With the death of the Earl, a weight seemed to lift from the room. The house seemed to grow lighter. And Martin felt stronger as the grimy windows lit up with the dawn’s fresh sunlight.
It looked like it was spring outside. And life surged again and rebirth caught up the house and it became no longer a chapel for the wind. Martin stood up by himself, stumbling slightly in his weakness.
He stepped down from the dais, blinking in the dusty light. He went to the windows and wiped the grime from them. And fresh light washed the room, showing it clearly to him as though he was seeing it for the first time. And for a moment Martin could almost see the splendour of its heyday.
He walked over to the cauldron in the fireplace. And now that he looked closely the crack seemed to be only superficial. And Martin wondered if the Earl’s grievous wound had likewise only needed to be allowed to heal. He pulled the cauldron upright upon the grate. It looked warm and comforting inside, bathed in the spring sunshine that streamed directly from the windows to warm its earthenware curves.
And so Martin hauled himself up over the brim and lay down inside it. And there, in the darkness, curled up, his knees against his chest, the winds outside fell silent to his ears fro the first time Martin could remember. And for the first time in ages Martin slept, a deep, restful sleep. And he dreamed.
Martin dreamed of a ship, on a white-edged, shifting sea. Rocks line the way as the oars strain at the waves and the prow rides up and forward, treading the line between destruction and the continued journey, that seemingly endless journey home. Yet the rocks the ship is now cautiously easing past stretch out with welcoming arms, and they seem so strong and safe and silently knowing.
And maybe here there will be an end, an end to the blasting winds, to the deathless night, the stinging salt against the face, the cracked lips and their parched eyes slit shut against the stinging rain driven to them. There will be an end at last, but oh, what end is that?
And there is a song on the wind, drifting up from those jagged, sharp sharp rocks. A song that is so quiet the wind all but drowns it. But then the singers appear, coming up upon the tallest rocks to sit. And the three singers lift their sinuous, alabaster throats and sing out to the sky and the waves and the weary, suffering men.
And they are beautiful. Long hair waving in the breeze, skin that glows with the light of deep-sea pearls, eyes that shine the deepest blue: of the Mediterranean on those summer days when the sun is burning the back and those silent, blue waters ache to be touched; to cool and refresh and embrace those aching, burning limbs.
And the women on the rocks smile sweetly at the sailors, flash those aching eyes and laugh amid the song. And they toss back their hair and they are naked, and perfect and alluring, so alluring a man could drown in the sight of them. And they beckon, with lyrics of such piercing sweetness the words become more than words and the song more than song and more like a weight attached to the soul, pulling unrelenting, and the will following without reluctance.
Yet the men do not dare to look and they turn their eyes to the wind-blown sodden planks at their feet. They concentrate their will upon the oars, the rasping wood in their straining palms. The ritual of pull back and down and forward and pull back and down and forward and they take comfort in such a measured practice of daily life. And they focus on their present, the breathing in and the breathing out and the rumbles in their ration-starved bellies and the lines on their faces and the aches in their hearts and they do not listen to the song. For that is what they have been told. That is what they believe.
For death is a lure that does not bring freedom; they know this in their hearts though on days like this their minds may turn to the side and to the rocks. Though they have all seen the wrecks and the faces of the wrecked and the eyes are bloated and the faces white and they do not look at peace.
And so, the sailors reject the rocks, and the pull of the siren singers. Their ears are plugged with stiff wool. They are stern, no-nonsense men, usually little given to such thoughts the sirens sing of. What is real is the oar and the bench. The small meal in a few hours, a snatch of sleep, a day of work, maybe a laugh with a good friend and colleague, maybe a day in silence, pulling with your own hands the boat a little closer to home. The head raised and those weathered eyes fixed on the counter-lure of the horizon.
Yet one man hears the song, one man listens, believing, rightly or wrongly, that he can hear the sirens, feel that cold ache in his belly as the song pulls him to feel the death-love. And when the song ends, he can still live on after hearing its sweet lure.
For this man the lure of the horizon is powerful enough to cleanse his thoughts of the rocks once they have passed behind. For this man believes death has no attraction for him. And perhaps he is right for five times he has already faced this temptation and five times he has rejected it. And today he will reject it again and three times more until he reaches his home.
Will he live happily after that, will life sing more sweetly to him than death after hearing fully its lyrics and its melody. The story does not say but this is his choice, this walking of the line, this foot in both camps that few are brave enough or foolish enough to try.
And from the man’s face he does not seem to be enjoying the choice. He is lashed fast to the main mast of his ship, his hands bound and his torso wrapped tight with strong rope. Yet the sinews strain and threaten to break with the force of his struggles. And his face is twisted and screaming in anguish for he hears the song and all that he is wishes to follow it and obey the beckoning glances and flashing eyes of the siren singers on the rocks. And the song is torment to him for he cannot obey.
And he screams and wails at his friends pulling at the oars to release him and promises them anything their hearts can desire. He promises them more than he can deliver, he pours out his soul and offers it to them on a plate if only one of them would just loosen the bonds that hold him from the sirens and the rocks. Yet they are good friends, and loyal to his quiet words before, taking what he cries now for the madness it seems to be. And they bend to their work and ignore the writhing, screaming man on the mast. The man held up by the boat that, slowly yet continually, pulls him past the song, away from the danger.
And the boat carries him on. And he weeps like a child as the song dies on the wind and the gateway held open so temptingly for him starts to close shut again. And the boat carries him on. And past the rocks. And the world slides back into place and the waves and the wind become more solid again. And he calms and breathes as the song dies and rests his eyes on the horizon and lets himself feel the rough rope and the strong mast and tries to believe they are real.
And they release him a few hours later, when his eyes have stopped their madness. And they are cautious, fearing he will dart to the side and leap to the waves. Fearing he would swim back to the rocks they can no longer see and he could never reach, yet he would swim until his strength failed. But their fears are not met and the man goes and sits by himself and stays awake all night, hugging his knees.
And in the morning the man meets the dawn and greets his friends with slaps on the back. And he laughs to them about the beauty of the women, the plumpness of their breasts and hips and thighs. And, relieved, his friends join in with innuendo and crude jokes and they break open the last of the wine and sing to the sky and the waves.
Their songs are loud and rude and raucous but they wash the siren song away. And their faces are happy and the men feel alive and free and the memories of the rocks seem but a bad dream. And they never speak of it amongst themselves again. And most grow to believe it was just a nightmare.
And the man looks to the horizon again and takes a long look. And at length he takes an oar and seats himself on the hard, comfortless bench and starts to row. Powerful, measured strokes, his eyes on the horizon, never turning away. Finding comfort in the regularity, finding hope in the pull back and down and forward and pull back and down and forward.
And pull back and down and forward.
And he smiles.
Martin awakes. He raises his head, refreshed by his sleep. And he doesn’t know how long he has slept for but his limbs are loose and strong and his head is light. And he climbs from his rest and peers out over the brim of the cauldron where he has spent his night. The bed he has rested in seems strange now, though when he had climbed into it it had seemed the most natural place to rest; the only safe place in the harshness all around. Yet now the dining room is new and fresh.
The stewards are bustling around, cleaning the dust, removing the detritus of the Earl’s feast, cleaning the windows and opening them to let in the fresh air of the morning. And Martin, feeling foolish for climbing into this scene of normality by entering from the belly of a cauldron, climbs quickly from it and hurries out of the busy room.
All the art and sculptures are clean again and shining with the beauty that they were made to represent. No longer hollow symbols of pointless exertion, now they sit and quietly speak of a deeper truth; of the quiet splendour of achievement, and of the framed and worked beauty of the natural.
And Martin sees them and is encouraged as he makes his way past the stewards and the servants that pay him no attention as they work. For they are being paid now by the new Earl, a younger and more vibrant man who arrived with the dawn on a sleek, white charger with a retinue of companions. He has taken this ancestral home and vowed to restore it to the splendour and purpose it once knew.
And maybe he will be more successful than his father, and maybe the wound his father suffered will not trouble him. And maybe his end will be more dignified than that troubled old man. There are always possibilities, there is always hope.
But Martin walked on, unseeing this, only noticing the change in his surroundings. His journey continued separate from the young Earl’s. For the new Earl stayed and tended the House and it became the House of Succour again. For a time.
And Martin left and stepped out and breathed the fresh air of the morning. For the wind outside is no longer rushing cold and lonely from the moors. The wind has changed and it blows cool and soft, the smell of the trees on its crest.
And the wasteland outside, the stony rubbish and the red rocks are gone, delusions of a weary mind perhaps. Fears of troubled thoughts. Or something else. Martin tries not to think of it, and of the words that the wind made him think he heard. He steps out, alone again, fresh, yet his knees wobble as he reaches the gate.
He looks out hesitantly at the shifting landscape of Acheron once again, hoping that the next leg of his journey will be kinder than before. Yet knowing that the spaces out here are vast and he could so easily become lost in the spaces between things again. Fearing the return of the wind. Knowing every cloud brings it closer, despair not fully beaten, just suppressed as though beneath the stone foundations of the House. Awaiting a wounded mind to prey upon, feeling for the cracks in his optimism, tracing the lines of his hope with the bone fingers and waiting. Always waiting.
And Martin shivers and steps out into the morning. And hitches up his trousers, fixes his eyes on the horizon to the east and sets off. Feeling the familiar tread of the earth beneath his feet, the exposed skin on his neck contract at the weight of the sky, vast and uncaring above.
Yet the land is now green underfoot, and crops are growing in the fields that he passes. And there are rivers running past, sweet water that he can stop at and be refreshed. And when he is rested he goes on still despite this, his feet steady, his steps measured, finding comfort in the regularity of walking, forward and down and lifting up and forward and down.
And lifting up and forward and down.
And he smiles.