“The Red Threads and the Green Man” by Kenneth Burstall

“The Red Threads and the Green Man” by Kenneth Burstall

Fifteenth Century England

The sun falls through the stained glass windows, beams in the ladder to heaven.

Red for the blood on the day, blue for the sky on the ascension, green for the lost garden. All arrayed around the white of the Savior in the middle, the place where the colors merge and the world becomes one.

But all is surrounded by a sooty black.

The Priest is visibly sweating, stuttering his sermon on the Gadarene Swine. He’s new. This is his first tenth solstice and he knows his sermon means nothing to us but doesn’t understand why.

None takes the Eucharist. Eating the body and drinking the blood would give even the best of us the fever that kills. Punishment for our actions to come on this shortest day.

Those from the manor house rush out ahead of the start of the events. They will spend the day in their house, devoutly reading their bibles no doubt.

The Priest, well taught, makes a show of picking up the crucifix, the creamy gold is pierced by red jewels — after the windows the brightest made thing we have ever seen. A cross-shaped hole into a realm of yellow clouds, studded with red stars.

We form lines on either side of the aisle and the Priest walks between us, crucifix and head held high. He doesn’t even flinch as we tap him on head or shoulders with elder twigs. He earns credit for his courage today and will find people more willing to listen to him in the next year.

As he leaves the church we follow him in a line, drunk, some staggering, others sliding in the mud and shit.

We reach his house and once the Priest walks through the door we board it up. The planks have been used and re-used for years and the thick blunt nails easily fit through the ancient holes into the corresponding holes in the door-frame. In reality the nails would pop-out under any force and the door would open easily.

If the Priest did that we would kill him.

As the sound of hammering hits the houses around the low building I stare around at the village.

The church stands out, gray against the gray sky, a needle in the heavens.

The houses, cold wooden caves, slumping, looking broken. Every third one empty, families gone to the city to the rage of the squire.

The fields, narrow stripes of land, each one owned and jealously guarded by one family.

“Michael,” comes a voice from behind me.

I look back at the glittering gray mass of the church. Over the door I see the out-of-place carving of the Green Man, a face, barely visible under a wreath of branches, its mouth vomiting more branches. Much depends on that frightening image today.

I turn to see Thomas, village headman. He draws back his fist and punches me in the face.

I fall back onto the sodden ground and as I lie there, shocked, with a broken nose, I hear him say, “Sorry, lad. Had to be done. Get him, boys!”

“So it is to be me,” I think.

I’m grabbed under the arms while another fist gives me a warning blow across the back of the head. Scarcely knowing what is going on, I’m dragged out of the village and up our small hill.

The creamy white rock here loves water. It drinks rain into the huge caves below that we all know are there but never talk of. Our beautiful stream has somehow escaped this fate. It springs from near the top of the hill and flows down to the village, clear and cool.

We move closer and closer to the source.

* * *

I see our beloved stream, but instead of the clear tumble of light I see a slow-moving yellow flow shot through with thin red threads.

I’m pushed closer until I stand over it, then the men holding me push me to my knees.

Thomas is standing behind me and I hear him say, “Do good work for us, lad. You may yet come out of this alive.”

Then my head is thrust into the stream.

* * *

My eyes are open and I see light like honey, slowly moving past in loops and hoops as the liquid strikes the side or the bed. Reflexively I open my mouth to taste, expecting rich sweetness, but instead there is only a great bitterness underlain by iron. I close my mouth and, as the taste lingers and burns, I feel myself needing to breathe.

Yet, I am still held down and I know that I need to look for something to satisfy my captors.

Then I see the threads, each the color of blood and each seeming to be keening, singing a drawn-out song of pain and loss. With horror I realize these threads are, each of them, alive. Each is a person, stretched out like wire until all that they were is reduced to a single line of writhing pain.

They cluster together, beautiful strings of agony against the poisoned but deeply warm yellow liquid.

I’m pulled to the surface and sob for air, filled with fear that I might have to return to the slow-flowing stream. Thomas appears in front of me and seems to inspect my face. To me it feels swollen, but he sees something else and appears satisfied.

“It’s at the edge of his eyes. That’s good. Put him in again, boys.”

Once again I am pushed down.

This time the threads seem to be more concentrated and more purposeful. Then I realize they are moving toward my eyes. I scream soundlessly, bubbles of my air silvery in the yellow.

The threads congregate at the edges of my vision and begin to push their way in. As I lose the ability to make tears other threads penetrate my eyeballs, pushing through the jelly and into my pupils.

The pain is terrible but not as bad as the sense of being penetrated, of a terrible pressure being made inside me without my permission.

The process continues forever, the time it takes for my breath to run out. I feel my eyes begin to bulge with the host of red threads. At some point I realize my eyelids will no longer close, the curve of my eyes being so great. And despite the agony I’m being put through, I can hear, under the lament of the threads, a distant rumbling, growing louder, a sound of power and rage.

Something claims ownership over these attenuated souls and is coming to enforce its rights.

* * *

I can’t see anymore. All is black with a dull writhing of crimson threads.

Then I am pulled out of the stream again.

“Dear God, will you look at his eyes!” says John.

“That’s as it should be, son. Don’t look at him if it’s too much for you”

I hear the scorn in Thomas’ voice.

“Bring him to the church.”

I’m drunk and blind and I stagger even more than I did on the way to the stream. My eyes itch and I can feel tears of blood leaking from the corners. The men holding me scarcely need to do so other than to guide me safely. I am desperate to get to the church and gain some relief from the pressure in my head.

* * *

I hear crows cawing, wind in the branches of the elder and yew trees, the murmur and, astonishingly, the laughter from the following crowd.

Under it all, and growing louder, I hear that distant rumble, rhythmic now as of great wings, beating. The thing that took and now tortures the souls of those lost under the cloud of the Great Death not so many generations ago is angry. It was woken from its pleasant dreams of agony stretched taut and is coming for its property.

* * *

We reach the church. Even with help I am scarcely able to walk. All I can see are the red threads, all I can hear is the beating of wings, all I can taste and smell is the bitterness of iron.

And then we come close to the church door and there, shining out from the crimson-veined sooty darkness, is the Green Man.

His face is a brilliant emerald and he smiles out from within his branches. His face is fierce and carries some emotion I cannot name. He is my last hope, and just seeing that impossible visage makes me think I could survive what is happening to me, but I can feel the process hastening. The crimson threads are becoming brighter as they move more swiftly and I feel my eyes begin to swell more.

Worse still, the sound of great wings is growing louder. Surely even the other villagers can hear and feel it now. Something ancient and strange is coming.

The Green Man is becoming brighter and is beginning to move, branches swaying, lips moving, making out words I cannot understand.

I’m released and fall to my knees again. This time I rise by myself and, following some unspoken command, begin to dance.

Tentative at first, my limbs moving like the Green Man’s branches, slow and uncoordinated, I feel a power moving into me. I feel my eyes begin to itch harder, the pain to lessen a little. I am a scarecrow in the wind, snow in a gale, steam from boiling water. I am uncontrolled but elegant and my gift of myself and my dance is accepted by the Green Man. I speed up my motions, feeling the pressure in my head reduce as the itching increases. Somehow I know that the red threads are leaving my eyes and rushing to the Green Man and into his mouth to oblivion. Briefly I wonder why they go to him and not the altar, bur my dance takes me up again.

I’m sure I look clumsy and laughable to the other villagers, but to me, and I’m sure the Green Man, I am beautiful. I stamp out a rhythm I do not understand. I weave around it. The steady loss of the threads is a delight and I make it happen with my motions.

The distant horror under the hills becomes faint. It is returning to sleep, confused by the loss of the threads to the Green Man.

Eventually I collapse. All the threads are gone and my dance is done. They have found sanctuary in the Green Man’s mouth and from there they have been wiped away like mud from a boot. Still a better fate than the stream.

I am taken up, with delight this time. Beer is brought to my lips and I drink the musty liquid, less out of joy and more to ease the pain in my head and eyes.

I remember Stephen, the last guide from ten years ago. As I was only five years old I was not allowed at the stream or at the church. I was at the celebration after and saw how he was treated, a hero, the savior of the village.

But in the months and years afterwards memories faded and changed and the crazed blind man became an embarrassment.

There’s little use for a blind man in a village and now he and his family live on the brink of starvation. Only the grudging help of neighbors keeps them from death.

Stephen himself drinks hard, even by the measure of other men. He will die soon.

I enjoy my glory day knowing that this will also be my fate.

I will take other things today as well: eyes like open wounds; a certain knowledge of the winged, tentacled, animated darkness under the hill; the viridian beauty of the Green Man.

I freed some of the souls of those lost in the Great Sickness. Perhaps in a century or so all will have gone into the mouth and been extinguished. Perhaps then the horror beneath the hill will be still forever.

Ken Burstall is a middle-aged Englishman, living in Austin, Texas, with far too many children. He works, intermittently, as an oilfield geologist and has calculated that he has spent six of the last twenty years on oil rigs far offshore. His weblog is at fallslikesnow.blogspot.com. His Amazon author page is at www.amazon.com/-/e/B004TL9OTY. His Smashwords author page is at www.smashwords.com/profile/view/thatwhichfalls.