Wider Than The Sky
“A skill with a pen or brush, boy, is no skill at all. It is merely folly.” That is what my father had told me when I expressed my desire to become an artist and poet.
I was the youngest of six children, and the only surviving son, solely as a result of the Great War. My father was wealthy, stern, and what might be considered severely conservative. There was little outside of his business realm that he showed any interest in apart from politics, yet by the time I was approaching my sixteenth birthday he was patently trying to coerce me into working at his foundry. Sometimes he would tell of how brave men from the war had found peace in the hot yet assured environment of extruding copper wire, and other times he would tell of the great fortunes to be made in the electrical industry; the future of Britain.
I had no desire to sweat in hard labour, nor scribe endlessly in one of his offices. He had paid to educate me well, and I had shown a talent for art and poetry that my docile if eccentric teacher of those subjects found joyous. In him I had found encouragement and warmth, which had been absent from my life since 1917, when as a six year old I was calmly informed by my father of the death of all three of my brothers in much the same manner one might inform someone of the arrival of an expected parcel.
Already a sickly child, I became more introverted as a direct result. I had no sense of grief, was skinny and pale, and had a tendency to be struck down severely with whatever illnesses were affecting other children of the wealthy to a more normal degree. Life, I had heard one maid remark, had not dealt me a good hand. Yet as I grew older and understood the terrible sacrifice my brothers had made, I began to realise that with life still well ahead of me, I had been dealt a hand I could at least learn which game was being played.
An explosive argument with my father shortly after I left school consolidated my belief that I could be whatever I intended to be. In short, he described me as an aloof and introverted weakling who could not survive in the world without my mother’s obsessive fawning. So enraged was I, that I stormed out of the family home, vowing despite my mother’s protestations to prove him so very wrong.
So, I headed out into the country to become a farm labourer. It may seem an odd choice for the son of a wealthy businessman, stricken with ill health, well educated, and intent on an artistic career, but I knew from many books, magazines and pamphlets that I had made an adequate choice. The scenery would afford me inspiration, the air should improve my constitution, and the simple country life would educate me in ways that the bustle of the city and the regime of the private school could never ever do.
In time, I talked an elderly farmer into letting me work his farm. It was clear his own labourers were taking advantage of his evident infirmity, and he took me on eagerly. I helped with weeding, and sowing, and fixing the many small but significant issues around his house, barns, and outbuildings. The couple of men he already employed were very suspicious of me at first, but once they realised I was being paid a pittance (as I needed no true income) they accepted me, and eventually befriended me, to the point of genuinely educating me. The work tired me despite my hope that “country air” would free the troubles of my lungs and heart, but they showed me that true country living was not quite what London printers would have you believe!
The press would have you believe that out in the countryside they marry cousins, live in abject fear of God as presented by forceful lay preachers, and dress little better than the tramps and vagabonds that litter the city. This is far from the case, at least where I found work. For the people seemed to hark back to simpler times, and yet a pride in their community as a whole gave no suggestion of the “truth” known in our cities. The church in the village was rarely full on a Sunday, lay preachers were hastened on their way, and not a man, woman, or child was poorly attired once the working day was complete.
As for the marrying of cousins: certainly from my own perspective it was far more proper for a young man or woman to find the common bond of all humanity with someone they didn’t know. There were many men far sturdier and strapping than I in the area, yet I found myself adequately attended by girls I found so beautiful I felt I had fallen in love thrice over!
Such is the folly of youth. As harvest time came around, I had no time for the pleasures of the flesh. Harvesting is invested with an urgency that no factory owner can comprehend. Although I had become physically stronger, it was intensely tiring. We were out at the break of dawn, and rarely complete in our tasks before dusk. Yet we did complete the harvest, and I was thanked most graciously by my employer, and also my fellow workers.
“You kem ‘eres a daft city boy, but you’m one o’ us now!” I was told by a man I knew only as Sherratt, who was large, imposing, and fundamentally loud.
The weekend of the harvest saw little work but the final touches done, and I took the afternoon of the Saturday to finally turn to brush strokes. The bustle of the village was too vibrant and too colourful to not take advantage of, and I set my easel on the outskirts, near the church, where I could command a grand vision of what had taken place over the previous days, with the solid background of a genuinely classical British vista.
It amused me, to be sat there, with people I had come to know since before Spring, coming up and proclaiming my artistry to be magical, or beautiful, or just clever. Though I had been known as a laggard from the city, I had more than proved myself through questioning and understanding. This display of artistic ability was an unknown to all of them, and not one person who passed remarked negatively! I felt as though I commanded the fame of Wright, Constable, or Blacklock!
By early evening I felt I had something to be proud of. I preferred oil to watercolour, but I wanted something more immediate and oil painting just doesn’t happen that way. I sat and looked at it, and I felt a pang of something that was perhaps guilt. Had I deceived the people I had befriended here? I had created something that enthralled people, yet not one man or woman had even suggested through conversation that they could or would entertain doing the same! As I sat and looked at an image of a stark, rarely used churchyard to the right, I considered how the perception of the countryside is for those of us not natural to it. As I examined the strokes of the boy who stood in the road, some way in the distance, holding a circle of corn above his head (he had been there but an instant, but it was so enduring an image) I wondered at the sense of community there was here, that had always been, that was so lost amidst the chaos of urban life.
This was a different place, and whatever I had come here to become, I had become it. I was no longer part of the city. I was not part of the electrification of Britain, and I was certainly not for the cloying, self-serving, privileged middle class I was born into, only to see me become a disappointment and burden.
I packed away my things, headed to my lodgings at the farm, took up a sum of money I had there, and I headed to the village inn.
No one paid for a drink once I got there. These were many a man (and certainly a few women) who had helped me become a man. I owed them, and I had never deceived them of my background. Indeed, I had made it clear of whence I came. They accepted me, they nourished me, and now they were glad for me to aid them in their merry-making.
Alas, however sturdy I felt I had become, I simply did not have the constitution for ale. Barely beyond sundown I found myself at a stagger, tired and dizzy, and eager to rest. I recall settling down in a ditch, beside a hedgerow not far from where I had painted what I now considered to be a true masterpiece of modern British landscape art.
I believe I slept well.
I awoke to a clear sky, certain I knew I was on the right path back to my lodgings. In the middle distance I could see lights, so I pulled myself from the thankfully dry ditch, stumbled for a moment, dusted myself down, and headed off over the crunching stubble of the fields. The moon sat low in the sky, and I smiled to myself at having survived what seemed like enough alcohol to bring death to a bull!
Sadly, I soon felt I was lost. The field I crossed did not lead to the bridleway I had expected, and I found myself vaulting a wall into a similar field. I stopped for a moment, getting my bearings. I was still sure I was headed the right way, so I skirted the edge of the field in case I was merely a few hundred yards off course, and the track I had expected might be so near.
It gave me time to think. I could, in all honesty, return to the city to prove to my father that not only am I a true man in many senses of the word, but that I could righteously tell him to never burden me with his ways again. Bar my fellow labourers I had not made my wealth known until this evening, and not made my education apparent until the afternoon. I was accepted here. In the city (and even in my home) I was not.
I felt lost, on two levels. Maybe the joyous warmth of beer had worn off and I was feeling something inside me slip away, but I was sure now I should be near the bridle path and wasn’t. I was also sure that despite my proving myself to all these good people, I was not going to have proven myself to my father. I could almost hear him: “You think that gathering in wheat is somehow comparable to preparing a full financial audit of an auspicious international business? You are a fool, boy! A damnable fool!”
I shuddered. The moon had disappeared behind clouds, and I had to blindly climb over another wall that I was now sincerely hoping might reveal the parallel tracks of a bridle path, even if not the one leading to home.
Home. I had thought of the farm as home!
Within yards of a more urgent pace, I fell at an awkward tumble down a bank and into the chill river that I knew to be a little over a mile from the village. I knew this as it was shallow, with a gravel bed, whereas nearer the village it is deeper and narrower. I must still be more drunk than I thought, and chided myself for being at risk of drowning.
To be here, though, put me closer to home that I thought. I must have walked in a large arc, to be where I was. As the moon appeared again, I could see and hear the pattern of the shallow, quick flow over the gravelly stone, and I felt a determination to take great care in making it safely to the far shore.
The far shore, which seemed farther away that I felt it should. I stood still, cold from the fall, and peered to the far bank. I shook my head, and took a few steps towards it. It did not seem to become closer. Was this, I wondered, the true effect of an excess of alcohol?
It seemed awfully quiet around me, and above the stars seemed less numerous but somehow more ordered than I was used to. I almost felt the dripping wet of my clothes turn to ice as I turned to the shore I had come from and found it seemingly equidistant. At that moment I doubled over and vomited.
The flow of the river no longer seemed as rushed, and I stumbled a few steps of what I hoped was upstream to be clear of my unexpected emission. Was I drunk? I felt assuredly not so, but my heart was racing and I felt a disturbing sense of dislocation. Was this an introverted test of my mettle? I had had no reason to feel I needed courage, walking a simple path to a place I knew! Yet it was no longer simple, and the world around me had seemingly become alien and barren. A fear grew in my now empty gut, and I cupped a hand of water to take away the acidic texture my mouth endured.
It had all the qualities of seawater, and I was almost disposed to vomit again. I resisted, and set off in the direction that seemed less and less clearly to be upstream, which my blurred senses knew to be closer to home.
Home: a place of comfort and respite. A place of family, of companionship, and of welcome. Who was I fooling? On the one hand, I knew my mother would welcome me. On the other, I knew my father would remain venomous and distant, no matter my achievements. On one hand, I had a comfortable bed that was reward for a day of backbreaking toil. On the other, I had revealed myself to be more comfortable sat detailing the toil of others for the idle pleasure of those who consider themselves better.
I stopped. The river had now widened so much, and become so still, that I may as well have been amid one of America’s Great Lakes. I couldn’t even hear it flowing any more, and I knew from the lack of crunching underfoot I was no longer on gravel. The air was still, the moon low, and the stars almost seemed tinged with a purplish green. Twas unearthly, unnerving, and yet strangely beckoning.
By now I had no idea which direction should lead me to home, and I felt compelled to follow the shimmering chalk-line of light from the moon that cast upon the waters I now hesitantly paddled through. Something was not right here, and I wondered at drunkenness, madness, dreaming, or perhaps death. Yet none of these rang true, and I turned around several times in my wandering, in case whichever direction I followed I would always be presented with the guide of this increasingly eerie moon, which while never brightening now seemed wider than the sky.
I stopped, again. There was now a scent to the air, and it was not a pleasant one. Though the water was little more than ankle deep, and now quite, quite still, I could feel things brushing against me. The smell was fish, and I reached down to the water to see if I could perhaps feel what had touched me. There was nothing.
The fact that there was nothing frightened me more than I had ever felt fear in my life. By “nothing” I mean that the water contained nothing to sense at all. Ankle deep, my fingers reached further than the soles of my waterlogged boots. They grasped no weeds, touched neither gravel nor mud, and sought nothing of fish, insect or mammal. It was as though I stood on a pedestal, with nothing around me. In panic, I fled away from the ever-widening moonlight and it’s constant line of eldritch direction.
My feet did not fail me, for all of about three strides. I collided with something under the water and fell hard with a splash that must have been heard for miles around. I yelled, and in my terror I am not sure that I yelled anything other than “Mummy!!”
I pulled myself into the foetal position, feeling the water now completely still around me, my eyes staring out to nothingness. Any semblance of land around me had now faded, and I was sure sanity had completely left me. I may have laid there for an hour, my eyes fixed on a moon that should at least have moved a fraction but did not, like an ever-staring eye of some unmentionable beast. The only warmth I felt was a moment when I was sure I lost control of my bladder, but so transfixed was I that it lasted only that moment.
I moved on, on my hands and knees, trying to fathom how I could have reached into this water and found a depth that was inhuman. Fear seemed strangely replaced by anger: I was not making a progress I was certain I should do. This was not the world as I knew it, and I had come to understand the world was not what I had been brought up to believe it was. I rose to my feet and…
I stopped. I sensed something in the water, and suspected it was what had sent me falling. I reached down and grasped something wet, cold, and uneven. I withdrew it to find a branch, stripped of its bark and leaves, and eerily luminescent in the moonlight. In my hands it felt warm, and at almost five feet long, sturdy at one end, I felt encouraged by it. It could be an aid, and if terror closed in any more, it may even be a weapon.
Buoyed by this physical find in a place that was seemingly a hollow madness, I pressed on again towards the moonlight. I was now sure an end to this nonsense awaited me if I stayed my course. After all, in the last year it was my decisions and my decisions alone that had brought me to divert from a cosseted life under the regime of a grim and soulless patriarch and his (to use his words) fawning wife, to becoming a valued and proven member of a community that respected each other, the land they toiled, and the world they lived in. I knew where I was going, and I wielded the branch like a staff. To me, it was a staff of life at that moment: reassuring, strong, and pulsing in rhythm with my own heartbeat.
The fishy scent grew stronger, and as it did so I slowed my pace. The stillness of the water now seemed to accompany my footfall. I frowned, and peered into the moonlight cast on the water ahead. Could I see a mound of earth rising from the water? I edged quietly closer. Was there a figure on that mound, hunched and yet arms raised? Now, were there figures before it, prostate in the water?
I edged closer, and I watched. I had not been wrong. Silently, the figure on the mound arose and lowered its arms, making a croaking sound as it did so. In turn, the figures in the moonlight ranked before it rose, and an oscillating susurration spilled from them as though a carbonated liquid had been spilled from a giant container. Transfixed, I edged closer. I could not believe that they did not know I was there, yet not one person – or creature, if that was what they may have been – gave any suggestion that this was so.
I was almost upon them when the tallest of the figures in the rank and file stepped towards the mound and held up its arms with what can only be described as an offering. At first I thought it a child, for it was clothed and emitted an infantile cry, but in an instant it rose to something I knew from my time in the country to be that of a young goat. A child? A kid? I felt uneasy yet not terrified! Was this a child of Satan? Was this Satan that stood before me? I had been brought up a Catholic, and I suspected had Satan been before me I would know him, and would know the fire and brimstone. I would not know the stench of fish.
Whatever it was, it was proffered to the figure on the mound. As it happened, I saw for the first time the nature of the thing on the mound. If it was human, it was a grossly deformed one. The eyes were bulging, almost on the side of the head, and the ears struck me more as though the gills of fish. As if to confirm the aquatic nature that was already suggested by the strong scent of fish, the hunch of the back seemed more like a dorsal fin under a ragged and yet silken robe, and the outstretched arms seemed to end at remarkably long fingers that looked certainly webbed. It was, to all that is good, an abomination.
I raised the staff and rushed at the creature. It took no more than a moment to reach it, and I brought the staff down hard across outstretched arms with all the force I could muster. The sickening noise of breaking bones did not come, there was little more than a wet “thump” and a rasping hiss as the creature withdrew and seemed to stumble backwards awkwardly. There may have been words, but I was too incensed by the horror of what I saw, and what I feared I might have come to see, and I swung towards the crowd screaming “You inhuman horrors!!!”
The figure holding the swaddled thing was Sherratt, from the village. Behind him I could see Mary Tilley, from the Inn, John Burridge from the post office, Andrew Bridges and his sons, from a nearby farm, and George Bourne, a war cripple. Among the other faces I noted Harry Steppenshaw, James Mulroney, Ian Valentine, Stuart Allebley, and William Shandling, all of whom went to my school. All of who were not the kind of people I would expect to be witnessing right now. I knew at this moment this to be all a nightmare. There was my landlord. There, was the first woman I had known Biblically.
Sherratt dropped the child/goat/thing. It hit the water with a gentle splash, and I swear there was a flick of a tail as it sought a depth that should not have been there. He launched himself at me, but I was angered, I was full of doubt for reality and the waking world, and adrenaline surged through me like lightning seeking a cripple’s cane. I swung the staff, hoping to strike this monstrous terror that I had thought of as a good man, right against his head. My aim was not true, and I struck his shoulder, barrelling him onto the mound where I now stood.
The monstrosity that had been there had now vanished. I circled around for a moment, to be sure, but it must have fled to the water, because there was no evidence it had ever been there. I felt Sherratt grab at me, and I spun easily as my wet clothes allowed me a respite from his attempt at purchase. I clubbed him, this time successfully, against the head.
He fell with a curious wail, and it seemed the rest of the crowd I had expected to resort to a hideous and final mêlée backed away. I fell upon him, and he seemed to start chanting something I couldn’t quite understand, before he grabbed me by the throat with both hands and began squeezing. His eyes seemed to widen and bulge, and his mouth seemed wider and his breath fouler. Either he was not who I thought, or this was all indeed a dream. I gasped as he cursed, and I seemed to draw in with his rancid exhalation something more than just the disgusting stench. I seemed to garner a strength in my very soul.
I brought the thick end of the staff, with its jagged, broken weight, down square in the middle of Sherratt’s face. It shattered his nose and ruptured his right eye with the first blow, and with the second, him screaming, it split his skull from forehead to the middle of his left eye. His fate was sealed with the third blow, struck so solid and determinedly that I was left sitting on his chest, looking down at the gore, knowing that I had used enough force to drive the staff right through his face, his brain, and the back of his skull to pin his now unrecognisable head to whatever surface truly lay beneath.
In the moonlight, the staff seemed to glow. Not one person from the crowd moved.
I stood up straight, gasping for breath. Those before me seemed to cower. No longer an organized rank and file, an unpleasant mixture of acquaintances, they were a huddle of witless cowards. In a moment of realisation I spun around, for I knew me to be surrounded by unknown, inexplicable waters with the risk of a returning monster that may not be alone.
I saw land. I saw familiar, known, country-scented land. I turned back to the crowd, and now they moved. Now, they moved towards me, muttering some incantation I had no care of or time for. I raised my staff, and I laughed, uproariously and deep from within. I felt a power over them! They had seen me kill one of their own, and now they cowered! These fools! These people I knew from my life, which was in this unorthodox and unexpected dream-like drunken Hell. One of them took a step further towards me than the others, and I swung the staff like a cricket bat. It connected so sweetly with his head that I actually saw both eyeballs burst forth from the skull as the side of the head imploded. Hearing their awed shock, I turned, and I ran.
I ran. And I ran. And I ran, and I ran, and I ran…
I awoke in my bed, back at my lodging room at the farm. Sunlight streamed through the thin sackcloth curtain, and I was aware very suddenly that I was both clean and dry. Although a bitter taste permeated my mouth, I did not feel the ill effects of an overindulgence of ale. Quite the opposite: I felt profoundly well, and at ease. I sat up, and looked around the sparse room.
The picture I had painted yesterday stood on its easel, and I gave a little chuckle. It was amateur, rushed, and little more than one might expect from an enthusiastic child. Yesterday it had seemed so glorious and profound. As I looked around the room it seemed as though although nothing had changed, the dream of the night before had given me a clear perspective on the world as it really is. There is fundamentally no difference between a man who tends a field, and a man who tends a foundry. All that really matters is that the job is done, that it is seen to be done, and that there is a way to continue it to be done.
I pulled the curtains apart, and stood, naked, looking out over the harvested fields. I felt a vitality I had not felt before, looking at a scene of life that had been picked clean for the benefit of a higher life. Did the crop know, in its simple vegetable way, that it was destined for nothing more than being a sacrifice? Did it know that if it weren’t there to be sacrificed, there would be no life at all? Did it know that it's only purpose was to die?
I laughed again, turned, and dressed. As I looked in the quarter length mirror I couldn’t help noticing how much more of me there seemed to be compared to months, weeks, days, or even hours ago. I took a few deep breaths, smiling at the handsome countenance staring back, and grinned at how free of previous troubles my chest seemed to be. Maybe the evening’s revels had been more of a revelation than I had even dreamed of. For now, I felt alive, with purpose, with an understanding of what the world expected of me.
The next time I looked out the window it was to see a car pull up in the farmyard. It was large, and black, and chauffeur driven. I saw the farmer scurry across to it, and kneel before my father. He held up his hand, and my father kissed it. He scurried away.
In short time, there was a knock at the door of my room. I didn’t beckon the knocker in. He never waited.
“Father,” I said, turning from the window.
“It’s time to take your natural place.”
I bellowed with laughter. “My natural place? What do you know of ‘natural’?”
He was stony-faced. “You know what you became last night. You take your place.”
I stared at him. “No. I didn’t come here to see the natural world destroyed. I didn’t come here to escape the advancement of science. I came here to learn. I came to unite.”
He scoffed. “What you learnt is that the only power to be earnt is through strength, and overcoming the might of others. You earnt power, and you can feel it in you. I can see it in you.”
It was my turn to scoff. “You talk of earning power? You were born with money, sir! Money is power, and anyone can earn what they already have!”
Still expressionless but with a noticeable coarseness in his tone, he said “All that aside, what have you really learnt from your time here, by Dagon?”
I turned to the corner of the room, where the bloodied staff that now could be seen to display a number of carved but unearthly symbols was propped up. I took it in one hand and thumped the bloodied end into the open palm of the other.
“I have learnt, sir, that the city can learn from the countryside. Technology has a place here, and it should not be forgotten. A time will come when we can change the very nature of crops and animals to suit our needs, and only a fool won’t see that serves the greater good. You spout of electricity and all the good it brings, but it won’t feed the starving. Imagine the sacrifices you can offer if you can convince the world you are feeding the starving? But you never thought of that. You may have your electric chair sir, but I will always control famine. There is a saying, sir: 'You may need a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant once a year, but you need a farmer three times a day'”.
I swung the staff smartly in an arc, and an empire was mine.