The Soft Place

My father, an English hatmaker in Dublin, died of consumption and my mother and I went into service at Harrow Hall near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. It was the home of landed gentry and the very old Harrow family of English extraction who had established the house in the 1600s. It was a magnificently faded gothic house in the Irish countryside, far away from the view of the surrounding towns. It was said to be haunted, and indeed it was and on many fronts.

mansion in the woods

(image: Angelus YODASON)

First, the Harrow family was steeped in tragedy, with a son lost at sea a number of years before as he was on business, and a daughter who had gone mad as a result, it was said. A younger brother lived there as well, although little was known of him. My mother told me that he was about my age, which was eleven. But, she said, I must never seek him out or speak with him as despite his misfortunes in losing an older brother, he was my better.

And that was another layer of the haunted nature of Harrow Hall. If there were ghosts in that gloomy place, then surely I was to be among them. My duties were to the dusting of the great cabinetry, the polishing of the silverware, the scrubbing of the stone floors, the cleaning of the chandelier in the front hall once Mr. Purves, the butler, had seen to its careful decscent to the marble floors below. I was to be a shadow, a shade, a spectre in that house. For no one there was to converse with the family, least of all Master Harrow, who’s Christian name was Edmund. But, even the utterance of that name was forbidden by the staff.

Yet soon upon arriving there, I transgressed. I did it for myself, of course. For I was lonely. The shadowy corridors and drafty rooms of Harrow Hall were absent of the laughter of children. Indeed it was absent of any laughter or joy of any kind, for even the adults were sombre there. Mr. and Mrs. Harrow, middle-aged, imposing, and almost never seen, wore their faces like wax, hardened to visages of austerity. When they were in residence, and not abroad in England, their voices were seldom heard. Their presence was largely reduced to the sound of their footsteps and their pale voices in the upper floors of the house, where I was forbidden to go.

Edmund spent much of his time in the back garden, a tangled and overgrown patch of land that huddled against the shadow of the great house. It seemed that despite the best efforts of kindly Mr. Ryder and his team of groundskeepers, this section of the gardens could not be tamed. Edmund seemed to be a part of that place, sitting at the stone bench that was nestled into the lush, black bushes and climbing vines, facing the deathly still standing pond that had been cut into the stone pavers from where no bird was seen to drink. He sat there on that stone bench like a young Prince Hamlet, his dark eyes focused somewhere beyond the gardens, the pond, and across the grounds and the crushed gravel path that separated those grounds from the skirt of the dark forest beyond. That dark and wild place was said to be a preserve. No one was to cross that gravel path into the woods.

“I’m Cora. Cora Thorne,” I said, with a seasoning of defiance in my voice as I approached him as he sat on the stone bench by the stagnant pond one overcast day. I knew that in speaking to him at all, I had instantly transgressed the rule laid down by the household, and that of my mother too who busied herself elsewhere at that time of day. Even then, I cared little for rules, or propriety and class. He was a boy my age. Why should I not befriend him?

Master Harrow barely acknowledged me at first, as if he and I were indeed separated by some great gulf. But, when he spoke to me across that strange and silent chasm, it was the sound of one  whose food was simple conversation, a source of nourishment that had been denied him. “I am Edmund Harrow. I-I … how do you do?”

“My mother and I are in the service of your family, only just arrived. I have finished the polishing and the dusting and have come out into your garden for air. May I join you?”

“Please, although I have nothing to offer you. I am used to being on my own. I am not used to … company.” His voice was sad, but not pitiable somehow. It sounded ancient, as if rising forth from the core of a venerable chest, out through the mouth of an old man, not an eleven year old boy. The sorrow that seasoned his voice seemed like that of one who had seen and experienced much, unknowable by one such as myself.

“What are you looking at? Is there something out there?” I asked candidly, for his eyes never rested on me, but rather focused intently like a rifleman with a bead across the expanse of the house grounds and the crushed gravel path that served as a border to that place, and into the forbidden woods.

“I don’t know. It is the woods. They have always captured my imagination. They hold a great fascination for me. Why, I cannot say.”

“May I watch with you … Edmund?”

Then, he looked at me finally, as if I had granted him a boon for which he daren’t have hoped.

“Please … be my guest,” he said.

And on that first day, very little else was said. We sat, and we looked into that verdant maw of forest, enveloped as we were in silence, and the sound of our hearts beating being the only source to measure the time on that windless day. In that gloomy quiet, and as the motionless ceiling of clouds above us made noon into midnight, our friendship was born.

***

My life at Harrow Hall was one of strict routine, followed by myself and a group of older girls who were under the influence of my mother’s authority. Each day held a specific task for me, attached to a specific room of the house. While we worked, sometimes the snatches of conversation could be heard by the family, and by their guests which often included Doctor Cavanaugh, the family physician, and Father O’Dell of the Parish . They did nothing to stifle their dialogue while we worked. As I said, we were ghosts in that place. We passed unseen.

“What shall be done with The Boy?” said a male voice one day, undoubtedly Mr. Harrow himself, cutting through the silence even into the farthest reaches of the house. Two female voices joined in discordantly, rising a falling with desparation, and sorrow. One voice soothed, and another resisted. Then, the weeping began, that of a younger woman, just as sure to have been young Celia Harrow, Edmund’s older sister, a girl of eighteen, yet with no husband. She was beautiful and sad, too, with the same dark eyes, dark hair, and turned down mouth that was both sensual and tragic at the same time. These seemed to be a family trait, with that sadness leading the way.  I could see it in Edmund’s face. And I could see it in the portrait of James Harrow as it hung in the front hall, the older brother who had been lost.

I would join Edmund when I could in the garden, where we would both sit on the stone bench, our eyes scouring the skirt of the mysterious dark forest beyond where no human foot was allowed to tread. Our conversation over the span of months was like that of a thawing river, clogged with ice, and with trickles turning to streams, and eventually to roaring floods. Edmund was still hungry for conversation. But, I soon realized that conversation was only a means to a greater end. I believe now that it was his own humanity that he desperately needed to be acknowledged. For I was witness to Edmund being the subject of conversation in that sad manse, and never a participant. Even though we had come from different worlds, we were the same. We were both sad and, in our own ways, fatherless. My own father had died, and I missed him terribly. And Edmund’s father was distant and cold, robbing him of the affectionate warmth I had briefly known in mine. But, Edmund had come to believe that it wasn’t simply that his father regarded him with ambivalence. It was that his own father hated him. His older brother had died, who had been a strong and handsome heir, where Edmund was small and weak. Only his sister remained, merely a voice in the upper floors and purportedly mad.

At the time, I did not know how to express it. But, somewhere in the back of my eleven year old brain, I found the cruel irony that Edmund was called “master” in that house, although he was master of nothing. He was a ghost like myself. Yet, I did not pity him for that. Somehow, he was above pity of that sort. And in conversation, we both regained our humanity one to another. Yet, there was something more to Edmund underneath his small frame and melancholic air. I felt affection for him almost immediately upon making his acquaintance. He was my friend. But, there was something terrible about him, something otherworldly. Sometimes, he frightened me. It was not because he meant to. It was because there was something in his voice, his gaze, his shape, and his capacity for stillness and silence that somehow struck me as alien, something unreachable and unknowable. He was a mystery, embodied. And at times, I felt that the answer to Edmund’s mystery would undo the whole world, were it to become known.

“Cora, you are my only friend. My only confidant. I should like to tell you something. It is something at which I can only guess. But, I know it to be true, only I have no external assurances to confirm it.”

“Edmund, you are my only friend in this sad place. I need no confirmation of anything you would say to me outside of your own conviction. What troubles you?”

“My own family fear me.” he said simply.

“You mean they fear for you, Edmund? Why should they fear for you?”

“No. It is me they fear. I am a source of terror for them. ”

“I don’t understand, Edmund,” I said. For, I did not.

He turned to me, taking his eyes off of the dark forest and stared into my eyes. In his dark eyes were hot tears. He said nothing else, either because he did not know what else to say, or because he couldn’t say anything else, overcome by some nameless grief. In that moment, I was not frightened of him, and I felt ashamed for ever fearing him. I loved him then.

***

Edmund would not explore the grounds of his own house, as he preferred his bench. Oddly, he stated not that he would not join me in my exploration, but rather that he “could not”.  But I did so on my own when I could. As defiant a girl as I was within certain bounds, I was careful to follow the rule of never leaving the grounds on the occasion of the completion of my duties, or at any other time. My favourite place beyond Edmund’s garden and his stone bench was the crushed gravel path that ran the circumference of the estate. I loved the sound of my battered shoes on the sparkling path, that straight and winding road that caught the light of the pale sun overhead. I loved the crackling sound of my footfalls on the gravel that broke the strange silence in that place, where not even the birds would sing.

I wondered what it was that caught the light so brilliantly on that path that brushed up against the edge of the grounds and the dark woods beyond. And on one of my excursions after a particularly violent rainstorm, I discovered the secret. Mr Ryder, the old head groundsman was at work on the path near the rear of the property, pouring a sack of  silvery-white dust onto the path. Edmund had pointed him out one day and told me his name as we sat. Mr. Ryder was a quiet man who I’d never seen mixing with any of the other servants, even Mr. Purves the butler. Edmund told me that he and his crew lived in the abandoned farmhouses that dotted the land, where tenant farmers who had worked the land had once stayed. But, those tenant farmers were gone now, emigrated to America.

Mr. Ryder picked up a rake  from the manicured lawn, and began to spread the dust into the gravel on the path. Further along the path were Mr. Ryder’s crew of groundsmen, each equidistant from his fellow and at work in that very same activity around the whole circumference of that path.

I wandered toward him as he was hard at work. My eyes cast downward to the crumpled sack that lay like an empty husk on the lawn. On it was written a single word, which my eye interpreted from the folds of the sack: SALT.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Ryder. What are you doing?”

“Well, Little Miss. Each one has his own purpose in the world. Mine is to see to the care of the grounds, adding a little seasoning to the proceedings.” he said this with a gleam in his kindly elfin eyes. He was teasing me, and not unkindly. As newly arrived at Harrow Hall as I was, Mr.Ryder had purportedly been groundskeeper on the estate for decades, but did not seem to be infected by the gloom of that place. I found him to be a refreshing presence.

“But, why salt?” I asked, smiling in kind, and waiting for Mr. Ryder’s characteristically courtly and mischievous reply.

His smile faltered. Just for an instant his expression was like that of a cloud passing across the sun. After that almost imperceptible pause, he replied, his smile renewed, the sunshine of his demeanour coming through again. “I’m adding a little savoury to the sweetness of the day, Little Miss. Now, be off with you. And stay off the path!” He said this with a smile too. But, that shadow which had crossed his face swam underneath it. And as if on cue, the clouds gathered above us, and the sun was drowned in mist.

***

I could never sleep well in that place. Often I would wake from dreamless sleep well before dawn with a sense of disquiet that I could not explain. Perhaps it was the talk of the other servants during daylight hours that was to blame, all concerned with the secrets of the family. It was said that master James, Edmund’s older brother, had not been lost at sea at all as was the reported series of events as told in the local papers, but rather had died right there in the house of some hysterical brain fever. Another story held that Master James had simply disappeared from the grounds one day, a victim of dark forces, and never to be seen again. It was said that this had something to do with “the young master” and his troubled sister. The facts of this were never substantiated by the tellers. But, often it is the thin strands of truth interwoven with conjecture that make for the more compelling tale. And in this case, it added to a sense of horror in my young mind that something was very wrong in that house that was best left unexamined. And yet, my mind would not let me do so. For, Edmund was my friend, even if our association had remained undetected or unacknowledged.

One night, I awoke in that same disquieted state of mind, but also hungry as though I had gone without my tea the evening before. I left my mother’s side quietly as she slept, and ascended the back stairs that led to the kitchens. It would be an intolerable offense should I be discovered out of my bed. But, even in my state of disquiet, my rebellious spirit endured. I took a candle and made my dark journey from the lower rooms of the servant’s quarters and up the stairs, almost in a half-dream state, yet still with an unbearable hunger in my belly. I reached the top of the steps where the dark outline of the doorway to the kitchen seemed like some black portal to the unknown. I paused for an instant, my feelings of foreboding and my pangs of hunger seeming to wax and wane in turn, fighting for dominance.

When I reached the kitchen, I stopped with a shock staring across the seemingly vast expanse to the dark, woman-shaped shadow in front of me, a hard-cut silhouette against the moonlight which flooded through the large window at the other end of the long room. I was discovered, although I didn’t immediately know by whom. I blew out the candle instinctively, and the moonlight and shadow claimed the space completely. The shadow of the woman was immobile, her arms outstretched, her feet close together, her wild hair loosened into that of an unkempt garden, or a forest copse. That terrible shape did not acknowledge me, standing frozen in the doorway to the back stairs. I did not even blink, I was so frightened. Then, the woman-shaped spectre uttered a lost and barely perceptible and child-like sound, as if emerging from the throat of someone much younger than even myself.  This figure was no supernatural creature, but rather a human woman. The timbre of her voice was familiar to me; that same pleading voice I’d heard in the upper floors, and in response to Mr. Harrow’s question: “What is to be done with The Boy?”

It was Edmund’s sister, Celia.

“M-Miss …?” I had found the courage to speak to her, my sense of concern overriding my fear.

She did not respond to me, but rather remained motionless and whimpering. Her arms remained outstretched, her feet close together. It was as if she stood waiting, expecting to be lifted up into someone’s arms, like a child reaching for her parents, or perhaps expecting to take flight. I had heard of this phenomenon; Celia Harrow was asleep. She was sleepwalking, a half-dreaming state that caused the body to wander while the mind stayed asleep. I had a strange thought then: “Is she a part of my own dream as I wander these halls at night? Or, am I a part of hers?” I didn’t know why I thought that, or what it meant. But before I could examine it, she spoke.

“Dear boy … ” she said suddenly, at first thinking that she had mistook me for another.

“Dear, dear, boy … I am sorry. I am so very sorry …” she sobbed.

I took a step forward, driven by my compassion for her, even though I had never met her. Her sorrow was like a whirlpool into which I was being pulled. She was Edmund’s sister, and one whom he loved. He had told me so, along with his feelings that his sister was slipping away from the world, and away from him along with it. “Perhaps,” I thought “, she speaks of a secret lover. Or perhaps about her lost brother …”

Then I heard the sound of approaching footsteps coming from the other end of the kitchens, and the faint glow of candlelight. I retreated to the stairwell, hidden there by shadows. And there I stayed in the darkness and out of sight, my curiosity replacing both my fleshly hunger, and my primal fear. When the owners of the footsteps approached, I could not see them and they could not see me.

“Father?” said Celia

“Come, Celia. To bed, to bed.” It was indeed the voice of Mr. Harrow himself.

“She is asleep, again!” It was Mrs. Harrow. “She is vulnerable at night.  This is when the demons are at their strongest!”

“Enough! I will stand no more of this talk of demons!” said Mr. Harrow in a fevered whisper. “This is my house! There are no other masters, here! Now, get her to bed before the whole house is awakened!”

“Father! Don’t take him from me!” pleaded Celia, sleepily.

“Enough!”  It was Mr. Harrow again. I detected an odd note of tenderness in his voice, even a deep sorrow that seemed alien to his sternness. But, my fear of him dampened that sense of pathos almost immediately.

“She can’t hear you! She is asleep!” said Mrs. Harrow, her own voice steeped in anguish.

“Take her to bed, and then get you to yours! We will take steps tomorrow! We will call for Doctor Cavanaugh again.”

“It is that creature who is to blame! That creature from those damnable woods!” Mrs. Harrow’s voice broke.

“Enough! Tomorrow …”

(That creature from those damnable woods!)

The phrase spoken by a terrified Mrs. Harrow struck  through me like a spike of pure ice. Even as the sounds of their voices and the movement of their footsteps across the floor of the kitchen continued, I retreated back down the stairs, holding in a repressed cry.

(Father! Don’t take him from me!)

I slipped back into the warm bed next to my mother, with my mind ablaze with questions. And yet when I put my head back onto my pillow, I knew no more that night. On the following morning after my duties were complete, I sought out Edmund in his usual place at the stone bench in the wild garden, unsure as to whether or not I should relay my tale of the night before. The bench was cold and empty, and a space inside of me opened, as cold and as empty as that vacant bench.

(Those damnable woods …)

That is what Mrs. Harrow had said. And Edmund, himself fixated on the forest behind the grounds made me realize that I must transgress yet again. I must venture forth into the woods myself, looking for what, I did not know. But, I felt it imperative to do something. I had not seen my friend for days after my night in the kitchen. I had heard nothing from any of the family, nor had I seen them. Some of the staff reported that Father O’Dell had made a visit on business that remained unclear, just as Mr. Harrow had said the night before. Some thought that he’d come to collect for the parish. Others were convinced that he’d come on a mission that was far more grim, nothing less than an exorcism. This latter line of talk made me furious. It made me feel as though the world was a cruel place, to cast such scorn on the anguished, and the innocent. And it made me miss Edmund’s company. I did not understand why he had forsaken me. But, I found that I could not be angry with him. It made me want to come to his aid all the more.

But I would not see Edmund again for a long while after that.

***

As if Edmund’s absence demanded a proxy, I soon began to find myself sitting on the stone bench, looking into the woods. I knew that whatever was happening had something to do with those (damnable!) woods. In the meantime, the talk among the servants was that The Young Master had been sent to the Church school in Dublin where he would study under the priests there. I had no cause to think otherwise. I assumed that Father O’Dell himself had made his visit for that specific purpose. But, the knowledge of this did not comfort me. I missed my friend, the boy who did not look down on a fatherless servant girl well below his social station. I missed the boy who asked me about my father and what he meant to me. I loved the boy who put his pale hand on my shoulder as I wept in the telling of that tale. But, I was helpless to come to his aid, taken as he was from his home, presumably on his own father’s wishes. I could not understand how a father could do such a thing.

One day as I sat there in the late afternoon, I rose from the bench, angered by my own indolence. I needed to take some form of action, although I did not know what, other than to march into those forbidden woods and discover the source of the mystery which I was certain I would find. Around the sullen and lifeless stone pond, down the chipped stone steps, and across the grass  toward the path I went. My tiny fists were balled, and my gait characterized by cold determination. Even as Edmund himself seemed ancient, a venerable soul in the frame of a small boy, so did I feel as though my own soul contained the furies of a fire set many eras before my birth. Edmund and I were indeed kindred spirits.

The right toe of my worn down shoes touched the salt-seasoned path and then left it. I started into the woods, my right foot testing the ground within the shadow of the trees. Then, I heard the voice.

“Little Miss! Where are you going?”

… The girl stepped into the dreaded wood, ignoring the warning voice that called out in admonishment and in fear, too. The sound of that voice was immediately swallowed up by the cool darkness of  the wood, with the rays of a late afternoon that the girl had known as she stepped forward into the unknown, somehow transformed. A greenish light, somehow unnatural, filtered through the ancient branches of the trees. She worked her way between the sturdy boles, following false paths, righting herself, and following other false paths. Soon, she had no sense of direction at all. There was no logic to this place. But, she could hear singing. It seemed to be coming from far away, and yet it sounded as if she could hear it in that place just over one’s shoulder, where the edge of the eye only barely reaches. She turned, instinctively. There was nothing there. Except that, she knew, there was. It had not made itself known to her. “This”, she realized, “is a place that does not belong to me. And I do not belong here. I am lost now, with nowhere to go but toward the sound of that singing, that beautiful singing …”

I turned, and of course it was Mr. Ryder striding toward me. I somehow had not seen him as I rose from my seat and marched across the lawns toward the dark trees at the hem of the forest. Perhaps my determination had distracted me.

But, even in my distraction, I could have sworn that the old groundskeeper had not been anywhere near when I rose from my seat. It was as if he’d simply appeared, running toward me in a furious haste, and with a vigour I would not have expected from one of his age. Strange.

… The girl was changed by that place almost in the instant she’d stepped into the hem of the forest. She was no longer a pale, skinny girl. Rather, she was a woman, and a beautiful one. It did not strike her as odd. “I’ve always been this way,” she thought to herself suddenly. “And I was wrong before. I do belong. I do belong here. And now I must go toward the singing. For there I will find love. I will find love at long last …”

I turned to face him, my face flushed with a sudden heat. Mr. Ryder’s voice seemed odd; no longer kindly of full of humour as it normally was. There was a streak of anger in it, or was it fear?

… The girl finally emerged into a wide clearing, grassy, and populated by vast mounds that were covered in turf. Seeming to emerge from one of these mounds was a man dressed in earthy clothes that also seemed bright, the fabric of which the girl could not identify. As he moved closer, the girl, or The Woman that she had become since she’d entered that place felt the prickly sensation of cold alarm … 

To a child such as I was, it was hard for me to determine which was most denoted in Mr. Ryder’s voice, anger or fear. I felt myself lock up inside, as was my normal reaction to my own mother’s scoldings and admonishment. But, my anger and sorrow at losing my only friend in that dreary place counteracted my usual sense of compliance to an elder, beloved as he had become over the months I’d been living in Harrow Hall.

“My name is not “Little Miss”!” I said to him scornfully. “And I’m going for a walk in the woods!”

The man who approached was tall and stately, and the most beautiful that The Woman had ever seen, wearing his earthy-bright clothing, his face pale green, his hair  like the moss found on the bark of the great trees in that place. She stopped breathless. “I heard you calling to me, my Lord. And I have come. I have finally come.” The Stately Lord smiled. Despite his beauty, his teeth were odd; small and slightly pointed, like the teeth of a predatory fish rather than of a man. The thought occurred to the Woman that he was not human at all. It did not frighten her, oddly. Indeed, it deepened her feelings of love, finally with an object upon which to place them. For in that moment, she loved him. She knew that she would stay in this place forever …  

The old man grabbed me by my arms and lifted me, drawing his face near to mine in anger. “You shall do no such thing!” he said, forcefully.

My eyes widened and my jaw, which had been held stiffly in determination up until then, went slack. I could feel the hot tears prickling in the corners of my eyes. In my fear and my sadness at having been addressed so roughly by one who I’d only just realized had been just as true a friend to me in his own way since I arrived in that lonely place, I had a strange thought. I looked into Mr. Ryder’s eyes and found them not to match with the rest of his face. They seemed younger somehow. They seemed like a boy’s eyes to me. I did not know what the thought meant. It was incongruous. Yet, it was impossible to ignore.

… The Stately Lord’s eyes were also green, the color of a lazy river in a wood. He smiled at The Woman. “Tell me your name, my beloved.” he said, and the woman answered “I have a name in another place. But, here I have none.” She replied. “Then, I shall give you one. But, first; your name.” His voice was like that of a gentle breeze, yet sonorous too as if bursting forth from deep in the earth. His voice to the ears was like that of rich soil and growing things is to the nose. She answered him: “Celia. I am Celia Harrow. But, I renounce that name utterly. I long for the name you would give me, my Lord.”. The Tall Green Man smiled again, showing his rows of small, pointed teeth. “I will give you my name, my beloved. As any husband does,” he said. And The Woman began to cry …

Just as I felt myself beginning to cry, Mr. Ryder’s face softened and he embraced me. “Oh, I’m sorry!” he whispered to me. “Forgive me.”  I felt the tears come, and soon I was reduced to wracking sobs. I thought of Edmund, my dead father, my distant mother, and my loneliness.

… “You have suffered much, Celia Harrow,” said the Lord of that place in a soothing tone. He held her as The Woman cried. “Your father is a tyrant. Your brother overbearing and overprotective. Your mother is ineffectual. But, you have me now. This is a Soft Place between two worlds where I rule unencumbered by the principalities of either. I shall make you my wife. Come, my love. Come and let us love each other here in this place, my realm at the edge of two worlds.” And they embraced fully, their mouths coming together in a kiss …

(posh girl. posh girl. out in the woods alone …)

Strangely too, I thought of Celia Harrow, and the lost sound of her voice (“Dear boy, dear boy … I am sorry …”). And when I was through, and my sobs had subsided to gentle shudders, my face slack again and wet with tears, my eyes wide, I found that a great burden had been lifted from me. As strong as I had felt before, I realized that my powers to survive and to focus on the tasks at hand for me would not have sufficed had I not been relieved of that burden.

Their love was fierce. When it was over, she would stay in this place and be his wife. She would bear him an heir who even now had begun to grow inside her. She had given him her name, one that could not be uttered, but rather embodied in the form of a healthy child born of their coupling.

(… see what I got for yuz …)

“My name is Cora. Cora Thorne.” I said quietly.

“Ah,” said Mr. Ryder. ” an act of trust on your part after I’ve been short with you. My name, as you’ve discovered, is Ryder; Gabriel Ryder. You may call me Gabriel.”

“Gabriel.” I repeated. “Like the angel.”

… The Woman lived with the Stately Lord as his companion, the mother to his child who wriggled and squirmed in her arms, suckled at her breast. That world was like a dream, and time seemed to pass oddly there, out of order, too slow, too fast, all at once. In an almost imperceptible way, she felt the last vestiges of her girlhood, the girl she had been when she first entered the woods, fade into the roiling stuff of that green world, her life defined by the love of her husband, although with no companions and their friendship to warm her heart otherwise …

“There. Now we know each other’s name. That makes us friends.”

(c’mere, posh girl. I’m not going to do nothin’ …)

I nodded.

(… i just want to be friendly. why don’ t you want to be friendly, posh girl? …)

“Now. I will ask you again, and I ask gently this time; where are you going?”

“Into the woods. My friend … he is disturbed by them.”

“That would be young Edmund Harrow, yes?”

I nodded again.

(… see what I got for yuz …)

“Yes. The boy is special, to be sure. And I know that he is fascinated with the woods. In fact, he and I had an exchange not unlike the one you and I are having now. That was before you arrived to keep him company.”

“There is something about the woods that is upsetting him. But, it interests him, too. It seems to beckon him there,” I said. I’d never considered this thought before even to myself.

“Beckons him.” repeated Mr. Ryder, or Gabriel as I would call him thereafter. It was not a question, but rather a confirmation. After he said it, he nodded as if the matter was settled.

“Why do they beckon him?” I asked, gravely.

Gabriel paused for what seemed like an eternity, a smile of resignation on his face. It was as if the answer to that question would change the course of both of our lives, and he knew it. His lips parted and both of us passed from one era to another.

“Because that is where he was born, Cora. They want to reclaim him,” He said. ” Those woods are in the country of the Fair Folk, of which he is a son. That is why I lay the salt.  That is why I buried the cold iron rods underneath the path … to protect him. To protect us all. No good can come of going there. No good can come from that which emerges from them. Much sorrow has come from those woods.”

(don’t be silly, Mr. Ryder. those are children’s stories. no more than children’s stories.)

(please, miss. do not go into those woods …)

(of all the insolence. I shall go where I please, without leave from a rough, ignorant groundskeeper in the employ of my father to tell me otherwise …)

“Thank you,” I said to Mr. Ryder. “Thank you for warning me. You are a good man. But, what of my friend Edmund? Will I ever see him again?”

(please, little miss …)

A tear grew in Gabriel’s eye. “If I could change the past, I would. I would … I would sell my own soul.”

I found my way back to the sullen house that rose like a shadow on that otherwise verdant land, slipping through the servant’s door as if swallowed by some great beast. Time seemed  to pass very oddly that day. For in no time at all, I found myself next to my mother as I drifted off to sleep, soon to pass into a dream that was perhaps fed by the events of the day. It was strange. It was as if in the dream, I had known the whole story all along.Time seemed to pass oddly for me from then on and back again, out of order, too slow, too fast, all at once.

The Boy grew up in that place, the Soft Place where his Lord Father ruled, and where time passed oddly. The Boy was tall and strong like his father, even if he was still very young. The Woman doted on him. But, the Lord of that place still would not reveal his true name to either mother nor child. So, the woman named the boy Edmund, her own father’s name, he who had given her a name which was both a badge of honour and a millstone about her neck.  But, it was a name nonetheless, and more so than her husband would give her, despite his promises. Other than the child, he had given nothing to her. Yet, she clung to love. The alternative was too terrible to contemplate …

(oh, my girl. my poor, poor girl. what has he done to you ? …)

One day, a dark-clad warrior discovered that place in the woods between the grassy mounds, clattering through the thick trees and bushes, wearing full armour and carrying a sword. “Maiden, fair maiden!” he called. And The Woman knew it was she to whom he spoke. “Come, come with me! I will deliver you from the hands of the Lord of the Sidhe! For he seeks not your love, but rather your very will! You are a prisoner here!” And with that, the dark knight gathered her in his arms, dragging her back through the trees. She wailed in despair! For she did not wish to return to the human world, one that was marked with pain and suffering. And she knew that the joy that she had known in that strange green place would be inverted as soon as she left the cool of the woods; from love to violence, from joy to despair. “No! No! My son! My son! What of my son?”

“Hold, interloper!” cried The Nameless Lord, materializing between the short distance of the clearing and the trees. “You shall not carry my wife from my realm without payment!” And the Stately Lord drew his own sword. “Have at you!” And the two fought, savagely.

(posh boy thinks he’s got the mettle to mess wi’ me?)

(i will kill you!)

(you fucken bastard!)

(james … your side! it is bloodied!)

(go … run …)

The dark knight was mortally wounded, but strong enough to slay The Stately Lord. Yet, The Tall Green Man could not die in that place, not completely. He laughed, showing his row of fish teeth, the green in his skin and his hair fading from green to white …

(you got me posh boy … but i got your sister, didn’t i ?… heh, heh, HA! HA! HA! …)

The Woman was born out of the woods, and her son followed her. But, when both were pushed into the human world again, The Woman was just a girl once more, and the Boy was no longer the tall and stately picture of his father. He squirmed and writhed on the grass, a grey and scarlet bundle covered in slime, his eyes looking emptily up into the clear night sky. The little girl who had been the Woman bled from her crotch. She reached for the dead child, clasping him to her heart, hoping that its furious beating would encourage the same in the narrow chest of her child. She looked back into the woods, waiting for the dark knight to emerge. She waited in vain …

(james …)

(father … mother … james is dead …)

(… the groundsman, ryder’s boy, has done him in. but james bested him and the ryder boy is dead. a small comfort …)

(the elder ryder is dead, too … hung himself in the old barn …)

(young ryder hurt the girl …)

(the girl is with child … there is no mistake …)

Time seemed to pass oddly in that dream, too. Out of order, too slow, too fast, all at once. There was a wail of despair, from where and when I could not ascertain. Strangely, it was the sound of my own voice. I myself seemed to be everywhere at once, as if I had escaped the confines of my own form. It was like crossing a lawn, a path, and disappearing into the woods where there are no paths.

(there is a lot of bleeding. but the girl will live. the child, the boy, is stillborn …)

(what is to be done with the boy? …)

(father o’dell will take him to the churchyard in secret …)

(grandchild …)

(enough! do not speak that word here!)

(what of celia …?)

(doctor cavanaugh?)

(her mind is broken …)

(dear, dear boy … i am so, so sorry … my poor little child … we never should have left the wood …)

(i’ll give her something to settle her … she raves …)

Then, after the dream seemed to fade away, I found myself in another dream. I floated above the bed in a room I was not allowed to ever go. Even if Gabriel Ryder had stopped me from going into the woods (although he hadn’t somehow, too… I had stepped in, of course … yet I hadn’t … no, no .. Celia had, not me. Not me.), I still managed to transgress the rules set before me at Harrow Hall. When I looked down on the bed, there I saw Mrs. Thorne the head housekeeper sitting on the edge, holding a cold cloth to Celia’s head. Celia’s eyes were open and looking straight into mine as I floated there. She knew that I was there, even if Mrs. Thorne did not. Celia had put me up there herself. Or she was about to put me there. Time seemed to pass oddly there. Out of order. Too slow. Too fast. All at once.

“I should like to tell you something, Celia. I know you can hear me. I want to tell you that I know your pain. I too have lost a child. Yes, it’s true. When I was in Dublin. She died of consumption along with her father. She was only eleven years old.”

Celia looked into space, at the intricate patterns of the ceiling in her room where I would soon float, was floating, floated, would watch, would soon watch, had watched, will watch again. She turned to Mrs. Thorne, and smiled. The housekeeper looked shocked at first to be acknowledged. For Celia hadn’t been lucid for weeks after her son had been born still.

“What was her name?” asked Celia in her little girl voice.

Mrs. Thorne told her.

***

In some ways, Celia was more my mother than Mrs. Thorne was. But, I understood my place then. I would not cross that gravel path. I would slip into Mrs. Thorne’s bed and keep her company as she slept as I always had, even if I was only a spirit sent by a fellow grieving mother who slept several floors above. I would be Cora Thorne, her daughter. I would be Mrs. Thorne’s Cora for as long as was necessary, sometimes finding my own voice coming out of Celia herself as Mrs. Thorne paid her frequent visits to the bedside, hungry to hear it.

Mrs. Thorne died in 1925. Celia, sleeps in the top floor of Harrow House, soon to meet her own maker under the watchful and impatient eyes of her cousins who had claimed the house when Mr. and Mrs. Harrow died within months of each other without an heir in 1936. Celia casts her mind where I like to be. It flies free above it all, above her own body lying prone in bed as it has done since she was a young woman and will until she dies. And I am born again and again at her behest.

I sit with Edmund as Cora often, as we used to. As Cora, I am safe. And as Cora, Edmund and I are eleven years old forever. Sometimes I know the whole story, and who I am. Sometimes, I don’t. We sit together at the stone bench by the standing pond, looking out across the lawns and the crushed gravel path into the woods. Old Gabriel Ryder sometimes waves to us on his travels in taking care of the grounds as Celia has arranged them in her mind. He is always smiling and without a trace of cruel memory to torment him. We, Edmund and me, are brother and sister finally. When I know the whole story, I do not tell him about Celia not being his sister. I do not tell him that he does not exist. What would that gain him, or me?

Looking out into the trees as the sun shines through the clouds, sometimes I think of The Soft Place between this world and another, where violence and terror and lonliness is turned to love and safety and belonging. Like I do with Edmund, I do not remind myself that such a place does not exist. What would that gain me? What would it gain Celia?

As Cora, I speak of my mother with Edmund, and the world that she endured so that I may be at peace.

“I wish I could give her something in return.” I say to him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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