Category Archives: Fiction

The Vats

Two friends wandering the English countryside happen upon the inexplicable…

 

The Vats
by Walter de la Mare
1923

Many years ago now—in that once upon a time which is the memory of the imagination rather than of the workaday mind, I went walking with a friend. Of what passed before we set out I have nothing but the vaguest recollection. All I remember is that it was early morning, that we were happy to be in one another’s company, that there were bright green boughs overhead amongst which the birds floated and sang, and that the early dews still burned in their crystal in the sun.

We were taking our way almost at haphazard across country: there was now grass, now the faintly sparkling flinty dust of an English road, underfoot. With remarkably few humans to be seen, we trudged on, turning our eyes ever and again to glance laughingly, questioningly, or perplexedly at one another’s, then slanting them once more on the blue-canopied countryside. It was spring, in the month of May, I think, and we were talking of Time.

Michael Maier & Johann Theodor de Bry, Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 36, copper engraving on paper, 9.5 x 10.4 cm, 1687, Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

Michael Maier & Johann Theodor de Bry, Atalanta Fugiens Emblem 36, copper engraving on paper, 9.5 x 10.4 cm, 1617, Deutsche Fotothek, Dresden

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In Unconsciousness by Alice Dunbar Nelson

Alice Dunbar-NelsonThere was a big booming in my ears, great heavy iron bells that swung to-and-fro on either side, and sent out deafening reverberations that steeped the senses in a musical melody of sonorous sound; to-and-fro, backward and forward, yet ever receding in a gradually widening circle, monotonous, mournful, weird, suffusing the soul with an unutterable sadness, as images of wailing processions, of weeping, empty-armed women, and widowed maidens flashed through the mind, and settled on the soul with a crushing, o’er-pressing weight of sorrow.

Now I lay floating, arms outstretched, on an illimitable waste of calm tranquil waters. Far away as eye could reach, there was naught but the pale, white-flecked, green waters of this ocean of eternity, and above the tender blue sky arched down in perfect love of its mistress, the ocean. Sky and sea, sea and sky, blue, calm, infinite, perfect sea, heaving its womanly bosom to the passionate kisses of its ardent sun-lover. Away into infinity stretched this perfectibility of love; into eternity, I was drifting, alone, silent, yet burdened still with the remembrance of the sadness of the bells.

Far away, they tolled out the incessant dirge, grown resignedly sweet now; so intense in its infinite peace, that a calm of love, beyond all human understanding and above all earthly passions, sank deep into my soul, and so permeated my whole being with rest and peace, that my lips smiled and my eyes drooped in access of fulsome joy. Into the illimitable space of infinity we drifted, my soul and I, borne along only by the network of auburn hair that floated about me in the green waters.


But now, a rude grasp from somewhere is laid upon me, pressing upon my face. Instantly the air grows gloomy, gray, and the ocean rocks menacingly, while the great bells grow harsh and strident, as they hint of a dark fate. I clasp my hands appealingly to the heavens; I moan and struggle with the unknown grasp; then there is peace and the sweet content of the infinite Nirvana.

Then slowly, softly, the net of auburn hair begins to drag me down below the surface of the sea. Oh! the skies are so sweet, and now that the tender stars are looking upon us, how fair to stay and sway upon the breast of eternity! But the net is inexorable, and gently, slowly pulls me down. Now we sink straight, now we whirl in slow, eddying circles, spiral-like; while at each turn those bells ring out clanging now in wild crescendo, then whispering dread secrets of the ocean’s depths. Oh, ye mighty bells, tell me from your learned lore of the hopes of mankind! Tell me what fruit he beareth from his strivings and yearnings; know not ye? Why ring ye now so joyful, so hopeful; then toll your dismal prophecies of o’er-cast skies?

Years have passed, and now centuries, too, are swallowed in the gulf of eternity, yet the auburn net still whirls me in eddying circles, down, down to the very womb of time; to the innermost recesses of the mighty ocean.


And now, peace, perfect, unconditioned, sublime peace, and rest, and silence. For to the great depths of the mighty ocean the solemn bells cannot penetrate, and no sound, not even the beatings of one’s own heart, is heard. In the heart of eternity there can be nothing to break the calm of frozen æons. In the great white hall I lay, silent, unexpectant, calm, and smiled in perfect content at the web of auburn hair which trailed across my couch. No passionate longing for life or love, no doubting question of heaven or hell, no strife for carnal needs,—only rest, content, peace—happiness, perfect, whole, complete, sublime.

And thus passed ages and ages, æons and æons. The great earth there in the dim distance above the ocean has toiled wearily about the sun, until its mechanism was failing, and the warm ardor of the lover’s eye was becoming pale and cold from age, while the air all about the fast dwindling sphere was heavy and thick with the sorrows and heartaches and woes of the humans upon its face. Heavy with the screams and roar of war; with the curses of the deceived of traitors; with the passionate sighs of unlawful love; with the crushing unrest of blighted hopes. Knowledge and contempt of all these things permeated even to the inmost depths of time, as I lay in the halls of rest and smiled at the web floating through my white fingers.


But hark! discord begins. There is a vague fear which springs from an unknown source and drifts into the depths of rest; fear, indefinable, unaccountable, unknowable, shuddering. Pain begins, for the heart springs into life, and fills the silence with the terror of its beatings, thick, knifing, frightful in its intense longing. Power of mind over soul, power of calm over fear avail nothing; suspense and misery, locked arm in arm, pervade æonic stillness, till all things else become subordinate, unnoticed.

Centuries drift away, and the giddy, old reprobate—earth, dying a hideous, ghastly death, with but one solitary human to shudder in unison with its last throes, to bask in the last pale rays of a cold sun, to inhale the last breath of a metallic atmosphere; totters, reels, falls into space, and is no more. Peal out, ye brazen bells, peal out the requiem of the sinner! Roll your mournful tones into the ears of the saddened angels, weeping with wing-covered eyes! Toll the requiem of the sinner, sinking swiftly, sobbingly into the depths of time’s ocean. Down, down, until the great groans which arose from the domes and Ionic roofs about me told that the sad old earth sought rest in eternity, while the universe shrugged its shoulders over the loss of another star.

And now, the great invisible fear became apparent, tangible, for all the sins, the woes, the miseries, the dreads, the dismal achings and throbbings, the dreariness and gloom of the lost star came together and like a huge geni took form and hideous shape—octopus-like—which slowly approached me, erstwhile happy—and hovered about my couch in fearful menace.


Oh, shining web of hair, burst loose your bonds and bid me move! Oh, time, cease not your calculations, but speed me on to deliverance! Oh, silence, vast, immense, infuse into your soul some sound other than the heavy throbbing of this fast disintegrating heart! Oh, pitiless stone arches, let fall your crushing weight upon this Stygian monster!

I pray to time, to eternity, to the frozen æons of the past. Useless. I am seized, forced to open my cold lips; there is agony,—supreme, mortal agony of nerve tension, and wrenching of vitality. I struggle, scream, and clutching the monster with superhuman strength, fling him aside, and rise, bleeding, screaming—but triumphant, and keenly mortal in every vein, alive and throbbing with consciousness and pain.


No, it was not opium, nor night-mare, but chloroform, a dentist, three obstinate molars, a pair of forceps, and a lively set of nerves.

Anne_Vallayer-Coster

Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), Still-Life with Tuft of Marine Plants, Shells and Corals, oil on canvas, Height: 130 cm (51.2 in). Width: 97 cm (38.2 in), 1769, Louvre Museum, Paris

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Hardy’s Queen

One of the best of all of Thomas Hardy’s descriptive passages and undoubtedly one of the greatest character portraits in all of modern literature, here in its entirety is Book First, Chapter VII of Hardy’s Return of the Native:

Queen of Night

Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.

Thomas Francis Dicksee, Ophelia, Oil on canvas, 141.6 x 101 cm, 1873, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service, UK

Thomas Francis Dicksee, Ophelia, Oil on canvas, 141.6 x 101 cm, 1873, Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service, UK

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Tilia

Tilia, otherwise known as lime trees, limewood trees, linden trees, or basswood are prevalent throughout the history of art and literature, in both its uses and depiction. Albrecht Dürer was probably in his twenties when he painted his famous Linden Tree on a Bastion.

Albrecht Dürer, Linden Tree on a Bastion, watercolor, gouache on parchment, 34.3 × 26.7 cm (13.5 × 10.5 in), circa 1489-1490, Musée Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Albrecht Dürer, Linden Tree on a Bastion, watercolor, gouache on parchment, 34.3 × 26.7 cm (13.5 × 10.5 in), circa 1489-1490, Musée Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The wood of Tilia trees was also a popular painting surface during the Renaissance.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), A Stag Hunt with the Elector Friedrich the Wise, oil on linden wood, 80.2 × 114.1 cm (31.6 × 44.9 in), 1529, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), A Stag Hunt with the Elector Friedrich the Wise, oil on linden wood, 80.2 × 114.1 cm (31.6 × 44.9 in), 1529, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


 
Limewood was a favorite carving material of sculptors in Renaissance Germany. Tilman Reimenschneider is perhaps the most famous of these artists, and his masterpiece, The Holy Blood Altar in St. Jacob’s Church is a great example.

Holy Blood Altar, sculpture limewood; shrine work fir, overall height 900 cm, (1499-1505) by Tilman Riemenschneider in the St. Jacob church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Germany, photo by Berthold Werner

Holy Blood Altar, sculpture limewood; shrine work fir, overall height 900 cm, (1499-1505) by Tilman Riemenschneider in the St. Jacob church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria, Germany, photo by Berthold Werner

There are also many literary references to the tree. In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the love-stricken Werther eventually commits suicide and is buried under a linden tree.

I have implored your father to protect my remains. At the corner of the churchyard, looking toward the fields, there are two lime-trees—there I wish to lie. Your father can, and doubtless will, do this much for his friend. Implore it of him. But perhaps pious Christians will not choose that their bodies should be buried near the corpse of a poor, unhappy wretch like me. Then let me be laid in some remote valley, or near the highway, where the priest and Levite may bless themselves as they pass by my tomb, whilst the Samaritan will shed a tear for my fate.

In Mythology, Ovid tells the story of Baucis and Philemon who accept Jupiter and Mercury into their home, and in return for their kindness they are transformed, she into a linden tree and he into an oak, at the end of their lives.

From Henry T. Riley’s translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid (other editions), 1893:

Then, the son of Saturn uttered such words as these with benign lips: ‘Tell us, good old man, and thou, wife, worthy of a husband so good, what it is you desire?’ Having spoken a few words to Baucis, Philemon discovered their joint request to the Gods: ‘We desire to be your priests, and to have the care of your temple; and, since we have passed our years in harmony, let the same hour take us off both together; and let me not ever see the tomb of my wife, nor let me be destined to be buried by her.’ Fulfilment attended their wishes. So long as life was granted, they were the keepers of the temple; and when, enervated by years and old age, they were standing, by chance, before the sacred steps, and were relating the fortunes of the spot, Baucis beheld Philemon, and the aged Philemon saw Baucis, too, shooting into leaf. And now the tops of the trees growing above their two faces, so long as they could they exchanged words with each other, and said together, ‘Farewell! my spouse;’ and at the same moment the branches covered their concealed faces.

Books about linden trees…

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Blackwood’s Dark Nature

Some snippets from the weird tales of Algernon Blackwood

From The Willows (1907)

Reproduction of a painting by Maurits Willem van der Valk (1857-1935), from the book Dutch art in the 19th Century (1909) by G. Hermine Marius, translated by Alexander Teixeira De Mattos

Reproduction of a painting by Maurits Willem van der Valk (1857-1935), from the book Dutch Art in the 19th Century (1909) by G. Hermine Marius, translated by Alexander Teixeira De Mattos

 

The change came suddenly, as when a series of bioscope pictures snaps down on the streets of a town and shifts without warning into the scenery of lake and forest. We entered the land of desolation on wings, and in less than half an hour there was neither boat nor fishing-hut nor red roof, nor any single sign of human habitation and civilization within sight. The sense of remoteness from the world of humankind, the utter isolation, the fascination of this singular world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both, so that we allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held some special kind of passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic—a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them.

From The Man Whom the Trees Loved (1912)

He painted trees as by some special divining instinct of their essential qualities. He understood them. He knew why in an oak forest, for instance, each individual was utterly distinct from its fellows, and why no two beeches in the whole world were alike. People asked him down to paint a favorite lime or silver birch, for he caught the individuality of a tree as some catch the individuality of a horse. How he managed it was something of a puzzle, for he never had painting lessons, his drawing was often wildly inaccurate, and, while his perception of a Tree Personality was true and vivid, his rendering of it might almost approach the ludicrous. Yet the character and personality of that particular tree stood there alive beneath his brush—shining, frowning, dreaming, as the case might be, friendly or hostile, good or evil. It emerged.

And finally, from Sand (1912)

Already something in himself had changed. A restlessness, as of that wandering wind, woke in his heart—the desire to be off and away. Other things could rouse this wildness too: falling water, the singing of a bird, an odour of wood-fire, a glimpse of winding road. But the cry of wind, always searching, questioning, travelling the world’s great routes, remained ever the master-touch. High longing took his mood in hand. Mid seven millions he felt suddenly—lonely.

“I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

 

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The Venerable Mansion

The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

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