The Sending by Geoffrey Household.
Household's protagonist Alfgif Hollaston has returned to his rural, ancestral home after a career in the Indian Army. He discovers he is the descendant of local Wise Men going back hundreds of years. He inherits the familiar of a recently murdered friend: a polecat named Meg.
From Chapter 9
IT WAS MEG WHO roused me when I was half asleep in my chair, my mind wandering through the far forest with tiger brother, disembodied by his dance of worship. Meg was scrabbling at the door trying to get out. I opened it for her and followed her to the front door. When I threw it wide and let in the night, I heard what she had heard.
I could not tell whether it was played on a pipe or on the single string of hunting man. It was a reminder of all the joy we have lost, and thus of infinite melancholy, yet it had the sweetness of bird song—if a bird could have the voice of an animal. The symphony, to which one listens dreaming and reasoning simultaneously, must be the highest product of the human mind, yet a shepherd pipe in the stillness of night or the freshness of dawn is the music which comes nearest to communion with all creation.
Meg looped down past the still sheep under the oaks. They did not notice us, their heads turned towards the woodland which sheltered the piper, or itself piped. She was moving fast and was out of sight in the darkness when she crossed the stream, but I knew that our destinations were the same; even the stems of flowers would have bent towards this song of earth, if it had not been night and petals closed. By both of us the singing was received as a summons. She would have felt no fear at all, only gladness in answering. I felt both, the fear being more in the nature of reverence than the terror transmitted by Leyalá.
Often in life we answer a summons. The receptors of saint and shaman are aware of it, though eyes and ears are unaffected. But this was different. I clearly heard with ears, and knew that once we were under the trees I should also see. That was where fear came in. The legend of Pan and panic of course passed through my mind and was rejected as too simple, too contrived. What I was hearing was the truth behind the myth, whether expressed by man or by my valley itself.
As I entered the trees and began to plunge uphill, the descant of creature or instrument became fainter, not louder, and I guessed where it came from: a small, open glade left by a spreading beech which had fallen and been cut up for firewood. When I reached it I saw Julian Molay sitting on the stump with Meg on his shoulder. All sense of the supernatural vanished. I asked him how on earth he did it.
‘Answer me how on earth you heard it and I will tell you how I did it.’
‘That was how you took Meg away from the vet?’
‘And trained her to do all the damage possible!’
‘A small part of all the damage possible. I expected you to kill her.’
‘How could I?’
‘Because in your anger you are without pity. You abused love in order to take revenge.’
I knew exactly what he meant. I denied fiercely that any so-called magic was concerned in the slaughter of Odolaga’s black shepherd and his sheep, except perhaps in the hypnosis of that stage property, the eagle owl.
‘I used the skill of the hunter,’ I told him, ‘not the skill of the shaman.’
‘Yet from somewhere you have the gift.’
Molay was standing up now, his deep eyes condemning me. He was impressive as a judge handing out a sentence, but neither ex-Colonel Hollaston nor the painter of the Holy Well were in a mood to be impressed.
I said that I had no power at all beyond the concentration of the master craftsman: a prayer as he had called it. I had seen what could be effected through the trance and dancing of the shaman, and by trial and error I had found out a little of the use of the familiar: of the good which I might do by communion with Meg and of the evil which was done to me, and life around me, by Odolaga and his training of Leyalá.
‘What you feel in me is the same as you felt in Freeman, to whom you released Meg’ I added. ‘It is a gift from my ancestors and not of my making. My grandfather had it. My great-great-grandfather had it, and we all were named Alfgif.’
‘I thought your name was Alfred,’ he said.
‘Alfred means Wise as an Elf. Alfgif is Gift of the Elf.’
‘What has that to do with it?’
‘I am told the elf is my valley. See it in any shape you like! I have never wished it to appear to me. But I too was taught to sing in silence.’
I must assume that I was possessed. Having no better spell, I used the incantation of tiger brother to call a spirit of the ancestors. I had closed my eyes as I rocked to and fro in the trance, so that I could neither see Molay nor any result, but on and on I chanted until I felt the Presence. When I opened my eyes and stood still except for shaking, Meg had left his shoulder and had begun to dance.
‘And now what shape did you give it?’ I asked.
‘I saw it in the shape you gave it.’
‘And what was that?’
‘Gentle and laughing and of the earth, Alfgif.’
It was the first time he had used my name. He asked me to tell him exactly what had happened on the slopes of Aquelarre. I gave him the story, from the first sight of Izar Odolaga to the making of the bow and the stampede of the terrified sheep. I fear there must have been some pride in my voice besides regret.
‘You said my Columns of the Sun was an invincible prayer,’ I reminded him, ‘and asked if I did not know it. I did not, but I found it was. So it is true that I had no more reason to fear Odolaga. His sending had failed. You must know by now what that was.’
He answered that he did know, that Odolaga in his desolation had confessed all to him.
‘Very well! And then the woman I love fell ill. Her soul was captured, as a shaman would say. Was it surprising that I believed it was another of Odolaga’s telepathic tricks and that I set out to warn him that my powers could be as dangerous as his?’
‘You were wrong to blame him.’
‘I know. It was you who first made me see that I myself could be responsible and now I am sure I was. All the same I think justice has been done—if one can set the beauty of my Holy Well against the beauty of his dear familiar.’
Molay lay back on his elbows in that unspoken courtroom of the glade and gestured to me to sit on the stump. He said that at least my motive had been more generous than Odolaga’s, that I had acted from love and he only from fear for himself.
‘So now you shall be the judge. Ask whatever questions you like!’
‘Did Odolaga kill Paddy for you?’
‘So you are the devil!’
‘In the sense of anguished clergy long ago, yes, I am.’
‘Is there no other devil within the Purpose?’
‘I doubt it. But if evil were personified, it would be the antithesis of love. Have you forgotten the cough of the tiger which maddened sixty sheep? Man does not need a devil. He does well enough by himself.’
I said that I found it hard to imagine him as that ancestral Horned God, when we were talking face to face and sharing the same faith.
‘I dress my mind and not my body in the innocence of the horns and tail. I do not believe that my blood or my semen will fertilise a field, but it may be that I myself can still fertilise mankind. If I cannot, if my powers fail through age, then before I infect my people with my weakness it is right to kill me and choose a successor. He is already chosen, but he is still too young for the fullness of wisdom. Nothing mysterious there, my Alfgif! Even in politics a party may decide on its future leader before he is quite fit to lead. Therefore I must live longer and one of us had to die in my place. Paddy chose to do so. I did not wish to accept his sacrifice, but as Grand Master it is my duty.’
I could not see the point of either of them being killed, and asked him to explain if he could.
‘What is the point of a soldier’s death?’ he asked.
‘His society expects it of him.’
‘Yes. You have answered your own question. And now I will put one to you. Would you die for the sake of the Christian faith?’
‘Yet you have little respect for the Church and its creed.’
‘Or for its rites.’
‘There you are wrong, for rites are a shadow of the truth. I summoned you to me by what is remembered as the harp of Orpheus. You called up a Presence as mischievous and sweet as Meg by a rite far older. You had faith that you heard. I had faith that I saw. Reality? We are fools to ask what is reality, when all we touch and see and are is empty space and energy. Within the Purpose there are rites named of earth and rites named of heaven, all intermingled in all religions and culminating in that purest and simplest of rites: the Communion of the Christian with the Purpose.’
‘For you, then, what is the Purpose?’ I asked.
‘How often there is more beauty in living things than needed for survival! Consider the peacock’s tail and the feathers of the Bird of Paradise! To attract a mate and be recognised, we are told, but that could be achieved by a fraction of the display. Consider the majestic antlers of the stag! A magnificence and nothing but a handicap. The colours of the butterfly—they have a use but not to that extent of glory. Consider the Columns of the Sun and your late Holy Well! What use to your survival or the survival of the race are those? They have only one conceivable value, and that is to the observer. What the Purpose is we cannot know, but observation must be within it. Observe this garden of the earth and understand that when you cease to observe and to love, you exist no more!’
‘Then death is the end.’
‘You miss my meaning, Alfgif. I know nothing of death except that we should not whine for immortality. Take joy in the gift of life! If the object of my life is finished with my death, I rejoice that I have been able to serve. If it is not finished, I rejoice that there is still a use for me.’
He said that was enough of preaching and remained silent. The scent of the earth was stronger than I had ever known it. Meg ran between us, caressing his face with her whiskers and then returning to my feet. I asked him to tell me about Paddy.
‘Paddy was a healer of the animals. A Robin. His coven was formed of all his friends, though few were conscious of it. He was simpler and more saintly and quicker than I. He would have seen that you could never have abused your gift as I believed you had. He said you had the makings of a leader.’
‘A Robin. I like that happy, English name. The healer. The provider of joy.’
‘And of sendings to the innocent,’ I added, remembering Odolaga.
‘Forgive him! He acted from foolish fear, and you would not blame the beast which charges when it cannot run. And now for this girl of yours, my strange, chaste sorcerer! It seems you can copy the attack of the carnivore but not the tempest of its mating.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Only a monk could have so much passion and remain celibate. Were you never married?’
‘For two weeks.’
She died in my arms.’
‘I see. Guilt, But that was not beyond psychiatrists’
‘I’ll have none of them. I am what I am and know more than they.’
‘But your tiger brother—couldn’t he cure you?’
‘No. He said that a white larva had made its home in my wretched organ and could not conjure it to leave.’
‘I think you would not let him, Alfgif. You believed in your guilt and clung to it. But now will you let me? I can make you as a Robin of old days, whose maidens would hang wreathes of poppies on the symbol of fertility. Will you be ashamed to dance naked with me?’
I might have been, but those gentle, piercing eyes would not release mine. And there was I naked while he, stripped to the waist only, like tiger brother, raised his arms in a hieratic gesture as if he were throwing over his shoulders the skin and tail of the God.
He began to beat the ground with his feet, always circling round me face to face, and I kept time with him. What ritual I was treading out I could not know, though there were memories of the forest and memories of the eager hunting dance which I had performed for my dinner, but never for myself.
‘Your horns are spread between sky and sky, my Alfgif. You have driven away your rivals and the herd of does awaits you. As a bird dances for its mate, so must you. Tell him, Valley, to dance for grandson Alfgif! Tell him, Meg, to dance with you! As we dance, so must you.’
There was much more, but that is what I remember. He circled me, chanting, and each time he passed a young plant of broom he plucked a green twig from it like a browsing goat. In the trance of beating feet, I was aware only of his hands and eyes; nor was I conscious of the erection, being so long forgotten, until he flung the wreath that he had been twisting as if it were a quoit over a peg.
He told me to dress and have no fear.
‘Mate after mate is yours if you wish, and if you wish only for one she will never leave you. What is her name? I will call her.’
‘Rita. But she cannot receive. She would not hear you.’
‘Better so, Alfgif! In you she will find the future and in her you will find the past. Go now, and tomorrow be with her!’
‘Shall I see you again?’
‘As a passing friend it may be, with the simplicity of Paddy.’
I asked him if he really lived on the Syrian shore, as Paddy had told me.
‘Often enough, because that is where all religions meet and all traditions remain. Among my ancestors were reigning devils, or Grand Masters if you wish: Jacques de Molay, Master of the Temple, burnt for heresy; Plantagenets reverenced by Christian and Pagan alike, and true to both. It may well be that you and I are not the first of our two families who have met and prayed together.’
‘Can I drive you anywhere?’ I asked, the question sounding absurdly out of time and place. ‘How are you going?’
‘As I came, Alfgif.’
He shook hands, blessed me and was gone, vanishing with the skill of tiger brother and with only the rustle of his footsteps to show that he was most certainly passing through the trees and not above them.