The Gift of Time
This story must be told, if for no other reason than to honor those who have gone before. I am new to this fold and can only play this small part of the bard, but everything has it’s purpose and I accept this as mine.
My story begins on the last day of my trip to England, just over a year ago. My wife Holly and I had opted to do the traditional, if not cliché bus tour. We traveled all across the south of England: Sussex, Somerset, Cornwall. The agency brochure billed it as Two Weeks on the Trail of Arthur. We were chasing the Arthurian Legend and hit all of the essential hot spots for at least fifteen minutes apiece. Cadbury, Glastonbury, Avebury, Stonehenge, Tintagel and a dozen other sites attributed to Arthur’s name or the time period between about 450 and 1500 AD. If it was any sort of leftover remnant of the Roman Empire in Britain, we glimpsed it. On our final day we were staying in Tintagel on the north side of the Cornish coast. The following day would be our last in England. The itinerary for that day consisted mostly of a trip to Land’s End. The bus left early and I wasn’t on it. I sent Holly along and stayed in bed, a mysterious stomach illness my lame excuse. I watched the door swing shut with a click as she left.
Now, all things considered, I couldn’t say whether I was really as sick as I had professed to be. I think I did feel sick at the thought of another day on the bus, but I do know that I sustained a miraculous recovery of sorts in the moment after that door shut. Things had been pretty rotten between my wife and I. Everything about us now felt wrong and our five year marriage was falling apart. This trip had been an attempt to put things back together. As far as I could tell and knowing what I do now, it was a complete failure in that regard.
Something happened to me when that door closed. For the fist time in my recent memory, I was completely alone. One can never overestimate the value of a healthy diet of solitude. I found myself suddenly starving for it, like a man who did not know he was hungry until he took his first bite of food.
I looked around the proper little Cornish bed and breakfast room. It was set at the front of the house on the second floor and looked out over the headland to the ocean. At least that was what I had been told when we had arrived the night before. Our hostess Mrs. Kendrick was the epitome of Cornish hospitality. She was a sweet little old lady, short of stature, liberal in girth possessing a head of white hair and a thick accent. Mrs Kendrick was the proprietress of the establishment, called the Tintagel House. She called on us one last time before we turned in for the night, making sure we had plenty of tea for the morning and plenty of blankets for the night.
“A right good view you will have there, come morning.” she said.
We had left the window open during the night and as I lay there, silent, listening, I could hear the faint crash of water on rocks. I rose naked from the bed and crossed to the white lace curtains. With a simple tug they parted and revealed one of those perfect scenes that you know will stay with you for the rest of your days. The sky was the full hue of day. Shades of blues like I had never seen before in England blended perfectly with every shade of green imaginable. It was my fist truly sunny day in England and the rich colors of the grass and shrubbery that covered the landscape were almost too much for my eyes. The ocean beyond was an exact duplicate of the sky, something I have only elsewhere seen in the Florida Keys.
Houses lined the side of the road we were on. From my bay window I could see that each had a small white picket fence or iron worked fence outside and most advertised rooms and meals available. My freedom had overcome my illness which was more likely to have been the physical manifestations of depression anyway. I decided to explore this little village. A shower, a shave and a cup of tea later I was ready for what the day would bring, or so I thought.
The morning air was brisk. I stepped from the little foyer onto the front walk. I followed the short flagstone path to the gate. It opened with a proper click. Before me lay a grassy field bordered by stone walls and hedgerow. To the left the narrow street lead back into the touristy center of town. I walked that way, hoping to find a quiet place to get some breakfast.
I walked on the left side of the road awkwardly. I still hadn’t learned which way to look first when crossing the street. Not that there was much traffic, but typical of most tiny British villages, what traffic there was traveled way too fast for those narrow car lined ways, where there seemed to be hardly enough room for even one car to pass. Lessons learned on London streets seemed to go doubly for pedestrians in the villages.
It felt good to walk at my own pace. My whole trip had been fraught with waits and pauses in very few of the places that I wanted to spend time, and just the opposite for those I didn’t. Holly always seemed to be tired or in a bad mood right at the moment that there was something that I wanted to do. I found myself, not for the first time, torn between being the husband and being myself, pursuing who I was and what I wanted to do. I think the feeling was increased exponentially the moment I set foot in England. It had been my dream since I was very young to come to England in search of Arthur. There was something in that tragic character that I needed to see his homeland, to see what I could see of the remains of his world. It had been a time possessing simple truths, life and death, or at least the legends would have us believe so. The last bastion of a crumbling empire, that at it’s best represented what was good in mankind.
I entered a restaurant, chosen more for its name than for any other reason. The Crossbow. Over the doorway hung a pair of those dangerous technologically advanced weapons.
The waitress brought my breakfast quickly and I thanked her. There were quite a few people in the restaurant that morning. I let my ears wander around the room while I ate. Most of the couples were vacationing Brits on a summer holiday sightseeing the Cornish countryside. A couple in the far corner spoke French and though I don’t understand the language, I was entranced by its flowing tongue. I listened to words meaning nothing for many moments.
“Are you off to Merlin’s Cave, then?” came a crisp female voice steeped in a thick Cornish accent. I put my tea down and turned to look over my shoulder. The waitress had returned without my noticing and I got the feeling that she had been standing there for some time before speaking. I smiled at her, taking a fuller stock of her features. She was slim and dark haired. Her face was much more thin and angular that then other British women I had seen of late. In fact her entire body seemed to be cut from a different material all together. She was of medium height and her frame suggested a wiry athleticism. Her eyes were large, pale green nearly gray. They looked strangely familiar, which struck me as odd, but I couldn’t place them.
“Where?” I asked.
“Oh come on now. You’ve heard of Merlin’s Cave, haven’t you?” In fact I had, but the brochure on Tintagel made me fear that it was some sort of tacky tourist trap where one might purchase crystal balls, taro cards and cheap plastic swords with a map of Cornwall on the hilt.
“I’ve seen something about it at the place I’m staying, I think.”
“Are you on your own, then?”
“For the moment,” I laughed lightly at my private joke.
“How long have you been here?” she asked, coming to stand next to my seat.
“In England? About two weeks. Tintagel, just got in last night.”
“Well, you ought to have a look at it. It’s not far, just down over the headland.” She tore off the bill from a small tablet she was holding and placed it on my table. Something of the mood I was in, I think, prompted my next question.
“I don’t suppose you could show me the cave?” I asked, meeting her eyes directly with mine. Her gaze shifted and I could tell she was appraising me, probing my intentions with her eyes. I suddenly felt embarrassed at my words. I wasn’t even sure what my intentions were at that point or why I had asked her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to . . .”
“No, no.” she said brushing my apology aside. “I’m off at eleven.” She seemed to be doing some quick calculating in her head. “The tide doesn’t come up for a few hours after that. If we hurry, perhaps we will make it.” She looked off toward the kitchen for a moment, then back at me. “Can you meet me here at eleven?”
“Yes.” Her eyes became casual.
“Good. See if you can get a bottle of wine. I’ll pack some things to eat.”
“Eleven.” She smiled and went back into the kitchen. I looked at the bill and put a five pound note on the table before I left.
Back out on the street, the air had warmed considerably. I marveled at how bright it was. Sunlight glinted off of every surface. I wandered aimlessly through the town only pausing occasionally to note the time. The village was faced with a full charactered facade. The buildings were all stone masonry and proffered names like King Arthur’s Bookstore and The Pendragon Shoppe which kept a well stocked selection of un-sharpened swords. The atmosphere was of timelessness, much like the rest of the country.
An American touring American historical sites is dated by those sites by several hundred years at best. An American in England, however, is faced with something quite different. Many of the houses one sees date back further than the conception of our nation. Many sites date back thousands of years. My college book store had been in the same place for maybe twenty years. The bookstore at Oxford has been there since the 12th century. British history has quite a different feel to it. The nostalgia is of something deeper, like the roots of time.
I let these feelings play over me while I looked for a wine shop. Ten thirty had come and I had a bit of a return walk. I found a butcher’s shop that had a decent selection of wines as well as a cooler full of juices. Cold drinks are a rarity in England and the rising heat of the day had left me with a sweat. I bought a strawberry concoction and was surprised to find that it had real strawberry juice in it. While I drank it, I searched the wine racks. They had a red I was fond of. I brought it to the counter and finished the purchase. The man behind the counter was stout and into his fifties. He had gray hair that reminded me of straw and hair on his knuckles that was still black. He looked tough, like he had once been a boxer or a sailor. I noticed that when I leaned against the meat case, it was warm. I thanked him for the wine. “Cheers,” he said, returning my change.
The walk back was pleasant and I nodded to the few elderly couples that walked arm in arm along the storefronts. I smiled to myself, amazed at such a love that could last thorough all those years. I still loved Holly, but it was hard because I felt that she had fallen out of love with me. We had gotten together young and we had grown up fast, in too much of a hurry to take on the responsibilities that would make us adults. We had sold our youth for the idea of love and I think she felt the price ended up being too high. As I walked along I was beginning to realize that I had misplaced myself during those years and the brief freedom I felt on that morning in late June was a sore reminder.
Then I thought about the girl I was on my way to meet. I didn’t even know her name. What was I thinking? I had never been unfaithful to my wife and I think I wore that as sort of a badge during the hard times. I wasn’t really even thinking of being unfaithful to her at that point either, speaking in terms of the physical. I think it was at this moment, on this day, though, that I first began to be unfaithful in my heart. I pictured the old couple that I had just passed in my mind’s eye. I pictured Holly and I at that age. It was a game I had played with myself since she and I had been young and love was new. It was a pretty picture of walking hand in hand, talking always of new things, changing together. Walking along that narrow street I came to the realization that my vision was a pipe dream. Our changing only seemed to be moving us apart. The only thing holding us together seemed to be the inertia of old feelings. Reality cut deep, but strangely, I felt no sadness or pain. It felt more like the relief of long awaited honesty. A weight was removed from my shoulders. I could be honest with myself about what I wanted. I could stop living a lie. It had started out as a small lie, but as with cancer, it grew with time. I just wanted to stop loving someone who didn’t love me.
My thoughts brought me to a near collision with the waitress from the Crossbow. I looked up just in time to avoid crashing right into her. I had been walking very fast.
“Whoa there, friend. You’re here. No need to rush off so quickly.” I looked up and her smile relaxed me.
“Am I on time?” I asked glancing at my watch. “I was just walking and lost track.” As it was I was ten minutes late.
“You’re fine. I just got out here.” I noticed she had changed into shorts and a light shirt. She held a small wrapped parcel against her chest. We stood in front of the Crossbow, but I couldn’t remember how I got there.
“I’m glad you didn’t leave without me.”
“I wouldn’t have.” I looked back at her but she was looking down the road. Her hair, now down, was lightly curled, long and left only a small portion of her face visible in profile. Her face was delicate, thin, but not gaunt. She turned back to me and her eyes were powerful and still strangely familiar.
“Talwyn.” I think I must have blinked at her. “You were wondering what my name is,” she said.
“Was that a guess or can you read my mind?” I asked, smiling.
“A little of both.” We both laughed.
“I am very glad to meet you, Talwyn.” She offered her hand, to be kissed, not shook. I hesitated for a brief second, looking at her with half a smile. Much to my content, she held steady in her course and I placed my lips lightly upon her knuckles.
“Aaron,” I said releasing her hand.
“Good,” she said. “Come on, we’ll have to hurry.” She started off towards the direction of The Tintagel House. I walked beside her, amazed at our boldness. These were actions and words I felt more accustomed to under the cover of night and usually following a drink or two.
She walked briskly and though her legs were much shorter than mine, I had to hurry to keep up. We walked side by side down the road, pausing for the occasional car to pass. We reached the bed and breakfast and passed it. Someone had brought a fine chestnut colored horse into the field to graze. It raised it’s head and eyed us as we passed.
We had gone maybe a hundred feet past the bed and breakfast when she turned left and cut into the hedgerow. I followed and we emerged onto path that moved away from the road towards the ocean, which was now in plain view. A vigorous wind met us as we worked our way down the hill. She lead and I followed. The land around us had grown high with brambles and thickets. I heard bees buzzing loudly on both sides. Every once in a while we startled a small animal in the underbrush and could hear it scamper away. The ocean before us loomed closer and closer and still we were several hundred feet above it. I could hear the low thunder of the water crashing below us and the wind had stirred up white caps farther out. The sun was high in the sky and the heady fragrances of the plant life around us was intoxicating, a high.
She spoke little as we made our way down the headland. Her path wound into a narrowing valley that made its way down between two juts of headland. She pointed out loose stones and briers. I watched her hair spill over the soft curve of her shoulder.
We came to a clearing of sorts, where the brambles gave way to tall grasses. She paused , looking up to the headland to our left. It was tall, green and treeless. Along the edges I could see places where rocks had been piled up to make walls. The walls were crumbled and non-existent in most cases.
“What was it?” I asked, feeling its oldness even from this distance.
“Those are the ruins of Tintagel Castle. In its day, it was once one of the most impenetrable keeps in all of Europe.” I knew a bit of the legend that the French had attached to it. It was supposedly the birth place of King Arthur. The place Uther Pendragon seduced Vivien, disguised by the wizard Merlin to look like her slain husband.
“That place must have been impossible to enter unwelcome.” The only entrance was a narrow strip of land that worked its way out to the headland, maybe some thirty feet wide, all uphill.
“Oh, it was.” she said. I looked over at her. “I’m sure,” she amended.
“How old are those ruins?” I asked.
“Nearly fourteen hundred years.” I stood there, following the outline of the walls, filling in the gaps here and there with my imagination. I was trying to reconstruct what it must have looked like all those years ago. Just as an image was coming to mind, it faded at the sound of her voice, now further down the path.
“Come on. We must hurry if we are to catch the tide.” I trotted after her and caught up as we rounded a small bend near some standing rocks. The path opened up on a breathtaking scene. Up to the right and the left were the bare rock faces of the headlands where they stretched out to the sea. Before us was a narrow channel of water blue as a South Pacific lagoon. The tide was out and a thin stretch of beach lay exposed after the ten foot drop off of rock, whose edge we were then standing on. Away beyond the edges of the headland stood a huge rock, nearly as tall as the headlands themselves. Eons of tides had eaten this huge rock away from the mainland and it stood like a centurion at the gates of Tintagel Castle. Massive waves crashed against it’s seaward side and the spay carried in the wind, touching lightly upon our faces, even from hundreds of yards away.
“It’s beautiful,” I exclaimed. I felt Talwyn’s appraising eyes on me and I strained not to return her gaze; to maintain my current vision and not disturb any thought that she might be having in her secret observations.
Talwyn showed me several footholds in the stone cliff and we lowered ourselves down to the rocky beach. Our feet left deep impressions in the loose wet sand. There were a few other sets of tracks but those who had made them were departed. I pulled off my socks and shoes and walked knee deep into the water. It was clear and cold, even with the midsummer heat. Talwyn followed me in.
“Do you come down here often?” I asked.
“No, not so often.” she replied. “I used to spend quite a lot of time down here, but other things have kept me away.” She looked around the little three sided canyon, trailing the tips of her fingers across the surface of the water. “Still hasn’t lost its charm after all these years.”
“Its mysterious,” I said. “And old, like it has seen many things and held them secret.” Talwyn glanced sharply at me. “I feel that way about this whole island,” I said, my eyes meeting hers meekly. “I love it, though. I wish I didn’t have to leave so soon.” I picked up a bit of sea weed floating on the water.
“When are you leaving?” she asked, a bit too anxiously for me not to notice.
“Tomorrow afternoon. The bus leaves at three for Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic back to Boston.”
“Is that where you are from?” she asked absently. She was looking down into the water searching for something.
“I live in southern New Hampshire and work in Boston.” I looked down into the water, trying to see what she was looking for. “What about you?” I asked. She looked up at me and smirked.
“Lived here all me life,” she said. She looked back down at the water and stopped short. “There’s one.” she plunged her hand down into the water. As she bent forward her ebony locks fell over her face. Then she stood up, her prize in hand. I moved to stand next to her.
“What is it?” I asked. She held out her hand to show me. It was a small stone, maybe two inches in diameter. It was the same slate gray color of the cliffs that loomed over us but for a white bit of milky quartz that rested at its center. She flipped it over like a coin and I could see that the quartz shot right through the middle and showed on the other side. It looked quite extraordinarily smooth, certainly washed about in this lagoon for many thousands of years getting so.
“It’s a gift stone.” she said as if it were obvious. She looked up at me and went on after seeing no understanding register in my face. “The gift stone is a pebble that for some reason seems to be common along this coastline. I don’t know much about where they come from, but our local legend holds that this stone, when given as a gift, will keep the recipient with the knowledge of how things are with the giver. Sailors used to give them to their wives when they were married so that they would always know how things were at sea.” She paused. “Here. Take it.” She handed the stone to me. It was as smooth as I had imagined. “It seems our budding friendship is to be cut short. You are returning to America tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” I said, not sure how to react to her forwardness. I found myself liking this quality in her though. She seemed genuine and forthright, so different from Holly. “It’s the best souvenir I have picked up on this trip.” She smiled at my words and I joined her.
“So, where is Merlin’s cave?” I spoke in my most melodramatic ominous voice, trying to make a joke to relieve some of the intensity that had developed in our conversation.
“There.” She turned and pointed to the base of the cliff whose top was occupied by the castle. I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed the gaping black hole sooner. It was some fifteen feet tall at the apex of its entranceway. The opening lay completely exposed, the water receded about ten feet past its entrance. Something not quite like fear washed over me. Just as intensely I felt a fascination that drew me towards it.
“Come on, then.” She made her way out of the water and walked back towards the stone face where we had left our things. I followed, reluctantly releasing the cave from my sight. “Leave anything behind that you don’t want to get wet.
“Are we going to be swimming?”
“Perhaps, a bit.” She saw the look on my face. “Nothing to worry about. Come on.” I pulled my wallet and my keys out and stuffed them, along with the gift stone into the bottoms of my shoes and then put my socks on top. She found a little place high up on the wall and we stowed our things in it. She brought out the parcel I had noticed earlier. It was a clear plastic bag. Inside were a few sandwiches, two kiwis, a small pocket knife and a flashlight. “I had to run home for the torch,” she said. I nodded at her. She sealed them back into the bag. “Bring the wine. We’ll picnic in the cave.” I retrieved the bottle and we started towards the entrance.
I was immediately faced with a sense of smallness. The cave was huge, its ceiling well over twice my height. It was wide enough for five large men to walk abreast of each other. The floor was covered unevenly with worn bedrock and large boulders. Water remained trapped in many places and in one place my foot went into water all the way up to my knee. Talwyn hopped with agility from stone to stone and laughed when she had to pause for me to catch up. Her laugh echoed like a light waterfall through the darkened cave. It smelled of moss and barnacles and sea water. I could hear the slow thunder of waves crashing against the headlands.
“Come on, come on.” she called.
“This is absolutely amazing.” I told her. The light was fading as we worked our way into the cave which after several minutes of walking showed no signs of ending. I could make out striations of lighter rock material in the ceiling and down the walls. Some of the boulders on the cave floor stood as tall as the ceiling and it was necessary to go around them. I was just about to ask Talwyn to bring out the flashlight when I noticed it was getting brighter in front of us. I could hear the thunder of waves crashing ahead. A few more minutes walk and the cave opened up before us in a huge crevice that looked out on to the sea from the other side of the headland. The crevice was immense towering some fifty feet above us at it’s peak. Waves broke on the large boulders and the spray flew, glistening into the noonday sun.
“Its like a gigantic rainbow machine,” I exclaimed loudly to be heard over the crash. Indeed, the spray and foam caught in the sunlight and sent colors awash in the air above and around us. I was very impressed. I half sat, half leaned against a rock to watch this chromatic natural display. Talwyn sat next to me.
“This is fantastic,” I said in a voice that to my ears seemed perfectly satisfied.
“This cave is very important, you know.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Do you know what lies beyond here?” she quizzed as we watched a huge splash of spray climb into the air. Our heads moved like we were watching a vertical tennis match.
“Lots of water?” I said jokingly. She did not seem amused.
“Have you never heard of the lost land of Lyonnesse?”
“Yes, it’s part of the Arthur legend,” I said. “It supposedly sank into the ocean and took an entire civilization of people with it. The Little People or Fairy Folk as they are referred to in stories I have read.
“Lyonnesse goes back much further than Arthur,” she said patiently, almost to herself. “Actually, it was mostly legend during his lifetime.” I listened to her words with the old infatuation for all things from that time. She spoke her story with sincerity and as if it were personal.
“Many thousands of years ago, a great island continent existed to the southwest of England. Legends that remain of it even today name it Atlantis. It was a beautiful island on which lived a people the like of which the world has not seen since. There was magic and science and peace. They lived in conjunction with the world, in harmony with their island. Then came a great cataclysm. The island shook for many days with the fury of the bowels of the earth. Atlantis sank into the ocean and disappeared forever.
“There was a land bridge that connected Atlantis with Cornwall and that place was called Lyonnesse. Many Atlantians, those who you called the Fairy Folk, escaped across this land bridge and fled. When the cataclysm was over some settled in Lyonnesse, many here in Cornwall and many to the north in the mountains of Wales. They took to the west country well but never flourished again like in the days of Atlantis. The Fairy Folk of Cornwall and Wales were consigned to be a dying race contented with living out their lives in a simple unadorned fashion. Those who remained in Lyonnesse did so because they held a special responsibility. It was believed that there were still survivors in the ancient homeland of Atlantis, that some had survived and lived far below the surface of the sea. They were a race infused with both powerful magic and a great spirit for survival. This is why they believed.
“Those that went to Cornwall and Wales lost most of their magic. Forgetting those ancient arts was a consequence of disowning their past to escape the pain it gave them. Those who remained in Lyonnesse worked a great magic which allowed them to live long to keep watch for those who might return.”
“But tragedy, it seems, must end this tale, for slowly the land bridge turned peninsula Lyonnesse followed its companion into the sea. Year after year it disappeared and those Fairy folk whose magic had tied them to the land that was their sentry post disappeared with Lyonnesse into the sea.
Talwyn paused and looked over at me. “This headland is the last remnant of that lost land. This cave is the gateway to a forgotten society, a sunken continent and a people who suffered long years in hopes that one day their brethren would find a way back home.” The waves thundered against the side of the headland and I slowly began to realize that I was watching an age in the final throws of death. It made me sad. We sat silent for long moments.
“How do you know so much about this?” I asked after a few moments. “I’ve never heard that story before.”
“It is told across the west country even to this day. It is not as popular as many of the tales the French brought with them about Arthur and this land but it is tied to this land nevertheless. I know about it because I live here in Tintagel. We take our legends quite personally,” she laughed. “Come on. You haven’t seen the best part yet.”
“There’s more?” We stood up and Talwyn picked her way over some rocks to the extreme right of the cave entrance. I noticed while making my own way over that the base of the cliff near the edge of the cave receded a bit, dropping low and away. The low tide left a niche visible at the edge of the small pool of water. Talwyn stood at the edge of the pool. The crashing waves were still a ways off, but I was sure that high tide would leave this whole area underwater. Talwyn stepped into the pool.
“Come on. Time to get wet.” I walked over to the pool’s edge. “How long before the tide comes back in?” I asked hesitantly.
“Hours yet. Come on, don’t be worried.” She turned back towards me and held out her hand. I looked for a place to put the wine down. “No, bring it with you.” I looked at her questioningly. “Trust me,”
I stepped into the pool and took her hand. It was small but strong. I could see in the pool a series of what looked like natural stairs descending towards the cliff wall. The water was still and I could see that some sort of passage lead inwards. Another cave! It was small maybe four feet wide and the water level of the pool was low enough so that some six or eight inches of the top of the cave was air.
“OK, deep breath and follow the steps down. It’s not far at all. You can feel the roof to guide yourself. Its fifteen feet at most.
“We’re going in there?”
“Please trust me.” Her voice commanded my will.
We stepped down so that just our heads were above the water, Talwyn in front. I heard her breathe in and then she dipped below the surface. Her hair spread out around her and then she was gone. I thought for a moment about going back. Curiosity got the better of me, though. Talwyn’s tale was still lingering in my thoughts. I pulled in a deep breath, transferred the wine to my left hand and took a step forward.
When I dipped below the surface my eyes closed automatically and I reached out blindly for the roof. I felt it immediately and began working my way forward. The steps below me were smooth and broad as if they had been hewn by an ancient stone mason. I tried to open my eyes but there was no more light and the sting of the salt forced them shut again. The steps leveled off and then began to climb. I was trying to run through the water my breath running out. When I felt the ceiling start to rise I thrust my head above the water to get a breath and cracked it smartly for my haste. I felt dizzy and pained but the air in my lungs was a great relief.
“Are you OK?” came a voice from the darkness. It echoed from all directions and had a strange deepness to it.
“Yeah,” I told her, my own voice returning to me with the same effect. “But I think I’ve given myself brain damage.” I rubbed the throbbing crown of my head. Her giggles were drowned out by the sound of my splashing up the stone steps into the cave. I was completely disoriented in the darkness and must have looked like a mime trapped in a box, feeling for it’s edges. Slowly I discovered that I could stand up out of the water. The echoes were frightening and I wondered at the size of the cavern. It seemed immense. I was not left to ponder long. Talwyn had found the flashlight and set it on the ground pointing towards the ceiling. The cave lit up and I paused while my eyes adjusted. The walls were slick with moisture condensation. They stood some seven feet tall and the room was an almost perfect circle some twenty feet in diameter. Half of the circle was submerged and the other stood about two feet above the water. It looked too perfect to have occurred naturally. The cave was strangely silent but for the sounds which we made. I felt pressure in my ears like I was still underwater.
“What is this place?” I asked. “How did it get here?”
“The cave is natural,” she said finding a place to sit down. “someone did modify it though. If you look closely at the stairs we climbed up to get in here you can see that the stone has been cut. And there...and there.” She pointed to the edge where the floor dropped off into the pool. I sat down across from her and looked where she pointed. I could see that some sort of a rough tool had been used to complete what nature had started. It was well done work though and seemed very old.
Talwyn began opening the sandwiches and used the knife to cut up the kiwis. They were from New Zealand, not California. She pointed to the wine while we munched. She handed me the pocket knife which had a cork screw on it. After much wrestling it came with a pop that reverberated loudly. We laughed at the sound. She took the bottle from me and took a long pull. She passed it back. The wine was just barely tart, quite fruity and went well with the French bread that enclosed the sandwiches.
“This has been the best part of my vacation.” I told her earnestly. “Everything that we have seen so far has seemed prepackaged and predigested. I wish I had more time here, so I could see more of the real England.” She nodded, picking at her sandwich. In the shadowy light she was very beautiful, mysterious.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“England?” She nodded. “This is probably going to sound melodramatic and sappy to you, but I have always felt a call deep down in here,” I put my hand to my chest, “to come here. Everything that interests me in life emanates from this island. I have heard and read the Arthur tales since I was a small boy. I used to imagine that I was he and that somehow I would be able to find a way to stop the advance of the Saxons. I practiced swordplay in games as a child and fenced in school. I love Shakespeare, Shelly and the Beatles. I have read on the Celts and on the vanishing Fairy Folk and I always wanted to come see for myself the place where all this could have occurred. I paused in my soliloquy, fishing for what else England meant to me. It was the first time that anyone had listened to me voice these thoughts.
“My heritage is from here, you know.” Her answer surprised me.
“I know,” she said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“More mind reading, I suppose.” She laughed it off, but I don’t think I was convinced. I let it drop at any rate.
“This is silly, I suppose, but the moment the plane cleared the clouds over Gatwick and I saw that green checkered landscape, I felt as if...I don’t know.” I stopped and she put her hand on my knee, pushing me to go on. We had been passing the bottle back and forth regularly and I took another pull.
“I felt like I was coming home even though I had never been here before. And I feel like tomorrow I will be leaving to go back to a place that will never be home again.” I understood that it was true in that moment and my discontent about my life grew. I had made myself a bed that I didn’t want to sleep in any more. One that I was no longer welcome in. And yet it was the only bed I had. It suddenly dawned on me that I was playing a dangerous game. I was tempting myself with fantasy and I only had a pathetic reality to return to when I stepped out of this cave. I watched the water lap at the other end of the cave. My head had become muddy with discontent. I felt a lump rise in my throat and I forced it back down not willing to let myself fall apart in front of Talwyn.
Another wave of dizziness washed over me and it seemed like the light dimmed for a few seconds. When it came back up again the dizziness did not leave me.
“Wow,” I said in a low voice. “I must have bumped my head a bit harder than I thought.” She was sitting next to me now, much closer. “Either that or the wine is really kicking my butt.”
“It’s OK,” she said. Her voice sounded strange and dragged out. The light was fading again. My hands fell limply into my lap, my shoulders sagged under the invisible weight.
“Something is wrong,” I said slowly. My voice sounded like it was a long way off. I looked up and noticed that the water had risen in the cave. I became very frightened and tried to get up. I felt her hand on my shoulder then, impossibly strong, myself impossibly weak. “We’ve got to get out of here, the water...”
“It’s OK.” She was cradling me in her arms now. I felt myself falling backward, everything growing dark. “You’ll feel better after you rest.” Her voice was close by but I could not see her. It felt like I was free falling. And then her face was over me. I felt the light silk of her hair on my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” was the last thing I heard for what must have been many hours.
I dreamed of green fields on high rolling hills surrounded by ocean on two sides. In this mind-scape the sun was crisp and electric and I flew low and fast along the contours of the land. Every so often I passed over a small thatched hut or stone shelter. No one was around and the wind was a rush in my ears. I saw the land become wider ahead and then I was walking.
Winds blew the tall grasses about me. The air smelled of earth and sea, fresh and full. I could see her in front of me sitting in the grass. She held a bowl in her lap and was dropping bits of herbs and flowers into it, mashing them with a wooden pestle. She was dressed strangely, differently. Long billowy black skirt with blood red twirling through it. Her top was a plain white tunic. She was whispering words I couldn’t understand.
I stood over her watching. The sky was rapidly changing colors, now black , now a sickly green, now red with streaks of black lighting. There was no sun.
“I had to take you.” she said without looking up from the mixture she was working on. Her hair draped over her face and I had a sickening vision of darkness instead of a face. “I want to make you understand. It’s no longer my choice. We are given what we get in this life. There is little else for us to do. I needed you and you were here. You must understand. Please don’t hate me. I think I have known you before and I would know you again. This is not my choice. It is my responsibility. So many have gone before and now there is only me.”
She stood and the wind caught her hair, her dress, my fear. She stood before me. I could not move. She dipped her fingers in the bowl and retrieved a green dollop of the mixture. Her finger traced strange symbols over my cheeks and forehead. Paralyzed, I could only endure the madness that was rising from deep within my tomb of a soul. Then the bowl was at my lips and the potion on my tongue. I couldn’t stop myself. I drank deeply from that fated bowl.
I don’t know how I knew I was finally back. I came back in waves and sometimes I was there and many times I was not. My first conscious thought was that I could hear water. Thinking that, I knew my eyes were open but I couldn’t see anything.
Her touch startled me. It ran up my arm, crossed my neck and cheek and brushed the hair from my forehead. I lifted my head a bit and turned toward her in the darkness. I felt a pressure in my ears and was very cold.
“You’re back.” I said nothing. “Please don’t be angry.”
I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t frightened. For that one moment I was nothing. I was empty. I listened.
“We were a strong people. We dedicated ourselves to stand though time, to wait, to hope to be there when the others were able to return. But time is an implacable foe and he is aided by allies the likes of apathy and discouragement. We tied ourselves to the land and to each other. Our arts demanded this of us if we were to survive. But even the land we loved failed us. One by one, we each were consumed by the sea. Year after year we performed the ritual, made that magic that would allow us to live through one more turn about the sun. And then there were only a few of us. And then there were only two.”
“Last summer we worked the enchantment one last time. My one last companion in all these eons of waiting. You saw his home, the rock beyond the headland called Sentinel’s Rock. It was his self imposed place of exile, that rock. He had given up long ago and only lived on to see me once a year. To humor me, I think, in the end. Last year I knew it was his last. The light had finally burned out in his eyes. He gave me a gift stone when we parted and slowly as the winter came on, I felt him die.” Her hand was trailing slowly across the contours of my face, my lips, my eyes.
“Each year, before the midsummer sun rises, on the longest day of the year, I must take the love of a Gwynnydi, one of the old race to make the spell that will consign our souls to the earth for another year. He was the last male guardian but not the last of the old race. There are still quite a few of those left in the world. They are the descendants of those who went east and north. Those who can still make the magic are easy enough to tell. Black hair, of Celtic decent, with those luminous green eyes.” Her fingers trailed over my closed eyelids.
I could picture her face in my mind’s eye, hovering over me. High white cheeks, blushing full lips and those eyes. My eyes.
“Yes, I’ve trapped you here. I’m sorry. Please say something. An eternity is a long time to live wondering if someone hated you.” She fell silent for long moments. My dangerous game had worked itself to an unexpected climax. An escape route from my dead end life the size of a gaping cave in the side of a Cornish headland had lain itself out seductively before me. I marveled at its simplicity. I knew I could don it with the ease and comfort of an old cap. The beginning of a new path that I might only pass by once, lost in the forest of my life.
Whether it be a strange masochism or simply a force of habit, I thought of Holly in that moment. I thought of the promises I had made that tied my life to hers. It was the old argument that had kept me on the straight and narrow in many a moment of weakness. I fell under its enrapturing arms once again. My life was to be judged by how I kept my vows, my promises, my word. What sort of person would I be if I gave in to brief pleasure and happiness in direct violation of those vows? Something in my life had to hold meaning. If I couldn’t live my life with the passion of my dreams at least I should hold to my honor with some sort of dignity in respect for what I had given those freedoms up for. How easily one gets trapped in the logic loops of one’s own mind.
“Aaron,” came her voice in the darkness. She was next to me and above me and all around. I felt her bare breast brush against my cheek. A shot of desire flooded through my body and in my turmoil I reacted in the only way I could. Infused with energy from that carnal caress, I stood up backing away from her. The drugs were still in my system and my movements were sluggish, stupid. In one movement, I half launched and half fell into the pool of water. I heard her scream my name just as my head went below the water.
I swam in spasms, eyes closed. I cleared the passageway to the smaller cave and was immediately crushed against a rock by the heavy current of water. I hit with my side and shoulder, knocking out of me what little breath I had left. I threw my arms over my head and sucked in a lung full of water. The rest was a panicked frenzy.
The current that held me against the rock subsided and in its place a vacuum of water sucked me backward. For long seconds I rode in its grasp limbs battering against stone. I remember being on the verge of unconsciousness, wondering what death would be like. Afraid that I would soon know. And then there was air. It rushed into my burning lungs in short choking gasps. I opened my eyes to the last light of the setting sun. I was in the lagoon.
The waves tossed me about lightly and I instinctively began to tread water. I watched as the ebb and flow dragged me towards the headwall. My side ached and my head was thick and numb but I pulled my body into action. I swam toward one side of the wall where it looked to be a bit lower. It was below the level of the onrushing tide and water split up and around it, railing off further down the edge of the cliff. Once I was slammed against the wall and then I felt the low ridge underneath me. I dragged my aching self from the sea, heaving air, spitting brine. I lay in a stupor for many moments.
By the time I thought I could move full night had fallen. I searched the edge of the wall for the spot where we had stowed our belongings and was relieved to find my sneakers still there. They were dry still yet beyond the reach of the high tide.
I don’t remember the walk back to the Tintagel House. I only remember looking up at its lit windows, my hand resting on it’s black ironwork gate. I had my shoes in hand and had dried out very little. I paused at the door, shivering, until there was no one left in the front rooms. I opened the door and stealthfully made my way up the stairs. I didn’t go directly to my room but stepped into the WC out in the hallway.
I closed the door, stripped down and inspected myself in the mirror. The face that looked back at me was quite haggard, nearly the face of a stranger. My shoulder and rib-cage on my right side already had the discoloration of impending bruises, but no bones seemed to be broken. I took a long hot shower which did much to clear my head, though I was still exhausted.
After a brief rehearsal in the mirror of what I was going to tell Holly, I wrapped a towel around myself and exited the WC. It was about fifteen feet from the water closet to our room and I had gotten within five feet of the door when I heard Holly’s voice speak to someone already in the room. I paused.
“Hey,” her voice half whispered, “he could be back any minute.” A giggle, one I had not heard in a few years, fluttered out from under the door. “Stop. My God, isn’t three times in one day enough for you?” The question was answered by a low male grunt.
There was no more emotion left in my body to feel anything. I thought for a brief moment that I should have died out on those rocks, but I couldn’t even feel that truthfully. I coughed loudly and tripped over the corner of a small lamp table that stood against the wall before my hand reached the doorknob. I turned it slowly and let it open all the way before I stepped in.
She was sitting at the foot of the bed, looking back over her shoulder at me. I caught only a moment of shock in those eyes before they recovered their usual chilly gaze.
He was sitting in a high armed chair across from her. He was a Marine, on leave, touring with us on the bus trip. His eyes were on the floor.
“Where the hell have you been?” I was amazed at how she was able to turn the whole thing around without even batting an eye.
“Taking a shower,” I said, matching her calmness. I made my way into the room and dropped my wet clothing on top of a towel on the dresser. My brush was there. I picked it up.
“All day, mister sick man?” Her word were scalding but I didn’t feel them.
“No. I went for a hike up on the headlands.”
“I think I should leave,” came the marine’s voice, rising from the chair.
“Yeah, maybe you should.” I said. He looked at me with the knowing eyes of a man who had been caught red handed. “Hey, your fly is down.” I said, my eyes not leaving his. He glanced down and found it was not. He skulked out of the room with a weak goodnight. When the door shut, I put my brush down and walked over to my side of the bed. On the floor at my feet a white towel was lain out. I noticed that the chair against the wall was askew. I swept the towel aside with my foot and saw a small wet spot on the rug, some six inches in diameter. I stepped over it.
“Did you enjoy yourself today?” I asked.
“Yeah, no thanks to you.”
I pulled back the covers, dropped my towel and got into bed. The cool sheets were soothing but I didn’t think that I was going to be able to sleep so quickly, tired as I was.
Holly got in bed next to me after shutting off the light. As was usual, I couldn’t tell what was going on in her mind. We lay there for many silent moments, neither of us speaking.
“Honey,” I said. I reached a hand over and placed it on her shoulder. She slowly rolled away, wordlessly snubbing me. I pulled my hand back and let it drop to my side.
I awoke not knowing where I was and not sure if I was awake or dreaming. The moon was ripe in our window, its face casting a pale ghostly light into the room. Everything was very quiet. I looked over at Holly, fast asleep at the extreme opposite side of the bed. No feeling registered. I looked around the room. It was surreal. My sneaker lay on its side, atop the dresser. A small round object lay next to it, glowing luminously. The gift stone. I watched it for a moment and wondered if it were too late.
I got up slowly and crossed to the window. The moon stood out over a silver streaked sea. I could make out the silhouette of Sentinel’s Rock. My hand closed over the gift stone.
In my palm I could feel a light heartbeat and a sadness, the mourning of an entire race filled me. Outside the window I could see it was getting brighter.
I tried and tried, but I could not find anything to salvage my feelings for Holly. That part of my life was over. There was no honor left in what I was doing only the cowardice of hiding behind the way things had always been and the arrogance of presupposing that I knew how my life was supposed to turn out. Our vows had been broken, not last night or the night before. They were broken the moment we stopped loving each other. My intentions to fix the situation were only bringing about misery and deceit.
And out there, somewhere, she was waiting for death. The last member of a dying race. We had been brought together when she needed me and I had scorned her for the remembrance of a promise already broken. It occured to me that in trying to choose from two diverging paths, I may have missed both. I could only hope it was not too late.
Resolved, I dressed quickly and silently. I kept the gift stone tightly in my grasp. I stepped out into the hall and put on my shoes. Outside I sprinted down the road toward the Crossbow. It was open, catering to those early risers off to work before the sun. She was supposed to have been there, but was not. When I asked where she lived, no one knew. A feeling of dread came over me. She was still in the cave.
A light mist was falling from the sky. I ran hard all the way back to Tintagel House and past. I searched frantically in the hedgerow for the path. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the sun was nearly in the eastern sky. It was so dark still that I passed the entrance twice before finding it. I scrambled down the path, nearly tripping headlong several times. When I cleared the brush I could hear clearly the thunder of the sea against the rocks. What if the water hadn’t receded yet? I didn’t think I could swim back in there, my body still in pain from the night before.
I came up on the headwall and nearly toppled over in my haste. I felt for the footholds and lowered myself down. The rocks were still wet and my hands slipped. When I hit the sand my ankle twisted hard. I cried out in a guttural yelp. Pushing myself forward, I could see the water had just cleared the far end of the cave. I limped over to it and gave one last look at the sky. It was brightening into a misty gray that I had become used to in the past two weeks. It was the beginning of the longest day.
On sheer adrenaline, I forced myself over the rocks in complete darkness. I tried to remember my way but twice I went the wrong way round a tall boulder and found myself against the wall of the cave.
Finally it loomed before me, that great rift in the sky. It seemed bright, too bright. The water was much higher this time and I had to fight the waves to find the steps in the pool. I dove in. I swam the entire distance, my hurt ankle agonizing as I kicked. My clothes and sneakers were heavy and dragged at my progress. My reaching hands felt the first step and I pulled myself up quickly into the ancient cavern.
It was dark and as the water drained off me I could hear quiet sobbing. It stopped with a little gasp.
“Aaron?” I nodded, stupidly unaware that she couldn’t see me. I stepped up into the room kicking around for the flashlight. “Yeah, it’s me, Talwyn.”
I felt her against me, her body cold. I clasped her to me and ran my hands through her hair. “You’re so cold.” I tried to warm her with my hands.
“Please,” I felt her grasping hands at my abdomen, “take me now.” I pulled off my shirt and she did away with my shorts. We fell to the floor and she climbed on top of me. In a quick second I was inside her. It was then I realized how long it had been since I was last with a woman. Her lips were on mine in a fierce passion and we found a rhythm.
When the moment became desperate our bodies straining for release, she sat up without breaking stride and began to chant words I could not understand. The echoes wound themselves through the cave and worked into a rhythmic song. Her voice carried high the ancient lyrics of magic nearly dead in the world. I felt her body shudder and I let loose in that same moment, coaxed beyond ecstasy. Her song went on, unbroken breathless. The air around us warmed and glowing light filled the cave, its' source right next to my head. I turned and saw the gift stone pulsing on the floor next to us, the color of the moon.
And then it was over. Her body collapsed on mine even before the echoes had silenced themselves. Her hair draped over both of us. The light of the gift stone slowly faded.
I ran my fingers through her hair and wondered at the creation of the world.
I returned to the States late that night. I barely made the bus to the airport, actually. Talwyn and I spent a good part of the morning walking along the headlands talking of small things. When we parted I told her that I would return for her before the next summer solstice. It was funny but in those few hours that we had known each other we hadn’t really fallen in love. Everything had been for a higher purpose but I think we both knew then at our parting kiss that it was only a matter of time. And we both had plenty of that.
In her renewing, I was also renewed. I pondered the fact, on the flight back, that for the next year I would not age.
A month after we returned Holly served me with divorce papers. I gave her nearly everything save for a small savings account I had kept. I think she was surprised that I didn’t put up a bigger fight.
In late May of this year I closed out the last of my affairs, said goodbye to my home in the States and made my way back to Cornwall. I was no longer a part of that world and never would be.
I am writing this in late July of the year 1994, a month past the Solstice. I am now a permanent resident of the little village of Tintagel. I work in King Arthur’s Book Shoppe where I am part owner thanks to that savings account.
Talwyn and I have a thatched roof cottage near the headlands. At night we cuddle close under big quilted blankets and for a few hours before sleep takes us each night, she relates to me the history of our people and their lost land.
It is a long tale and I’m sure we will fill many books, but that’s OK.
We’ve got time.