From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Gravity

ME 110s caught them over the coast of France and followed them out across the Channel. It wasn’t battle, it was aerial dismemberment. Within sight of home, with the patchwork fields of Dorset spread out below them like a picnic cloth, burst after burst of cannon shells ripped into the Vickers Wellington and ignited her spilling fuel. Speed and fire were skinning her, tearing her apart. At 18,000 feet, just after dawn on 11 September 1940, with fierce heat and choking black smoke filling his tiny chamber in the belly of the airplane, Air Bomber Sergeant Richard Carter chose to jump rather than burn. His parachute was smouldering shreds. He was going to hurt and then die.

There was a big hole blown upwards through the floor and nothing to do but step into it. He didn’t really expect to fall: the air was so hard and cold, he thought it would be like stepping out onto an iceberg. He expected he would just stand on it. To his surprise, he fell.

He fell into a strange stillness, despite the loud wind of his own falling which pressed a fist into his face and ripped at his flying-suit (his falling-suit, now). The plane moved one way, he moved another, their courses slowly parting. He was free and flying downwards through the air.

Early risers on the Dorset coast watched the destruction of the returning bombers, cheerily mistaking the small silver attackers for Hurricanes and the black tracks of burning, falling fuselage for the deaths of enemies. They fancied they could hear the crash and thump of airplane parts smacking into the sea. Richard Carter fell with his eyes open and his arms outstretched to embrace the world. He flew fast, diagonally downwards. As he crossed into England he saw below him the unmistakable, ruler-straight eighteen-mile strip of Chesil Beach, and the dark lagoon that lay behind it. He passed overhead, startling a flock of swans on the water.

Knowing himself about to die, Carter was laughing. He was high and mighty, alive and shouting with the fierce joy of flight. He loved it. The whole world was spread out below him, and he was free: free from people, free from rules, free from the need to make up his mind. He might have been the last man left alive in all the world. Only one rule applied still, but it was the big one. Gravity was coming to smack him, hard. Every attempted escape must be punished.

He was being pulled downwards with a tremendous ripping sound, but he had plenty of time to watch the ground approaching. Terminal velocity is 120 mph. That’s all. It’s not so fast: barely half the forward airspeed of the plane he’d just parted company with, and he wasn’t even heading straight downwards. He had plenty of time to make out the detail of the fields below as he passed above them like a meteor. He would have sung a song, but the wind froze his mouth in a wild grimace and tore his breath away. His trajectory hurled him towards a patch of woodland on the side of a hill. 120 mph wasn’t that fast, but it would be fast enough.

In Hodder’s Tout Wood, a young godling, almost new-born, barely come to fruition out of the brow of the old hill, sensed the airman’s coming. He sensed the flaring power in him, as he burned in seconds through a whole lifetime of fierce delight in living. The airman’s hot joy touched something in the inexperienced godling’s heart and awoke an answering, admiring, welcoming love. Make an exception, the godling thought. It was a generous, instinctive reflex, spontaneous and good. An older, wiser immortal might have paused to reflect, and then let matters proceed without interference, but this one did not.

Richard Carter flew at a shallow angle through the tops of the trees. Small leaves and green branches bent and broke before him. Cresting Hodder’s Tout, he struck the far side of the hill a glancing blow. The ground was gently sloping downhill away from him: layers of fern and long grass and deep brown loam soft after rain. He bounced. The land, enacting the will of the new god, reached up and caught him gently. I will have this man and his joy in life, I will save him, he shall not die, said the hill’s voice. Carter hit the ground, and the ground took away the force of his fall; and in that moment, a line was crossed and an iron law broken. Willfully and thoughtlessly, the living hill had chosen a local miracle. Consequences rippled out from the epicenter of the falling man’s impact in concentric rings of momentous force and implication. The orderly arrangement of things trembled.

The young god who had made it happen promptly forgot what he had done and wandered off to see what his friends the rooks were doing in the wood. He never thought of Sergeant Richard Carter again. But across the valley, not far away, another voice, belonging to another watcher of his fall, an older one, more experienced, dark and cruel, shrieked in anger and frustration. He should have been mine! That wasn’t fair! I wanted him!

* * *

Richard Carter lies cupped and still in the sheltering lap of Hodder’s Coombe, like a sleeping child. Briars and long grasses stoop over him solicitously. They intervene between his open eyes and the dizzying, shining sky above. He cannot move, but he is not unconscious. No, the opposite of that; he is open to the whole of the world, open to all that is inside him and to all that gathers and swirls around. Temporarily jarred by the terrific impact, the border crossings of his mind have been left un-policed. Inside his head, no constables patrol the market-places. In the hotels of his imagination, the sharp-faced concierges have deserted the corridors. He lies awake and motionless. He is receiving on every wavelength. He can taste the warm, still air and feel the birdsong on his skin. He is open to everything and—like moths and stilting spiders—small new things come and enter him from the grass and the deep sweet earth.

And then he sees me.

* * *

My face appeared between him and the sun: my round, unpretty face, flat as a dinner plate with a strong square chin: a pale, plump woman bending over him, alarmed and breathless from running. I was wearing working clothes, masculine and earthy-smelling. My red-yellow hair was cut short, so that it wisped and feathered. It was damp with sweat and sticking to my forehead.

I’d seen him hit the ground and I expected to find a broken body, limbs askew in a puddle of its own mess, but when I reached him he was lying on his back, gazing up at the sky, looking dazzled.

“I’m not killed,” he said. “I’m not, am I?”

“No,” I said. “You should be, but you’re not … though how the hell you survived …. and you don’t sound German. You’re not a fifth columnist, are you?”

“No,” he said quietly. “My name’s Richard. See that sky up there? I fell through that. I know what it’s like up there.”

“I didn’t see a parachute.”

“I didn’t have one.”

“Oh.”

With a wry grimace of pain he raised himself up on one elbow to look at me. I didn’t like his gaze. It was too intense. He made me feel naked.

“You’re beautiful,” he said. “My rescuing angel. It would be marvelous to fall in love with you. How would that be, do you think?”

“Don’t be silly. My son’s your age. John’s an idiot, too.”

“You’re not old.”

“Never mind that.” I bent over to take him by the arm. “Come on, let’s get you on your feet.”

“I don’t think you should move me. I might have broken my back.”

I kicked his leg. Hard.

“Ouch!” he shouted. “Hey!”

“See?” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with you that a good breakfast won’t put right.”

My house stands on its own a few hundred yards outside Lynchet Bredy, at the end of a lane roofed by trees. I managed to get him home without too much trouble, though he was stiff and bruised and after a while he began to shake. He was quivering like a jelly, in fact, and finding it difficult to focus his eyes, or his mind. But it wasn’t far and no-one saw us. I did him some bacon and coffee (the last of my coffee, saved from before the war) but by the time he’d finished it, he was slurring his words and his eyes were dropping, so I put him in John’s room and pulled the curtains and left him to sleep.

* * *

Richard Carter wakes into a bright bedroom with open windows. Something has happened. Something has changed. What? On a table against the wall a huge bowl of foxgloves burns with green and purple flames. He lies on his back, feeling the cool starched cotton of the pillow against his ears. Breathing. It is enough.

Through the windows he can see the round, tree-covered top of a hill. The trees are a fizzing, billowing, yeasty seethe of life, and above them small, white clouds drift across a perfect blue sky.

After some time a woman comes into the room and he remembers.

I have rounded white forearms and large, capable hands. He has slept round the clock. Twice. He is covered with bruises but he feels no important pain. He looks at me but he doesn’t speak. He still looks dazzled.

* * *

He found me in the garden, trying to gather apples. The tree had grown too big, and the best of the crop were on higher boughs than I could reach, even with my crook. The neglected garden was in its late summer fullness: shaggy topiary sprawled in the scented warmth of the sun and mounds of fat, sleepy lavender were grazed by fatter, sleepier bees.

“You didn’t tell me your name,” he said. “I don’t even know where I am.” He was wearing a shirt and trousers of John’s. I’d put them out for him. His feet were bare.

“I’m sorry.” I put down my bag of apples to shake his hand. “Margery Fitton.”

“Hello,” he said. “Carter. Richard Carter.”

“I know,” I said. “I read your tags.”

He smiled down at me, calmly. He was tall and slender, willowy even, so that he looked almost girlish in John’s clothes (who was shorter and stockier). His mouth was dark and generous, and his eyes were a deep, almost purple blue that seemed to want to swallow me up into his quiet happiness at being alive. He picked up the apple bag.

“Here,” he said, “let me make myself useful.”

“No. Really, you shouldn’t. You’re hurt.” But he had already slung the bag over his shoulder and hoisted himself easily up into the branches. The apple trees were old, three or four times taller than a man, and crusted with flaky blue lichen. He climbed quickly, as high as it was possible to go. “Take care!” I called up to him.

“Don’t worry,” he said, his head muffled among the leaves. “The tree likes me. So what is this place? Where have I fallen into?”

“Dorset’s sleepiest backwater, I should think. The church tower over there is St Barnabas Pooksknowle. There’s a post office a half-mile down the lane at Lynchet Bredy, if you need to make a call. I have no telephone up here, I’m afraid.”

“Call? Call who?”

“Well, I assumed … you’d want to communicate? With your squadron, I mean, or your girl, or your family? To make arrangements to return to your station?”

“Actually, the drill is that one makes one’s own way back. Hitch a lift, you know, that sort of thing. And jump straight back in a plane to show you’re not afraid.”

“I see.”

He worked in silence for a while, then rested with his back against the bole of the tree, breathing deeply, drinking in the view.

“Do be careful,” I said again. “It would be awful if you had another fall.”

* * *

I had to go to work so I left him there. He stayed all day in the garden, and in the evening when I came home he made us supper. His rich, poet’s face glowed across the table at me, luminous with the joy of being alive. There was a radio in the parlor: the panel glowed yellow in the fading light. The Government wanted civilians to “stay put” if the invasion came: they didn’t want columns of refugees blocking the roads and hampering the defense. Winston Churchill had made another speech: “Every man and woman will therefore prepare himself to do his duty, whatever it may be, with special pride and care …”

“I’ll be losing you tomorrow?” I said. “You’ll want to get back to your station?”

“I’m free of that, now,” he said. “I don’t have to do that, not any more. I’ve done my stint. Now I’m just me, being alive.”

Oh.

“So what will you do?” I said

“Well, I was rather hoping you’d let me stay on here for a while. I’d make myself useful, of course. Your garden’s such a mess. I could put it right for you. I’d more than earn my keep.”

I said he could stay in my son’s room as long as he wanted. He asked about John, then. I told him John was in the Baltic with the Merchant Navy, I had no other children, John’s father had been killed in Spain in 1937. “Edward lived inside his head,” I said. “He filled himself with politics and poetry. He was determined to join the International Brigade and fight the fascists. I don’t think he lasted more than a couple of weeks.”

* * *

That night, my husband’s ghost came to me for the first time. He knocked at the kitchen door, late, after Carter had gone up, and when I let him in he went over to warm himself at the range. His curly hair was cut tighter than I remembered it. They must have done that in Spain. He had a thoughtful hero’s face: long and sensitive, with a square chin and deep, strong lines—deeper than in life—that cut from beside his nose down past his mouth. The smell was bad, though—sour and damp—and he looked confused.

“You’re dead, Edward,” I said. “It’s been three years.”

“Where’s the boy? I can’t find the boy.” He had small eyes. Blue and pale. I always said they were like a jackdaw’s, but now they were as empty as sky reflected in a puddle.

“John’s grown up and gone to sea. There’s another war on now.”

“Um,’” the ghost said. “Ah.” And then, “I don’t suppose there’s a pot of tea going is there?”

“Well, yes, of course, but, I mean … can you?”

He looked sad. “No. I suppose not. Ah well …”

* * *

Outside in the night, a darkness clots under the garden hedge, though Carter is asleep and cannot see it. It slides across the gravel and presses itself against the kitchen door, licking at the latch. You should have been mine, it breathes, though Carter is asleep and cannot hear it.

* * *

The next morning I found him a pair of boots and a jacket, and in the days that followed he worked in the garden and made repairs to the house. He was full of energy all the time. He rose early and worked before breakfast, and at the end of each day he sat up late in bed, reading. When it rained he pulled on Edward’s old oilskin and went to work anyway. Cool autumn breezes stroked his skin fondly. He loved the feel of air after rain, the clean light and the smell of wet earth. The transformation he wrought was dramatic: in a few days he had cut away the strangling mess of briars and brambles, cleared the scrub grass and gangling seed-heads and given the orchard some self-respect. The evening air was filled with crackling and the smell of wood-smoke. He filled all my baskets with blackberries and rosehips and after dinner we made jam and wine together. His long, precise fingers were a pleasure to watch. On the third evening I fetched a dusty bottle from the outhouse and he proposed a toast.

Incipit vita nuova,” he said. “That’s a quotation. Here begins the new life. It’s from Dante.”

I knew that, of course, but I didn’t say.

There were a couple of times when he tried to kiss me, in the afternoons, when he felt sleepy and replete with work. He said he wanted to bury his face in my yellow-red hair. It wasn’t really me he wanted to kiss, it was simply life itself. Amid all the darkness and fear that surrounded us then, he wanted to hug life and dance with it, and I was the only woman around. I liked the thought of his full, bruised-looking lips against mine, but I wouldn’t have it. Not with the ghost of Edward being there. Edward’s presence was awful. He was always mooning about aimlessly, staring at something, looking for someone to talk to. He was so passive. So sad. So stuck. It wasn’t him, really, it was just his ghost, but to me his being there felt like an accusation. He was always wanting something, but he couldn’t say what it was.

The war news was bad. Every day the invasion was expected, and every day we had the Luftwaffe overhead. They even bombed a cottage at Chaldon Herring. Why did they need to do that?

One evening, when I brought Carter some tea in the garden, we saw scores of miniature airplanes rising up out of the west and moving slowly inland: black cruciforms against the sky, keeping a perfect grid formation. Chevrons of smaller craft, silvery, harder to see, were in stepped layers all around them, above and below.

“They look like toys up there,” I said, squinting to see against the sky.

“Valhalla formation, that’s what the Germans call it,” said Carter.

A big wing of Hurricanes swung down upon the invaders. White vapor trails circled and converged across the chalky blue sky, transected by the smoke-tracks of killed and damaged machines. A handful of parachutes blossomed. When dogfights came low overhead we heard the machine-guns: short bursts of fire that sounded like sticks being rattled along park railings.

“It must be exhilarating to fly,” I said. “I envy them that.”

“You realize,” he said, “that I’m liable to be shot? Desertion in the face of the enemy.”

“But you’re not in the face of the enemy.”

“Of course I am. We all are.” He nodded westwards. “I’ve seen the barges lined up at Le Havre. It’s just over there. Just below the horizon.” He paused. “You must think it’s rather rich of me, actually, my skiving off down here while, well, you know … your son… and all those are men up there in the sky right now, puking their guts up with fear, and here I am, having tea on the lawn. I suppose you despise me.”

I laid my hand gently on his arm. “Don’t say that, Richard, don’t even think it ever again. Anybody who finds a way to come through this cruel madness alive, by any means whatsoever, is doing the right thing. If I can help even one person do that, I will.” What else would I say? He wasn’t listening anyway.

“I couldn’t take orders now, you see,” he was saying. “Not any more. I wouldn’t blow someone up just because some other bugger tells me to, for Churchill and the King. Do you know what I used to do up there? I was the bomb aimer. I exploded schools and set streets on fire. I’ve killed dozens, hundreds of people. You can’t land a bomb accurately from 20,000 feet, not even if you know where you are, which you don’t, most of the time.”

All he wanted was peace and freedom, to be left by himself to work in the garden. When he had finished clearing the mess, he dug out neat rectangular plots of fresh blue-brown earth and put down manure and planted beans. He cleaned up the cold frame and sowed brassicas. He found some old planking and a bale of wire, and built a sturdy hen-coop and a place for a couple of pigs. He was clever with his hands: he knew how to train apple-cordons and plait bee skeps out of straw. I watched him, sometimes, from the cover of a window. In the evenings he would walk up to the top of Hodder’s Tout and lie back in the grass and look up at the sky to re-live the timeless joy of falling, when the world seemed glorious and everlasting. He called the summit of the hill “the kingdom of heaven” and he said that going back there made him feel like a child.

One day I found him in the garden burning his papers and destroying his tags.

“What are you doing?” I said, for the sake of something to say.

“I’m me,” he said. “I can vouch for my own existence. I don’t need official permission to be alive.”

I didn’t tell him that I knew about his nightmares, that I heard him shouting in the night—one could hardly miss it—and that in the morning his sheets stank sourly of sweat, and I had to change them every day. I knew what dark thing was hunting him.

I did tell him about the ghosts, though. Not Edward; I mean the others. The talk in the village was of nothing else. There were so many ghosts in the valley, you could barely move without bumping into one.

Some were sweet, happy spirits. I saw Mrs Canning in her garden myself, with her soft grey hair and soft, finely-wrinkled skin. “Hello, Margery dear,” she said to me. “Look at my roses. Haven’t they come on a treat this year? And there are swallows’ nests in the eaves again. We haven’t had swallows at the cottage for several summers.” She had the scent of cleanness and rosewater I remembered from when I was a girl and she used to give me lemonade. And people said, though I didn’t see it myself, that Reverend Wyatt was back in his pulpit, preaching sermons to the empty nave, correcting all the things he had said in life that he knew now were not so.

All around the village and in the nearby farms, the dead returned.

Not all were happy spirits. You might see a ghost wandering in the lanes with a dazed, disoriented look, like someone who’d been in a car crash, or fallen asleep on a train and woken to find unfamiliar territory outside the window. One morning as I was going for the bus, I saw the churchyard crowded with ghosts filing past the headstones, looking for names that weren’t there. The boys killed in France had came back. That was hard for their families. All except the Stoddard boy, who was missing in action: when his ghost was not seen, his mother built fresh hopes that were painful to see.

It was only in Hodder’s Coombe that ghosts were walking: beyond the valley, nothing.

I had to tell Carter about the ghosts, because people started calling at the house. They wanted to see the man who had brought their dead back home. Mrs Gamble, who did the flowers for the church, was the first. Her niece, who died of polio, was sitting in her sister’s parlour, smiling. Mrs Gamble came to find Carter in the garden, and knelt before him on my gravel path, weeping. “It’s a gift from God,” she said. “These are the last days. You’re a living angel come among us, walking upon the face of the earth.” Others came after her, a stream of visitors to see the holy man. I gave them tea and cake and watched him deal with them as well as he could. He told them he had no idea what they were talking about. He just wanted to get back to his work.

“Who’s telling them this rot about me?” he said.

“The ghosts, of course,” I told him. “They’re saying you’re warm and alive like a beacon in death. They’re saying that because you broke the rules, they can, too. People want to touch the hem of your garment.”

“But I haven’t broken any rules. I didn’t ask for it. It wasn’t my decision.”

“You’re alive. I think that’s enough.”

“Oh merde,” said Carter. “Merde.”

Not all the visitors were coming to make obeisance to the idol. Some of the people whose ghosts had not come back to them wanted to know why. Fat little Cary Black from Black’s Farm shook his fist. “Where’s my mother, you bastard? What have you done with her? She loves me, she’d come if she could.” And then Peggy Derby, who had married twice, was bitter because the ghosts of both her husbands had arrived together. “You’ve put me in an impossible position,” she told Carter. “What are you going to do about it?”

Personally, I was beginning to think that the whole thing was morbid and oppressive. I couldn’t help but find the ghosts, and their emotional living relatives, intrusive and importunate. They demanded that one paid them attention. Empathise with me, they said. Puzzle out my story. Help me find what I want. As if one didn’t have troubles of one’s own. They would suck one’s life away, if they could.

I went into the kitchen for a breather and Edward was there, moping at the window. “I’ve lost the lad again,” he said. He looked at me in puzzlement, as if he expected me to do something about it. “He was here a moment ago.”

It was the last straw. “For God’s sake, Edward,” I hissed at him. “Will you please just piss off and leave me alone? You’re dead, for the love of Mike. I wish the dead would stay bloody dead. You don’t belong here any more. We have to get along without you now.”

“Margery …”

“Get. Out. Of. My. House. And. Leave. Me. Alone.”

I never saw Edward again after that. I felt sick about what I’d done, of course I did. I still do. The worst of it was, it wasn’t Edward I was angry with. He just got in the way. But in the end I think I did the right thing. I’m glad I did it. Edward hadn’t come back to life. He was still dead. The thing that came back wasn’t Edward, and shouldn’t have been there. It was lost. Everything was out of balance.

Carter took a walk after dinner to restore his equanimity. It was a relief for him to get out of the house and away from the people who wanted to suck his new life out of him. He wanted to be free from the gravity of other people’s lives. When it had been just him alone in the garden, or him with me in the cottage, he could feel that he was still flying above the world.

He loved the deep green lanes beyond Lynchet Bredy. The hedges swelled up on either side, brown and purple under a yellowing sky, and the tangled wood looked down on him with love from the round shoulder of Hodder’s Tout. Free and alone, he absorbed himself in abstract and mystical thought. I know the kind of thing, I had to listen to his monologues often enough, myself. I am life, he thought. I’m not simply something that is alive, I am life itself, a living feeling ball of life . Life is not about doing the right thing or the wrong thing. All being-alive must defend itself against thinness and abstraction. The rhythm of walking soothed his mind. A gallant mistle-thrush sang from the top of a fence-post. Watching it made him feel that he himself had the power of flight: all he need do was step up onto the air and he would fly again over the fields and hedgerows.

Yet something troubled him. In a corner of his mind that was not full of light, a quiet voice was asking questions. Does it matter, what one man does with his own life? Who are you, to glory in shirking? Who do you think you are? Suddenly the voice hissed out. You should have been mine!

Carter felt chilled. He had walked too far. Something had misled his feet, something had brought him to a place where he shouldn’t have come. It was a dusty lane’s end, a sad, defeated, hopeless place. Shadows were at his back, shadows were clotting in the hedges, dark cruel thorns grew long: clumps of great thorns against the darkening sky: clusters of haws, drab and purple like dried blood.

Watching eyes pressed on him. Something had singled him out. It wanted to rake its thorns through the flesh on his back and skewer his eyes with its claws. He felt the strength of it, the strength of a bear. He smelled a bear’s sour hot breath: rotting meat; hot metal; rubber burning; hair burning; flesh burning. Shells ripping through the fuselage. Screams on the headphones.

He should have been killed. He should have died. The others didn’t live, why should he? Why should dirt like him survive?

He runs, he has to run, blindly, back the way he came. He is prey now. Something is hunting him. Death and burning flesh are at his heels, black thorns, black claws. Something exults in destroying him, and whatever it is cannot be fought, cannot be destroyed, cannot be outrun. It is relentless. There is no hope. There is only extending the chase a moment more.

I felt it too. Ancient, dark cruelty. It invaded my house. It invaded my head. I was already screaming before Carter started hammering on the door.

His voice was high and ragged.

“Let me in! Oh please. Please. For God’s sake. Open the door.”

* * *

I have been artful. By trailing in front of you Carter’s panicked chase through the darkening lanes, and describing it as if I was there, inside his head—I hope I didn’t go overboard with the Gothic, it really was like that, he told me about it, later, when he lay huddled and shuddering like a child, with his head on my lap and me stroking his hair in the lamplight—by dragging that across your path I diverted your attention—or rather, frankly, mine—from what happened to me while he was out walking.

My son came. He said that it was cold where he was, cold and dark and lonely beneath the sea and the ice. Help me, mother, he said. Comfort me.

What could I do? I told him to move on. I told him to hurry, and not delay. Keep moving, I said. Don’t look back and don’t be distracted until you get to wherever it is that you are going. Be happy there.

My boy is sunk in Arctic Seas.

You would have thought that when Carter came in, he might have noticed something wrong. He might have seen the frozen mask I wore. He might have smelled the hot peppery sourness of grief, when he lay in my lap and let me stroke his head like a child’s. But he did not.

* * *

The telegram came in the morning to confirm what I already knew. DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU … LETTER FOLLOWS ….

Who were “Deeply” anyway?

I saw my John’s sodden body sinking down through darkening icy waters. Has any piece of him yet reached the bottom of the sea? Will it ever?

* * *

Carter found the telegram, which was not what I had intended. You could see it upset him. He held me and pressed his full, dark lips against my head. His rich purple eyes were sad.

After a while he said: “I have to go, Margery. I’ve stayed here too long.”

But that wasn’t what I wanted at all.

“You can’t go,” I said. “Not now. I won’t let you.”

“I want to stay,” he said. “Believe me, I do. It isn’t you. But I can’t stay here like this. I haven’t been seeing things straight, I don’t think I ever hit the ground till now. I thought I could hide away here in my own private paradise, but it isn’t right. It could never last. What one person wants just doesn’t matter that much, not when there’s a war on.”

“You bloody well won’t go,” I said. “Not you. Not with all those thousands of boys out there, all being cut up and blown apart and burned and drowned and frozen. It’s disgusting. Not you too. Somebody has to not.”

“If everybody thought like that …”

“If everybody thought like that,” I said, “there wouldn’t be a bloody war. If Edward had thought like that … if John had though like that … if you leave me too, I’ll have nothing left, nothing at all.” But he wouldn’t change his mind.

“At least stay tonight,” I said to him. “One last night. And let me send you off with a good breakfast inside you tomorrow.”

* * *

I had offered him one last night in John’s room, but he didn’t appreciate that. In the night he came in to me. “To say goodbye properly,” he said. Well, I was at a low ebb then, so I let him.

* * *

I slipped out of bed before he was awake and walked up to the wood on Hodder’s Tout. It was damp, misty, earthy October, grey and brown. From the leaf mold beneath the oak trees I filled a basket with mushrooms for our breakfast. I’ve studied fungi. I know what I’m doing.

Amanita virosa
are small and white, not unlike field mushrooms in appearance, though their stalks are more slender and their gills are white not pink or brown. If they are sliced and cooked together with field mushrooms in the same pan, all in a mess with kidneys and bacon pieces, they won’t be noticed. They are, of course, lethally poisonous: the common name is The Destroying Angel, which has an appropriateness that I like, in the circumstances. It’s almost poetic.

Both of us ate well, Carter and I. The mushrooms were sweet and rather sticky, and he looked at his plate a bit doubtfully, but he could hardly turn his nose up, not when I was eating mine. There was plenty: we both had two platefuls, just to make sure. He is lying upstairs now, his breathing loud, his skin cold and clammy, and I am at the kitchen table, with John’s cap beside me as I write. I will be with him soon.

Peter Higgins’ latest fiction can also be found in the current issue of Zahir and the October/November double issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. He has a story in Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2007 (Prime Books), and another in the forthcoming Best New Fantasy 2, ed. Sean Wallace.

For sources, contexts, images and afterthoughts, and a workshop tour, visit the Peter Higgins fiction website, The Memorious Land.

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