by Miranda Foix
A college senior discovers he's much more than he ever thought he was.
Stones and Silence
"But it rises over the heel stone." Her voice was shrill with some combination of excitement and pleading. "On the equinox!" I hated it when she got that way. This was definitely not how I was hoping to spend my last Spring Break. We should have stayed in London.
"Yeah, sure," I said, setting my arms across my chest and shifting my weight impatiently. "Where it is now." I leaned toward her, pointing down her line of sight at the large rock. "It probably wasn't even in the same place back then." Emily spun on her heels and groaned at me over her shoulder.
"Come on, Sean." She was getting annoyed with me. She always did whenever I made a point. You'd think she'd learn.
"Give me a break, Em! You honestly believe this bullshit?"
She whipped back around to face me. I'd really pissed her off now. "Why not?" Her voice was rising steadily. "Who's to say why it was built?"
"Exactly my point, Em." I sighed and took her arm. "Come on. Let's get going. It's time for lunch." Her shoulders hunched forward in that familiar way as she started to follow me. It was what she did whenever she realized she couldn't win. We turned our backs on the sad ring of fallen stones.
"Are you really not interested in Stonehenge, Sean?" She was reluctant to leave. I could tell; I just couldn't figure out why.
"What's there to be interested in?" I turned back and gestured to the toppled megaliths. "Some nerdy scholar found a group of rocks and decided to make all kinds of stupid-ass theories about who put them here and why!" A tour guide shot a glare at me as she led another group of Americans around the site.
"But look," she pleaded, pointing to a small hole in the ground that was barely visible from beyond the barriers. "They predicted eclipses with those."
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. "So what you're saying is that because we can see it, then they knew about it?"
"You've got to be kidding me."
"Why?" She'd stopped again and was crossing her slender arms over her chest, gently pressing her breasts together. She always looked beautiful when she was angry. That's probably why I instigated so much.
"Next thing you're going to tell me is that it was built by aliens or that it's an outpost for Atlantis or some shit like that."
"I'm not going to say that." Her dark eyes were completely alive with frustration. It was fantastic. "Though there is a legend that Uther Pendragon is buried under there."
"You read too much. Come on." Finally, she gave up her protesting and we got to leave those miserable rocks behind. She was quiet for a little while, but it didn't take her long to come around. She was back to reading her occult books and pointing out the latest theories before the bus had us anywhere near our hotel.
Dusk came and went. The darkness outside would have been encompassing except for the streetlights of the city. When Emily and I had discussed going to London for spring break, we decided that we were going all out. We weren't going to skimp on a thing for our last spring break ever. As such, we had this huge hotel room, with a Jacuzzi and everything, just on the outer edges of the city. It was far enough away to be quiet, yet close enough to offer every amenity we could think of. My side of the bed was near the floor-to-ceiling windows and I had a decent view of the street. I lay on my back, Emily asleep beside me. Occasionally I felt bad giving her such a hard time about her choice of reading material and her ability to believe, well, nearly anything. On the worst days, I'd just call it gullibility. But darkness and silence breed introspection, and on that night, it was just one more reason I loved her.
It was a little past three in the morning, and I was still awake. I had taken to staring out the window, watching slightly amused as the occasional drunk staggered home, or at least that's where I imagined he was staggering. Em had rolled over a while before and had wrapped herself around my right arm. My attention drifted back to her momentarily and I reached over, brushing a couple of wisps of her dark hair away from her eyes. It was still half in the rubber band she'd thrown in earlier that day. She'd bitch about it in the morning once it had become irrevocably tangled, but for now she was beautifully asleep. It happened at that point that I turned back to glance out of the window once again, though this time, it was not a drunk who captured my attention.
It was a man. That much I could tell. He was standing directly under the light across the street from the hotel. I remember thinking that it looked like something out of a really cheesy, low-budget movie. I could've sworn that he was staring up at me. I sat up in bed, swinging my legs over the side after carefully removing my arm from Em's death grip.
"What is it?" Emily's sleep-filled voice floated over my shoulder as I stared out the window. I turned to her, still very confused.
"There's a man out there," I said as nonchalantly as I could. It apparently wasn't good enough.
"What's wrong?" She was sitting up by now, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
"I don't know," I said, turning back to the window. But as I raised my hand to point to the stranger, I stopped abruptly. I rose quickly from the bed and pressed myself against the glass, trying to catch a glimpse of something through the misty London air.
"He's not there."
"What did he look like?" She seemed concerned, but it could have been more with the idea of getting back to sleep. I never could tell with her.
"He looked like," I began. I had to pause and think about how to word it exactly. I mean, I didn't want to sound completely delusional. "He looked like a man in a bathrobe."
"He was standing under that light over there, in a long robe. And he was looking at me. He had dark hair, and-"
"Go to sleep, Sean."
I spun around, towering over her where she was still sitting on the bed. "You're kidding! You don't believe me? You believe everything! What makes this so damned special?"
"It's special because it's four o'clock in the morning and I would like to get back to sleep." She hiked the covers back up over her shoulders and lay down, curling into a little ball with her back to me where I still was standing at the now smudge-covered window. "Go to sleep, Sean."
"But, I..." I was speechless. "Well, shit." I tried to take one last cursory look down the sidewalk, but the un-openable window blocked my path. "Damn modern art!" I said, cursing the functionless pane of glass that was standing between me and figuring out where the bathrobed man went. Shortly afterward, I lay back down. I pressed myself close to Em, as much to be close to her and feel her warmth as to keep myself from looking out the window again.
The morning arrived far too quickly and, needless to say, I was not thrilled with the idea. I'd promised Emily that we would spend the day walking around London, and she was already awake and bustling around the hotel room. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and began tugging at the rubber band in her hair. I couldn't help but laugh.
"It's not funny," she said, half-heartedly stomping her foot against the floor as she stared at me in the mirror, beyond her own reflection. Her dark, innocently large eyes narrowed a little as she returned to concentrating on removing the entangled elastic. While attention was diverted from me, I took one more look through the window and, assured that there was no man wearing any sort of bathroom attire, passed off the events of the night before as a sleep-deprived hallucination. Even though that wasn't saying much for me, I felt that it was better than the alternative.
I tried to distract myself next by attempting, as I did every morning, to tame that particular area of my hair that decided to stick straight up no matter what I did. And as she always did every morning, Em laughed and described in detail how silly my hair looked sticking up like that. "You look like a blond hedgehog," she managed to say through her giggles. She tried to plant a raspberry on the side of my neck, but I saw it coming in the mirror and caught her off balance on her toes.
"Can't we just stay inside today?" I pleaded as I lifted her thin frame off the ground. "Come on." I was inching toward the bed now. "We have this whole awesome room to ourselves. No roommates – Em for once in our lives no roommates!" But she just giggled, squirming until I put her down. Not long afterward, Em dragged me out the door to begin our walking tour of the city.
It was going well enough. She was getting all excited about the history of the buildings and everything. We passed an information booth that was selling tickets for a ghost tour. I spotted the sign first and tried desperately to discreetly turn her attention elsewhere, but she saw the sign almost as soon as I did and before I could do anything, her eyes were glowing. She tugged on my hand like a five year old in front of a toy store.
"Can we go, Sean?" I rolled my eyes. "Please?" I was fully prepared to say no when she whipped out her secret weapon. She made that sad face; that one that looks like you just ran over her cat. It makes you feel that way, too. Damn it. I approached the ticket counter and purchased two tickets for ‘Experience the GHOSTS OF OLD LONDON.' Em threw her arms around my neck and tugged, causing me to bend over enough that she could smack me in the forehead with a kiss.
If I thought that dawn had come fast this morning, that stupid ghost tour came even faster. We were there, promptly fifteen minutes early in order to ensure that we had a front row seat for the mobile bullshitting that was going to take place. By the time the tour began, we were one of six couples and it became clear not long after that half of us didn't want to be there. Our tour guide was a woman, probably about my age. Her hair was long and blonde and was tied up in that way that looks as though they spent four hours trying to make it look like they just rolled out of bed.
"All right," she said as she picked up the battery-operated tour guide's lantern and began walking backwards through the streets. "Welcome to the tour. Tonight I'll be leading you through some of the most haunted streets and past some of the most haunted buildings in the world, as we hope to catch a glimpse of the Ghosts of Old London." I rolled my eyes. She was trying to sound incredibly dramatic and was failing miserably. "Follow me, please," she instructed. "We wouldn't want anyone getting lost when there're ghosts about." She waved her fingers through the air in what was an attempted gesture of spookiness. The half of the group that clearly didn't want to be there groaned.
We hadn't gone much farther when my attention was grabbed by something else. Under a street lamp, a block away and on the other side of the street, was a man. That man. The one from the night before. As we kept walking, I could see that it wasn't a bathrobe so much as what you would expect a monk to wear. And it was red; a really dark red. Em was walking next to me, listening more or less intently to what the stunningly boring tour guide had to say when I grabbed her arm. I wasn't taking my eyes off this man.
"It's ok, Sean," she whispered to me. "I've read about this place and it's not really as scary as she's making it out to be."
"No, no, no. Look. Over there." I nodded with my head toward the man in the light. He was still looking at me.
"There." I was getting a little impatient with her. Someone next to us tried to shush me. "That man over there. He's the one from last night."
"So? What do you mean, ‘so?'"
"So what's the big deal?" The tour had stopped by now and everyone was looking at me disgustedly.
"The big deal is that he was staring at me last night and he's staring at me now!" I paused briefly as I came to the sudden realization of how really stupid that sounded. The man began to grin at me from where he stood, bathed in light. "Son of a –”
"Relax." By this time, the group started moving forward again and Emily was pulling my arm to get me to follow. I finally peeled my eyes away from the man in the robe.
"Em." I was whispering now. "You really don't think that's just a little weird?"
"Not really, Sean." I couldn't believe it! For all of her fascination with anything else in the world that could even be remotely considered a paranormal phenomenon, she didn't think that a man in a crimson monk's robe stalking her boyfriend was strange. I let the subject go for a while. What other choice did I have? Fifteen minutes later, when we were nearing the end of the tour, the same man appeared again. And he was once again under a street lamp across from where we were walking. I broke from the group and headed toward him. I could hear the guide continuing as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. I could also hear Em hollering after me. Her voice wasn't fading the way everyone else's was, so I assumed she was following me. But I didn't really care at that point. I was intent; I was on a mission. That staring, smiling man wasn't going to get away from me. Not this time.
The man turned and began walking away as I headed toward him. His dark robe was billowing a little behind him as he moved. Emily was screaming for me to stop, but I didn't turn and I didn't slow down. I wasn't going to take my eyes off this man either. I wasn't going to give him a chance to get away. I wanted to find out who he was and why he was following me. Somewhere in my mind, I was trying to wrap myself around the idea that someone would actually choose to stalk me, out of all the tourists and all the people in London. Why me? Part of me was afraid of what that could mean. But that wasn't something I was going to outwardly concern myself with. Not just yet.
The man had turned down an alleyway and, as I rounded the corner at a run, I caught a glimpse of him ducking into a side door. I couldn't hear Em behind me anymore, but I didn't slow down. I needed to know what the hell was going on. When I reached the door the man had disappeared into, I paused for a moment. I took a deep breath, as if I was about to dive into an icy lake. Then I opened the door, stepping across the threshold and into the unknown.
My eyes adjusted quickly and I could see that I was in a long hallway. Candles or something lit the far end and it looked as though it opened up into something larger. Somewhere, a little voice was telling me this was a bad idea, but I never listened to that voice anyway. What should make this time any different? I approached the lights slowly, though probably not as stealthily as I would have liked since the hard soles of my boots were echoing against the stone floor. As the room opened up in front of me, I was entirely unprepared for what I saw there.
A group of men, all clad in those dark red robes, were standing in a circle, all facing the doorway where I entered. They were all older men, most with graying hair and beards. The room was lit not with candles but torches, something I had only ever seen in video games and movies. On the walls hung tapestries of various colors and sizes, and there was a large, perfectly circular stone inset into the floor. It was around this stone that the men stood. At exactly the opposite point around the circle from where I entered stood the man who I'd seen the night before from my hotel room and who'd been following me during the ghost tour.
"Welcome," he said. His voice was loud; much louder than his size had led me to anticipate. It echoed through the stone room.
"What in the name of –"
"Arthur," a man a few places to the right of me interjected. He was a tall man, his hair only beginning to turn grey at the temples. He had a neatly trimmed beard that was quite long, hiding most of his neck from view.
I turned my very confused gaze toward the man who just spoke. "What?"
"Arthur," he said again, as if it was the most natural response any normal person would think of.
"Welcome," my stalker repeated, "To my court."
The only sound I could manage was a very sarcastic, "Right." He began walking around the outside of the group of men.
"My name is Arthur," he said, "though I have had many names." By the time he reached me where I was still standing by the doorway, I hadn't moved or said anything. All I could do was stand there staring at these men who were quite obviously out of their minds. Or if they weren't, then I definitely was. "I'm sorry to have followed you as I did," he continued. "But I had to get you here, and I knew of no other way."
"What the hell is going on here?" It seemed I'd got my voice back.
I noticed suddenly that he was a very tall man, much taller than I was, which was saying something. "I assume," he began, "that you are familiar with the tales of Camelot and of King Arthur's knights?"
I nodded slowly. After all, you couldn't spend any decent amount of time with Emily without picking up a myth or two.
"Good. That saves me some trouble. Tell me of what you know." It sounded more of a command then a request, though instead of arguing, I proceeded to rattle off as many of the myths as I could remember.
"His father's said to be buried beneath Stonehenge which was supposedly built by Merlin who floated the rocks over from Ireland or something. He was given a sword by a woman in a lake, though Disney says that he pulled it from a stone when he was a kid. I don't know; he had a round table in his court where everyone was equal because no man sat higher than another. He was mortally wounded in a battle with I think his half-brother or something in Camlan and was carried off by boat to a holy island or something." The man wasn't looking too impressed thus far. His arms were hanging loosely in front of him, and his fingers were interlaced. His steel grey eyes looked as cold and hard as the stones we were standing on. I decided to throw one last tidbit I'd picked up from Em; one of the more interesting, lesser known details of the heroic King Arthur. "Oh, and once during his reign he was afraid he'd be overthrown, so he ordered a whole lot of babies to be killed, and he was given the name ‘Childslayer.'"
There was a twitch somewhere behind the man's eye as I spoke. He didn't seem happy with my choice of conclusions. "To put it bluntly," he said, without giving any further recognition of what I had said. "We are the, I suppose you might say descendents of King Arthur and his knights."
"Right." I could have guessed at what they would have said, and I would've been right. "I think I should go."
"You mustn't." It was one of the ‘knights' who was speaking now. One who stood off to the left. He was shorter than the others, and a little younger looking, though with long dark hair that clearly hadn't been cut in years. "We need you, m'lord."
"What?" I was backing toward the door. I wanted out, and fast.
"It's Merlin, I'm afraid," the man who called himself Arthur said, suddenly looking very troubled. He gestured toward the far side of the room where an elderly man was standing, hunched over on a gnarled cane. I hadn't noticed him there before. "He's very old and rather ill."
"What in the hell does that have to do with me?"
"You, my lad, are the next Merlin."
"Ok," I said, continuing to back toward the door. "Well, it was nice meeting you all, and it's been fun, but I really should be going."
"You don't understand," Arthur said, moving toward me. "I said descendants, but it is a bit more complicated than that. We were once normal men like you, but we have the memories and knowledge of our patrons. I wish there was an easier way to explain it. But we can only show you."
I spun around with the intention of sprinting down the hallway and out the door into the alley, but instead I found myself face to face with the old man from the shadowy corner of the room. I hadn't even seen him move. I opened my mouth to holler, but the only sound was of his cane clattering to the ground as he placed both of his hands on the sides of my face. His hands, ice cold at first, felt to be burning an instant later. My vision of the room and the old man was replaced in a flash of white by visions of another time and place.
They whirled past me, almost too fast for me to see. I saw a lake, then a sword, shimmering and golden in the sunlight. Then there was a castle, with spires stretching upward toward the clouds. A moment later, stones were moving as if by magic and were placed in an open plain, standing on their ends in circles. A battle next, with masses of thousands charging toward each other, only to collide with such noise as I thought I would never hear anything else. It zoomed in then, like I was a bird diving toward the center of the battle. And I saw a man impaled upon a sword, the same sword I had seen a moment before. As I watched, circling above, the dark clad man pulled himself up the blade and stabbed the other with his own. The image flashed again, and I was watching a ship sailing toward an island in the distance, and though I could barely see it as a speck on the horizon, I knew it for its true name: Avalon. As the ship grew smaller, I was whisked back to the great standing stones. There was a burial happening: a body wrapped in an ornate cloth was being lowered gently into a hole that had been dug in the center of the inner-most circle. Someone was crying. Someone else said a prayer. Then, they disappeared, leaving me alone with the stones and silence.
The world reappeared in front of me. The man holding me seemed so much older now than he had been. He released me from his grip and fell to the floor in a heap. A number of the knights ran to his aid and helped him through a doorway on the other side of the room. Arthur stood very still, waiting for me to speak. Even though I couldn't recall half of the images I had seen, I knew everything that had taken place as if I had been there myself, and I knew every person I had seen and every person in that room by name. I didn't speak. I stood there, trying to grasp at the fleeting visions, only to come up empty handed. After a long silence, Arthur spoke.
"Do you understand now?" he asked. I shook my head, still unable to form a single word in my throat. I knew what I had seen, and I knew who this man was, but I didn't understand. I instead dropped to one knee, suddenly overwhelmed with fealty for this man who was somehow no longer a stranger to me.
"Say something, child," he prompted.
"My girlfriend will never believe this." That reminded me. Emily. I had to get back to her. I pushed myself quickly to my feet. "I have to go," I said.
Arthur's eyes widened a little in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
I shook my head, staring straight into those steely grey eyes. "I don't know what just happened, but I'm leaving."
The knights were staring at me furiously as Arthur spoke again. "You cannot. We need you here, with us."
I was already moving toward the exit. "I'm sorry, my king." My king? Where had that come from? I couldn't let myself think about it just then. "I have to." Without looking back I turned and walked from the chilled room back into civilization and normalcy.
When I finally found my way out of the various alleys and side streets, I somehow ended up near Westminster Abbey, and the area was wonderfully populated. But there was no sign of Emily. I wandered for a while, trying to find my way back to where the ghost tour had started. No luck. My mind was in as much of a fog as the whole damn city, but somehow I managed to catch a bus that got me all the way back to our hotel. I had no idea how long I'd been gone. All I knew was that I was exhausted. I finally made it back to my room, and as I opened the door, I heard Emily before I saw her.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
I lifted my eyes to see her standing there in the center of the room with her arms crossed over her chest. "I know ‘I'm sorry' isn't going to cut it…”
"You think? You run off after some guy alone and leave me in the middle of London! What the hell were you thinking?"
I had to tell her what happened, even though I knew she'd never believe me. "I wasn't thinking," I said, hoping that if I just agreed with her she might feel like she was winning and calm down.
"No kidding!" She crossed the room toward me and slammed the door that I was still holding open. I barely got my hand out of the way in time. "You jackass! I can't believe you!"
"Em..." This wasn't going to be easy, but I had to tell her. She was going to think I'd lost my mind, I know it. "I know you can't, but I need you to try." I moved past her into the room and sat on the bed. Apparently the serious tone I had suddenly adopted made her reconsider her position.
Then I told her. I told her every detail, every image I could recall from when that old man touched me, and every word that passed between Arthur and me in more detail than I probably should have been able to. It was only when I named every single one of the knights without hesitation that she came to sit beside me. When I finished, I turned to look into her dark eyes for the first time since I came back.
We were quiet for a long time, just looking at each other. When she finally spoke, I was expecting her to tell me I needed help. That she would call the men in white coats to take me away. But she surprised me. She always did. Damn, I loved her for that.
"What are you going to do?"
Shocked by her words, I stared at her, trying to read her expression to see if she was just being a brat about it or if she really meant it. There was no way, in my mind, that she could mean it. But as I studied her, I realized that what I took for a look of skepticism and doubt was something else entirely. She was looking at me as though she understood. As though she believed.
I shook my head. "I don't know, Em." We talked all night, Em and I, and when dawn finally came, she and I stepped outside together, caught a bus together, walked down a dark alleyway together, and bowed before a King together.