tagSci-Fi & FantasyHow Death Came to Mr Thomas

How Death Came to Mr Thomas


The weathered grey stone of this chapel is married to the grey hillside like a blade to its handle; I, I have been priest of this chapel for thirty years; I grow as weathered and gray as the hillside and the chapel and the walls of grey cloud which surround it. The weeks pass in peace, until my flock visit me on Sundays for a brief, climactic hour and then leave again, remembering like their own flocks where their heft is on the hills, letting the walls remember their grey silence like a peaceful death.

In the weektime, unless a parishoner troubles me for my signature on a will or seeks the marital advice of this old bachelor, I attend to my small garden, and the next week's sermon, and my poetry. The garden is enough for my own needs and no more, but I rarely have to travel to town for vegetables; I have been good steward of the earth God has given me, I have lived by the sweat of my brow and taken enough for my own need. In like form I write the sermons: whatever my text, I preach against excess, against waste. Some of my flock live in heated houses, though they keep it from me, and have machines to sweep the floor; I cannot abide this softness. It will be the death of all of us.

I write the sermons in the old tongue, a language full of poetry, but my words have no cadence, no harmony. The poetry I write I write in my birth-tongue, English, the thin language. I myself was old when I learned the old tongue, the language of my flock, yet in a month I could greet, in a year I could converse, in five I could preach and counsel. Yet verse in the old tongue eludes me still, and I write it in the language I inherited from my parents along with original sin.

The bards who write in the old tongue, those who were born to it, they hold great feasts, and tell stories far into the night around the firelight, and compete to win a wooden throne. I write through the days dreaming of this throne, and it bites my dreams at night. The poets in London say, I have heard, that my poetry has some merit, but little I care for their palms before my feet. Like our Lord before us, it will be the death of all of us.

It was one Sunday morning when the winter was beginning to sharpen the air that she walked through the door and paused beside the font. The congregation had long since left for their dinners of mutton and the sacristan had left to play rugby, I believe; I did not ask too closely. I put away what small amount of silver we have, safe in the wall, and was turning to fold the cloth on the table when I saw her, clad all in black with a dark veiled hat. I turned and coughed and dusted down my cassock; she took a few steps forwards and sat in the pew three from the back, like a good Anglican.

My first thought was to wonder at this woman, a woman I had never seen before. Perhaps she was some literary London critic intent on asking me about the meaning in a recent sonnet; I had been caught that way before. As I approached, however, she smiled at me, and said, "Excuse me, Father," in the old tongue, and I knew she was not English-born.

She was, as I have said, black-clad, with a silver cross around her neck looped at the top for the chain; her clothes and skirts were loose-fitting, but-- I have no reason to hide my feelings here-- she was a shapely woman, attractive at least physically, and my heart quickened to look at her.

"Can I help you?" I asked her, still in the old tongue; where I could leave English behind I would do so. "I believe I have not met you before."

She smiled again, and said, "I have met you once before, I recall, but it was several years ago. I have travelled to meet you. I'm not from the village. My name is Gwen."

I was a little puzzled; there was no way she could have driven in a vehicle or ridden a bicycle or a horse without me hearing her approach. The church is a mile from anywhere, and there is gravel all around; when it is silent inside, you can hear anyone coming. She must, then, have made her journey on foot. Why would anyone come so far in that way?

I sat down beside her, and she turned to face me. Her hands remained in her lap, but something in her demeanour changed slightly, feminine, female, but somehow slightly less ladylike, yet still she seemed to me unmistakably gentle-born. One of her knees rested slightly on the edge of the pew; I felt my flesh stirring, grateful for my cassock.

"You are a bard, Mr Thomas?", she said.

"A poetaster, a scribbler," I said, casting down my eyes with a sigh.

"You write, though," she said, "and all the world knows it. But not to pay the bills, nor to buy yourself luxuries?"

"I have no need of luxury," I said. "No need for a heated house, no need for a radio and a machine to clean the floor and wash my clothes. I am a priest, and that must always be my first love."

"I suspect it is your second," she said.

I looked at her in a moment of puzzlement. "I have no wife. No need of any wife. I am fine, I am happy." I knew it was a lie, but it was a lie I had told to myself since my youth, and I was accustomed to the pretence of believing it. There was no reason not to tell it to strange women, even one who herself made me wish I had married.

"Writing is your first love," she said.

I nodded an assent to her and to the columns that surrounded us, filled with their centuries of prayer. I had been unfaithful to my calling, perhaps, yet I always would be so. And yet I would always be unsatisfied even in my adultery, for the one true poem in the old tongue, and so the one true prize, would elude me forever.

"I shall never win the chair, Miss...", I said, and then realised I did not know her name.

"You never will," she said, and I caught my breath at the insult. "My name is Gwen. Gwen ferch Nudd. I have been looking for you."

A few minutes of silence passed between us, before I stammered out, "You... you are... I thought you were a man? In the old stories, I mean."

She smiled and reached for my hand, and I did not pull it away. "I am that one. I am here for you."

I looked at her now, full in the eye, and wondered whether I had ever loved writing or priesting more than I loved death. Death had been the hope I held onto, my light in the storm, the knowledge that one day, however bad my life remained, I too would pass away. I looked her in the eye and slowly and quietly found myself saying, "I love you."

"I love you," she said. "I love everyone."

And I found I was kissing her, kissing her deeply, kissing her cold lips with my hands and arms around her and with her kisses swallowing my mouth as though she was starved. I don't know how long we kissed, but my head was exploding with joy and words, and not just words but harmony and enjambment and patterns and alliteration, the dance of words in the old tongue, and every kiss was a new englyn. And I can say that I sat panting with my head hanging afterwards, and squeezing her hand. I think I said, "I love you. I have been waiting for you all my life," but perhaps I composed her a love-sonnet in the old tongue. It comes to much the same.

"You can write in the old tongue now, then," she said. "You could win the chair. I have struck bargains before now..."

"I want to go with you," I said.

"You would not want to give the world a single englyn milwr? They will carve your poems in English on your tombstone, my love, if I take you now and they find you cold on the floor of the nave."

I nodded. "Three years, then? Five? I could win the chair in five."

She laughed. "Mr Thomas, most folk are sad to see me, or angry, or driven out of their minds. Nobody has kissed me in a hundred years. Nobody has ever kissed me as you kissed me today. I would give you a year for that kiss alone."

"Take me now, then," I said. "I cannot win within a year. Awdls take time to write and time to consider."

"I may give you five," she said. "I may. Kiss me again."

There was a strange uncomfortable moment before our lips met for a second time, a moment of familiarity and unsureness like the moment when you are not sure with a new friend whether to use the polite forms in the old tongue or the familiar; then she was kissing me again and the cold fingers of her left hand wound into my hair. Suddenly with her right hand she was unbuttoning her skirt and throwing it to the floor, and with her left she thrusted my head downwards; I tripped and stumbled and righted myself, and as I did so she leaned back in the pew and put the soles of her shoes on the pew in front.

"Kiss me," she said, "kiss me there." Her breath was faster now, and noisier, and she slammed my face between her legs into a place I had not previously explored, wet and beautiful as an April morning. For a moment I thought my heart would burst; my flesh swelled almost painfully and my breath choked, and then I kissed her. She whimpered, and with some experimentation and her guiding hand in my hair I found a place which caused her to whimper more; I kissed and licked her, she squeezed her thighs around my ears. Her whimpering became moans; her right hand rubbed at her breast.

"Your fingers..." she said, "inside me." I almost tried to reply and then realised I was unable; even if my lips and tongue had not been otherwise occupied, I was scarcely able to form a word of conversation in either language; instead the poetry was burning my mind like a house. I could have won a chair, I could have won a thousand chairs. If the sun in its glory were made of metaphor, it would have been a small candle beside the red and gold word dance in my mind at that moment.

I touched her carefully with my long finger, the finger we call the porridge-finger in the old tongue, and soon found the place where it would slide in, to a happy squeal from above me. I began to slide it in and out and her moaning turned to panting, turned to screaming. My heart hammered in my chest; her thighs squeezed my head until it should burst; thunderclap, thunderstorm, ocean, firestorm, darkness, and death.

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