanted land. There were wide broad oaks stretching to lofty heights. In days gone by these might have been commandeered by the naval dockyards for ship’s masts and timbers, but now the trees were spared from the greedy hands of man. There were cobnut trees, neatly coppiced from time to time and a great favorite with the local children in the autumn, when their produce was gathered in abundance. And chestnut trees with nuts to roast by the fire were everywhere to be found. Walnut, poplar, willow and birch – it would be hard to think of a tree not represented in the sacred groves of this bygone county.

Polly and Eustace’s workshop was a fine converted barn, just off the village green. As they passed the church, The Reverend Septimus Guidman was wheeling a wooden trolley, piled high with good things for the harvest thanksgiving the next day.

Whatever the occasion, The Reverend was to be seen dressed in a formal frock coat, dog collar, pressed trousers and black leather brogues.

“Will I be seeing you both later?” he said. A traditional and benign clergyman, he was the epitome of what the church at its best could offer. He was Warden of the village almshouses, star tenor in the church choir and a man who could be said to deserve his surname – he was indeed a “guid” man. His was a church lucky enough to have an organist who doubled as choirmaster, and perhaps the quality of the choral repertoire played some not unimportant part in attracting a sizeable congregation. Whose average age was well below the norm in an institution which, in general, had for years been in terminal decline.

In a previous era, Septimus would long ago have lost his job. In those barbarous days, he might even have been condemned as a heretic and burnt at the stake. He really wasn’t much of a believer, and he had long since ceased to preach the dogma his employers had hired him to promote. It wasn’t that he believed in nothing. He simply felt the truth might be rather different from that which those of a more conventional frame of mind subscribed to.

“You will – we have a bit of a way to go on the Palestrina” smiled Eustace and Polly nodded. They wandered a little further along the banks of the gently flowing stream and watched speckled trout dart amongst the rocks and stones, in and out of the eddies, and through the gently swaying weeds. The big stone barn that was Eustace’s workshop may once have stored grain but its interior was now filled, floor to ceiling, with the fine books of his trade. Once inside, the room looked like Duke Humphrey’s library except that instead of reading tables, the center of this large space was filled with sturdy bleached oak workbenches and the tools of a bibliopegist.

Eustace would source rare books for collectors, some hand written on bound vellum, some more modern altogether and of printed paper. As part of his service he would restore old books that needed love and attention, and he also had a thriving sideline in hand made reproductions. Polly had a passion for illuminated manuscripts, and when not teaching village children, could be found at a desk fashioning a book of hours for a wealthy client or reproducing an ancient Arabic text on astrology or medicine. Or a tome on herbal lore perhaps, or magic.

The floors were of dark grey flagstone and the ceiling above was fashioned from heavy, dark oak beams and thick planks, from which hung elegant brass chandeliers providing light enough to work by. Green shaded lamps sat on the work benches.

The room smelled, and in a most pleasing fashion. Of age, culture and quiet erudition mixed with strains of old leather, stone and the paints, pigments and potions necessary to create and restore the magnificent works of art which lined the walls. It was a room where entropy could be reversed and time tamed. It was a place of profound silence, insulated from even the modest bustle of this little village. To enter the room was to be hushed and soothed. To be wrapped in a warm conviction that all was right with the world, and your comfortable place in it assured..

“Most odd” muttered Eustace as he placed the brown paper parcel lovingly on his favourite workbench. Polly looked on with interest as he unwrapped the odd looking package, which was addressed by hand and had no postmark or stamp. He removed the thick brown twine and gently pulled aside the many layers of brown paper. He assumed there must be a book lying somewhere deep inside the package but hadn’t been expecting a delivery from any of his clients. What emerged was indeed a book, of ancient origin and bound in heavily embossed, faded dark green leather. No note accompanied the book, which made its delivery even more unexpected and curious.

The corners were protected by sturdy triangles of chased metal and the book was locked firmly shut by substantial silver clasps. There seemed to be no keyhole. The front cover was embossed with a terrifying gargoyle, whose flattened nose protruded from a face of great ugliness and whose eyes, glaring outwards, seemed to dare the reader to enter . The back cover was, with a pleasing sense of symmetry, raised with an outline of the back of the gargoyle’s head.

Eustace put on a pair of fine white cotton gloves and gently stroked the series of indentations on the front cover. As far as he could tell, they seemed to be runes of some arcane and uninterpretable language. None that he had studied anyway, and Polly was equally puzzled.

Slowly, the runes took on a ghostly silver hue and became liquid in front of their eyes, changing shape and form and morphing into old fashioned English. “Beware ye who enter The Book of Ways. Few will find The Path”.

Swirling mist filled the barn, borne by a howling wind and the silver locks flew open. The wind turned the flapping pages in furious fashion until slowly the maelstrom calmed and the book settled on a vivid and gory battle scene. Archers in leather jerkins sped arrows towards their enemy with huge longbows, and men on horseback speared those on the ground with cruel lances. Others, dressed in chainmail, wielded maces, swords or daggers and hacked furiously at those around them. The battle field itself was a wide green, rocky plain surrounded by high, snow capped mountains. Screams and shouts of anger filled the air and smoke hung over the throng. Colour was everywhere as either side was led by men carrying banners embroidered with coats of arms and artifacts of some ancient heraldry. Horns sounded and trumpets as the opposing sides led the charge against their enemies and. Wild and savage cries filled the air as man fell upon fellow man with metal and wooden club. Horses shrieked wildly, sometimes struck down by arrow or spear, spilling their riders who fell to the ground to be hacked to death by the enemy.

Carrion wheeled overhead, their fevered screeching quite the equal of the shocking pandemonium below.

Polly’s eyes filled with tears, not out of fear but for sorrow at the dreadful carnage which was unfolding before her. She and Eustace were no longer in their barn, no longer surrounded by the comfortable smell of books and old leather. By some magic, some sorcery unleashed by that curious book, they sat swirled in mist beside the field of battle itself as the dreadful butchery raged before their eyes. Eustace sat on a white stallion of 18 hands and beside him Polly rode a mare almost as tall and again of silver white. They were in the battle but not of it. There but seemingly in no direct danger. Spectators and yet intimately connected to all which was taking place around them, this incomprehensible mix of hatred and valour, brutality and futility. Man and beast struggling in violent desperation for land and possessions, women and domination. Castles and cattle they fought for and perhaps in the name of opposing deities, gods of war jealously guarding their own, oblivious to the needlessness of never ending struggle.

A king, surrounded by his generals and squires, sat on a hillock at each end of the battle field. Tall, proud and helmeted, each with his banners, musicians and followers. Little to choose between them, they played with the lives of their men as on a giant chess board. Perhaps this too was merely a game but with consequences of life or grisly death for those they hurled into combat.

Without warning, the mists swirled faster around the two onlookers and they seemed to hear the turning of pages as the battlefield dissolved and they found themselves in darkness, on a barren plain in the middle of a desert. The terrible noise of conflict faded and a deep, eerie stillness took its place.

Mounted still on their enchanted chargers, they cantered at an easy pace across sandy scrub, under a canopy of velvet blackness, a sky studded with jeweled pinpricks of light, constellations of some foreign heaven

Surrounded still by distant mountains and rocky outcrops, a ruined city stood in their path and they slowed their pace to a walk as they entered the long deserted alleyways. Crumbling statues of long gone emperors stood here and there in the cobbled lanes, stern rulers whose kingdoms had long since been forgotten and whose monuments stood to mock their once mighty ambitions.

“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” muttered Eustace and both heard the mournful notes of a cello singing a bittersweet lament in the distance.

The pages of the Book of Ways fluttered once more, somewhere far away, and the travelers found themselves trotting up a long and verdant valley, far removed from the lifeless desert plain. Tinkling sheep bells had replaced the mournful notes of the cello and the bright light of a sunny spring day had banished the deep blackness of night.

Sadness was replaced by joy and Eustace and Polly were heartened by the unexpected change of mood. Where the Book of Ways had previously shown them death and destruction it now guided them on a path of hope and endless possibility. Or so it seemed to the now weary couple. Here, it seemed to say, are realms of goodness and plenty unimagined by mortal man. Places not subject to decay or evil. Shining, bright optimism was the message on this glorious page of that magical book.

At the end of the valley stood a green hill, enclosed but not overshadowed by the mountains. Steep grass sides were crowned with a low stone wall and within lay an enchanted garden, with heavily laden trees of gleaming red and yellow and green fruits. A snow white egret with a long, elegant neck and vivid green feet stood in front of intricate wrought iron gates in the wall. Those gates stood open in welcome.

There was something deeply symbolic and wholly magical about the small green hill and its garden but for the life of them, the travelers were unable to think where they might have seen this place before or what it reminded them of.

The world, it is said, can not give peace. This place was not a world then, for both Polly and Eustace felt deep tranquillity. Bliss, euphoria, ecstasy call it what you will but in this land the travelers were at one with the infinite and knew that here was omniscience, omnipotence and the fount of all goodness. Like the strange sylvan glade Eustace had visited, this was a realm without beginning or end. They had come home. They had arrived in a country long imagined but seldom visited by the living. Nirvana some called it, moksha said others, paradise, oblivion, the promised land. Doubt was banished and ills had no place here.

Pascal had been right, his wager well placed.

The vision faded, if vision it was, and Polly and Eustace found themselves drifting through a universe lit by glowing nebulae of many colours, and swirling galaxies of bright stars. On and on they went, in and out of bright tunnels of white light, past rocks and stars and planets in endless profusion. Blue moons and others in deep orange, planets of lapis blue and green and others of dull brown ochre.

After what seemed an eternity, they found their feet had at last touched solid ground and they smelled once again leather and polished wood. The haze cleared and they heard the book snap shut, its well oiled locks fastening with a solid click. And there it lay on the table in their workshop, an old and mottled book of faded green leather. The now grinning gargoyle looked pleased with itself and Eustace may have imagined it winked at him, as normality was finally restored and the two friends came gratefully back down to earth.

“So what can it all mean?” said Eustace. Choir practice was over and all three of them were standing propped up against the misericords, which once supported monks at compline. Weary from their long day of labour and singing the last hour of the day, the monks could rest a little, even as they stood and sang. Eustace had told Septimus about the adventures of the past couple of days. If anyone could shed light on the mysterious happenings, it would be this sage and good hearted man of the cloth.

“Move forward a little and take a proper look at what you have been leaning on these past couple of hours” ventured Septimus. “I think you might find some explanation there. Or comfort, at the very least, that reality is a stranger and more wonderful place than you might have imagined.”

Much as they loved this church and its guardian, neither Polly nor Eustace had taken the time to look properly into its history and architecture or its furnishings.

If they had taken as much interest in its past as they had in its choral liturgy, they might have been deeply impressed that a sacred building had stood here long before Abraham had left Ur of the Chaldees. Or Gilgamesh had embarked on his odyssey.

Septimus looked on with satisfaction as his two parishioners studied the misericords with fascination and surprise .

On one there was carved a joyous Dionysian scene, which reminded Eustace of nothing so much as the feast he had joined in the woods. Men and beasts caroused together in a dappled glade. Not dumb beasts it seemed. Not those without the gift of sentience or language, for these seemed quite the equal of their human co-revelers. Gourds of wine were raised and musical instruments played. Trees seemed to sway gently in a light breeze and if Polly and Eustace had not quickly taken their eyes from the scene, both felt they might have been drawn into the carving itself to join the throng.

On another there was a carving of a solemn man wearing a voluminous cloak, one foot planted on a rocky outcrop, and in his hand a stout staff. A big man with tousled, curly hair and a noble face, the Mage’s solemnity was softened by a mien of kindness and deep wisdom. Not a man to oppose certainly, but staring at him you felt sure that you would not want to anyway.

On the back of the third seat was fashioned a magnificent stag, antlers held high, accompanied by a willowy figure carrying a lute.

“There are more things in heaven and earth than most people would dream of” chuckled Septimus.

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