Sylvow : chapter one
(from Ambit Magazine Issue No.192, April 2008).
A bearded dishevelled figure, old beyond his years, shuffles into a forest clearing. Above him the tall oak and beech sigh in the wind, an enormous breathing sound like a land-locked ocean of the mind. He kneels down and sits cross-legged, surrounded by tiny flowers that thrive in the hallowed semi-darkness: yellow Violets, purple Phlox, white Dogwood: Viola rotundifolia, Polonium reptans, Cornaceae...
From his tattered haversack he produces a Polaroid camera and carefully takes a snap in every direction at thirty degree intervals. Then as they develop he lays the photographs out over the moss and ivy in front of him, noting over them in pen the angles and attitudes of the flowers, their Latin names.
He closes his eyes and meditates. The forest`s breathing moves into him, the wind-sound rushing, slowly fusing with his lungs and heart. His mind settles as if falling through countless layers of fallen leaves, fermenting, re-metabolising. A half hour passes.
He opens his eyes, and takes the same photographs again, and lays the Polaroid images out in a row, held down with pebbles, each below its neighbour taken earlier. The scene is like a fortune-teller interrogating Tarot cards. He looks on in awe, his fingers tracing angles over each image in turn, noting that every flower and leaf has turned itself towards him.
Sylvow is where the Roman Empire finally faltered. I have always considered it somehow significant to have been born just a mile north of where their northern boundary still lies in ruins. The mystery of why Roman civilisation first began to fail and go into its long decline, starting perhaps from this point, has long intrigued me..
Scholars put it down to the miles of impenetrable forest that encircle Sylvow in every direction, in which any alien army is likely to become ensnared and disorientated. This was certainly the case with Hitler`s Nazis, millennia later, who were quite unable to dislodge the partisans who lived rough in the forest, even throughout the long cold winters. Then the darkened forest, long a source of folktales and childhood fears, became a mother again in the eyes of its people, and an implacable foe to the invaders.
But since then we have forgotten that relationship somewhat. The Industrial Revolution started here also. We are curiously apt to forget this too, but in the history books you will find that Sylvow`s great minds were among those who first devised steam engines and mills and foundries, and began to fell some of the trees to fuel their great world conquest, the expanding empire that still rules this world, now with computers and cars and aeroplanes.
We have felled many trees, we have eaten into Sylvow`s encircling boundary of forest. She suffers a little every day for us, but our wounded mother remains intact, and still dwarfs us in terms of scale, longevity and patience.
Though the natives of Sylvow today are scattered across the globe like castor sugar, in the mind of anyone born here there is always a forest, real or imagined, just out of sight or buried in memory. It is a dark and unreasonable place, where human laws do not hold sway, where a man could survive indefinitely with the right knowledge of roots and leaves, but where if he once becomes lost without path or compass: then he might wander aimlessly for a lifetime and never return to the world.
Claudia held the little insect in her hand, and cursed herself that she no longer remembered its Latin name. Tanyderus Pictus.... Protoplasa Fitchii... no... none of those. She wept when she remembered the childhood vow she had made with her brother: that he would look after the trees and plants, and she would look after the animals.
Now that she had children of her own, it moved her all the more acutely to remember this: the strangely endearing arrogance of two children imagining that a world so old and vast as this one; could possibly require their puny assistance in being catalogued and cared for.
And yet, perhaps they had been right, and the world of adulthood was where the real foolishness lay. They had remained true to their promises. Leo had become a landscape architect, and she a vet. But now, outside beyond her little balcony stuffed with plants, on the twentieth floor of an apartment block: she could see the neon city flickering in the dismal rain: its signs shouting about sex and money like a toothless old harlot, a starlet whose fleeting beauty only lives on in faded films. Every day the leaves seemed more caked in dust, her throat more torn by the brown sandstorms that blew inwards from the ravaged fields of the deserted villages. The city was like a line of concrete cliffs on which wave after wave of people broke, daily migrants from the countryside, refugees from the Oil Wars. Most seemed dashed on this edifice sooner or later, and were washed up like flotsam to beg on its meagre shores, the narrow pavements.
Anton turned the car into the Avenue of Martyrs, a habitual turn of the arm designed to take him into a habitual street: the last one on his drive home from another twelve-hour day. But this time something went wildly wrong. Although darkness had fallen, what he saw could only be a hallucination, no optical distortion could account for it. Instead of the usual scene of sapling cherries, planted only a year beforehand, now he suddenly saw a forest of hundred-foot trees, some whose roots were buckling the tarmac of the ruined roads either side. Huge leaves blew and flickered overhead like sails in the night wind. He swerved and lost control of the car.
Later in hospital, as the morphine kicked in; he saw climbing roses emerge from the Ward Sister`s pockets and move their way over her arms and chest. He tried to cry out as they bared their thorns and twisted into her ears and throat, piercing her soft white flesh. But then as she was standing over him, talking, saying something inaudible to the doctor: red roses emerged from her eyes and mouth and flickered there, attended by occasional bees that then flew off across the ward like words too fast for his brain to capture. Now her chest was transparent as glass and he could see the stems of the roses twisting there, sustained by discoloured water that rippled with her every movement.
Claudia kissed her daughters` foreheads and stopped at the door, to look back at their sleeping forms. An ancient scene which always reminded her of a litter of kittens or puppies and made her puzzle over what technological inoculation had driven her species to swarm like bees for the last several millennia, to hang its children up in baskets floating in the night sky. Rooms Only 60 Dollars A Night ... said her hall floor in red letters, a flickering intermittent projection from the building opposite. It was like an invitation to wander forever, such a reasonable rate, to forget all friends and family and everything more burdensome than an unhappy news bulletin.
She looked in on her husband who was working late again, looking over his case notes: in the eerie light from a computer and an antique desk lamp. She said goodnight, knowing better than to urge him to stop soon, knowing this would anger him. But this time his attention seemed already broken, and he turned his screen to show her its contents. Did you know that C G Jung began noticing changes in his patients` dreams as World War Two approached? Before anyone knew consciously, before even the politically astute were forecasting it, it was there in ordinary people`s dreams...
But how is this relevant to a patient you have? -she asked.
He seemed to ignore her and clicked to the next page he had up: ...and decades before the first railways were built or even forecast, illiterate Gaelic Highlanders began having dreams and visions of fiery black horses that would belch steam and draw carriages across their fields. There are several cases here...
When the hospital staff took Anton in a wheelchair to the waiting taxi, he swore from that moment forward to use his crutches only sparingly and to stay out of sight until his recovery was complete. He had no desire to be seen as a cripple, even temporarily.
But back at his home, things seemed imperceptibly different. The milk had gone off in the fridge and a few apples had begun rotting. Some potatoes were putting out roots, a yoghurt had turned into a teaming colony of bacteria. At first he thought the odour of all this unwanted growth was what was unsettling him. But even after the Cleaner had finished and left, the flat did not feel his own. He had rarely found the opportunity to watch the light change throughout the day, and now as it played through the blinds he found himself strangely transfixed by it.
This was unlike him. He had plenty of work to continue at home on his laptop, his boss was just a phonecall away, but gradually he lost interest in any of it. His thoughts began to drain away, his mind emptied, he ate less. At first he had tried to think constructively about his life and how to get it in order, do something about finding a wife, a better job, the old circuit of hopes and fears. He was still young. But in the bright light from the white metal blades of the blinds: he felt his mind flare up and burn out like a filament. But it was the only one he had.
He watched night fall, the moon rise up like a threatening sickle, ready to harvest the dreams of men. He found inexplicable tears streaming down his face as the city lights came on and pulsated like semaphore, words of a language he had lost the will to hear. Forgetting his own body completely, he rose from the chair and his weakened legs collapsed under him. In total darkness he dragged himself along the polished timber floor of the living room, and pulled open the door of the fridge. The yellow light spewed out: a dreamlike door to a lunar world of memory and desire. Water poured in slow motion from its shelves. Water lilies and pondweed and toads and fish flapped onto the floor.
He rolled around to face the living room wall: and moonlight and fridge-light met there and mingled in an eerie tryst. He saw now there was ivy growing over the television set, the sideboard, his favourite paintings. In the hallway he could see a long plantation of olives and grapevines, roots erupting through broken floorboards. They suddenly struck him as resembling a cohort of Roman infantry, awaiting the order to march into his defenceless lounge and impose order.
At the veterinary practice, Claudia found herself unusually moved by the animals` complaints. After years of this kind of work, you began to regard each pampered pooch as a physical extension of the vanity and hypochondria of its owner, you began to withdraw the moral dispensation given to smaller creatures swept up in humanity`s grand plan.
But this morning it was there again: the reason she had taken up the job; that look of nobility and innocence in an animal`s eyes, that fragment of God`s will looking back at you, unadulterated by guilt and self-consciousness. All of humanity were culpable it seemed to Claudia, for what humanity had done. From Hiroshima and Auschwitz right down to the abandoned or abused child or the dog starved to death in the birdcage of a lunatic. But animals didn`t build bombs or cages, so a crime against them was somehow worse, an affront to nature itself; surely not a force to be trifled with.
She held the Alsatian`s paw in her hand and puzzled over its inflammation, while the nurse and the owner babbled inanely about burns and broken glass. Being cryptic, she retreated for a minute to her library and then returned via the pharmacy with some lotion and swabs.
The skin isn`t broken at all, she said, this animal has multiple nettle stings or perhaps poison ivy inflammation, I`ll need to do a few more tests to be certain...
But he never leaves the house! -the owner squawked indignantly, -we`re on the twelfth floor, he`s locked in all day and night, we have no garden, he exercises on a roller...
The phone rang, and her secretary said it was a national newspaper asking for a quote about the current wave of violent dog attacks. Claudia grimaced and sighed and declined the opportunity and put the phone down, but before she could continue it rang again. She nodded, and said Yes, straightaway. She hung up and reached for her coat, a pack of syringes and bottles of sodium pentothal, chloral hydrate and potassium chloride, -I`m sorry, you must excuse me now, I have to go, that was the Police, they say there has been another dog attack on a child and they need me to play Death The Destroyer for them again. It`s been like some sort of epidemic this week...
In the evening, Claudia sat back after dinner, and the distant traffic noise was joined by the sleepy music of the machines: machines beginning washing the plates and knives soiled by the sauces from the vacuum-packed meals that the other machines had cooked; machines washing clothes that other machines had cut and sewn. Her two children sat in front of their little screens, their blonde locks bobbing attentively to the cues and signals of their digital dreamworlds. Ignored over their shoulders: the television raged with the sound turned down, displaying constant news images of war and torture.
Now Claudia and Franco finally managed a conversation: I was strangely emotional at work today, I had to put down another two Rottweilers for the Police, but I should be used to that by now, I`m overwrought maybe, but I`m not sure why.
Your brother, Franco said, it`s been a while since he sent you a letter, you`re probably worried about him...
Not consciously, -she said, -it`s been six years after all. This is how I live, how we live. Nobody can find him, he doesn`t want to be found, and yet he lives. He seems happy in a way, or absorbed at least.
Bit tough on his wife though, shouldn`t you visit Vivienne again sometime soon?
Claudia sighed. Perhaps... but she seems so immured to it now, so distant. She does not want to be comforted. I even sometimes wonder if she wants Leo back. I mean would she recognise him? Would we? Anyway, I have another letter from him, didn`t I tell you? It arrived only yesterday, let me go get it for you.
While Claudia opened drawers in the hallway, Franco talked absentmindedly: ...of course he could be quite mad by now, like one of my patients. There`s one of mine has been really perplexing me this week.
Oh yes...? -she said, handing him the letter, brightening up to hear him talking freely about his work for a change.
- He says the streets are full of trees everywhere he goes, his cupboards full of lilies and daffodils. He said my waiting room was filled with alpine succulents and hardy annuals.
Of course, but we had to have his stomach pumped the other day, it was choked with ivy, as if he had been eating the stuff.
That`s odd, Claudia said, that`s like my dogs and cats who had been stung by nettles and thorns, one of them even had hedgehog spines in its snout.
Nothing unusual surely?
In highrise apartments? And lots have been going missing apparently, pet birds escaping too.
Yes, Franco nodded, and I saw whole squadrons of geese and lapwings flying over today, but it`s May, not autumn.
Isn`t that what they`re supposed to do when there`s an earthquake coming? A disturbance in the Earth`s electromagnetic field? You know, like rats off a sinking ship..?
But she saw that Franco`s attention was now locked into Leo`s latest letter:-
Dear Claudia, Try to make Vivienne understand why I had to leave. We had everything, all the standard accoutrements of normal urban life except children, thank God. How can anyone raise them into this nightmare, where you need to travel in a metal shell like a hermit crab every morning, scuttling in phalanx through the warzones where the restless barbarians are held in camps, subdued on drugs and lottery tickets?
One night I sat on the doorstep looking up into the midsummer night sky after Viv had gone to bed, and I listened to the leaves whispering on the night wind, reminding me of all the unreconciled fragments of what might have been, of what could still be. I was suddenly filled with an unanswerable question, as if a space had opened up inside me that could not be defined or satisfied, and that nothing human could fill.
I caught a train to the edge of the city, and set off into The Forest, walking, and I`m walking still. I sleep under fallen trunks or in temporary dens of mosses and leaves. I make notes each day and occasionally venture out onto a tarmac street by cover of darkness to find a post box. But for whole months and seasons now I am on the move without any contact. The trees move past me endlessly, towards me, through me, the sun sways and pulsates across the leaves making music like prayers. The morning mist drifts through the trunks, grey veils of sleep as time itself freezes. I am closer every day now to the centre of everything. The less I hear of human voices the more I begin to hear the voice of The Forest. It reverberates through me, assimilating me. Maybe one day I will become a tree and then nobody will ever find me again. Every memory of my past life comes closer here and plays through me as I walk, gradually forming into a pattern as beautiful and inevitable as tree bark or fallen leaves.
The Forest says it is closing ranks again, tightening its grip around Sylvow. Yesterday I met a Roman Centurion and he walked with me for a while: we conversed using the Latin names of trees and flowers which he was delighted to hear me recount, reminding him of home. He showed me where Hermann Goering had buried some gold bullion and some French Impressionist masterpieces.
But these are all human things. The trees live so much longer than us, and move and think more slowly and deeply. Our empires rise and fall while they breathe and sigh. You think I have left you, but it is you who have each left yourselves and wander lost as strangers now. But don`t be afraid. The many paths are one path, and wherever you start you too will end in the heart of this forest, embraced by the cycle of youth and decay, immersed in silence....
In contrast to the early days after Leo`s disappearance, now Vivienne had no difficulty sleeping, quite the reverse. She would snooze for whole weekends, half waking intermittently, the sound of the wind or rain outside mixing with her increasingly outlandish dreams. It was as if her head had become a haunted movie theatre, a room of the sky where vast messages were encoded in patterns of cumulus and birdsong. She had begun writing the dreams down, in the hope of eventually piecing together the pieces of a huge puzzle, her own life, the world`s fate.
Waking finally, her long lithe figure wove down the hallway, topped by a flattened flame of blonde hair obscuring her face like a curtain. She staggered into the living room. The patio doors looked out onto an absurdly overgrown back lot, a tangled jungle of ivy and wildflowers. Now something impossible happened; but living in a world increasingly encroached upon by dreams, nothing surprised her. She stared out at a particular branch on a bush for no reason, for a minute on end. Then like a film playing backwards a magpie flew down and landed on exactly this spot and stared straight in at her, looked directly at her in a way no bird ever does. Then as she walked towards it, the thing flew down onto the threshold of the patio doors and left something from its beak there, then fluttered away. Opening the doors, Vivienne bent down to lift up the tiny winged glider of a sycamore seed.
A moment later the doorbell rang, and still clutching the seed Vivienne went to the front door to find Claudia standing outside, hair dripping from the recent rain, holding a gift of a bag of fruit in her hand.
It`s started, hasn`t it? -she asked, without even saying hello.
What? -asked Claudia, -what`s started?
Without answering, Vivienne took the bag of fruit from Claudia and retreated to the kitchen. Used to this eccentric behaviour from previous occasions, Claudia simply closed the door herself, hung her own jacket up and followed Vivienne to the kitchen. Along the way, she was disturbed to step over her discarded T-shirt and pants.
She found Vivienne naked in the kitchen, and cutting the fruit on a glass chopping board. First she sliced one of the apples in half and instead of seeds the core released an army of black ants onto the worktop. Next she split a peach in half and instead of a shrivelled stone revealed a tiny beating heart the size of a small dog`s.
At this, Claudia stepped backwards in shock, her hand to her throat. Vivienne took the last item; a blood orange, and peeled its skin and outer segments away to reveal a glowing blue orb: a tiny turning world caressed by clouds; beneath which a pupil and iris now rotated and set its gaze upon them both with a hypnotic power.
Vivienne spun around, and the revelatory force of her beauty hit Claudia like a mirror refracting and focussing the sun`s rays. The two women embraced and kissed, one naked, the other in a black suit, outstretched arms touching, both holding the same kitchen knife, fusing, twin-backed, like a faceless angel of retribution, conflation of ego and id, animal and human, as the room filled with heartbeats and the eye of the world sliced the air to ribbons with its tireless gaze of light.
The sycamore seed, grown to the size of a bat, flapped around the room on its leathery wings, snapping at flies and dust mites before settling on the cold light bulb for sustenance; content to wait there until nightfall and the release of all the doomed human energy it craved.