A story about how a young boy becomes a man on a mysterious road
The old woman bade the Childe farewell, courteously enough, if curtly, and set him on his way to the frontier, telling him to keep boldly on along the track, deviating neither to right nor left, though creatures might call and beckon to him enticingly, and wonderful lights might be seen from time to time, for this was an enchanted country. He might see meadows or fountains, but he must keep the road his stony way, she told him, apparently with no great faith in his strength of purpose. But the Childe said he wished to come to the place his father had told him of, and that he wished to be faithful and true in all things and that she need not fear. “As to that,” said the crone, “it is all one to me whether the white ladies pick your fingers or whether the sluggish goblins of the grimpen dispute your little toes between them. I have lived too long to care much for the outcome of one quest or another: cleaned white bones are as good as a burnished princeling in a mailcoat to my old eyes. If you come you will come; if not, I shall see the whiteladies’ flickering fire on the heath.” “I thank you nevertheless for you courtesy,” said the punctilious Childe, to which she said, “Courtesy is too fine a name for it. Be off with you before I fall into a teasing frame of mind.” He did not like to think how that frame of mind might be, so he pricked his good horse with his spurs and rode out unto the stony track with a clatter.
He had a thwarting day of it. The heath and moor were crisscrossed with little tracks, dusty and twisting between the heather and the bracken and the little jumper trees with their clinging roots. There was not one way but many, all athwart each other like the cracks on a crazy jug, and he followed first one and then the other, choosing the straightest and stoniest and finding himself always under the hot-sun at another crossing just like the one he had just left. After a time he decided to go with the sun behind him always – at least this led to consistency of proceeding – though it must be told that when he decided this he had only the haziest idea, dear readers, of where the sun had been at the beginning of the venture. So it often is in life. We become consistent and orderly too late, on insufficient grounds, and perhaps in the wrong direction. So it was with the poor Childe, for at dusk he found himself apparently back at the place where he had set out from. He had neither whiteladies nor grimpen goblins, though he had heard singing at the end of straight sandy paths he had avoided, and seen creatures crash and spring briefly far away in seas of bracken and moorland herbs. He thought he recognized the twisted thorn trees, and might indeed have done so; there they stood in their triangle, as they had done at dawn; but of the old crone’s little hut there was no sign. The sun was going down fast, over the edge of the plain; he pricked forward a little, hoping he might be mistaken, and saw before him, a little on his way, and avenue of standing stones, which he had no memory of seeing before, though they were, to say the least of it, hard to miss, even in the greying light. At the end of the avenue was a building, or structure, with huge gateposts and a heavy roofing stone and a stone to mark a threshold. And beyond, the growing dark. And out of this dark, towards him, stepped three most beautiful ladies, walking proudly between the stones, and each bearing before her on a silken cushion a square casket. And he marvelled much that even in the gloaming he had not been aware of their coming, and was wary of them, for he said to himself on his might, “It may be that these are the bonecracking whiteladies of whom the old woman spoke so lightly, come to turn me from my path as the light of the world fails.” Certainly they were creatures of the evening, for each seemed to create her own light as she walked , a haze of shimmering, and glittering and fluctuating light, most lovely to behold.
And the first came in a golden glow, putting out gold-slippered feet from under a dress rich and stiff with cloth of gold and all manner of silk embroidery. And the cushion she bore was tissue of gold and the chased box shone like the vanishing sun herself with rich gold chasing fretwork.
The second was bright with silver like the light of the moon, and her slippered feet were like slivers of moonlight, and all over the silvery gown shone crescents and luminous rounds of argent light, and she was bathed in a cool but intense brilliance, which most beautifully embellished the polished surface of the silver casket she bore on cloth of silver, with its threads like needles of pure white light.
And the third was dull behind these two, and had a subdued lustre, like that of armour burnished and used, like that of the undersides of high clouds hiding the true light that suffuses their steely grey with a borrowed brilliance. Her dress was alive with slow lights like still water under the stars but in the shadow of great trees, and her slippered feet were softly velvet, and her hair, unlike that of the others, was caught back under a masking veil. And the first two smiled at the Childe as they came out of the stone shadows in their brilliant pools of glimmering light. Only the third cast down her eyes, modestly, and he could see that her lips were pale, and that her eyelids were heavy and smoky dark and threaded with violet veinings and her lashes were like the feathery plumes of moth on her colourless cheeks.
And they spoke to him, it seemed, with one voice, which had in its three tones, a clear clarion, a ready oboe, a whispering low flute.
“You may go no further this way,” said they, “for this the edge of things, here, and beyond is another country. But you may choose, if you will, one of us to be your guide, and venture further. Or you may turn back if you will, without dishonor, and trust yourself again to the plain.”
And he answered them courteously that they should speak on, for he had not come so far and so wearily simply in order to turn back. Moreover he was charged by his father with a mission, which he might not reveal in that place. “It is known to us already,” said the three damsels. “We have waited long for you.”
“How am I to know, then,” asked the Childe, greatly daring, and in tones of the most humble respect, “that you are not those whiteladies of whom they speak with such fear and honour in the villages I have come through?”
Then they laughed, high, low, clear and whispering, and said they doubted much whether honour was so very apparent when those were spoken of; however there was much superstition and misbelief, as to the whiteladies, among the common people, to which he should perhaps not give too much credence.
“As for ourselves,” said they, “you must take us as you find us, and judge of us as you see us, what we are, or what we may be to you, as all men must, who have a high courage and a clear vision.”
Then said he, not knowing before he spoke that he had made up his mind to venture, but as if some voice spoke through him, “I will assay.”
“Choose now,” they said then, “and choose wisely, for extremes of bliss and misery stand in your choice.”
Then passed they before him, each in her turn, each in her own little cage of light, as though, it might be, she were a candle and cast the beams of her glory a little distance, through the walls of a lanthorn. And as they passed, each sang, and to her song unseen instruments twangled and made delicious moan. And the last rays of the bloody sun showed the standing stones grey on a grey heaven.
First came the gold lady, stepping proudly, and on her head a queenly crown of gold, a filigree turret of lambent sunny gleams and glistening wires above crisping gold curls as heavy with riches as the golden fleece itself. She held out her gold box bravely before her and it struck out such rays that his eyes were briefly dazzled with it and he was forced to look down at the grey heather. And she sang:
“Mine the bright earth
Mine the corn
Mine the gold throne
To which you’re born
Lie in my lap
Tumbled with flowers
And reign over
Earth’s tall towers
And he could have stretched out his hands and warmed them, in that cold gloaming, at all the fire and brilliance that shook from her as she passed. And he thought she offered happiness, but said, natheless, “I shall see all, before I speak.”
Then came the silver lady, with a white crescent burning palely on her pale brow, and she was hung about with spangled silver veiling that kept up a perpetual shimmering motion around her, so that she seemed a walking fountain, or an orchard of blossom in moonlight, which might in the day have been ruddy and hot for bee kisses, butt at night lies open, all white to the cool, secret light that blesses it without withering or ripening.
And she sang:
“Mine the long night
The secret place
Where lovers meet
In long embrace
In purple dark
In silvered kiss
Forget the world
And grasp your bliss”
And he thought she knew his secret soul, and would have stretched out his arms to her in longing, for she made him see in his mind’s eye a closed casement in a high turret, and a private curtained bed where he would be most himself. For it was himself, surely, she offered him, as the other offered the sunlit earth, And he turned from the gold lady and would have taken the silver, but caution, or curiosity, restrained him, for he thought he would still see what the dim last might offer, compared to her two sweet sisters.
And she came, almost creeping, not striding, but moving imperceptible like a shadow across his vision, in a still pool of soft light. And her garment did not sparkle or glitter but hung all in long pale folds, fluted like carved marble, with deep violet shadows, at the heart of which, too, was soft light. And her face was cast down in shadows, for she looked not at him, but at the dull lead casket, as pale as might be, and seemingly without hinge or keyhole, that lay cradled before her. And around her brow was a coronet of white poppies and on her feet were silent silken slippers like spider webs, and her music was single, a piping not of this earth, not merry, not sad, but calling, calling. And she sang:
“Not in the flesh
Not in the fire
Not in action
Is the heart’s desire
But come away
For last is best
I alone tender
The Herb of Rest”
And then the heart of the Childe was wrung indeed, for it was the Herb of Rest which his father so desired him to bring home, to end, as only that might, his long agony. And the Childe’s heart rebelled a little, for he was loth to abandon the rich brightness of the golden dame, or the lovely clarity of the silver one, for the softness and quiet and downcast eyes of his half-invisible third. And you know, and I know, do we not, dear children, that he must always choose this last, and the leaden casket, for wisdom in all tales tells us this, and the last sister is always the true choice, is she not? But let us have a moment’s true sorrow for the silver blisses the Childe would have preferred, and the sunlit flowery earth which is my own secret preference, and then let us decorously follow as we must, as he takes up the soft hand of the third, as his fate and the will of his father degree, and says, half-musing, “I will come with you.”
And one day we will write it otherwise, that he would not come, that he stayed, or chose the sparkling ones, or went out again onto the moors to live free of fate, if such can be. But you must know now, that it turned out as it must turn out, must you not? Such is the power of necessity in tales.
Well, she took his hand softly, and the touch of her cool fingers was the kiss of moths, or cool linen after a hard day’s work, and she turned her face towards him and lifted up those eyelids and looked at him and then he saw her eyes. What can I say of her eyes, save that he looked into them and was lost and no more saw the heath, nor the others two bright creatures turning and turning their cages of light, not yet his own trusty steed who had come with him prancing and saddle-sore to the known world’s end? If I were to attempt this description – but no, I cannot – yet I must, for I am your chronicler, bound to recount to you, what? Imagine then twin pools at midnight, lit by no external shinning, but from deep within, some glimmer, some promise, lucid through sloe-black deep after deep after deep. Imagine then, when she turned her head slightly, a black not after all bluish, like those black plums, but very faintly brown, the slightly hot black of panther-skin, still, waiting, out of the gleam of the moon.
“I will come with you,” said the Childe, a second time, and she said softly enough, inclining her head in what might have been a dutiful way, “Come then.”
And she drew him on, over and under the threshold of the standing stones, and his horse called out in alarm, but he stepped on unhearing. And although the stones seemed simple enough in the midst of the moor, which seemed vaguely to stretch on behind as it had before, he found it was no such thing, for beyond the lintel was a descending track, winding and winding, between banks of sweetly scented flowers he had never seen or dreamed of, blowing soft dust at him from their huge throats , and lit by light neither of day nor night, neither of sun nor moon, neither bright nor shadowy, but the even perpetual unchanging light of that kingdom. . . .
The above story is from the romance novel Possession by A.S. Byatt
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