The Days are Dark and Evil Grows (Working Title)
Such is the case with all great evils.” My grandfather shifted in his chair; leaning left, then right. He uttered a small groan and the bones cracked in his shoulders.
He had told it to me so many times. It was the one story of which I would never tire. I loved the way he spoke, in long pauses, drawing emotion from silence, like a deep well. My grandfather reminded me of an old wolf, tired and tame – almost approachable. Almost.
“Yes, such is the case with all great evils.” He smiled, mouth closed, creased at the corners. The long crows feet dug deeper at the sides of his blue eyes. They were deep in colour. Although he was eighty-four, his eyes still held a sharpness; almost threatening. They were keen, like the edge of a blade, and lightning-quick. They had not faded along with the rest of him.
He let out a long breath and pulled out a handmade pipe. It was slim and slightly curved down. He had carved it from sandlewood years ago. After plucking some leaf from his waistcoat pouch, he stuffed it into the pipe and lit it with a match. Drawing deeply, he coughed. “It cheats,” he whispered though a second cough. “The first puff always cheats.”
Pulling a second time from the pipe he was more cautious and breathed slowly in and holding it there for just a moment and then slowly let his chest fall, the smoke drifting up. He continued, “You were raised in a time unlike any other. We had never known peace.” He spoke with eloquence and precision, but his tone was soft and comforting. I grinned and his flat smile spread wider. I loved the beginning more than any other part. “Today, Matthew, I am going to tell you the truth. I will speak plainly. It is necessary that you know what happened.”
“You’ve told me a million times Nampy.” I used the familial term of reverence for my grandfather.
“Not as I should have. Not until today were you ready. It is your birthday tomorrow, is it not?”
“Yes, I’ll be 14.”
“Well then, it is time you knew. Yes, time you should know everything. You have to understand, it is a difficult tale to tell. The fire must be right for warmth. It will be a long time in the telling and the cold will work to creep in at us over the long hours. The cold can be treacherous. And we must have food. Go get wood and some bread and wine. Tonight we will hold palaver.”
“But, Nampy. I...”
“Go and prepare.” He cut through my words, not loud or curt, but soft and strong. His words held weight and needed neither volume nor speed. They were deliberate and calm and I did exactly as he said without another thought.
I left the room through the west, as was the tradition for the beginning of this sacred meeting. When I wished to enter it would be done through the east door. For the sun rises in the east, bringing light to all who need it; and that is exactly what my grandfather proposed to give to me – illumination through palaver.
Closing the door behind me the wind blew at my shirt and I moved through the knee deep drifts to the wood-house. Flakes fell about me and I pushed gently through them like a silken white curtain. When I reached the door I fumbled with the oil lamp hanging above and lit it. I only had a few matches left, maybe ten.
The light fell down across the door revealing the falcon crest that was gilt there. It was our family crest. Oxidized by years and turned green, the copper still shone through in spots. The fierce eye of the bird was still visible. It held me there for a moment, entranced. It shone in the darkness and brought me hope for the night to come. It might be long and difficult. Palaver could be painful and I did not feel prepared.
I pushed through the door and pulled a satchel from a hook on the wall and began to fill it. Hopefully one load would do. I took the driest logs from the middle of the pile. Throwing the top pieces to the ground, dust flew into my eyes. Some bark had come loose from a couple of the logs in long strips, so I stuffed each piece into the satchel. It would be needed if the fire fell low. Once there was a full load in the bag, I blew out the flame and turned the knob on the oil lamp. If Nampy had been there, he would have said to turn the knob first. “If you blow lit oil onto the wall, you will regret it.” I would regret it, both the fire, and his hand flying across my face.
Walking back to the hall, I stopped at the kitchen and took wine bread, and cheese; enough for two full meals. What if we were there for longer? Two meals? We could last ten hours on that. But what if? On my way out, I pulled the bag of jerky from the wall. That should do, I thought. Leaving the kitchen-house I shut the door three times for luck. “Oh God above.” I said with each closing of the door, and as it sat closed the last time. “We look to you in this heavy undertaking.” I signed, head hung low and turned toward the Great Hall.
Why had he chosen tonight? I was not of age, not for a full year. What was so different in that old story that had urged him to disregard tradition? I shook my head, letting a deep breath out my nose and kicked at the snow, watching it spread in the air like dust blown in the wind, then it fell back and disappeared into the white. I wanted to stay out here, in the courtyard and let the night pass without the great meeting. But I knew I couldn’t. My grandfather would soon tire of waiting and come looking for me and I did not want his anger added to the deep darkness of this night. It was slow to boil but erupted like a pot boiling over when it finally came. But that was not the only reason I needed to return. The yard was simply not safe any longer when night came. It had once been. I remember those days, but no more.
I started back to the hall slowly. With every step I tried to feel more sure of myself and what the night might bring. I rounded the south-west corner of the outside of the hall and bowed deep, pausing at the bottom to ask God’s blessing. The form of tradition had to be obeyed, even in the absence of an audience. Normally crowds would gather for a young man’s palaver, to wish him luck and to congratulate him upon his completion of the ritual. But our ranch and the outlying hamlets were nearly empty. I don’t know if people were leaving, or just disappearing, but it seemed that there were fewer willing to live this far out from the greater cities. And from all accounts, the cities were not much safer.
I bowed low again on the north-west and north-east corners, each time being cautious not to spill the food or wood. As I stood on the east side, I looked back. My steps in the snow seemed so dark. Night was closing in as the red sun set. Over the roof I could see the sky deepen in color. The shadows, which began in the woods, only a hundred yards away, were walking slowly out to meet me as the light failed. I peered into the branched, scanning from right to left – east to west – light to dark – and under a tall pine, I saw them; a set of blue eyes. Just one set but it’s followers would be here soon. It was bad luck to begin such a heavy task at the failing of the day.
I spun and put my shoulder to the huge, gold-trimmed oak door of the Great Hall. It slid silently open. I paused just for a moment, looking at the brilliant eye of the golden falcon on this door. As the years passed, the courtyard fell into disrepair. It seemed that with the passing of the years went the passing of our servants. They had all died or left. All but a few and they stayed for fear of leaving. None of them worked, except to prepare meals and cut wood. The falcon of the Great Hall was the only one which still shone. I polished it every day.
I closed the door once, “Oh Father.” Twice, “Oh, God.” Three times, “Oh Father, watch over us and guide us to greater light.” And as the door banged home for the last time, I could have sworn I’d seen those blue eyes moving closer.
Nampy was playing the violin. Am I Born to Die, was the tune. The strings reached high in the scale and sounded so sparce and empty all alone in this large space. I walked across the hall to the north-west corner, my boots clunking on the oak floor boards, keeping rhythm with the music. Looking back at him occasionally, my grandfather moved left and right, smoothly with the music. His eyes were closed, his mouth pulled tight in concentration.
I dropped the wood in its box and placed the food on the shelf above. The fire flickered on his back; moving fast and slow all at once. I walked back to him and sat down, picking up my mandolin to accompany the sad song. As I plucked my first note, he began to sing and it broke my heart.
And am I born to die,
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly,
Into a world unknown?
A land of deepest faith,
Unpierced by human fault.
The dreary reaches of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.
So now from Earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness o’er all
Must then my portion be.”
And thus began palaver.