Chapter 7 | Sun’s Blessing
The old walls ached against the sea breeze outside. Inside the schoolhouse though, it was warm, isolated from the unpleasant, windy wildness of the outside world. The sound of pencils scratching lackadaisically against the lined paper was the only other sound in the one-room building. That and the sound of Miss Merridale pacing up, down and along the margins of the rows of desks.
Rafael fidgeted in his hard-wood seat, his feet crossing and shoulders twitching. His palms were moist and his thoughts completely absent from his work. His eyes habitually glanced up from his arithmetic to rest on the chestnut hair of Annabel in the front row. Her head was bowed and it was clear she was deep into her assignment. Being a year younger, she was one of the students who sat in the front row, while older students sat further back respectively.
The room felt enchanted by her presence, every smell and sound voluptuously intensified to fall like a flowering garland around his soft and warm thoughts. Even the texture of the pencil in his right hand and the paper under his left seemed to swell with significance and meaning within proximity to Annabel. He imagined himself boldly walking up to her in the schoolyard and asking her something. What he would ask her, he had no idea, but the imagined scene of himself asking her something with boldness and panache was so established in his mind he did not quite care what he said. However, the imagined Rafael of his daydreams seldom revealed himself in the cold, rigid world of reality. Rafael often lamented how disappointing reality was when faced with the world of his imagination.
Rafael’s thoughts were brought back to task by the shadow of Miss Merridale falling over his paper. With a start he focused his eyes back on the question he had stopped at and tapped his pencil against the page, not knowing what to write. The shadow lingered and Rafael continued tapping, his mind going utterly blank. To Rafael’s despair, Miss Merridale stooped and put her face level with Rafael, who glanced at her with a start, pretending he had not noticed she was there.
“Having trouble?” Her voice was sweet, but there was a tinge of irony in it, which caused Rafael to wonder if she had noticed his looking at Annabel.
“No Miss Merridale. Thank you.” Rafael muttered in his most meek and unassuming voice. He heard her breathe as if through a smile as she stood upright again, and continued strolling along the desks. Miss Merridale was a substitute teacher for the harvest season, since Lady Hearthbrow, their usual teacher, was always off on important town business during harvest. Rafael never quite knew what to think of Miss Merridale. She was not what one often thinks of as a school teacher. She was not a snappish crow like Hearthbrow, but had an gentle temper. There was always the thin traces of a smile on her lips, but her eyes were sad and were always behind her round, wire-framed glasses.
Rafael returned to his work without looking up at Annabel again until the little clock which sat on Miss Merridale desk chimed for six o’clock. Immediately the silent room was astir with the closing of books, the folding of papers, the pushing of chairs, and shuffling of feet. Rafael shut his book hastily and rapidly began to shovel his things back into his bookbag. He looked up just in time to see Annabel pass him by on his left. Her flannel dress brushed against his arm and for a moment, he could smell the aroma of her hair, reminding him of autumn evenings in the woods. She was in a smiling conversation with one of her schoolmates as she passed, and her eyes were low, so Rafael could not directly see them. She passed without even noticing the infatuated boy.
Rafael had been stricken to the heart by her nearness. If anyone were paying attention to his expression, they would’ve assumed he had heard a loud and frightening sound, due to his wide, alert eyes and his rigid posture. Rafael shook himself, realizing he would soon by the only one left in the schoolhouse. Shouldering his bookbag, he followed his schoolmates out the door and through the schoolyard, which was fenced in so they all had to leave through one gate. From the top of the schoolhouse stairs, he saw Annabel and her friends leaving the gate and turning down the hill to where the town lay. From the stout, grassy hill where the schoolhouse was built, Rafael could just see over the sparse rooftops to the coast, where the ocean horizon was masked with smoke from the fishmongers on the wharf.
Rafael wasted no time in rushing out the schoolyard gate, then slowing his pace as he came within thirty yards of Annabel and her friends. He knew they were both headed in the same direction, so he was not concerned about being seen if she looked back. For a long distance, Rafael was caught up in the chattering tide of his schoolmates, though he made no effort to converse with them. His attention was entirely seized by the visage of Annabel, seen in glimpses between the insipid obstructions which were his classmates.
But one by one, the surrounding children diverted to return to their homes, until Rafael found himself the only boy following along behind Annabel and her remaining friends. It then dawned on Rafael that Annabel had missed the turn for the wharf, and was headed west of town, in the direction of Rafael’s lodging.
Rafael began to feel more and more uncomfortable as he friends dropped off one by one. Soon only one friend remained with her, and still Annabel held to the same course as Rafael. Even though Rafael was fully within his rights to be traveling that way, he could not help but feel he would be intruding if he were seen. Finally Annabel’s last friend left for her respective home to the left of the gravel road, leaving only Rafael and Annabel on the road.
They were well away from the din of the town by now, and were flanked on either side by broad, flat cattle pastures, interrupted only by scattered juniper trees and hay bales. Around of them, the only obstructions to be seen beyond the cattle pastures were Hearthbrow Hill, a wooded mound about a mile ahead of them, and Hangman’s Forest, up a rise to their right, above the fenced pastures. Rafael didn’t really know the true name for the forest up the rise, only that most of the boys called it “Hangman’s Forest”, not because there was any evidence of any actual hanging in the woods, but because most of the schoolhouse children were of the opinion it was haunted.
As Rafael walked, he was glad of a herd of herd of grazing, black cows to his right, which made just enough noise to cover the sound of his footsteps. Not once did Annabel look back, but she continued as though no one watched her. She became visibly airier, with a fresh bounce in her step which almost made it appear she was skipping. She moved in what appeared to be a dance, every movement perfect; full of life yet unplanned. Her feet fell in another world apart from the ground Rafael tread. She was the gilded frame which contained a landscape Rafael could not reconcile with the world he knew. It did not stifle the beauty of the cornfield or the windswept, blue sky over their heads, but transcended it like meaning transcends word, and truth transcends myth. The wholesome color of an innocent world fell from her waving hair and dancing feet, and Rafael could not look away.
As the road continued, the pasture to their right grew narrower as the trees of Hangman’s Forest encroached nearer to the road. The trees grew nearer and nearer, until the road reached a place where the forest was exposed and unfenced on their right, while the cattle pastures continued on their left. Now there was no noise to distract from Rafael’s footfalls, but he knew now the distraction would be unnecessary. Annabel was in a world apart, skipping from one side of the road to the other, without paying any concern to the thought that she might be followed. Though Rafael harbored no notions of the forest actually being haunted, he kept to the left of the road, allowing the encroaching grass to whip his shins as he walked.
After glancing behind to check if he might in fact be being followed, he looked ahead again just in time to see the last trace of Annabel vanish beyond the treeline, into the woods without a sound. Rafael’s feet stopped, his heart seeming to run dry for a moment. He tried to convince himself she had leapt into the woods of her own accord, rather than being dragged in by some unseen monster. Again the notion of the woods being haunted thrust itself upon his young mind, and he found himself rushing toward the spot he had seen her last.
Coming to the edge of the forest, he leaned against a huge, ancient, oak tree. Inside, the glaring summer sun barely cut through the dense leaves overhead, leaving only sparse beams of light here and there between the old, twisting trunks of enormous oaks, hanging with Spanish moss like cobwebs. If a forest could look abandon, this one did, wearing the expression of some deserted buildings which evoke, almost as a matter of course, the thought of neglected and resentful ghosts.
Peering in without entering, Rafael could not see any trace of the missing girl. He did not breathe as his listened, hoping for some noise to break the abnormal and ghostly membrane which had spread over his thoughts. With a wave of bittersweet relief, he heard the cracking of sticks and a crunch of leaves a ways to left, and up the hill through the forest.
Rafael took a step into the woods and plucked up a stick off the leafy ground. His racing heart alerted him to the fact that he was frightened, though consciously he felt little else than a flat determination to make sure Annabel was safe. Leaving his bookbag near the old oak, he set off in the direction of the sound, carrying his stick before him.
As Rafael began to trevese Hangman’s Forest, he began to have the impression this was the sort of forest which had no paths. He was increasingly aware of a numinous dread imposing upon his subconscious. The wind in the boughs overhead became breath, and rattle of the dry branches became whispers. He felt the eyes of the wood all over him. But for all these dreadful feelings, they only served to reinforce a swelling sense of solemn bravery—for in fact it was bravery, without self-deception.
A few times Rafael thought he saw the figure of Annabel moving through the thickets. But he was not be sure until he suddenly found himself on a trail. At once, almost all the foreboding dread of the forest left his mind, though its heaviness remained on his heart. Without a doubt Annabel had followed the path. Holding still, he could just hear her feet skipping up the trail. With another wave of half-relief, Rafael loosened his grip on the stick and continued to follow up the path.
He followed until he caught sight of something unnatural through the trees. A huge shape loomed through the columns of wood and brambles, and Rafael had the impression he was near a house of some sort. It couldn’t be Annabel’s house, he knew she lived with her father on the wharf. This was something completely unfamiliar to Rafael, and he began to feel the cautious thrill of discovery.
The trail terminated into an old, rusty wire fence whose gate had fallen off its hinges. Beyond lay, what once must have been a well kept lawn of grass and possibly a garden, but was now overgrown and rank with decay. But what dominated Rafael’s attention was a building in the center of the green clearing.
The neglected hulk of a ruined chapel lay before Rafael. It’s steeple had fallen in and its once white-washed walls were now tinged with green mold. Almost all its tall, gothic windows were broken, but those which weren’t displayed a humble attempt at stained-glass depictions. Before continuing his search for Annabel, he marveled at the structure, first wondering why he had never heard of it before, then wondering who built it and why it had fallen into disrepair.
What gripped his attention next was a bicycle leaning against the wall of the chapel, and the realization that he recognized it, though he could not remember who it belonged to. The place was unsettlingly quiet, the only sound around him being the aching of tree limbs and the wind in the trees. No birds sang overhead, though life seemed unusually abundant all around him.
As Rafael began to approach the chapel, he became aware that there were voices inside. Gentle, quiet voices, belonging to Annabel and another woman from what Rafael could hear. Crouching just below one of the broken windows, Rafael slowly and cautiously peered over the windowsill.
Inside, he saw rows of rotting, old benches, a floor littered with leaves, and a gloom sliced by a shaft of bold sunlight coming through a gaping hole in the ceiling. The layout of the old chapel was the image of a conventional church, with its pews, tall windows, altar, and pulpit. But to Rafael, it was a strange and foreign realm, bursting with vestiges of symbol and meaning he could not understand. He had the impression of opening a book written in another language.
But what stole his attention next was an old piano situated just between the altar and the pulpit, sitting at which was the shape of Annabel. Beside her stood a woman in a white, linen gown wearing a blue shawl. The moment he recognized this woman as being Miss Merridale was the moment Annabel began to play.
What sound met his ears was like the atmosphere surrounding the chapel, numinous, alive, vibrating with otherworldly energy. Rafael had never heard such a sound as the out-of-tune, old piano. Indeed, he had never heard a piano. The College had forbidden the practice of music, and singing was a punishable offence.
Rafael froze with shock and bewilderment as he realized Miss Merridale was teaching Annabel music. But before Rafael could think much about this revelation and its possible repercussions, Annabel opened her mouth and began to sing, and immediately Rafael’s world was unmade.
All awareness of his soul trapped in his body, and his body limited to place became like a mist, a theory liable to be disproven. He was transported from mortal concern and glib misgivings to a world higher and infinitely more real. Vibrant impressions filled Rafael’s mind, impressions present enough to be living manifestations though, try as he might, he could not reconcile them with any knowledge in his mind. Rafael was not an emotional child, but he found himself unable to hold back tears as a cataract of something like joy and desperation came gushing forth in a manner he could not prevent. If he did not know why he loved Annabel, or if indeed love could grow from his infatuation, the visage of that world he could see through her became rightly the object of his affections.
Perhaps that was why the world had seemed so dark since she died. Since Miss Merridale had vanished one winter morning, and then Annabel in early spring. Perhaps that was why Rafael found it so difficult to cry now, and why had found it impossible to believe any forest, or any place, could be haunted. Perhaps it was why he wished he was dead, burnt to cinders in the ashes of Boethius’ home. He could see himself, a withered corpse in the skeletal remains of the burned steamship.
Rafael stood up from the church window, turned, and found himself standing in the ashes of Boethius’ home, the world around him still dark with smoke though the fire had burned itself out.
‘After all, what good is living if the world is really just rotten.’ Rafael said to himself, low under his breath. His heart sagged with profound melancholy as the image of Boethius’ dead body flashed through his mind. ‘If that’s what happens to good men, what’s the reason for being good? Maybe the Reckoning happened to free people from seeing life for what it really is. They had it right, we who are left are the fools.’ His words dropped away as his thoughts became disordered and as reason failed him, another thought came to him, more voice than his own thought.
‘If you think death will cure you of evil, you’re wrong.’ A feeling of cosmic dread fell on Rafael’s spirit as he became aware of the thinness of his understanding. The voice continued, ‘And if you think good will always fail against evil, then you have not tasted true good.”
Rafael felt his fear ferment into frustration and then anger. He replied to the ghostly voice,
“Then how am I supposed to live? Why can’t I see any good?” There was silence for a long moment, as Rafael tried to chase the stray thoughts out of his head so he could hear clearly. The reply which came was disappointing.
‘You haven’t wanted to see it yet.’
“Then I must be blind…” Rafael muttered through clenched teeth, more out of injured pride than rational thought.
‘He can make you see again, if you want…”
Rafael lifted his head in puzzlement.
“Who is ‘he’?”
“There is so much you don’t know…so much you have to see.” The lady’s voice sighed, more a wind than a thought now. Rafael could almost feel her breath on his skin, making it prickle and sending a chill through his body.
“But who is he?” Rafael repeated, a little uncertain why he felt so desperate to know.
“Come to the Helm of Nations and you will see, my love.” The lady’s voice had ceased to be a voice in his head, nor a voice over his head, but was unmistakable a voice behind him in the ruins of the ship. Rafael turned, his heart pounding afresh, as he laid eyes on the angelic, winged woman in white.
The visage of her was like the sound of Annabel’s song, all those years ago. Something eternal glimpsed through the temporal shades of mortal existence. Rafael felt a jolt run through his heart at the sight of her face. Words failed him and thoughts melted into fluid emotion as he witnessed an angel with Annabel’s face.
An indescribable smile spread over her face as she laid eyes on Rafael. But only a flash of joy touched her eyes, which carried such a weight of pain.
“A time is coming, when you will see like you once did; then you will be twice the man you were then, my love.” Rafael only stared as she spoke, unable to crystalize one confusion into a question worth asking. She continued, “Tell Amos, to bring my feather to the plinth in the woods beyond the wall.” Darkness began to fill Rafael’s eyes again, and color faded into grey. He heard the lady speak her last words. “Follow the Albatross.”
Then, as if a trapdoor had dropped from beneath him, Rafael felt himself fall without breath enough to scream.
With a sensation as if he had met with the ground, he awoke with a stifled shout. With eyes wide open and muscles tense, he arched his back where he lay and drew in a deep gasp. He released his breath in a coughing fit as he curled into a ball, realizing the pain pulsing through his body. With waves of dread, he recalled the night before, discovering Boethius’ body, the fire in the steamship, and falling into the flames from the ship’s bridge. Rafael wondered if he really were dead, but the aching pain which filled his body testified that he was in fact alive.
Venturing to move, Rafael forced himself to sit up, imagining with horror himself laying there, a tangle of broken bones and charred flesh, yet miserably alive. But as he sat up, his bleary eyes saw that his arms were unbroken and unburned. Upon further examination, he found that his bones were not broken, his flesh was in tact, everything down to the clothes he wore had been left untouched by the fire.
Now looking around him, he saw he was surrounded with the wreck and ruin of the burned steamship. Everything had been reduced to heaps of ash, stirred by the wind. Even the metal frame of the ship had melted and bent in many places, leaving it an unrecognizable hulk. Above him, he could see the branch from which he had fallen, broken and half-dangling, all its needles shed or burned. It was mid morning, and the sky was a blinding sheet of white cloud. Venturing to stand to his feet, Rafael struggled to maintain balance. He had a splitting headache.
Standing erect, Rafael looked over his surroundings again with profound suspicion. He wondered, if he looked down, would he see his dead body there still, while he stood over himself as a ghost. Without much reason to disobey the impulse, he looked down and was stricken by something even more uncanny. There lay no body, but where his body had fallen there was a circle of unburned wood, so distinctly unburned that the ash piled around it like snow pushed back by the heat of a campfire.
As Rafael looked down, he noticed his fist was still clenched around something. Opening his hand, he saw he was still holding Amery’s gold pocket watch. Overcome with bewilderment, Rafael said aloud,
“What in God’s name’s going on?”
Rafael’s gaze shot up as the batting sound of wings broke the silence close by. He looked just in time to see a blackbird swoop from one of the steel ribs of the steamship, over his head, and off toward the west.