для читателей старше 18 лет
Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
Think I see my friends coming,
Riding a many mile.
Friends, did you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends,
To keep me from the gallows pole?
I couldn’t get no silver,
I couldn’t get no gold,
You know that we’re too damn poor
To keep you from the gallows pole.
Led Zeppelin. Gallows Pole
He had to run fast.
How quickly he had to run now! By the river meander, at a sharp angle, accompanied by squelching of mud under his soles, the croaking of frogs coming from the marshes, into the wind, which brought nothing but fog.
He kept running, while broken glass, bent rusty nails, hawthorn, blackthorn prickles, and pine needles spilled out of his stretched pockets and discolored sleeves. Taking no heed, all he could think about was getting home as fast as possible.
Finally, the river realm ended. He approached a gently sloping hill where a modest house was topped up with a highly crafted carved bee on the front.
An apiary glimmered in the dark with nice wooden boxes, facing the East, the bee entrances were painted bright yellow. Swinging on a hook, an old creaking lantern touted to the verandah, luring home.
Gasping for breath, he went up onto the porch.
“Poor Hom!” it crossed his mind. It’s too late, always too late, everlasting damn ex post facto.
Shaking himself down, flicking the occasional midges away unaffected by the cold autumn nights, he entered the house where he had lived for as long as he could remember. A beekeeper with long graying hair was sitting at the table turned pale when he saw his foster-son,
“What’s the matter?”
“I’ll be hanged, Lekki, definitely hanged…” the breathless young man could hardly find the right words, trying to overcome the horror.
Only now, the beekeeper could see his foster child properly in the dim light of a flickering candle. The scared, panting young man was covered with thorns and needles, sticking ominously out of his clothes. Burrs and countless dried thistles, shimmering with purple petals as if they were still alive tangled in his pitch black hair.
“Go to bed, now, you’re shaking!” the beekeeper commanded getting out of the table and added, “I’ll get her here. Let her carry all her magic potions, something’s weird about you.”
Long-haired Lekki was involved in beekeeping throughout his entire life. His parents had done the same, and it seemed that even the Lekki’s ancestors were one of those wild honey farmers, who got the honey inside the hollow tree or built hives using birch bark.
Lekki could never forget that same cold autumn night, when, according to legend, only the restless souls of the dead wander around the residential areas. At that time, a thirty-year-old beekeeper was attracted by an unexpected noise outside the window. Keeping in mind that it is dangerous to leave the house on the Night of the Dead, Lekki slightly opened the door and looked out. In a corner of the garden, between the two beehives, there was a basket with a swaddled baby inside, screaming and freezing cold. The beekeeper brought the basket into the house, warmed the baby and took him to live with him. Being orphaned at such an early age, Lekki took care of the foundling as best he could.
The villagers gossiped about the new inhabitant of the apiary, calling him a foundling. The most vicious children sometimes teased the baby, calling him a fairy cub. However, Lekki was always happy about this sudden apparition of a baby in his garden and answered back to all questioning,
“So, he will be my trusty assistant in the apiary!”
Many years have gone by since then, the community has developed and lived by its own rules. The Wheel of the Year was spinning nonstop, seasons changed, calendar festivities were celebrated with exuberant feasts and rituals around the campfire. The beekeeper’s foundling was growing up becoming a silent and quiet boy; then, black-haired and angular, he jumped into adolescence and then — into blooming, stormy youth. He liked neckerchiefs, lace ornaments and the smell of jasmine; age-related details changed him smoothly, harmoniously, until that very day before the autumn equinox, when he collapsed on the floor in front of Lekki repeating as if obsessed, “Now I will be hanged!”
The beekeeper carried him to bed, pulled off his damp boots, stuffed with rusty pins, and covered him with a coarse wool blanket. A little later, Lekki left the house and a couple of hours later, he came back together with the herb-woman who was hiding under the beekeeper’s net — the normal safety precaution against rumors. The herb-woman brought chamomile tea with mint and stayed all night at the foot of the boy’s bed while he was in his delirium.
Even in his dreams, the swamps odour haunted him and the executioner’s boots banged.
Lekki regretfully thought about his pupil; nothing left to keep him in this life any longer: he wasn’t interested in crafts, a non-local girl whom he used to go out in spring with had left the village, and his only confidant, a lanky snob named Hom was going to move to the cities for good.
Waking up, the young man could smell again that disturbing, swampy smell of dead leaves, like a harbinger of doom. Lekki and the herb-woman leaned over his bed looking like a married couple. He heard what they were talking about.
“I will help you to attract bees again,” the herb-woman assured the beekeeper, ticking off her graceful fingers and naming each plant. “We’ll take raspberries, mint, oregano, butter churned on the May Eve, and add digitalis.”
When a flower, which was called the great grass or the marigolds of the fairies by the locals, the young man realized that he was losing consciousness again. The herb-woman was still on it,
“We’ll place the mixture into the middle of a tree, and a new swarm will come to you quickly, you’ll see! You’ll live better than ever!”
“She promises him that everything will remain as before, or even better,” thought the beekeeper’s pupil gloomily, rolling under the shabby douvet. “But nothing will ever be the same again. The bees will not return, the summer is dead, our sun has set.”
A little later, waiting for the elders to go to breakfast, he got up and, gradually regaining control of himself, pulled out a chest from under the bench, put his simple belongings there and, stepping into the living room, solemnly declared to the herb-woman and the beekeeper,
After all, it all started with this idea about a year ago.
The Day of the Dead
October 31/November 1. Samhain
“I’m leaving”, Pagey thought with indignation, waking up.
The dull autumn sun filtered through dense curtains to bestow a diffused light into the shabby damp room in the house on the hill. Lekki managed his income solely for the benefit of the apiary, so people who lived there were not up to luxury.
The bed creaked menacingly as Pagey’s legs got longer dangled in the air. Pagey rolled onto his back and stared at the cracked ceiling, which was covered with moldy streaks. There was the single decoration of the room hung above the headboard — a pair of rowan twigs tied with a red thread to ward off evil spells. The herb-woman had brought the rowan to him when she had lived at Lekki’s a long time ago. This, of course, could not remain a secret for the locals, and the herb-woman had to move back to her hut outside the village, in a birch grove by the river.
“She’s gone, and I’m leaving,” Pagey made up his mind again, wrapping up to the top of his head with the cover as if the bed might be his refuge.
But even this house could have been bearable, if not for the age-old commotion that surrounded the apiary making it some sort of an inn: villagers came in here without knocking, without any warning, traded with Lekki, groping about the rooms, here and there, blatantly, not being embarrassed at all, making Pagey always feel extremely annoyed.
And now the yard was crowded with people: they hurried to buy the last honey of the year, the beekeeper had available, before the long winter. The locals also looked at other products: wax candles, honey-candied nuts, vegetables and dried fruit.
“Our pumpkins are always bigger in comparison to what other people have!” Lekki was proudly boasting with his crop to someone outside.
A stout bearded man, dressed all in black put the beekeeper in his place,
“Not bigger than we do.”
Floor planks creaked in every way in the house as customers walked around the beekeeper’s house absolutely freely. A hunchbacked old man suddenly pulled back the curtain used as a false partition covering the entrance to Pagey’s chambers. As soon as he was confident that he took a wrong direction, muttered:
“No, I don’t see any honeycombs. You, lad, sleep, don’t mind me.”
And the curtain went down. There were no doors, except the front one, at Lekki’s house. Would anyone want to keep secrets here, or hide from anyone?
“I’m getting out of here,” he told himself for the third time, and jerked himself out of bed.
He got dressed in a rush, splashed icy water into his face from a chipped jug, and suddenly, a hideous grinding caught his attention. Someone started to scratch the window with a monstrous sound as if the glass itself could squeak. Turning around, the young man saw a miracle outside: a golden-haired young gentleman wrapped in a warm plaid scarf. The blond man’s head was crowned with heavy horns.
It was Hom, with oak branches upon his head, looking like antlers, he tapped them on the window, calling a friend outside.
“What a crown!” Pagey exclaimed wth admiration, and climbing up onto the windowsill, jumped out through the window. The cold air cheered up his vanquishing slumber.
“Praise Cernunnos, an ancient God!” Hom ordered back in response with ostentatious strictness. “Praise the Wild Hunt, damn you!”
Hom arrived with his grandfather, who was currently scrutinizing the hives. The Hom’s old man demanded honeycombs to be delivered to him on a weekly basis no later than four o’clock in the afternoon, although the village had no longer liked any hours, any days of the week, the calendar convenient throughout the rest of the world. But their village lived, measuring life through the births and deaths of the moons, daylight hours and inescapable changing of the agricultural seasons. Nevertheless, Hom’s grandfather strictly observed the discipline of the former times established before communal and he expected the same from their countrymen.
Many years ago, Hom’s grandfather, aka Mr. Kelly, a retired Royal marine, brought his grandson to his home. The parents, according to legend, were brutally killed during the invasion of aggressors from the South, and old Kelly managed to save only a newborn in a cradle, prudently hid away his service weapon. Moving to the village near the river meander, Mr Kelly lived together with his grandson and his stableman who was also ex-military, rough and rude, who was called the executioner by locals behind his back.
Hom was considered the smartest guy in the area. Word was when Hom was still a boy, the gods gave him nine magical nuts for inspiration and poetic knowledge — that’s why he grew up so wise and eloquent. And the handsomest boy, as well. Tall, well-built, fair-haired and freckled, he could hold a conversation on any subject, knew everything about everything, the world’s history, wars and battles, great sovereigns and forgotten gods. Hom had a clue about Dante banished from Florence, and Pagey was never tired of hearing this story.
They lived in a village. The village was part of them. A landlord’s lands, whom they, unlike other people in the Empire, didn’t call a lord, but a druid, were leased to ordinary laborers. Lekki’s apiary stood on the top of a hill. A salutary spring lurked nearby. Every festivity during the year, the community people celebrated with a big bonfire made at the foot of the hill, where they feasted around it, praised the gods, and performed ritual acts as antediluvian as the people themselves.
If you go further from the apiary and the bonfire, you can get to the boat river crossing. The locals were allowed to go to the other side, where the railway station was still functioning — it was convenient to go to the cities by train. However, no one from the community was particularly bothered about the cities: Just a generation ago, many, on the contrary, fled from the cities to grab a habitable patch, where the traditions of ancient ancestors would be revived with renewed vigor. No one had any desire to go to the railway station because, otherwise, they would have to pay a boatman — a man of ill repute, and to mingle in the company of the boatman was a flagrant disgrace for any self-respecting person. That was the reason why the station often stayed empty as the villagers rarely travelled to the cities.
The river meandered into long swamps further away from the river crossing. That’s where Hom lived together with his grandfather and his assistant, the executioner. Before Woolf used to live with them, another child being left, a talented boy with delicate features also brought up by Mr. Kelly from the cities. It was said that Woolf was an orphan, and he could expect nothing in the future but alms on the porch. Pagey didn’t remember much about him. But everyone in the village remembered the terrible morning shortly after the vernal equinox when the fishermen pulled Woolf’s body out of the river. The guy drowned himself, stuffing his pockets with stones.
It was a really weird time. Growing up, Hom needed someone who could listen to him, a confidant, a soul mate, and he turned his attention to the dark-haired adopted son of the beekeeper, then a child. Hom used to bring Pagey books, paper, and pens, and even Hom’s strict grandfather seemed satisfied with a new page in Hom’s retinue.
Once at the dawn of time, Hom depicted himself as a brave knight — a defender. He scared away the kids who wanted whatever it was to put a piece of iron to Pagey’s bed or even to set the boy on fire — it was believed that the changeling from the kingdom of fairies could be identified that way. The inhuman child, according to legend, would have laughed all alone, and then the village would have been able to bring Pagey to light. Hom wouldn’t let anyone near his younger friend and kicked his detractors sometimes even if he believed in it. Pagey was loyal and fully committed to Hom for this touching care and concern.
Until today, they had been inseparable.
Having passed along several allotments, the friends came to a small wasteland facing the druid’s estate and several luxurious mansions that served as a dwelling for the druid’s surroundings: managers, treasurers, suppliers. Hom sat on the wasteland next to Pagey, listing out loud treasures being kept by the druid in his mansion and some mysterious grimoires stored in the manor library.
However, both young men were surprised at that very moment to notice a few carts on the wasteland, where women of different ages were scurrying about trying to accommodate a temporary shelter. They all had short, coarse haircuts and strongly built figures. Their accent was clearly different from the locals. It was melodious, high, varied with a lot of tones.
Stopping, amazed Hom stared at the carts,
“Have you seen? Strangers, apparently.”
“They are probably traders, aren’t they?”
“Unlikely. Trade is better in the cities.”
They stood silently for a moment, studying the intruders. Finally, Hom guessed,
“They are Gevers, bud. Eastern people who broke away from the majority because of religious differences. They are doomed to wander the earth like Gypsies or Jews. Haven’t you read anything about them?”
Pagey shook his head baffled,
Hom continued to inspect the wasteland being suspicious. Dwellings were hastily built near strings of carts, typical for nomads, a fireplace had already been set alight curling with smoke. He wondered what were these Gevers after at this place. Everyone knew for dozens of miles around that the village was kept on distance. They followed ancient customs and traditions here, they danced in the fields in spring and cajoled the spirits of the ancestors with red-cheeked apples and jugs full of milk with the onset of frosts. Everyone here played by the rules.
There was not a more fervent traditionalist than Hom. He was Kelly by blood — the grandson of a local elder, a retired military man. To this day, Mr. Kelly was the only one in the village who was allowed to keep guns at home — as Hom’s grandfather was in charge of security.
And the safety was on. No letters, no correspondence — nothing like this was allowed to the locals. This was done primarily to protect them. Travelling to the cities wasn’t prohibited, but to keep contacts with the cities was considered a betrayal.
“Who could call up outsiders here?” couldn’t understand Hom, whose holiday mood had suddenly gone somewhere. A plaid scarf was scratching his neck, the antlers made of wooden branches looked silly, and he would like most of all to be in the house by the river meander, in his cozy room, with an interesting book and a mug of warmed wine in his hand.
Meanwhile, Pagey walked with certainty towards the Gevers’ settlement. Still lost in thought, the blond man hurried after him.
A short chunky girl with cropped hair was hanging raggery on the rope, embroidered with sophisticated geometrical ornaments. She looked around and instinctively recoiled when she saw Hom with giant antlers-branches on his head. While pleased to note the scared look the fright of the newcomer, he suddenly shouted,
“Praise Cernunnos, an ancient God, strangers!”
“Hey, easy!” Pagey tapped his friend on the shoulder blades and called out to the Gevers, “Don’t be scared! We’re not so inhospitable as this stag is trying to tell you.”
“Aren’t you?” the girl screwed up her eyes in disbelief as she came closer. Pagey noted a silvery crescent-shaped pendant flashed on her neck. “Then what are you?”
Trying to smile as courteously as possible, the young man began to stand up for her,
“We are respectable people. Honest workers. We also have an apiary.”
“Speak for yourself!” Hom broke in. “Listen, miss, this guy has an apiary, and if you want some honey…”
The Crescent snorted in anger that made Pagey feel a burning shame previously unknown to him for his friend’s shocking manner. He mumbled,
“Shut up, Hom, please.”
“…just don’t get caught in the hive!” paying no attention, the fair-haired continued talking big.
The Crescent headed back to the carts leaving them without a farewell.
For a few moments, the friends watched fascinated as the heavy boots of the Gever girl lined with sturdy iron nails glimmered in the twilight. Finally Pagey exhaled,
“Why do you think her hair is short?”
His friend scratched his head lazily at the place where the branches were fastened,
“I’m sure all the Gevers have lice, and that’s why they have to crop their hair.”
In fact, Hom knew that this tribe was famous first and foremost for a complete matriarchy. The Gever women had a dominant position both in the tribe and in their own families. They were trained in martial arts and knew how to stand up for themselves as professional soldiers. The Gever women were famous for being educated, fearless and had a habit to express openly their own opinion. And they always carried daggers, hiding them in the tops of their rough boots.
All this made Hom crazy.
* * *
Lekki stored the remains of squeezed honeycombs in the barn — he kept them in a special barrel. The beekeeper used to take them out just before winter to the appropriate distance from the hives for each bee family to pick up the remains of the honey because they were not suitable for consumption. There was no point in keeping them any longer, either, otherwise mice would have been in the barn.
Now near the barn, a few hundred bees were hovering in the air — the population of all hives in Lekki’s apiary was involved in pocketing of unclaimed stuff belonging to nobody. Pagey knew this was the time he would never be bitten. After such a flight, the bees usually had to last through a long winter in the underground, but the frost wasn’t yet strong enough to put the hives away for good.
Having returned from the Gever wasteland, Hom and Pagey popped in for a while into the “Refectory to all’ — a place established like a pub, where on November eve, all visitors were given a free drink and treated with roast potatoes sprinkled with salt and butter.
In addition to free food for the villagers, the pub landlady displayed treats outside the building, in the dark backyard — it was believed that this should appease the evil spirits that roamed freely on Samhain’s eve in the streets. Evil spirits were often accompanied by the dead according to legends, that’s why Hom left a cup of porridge and a glass of milk beside the house every year, treating the deceased Woolf.
Having asked the “Refectory to all’ landlady to wrap some food to go for them, both friends came back to the apiary, where Pagey, sitting comfortably near the tiny fireplace and tossing a roasted potato in his palm hoping to cool it, turned to his friend,
“Tell me about Dante!”
Hom grinned. Looking like that the younger comrade had asked him to tell this story countless times before. Today, however, they were excited, the reason was on the arrival of strangers, so Hom was even glad to have something familiar, ordinary, and started,
“In exile, Dante stayed at the Scaligers, the ruling family of Verona. The poet was accommodated by Cangrande della Scala, a valiant knight, and autocrat. They say, he drank some water from the spring and died soon after that. But in fact, Cangrande was poisoned by the stuff made from the pollen of digitalis. Only a very experienced wizard herbalist could do that. After Cangrande della Scala died, his body was put into a marble tomb and placed over the church entrance. There it stands to this day, in the city of Verona. And there appeared two more arches carved — there lie the remains of other Scaligers, descendants of Cangrande being poisoned with digitalis.”
“No, tell me about young Dante,”
His friend glanced at Pagey in defiance,
“Fine! Have it your way. The main source of inspiration and Dante’s changeless muse was the girl he saw at a young age in Florence. Her name was Beatrice.”
“Not Beatrice but Vita,” suddenly interrupted Pagey. “I heard her sister call to her at the carts. Lady Crescent. Her name is Vita.”
With these words, Hom suddenly noticed that the blue eyes of Pagey sparkled which he had never seen before. Of course, he interpreted it as a bad omen.
* * *
Later that night when Hom had gone home and Pagey expressed a desire to drop by to the herb-woman on holiday eve. The beekeeper tried to stop the young man telling the well-worn horror stories,
“Remember, nights are getting darker and colder. The first frosts begin. No one should leave the house at this time, and it’s better not to open the door at all. No travelers should be allowed in to spend the night — they might be the dead causing death to those who let them in.”
But Pagey was pretty aware that Lekki would like himself to go to visit the one he had always loved. Except for lazy ones, everyone whispered about the herb-woman and the beekeeper in the village. Having no right to get married, they had no right even to appear together in public — otherwise, it would be against the rules. Nevertheless, they always found options — and the herb-woman always put on a beekeeper’s hat with a long meshed veil inconspicuously covering her face when she went down the hill and got back to her place behind the birch grove. They always found a chance to see each other. But today Lekki was too busy counting the profits for the sales day, so the young man went alone to the red-haired woodland sorceress. The villagers were wary of her and called her the Green woman. Nevertheless, they always came to her place for a cure for any ailment. They treated her like all the healers belonging to all peoples in the world, with the deepest awe and reverence, because common people could only explain the miraculous effect of herbs on the body by magic.
The herb-woman’s hut was actually outside the community lands, across the river, and beyond the birch grove — no one would ever risk planting birches in the village’s territory. The tree border, tree of the waters of Oblivion — as they used to say here about the birch, and Pagey had been seeing the silvery bark since his childhood to find the log cabin of a beautiful witch in woods, who was once close to Lekki and even stayed at their place in the apiary. The red-haired woman left the beekeeper when the threat being revealed became too obvious. Nevertheless, nothing prevented the herb-woman to keep a warm relationship with the beekeeper until today and feel the most tender affection for his foster child.
Pagey knocked on the door three times.
“Look who’s here!” the herb-woman smiled bringing him inside the house.
The young man breathed in a spicy warm air, placed on the fire, something was brewing in the cauldron. Unable to restrain his curiosity, he blurted right out of the gate,
“Why did the Gevers come here?”
The woman pretended not to know what he was talking about and uttered tranquilly,
“Sounds like they have been chased away from the previous place. Would you like a pie? Just your favorite left…”
But Pagey wasn’t up to pies,
“Why are they being chased everywhere?”
“Because they are disobedient in the eyes of the authorities.”
“But who asked them to come down here?”
“Me,” the herb-woman replied calmly.
Sitting down on the bench that had already been chosen by a triple colored cat named Rosehip, Pagey thoughtfully rubbed the pet and frowned,
“You’re not scared?”
“No,” laughed the herb-woman, stirring the contents in the cauldron over the fire. “I’m not afraid of him at all.”
“You know better,” Pagey replied somberly, growing dark more and more. “But if I were you, I’d tread carefully to argue with the druid.”
* * *
A few days later, the community gathered around a big bonfire near the river. Each festival of the Wheel of the Year was a node in public life, and so, it was another cold October, so, they all went outside to celebrate the black Samhain. Remembering the dead, remembering the past, wanting to confuse evil spirits and wicked fairies, the locals dressed up in weird clothes, painted their faces with soot, and even hid behind masks carved from pumpkins.
Hom arrived with his grandfather and the groom — the executioner. The boatman left the crossing and went to the bonfire, incessantly smoking cigarettes and sitting all alone a little distance from the bonfire. The blackberry family arrived at the festivity as a whole — the most successful married couple of entrepreneurs were together with their kids, all as one dressed in black. A few Gever women were here, too.
Pagey noticed Lady Crescent, and he was seized by an incredible joy.
“She’s a Beauty,” uttered the young man with adoration, keeping a close eye on the Gever girl.
Hom made a face,
“You mean, this one? A Beauty? Come on. If there is a beauty here, it must be her,” and with those words, the fair-haired man pointed to the thin and sad blackberry wife standing with all her numerous offsprings.
“The blackberry wife?” Pagey was surprised. “She’s old enough to be your mother!”
“You’d think that someone had ever been stopped,” Hom retorted.
“But she’s married to the bearded man. They’re wealthy. And it’s wrong to think that.”
But his friend cut him off,
“Will you shut up, Pagey? It’s wrong, you know, to drool over a dirty little Gypsy, and that’s exactly what you’re doing.”
“You shut up,” Pagey answered back light-heartedly and stood up to go and say hello to Vita.
But as soon as he went up to her, they all fell silent at the sound of a low voice, familiar to everyone here, which was loudly announcing,
“Let the new year begin. The spoke swung, the Wheel of the Year keeps on moving.”
The druid approached the bonfire and raised his long, powerful arms above the flames.
He was tall and lean, with clear cheekbones incised on his face — you thought, you could even cut yourself with these cheekbones. Throughout his appearance, there was something authoritarian, uncompromising. No wonder people treated the druid with great respect, brought gifts to each full moon, paid the land rent promptly. Of course, the people tried to appease Mr. Kelly — but only because he was an old soldier and kept an eye on justice in the community. They obeyed the druid on some inner, intuitive level.
Slightly touching the gilt buttons on his luxurious dark blue coat, the druid began his message, alas, not with solemn speech,
“Before we start to celebrate the festivity, I ask each of you, who called the Gevers into our lands?”
The herb-woman stood up and having straightened her green dress, answered defiantly,
“Stop pretending you didn’t realize it was me.”
Dumfounded by such familiarity with the lord, people began to whisper in surprise, and the druid continued unperturbed,
“You know the rules established regarding our limited relationship with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, you broke them. You don’t belong in today’s ritual, let it be a lesson to you.”
The herb-woman waved her hand,
“I don’t even live on your property, take a chill.”
“Nevertheless, you called them on my land. Without my consent. Should you go back to your territory?”
Hom, the druid’s favorite, had been silently watching the proceedings, now stepped forward defiantly barking an order,
“Escort this woman to her house.”
Two burly men, the field workin’ people, came up to her, and she had no choice but to obey.
“I knew that this was going to happen,” Pagey thought sadly. “I warned her.”