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Authors: John Fuller

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Flying to Nowhere: A Tale

BOOK: Flying to Nowhere: A Tale
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Table of Contents
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Fuller was born in 1937 and was educated at St. Paul’s and New College, Oxford. For the last nineteen years, he has been a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He has published eight books of poetry as well as six books for children. In 1974 Fuller won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and in 1980 the Southern Arts Literature Award.

Animula vagula blandula,

bospes comesque corporis,

quae nunc abibis in loca

pallidula rigida nudula,

nec ut soles dabis iocos!

P. Aelius Hadrianus.

1

The three novices walked fast down the margin of the hay field. In the great heat the tall grasses stood feathery and still, until the striding sandalled feet parted and crushed them. The hems of the woollen robes caught the seed tips and dragged them. Stems bowed and sprang, sending out tiny clouds of grass fruit.

The garments of meditation are not designed for the pace of prologue; they walked swiftly, though without urgency. At each step their garments were caught between their legs, tugging and chafing their calves. The robed arms were folded, as if to imply ceremony in some decisive preamble.

The girls in the field did not look up from their scything as the novices passed them, but bent more attentively to their work. Their blades swept rhythmically at the base of the standing grass, pulling back the fallen swatches. They moved together against the silent fullness of the field, skirts kilted up about their thighs, feet scratched and bleeding from the stubble.

As they strode by, the novices looked at the girls, and the first spoke a half-voiced thought into the stifling privacy of his cowl: ‘Their strokes are like the strokes of the knife on used vellum. The erased word serves its turn and is restored like dead grass to the elements. The field is the book of nature to be freshly inscribed by our brother the sun.’ These thoughts were themselves, he reflected, worthy of being inscribed in his book, and he resolved to submit them at the first opportunity to the Abbot for his approval.

The novices left the field and the girls paused in their mowing to look after them. Their expressions showed respect and concern mingled with a fugitive tenderness. One of them crossed herself and remained leaning on her scythe, gazing at the dark-robed young men until they had moved out of sight. The sweat gathered at her brow and cheeks as if some precious ichor of the spirit were being pressed and sieved through her burning face, and in her mind was only one scarcely formulated idea, half vocative, half meditative, like a remembered charm of doubtful efficacy: ‘Sons of Heaven...’

Soon the blades resumed their companionable motion, edging like an army of moons in,to the frail and toppling grasses.

The novices crossed a dry stream bed and descended a small valley that led to the harbour. They lifted their robes to scramble down stones, moving together at a variable pace to negotiate the terrain, moving now closer, now further apart, but always in a recognisable relationship, like a three-pointed constellation observed over a season. As such, they were visible from the boat that was approaching the island, a half-mile still offshore.

‘A welcoming committee,’ thought Vane, standing with one foot on the prow, like a clerk who supposes he is required to be a hero. He raised his flattened palm to his forehead as captains did in the theatres, and one of the four winded oarsmen laughed and spat. Vane looked back and reprimanded him. The man merely grinned, and pulled on his heavy oar.

In the centre of the boat a stallion tethered by each foot strained and lunged. Its neck was glossy with sweat, panic in its eye. The head reared and tossed.

‘Calm the horse, boy,’ said Vane. ‘We shall soon put into harbour. Do you see, they have sent the brothers to meet us.

The boy stroked the neck of the frightened horse and spoke words into its ear. But still its confined hooves slithered on the curving planks of the boat, tugging at the ropes that held them, raising splinters.

The oldest oarsman, who was also the owner of the boat, spoke to Vane:

‘So you still think you’ll land this horse?’

‘I’ve told you,’ replied Vane. ‘I need the horse to get about the island.’

‘That may be,’ said the owner, between strokes. ‘But you’ll never land him.’

The boy, who was holding the muzzle of the horse as it lifted and showed its yellow teeth, looked questioningly at Vane. But Vane turned away to gaze again at the approaching shore and at the novices who could be seen as tiny figures scrambling over the rocks.

‘Where is the harbour, then?’ he asked, after a while. ‘Why, there it is ahead of us,’ replied the owner.

Indeed, the novices had stopped among the rocks, and could be seen handling ropes. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to beach the boat.

Vane was alarmed.

‘That’s the harbour?’

‘I did tell you,’ said the owner, in weary amusement. ‘And the way from the harbour?’

‘Didn’t you see the brothers coming down?’

Vane was silent, fingering the silver cross around his neck as though this reminder of his status could support him in some practical way in such an irritating adversity. It was clear that you could not ride a horse up a rocky and precipitous incline, and getting out of the boat would also, it seemed, involve clambering over rocks.

‘Oh Saviour,’ murmured the boy. ‘What will become of you?’

The first oarsman spat again, and the boat continued to approach the shore.

Some of the haymakers, heavy-breasted and drenched with sweat, had come to see the arrival of the boat. They were curious to see pilgrims, for there had been none for months. Nor were there any pilgrims now, only a priest and a boy and a horse.

The haymakers lined the cliffs, leaning on their forks among the scorched grasses. Far below them the novices had attached ropes to the iron rings on the twin pillars of old wood that served as a jetty. The wooden platform between the pillars was green and rotten and half broken away, and the novices took care to keep back among the rocks.

It was, as the owner of the boat had said more than once, impossible to land the horse. The rowers rested on their oars some yards from the rudimentary jetty while a rope was thrown, and at this the stallion became terrified. The haymakers could hear the confused shouts of the oarsmen and the whinnying of the stallion as the long boat lurched dangerously in the rocky inlet.

‘Saviour, keep still!’ came the boy’s cry.

But the horse would not keep still. Its frantic efforts had loosened the rope around one of its feet which now kicked out and sent one of the oarsmen into the water. The others no longer could keep the boat properly aligned. The oars grated on the rocks and looked in danger of snapping.

For a moment, as the stallion strained, it seemed as if it might spring from the boat of its own accord. As the rocking of the boat added to the natural turbulence of the waves, so it seemed that the black beast was itself some manifestation of the sea. The absurd wooden structure of the boat seemed only an encumbrance, both preventing the horse from reaching the shore and from falling back into its element. The creature strove fiercely, muscles and veins starting out from its neck and flanks, arched like an embodied wave, sprung and not falling, but about to fall, as though penned by a draughtsman with a patient eye. The whinnying was pitiful to hear.

‘Still, Saviour! Quiet!’ commanded the boy.

Even from the cliffs the sound of splintering wood could be heard. The oarsmen now had both ropes from the jetty lashed to the forward rowlocks. The boat was stable and could be slowly drawn into the required position, but the stallion’s hooves threatened to stamp through the bottom of it.

‘Cut the rest of him loose,’ shouted the owner. He signalled to the rear oarsman to cut the ropes that bound the back hooves at the same moment as he freed the front hoof. The oarsman who had fallen overboard was now clinging to the side, hair and beard streaming, nostrils full of blood.

‘Are you mad?’ cried Vane. ‘We shall lose the horse.’

‘That, or I’ll lose my boat,’ said the owner. ‘None of us will get back to the mainland then.’

Vane’s face was pale with rage.

‘There’ll be another boat. I’ll pay you in full for this one.’

‘There’s never another boat. No one is fool enough to work the straits but me. No one would risk these currents for an island of lunatics but me.’

Vane was crouched in the prow of the boat with both hands clutched to the sides against its lurching.

‘The pilgrims pay you well enough,’ he shouted.

‘Pilgrims?’ laughed the owner. ‘I’ve rowed over no pilgrims since the spring, and rowed none back neither, for twice as long. As well you know, father, for that is why you are here.’

Vane knew the truth of this, and suspected that it was also true about there being no other boat. He certainly did not want to be forced to stay any longer on the island than he could help.

‘You’ll come for me as we agreed?’

‘If I have a boat left to come in. Cut the horse loose!’

Vane and the boy stood by powerless and frustrated as the horse Saviour was cut free. The novices were pulling on the ropes to bring the boat into the jetty, and to the haymakers on the cliff it seemed as though everything was going to plan and that the horse would leap from the boat on to the jetty.

But the distance and height were too great and the state of the narrow planks too precarious. Saviour looked wildly to right and to left and jumped towards the rocks, sending another oar into the water and unbalancing the oarsmen in a heap on the floor of the bobbing boat.

The hooves struggled to keep the body upright, but one leg was already broken from the jump and as the horse heaved, sank and scrambled among the slippery rocks other bones failed him. For a moment it seemed as if the glistening torso would try to move by itself in a series of wriggles and lunges, dragging with it the bunched and useless withers and fetlocks. One rear leg was flattened at an unusual angle from the knee; the other seemed caught between two rocks. The animal’s neighing and trumpeting echoed in the bay.

On the cliffs the haymakers wept, and one of them clasped to her shoulder another who could not bear to watch. The first novice, who had been directing the others in the correct way to manage the ropes, stood back from the scene in wonder. Within the darkness of his cowl he thought: ‘The sea-god Proteus, finding himself trapped and surrounded in one of his favourite metamorphoses, struggles in fury to find his former shape.’

With the Abbot’s approval, this too might take its place in his book of meditations.

2

‘A pity about the horse,’ said the Abbot. He lifted and shook a small bell, and gave instructions to the novice who appeared at its call.

‘Saviour was given to me by the Bishop himself,’ said Vane.

‘We have animals here on the island,’ said the Abbot. ‘You need not go about on foot.’

‘Animals?’ queried Vane.

‘Animals,’ repeated the Abbot, decisively but without further specification.

The novice brought in a wooden bowl of milk which was offered to Vane. He took a sip from it and set it down on the table between himself and the Abbot, who was now looking out of the window.

‘You will want first to visit the well,’ said the latter, without interest.

‘I shall indeed want to visit the well,’ said Vane. ‘But first I must take some depositions on the question of the pilgrims.’

‘Of course,’ said the Abbot. ‘The pilgrims.’

‘Are you not yourself concerned about the pilgrims?’

‘I would say,’ replied the Abbot vaguely, ‘that I should certainly be concerned
with
the pilgrims, were there any, but that I am not much concerned
about
them.’

Vane concealed his irritation.

‘Have you any idea why there are no pilgrims?’ he asked.

‘Ah,’ said the Abbot carefully. ‘That is a deep question.’

‘It is a question I shall have to ask. One of the principal questions. The Bishop is much concerned.’

‘The devoted no longer believe so fervently in the efficacy of such cures as we advertise. It is a doubting age.’

‘We are not, I hope, to share in such doubt?’

‘I explain, but do not prescribe. The journey is difficult, the miracles uncertain. I do not blame the problem on the pilgrims who do not come.’

Vane considered this.

‘A pilgrim who does not come is not a pilgrim,’ he suggested.

The Abbot shrugged.

‘A miracle which does not occur is not a miracle,’ he replied. ‘And perhaps, for both these reasons, there is no problem.’

BOOK: Flying to Nowhere: A Tale
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