Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.
There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thamesat Radcot, a day’s walk from the source.There were a great many innsalong the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story andyou could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cidereach one had some particular pleasure to offer.The Red Lion at Kelmscot was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening andcheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the GreenDragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were agambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, andif you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Ploughjust outside Buscot.
The Swan at Radcot had its own specialty. It waswhere you went for storytelling.The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient ofthem all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one wasvery old, and one was older still. These different elements had beenharmonized by the thatch that roofed them, the lichen that grewon the old stones, and the ivy that scrambled up the walls. In summertime day-trippers came out from the towns on the new railway, to hire a punt or a skiff at the Swan and spend an afternoon on theriver with a bottle of ale and a picnic, but in winter the drinkers wereall locals, and they congregated in the winter room. It was a plainroom in the oldest part of the inn, with a single window piercedthrough the thick stone wall. In daylight this window showed youRadcot Bridge and the river flowing through its three serene arches.By night (and this story begins at night) the bridge was drownedblack and it was only when your ears noticed the low and borderlesssound of great quantities of moving water that you could make outthe stretch of liquid blackness that flowed outside the window, shifting and undulating, darkly illuminated by some energy of its ownmaking.
Nobody really knows how the tradition of storytelling startedat the Swan, but it might have something to do with the Battle ofRadcot Bridge. In 1387, five hundred years before the night this storybegan, two great armies met at Radcot Bridge. The who and the whyof it are too long to tell, but the outcome was that three men died inbattle, a knight, a varlet, and a boy, and eight hundred souls were lost,drowned in the marshes, attempting to flee. Yes, that’s right. Eighthundred souls. That’s a lot of story.Their bones lie under what are nowwatercress fields. Around Radcot they grow the watercress, harvest it,crate it up, and send it to the towns on barges, but they don’t eat it.It’s bitter, they complain, so bitter it bites you back, and besides, whowants to eat leaves nourished by ghosts? When a battle like that happens on your doorstep and the dead poison your drinking water, it’sonly natural that you would tell of it, over and over again. By force ofrepetition you would become adept at the telling. And then, when thecrisis was over and you turned your attention to other things, what ismore natural than that this newly acquired expertise would come tobe applied to other tales? Five hundred years later they still tell thestory of the Battle of Radcot Bridge, five or six times a year on specialoccasions.
The landlady of the Swan was Margot Ockwell. Th e had beenOckwells at the Swan for as long as anyone could remember, andquite likely for as long as the Swan had existed. In law her namewas Margot Bliss, for she was married, but law was a thing for thetowns and cities; here at the Swan she remained an Ockwell. Margot was a handsome woman in her late fi ties. She could lift barrelswithout help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sitdown. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had givenbirth to thirteen children,so clearly she must have lain down sometimes. She was the daughter of the last landlady, and her grandmother and great-grandmother had run the inn before that, andnobody thought anything of it being women in charge at the Swanat Radcot. It was just the way it was.
Margot’s husband was Joe Bliss. He had been born at Kemble,twenty-five miles upstream, a hop and a skip from where the Thamesemerges from the earth in a trickle so fine that it is scarcely more thana patch of dampness in the soil. The Blisses were chesty types. Theywere born small and ailing and most of them were goners before theywere grown. Bliss babies grew thinner and paler as they lengthened,until they expired completely, usually before they were ten and oftenbefore they were two. The survivors, including Joe, got to adulthoodshorter and slighter than average. Their chests rattled in winter, theirnoses ran, their eyes watered. They were kind, with mild eyes and frequent playful smiles.
At eighteen, an orphan and unfit for physical labor, Joe hadleft Kemble to seek his fortune doing he knew not what. FromKemble there are as many directions a man can go in as elsewherein the world, but the river has its pull; you’d have to be mightilyperverse not to follow it. He came to Radcot and, being thirsty,stopped for a drink. Th frail-looking young man with fl y blackhair that contrasted with his pallor, sat unnoticed, eking out hisglass of ale, admiring the innkeeper’s daughter, and listening to a story or two. He found it captivating to be among people whospoke out loud the kind of tales that had been alive inside his headsince boyhood. In a quiet interval he opened his mouth and Onceupon a time . . . came out.
Joe Bliss discovered his destiny that day. The Thames had broughthim to Radcot and at Radcot he stayed. With a bit of practice hefound he could turn his tongue to any kind of tale, whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk, or fairy. His mobile face could conveysurprise, trepidation, relief, doubt, and any other feeling as well as anyactor. Then there were his eyebrows. Luxuriantly black, they told asmuch of the story as his words did. They drew together when something momentous was coming, twitched when a detail merited closeattention, and arched when a character might not be what he seemed.Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, younoticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by.Within a few weeks of his starting to drink at the Swan, he knewhow to hold the listeners spellbound. He held Margot spellboundtoo, and she him.
At the end of a month, Joe walked sixty miles to a place quite distant from the river, where he told a story in a competition. He wonfirst prize, naturally, and spent the winnings on a ring. He came homegrey with fatigue, collapsed into bed for a week, and, at the end of it,got to his knees and proposed marriage to Margot.
“I don’t know . . .” her mother said. “Can he work? Can he earn aliving? How will he look after a family?”
“Look at the takings,” Margot pointed out. “See how much busierwe are since Joe started telling his stories. Suppose I don’t marry him,Ma. He might go away from here.Then what?”
It was true. People came more often to the inn these days, andfrom further away, and they stayed longer to hear the stories Joe told.They all bought drinks. The Swan was thriving.
“But with all these strong, handsome young men that come in hereand admire you so . . . wouldn’t one of those do better?”
“It is Joe that I want,” Margot said firmly. “I like the stories.”
She got her way.
The was all nearly forty years before the events of this story, andin the meantime Margot and Joe had raised a large family. In twentyyears they had produced twelve robust daughters. All had Margot’sthick brown hair and sturdy legs. They grew up to be buxom youngwomen with blithe smiles and endless cheer. All were married now.One was a little fatter and one a little thinner, one a little taller andone a little shorter, one a little darker and one a little fairer, but inevery other respect they were so like their mother that the drinkerscould not tell them apart, and when they returned to help out atbusy times, they were universally known as Little Margot. Afterbearing all these girls there had been a lull in the family life of Margot and Joe, and both of them thought her years of child-bearingwere at an end, but then came the last pregnancy and Jonathan, theironly son.
With his short neck and his moon face, his almond eyes withtheir exaggerated upward tilt, his dainty ears and nose, the tonguethat seemed too big for his constantly smiling mouth, Jonathan didnot look like other children. As he grew it became clear that he wasdifferent from them in other ways too. He was fifteen now, but whereother boys of his age were looking forward impatiently to manhood,Jonathan was content to believe that he would live at the inn foreverwith his mother and father, and wished for nothing else.
Margot was still a strong and handsome woman, and Joe’s hairhad whitened, though his eyebrows were as dark as ever. He wasnow sixty, which was ancient for a Bliss. People put his survivaldown to the endlessness of Margot’s care for him. Th last fewyears he was sometimes so weak that he lay in bed for two or threedays at a time, eyes closed. He was not sleeping—no, it was a placebeyond sleep that he visited in these periods. Margot took his sinking spells calmly. She kept the fi e in to dry the air, tilted cooledbroth between his lips, brushed his hair, and smoothed his eyebrows. Other people fretted to see him suspended so precariously betweenone liquid breath and the next, but Margot took it in her stride.“Don’t you worry, he’ll be all right,” she would tell you. And he was.He was a Bliss, that’s all. The river had seeped into him and madehis lungs marshy.
It was solstice night, the longest night of the year. For weeks thedays had been shrinking, first gradually, then precipitously, so that itwas now dark by mid-afternoon. As is well-known, when the moonhours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity oftheir mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours,open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic.And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest,so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge withlived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other intheir comings and goings, and the past and the present touch andoverlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have tojudge for yourself.
Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.
The drinkers gathered in the Swan that night were the regulars.Gravel diggers, cressmen, and bargemen for the most part, butBeszant the boat mender was there too, and so was Owen Albright,who had followed the river to the sea half a century ago and returned two decades later a wealthy man. Albright was arthritic now,and only strong ale and storytelling could reduce the pain in hisbones. They had been there since the light had drained out of thesky, emptying and refi ling their glasses, tapping out their pipes andrestuffing them with pungent tobacco and telling stories.
Albright was recounting the Battle of Radcot Bridge. After fivehundred years any story is liable to get a bit stale, and the storytellers had found a way to enliven the telling of it. Certain parts ofthe tale were fixed by tradition—the armies, their meeting, the deathof the knight and his varlet, the eight hundred drowned men—butthe boy’s demise was not. Not a thing was known about him exceptthat he was a boy, at Radcot Bridge, and he died there. Out of thisvoid came invention. At each retelling the drinkers at the Swanraised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him anew death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways evermore outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell, youare allowed to take liberties with it—though woe betide any visitorto the Swan who attempted the same thing. What the boy himselfmade of his regular resurrection is impossible to say, but the point israising the dead was a not infrequent thing at the Swan, and that’s adetail worth remembering.
Tonight Owen Albright conjured him in the garb of a young entertainer, come to distract the troops while they awaited their orders.Juggling with knives, he slipped in the mud and the knives raineddown around him, landing blade down in wet earth, all but the lastone, which fell plumb into his eye and killed him instantly before thebattle had even begun. The innovation elicited murmurs of appreciation, quickly dampened so the tale could continue, and from then onthe tale ran pretty much as it always did.
Afterwards there was a pause. It wasn’t done to jump in tooquickly with a new story before the last one was properly digested.
Jonathan had been listening closely.
“I wish I could tell a story,” he said.
He was smiling—Jonathan was a boy who was always smiling—but he sounded wistful. He was not stupid, but school had beenbaffling to him, the other children had laughed at his peculiar faceand strange ways, and he had given it up after a few months. He hadnot mastered reading or writing. The winter regulars were used to theOckwell lad, with all his oddness.
“Have a go,”Albright suggested. “Tell one now.”
Jonathan considered it. He opened his mouth and waited, agog, tohear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed tight withlaughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.
“I can’t!”he exclaimed when he recovered himself. “I can’t do it!”
“Some other night, then. You have a bit of a practice and we’ll listen to you when you’re ready.”
“You tell a story, Dad,” Jonathan said. “Go on!”
It was Joe’s first night back in the winter room after one of hissinking spells. He was pale and had been silent all evening. Nobodyexpected a story from him in his frail state, but at the prompting ofhis son he smiled mildly and looked up to a high corner of the roomwhere the ceiling was darkened from years of woodsmoke and tobacco.This was the place,Jonathan supposed, where his father’s storiescame from. When Joe’s eyes returned to the room, he was ready andopened his mouth to speak.“Once upon a—”
The door opened.
It was late for a newcomer. Whoever it was did not rush to comein. The cold draft set the candles flickering and carried the tang of thewinter river into the smoky room.The drinkers looked up.
Every eye saw, yet for a long moment none reacted. They were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
The man—if man it was—was tall and strong, but his head wasmonstrous and they boggled at the sight of it. Was it a monster froma folktale? Were they sleeping and this a nightmare? The nose wasaskew and flattened, and beneath it was a gaping hollow dark withblood. As sights went, it was horrifying enough, but in its arms theawful creature carried a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs andslickly painted hair.
What roused them to action was the man himself. He first roared,a great bellow as misshapen as the mouth it emerged from, then hestaggered and swayed. A pair of farmhands jumped from their seats just in time to grab him under the arms and arrest his fall so that hedid not smash his head on the flagstones. At the same time JonathanOckwell leapt forward from the fireside, arms outstretched, and intothem dropped the puppet with a solid weightiness that took his jointsand muscles by surprise.
Returning to their senses, they hoisted the unconscious man ontoa table. A second table was dragged so that the man’s legs could berested upon it. Then when he was laid down and straightened out,they all stood around and raised their candles and lamps over him.The man’s eyes did not flicker.
“Is he dead?”
Albright wondered.There was a round of indistinct murmurs and much frowning.
“Slap his face,” someone suggested. “See if that brings him round.”
“A tot of liquor’ll do it,” another suggested.
Margot elbowed her way to the top of the table and studied theman. “Don’t you go slapping him. Not with his face in that state. Norpouring anything down his throat. Just you wait a minute.”
Margot turned away to the seat by the hearth. On it was a cushion,and she picked it up and carried it back to the light. With the aid ofthe candles she spotted a pinprick of white on the cotton. Picking atit with her fingernail, she drew out a feather. The men’s faces watchedher, eyes wide with bewilderment.
“I don’t think you’ll wake a dead man by tickling him,” said agravel digger. “Nor a live one either, not in this state.”
“I’m not going to tickle him,” she replied.
Margot laid the feather on the man’s lips. All peered. For a moment there was nothing, then the soft and plumy parts of the feathershivered.
The relief soon gave way to renewed perplexity.
“Who is it, though?” a bargeman asked. “Do anyone know him?”There followed a few moments of general hubbub, during which they considered the question. One reckoned he knew everybody onthe river from Castle Eaton to Duxford, which was some ten miles,and he was sure he didn’t know the fellow. Another had a sister inLechlade and was certain he had never seen the man there. A thirdfelt that he might have seen the man somewhere, but the longer helooked, the less willing he was to put money on it. A fourth wonderedwhether he was a river gypsy, for it was the time of year when theirboats came down this stretch of the river, to be stared at with suspicion, and everybody made sure to lock their doors at night and bringinside anything that could be lifted. But with that good woolen jacketand his expensive leather boots—no. This was not a ragged gypsy man.A fifth stared and then, with triumph, remarked that the man was thevery height and build of Liddiard from Whitey’s Farm, and was hishair not the same color too? A sixth pointed out that Liddiard washere at the other end of the table, and when the fifth looked across, hecould not deny it. At the end of these and further discussions, it wasagreed by one, two, three, four, five, six, and all the others present thatthey didn’t know him—at least they didn’t think so—but, looking ashe did, who could be certain?
Into the silence that followed this conclusion, a seventh manspoke. “Whatever has befallen him?”
The man’s clothes were soaking wet, and the smell of the river,green and brown, was on him. Some accident on the water, that muchwas obvious. They talked of dangers on the river, of the water thatplayed tricks on even the wisest of rivermen.
“Is there a boat? Shall I go and see if I can spy one?” Beszant theboat mender offered.
Margot was washing the blood from the man’s face with firm andgentle motions. She winced as she revealed the great gash that splithis upper lip and divided his skin into two flaps that gaped to showhis broken teeth and bloodied gum.
“Leave the boat,” she instructed. “It is the man that matters. Thereis more here than I can help with. Who will run for Rita?” She looked round and spotted one of the farmhands who was too poor to drinkmuch. “Neath, you are quick on your feet. Can you run along to RushCottage and fetch the nurse without stumbling? One accident is quiteenough for one night.”
The young man left.
Jonathan meanwhile had kept apart from the others. The weightof the drenched puppet was cumbersome, so he sat down and arranged it on his lap. He thought of the papier-mâché dragon that thetroupe of guisers had brought for a play last Christmastime. It waslight and hard and had rapped with a light tat-tat-tat if you beat yourfingernails against it. This puppet was not made of that. He thoughtof the dolls he had seen, stuffed with rice. They were weighty andsoft. He had never seen one this size. He sniffed its head. There wasno smell of rice—only the river. The hair was made of real hair, andhe couldn’t work out how they had joined it to the head. The ear wasso real, they might have molded it from a real one. He marveled atthe perfect precision of the lashes. Putting his fingertip gently to thesoft, damp, tickling ends of them caused the lid to move a little. Hetouched the lid with the gentlest of touches, and there was somethingbehind. Slippery and globular,it wassoft and firm at the same time.
Something darkly unfathomable gripped him. Behind the backs ofhis parents and the drinkers, he gave the figure a gentle shake. An armslid and swung from the shoulder joint, in a way a puppet’s arm oughtnot to swing, and he felt a rising water level, powerful and rapid, inside him.
“It is a little girl.”
In all the discussion around the injured man, nobody heard.Again,louder: “It is a little girl!”
“She won’t wake up.” He held out the sodden little body so thatthey might see for themselves.
They turned. They moved to stand around Jonathan. A dozen pairsof stricken eyes rested on the little body.
Her skin shimmered like water. Th folds of her cotton frockwere plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tiltedon her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it wasobvious. What maker would go to such lengths, making a doll ofsuch perfection only to dress it in the cotton smock any pauper’sdaughter might wear? Who would paint a face in that macabre andlifeless manner? What maker other than the good Lord had it inhim to make the curve of that cheekbone, the planes of that shin,that delicate foot with five toes individually shaped and sized anddetailed? Of course it was a little girl! How could they ever havethought otherwise?
In the room usually so thick with words, there was silence. Themen who were fathers thought of their own children and resolved toshow them nothing but love till the end of their days. Those who wereold and had never known a child of their own suffered a great pangof absence, and those who were childless and still young were piercedwith the longing to hold their own offspring in their arms.
At last the silence was broken.
“Dead, poor mite.”
“Put the feather on her lips, Ma!”
“Oh, Jonathan. It is too late for her.”
“But it worked with the man!”
“No, son, he was breathing already.The feather only showed us thelife that was still in him.”“It might still be in her!”
“It is plain she is gone, poor lass. She is not breathing, and besides,you have only to look at her color. Who will carry the poor child tothe long room? You take her, Higgs.”
“But it’s cold there,” Jonathan protested.
His mother patted his shoulder. “She won’t mind that. She is notreally here anymore and it is never cold in the place she has gone to.”
“Let me carry her.”
“You carry the lantern, and unlock the door for Mr. Higgs. She’sheavy for you,my love.”
The gravel digger took the body from Jonathan’s failing grip andlifted her as though she weighed no more than a goose. Jonathan litthe way out and round the side to a small stone outbuilding. A thickwooden door gave onto a narrow windowless storeroom.The floor wasof plain earth, and the walls had never been plastered or paneled orpainted. In summer it was a good place to leave a plucked duck or atrout that you are not yet hungry for; on a winter night like this one itwas bitter. Projecting from one wall was a stone slab, and it was herethat Higgs laid her down. Jonathan, remembering the fragility of thepapier-mâché, cradled her skull—“So as not to hurt her”—as it cameinto contact with the stone.
Higgs’s lantern cast a circle of light onto the girl’s face.
“Ma said she’s dead,”Jonathan said.
“Ma says she’s in another place.”
“She is.”“She looks as though she’s here, to me.”
“Her thoughts have emptied out of her. Her soul has passed.”“Couldn’t she be asleep?”
“Nay,lad.She’d’ve woke up by now.”
The lantern cast flickering shadows onto the unmoving face, thewarmth of its light tried to mask the dead white of the skin, but it wasno substitute for the inner illumination of life.
“There was a girl who slept for a hundred years, once. She waswoke up with a kiss.”
Higgs blinked fiercely. “I think that was just a story.”
The circle of light shifted from the girl’s face and illuminated Higgs’s feet as they made their way out again, but at the door hediscovered that Jonathan was not beside him. Turning, he raised thelantern again in time to see him stoop and place a kiss on the child’sforehead in the darkness.
Jonathan watched the girl intently. Then his shoulders slumpedand he turned away.
They locked the door behind them and came away.
"Setterfield masterfully assembles an ensemble of wounded, vulnerable characters who, nevertheless, live by the slimmest margins of hope--hope that springs from family, from the search for meaning, from people's decency to strangers, from the belief that truth heals and sets one free . . . Celebrates the timeless secrets of life, death and imagination--and the enduring power of words. Fans, rejoice!"– Kirkus Reviews
“I was completely spellbound by this book. Numerous strands of the same story are skillfully woven into a magical web from which I, as a reader, had no desire to escape. Setterfield’s prose is beautiful, dark and eerily atmospheric, and her rich cast of characters convincingly illustrate the best and worst of humanity. Utterly brilliant!”– Ruth Hogan, internationally bestselling author of The Keeper of Lost Things
“One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful.” —Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
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