In Which an Apprenticeship Is Begun
Xian-Li thrust her hand into the bowl cradled on her hip. She smelled the dry, sweet, floury scent of the cracked corn as she filled her palm, then flung the handful in a wide, generous arc around her. The chickens, already flocking to her, squawked and fluttered as they scurried to snatch up the kernels she had scattered. She watched their sleek heads bobbing as they pecked at the corn. A simple chore, feeding chickens, yet she took great pleasure in it-knowing that it was something her mother and grandmother had done all their lives. The uncomplicated act linked her to generations past and present and yet to come, and that gave her a comfortable feeling.
“I thought I would find you here,” said Arthur, a slight reproof in his tone.
She turned and smiled as he came to stand beside her.
“We have servants to do this, you know,” he said. “You are the lady of the house. You don’t have to feed chickens.”
“I enjoy it.” She flung another handful to her circle of plump brown hens. “And they like it.”
He caught her wrist as she returned it to the bowl. “Your hands, my love,” he said, lifting her palm. “They are getting rough. You do too much.”
“I do what pleases me, husband,” she countered. “Would you deny me that?”
He kissed her palm and released it. “It will be tomorrow,” he said after a moment. He felt her stiffen beside him. “I cannot put it off any longer.”
“But he is only six years old,” Xian-Li declared. Her face clouded, and her lips pursed in objection.
“He is old enough.” Arthur waited, watching the chickens scratching for errant kernels they had missed in the first flurry of feeding. “We’ve always known this day was coming. It is time he began his apprenticeship.”
“But he is only a child,” she complained, resisting what she knew to be true.
“The boy must learn.” Arthur was adamant. “He must be taught.”
Xian-Li turned and flung another handful of grain to her flock.
“He won’t be going alone,” said Arthur, pointing out the obvious. “Do you imagine for a moment I would let any harm to come near him?”
She frowned, her normally smooth brow furrowed now.
“Xian-Li,” he said softly. “It is time.”
She sighed, lowering her head in submission.
To assuage her anxiety, he added, “Besides, he must have some experience of it if we are to consider taking him to see your father and sister in Macau.”
“You are right, husband. I worry too much. But if anything happened to-”
Arthur interrupted before she could finish the thought. “I know.”
Since coming back to England, Xian-Li had taken charge of the small holding that had been in Arthur’s family for over a hundred years. Tucked away in the Cotswold countryside, she had devoted herself to her family and made a good life for herself and Arthur and little Benedict-away from the judgemental stares of city sophisticates who considered her a member of an inferior race. To the country folk of Oxfordshire, Xian-Li was a curious and somewhat exotic novelty whose presence among them provided interest in what was often a drearily mundane existence. As people in the neighbouring holdings and settlements had grown to know her, they accepted her, according the family a higher rank and status in respect of Arthur’s learning and manners. Arthur became known as “the squire” and Benedict, affectionately rechristened Ben by the locals, became “the young squire.” The boy was their sole pride and joy-all the more so because both Xian-Li and Arthur knew there would not be another child.
Later, Arthur took his turn at tucking little Benedict into bed so he could deliver the good news. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we are going on a journey.”
Ben looked up, excited. “Are we going to town?”
“No.” His father shook his head. “We are not going to Banbury, or Whitney, or even Oxford. We’re going somewhere far away from England.”
“China!” The little black-haired boy rose up in bed.
“No, not China. Not this time. That is a difficult journey, and you must be older for that.”
“Where are we going?”
“We are going to Egypt.”
“That’s right. Remember I told you about my friend Anen who lives in Egypt?”
The boy nodded.
“We are going to pay him a visit.”
“And I can go too?”
“Yes,” his father assured him. “You will come with me this time. There is much to learn, and it is time your lessons were begun.”
The boy sat up in bed again and clapped his hands. His father pressed him back down. “We must leave very early in the morning, and you must get your rest. Now, say your prayers and blow out the candle. Morning will be here soon enough.”
When Arthur came to wake him the next morning, he found his son already awake and dressed, shirt laced, shoes buckled. “You look a fine traveller,” Arthur told him. “Did you sleep at all last night?”
Ben nodded. “Are we leaving now?”
“Right this very minute,” replied his father. “The carriage is ready. We can eat our breakfast while Timothy drives.” He tucked in the boy’s shirttails and tightened his belt. “Now, run and kiss your mother good-bye. Then put on your coat. I will be waiting for you in the yard outside.”
Ben ran downstairs, his feet clumping heavily on the wooden floorboards as he ran. Arthur followed, retrieving his own coat and hat on the way. Xian-Li was waiting for them in the yard, a bag of provisions in her hand. Arthur gave her a farewell kiss and pressed both her hands in his. “Never fear, I will take good care of him.”
“Of course you will,” she said, forcing a smile.
Daybreak was still some time off when the coach rolled out from their farm and into the gently folded hills and valleys of the Cotswolds. Their farm, on the edge of the village of Much Milford, was only a little way off the main thoroughfare linking the nearby towns and hamlets. Timothy, the farm manager, drove along the deep-rutted road, letting the horses trot along easily while keeping a sharp eye for any holes likely to break a wheel or an axle. Arthur opened the bag Xian-Li had prepared for them and passed his son a barley cake, which had been split and buttered. He took one for himself and leaned back in his seat.
“Papa,” said little Benedict thoughtfully, “will we see God?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You said we will jump up beyond the clouds and stars to a new place,” he said, picking off a bit of his barley cake. He chewed for a moment and observed, “That is where God lives. Can we see him?”
Arthur recalled the previous conversation with his son when he had just returned from one of his travels. Benedict, only four years old at the time, had asked where he had been, and Arthur had told him, in a lighthearted way, that he had been to a place beyond the clouds and stars. In his childish way, the boy considered this just one more way people travelled whenever they went on long trips to distant places.
“Would it surprise you,” Arthur replied, “to know that God cannot be seen-even up among the stars?”
“Because he is a spirit, and spirits are invisible. No one can see God.”
“Vicar de Gifftley does,” Ben pointed out. “He talks to God all the time.”
“I do not doubt it,” allowed his father. “But even the vicar does not see God with his eyes.”
“Vicar says that if you see Jesus, then you see God,” countered Ben. “Lots of people have seen Jesus.”
“Well, yes, but that was a long time ago.” Arthur enjoyed these little talks, challenging, as they so often did, his own assumptions of the universe and its exceedingly odd mechanisms. “When we take a journey using the force lines we will see people from other times. The man we are going to visit-Anen, remember me telling about him?-he lived a very long time ago.”
“Will we see him?”
“No-I mean Jesus. Will we see Jesus?”
“No, we won’t see him.”
“Well, because Jesus lived in another place and time from the one we are going to visit.”
He watched his son puzzling over this and resisted the urge to say more. It had long been an ambition to find the line of force that might lead to the Holy Land in the time of Christ. He had yet to find it, but knew it was out there somewhere. The search went on, and Arthur contented himself with the thought that his relentless mapping of the cosmos would eventually yield the location. To this end, Arthur still faithfully recorded the coordinates of his travels on his skin through the tattoos he gathered and meticulously refined with every journey into the ether. He watched his son eating the barley cake. One day soon, he would share with Benedict the meaning of the strange runes that covered his torso, and how to read them-a secret known only to one other: his own dear wife, Xian-Li.
“How long will it take?”
“To go to Egypt?” guessed Arthur. “Not long. As I told you, it happens in the blink of an eye. It is travelling to the jumping-off place that takes all the time. The jumping-off place for this journey is very close to our farm.”
“Black Mixen Tump,” offered Ben, stuffing the remainder of his barley cake into his mouth.
“That is right.” Arthur scrutinised his son closely. “How do you know about that?”
“I heard you and Mother talking,” Ben told him. “Can I have another barley cake?”
“Later. Have a little cheese or an egg instead.” Arthur dug into the bag and brought out a lump of cheese wrapped in muslin and a clutch of eggs boiled in the shell. He offered an egg to his son and took one for himself. He tapped it on the window ledge of the carriage and began to peel it, tossing the shards out the window.
They talked of what they would see in Egypt and how ley travellers were expected to comport themselves on their journeys. “We must always be respectful of the people we meet. It is their world, and we are guests. We never do anything to call unwanted attention to ourselves. We try to be good guests. We mind our manners.” He regarded the boy, willing him to understand. “Promise me you’ll always mind your manners, son.”
“I promise, Papa.”
“Good,” said Arthur. “Now look outside. You can see Black Mixen Tump from here.”
The great hulking eminence of the Stone Age mound stood out as an ominous dark shadow. A hill in a landscape of hills, it was a place apart, sacred to the ancients who had built it. Early-morning mist wreathed the broad base and swirled up along the winding trail leading up the steep slope to the strangely flattened top. The Three Trolls-the trio of great old oak trees guarding the top-stood out against the greying dawn sky. Black Mixen still kindled in Arthur a singular dread, in spite of his long familiarity with the place. What power the site contained, he hardly knew; but he suspected he had only skimmed the surface of its manifold energies.
Timothy brought the coach to a halt on the west side of the mound and waited while his passengers climbed out. Then, handing down the leather satchel his employer always carried, he said, “I will wait until you have gone, sir. Just to make certain no one comes by-if you know what I mean.”
“Thank you, Timothy,” replied Arthur. He reached out for Benedict’s hand. “Ready, son?”
The boy pulled his hand away. “No.”
“I don’t want to go.” He crossed his arms over his chest, staring balefully at the great conical hump of Black Mixen rising before them.
“Why?” said Arthur. “We’ve come all this way.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Arthur assured him.
“There is nothing to be afraid of.”
“I don’t like the trolls.”
“The trolls are trees-just ordinary trees. Now come along, and stop this foolishness at once.”
“Excuse me interrupting, sir,” said Timothy, speaking up. He indicated the sky with a tilt of his head. “The sun is coming.”
“We must go. It is time to be a brave boy,” Arthur said firmly. “Now, take my hand and come along. I will be right here beside you. There is nothing to fear.”
The two travellers followed the serpentine trail to the summit, and Arthur quickly located the stone he had planted a few years ago to mark the location of the prime energy field. Taking his customary stance on the stone, he placed his son before him and said, “Put one hand to my belt.” The boy did as he was told and snaked his fingers around his father’s wide leather belt; with the other hand he held tight to his father’s free hand. “That’s right. Now, whatever happens, do not let go. Remember what I told you about the wind and rain?”
“I remember-the wind will scream and the rain will sting. And I will feel a bump.”
“A bump, yes. Who told you that?”
“She is right. You will probably feel a bump-like a little jump-but do not worry. You won’t fall. I will be there with you to catch you.”
“And I won’t throw up.”
“You might,” his father advised, slinging the satchel strap over his shoulder. “But if you do, it is nothing to worry about. Just go ahead and throw up, and you will feel better.”
Clasping his son’s hand tightly, Arthur raised his arm in the air above his head. He felt the familiar shimmer of the force field on his skin; the hair on his arms and on the back of his neck stood up. The air crackled with the presage of lightning, and a heavy mist descended around them. The wind howled down as if descending from distant, blizzard-scoured heights. “Hold on!” he cried, shouting into the whirling maelstrom of forces writhing around them. He tightened his grip on the boy’s hand. “Ready! Here we go!”
The familiar English hilltop dimmed, and the rain flew sideways in stinging torrents. Arthur felt his feet leave the marking stone, but only for an instant-the lurch between steps on uneven ground-and the solid ground of a new land rose beneath them.
It was done.
The wail of the wind died away, and the rain ceased abruptly. The mist cleared. The hill was gone, the Trolls, the grey English sky-all replaced by the soft warmth and gleaming bright blues and golds of a desert morning. They were standing in the centre of an avenue lined with crouching sphinxes. Benedict, his eyes wide, stared at the long double row of statues and the empty white desert and rock-bare hills beyond.
He gave a cry of delight and darted forward, remembered himself, and halted. Far from being made sick by the experience, the boy positively enjoyed the wild, disorienting leap across the dimensional divide. Here was something new in Arthur’s experience; perhaps the very young did not experience the effects of what was for older folks a most uncomfortable transition. It had taken him a fair few journeys before he finally became inured to the more unpleasant sensations; the minor inconveniences of extreme temporal dislocation no longer bothered him.
“Let’s do it again,” Ben chirped, his earlier anxiety entirely forgotten.
“We will do it again, yes,” replied Arthur. “When it is time to go home. Just now we are going to visit Anen.”
“Is this Egypt? It’s hot!”
“It is very hot.” Arthur opened the satchel and pulled out two lightweight linen cloths. He wrapped one around his son’s head, and then fashioned a turban for himself. “There. That’s better.” He held out his hand. “Come along. We should be on our way before it gets even hotter. When we get there Anen will have a cool drink for us.”