Tuesday, 14 December 2010
The Spirit of the Night
It was some kind of very tall, very dense fir tree, but I don't know what species and it stood way down at the bottom end of the lawn, just before the ha-ha. Beyond the ha-ha lay the field known as "The Park" due to its grand history as a hunting ground in the days when the castle was a real castle. But nowadays, The Park was just a sodden field like any other. The first time I saw him standing under the fir tree was in early January. It was a still, frosty night and deep, hard snow was on the ground; the jagged, crystallised kind of snow that has thawed and refrozen and you can walk right over the top of it like Jesus. The sky, by comparison, looked as smooth and as yielding as a deep pool of treacle into which the teaspoon moon had dipped a tiny tip. For the moon was at that controversial stage of near-fullness. It was full enough for someone wishful like me to call it full if I wanted it full; and occasionally I did, but mostly I remember that on such nights, I yearned for it not to be full - not quite full, not quite yet. I feel sure that this must have been just such an occasion.
I was kneeling up on the white wooden window sill in my nightdress and woolly socks, the curtains closed behind me. I was wishing on stars, and that's how I saw him there, that first time. And now I don't remember what I'd been wishing for. One of the usuals, no doubt: that one day, I'd suddenly discover I was beautiful and mysteriously gifted after all, that one day someone dark and deeply exciting would fall in love with me, or that this very night, time would stand still and that all who were asleep when it happened would stay asleep forever, and the world would belong to us: the ghosts, the insomniacs and the stargazers.
I made that last wish so many times. And sometimes, for whole minutes, I used to believe that it might have come true. How would I know, after all, until the morning? I often imagined us - the ones left awake - and how we'd cross great expanses on foot to find one another, meeting on silent hillsides and beneath breezy lamposts; how we'd discuss ways to break the spell, feeling secretly shifty and conspiratorial, each knowing in our hearts that none of us really wanted it to break and that this was why the spell still held strong.
Back then, at just - what, thirteen or fourteen? - I must already have had a sense that I was only capable of loving the world - of worshipping it with my hopelessly pagan soul - when every sensible person had deserted it: in snowstorms, gales, freezing fog and torrential rain, and most especially at night.
Back then, it seems to me that I was never in the moment. It was as if my essence had been split - deliberately and artificially like an atom - and I was perpetually suspended in two places at once: in the outermost reaches of two warring realms: dream and reality, childhood and adulthood, past and future, longing and dread. Never at the centre of anything. Everywhere but here and now. In a state of vibrant paralysis. I was not entirely sure that I wanted to be whole again; to be turned from a restive stargazer into another one of those very capable night-sleepers. No. Not I. When time stopped - if it did - I had every intention being left awake. And that's when I'd be whole. That's when I'd learn to live in the moment.
Back then, I remember there being times when anything seemed possible and even likely, except what was actually happening.
And yet, kneeling up on the window sill of my castle bedroom that frosty night, when I saw the slight winged figure standing beneath the fir tree, my first thought was actually very sensible. I looked at it and I told myself that it must be a shadow of some ordinary object that was creating an optical illusion. I was prone to such temporary delusions, frequently mistaking a dressing gown for a hooded hobgoblin or a drifting sparkle of thistledown for a fairy until I'd reasoned with myself and looked closer. So at first, I peered down at the dark contours, struggling to achieve that mental shift of focus that would ultimately reveal its true nature as a garden hoe or an upturned wheel barrow. But the shift never came, because in a blink of an eye, he was gone. Tender as a snowflake, faithless as starlight. Moth Boy.
When I woke the next morning, I thought of this sighting as a dream. But I remember that as the day drew on, I became increasingly convinced that I had seen something and that I had been awake at the time. I had a full day of lessons ahead of me, and I know I spent them feeling restless and excited, longing impatiently to get back home again so that I could go down to the fir tree and look for footprints in the snow. I formed a very logical theory: that the figure had belonged to a shepherd lad and that the "wings" were simply the outline of something he must have been carrying on his back. But still, despite devoting all my powers of deduction to what I called "The Question of Motive", I could think of no reason why this shepherd lad should have been standing there in the middle of the night, trespassing in our garden, staring up at the house. Unless it was just that the pale, still walls of the castle made a beautiful sight against the treacle softness of the sky. A farm lad with the soul of a poet? I knew my male contemporaries in the village well enough and at times this alternative figure seemed an infinitely more fanciful creation than Moth Boy.
When I returned from school the next afternoon, I was surprised to find myself not investigating the scene of the sighting at all, but delaying the moment instead. I ate my tea quite methodically and calmly, watched two or three television programmes I always watched but never particularly liked, then I settled down at the kitchen table to do my homework as usual, munching on a piece of shortbread, getting up at intervals to pet the dogs. The winter days were short, and darkness would tumble suddenly over the land at around half past four. But for reasons I didn't understand myself, I had decided to let that narrow window of daylight slip by. Perhaps it was because I thought of this boy as a creature of the night. Somehow, it felt like a dishonourable act for me to hunt him down by daylight. If I did that, then perhaps he would know and never show himself to me again. Or perhaps I was reluctant for the mystery to be solved - to find clear prints of size 7 Wellington boots and a discarded sweet wrapper.
At 7.30, I went out into the garden with my torch and a magnifying glass. I stalked around the old fir tree, scrutinising the ground for clues, trying to see how he had come there. Had he walked over The Park and jumped over the ha-ha or had he somehow squeezed through the high wooden fence from the Kanes' grounds? But the snow must have been too hard. Its unbroken surface glittered back, crisp and bejewelled in the mottled beam of torchlight. I could find no trace of him. Either he had flown on moth wings, or he had walked over the surface like Jesus - except perhaps in wellies. (Which Jesus himself certainly would have worn, if he'd been born in the North of England.) Intrigued and far from disappointed, I went back into the house.
From then on, I began to think of him each night before I fell asleep. I'd lie in my bed and imagine him standing there under the fir tree, just as I'd seen him. Visualising him there became a night-time ritual. I would close my eyes and say silent prayers to him, sending him all kinds of crazy telepathic messages and willing him to feel my thoughts and feel our connection. He became the focus for all my restless curiosity and longing, and as the weeks passed, he took on a definite shape. I no longer saw just his outline. In my mind, I saw him fully and clearly, though always - without exception - in darkness. Moth Boy's face was a little sharp and elfin, sometimes mischievous, sometimes deeply melancholic; his brows were dark but his eyes were a curious blue and dusted in shadows in the manner of - say - a guitar player in a New Romantic band. Except that Moth Boy echewed make-up. His eyeshadow was completely natural. His hair was also quite naturally gelled into a tangle with feathers and twigs.
So fixated was I on this figure that often, from the depths of a dream, I would feel as though I could sense him - physically sense him - near by. I would hear a sort of soft electric hum like vibrating wings and my heart would pound. Before even waking, I would have got out of bed, my toes lumpish with sleep, and shuffled my way across the cold bedroom floor to the window. Only when my warm face touched the glass would I truly wake up - to a dark and empty garden. Had he only just left? Flown into the darkness on his powdery wings? Had I dreamt it all? Was I being insane? Or was he out there and watching me secretly from behind a tree?
Before the winter was out, I saw him once again. I wasn't even looking out for him. I was just sitting on my window sill, resting my head against the cool glass. I'd been woken by the mysterious cramps they called "growing pains" and found myself feeling suddenly utterly petrified about all the life that lay ahead of me and all the countless capabilities I was expected to casually develop. I just didn't think I could ever do it. How could I grow up? I didn't have the skills. I didn't have the eagerness to learn them, either, like so many of my peers - drinking snake bites until they puked, learning sex tips from their mum's Jilly Cooper books and sucking on cigarettes. Though I was desperately tired, I'd found myself too oppressed and apprehensive to re-settle my mind in a hollow of drowsiness. So I'd got up and pressed my woebegone face against the dark window pane.
Outside, it was another bright silvery night and down by the fir tree, I now saw a movement. I turned my head sharply and stared out over the lawn. It was...! It was him. Gasping, I knelt up, cupped my hands around my eyes and peered out into the darkness. I could see him. He was standing outlined against the twinkling expanse of The Park. His poor wings looked terribly crumpled (were they really wings?) and he was making a very determined repetitive movement, over and over, in a kind of grim rhythmic stubbornness, like someone trying to force a thing that will not budge. Blood rushed to my ears as my heart raced. Who or what was he, and what was he doing out there? What was he up to? He was clearly very busy with something. He seemed completely absorbed within his movement. I watched. It seemed less stubborn now. More graceful... artistic. Was it a dance? No. A struggle? Was he fighting with something? With what? With invisible forces? Or was he trying to pull a sword from a sheath? I strained my eyes and blinked. Was it part of a magic ritual? If he unsheathed the sword, could he - and would he - then freeze time and give the earth to the stargazers? Was he here to grant all my wishes? Or was he perhaps sewing? Like Peter Pan, trying to reattach his own shadow? Or casting seeds for toadstool rings?
It was strange. It went on for several long minutes and each second my perception of it changed. Sometimes he seemed too otherworldly to be human, but sometimes he seemed too human to be anything else. The longer I looked, the less I could make him out. I tried to understand the movement. Was the main force away from his body and out into the air? Or the other way around? And I? Was I dreaming? I pinched myself, like the heroines in my books. Did that ever work? What if you only dreamed you were pinching yourself? As a test, I tried to speak. In dreams, I knew, speech never comes out the way you intend it.
"I see you, night spirit," I said, "I can see you there. Take me. Stop time and take me with you. I am ready to go."
As I spoke, my breath frosted the glass and I lost sight of him behind the mist. Quickly, scared to break eye contact and lose him again to the night, I wiped the window clear with my hand. As I peered out again, I thought I saw him fall. His legs seemed to buckle beneath him. He stumbled to his knees and his head was first thrown back for several seconds and then bent right forwards as he put out one hand to support himself against the tree. Was he fainting? Or in pain? Should I go to him? I thought of it. Should I? Did I dare? I hovered in indecision. I both longed and feared to go to him; because he might be real and human; because he might be a spirit; because I didn't know what I wanted and I didn't know what to say to boys. Whatever great thing you said, they always acted like they thought you were being uncool and stupid, just because you were a girl. Would Moth Boy be like that? Would I secretly like him anyway?
After that I lost him for a while. His shadow merged with the tree until I thought he must have gone. But I knelt and stared out into the darkness for the longest time, though it was cold and my knees were growing numb. I knew now that I would not have dared to go to him.
Finally, I saw him outlined again. He was either looking back up at the house or out and away over The Park. It was impossible to tell.
All at once, I decided to signal him. Perhaps he would come up to me - fly to my window. Though I knew I was too frightened to go out into the garden and take fate into my own hands, I was - contrarily - still longing for him to come to me and take me with him. I didn't want to make the decision to go. I wanted him to make this choice for me. At this mad moment, I thought perhaps he really could freeze time. Perhaps he would love me and steal me away from the daunting life of daytimes that lay before me - all the frightening exams and career decisions, all the driving lessons and the food shopping, the housework, the parking spaces and the pin numbers. Impulsively, I ran to a drawer to fetch my torch. But I was too slow. When I returned and looked out again, my blind finger grappling for the switch, I saw that he had disappeared.
As it turned out, this was to have been my only chance. Soon after that, there was a bad storm and the big old fir tree was struck by lightening. I still remember the terrible crashing, tearing sound it made when it died and half the trunk fell away from the crown.
Within the week, the old tree was cut down and sawn up into a gigantic heap of firewood that was carried to an outhouse in the castle courtyard. I watched the work from my window and cried. I wanted them to leave the tree - splintered and charred as it was. It was his tree - Moth Boy's. But it was useless telling anyone this. I knew it was insane.
At this time, I suspected that inside, many people were secretly insane, but the only ones they locked up were the ones without the wits to hide it. I intended to hide my own insanity for as long as necessary. But I couldn't stop those tears. My mother thought me ridiculous for crying about a plant. But I think my father was impressed - that I had the sensibility to spill so many tears over some old tree. He found it surprising, but to him it somehow underlined my specialness. Naturally, I didn't tell him I was crying for a mysterious moth-winged spirit who I believed was bound to the tree by some ancient magical force, and who only ever appeared to me. That would have been like underlining my specialness three times in scented purple ink and then launching into a round of chicken impressions. It would have been pushing it.
In the days that followed, as the wood was carried away to the outhouse, my father often hugged me and told me he "understood". He kept saying, "Over two hundred and fifty years. Gone forever. Gone in less than a second." He kept imparting informative nuggets on the last two hundred and fifty years of English history - things like the invention of the spinning jenny - and linking them with the estimated age and height of the dead tree at the time. I nestled into him, feeling irritated yet grateful that the fir tree had at least meant something to somebody else. I was thankful too that my father could always be relied on to completely miss the point.
I never saw Moth Boy after that. I often looked out for him, but he never materialised in a visible physical form again and I never felt the electric hum of his presence in my sleep. I had long relinquished the shepherd boy theory by now and I firmly believed that his spirit had somehow been bound up in that fir tree. I began to think that it must have been so, because why else had he stopped appearing at the exact same time it had been struck dead?
I wondered where he was. Was he still in the tree? In the wood? Did he hover above the woodpile at nights and weep? Poor Moth Boy. If only he'd stopped time before the lightening had struck. And this need never have happened.
In the afternoons, when I got back from school, I began to sneak into the outhouse to visit him. I'd sit down on the pile of logs and chippings and speak to him, the way you would speak to a gravestone or a friend in a coma - just in case he was in there somewhere and just in case he could hear me. Though really, of course, I was doing it more for my own comfort than for him. His appearances had been so unique and so special to me. I just didn't want to let him go. I didn't want to face life without the idea that he was somehow still around and part of it - face a world without the possibility of something as wonderful and enchanting as him; I felt that he was the only living creature who had ever truly understood me - and still liked me. Sitting on the woodpile wasn't as comfortable as watching him out of the window, but romance was never harmed by a little hardship and I bore the change as bravely as I could. There was even a kind of Dickensian charm to the poverty of it all. My mute and needy friend, the woodpile. Oh that it should come to this.
It was over a year before all the firewood was used up. Each time I came in for my chat, I noticed how fast Moth Boy's logs were dwindling. He was losing substance. It was sad. Heartbreaking. Why was he letting this happen?
"Stop time, Moth Boy," I sometimes begged the woodpile, "Do it now, before you're burnt all away to cinders. You can stop this. You CAN."
But he didn't. And a day came when I knew it would be the last time I could visit him like this. I hadn't wanted to believe it would arrive. I had hoped that if it did, then I would somehow miraculously find myself quite ready. But I didn't. I didn't want to let him go. So I stole a single log - the log with the most character in it - and hid it under my bed.
But it was no good. I don't know if you've ever found yourself crouching beneath your bed, trying to converse intelligently with an unresponsive log, but as experiences go, it has to be one of life's most disenchanting ones, and from then on, my relationship with Moth Boy was all downhill. Talking to him felt useless; pathetic. When I looked at the log - so grimy and unshapely and so fusty - it struck me that there really was no romance left in our liaison. And I began to feel disgruntled. He wasn't even making an effort for me. And then I began to wonder: had I ever really seen him clearly? Had I seen him for what he really was? Wasn't it more that I had built up a grand image of him in my own mind and become ludicrously attached to that? Perhaps I had made too much of him, right from the start. Perhaps the exciting winged creature with the gothic eye markings had never existed. Perhaps the boy by the fir tree had never been any more exciting than this mouldy lump of wood and I'd been too blind to notice. Duped by my own wishful thinking.
Eventually, I stuck the log in the back of my wardrobe and tried to forget about Moth Boy. I would have thrown it out, but something in me still clung to that last remnant of him. The log was the only magically-associated relic I'd ever owned. It didn't do anything magical, of course, and seemed most unlikely to ever do so, but some aura of enchantment still seemed to pervade it and it was to that aura that I still held fast. Not so much to Moth Boy as to the possiblity of there having once been a Moth Boy.
It was around this time that we moved house - further up the valley to a cottage in a wild and lonely landscape. Prior to the move, I thought of burying the log at the old spot by the ha-ha. Or of burning it and turning the last remaining earth-bound chunk of Moth Boy into smoke. I had various vague plans for incantations I might chant. I was very sad to leave the castle and a farewell ceremony over Moth Boy's remains would have seemed very fitting. But I was over fifteen now and I had become very lethargic, so in the end, I just placed him on the floor of the boiler room on the last day and left him for the new owner to burn. I felt so weary. After over two years of devotion, it seemed my love had, after all, worn itself out and now it was time to leave.
Later that night, I sat in my new bedroom in the cottage, looking out at the hills and the moon - almost full, at that same controversial stage. It was spring and these were different hills. I had not wanted to come here, but I was forced to admit, they were more rugged and mystic, and much, much more beautiful even than The Park. It felt disloyal, but even now I loved them. I imagined flying into the darkness on two powdery wings of my own. And then I thought, I can do that. Why not? I crept out of bed and tiptoed down the stairs, trying to avoid the squeaky floorboards. Then I slipped through the door, out into the garden and off into the night.
This was the first of many illicit midnight rambles. From then on, when I couldn't sleep, I took to wandering for hours across the hills and fields and through the back gardens of the sleeping cottages I found - dressed only in my nightdress. The ones I called the Night-Sleepers were all safely tucked up in their beds and as the black hill-roving breeze scampered over the treetops and raced around me through grasses and weeds, it seemed to me as though time had stood still for a moment after all and that the wind and I were the only ones left awake. Trespassing. Fervently pagan. Aimless and forgotten. In love with the world as never before.
I wonder now, did any one ever look out of their window and see me, a slight, windswept figure in a long white gown? Perchance a ghost, an insomniac or a stargazer, like me? I cannot tell, for noone ever told me. But while the Night-Sleepers slumbered, I lingered beneath their trees, I stared at their houses and I lay on their lawns. Sometimes I stripped right off and span in circles beneath the stars, did cartwheels, handstands and somersaults in the grass. In these hours, the elements of the atom seemed to rush together. Time had stopped and I was free to do all kinds of things one could ordinarily only do alone and behind locked doors. And I never left a footprint. Tender as a dewdrop, faithless as moonbeams. Moth Girl.