Context: Following the death of King Arthur, Saxons and Britons live in harmony. Along with everyone else in their village, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly Briton couple, suffer from severe selective amnesia that they call the 'mist'. The strange mist has in fact caused mass amnesia throughout the land and people's memory seems to be very faulty.
You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby—one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots—might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children.
In any case, ogres were not so bad provided one did not provoke them. One had to accept that every so often, perhaps following some obscure dispute in their ranks, a creature would come blundering into a village in a terrible rage, and despite shouts and brandishings of weapons, rampage about injuring anyone slow to move out of its path. Or that every so often, an ogre might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages.
In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them. I would say this couple lived an isolated life, but in those days few were “isolated” in any sense we would understand. For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connecting one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors. Our elderly couple lived within one such sprawling warren—“building” would be too grand a word—with roughly sixty other villagers. If you came out of their warren and walked for twenty minutes around the hill, you would have reached the next settlement, and to your eyes, this one would have seemed identical to the first. But to the inhabitants themselves, there would have been many distinguishing details of which they would have been proud or ashamed.
I have no wish to give the impression that this was all there was to the Britain of those days; that at a time when magnificent civilisations flourished elsewhere in the world, we were here not much beyond the Iron Age. Had you been able to roam the countryside at will, you might well have discovered castles containing music, fine food, athletic excellence; or monasteries with inhabitants steeped in learning. But there is no getting around it. Even on a strong horse, in good weather, you could have ridden for days without spotting any castle or monastery looming out of the greenery. Mostly you would have found communities like the one I have just described, and unless you had with you gifts of food or clothing, or were ferociously armed, you would not have been sure of a welcome. I am sorry to paint such a picture of our country at that time, but there you are.
To return to Axl and Beatrice. As I said, this elderly couple lived on the outer fringes of the warren, where their shelter was less protected from the elements and hardly benefited from the fire in the Great Chamber where everyone congregated at night. Perhaps there had been a time when they had lived closer to the fire; a time when they had lived with their children. In fact, it was just such an idea that would drift into Axl’s mind as he lay in his bed during the empty hours before dawn, his wife soundly asleep beside him, and then a sense of some unnamed loss would gnaw at his heart, preventing him from returning to sleep.
Perhaps that was why, on this particular morning, Axl had abandoned his bed altogether and slipped quietly outside to sit on the old warped bench beside the entrance to the warren in wait for the first signs of daylight. It was spring, but the air still felt bitter, even with Beatrice’s cloak, which he had taken on his way out and wrapped around himself. Yet he had become so absorbed in his thoughts that by the time he realised how cold he was, the stars had all but gone, a glow was spreading on the horizon, and the first notes of birdsong were emerging from the dimness.
He rose slowly to his feet, regretting having stayed out so long. He was in good health, but it had taken a while to shake off his last fever and he did not wish it to return. Now he could feel the damp in his legs, but as he turned to go back inside, he was well satisfied: for he had this morning succeeded in remembering a number of things that had eluded him for some time. Moreover, he now sensed he was about to come to some momentous decision—one that had been put off far too long—and felt an excitement within him which he was eager to share with his wife.
Inside, the passageways of the warren were still in complete darkness, and he was obliged to feel his way the short distance back to the door of his chamber. Many of the “doorways” within the warren were simple archways to mark the threshold to a chamber. The open nature of this arrangement would not have struck the villagers as compromising their privacy, but allowed rooms to benefit from any warmth coming down the corridors from the great fire or the smaller fires permitted within the warren. Axl and Beatrice’s room, however, being too far from any fire had something we might recognise as an actual door; a large wooden frame criss-crossed with small branches, vines and thistles which someone going in and out would each time have to lift to one side, but which shut out the chilly draughts. Axl would happily have done without this door, but it had over time become an object of considerable pride to Beatrice. He had often returned to find his wife pulling off withered pieces from the construct and replacing them with fresh cuttings she had gathered during the day.
This morning, Axl moved the barrier just enough to let himself in, taking care to make as little noise as possible. Here, the early dawn light was leaking into the room through the small chinks of their outer wall. He could see his hand dimly before him, and on the turf bed, Beatrice’s form still sound asleep under the thick blankets.
He was tempted to wake his wife. For a part of him felt sure that if, at this moment, she were awake and talking to him, whatever last barriers remained between him and his decision would finally crumble. But it was some time yet until the community roused itself and the day’s work began, so he settled himself on the low stool in the corner of the chamber, his wife’s cloak still tight around him.
He wondered how thick the mist would be that morning, and if, as the dark faded, he would see it had seeped through the cracks right into their chamber. But then his thoughts drifted away from such matters, back to what had been preoccupying him. Had they always lived like this, just the two of them, at the periphery of the community? Or had things once been quite different? Earlier, outside, some fragments of a remembrance had come back to him: a small moment when he was walking down the long central corridor of the warren, his arm around one of his own children, his gait a little crouched not on account of age as it might be now, but simply because he wished to avoid hitting his head on the beams in the murky light. Possibly the child had just been speaking to him, saying something amusing, and they were both of them laughing. But now, as earlier outside, nothing would quite settle in his mind, and the more he concentrated, the fainter the fragments seemed to grow. Perhaps these were just an elderly fool’s imaginings. Perhaps it was that God had never given them children.
You may wonder why Axl did not turn to his fellow villagers for assistance in recalling the past, but this was not as easy as you might suppose. For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.
To take an instance, one that had bothered Axl for some time: He was sure that not so long ago, there had been in their midst a woman with long red hair—a woman regarded as crucial to their village. Whenever anyone injured themselves or fell sick, it had been this red-haired woman, so skilled at healing, who was immediately sent for. Yet now this same woman was no longer to be found anywhere, and no one seemed to wonder what had occurred, or even to express regret at her absence. When one morning Axl had mentioned the matter to three neighbours while working with them to break up the frosted field, their response told him that they genuinely had no idea what he was talking about. One of them had even paused in his work in an effort to remember, but had ended by shaking his head. “Must have been a long time ago,” he had said.
“Neither have I any memory of such a woman,” Beatrice had said to him when he had brought up the matter with her one night. “Perhaps you dreamt her up for your own needs, Axl, even though you’ve a wife here beside you and with a back straighter than yours.”
This had been some time the previous autumn, and they had been lying side by side on their bed in the pitch black, listening to the rain beating against their shelter.
“It’s true you’ve hardly aged at all down the years, princess,” Axl had said. “But the woman was no dream, and you’d remember her yourself if you spared a moment to think about it. There she was at our door only a month ago, a kindly soul asking if there was anything she might bring us. Surely you remember.”
“But why was she wishing to bring us anything at all? Was she a kin to us?”
“I don’t believe she was, princess. She was just being kind. Surely you remember. She was often at the door asking if we weren’t cold or hungry.”
“What I’m asking, Axl, is what business was it of hers to single us out for her kindness?”
“I wondered myself at the time, princess. I remember thinking here’s a woman given to tending the sick, and yet here’s the two of us both as healthy as any in the village. Is there perhaps talk of a plague on the way and she’s here to look us over? But it turns out there’s no plague and she’s just being kind. Now we’re talking about her there’s even more comes back to me. She was standing there telling us not to mind the children calling us names. That was it. Then we never saw her again.”
“Not only is this red-haired woman a dream from your mind, Axl, she’s a fool to be worrying herself about a few children and their games.”
“Just what I thought at the time, princess. What harm can children do us and they just passing the time of day when the weather’s too dreary outside. I told her how we hadn’t given it a second thought, but she meant kindly all the same. And then I remember her saying it was a pity we had to spend our nights without a candle.”
“If this creature pitied us our lack of a candle,” Beatrice had said, “she had one thing right at least. It’s an insult, forbidding us a candle through nights like these and our hands as steady as any of them. While there’s others with candles in their chamber, senseless each night from cider, or else with children running wild. Yet it’s our candle they’ve taken, and now I can hardly see your outline, Axl, though you’re right beside me.”
“There’s no insult intended, princess. It’s just the way things have always been done and that’s all there is to it.”
“Well it’s not just your dream woman thinks it strange we should have our candle taken from us. Yesterday or was it the day before, I was at the river and walking past the women and I’m sure I heard them saying, when they supposed I’d gone out of hearing, how it was a disgrace an upright couple like us having to sit in the dark each night. So your dream woman’s not alone in thinking what she does.”
“She’s no dream woman I keep telling you, princess. Everyone here knew her a month ago and had a good word for her. What can it be makes everyone, yourself included, forget she ever lived?”
Recalling the conversation now on this spring’s morning, Axl felt almost ready to admit he had been mistaken about the red-haired woman. He was after all an ageing man and prone to occasional confusion. And yet, this instance of the red-haired woman had been merely one of a steady run of such puzzling episodes. Frustratingly, he could not at this moment think of so many examples, but they had been numerous, of that there was no doubt. There had been, for instance, the incident concerning Marta.
This was a little girl of nine or ten who had always had a reputation for fearlessness. All the hair-raising tales of what could happen to wandering children seemed not to dampen her sense of adventure. So the evening when, with less than an hour of daylight remaining, the mist coming in and the wolves audible on the hillside, the word went around that Marta was missing, everyone had stopped what they were doing in alarm. For the next little while, voices called her name all around the warren and footsteps rushed up and down its corridors as villagers searched every sleeping chamber, the storage burrows, the cavities beneath the rafters, any hiding place a child might go to amuse herself.
Then in the midst of this panic, two shepherds returning from their shift on the hills came into the Great Chamber and began warming themselves by the fire. As they did so, one of them announced how the day before they had watched a wren-eagle circle above their heads, once, twice, then a third time. There was no mistake, he said, it had been a wren-eagle. Word quickly went around the warren and soon a crowd had gathered around the fire to listen to the shepherds. Even Axl had hurried to join them, for the appearance of a wren-eagle in their country was news indeed. Among the many powers attributed to the wren-eagle was the ability to frighten away wolves, and elsewhere in the land, it was said, wolves had vanished altogether on account of these birds.
At first the shepherds were questioned eagerly and made to repeat their story over and over. Then steadily a scepticism began to spread among the listeners. There had been many similar claims, someone pointed out, and each time they had proved unfounded. Someone else stated that these same two shepherds had only the previous spring brought back an identical story, and yet no further sightings had followed. The shepherds angrily denied bringing any such previous report, and soon the crowd was dividing between those taking the shepherds’ side and those claiming some memory of the alleged episode the previous year.
As the quarrel grew heated, Axl found coming over him that familiar nagging sense that something was not right, and removing himself from the shouting and jostling, went outside to stare at the darkening sky and the mist rolling over the ground. And after a while, fragments began to piece themselves together in his mind, of the missing Marta, of the danger, of how not long ago everyone had been searching for her. But already these recollections were growing confused, in much the way a dream does in the seconds after waking, and it was only with a supreme act of concentration that Axl held on to the thought of little Marta at all while voices behind him continued to argue about the wren-eagle. Then, as he was standing there like that, he heard the sound of a girl singing to herself and saw Marta emerge before him out of the mist.
“You’re a strange one, child,” Axl said as she came skipping up to him. “Aren’t you afraid of the dark? Of the wolves or the ogres?”
“Oh, I’m afraid of them, sir,” she said with a smile. “But I know how to hide from them. I hope my parents haven’t been asking for me. I got such a hiding last week.”
“Asking for you? Of course they’ve been asking for you. Isn’t the whole village searching for you? Listen to that uproar inside. That’s all for you, child.”
Marta laughed and said: “Oh stop it, sir! I know they’ve not missed me. And I can hear, that’s not me they’re shouting about.”
When she said this, it occurred to Axl that sure enough the girl was right: the voices inside were not arguing about her at all, but about some other matter altogether. He leaned towards the doorway to hear better, and as he caught the odd phrase amidst the raised voices, it began to come back to him, about the shepherds and the wren-eagle. He was wondering if he should explain something of this to Marta when she suddenly skipped past him and went inside.
He followed her in, anticipating the relief and joy her appearance would cause. And to be frank, it had occurred to him that by coming in with her, he would get a little of the credit for her safe return. But as they entered the Great Chamber the villagers were still so engrossed in their quarrel over the shepherds only a few of them even bothered to look their way. Marta’s mother did come away from the crowd long enough to say to the child: “So here you are! Don’t you be wandering off that way! How often must I tell you?” before turning her attention back to the arguments raging around the fire. At this, Marta gave Axl a grin as though to say: “See what I told you?” and vanished into the shadows in search of her companions.
The room had grown significantly lighter. Their chamber, being on the outer fringe, had a small window to the outside, though it was too high to gaze out of without standing on a stool. It was at this moment covered with a cloth, but now an early ray of sun was penetrating from one corner, casting a beam over where Beatrice was sleeping. Axl could see, caught in this ray, what looked like an insect hovering in the air just above his wife’s head. He then realised it was a spider, suspended by its invisible vertical thread, and even as he watched, it started on its smooth descent. Rising noiselessly, Axl crossed the small room and swept his hand through the space above his sleeping wife, catching the spider within his palm. Then he stood there a moment looking down at her. There was a peacefulness on her sleeping face he rarely saw now when she was awake, and the sudden rush of happiness the sight brought him took him by surprise. He knew then he had made up his mind, and he wanted again to awaken her, just so he might break to her his news. But he saw the selfishness of such an action—and besides, how could he be so sure of her response? In the end he went back quietly to his stool, and as he seated himself again, remembered the spider and opened his hand gently.
When earlier he had been sitting on the bench outside waiting for the first light, he had tried to recall how he and Beatrice had first come to discuss the idea of their journey. He had thought then he had located a particular conversation they had had one night in this same chamber, but now, as he watched the spider run round the edge of his hand and onto the earthen floor, it struck him with certainty that the first mention of the subject had come that day the stranger in dark rags had passed through the village.
It had been a grey morning—was it as long ago now as last November?—and Axl had been striding beside the river along a footpath overhung with willows. He was hurrying back to the warren from the fields, perhaps to fetch a tool or receive new instructions from a foreman. In any case, he was stopped by a burst of raised voices from beyond the bushes to his right. His first thought was of ogres, and he searched quickly around for a rock or stick. Then he realised the voices—all of women—though angry and excited, lacked the panic that accompanied ogre attacks. He nevertheless pushed his way determinedly through a hedge of juniper shrubs and stumbled into a clearing, where he saw five women—not in their first youth, but still of child-bearing age—standing closely together. Their backs were turned to him and they went on shouting at something in the distance. He was almost up to them before one of the women noticed him with a start, but then the others turned and regarded him almost with insolence.
“Well, well,” said one. “Perhaps it’s chance or something more. But here’s the husband and hopefully he’ll drive sense into her.”
The woman who had seen him first said: “We told your wife not to go but she wouldn’t listen. She’s insisting she’ll take food to the stranger though she’s most likely a demon or else some elf disguised.”
“Is my wife in danger? Ladies, please explain yourselves.”
“There’s a strange woman been wandering around us all morning,” another said. “Hair down her back and a cloak of black rags. She claimed to be a Saxon but she’s not dressed like any Saxon we ever met. She tried to creep up behind us on the riverbank when we were attending to the laundry, but we saw her in good time and chased her away. But she kept returning, acting like she was heart-broken for something, other times asking us for food. We reckon she was all the while aiming her spell straight towards your wife, sir, for twice this morning already we had to hold Beatrice back by the arms, so intent was she on going to the demon. And now she’s fought us all off and gone up to the old thorn where even now the demon’s sitting waiting for her. We held her all we could, sir, but it must be the demon’s powers already moving through her because her strength was unnatural for a woman so thin-boned and aged as your wife.”
“The old thorn…”
“She set off only a moment ago, sir. But that’s a demon to be sure, and if you’re off after her you’ll watch you’re not stumbling or cutting yourself on a poisoned thistle the way it will never heal.”
Axl did his best to hide his irritation with these women, saying politely: “I’m grateful, ladies. I’ll go and see what my wife is up to. Excuse me.”
To our villagers, “the old thorn” denoted a local beauty spot as much as the actual hawthorn tree that grew seemingly right out of the rock at the edge of the promontory a short walk from the warren. On a sunny day, provided the wind was not strong, it was a pleasant place to pass the time. You had a good view of the land down to the water, of the river’s curve and the marshes beyond. On Sundays children often played around the gnarled roots, sometimes daring to jump off the end of the promontory, which in fact had only a gentle drop that would cause a child no injury, but simply to roll like a barrel down the grassy slope. But on a morning like this one, when adults and children alike were busy with tasks, the spot would have been deserted, and Axl, coming through the mist up the incline, was not surprised to see the two women were alone, their figures almost silhouettes against the white sky. Sure enough, the stranger, seated with her back against the rock, was dressed curiously. From a distance, at least, her cloak appeared to be made of many separate pieces of cloth stitched together, and it was now flapping in the wind, giving its owner the appearance of a great bird about to take flight. Beside her, Beatrice—still on her feet, though with head lowered towards her companion—appeared slight and vulnerable. They were in earnest conversation, but spotting Axl’s approach below, stopped and watched him. Then Beatrice came to the edge of the promontory and called down:
“Just stop there, husband, no further! I’ll come to you. But don’t climb up here and be disturbing this poor lady’s peace now she’s at last able to rest her feet and eat a little of yesterday’s bread.”
Axl waited as instructed and before long saw his wife coming down the long field-path to where he was standing. She came right up to him, and concerned no doubt that the wind would carry their words up to the stranger, said in a low voice:
“Have those foolish women sent you after me, husband? When I was their age, I’m sure it was the old ones were full of fear and foolish beliefs, reckoning every stone cursed and each stray cat an evil spirit. But now I’m grown old myself, what do I find but it’s the young are riddled with beliefs like they never heard the Lord’s promise to walk beside us at all times. Look at that poor stranger, see her yourself, exhausted and solitary, and she’s wandered the forest and fields for four days, village after village commanding her to travel on. And it’s Christian country she’s walked across, but taken for a demon or maybe a leper though her skin bears no mark of it. Now, husband, I hope you’re not here to tell me I’m not to give this poor woman comfort and what sorry food I have with me.”
“I wouldn’t tell you any such thing, princess, for I see for myself what you’re saying is true. I was thinking before I even came here how it’s a shameful thing we can’t receive a stranger with kindness any more.”
“Then go on with your business, husband, for I’m sure they’ll be complaining again how slow you are at your work, and before you know they’ll have the children chanting at us again.”
“No one’s ever said I’m slow in my work, princess. Where did you hear such a thing? I’ve never heard a word of such complaint and I’m able to take the same burden as any man twenty years younger.”
“I’m only teasing, husband. Right enough, there’s no one complaining about your work.”
“If there’s children calling us names, it’s not to do with my work being fast or slow but parents too foolish or more likely drunk to teach them manners or respect.”
“Calm yourself, husband. I told you I was just teasing and I won’t do so again. The stranger was telling me something that greatly interests me and may some time interest you too. But she needs to finish the telling of it, so let me ask you again to hurry on with whatever task you have to do and leave me to listen to her and give what comfort I can.”
“I’m sorry, princess, if I spoke harshly to you just then.”
But Beatrice had already turned and was climbing the path back to the thorn tree and the figure in the flapping cloak.
A little later, having completed his errand, Axl was returning to the fields, and at the risk of testing the patience of his colleagues, deviated from his route to go past the old thorn again. For the truth was that while he had fully shared his wife’s scorn for the suspicious instincts of the women, he had not been able to free himself from the thought that the stranger did pose some sort of threat, and he had been uneasy since leaving Beatrice with her. He was relieved then to see his wife’s figure, alone on the promontory in front of the rock, looking out at the sky. She seemed lost in thought, and failed to notice him until he called up to her. As he watched her descending the path, more slowly than before, it occurred to him not for the first time that there was something different lately in her gait. She was not limping exactly, but it was as though she were nursing some secret pain somewhere. When he asked her, as she approached, what had become of her odd companion, Beatrice said simply: “She went on her way.”
“She would have been grateful for your kindness, princess. Did you speak long with her?”
“I did and she had a deal to say.”
“I can see she said something to trouble you, princess. Perhaps those women were right and she was one best avoided.”
“She’s not upset me, Axl. She has me thinking though.”
“You’re in a strange mood. Are you sure she hasn’t put some spell on you before vanishing into the air?”
“Walk up there to the thorn, husband, and you’ll see her on the path and only recently departed. She’s hoping for better charity from those around the hill.”
“Well then I’ll leave you, princess, since I see you’ve come to no harm. God will be pleased for the kindness you’ve shown as is always your way.”
But this time his wife seemed reluctant to let him go. She grasped his arm, as though momentarily to steady herself, then let her head rest on his chest.
About the book:
From the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of the Booker Prize–winning novel The Remains of the Day comes a luminous meditation on the act of forgetting and the power of memory.
In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven't seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share.
Snippet from The Underground Railroad
- Colson Whitehead
Snippet from The Girl on the Train
- Paula Hawkins