Authors: John Fuller
Tags: #Fiction.Horror, #Fiction.Historical, #Fiction.Mystery/Detective, #Acclaimed.Horror 100 Best.Index
‘It is one of a number of letters written to his brother in Chester by one William Evans, an innkeeper of means, a widower. He was afflicted with headaches, spells of dizziness and vomiting that became so severe that he decided to leave the inn in the capable hands of his trustworthy tapster and under his brother’s occasional supervision, and to undertake a pilgrimage.’
‘Are there no doctors in Chester?’ interposed the Abbot.
‘Physic could do nothing for him,’ said Vane.
‘I suspect he needed a change of life,’ said the Abbot.
Vane ignored this.
‘I shall read the letter,’ he said. He read it, and the Abbot listened, looking out of the window.
Brother Hugh, I told you of the portent of the eel which I waited for two days and grew rheumy in the waiting what with the closeness of the well and the water blood warm and above the knees not fresh like Pin y Wig the rill in Nefyn parish that cures knuckles and hands clean and cool like new ale from the cellar this being not moving and lying still and hard to see the bottom at the end that is deepest where one of our number though an old man and with a terrible crusty mouth and nose still of good sight and fair understanding and a tolerable companion says he saw shapes as it were oranges under the water or another time like hedgehogs without their prickles which makes me fearful to sit there so long were it not for the portent of the eel which they say is certain if it should wrap itself round your legs in a tight embrace will effect a cure be it of small ills like warts or boils or the being unmarried and not liking it which I did ever think a condition to be more praised than regretted or whether of grievous pain of great lameness, chancres, ulcers, blindness and the like the cure of my head being of this degree of hope and gravity so I sat two days for the eel without luck but it happened that a young girl a simpleton was brought in by her mother and stood there in her shift stooping and stirring the water about with her hands as it were a soup of delicate making and the mother standing by and drinking the waters and talking loudly of all the calamities that had ever befallen her and we sat round the edge of the well not able not to listen but nodding at her to show we did listen the girl gave a great shriek and was lifted out with the eel fast around both legs together like a hoop on a barrel and it could not be pristd off by two men within ten minutes and we heard later from the farm that the girl had died of fright so much for the portent of the eel which I now think to be unreliable like the pair of trout in Ffynnon Beris which made their appearance while I was bathing but did in no way lighten my head and I caught a chill moreover from the water which I do believe descended from the mountains with barely melted snow in it though here on the island nothing is cold not even in the night which can be as close as day and in the well is moist so as to bring on a tightness of the chest and difficulty of breathing which greatly affects the oldest among us they being too weak to move elsewhere to cooler places such as the cloisters of the abbey or to the dairy of the farm where indeed better provision may be had as curd cheese freshly made and a manner of herbs in a pot but no ale for it is not drunk nor made and they do not kill their beasts for they only ride them or milk them and I think the beasts become their friends too familiar to kill and too famous to be missed and I long for a great leg of mutton boiled in broth for I think you would not know me thin as I am now and ill not only from the weight and spinning of my head which indeed I am much resigned to but a looseness of digestion from the diet and the waters and a strange feeling over all other feelings like a small fever which the others also complain of and never complained of before though some of us have been together for many months and suffered together too like Walter from Anglesey who was robbed at Fynnon Alhaiarn and Master Hughes who found he could not move his bowels for a week after he had made a collyrium from his scrapings of the columns of Saint Beuno’s chapel in water of the spring there and drank of it mightily though I told him it would bring on the stone and they were truly pagans at Clynnog Fawr and not to be trusted for I was informed they did offer heifers to Saint Beuno like a god of the old world and not a Christian saint and I told Master Hughes who would not believe me but still he is recovered from his costiveness now and might wish some of it again as all our motions are frequent and watery and some take it as a sign of the working of the waters for a flux is as it were a kind of baptismal purging of the inside part of a man which is the unwholesomest part as I heard the Abbot say in a sermon here who speaks strangely and for the most part hardly to be understood as for example the devil is nothing but the world and the flesh which we consume and therefore accommodate though our spirit cannot bear to contain him and strains to dispel him and if we were pure spirit would live only on air like the angels do which Walter from Anglesey reckoned was a poor argument against roasted mutton however there is not much hope of debating the Abbot into a host for we are all too weak and I cannot say that there is much money left between us for none can but ill spare a sixpence to the boatman for the carriage of a letter and he but rarely comes complaining of the tides and the niggardliness of the pilgrims which is as I know a lie for all the pilgrims are overjoyed to reach the island and the shrine of Lleuddad and pay the surly boatman more than he deserves for his little pains so that there are some among us who fear that they may not have enough to return to their homes and hoard their pieces or sew them in their clothes so they may not be tempted to spend them on messes at the farm and instead they fish for eggs that have been cast in the well and eat them with the bent pins that they find which those with warts have bepricked themselves and also cast in the sacred waters for a cure and aggravate their fever with this and similar unwholesomeness which the Abbot has spoken against like the practice of taking the grass that grows about the church wall and eating it between bread for it is reputed to have the pure virtue of the waters uncontaminated by the washing of the sundry limbs and private parts of the pilgrims and this grass they call porfa’r cynddeiriog the grass of the mad and truly they are like so many Nebuchadnezzars that eat it for one such crawled about all night on his fours and moaned like a beast and those that he has awakened talked among themselves and we asked ourselves if we would ever leave the island in good health for it did not seem such a great thing to ask of God who has placed his saints and their acts to guide us and who would not keep us on the island in unhappiness unless for a purpose and what that purpose might be none can tell though the old man with the crusty nose whose name I can never remember took us to see the graves of the pilgrims and their stones were so many pages standing out from the Book of Judgement and all containing every single name that ever was and these the old man claimed were God’s saints and it was a great honour to be buried here though Walter from Anglesey said that we had seen none of our number buried who had died in the time we had been there and fell to complaining that the Abbot would require a great offering of gold to secure six feet of the island in perpetuity and that it was no good enquiring of the brothers on any matter whatsoever for they never spoke but moved about with their monstrous hoods up like dancing bears thinking of their own salvation but of no one else’s wherefore I begin to think it is time that I returned to Chester and to the Bell for I am sure your mind is not on selling ale and mine is no longer much on my cure, your devoted brother William.
‘Well?’ asked the Abbot, when Vane had finished reading. ‘What is it that you want to know?’
‘There are many questions,’ said Vane, ‘which arise from the sort of thing referred to here and in the other evidence in my possession. What arrangements do you make to bury the dead?’
‘The usual arrangements,’ said the Abbot.
‘What might happen to those who die and are not buried?’ asked Vane.
‘If we cannot recover the body of a drowned man,’ replied the Abbot, ‘then naturally we cannot bury him. No one else who dies here leaves the island. It would be hardly practicable to remove a corpse.’
‘I know the journey by boat is hazardous and no doubt is more so in winter months. But are you saying that all who are ill and die on the island are buried in the island cemetery?’
‘Those who do not drown, yes.’
‘I see. Then William Evans of Chester and Walter Prichard of Anglesey and many others whose names I have here as being reported missing will have found burial places on the island?’
The Abbot shrugged.
‘Unless they have now returned home,’ he said, ‘or have gone elsewhere.’
‘You have not been witness to the anxiety of their families and of the priests in their parishes. That is why you can say such a thing,’ said Vane.
‘Not at all,’ replied the Abbot. ‘I understand the concern. But as I said before, a pilgrim is by definition one who has begun to make a decision to change his life. To seek change is very often, believe it or not, to achieve it. These good people may very well have gone elsewhere.’
‘I cannot believe it,’ said Vane. ‘William Evans states his intention of returning home.’
‘An innkeeper who cannot keep upright?’ smiled the Abbot. ‘Perhaps you are right and he would soon crawl back to such a liberal and ready supply of liquid oblivion. But I do not find a tipsy man a reliable witness. His remarks about my sermon, for example, reveal an inferior understanding.’
‘How?’ asked Vane.
‘The parable of the Devil as the excrement of the created world is a heresy that I was at pains to illustrate and then confound, for it is the opposite of my belief. William Evans must have succumbed to his dizziness at that moment. My sermon concluded with the assertion that the world is precious beyond our understanding, and that we are a part of it.’
‘Indeed?’ said Vane, suspecting that it was in fact the Abbot’s belief that was heretical. ‘It remains part of my duty to investigate your arrangements for the pilgrims’ welfare and to ascertain the whereabouts of Evans and others like him.’ Their interview was concluded with Vane’s resolve to visit the well and the cemetery on the following day. The Abbot arranged for the provision of an ass and an accompanying novice, but excused himself from the visit on the grounds of the pressure of his duties, and, leaving Vane to the transcription of his interrogation of the novices, retired to his dissecting chamber.
The evening sun hung on the shoulder of the mountain and lit up the whole garment of the sea. The island seemed to float in darkness that sought the disappearing light. It was like a still voyage towards the shining edge of the world.
After the bell for compline, the only sounds were the questionings and responses of sheep, ewe answering lamb as they grazed. But now and then came the hoarse rattling of a buzzard taking food to its young. Everywhere was still, except that among the grasses creatures whom the day had shut in with its invisible doors of heat came out blindly and inquisitively. Moths fluttered through air that seemed no thinner than their dusty wings, and even less substantial insects seemed to be suspended in the night warmth, aimless moths apparently designed only to reflect and magnify the smallest glimmer of the lost light.
At the farm the youngest girls had long been in bed, for it was they who had to rise earliest in the morning to do the lightest work. The cleaning was theirs, and the feeding of animals and the baking of bread.
But it was too hot to sleep. They lay unclothed on their beds in the long low loft under the eaves of the farm and made faces at the sloping ceiling.
Sometimes one would talk, sending out words into the darkness that were not like the words of the daytime. The voice was not conscious that it belonged to anyone, only that there were ceremonies and speculations of the night to which everyone unconsciously contributed. There were stories, of all kinds. And on occasion, one of the girls might rise and run between the beds, as if to illustrate in half-dance the climax of a narrative, or simply to punctuate the slow advance of the night with a gesture, like that of raised arms and rotated wrists, which might lend it grace.
‘Gweno, Gweno,’ came a whisper.
There was no answer at first.
‘Tell about the brothers at the pump.’
‘Go on, why not?’
‘Are you dying, Gweno? I’m truly sorry.’
‘I’m wrapped up in a leaf very quiet and still. My legs are together and my arms are at my side, and I’m wrapped in a leaf and hanging from a tree on a thread, turning very slow.’
‘Is it painful, Gweno?’
‘No, it’s beautiful and there’s the breath of the wind turning me slightly. Can’t you feel it?’
‘Yes,’ said another voice. ‘I can feel it.’
‘Now the leaf is drying and crackling. It’s crumbling away.’
‘Are you crumbling away too, Gweno?’
‘No, no. It’s leaving me pure and new and now I’ve died and got wings and I’m flying away. Can’t you see?’
Her fingers fluttered in the moonlight, and their shadows moved in the rafters.
‘Yes,’ came several voices. ‘We can see you flying away. Where are you flying to?’
‘I’m flying to nowhere. I’m just becoming myself.’
There was another silence, a longer one.
Then came another whisper.
‘Tetty, tell about the brothers.’
‘No, she isn’t!’
Tetty was not asleep, but was holding the flowers of her breasts and filling them in her mind like filling cupped hands with the heaviness of spring water, trickling cool through the fingers. She listened to the voices in the dark.
‘Tom Barker, Long Rachel, Minnie Wilkin, Milly Larkin and Little Dick were all in the same bed one winter night and the blankets piled high. They had prayed to the Saint and blown out their five candles and they had one apple only to eat between five.’
‘Yes, yes! What then?’
‘There was a bumping sound on the roof. Like this: bump, bump, bump.’