There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Place of rath: reading Wylding Hall By Elizabeth Hand [2014]

Wylding Hall By Elizabeth Hand [2014]


Wylding Hall is a sublime novella. Readers who revere the Arthur Machen stories "N" and "The White People" will find much to appreciate in the story.


Unlike most longer works of supernatural fiction, its light touch and carefully planned and executed framework of uncanny moments do not dissipate the reader's intoxication with this strange story.


Wylding Hall is the oral history of the short career of UK folk rock group Windhollow Faire. The narrative is built out of a collage of first-person accounts by band members themselves, their manager, and a few acquaintances who.interacted with them during their summer of rural isolation at Wylding Hall.


....Wylding Hall was a mere dot on the ordnance survey map. You couldn't have found it with a compass. Most people go there now because of what happened while the band was living there and recording that first album. We have some ideas about what actually went on, of course, but the fans, they can only speculate. Which is always good for business.


As the manager Tom says:


     Wylding Hall was remote, but that was part of its charm. For me, anyway—I wanted them as far from London as possible. Even now, you can't get a mobile signal out there. I don't know how the new owners manage. Maybe they like it that way.

     No distractions—that's what I wanted for the band. They needed to recover from Arianna's death. They were all traumatized to some degree, and Jon had just lost his mother to cancer. Just kids—they were all just kids, remember, especially Les. She'd been orphaned a few years earlier: lived with her alcoholic sister and her kids in some council flat in the East End before taking off to sleep rough in the streets. She's a tough old soul, Lesley. Even then, as a girl, you could see it. She was tough as a nut.

     Anyway, that was my cunning plan: to spirit them all away to remotest Hampshire, have them live together in a sort of musical commune and see what happens. I mean, people do that, right? Young people, and we were all young, it seems like the most wonderful thing in the world: off on your own, remaking the world, if you will. Sort of a utopian ideal. Hey, it was the seventies....


The character at the heart of the story's mystery is Julian Blake, a leader of Windhollow Faire. Like his bandmates, he is a teenager with musical talent to spare.


....Julian's guitar. You couldn't see him at all—he stood at the very back where it was dark, farthest from the window. I swear, I can still hear him. There was a song by Davey Graham, "Anji," very famous guitar tune, very difficult to play. Every kid who picked up a guitar would try to master it, and let me tell you, it was hell to play. No YouTube videos or guitar school to teach you, no Jimmy Page master class. But Julian figured it out back when we were still at school. I remember I was amazed, but also so jealous, I was just about sick.

     I swear to god, he played it better than Graham did. Better than anyone. He tuned that Gibson to some scale only he could hear; you couldn't mistake it for anything else. The rest of us just followed it, like a thread through the maze....


Lead singer Lesley:


     ....He had some ancient-looking volumes under his bed. Leather-bound. Some of them were quite small: the size of your hand. I remember feeling excited, thinking he was going to show me some weird esoteric thing he'd discovered, like an incunabulum or something like that.

     But it was just a paperback by Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and Profane.

     "Do you know this?" He held it in those big hands as though it were a butterfly he'd caught. "It's brilliant. There's two kinds of time, he says—sacred time and profane time. The outside, everyday world—you know, where you go to work, go to school, sort of thing—that's profane time.

     "But things like Christmas or holidays, any kind of religious ritual or shared experience, like performing together, or a play—those take place in sacred time. It's like this—"

     He grabbed a pen and drew on the inside cover of the paperback. A little Venn diagram: two intersecting circles.

     "—a circle within a circle. Do you see? This big circle is profane time. This one's sacred time. The two coexist, but we only step into sacred time when we intentionally make space for it—like at Christmas, or the Jewish High Holy Days—or if something extraordinary happens. You know that feeling you get, that time is passing faster or slower? Well, it really is moving differently. When you step into sacred time, you're actually moving sideways into a different space that's inside the normal world. It's folded in. Do you see?"

     I stared at him and shook my head. "No," I said, then sniffed at his hair. "You been smoking already, Julian?"

     He frowned. He didn't like it when you got on him about drugs. "Not yet. All right, what about this …"

     He scrabbled at his desk for a blank sheet of paper, and I just watched him. You've seen the photos, so you know how beautiful he was when he was young. But really, they barely captured him. He stooped so much of the time, you never saw how tall he actually was.

     He wasn't a sylph—he was big-boned, long, lanky arms and legs, and that marvelous hair. Thick and straight and glossy: it felt like honey pouring through your fingers. He always wore the same brown corduroy jacket, a little short in the arms, so you could see his wrists.     And his wristwatch: an old-fashioned watch that you had to wind every day. Expensive—I think he'd received it when he graduated from secondary school. Lots of fancy dials and second hands—is there something smaller than a second? If there is, Julian's watch had a hand that measured that. He was always checking it, and I was always checking him. I could have stared at him all day. I did stare at him all day, sometimes, when we were rehearsing.

     Eventually he found a piece of white paper, drew something on it and folded it, like a fan.

     "Now look at this." He held it up: a narrow, folded rectangle of blank paper. "This is us, now. Profane time."

     I felt a bit of a stab at that. Because we'd just spent the night together, and for me, that had been sacred time. But I only nodded.

     "Okay then. Taa daa—"

     He unfolded the paper so I could see what he'd drawn—a simple landscape: hills and trees, sun coming up on the horizon. "Here's what's inside—a whole other world! Well, it's a bit bigger than this," he added, and laughed. "But that's what it's like …"

     For the next few minutes, he sat and slowly folded and unfolded the paper, staring at it intently: almost as though he were meditating or seeing something there that I couldn't. At the time, I thought he probably was just stoned: grabbed a few hits while I was in the loo. Now I'm not so sure.


The members of Windhollow Faire recount their highly concentrated work on new songs for their second album, their drinking and drugging, and the ways in which each comes to understand the Hall.


....Truth is, there was something in the air back then. There really was. Things just felt different in those days, and not just at Wylding Hall, but everywhere. You could sense it, like a smell, or a certain way the light came down through the trees. Everything looked golden. Everything felt golden. Like anything could happen.

     Wylding Hall intensified all that. It was like a lens: you focus the light through it, ordinary sunlight, but the lens intensifies it, makes it strong enough to start a fire.

     We had a game we'd play sometimes at Wylding Hall, after we'd have a good day and night of rehearsing and smoked a few spliffs—Julian got very good hash from a bloke in Notting Hill. We'd all hold our hands and shut our eyes. Then, without speaking, we'd drop our hands, and one at a time we'd open our eyes. All without talking. We thought that maybe, just maybe, if we did it at the right moment, in the right place, with the right people, we'd open your eyes and we'd be somewhere else....


Nancy, a girlfriend of one of the band members, spends a weekend at the Hall:


....There was no orgy. It was all very innocent. We ended up on the floor, that's all, stoned and lying on our backs with our hands touching. This game they played in the dark. It was the shank of the night, and we closed our eyes and just lay there, breathing.

     After a while, someone began to sing. It was the most haunting song. No words, just a melody.

     I could never recall it afterward, but it was something I never forgot. It's true. I can hear it sometimes, still—it's there in my head and I can't get it out. I thought it was Julian. But he said no, he wasn't singing. But he heard it, too.


Lead singer Lesley:


     The thing that disturbed me about that night in the rehearsal room—it wasn't the singing. We all heard that, even if some won't talk about it. It was afterward. We were all still lying on the floor in the big room. People were asleep. I know Ashton was asleep, because he snores, and Will was, too.

     Julian was beside me. He wasn't sleeping, but he wanted me to think he was asleep. I touched his hand, ran my fingers along his arm: nothing.

     I felt horrible. If he'd rejected me outright or if we'd had a fight, I could understand that. But he was just freezing me out. And I was utterly obsessed with him—crazy, the way you are when you're seventeen. I thought I would die, I was so in love with him. But it was like loving a book, or a beautiful song: something you could never really touch.

     He was on the floor beside me, and Nancy was next to him. All of a sudden I felt this insane jealousy, just on fire—he wanted to be with her! That's why he wasn't responding to me.

     So I laid there and held my breath, to hear if they were whispering to each other, or if they were touching. I imagined her hand on him, and I couldn't see and it was driving me crazy.

     I couldn't hear a thing. It was pitch dark, a few weeks past midsummer, so it was still bright till almost ten at night, and the sun rose very early. But that night, it seemed as though it stayed dark hours longer than it should have.


Visiting rock journalist Patricia:


     When I first walked into the library, I assumed the paneled walls were linenfold—what you usually find in posh houses of that vintage. But when I looked closer, I saw the paneling was carved like overlapping feathers—there must have been thousands of them. Not big peacock feathers, either: small feathers, about the size of your thumbnail. The detail was extraordinary; you could see every quill, and the wood was so smooth it felt like silk.

     The bookshelves were carved, too: a repeating pattern of twigs and leaves with a little bird like a sparrow worked in here and there. You had to look carefully to find the birds, they were so small and carefully concealed within the larger pattern. The shelves weren't filled, but there were still a lot of books—several hundred at least. Not very orderly. It looked like a library used often by the same person, someone who always knew where to find whatever book he wanted to put his hands on.

     There were more books on a table by the window, in a language I couldn't make out. Arabic, maybe? I can't remember, it's been so long. And another grimoire, not much bigger than my hand. It was in good nick, the leather cover very soft. The pages felt stiff and new. The ink looked new as well, not at all faded: black ink, not that dull brown you find in most very old books.

     And this book was very old. I'm no expert, but even I could tell it must have been written around the time this wing was built. When I opened it, I swear I could smell fresh ink. I looked at the frontispiece for a date or name, but found nothing.

      I did come across a bookmark—a birch leaf that had been picked within the last day or so, still green. Beneath it was a fragment of manuscript covered with writing, so old it crumbled when I touched it. I had my notebook with me—I'm a journalist, remember—and I quickly began to copy out the writing word for word. I thought it might make good copy.


"Burna thyn haer yn flamme

Tiss wrennas fedyr and thyn hatte blod."


     That's all I got down when I heard someone behind me. I whirled around, but there was no one by the door. When I turned back, someone was at the other end of the room, watching me. A very old woman I thought at first, not as tall as me, slight and white-haired. But she wasn't old—it was a trick of the sun in the window above her, bleaching the color from her hair.

     Then I saw that her hair really was white—bright as silver, rather mussed-up hair that fell just above her shoulders. She didn't look more than fourteen or fifteen, wearing a plain white dress that came just below her knees. A vintage petticoat, the kind of hippie frock that girls snapped up at Portobello Road. Strange tawny eyes. She took a step toward me and stopped. She looked surprised, as though she'd been expecting someone else.

     "What are you doing here?"

     I jumped: it was a man's voice. And it didn't come from her, but from the door, where Julian stood, staring at me. I couldn't tell if he was angry or just confused.

     I said, "Nothing," and glanced back at the girl.

     But she was gone.



Lesley:


     [Julian] was interested in the nature of time. The only thing he loved more than his guitar was that fancy wristwatch of his, with all the dials and arrows and whatnot. He loved to play with it, winding it back and forth and watching the hands turn. Like a kid. I think he actually believed that he could control time.

     Or no, it's more like he believed there were other kinds of time; that you could step out of our ordinary time and into another one. Like Rip Van Winkle. Julian was fascinated by that kind of story. He must've pulled every book off the shelves at Wylding Hall, looking for them. Before we even went to Wylding Hall, he'd asked Will to search for ballads like that at Cecil Sharp House. There aren't many, so Julian made up his own. That's what his version of the Campion song was.

     Spells, that's what Julian was trying to write. He wouldn't cop to it, but I knew he was up to something. I'd knock and knock at the door; he wouldn't answer, so I'd let myself in.


That wristwatch will have a recurring role in Wylding Hall.


Another recurring symbol is the wren. At night in the darkened rehearsal studio Nancy thinks she hears the sound of a bird fluttering up in the rafters, trying to escape. The local pub where Windhollow Faire busks for liquor money is called The Wren.


Will:


     There's probably a hundred variations on the wren carol. Different words, different melodies. God knows where Julian found the one he sang. He never went to Cecil Sharp House, not as far as I know.

     And he never asked me about the songs I found there, or anywhere else, which got my back up somewhat. I didn't expect the others to appreciate what I was doing, not from an archival perspective. But Julian, you'd think this was exactly the sort of thing he'd be interested in. Never said a word to me about it. Whenever I'd ask about the songs he covered, where he found them, why he'd chosen that particular arrangement, he'd just shrug and say he couldn't remember.


      His version of the carol went like this:


We are the boys who come today

To bury the wren on St. Stephen's Day.

Where shall we bury her feathers?

In a grave mound.

What shall we do with her bones?

Bury them in the ground.

They'll break men's plows!

Cast them into the sea.

They'll grow into great rocks

That will wreck ships and boats!

We'll burn them in the fire

And throw her ashes to the sky.


     A bit bloodthirsty. You'd be surprised how many old songs are like that. I was very curious as to where he'd found his variation. 


Will gets a lesson in the time-space dilation implicit in Julian's earlier explication of sacred and profane time when he sets out to find the Hall's library:


I knew there was a library at Wylding Hall and that Julian spent time there. In the Tudor wing, he told me.

     "It's easy—you go a ways into the Tudor wing, through a long passage with windows, then up a flight of steps. Stone stairs, I think that bit's older than the rest. Norman, maybe. Once you reach the top, the library's on the your right. Can't miss it."

     Famous last words. Not only was it possible to miss it, I got so lost I was afraid I'd never find my way back. The hallway with the windows was easy enough—very pretty, diamond panes and glimpses of the gardens outside.

     But after that, I must've taken a wrong turn. I walked and walked, but there was no sign of a stone stairway. Nothing but old storerooms, doors that I couldn't pry open. Dark, too—there weren't many windows, and the ones I saw were all high up and deeply recessed, so I could see pockets of blue sky, but not much else. The glass might have been broken, or maybe they never had glass in them at all. Maybe the original structure was even older than Julian thought.

    Either way, it was much colder than the rest of Wylding Hall. There was no central heating, of course, not in a heap that old and that big, but the part we stayed in got a lot of sun. And it was summer.

     Here it felt more like autumn, or even early winter. Cold enough to see my breath. That freaked me out.

      And the wood smelled strange—the timbers that crisscrossed the ceiling and the paneled walls, even the furniture. Everything was made of wood, so the smell was quite noticeable. Not like furniture polish or beeswax: a nasty smell, putrid and slightly sweet. Like roses left in a vase where the water goes all green and scummy. Even now, I don't like to think of it.

      I pulled open doors, looking for a stairway or another passage, but I didn't see anything but nearly empty bedrooms with cupboard beds, all so covered with cobwebs it looked like ash.

     Finally, I just gave up. I stopped and turned and began to retrace my steps.

     Immediately I was lost. Nothing looked the same—the windows seemed higher and narrower, and outside the sky looked darker. I could see stars. I know that sounds crazy, but it's true.

     Now I was really starting to freak out. Hallways branched off the passage, and I knew I hadn't seen them before, because I was looking for the stairwell. I stopped and listened, but I couldn't hear a sound. No voices. None of the creaks you usually hear in old houses. It wasn't rational, but I grew terrified that I wouldn't be able to find my way back at all. Every time I turned a corner, there'd be two or three more passages branching off from the one I was in.

     I remembered something I'd once read about the maze at Hampton Court: to find your way out, you should keep one hand on the wall at all times. I had a bandanna tied around my head to keep my hair out of my eyes, paisley silk—Nancy had given it to me for my birthday. I took it off and tied it to a doorknob. If I ended up back there again, I'd know I'd come in circles. I made my best guess as to the correct direction, put my hand on the wall to the right, and started walking.

     If my hand hadn't been on the wall, I would have missed it. An alcove so narrow that anyone bigger than me wouldn't have been able to slip inside: the entrance to a stone stairway.

     Once inside, I had only to raise my arms slightly to touch the walls. The stone risers were steep, slightly concave in the center where they'd been worn over the years. Hundreds, even thousands of people must have walked those steps. I wondered if anyone had been there recently, besides Julian and myself and the other members of Windhollow.

     The stairway was lit by a strange ghostly light, just enough to see by. Yet I saw no lamps or windows. It was as though the light seeped from the stone. I crept along, afraid I'd lose my footing and crack my head. The walls pressed in on me, and the air was so cold my chest ached with each breath. It smelled dank and loamy, with a faint reek of rotted wood.

     And it was deathly silent. I stopped once and stamped hard as I could on the steps. I heard only a whispery sound, like a falling leaf.

     Goddam Julian, I thought. I thought it was some kind of bad joke, that he'd decided to take me down a peg. After five minutes, I stopped again, panting, and looked back.

     That was a mistake.

     Behind me, the passage spiraled down and down, deeper into shadows than I could have imagined, before it winked from sight entirely. My mouth went dry, and I clutched at the wall to keep from falling.

      It was impossible that I could have climbed that high, impossible that the building could reach such a height, or plunge so deeply into the earth.

      But when I turned, heart pounding, the stairs seemed to wind upwards just as endlessly, until they too disappeared. If I continued on, I'd walk into utter darkness. If I turned back, the same black spiral awaited me, coiling down into some unimaginable abyss.

      I couldn't budge. The thought of moving even a fraction of inch, forward or back, made me so dizzy, I was afraid I'd pass out. The steps were far too narrow for me to sit, so I leaned against the wall and tried to calm myself, counting backwards from a hundred.

     I reached about fifty when I heard it. A voice so faint, I had to hold my breath to be sure I hadn't imagined it. It was the same voice I'd heard the night Nancy was with us and we all held hands in the dark. I couldn't make out any words.

     Almost imperceptibly, it grew louder: loud enough that I realized it was singing. I still couldn't understand the words, but after a few minutes I recognized the melody as a song by Thomas Campion.

     Whoever was singing seemed to swallow the words: they became a mindless jumble, and try as I might, I couldn't recall them, even though the sound was growing closer.

     And now I could hear another sound—a kind of slithering, like something being slowly dragged up the steps.

     Or something dragging itself. The wordless song went on. The dank air grew putrid, until I gagged and clapped my hand to my mouth.

     With that sudden motion I found I could move again—and I did. I raced up those stairs so fast I nearly tripped, gasping and trying not to choke on that smell. Ahead of me, the gray light grew brighter, until a silver line sliced through the darkness—the outline of a door.

     Behind me, the slithering became a high-pitched rattle that drowned out the wordless song. I reached the top step and flung myself against the door, pounding as I searched for a latch. My fingers closed around a metal spike and I yanked at it, pulling until the door inched open. I angled around to squeeze through—

     And I swear to you, the door began to close on me. I clawed at the wood, but it only squeezed more and more tightly.

     Then, all at once, I was on the other side and stumbling down the hall. I didn't stop till I saw my bandanna tied outside a bedroom. I grabbed it and kept on running, through the corridors and down the stairs to the rehearsal room.

     Ashton nearly had a heart attack when I burst inside.


The next morning Julian takes Nancy for a walk:


     Ahead of us, the woods thinned out. There was a copse of alders, odd I thought—alders usually grow near water, and I hadn't seen any streams or ponds since we'd started. Alders and hazel and rowan. As we drew nearer, I saw that they were arranged in a long oval, and in the center of the oval was a mound—a long barrow. Like a gigantic egg half-buried in the earth, maybe twenty feet long and eight feet high, all overgrown with ferns and wildflowers. Julian stopped a few yards away and gazed up at it.

     "Here it is," he said softly.

     He turned and held out his hand. And that was unheard of for Julian—the one thing I knew about him, other than that he was supposed to be a brilliant musician, was that he didn't like to be touched. I flattered myself by thinking maybe he fancied me. Uh oh, I thought, now there'll be trouble with Will and Lesley both.

     I took his hand and clambered up after him. Almost immediately I regretted it—the mound was much steeper than it appeared. From ground level, it seemed barely taller than the trees, and some of the bigger ones, oaks and beech, towered above it.

     Yet the instant I began climbing, I started to slide backwards. My long skirt made it worse. It took two or three tries before I got any momentum, and if Julian hadn't been holding on to me, I don't think I could have done it. The turf was ankle-high, very soft but slick as glass, with bluebells and narcissus peeking out of it, even though the season for bluebells was long gone. The grass smelled sweet where we crushed it, and everywhere wrens darted out from their nests in the brush. There must have been a hundred of them. Wrens don't fly very high, so they skimmed all around us, singing then disappearing into the tangle underfoot. I've never seen so many birds.

     It took a good five minutes to reach the top. When we did, I was so out of breath, I couldn't say a word. Julian immediately let go of my hand.

     "Look at this!" He sounded giddy, spinning in a circle with his arms out. "You can see for miles!"

     I looked around and gasped.

     Everywhere I turned, there was the countryside. Fields and woods and roadways, villages like clusters of acorns and green hills vanishing off into the clouds, with here and there a church spire, all beneath a sky bright as bluebells. I could see ancient field systems clearer than I ever had, and to the west, another mound like this one, with people standing on it. Then I realized they weren't people, but a stone circle, or trees.

     And closer than that, like a mirage, Wylding Hall's towers rose above the greenery, all golden in the sun.

     Yet it was impossible that I could see any of this from where we stood. The mound wasn't that high. A wood surrounded it. Beyond that there were more woods that hid the village. I looked for those trees I'd seen, the ring of alders and rowan and hazel.

     And yes, there they were, but now they were below us: I looked down on a canopy of leaves.

     I turned to Julian. "This is crazy."

     He laughed. "I know."

     "Was there something in that tea you made?"

     "Of course not!" He walked to the edge of the mound, the narrow end of the egg, crouched down and stared out across the woods and fields to the hill with the standing stones. "Not that I know of, anyway."

     "What is it, then? An optical illusion? A mirage?"

     Julian shrugged. "I don't know. I don't care, either. Does it really matter? Isn't it enough that it's all there, and we can see it?"

     I should have been more frightened; that came later. It was just too lovely to be scared. Pale green butterflies the size of my thumbnail fed in the bluebells and filled the air like snow. I was afraid I'd step on them, but they seemed to sense where my foot would fall and flew off before it touched the ground. I watched a skylark circle up and up until it disappeared into the blue.  

     Everywhere, little wrens rustled in the grass.


This is the rath, described by Billy Thomas, grandson of the caretaker:


He told me about the hippies living at Wylding Hall. They hired him to bring them groceries every week. He liked them, as far as I knew. He thought they were harmless. Only thing he worried about was one of them went off into the woods by himself, up to the rath. That's what he called the hill fort. It's an Irish word; his mother was Irish, and when she married my great-grandfather and moved here in the eighteen hundreds, that's what she called it.

     So my grandfather said, anyway. He was very superstitious. So was everyone else in the village. None of us was ever supposed to go off playing on our own in the woods, especially not anywhere near the rath. If you did, you'd get a hiding when your folks found out. Julian Blake was the one used to go up there.


Wylding Hall builds to an outdoor recording session for the material they have been working on at the Hall. 


....it was like an enchantment, that one afternoon. We played till the sun was low in the sky, but it was still daylight, golden light.


Billy Thomas:


     I looked out and saw them cavorting in the garden. It looked like a painting. They all looked very old-fashioned—their clothes were old-fashioned. That was the style. What you see on the album cover, that's how they dressed the entire time they were playing. Lesley in her long peasant dress. Ashton dressed like a pirate. Will looked a bit like my grandfather when he was young, in his wedding photograph. Julian had on a corduroy jacket and stovepipe trousers and Cuban boots, everything well worn.

     Jonno was the only one looked like he was in the right century, jeans and a t-shirt, except that he was wearing a fool's cap with bells on it. I didn't make a big deal that I was taking pictures, but I wasn't secretive. It was just a lark. I wasn't thinking much about it at all. There were twenty frames on that roll, and I'd already taken three of my mum and dad.

     About halfway through, a great flock of birds came across the sky. I don't know what kind they were—little birds. But such a crowd of them that, for a moment, they blotted out the sun. It was shocking, after all that brilliant sunlight.

     That's when everyone turned to look up at the sky, and I snapped that. You can see the manor house in the background, the Elizabethan towers and old chimneys, and the higgledy-piggledy garden with everyone looking up at the sky. To one side, the woods that lead to the rath. The first of those pictures was in shadow, because of the birds, but after that they flew off over the trees and the sun shone down again.


The manager packs up the equipment and returns to London. A few nights later, the band decide to visit The Wren to perform their new songs.


Will:


....Then Julian began to play. "Windhover Morn." "Cloud Prince." For the third or fourth song, he did "Thrice Tosse These Oaken Ashes." People know the song now because of Wylding Hall, but no one knew it then. It's based on a seventeenth century air by Thomas Campion. I'd come across it at Cecil Sharp House earlier that year, but decided not to use it. Les called me on that much later, said I'd been superstitious. Perhaps I was.

     The peculiar thing is that Julian had come across it as well, only he found it in the library at Wylding Hall. I didn't even know there was a library there until he told me. He discovered it in some old book, and he said his version was far older than Campion's, and with slightly different words. When we'd recorded it in the garden, Julian went with the original.

     But that night at the Wren, he sang the older version. He'd composed new music for it, a very eerie melody. Unfortunately, we never recorded that version of the song. We all remember him singing it, but none of us has ever been able to recreate Julian's music. Believe me, we tried.

     As soon as he opened his mouth and began to sing, the room fell quiet. Not just quiet: dead silent. I've never seen anything like it. Like a freeze-frame in a movie. Nobody spoke, nobody moved. Nobody breathed. I know I didn't, not for half a minute. It sounded as though he were whispering the song into your ear.

    That night at the Wren, you could see that's how every single person felt. Like he was singing to each one of them, alone, just his voice and those few chords over and over again. Once he finished his version, he went into the more familiar one.


Thrice toss these Oaken ashes in the air,

Thrice sit thou mute in this enchanted chair;

Then thrice three times tie up this true loves knot,

And murmur soft, she will, or she will not.


Lesley:


     It was the first time he performed the Campion song. I'd heard him practicing bits of it in his room, but he never sang it for us when we were rehearsing. I recognized the tune immediately. It was the same one I'd heard the night that Nancy was there. The song we'd all heard, only none of us could replicate it afterward, or even remember it.

     It was like someone dragged a razor across my skin—not enough to draw blood, just a cold blade drawn down my neck, never enough to break the skin. I almost cried out—I would have, but my voice was gone. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt as though my own voice had been sucked into his, my breath. My heart beating at the same time as his. Nothing but that song and that voice and his guitar. None of us have ever been able to play that song since.


Jon:


     He'd just finished playing the bridge when I saw her. She was in the corner, watching him. I didn't see her walk in.

     At first I thought she was a young boy. Very slim and fine-boned, white-blonde hair. A real towhead. She was so pale, I mistook her for light reflecting on the mirror behind her. Took a minute for my eyes to focus and see it was a girl.

     I'd put her at fifteen, sixteen. She looked younger because she was so thin, but when you got a better look, her face wasn't young. Not old, just—she looked like she knew things. Her skin was the whitest skin I've ever seen—you could see where the veins were. It made her skin greenish, like a luna moth's. She was wearing a long, floaty dress, white dress, ragged at the hem. Barefoot, leaves stuck to her feet like she'd been walking in the woods.

     I didn't think she was that unusual—you couldn't throw a rock in the King's Road and not hit some Pre-Raphaelite teenybopper. Pale and interesting. Still, I suspect it raised a few eyebrows with the punters in the Wren.

     But with her, it wasn't makeup. I saw that when she walked over, after the set. She was the palest creature I'd ever set eyes on. I couldn't take my eyes off her, same way I felt about Julian. When the two of them stood beside each other, you didn't know where to look.


The pale white girl returns to the Hall with Julian and the band. The two retreat to Julian's room:


Lesley:


....the way she stuck in my mind—like a song you can't get out of your head. An earworm. She was like a brainworm. No matter how hard I tried not to think about her, I kept seeing that little white face and hair and those spooky eyes.

     That's what creeped me out the most—her eyes were so pale you couldn't see what color they were. Not blue and not green, though you'd see flickers of those. Not grey, either. They were like water—they took on whatever color was around them. She'd flick her tongue out to lick her lips over and over, little bit of a tongue like a cat's. Or a snake's. There was something wrong about her, something horrible.


Two days later, when Julian and the girl have not returned from the bedroom, Lesley investigates. But the bedroom is empty. Julian and the girl are never seen again.


Lesley:


....The other wall was the same—and the ceiling, and the back of the door. Blood was spattered everywhere, not great splashes of it, but droplets, no bigger than a pinprick. My heart started pounding.


When the band return to London, they visit their record label offices, where the snapshots Billy took of their outdoor recording session are being enlarged and examined.


Ashton:


     ....There were three pictures in which you could see her. The first one, she's at the back of the garden, towards the woods. On the right-hand side of the frame, same as Julian, who was staring up at the sky along with the rest of us.

     You might almost think she's a statue. She's facing the camera directly, hands at her sides, bare legged, wearing the same white dress as when I first saw her. Too far off to get a proper look at her face. There was a bit of a breeze, you can see the grasses rippling and everyone's long hair blown by the breeze. Her hair, it hung lank and straight to her shoulders, unmussed by the wind, and the dress straight to her knees. That's the photo on the album cover.

     The second one, she looks exactly the same. Only now she's about fifteen feet closer to the camera, maybe ten feet behind Julian. Who does not appear to have moved a fraction of an inch. None of us have. We're all in the exact same positions as the previous photo, all still gazing at the sky.

     The only way you'd even realize any time has passed is if you look really carefully. You can see Julian's hair has been blown across his cheek, and Lesley's eyes are closed—she blinked. The light is nearly unchanged: a few more tiny shadows thrown across the grass as that flock of birds flew in front of the sun. I'm still shading my eyes, staring along with the rest. It's very clear that Billy took that photo immediately after the first one, a millisecond later.

     So how did the girl move so quickly across the lawn? It's like she's a chess piece someone slid across the grass in a straight line. You can see her better in this one. Her white dress was soiled at the hem, her hands are clenched into fists. You can see her face. Her eyes are open and you can see there's hardly any iris in them at all. They're black and staring right at you without any expression. Her mouth is open. Not all the way open, but her lip curled back so you can see a bit of her front teeth. Like a dog starting to snarl.

     In the final picture, she's right behind Julian, still moving in that unbroken line across the grass. A bit to the side so you can see her clearly, perhaps a foot away from him. He doesn't see her. None of us see her. We're all still gazing up at the sun.

     But now she's so close, you can see that her eyes are utterly black. No iris, no pupil, no sclera. There might be something in there, but I don't want to think what it might be. Just these round black holes. Her skin is so white the capillaries look like a web covering her face. Her hands are turned outwards and her fingers have started to unclench, white fingers with sharp little nails. Her mouth gapes open as though she's screaming. And you can see that inside it she has more than one row of teeth.






Elizabeth Hand is a masterful stylist, as one can judge from the excerpts above. Wylding Hall is the first Hand story I have read, and I'll be reading more.


Jay

2 March 2020

















No comments:

Post a Comment