Chapter I: Fordham and the Barley House
For twenty-six years I had dwelt in the greater heirloom of my family. It was a grand Victorian manse that sat primly in the centre of what was once a tobacco farm on the western outskirts of the town of Fordham, near to Dunna Cairn. The Barleys had lived in this home for time out of mind, lost in the fields of Ur, interacting unprofessionally and sporadically with the little government of Fordham, though the locals regarded us not as their cohabitants in that land. My grandfather told me that we had been there longer than the town-folk, that our family had arrived a full hundred years before any of the other settlements were established. Supposedly, Dunna Cairn was raised by my direct ancestor, Peter Barley (although the name at the time was Barol, from the Old Country), and that we were the only people for hundreds of leagues around that could approach that old stone without fear. God knows none of the town-folk could.
During my twenty-fifth year at Barley House I made it my business to discover the history of the property itself, for our family was far older than the farm upon which we had lived and under which we had been buried for a time. As a child I spent many a summer day wandering the lower regions of the house, examining the cool stone of the cellar walls, checking every so often to push on them and see if they would budge, revealing a secret passageway, or opening a trove of mediaeval weapons or of jewels and gold.
Alas! I did not find such a marvellous discovery, though I did make a dear friend. His name was Alastair, and we did everything together. My parents could not see him, of course, and neither could I, strictly speaking. You see, time gets long during those empty days when the Sun moves so lethargically across the sky, and the town was not the most sociable of environs for our family. I was an only child after my sister passed, and although I barely remember her (I was only three and she a mere girl of seventeen), I can recall poignantly the sense of extreme loneliness that haunted my steps thereafter. Alastair became a marvellous comfort then, a companion who would lead me on all kinds of adventures, who always appeared when I most needed a friend.
In the summer of my eighth year, Alastair ceased to show his face to me. And by the time I was twelve, his voice was gone, and his scent, and his words that would pass to me on paper and glass were discontinued indefinitely. This was a sore blow to me, but I was raised by my uncle to be strong, to face loneliness with a kind of courage and joie de vivre, to know myself before aught else. I mourned my friend that year in my own silent way.
When I celebrated my thirteenth year in March, I knew once and for all that it was time to grow up. I was to go to a new school, at long last attending the same classes as my conspicuous peers in our little town of Fordham. Before this, I had been homeschooled: in the mornings by mother, and in the evenings by uncle. I was permitted to skip lessons in the Summer, for which I was grateful in the end, as without this veritable cornucopia of leisure, might I have forgone the acquaintance of dear Alastair? I think so, yes. All the same, my life before I ended those formative years had been small, closed-up, with much knowledge but little understanding.
Fordham College (before it burned down and the children were shipped off to the community schools in Savan and Gells) consisted of a singular schoolhouse, in which the entirety of the class was taught by two teachers, whom I considered quite strangely paired. Mrs. Yaris was a decrepit old woman who came from the oldest family in town (apart from the Barleys, that is), whose husband was the local preacher. She had a knack for corporal punishment and witch-like cursing, and never failed to indulge herself in the barbaric practices of lines and maths and that most detestable of sciences: recitations. Mr. Romakin, on the other hand, was nearly always silent, and when he spoke, he did most of it by writing on the chalkboard and pointing. The sounds that came from his mouth were nearly impossible to translate, and the students mocked him in secret every time he attempted to communicate in this way.
Mr. Romakin had gone away some years ago when he was fifteen, and returned without his voice. As a child, he attended school without truancy, played with his friends in the evening, and frequented the church each week as a model penitent. Then, one morning, he was gone. It doesn’t take long for a person’s absence to be noticed in a little community like Fordham, and before midday, the news had gone about town: Young Ricard was missing.
Ricard’s family immediately issued forth the announcement that everyone longed to hear. Ricard was not missing at all, but had, in fact, been called away on a divine mission to the wastes of Gehenna, and there he travelled with God’s good grace and the prayers of his loving family and friends. Fordham breathed out a sigh of relief (with no small degree of disappointment, for they loved a good scandal), and shifted their gaze to the new assistant preacher in town, a young man by the name of Regan Farcy, who proved terribly boring after the usual six-month period of communal scrutiny.
Fordham had a fairly uneventful history. It was founded by two farming families who split the land in twain— the east for the Ur’s and the west for the Laramie’s—and when the war passed through Leed, raging just north of Dunna Cairn so that smoke was seen on the horizon at sunset, the town of Fordham remained untouched by either victor or victim. Which was just how they liked things, you see, for the town of Fordham was barely even a town at that time, and their resources were exceedingly scarce. After the war, the world grew steadily more and more silent. Travellers would pass through about twice per year, most of them passing north through Leed on their way west in the Spring and then returning east in the Fall. A few traders would try their wares in Fordham, much to the delight of the youths and the chagrin of the aldermen.
There was but a single piece of gossip worth circulating in recent memory. The dame Freya, wife of Corin Usher, and the Reverend’s son, Aaron Yaris, had been seen by Henrietta one full moon, romping about in the eastern Laramie (the field that touched the deadlands between the two primary groups of fields). No one knew Henrietta’s last name. Every time the old woman was asked, she would give a different answer, along with a lengthy account of a rich and exciting heritage that was never the same as her previous account. But for all her delusions, Henrietta was not considered a liar by the people of Fordham, and the news of this midnight affair between so young and revered a man and so mature and responsible a woman danced on the lips and in the ears of every single person the next day without exception.
Well, nothing much came of that gossip, apart from the hushed-up divorce and continued cohabitation of the Ushers, but it never passed out of mind until old Henrietta grew older still, and speech failed her, ceasing her tiresome canards. Ricard had vanished two years prior to the silencing of Henrietta, and most folk had accepted his absence, having exhausted their various alternate theories and conformed to the resolve of the Romakin’s and the collective memory of the boy’s piety and godly inclinations. But it had been nearly eight months, and since the gossip of Freya and her boy had grown overused, the people had their ears open for the next big thing. They received it outright.
When Ricard returned at the end of that year, it was not his silence that struck most people as odd, but the amount which he appeared to have aged. When he departed so suddenly on his calling, he had not a wrinkle on his face nor a hair upon his lip, yet here he was only two and a half years later, looking as though he had passed a decade and more in rough country among wicked people, hearing hateful things, enduring the ravages of Time more rapidly than his peers. Why, he was not even recognized at his arrival, but treated as though he were a weary traveller come too late for the merchant trade east of Leed, meeting the return caravans with little to no wares remaining. He was put up at the tavern, and in the morning his room was empty, and the Romakin’s announced the return of their long-departed son.
You can imagine the confusion that followed, along with the delight and fervour of such a rumour-deprived town, in the aftermath of the strange homecoming. Ricard did not speak to anyone when he went about the town; he only grunted and pointed with his unnaturally aged fingers, moved with his eyes downcast, and to everyone’s dismay and befuddlement, avoided the church like the plague. For nearly a six-month the gossip of poor Ricard Romakin flourished greater than the crops of Fordham, and he was considered with much intrigue and revulsion—the new Henrietta in a way, for the old woman, though she lived still, stayed in bed always, tended only by her affectionate niece and the town physician who brought her potions for her discomfort.
Such was the world I entered three years later in my thirteenth year, and as I stepped foot into Fordham College, I knew at once that Mr. Romakin was different. It was the eyes, I suppose. He had very youthful eyes, but they were sunken into his skull and so emblazoned with shadows that I thought, at a glance, that he had no eyes whatsoever, but rather two black caverns in the centre of his decrepit face.
Mrs. Yaris was clearly the head teacher. It was she who gave assignments, who meted out discipline and slander, who bossed around the students and her co-teacher, but Mr. Romakin was always my favourite. I can’t say why exactly, except that there was a sort of kindred feeling I had about him. Perhaps it was his outcast status that was subliminally communicated to me through the minute behaviour of my fellow students, or perhaps in the lingering, knowing gaze with which he would hold you, that look of extreme sympathy ever upon his weary face. My mother had a similar look before she passed. To put it simply: Mr. Romakin was different, and I liked that about him.
School was good for me, I think, mostly thanks to my uncle’s cosmopolitan lessons in my earlier years. And as time passed on, I found myself more and more attuned to the nature of the world, the variety of human perspectives both East and West, and the multitude of pitfalls in the world of conscious beings. By contrasting the philosophies of Irenaeus and Tertullian with the poetry of Rumi and Hermes Thrice-Great, and by regurgitating my affinity for the romance of Blake, the horrors of Hemlock, the simplicity of Lao Tse, and the rich diversity of many other creatives, I turned what would have been an intensely limiting system of societal conditioning into a dialectic venue, where I and my peers were not only students and Yaris and Romakin not merely teachers, but all of us voracious minds pushing and pulling against the unknowable fabric of reality and human experience.
At least, that was how I saw it. In reality, I ended up dismissed from class on a regular basis, and recurrently ostracized by my peers who just wanted to get through the lecture rather than lengthen it. So, I learned to time my comments and select my audience more wisely. The folk of Fordham got to know me after a couple of months, and after about eight months, the name of “Barrow-ley” fell out of use surrounding my humble self. It was still used of my family and our home, but because I was known to be quite personable and “integrated” in a way, a certain courtesy was extended in my company to speak less ill of my kin. I do not believe this would have happened if my esoteric musings had not been reserved for a select few.
My greatest friend during my four years at school—and the only fellow student who would encourage me and participate in my arguments against the one-sidedness of our education—was a young girl named Iseult. She was my age, and after a few conversations, we learned that we shared a birthday, which we both found extremely amusing. She wasn’t always at school, for she had an aged great-aunt for whom she cared, and who had no family left. I could sympathise; my parents were both passed as well, and it often felt like I was the one taking care of my uncle and not the other way around. Beside this, the only other inhabitant of Barley House was the caretaker, Ms. Isla, whose only family was her hairless cat, Maelstrom (I called him Mel, and was perpetually reprimanded by Ms. Isla for not using his full name). In time, I heard all about her great-aunt Henrietta, and my interest began to increase surrounding Iseult and her family.
Like her aunt, Iseult had no last name. She was just Iseult, or “Henrietta’s girl”. Her parents had left her with her great-aunt when she was only an infant, and suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, but this was done so swiftly that most people in town didn’t even realise it had happened, and Henrietta insisted for so long that Iseult had come to her in a dream and she had awoken to find her spinning in circles on the bed next to her, or that the girl was discovered in a field in exchange for a returned changeling, or that she herself gave birth to her immaculately, that the people eventually ceased to concern themselves with this particular piece of gossip and moved on to more palatable morsels of information.
It is a unique quality in the town of Fordham that the people are particularly selective about their gossip. If they can’t control the story themselves, it falls out of fashion, and people dismiss it as “that nonsense” and find for themselves a more malleable story. I was just such a story for a time: the deathly boy from Barrow House. I never was quite sure why they all thought I was sickly. I was quite pale I suppose, and I didn’t speak much to begin with, but I was hardly ever ill. It may be that being subjects of the town’s gossip is a similarity that first attracted me to Iseult, and to Mr. Romakin.
As we grew older, Iseult and I spent more time together, and in September of 1922, we went together to live at Barley House. I think the people of Fordham anticipated this, and they were not surprised (and were, in fact, somewhat encouraged) when we relocated old Henrietta to our home, hoping the fresh air and quiet would do her some good. In the years that followed, my uncle passed, Fordham grew, and Henrietta lost her sight and her hearing along with her appetite. I grieved for my uncle appropriately, and we buried him on the property behind the house. Ms. Isla was extremely distraught, and within a fortnight, she had vanished. Mel, the cat, remained, prowling about the house, catching mice and flies and spiders. He liked to keep Henrietta company, so much so that when the doctor would come to tend to her (which was nearly every day now) the beast would hiss and guard her ferociously. I never liked old Mel, but I respected his resolve, though I was simultaneously frustrated by his noncompliance. Iseult was the only one who could calm him and carry him away so the doctor could ply his trade.
Barley House, before Iseult came to live there, was a dreary and unfriendly place. Ms. Isla, though an excellent caretaker when it came to the greenhouse and garden, the graveyard, and the library, was an absolutely deplorable custodian of hygiene everywhere else in the house. Dust would accumulate on the bannisters and shelves and floors. Insects and spiders were regular neighbours, and rodents could be heard in the walls almost regularly. Mel was a help to that particular problem, but even he couldn’t get rid of them all. Food would spoil from sitting too long in the kitchen. And, as I grew older, the cellar was more and more neglected, until at last the mould problem down there grew so bad that we had to board it up.
Then I brought home my wonderful young wife, and where shadow and decay had once held dominion, there was now sunlight and fresh air. The basement remained boarded up, for the problem was too large and expensive to remedy in our present state, but there was always fresh food in the kitchen, improved air circulation, new candles on the sconces, and mouse traps in the corners. It was as though she had exorcised the old and catatonic spirit that had lurked throughout the house for years, and brought in a new, young ghost, filled with a sort of joie de morte in its newfound state of perpetual energy which it spread kindly to us lingering mortals who were its unwitting cohabitants.
I spent much of my time in the library, sitting next to a fire in an old chair which held a combined scent of the perfume of my mother and the tobacco of my uncle that brought my mind to a wonderfully temperate state, or pacing the floors, sipping a tonic, reading a novel, smoking a pipe, listening to an antiquated album from a bygone age or to the incantations of Iseult, or doing any combination of these things as behoved me at the moment. I also took to writing poetry and prose, musing on philosophy, and trying my hand at the disciplines of my intellectual forebears.
Iseult was a dedicant to the arts and the sciences, a creator and herbalist whose mind was unmatched in the worlds of men and spirits, who was altogether caring, sharp as a double-edged sword, and well-versed in occult and religious workings. Her delight was in the contemplations of mysteries innumerable, the meditations of lesser-known pioneers of the mind, body, and soul, and the subtle vibrations and sensual interplay of many musical instruments and disciplines of the body. I daresay she would ne’er be victim to any wolf, whose prowl was physically or spiritually substantiated.
As time progressed, we both came to care for Henrietta with equal mindfulness (and, truth be told, a small degree of distracted neglect), though there was less we could do in time, and the duties passed steadily into the hands of the physician. There were three instances in recent days where we thought she stood at Death's door, and each moment she came through the other end, uttering not a word, consuming not a bite, but persisting to breathe, ever so shallowly, and to trace with her hand upon her sheets perpetual circles within circles.
So, we spent our days enchanted, content in our endless adventures to nearby cities and uncharted regions on the border of civilisation, for which we drew up our own maps and catalogued creatures we had discovered according to our own methods. Great was the magick we gathered in those years, and great was our passion, ambition, and revelry in one another’s minds and beauty and in our unshakeable mutual faith. Ah! those Elysian days of our youth! Though I suppose even gods must one day feel their age, and return their minds to the Void. Hyacinth waters may yet lie on either side of this stormy voyage.
And now you are prepared to understand—insofar as understanding is possible—what passed hereafter: to hear the words of the dead, to observe the absurdity of worlds stacked upon worlds. The data I have relayed to you may seem insignificant now, small and tedious details of an isolated community unimportant to the great moments of history that have forgotten Dunna Cairn and its little nearby villages. Yet they are the foundation for the most defining and transformational period of my life, in which all I knew and all I held dear was made uncertain, mere waves in a dark and terrible sea. Read, if you will. Or do not. It makes no difference to me now. But I must write regardless. I must lay down the runes you see before you, must take my mental refugees and catch them, pin them to the parchment, so that once they’ve all gone the story they shaped out of neurons soft might remain, might be explored, considered, admired or detested.
Have courage, and we shall move through time and space, see the birth and death of entire worlds, all within a mere nine winters. The year to which we are going is 1931. The year in which everything changed. Are you prepared? Good. Then let us begin.