Caleb came back to the city. He was sixty, but he looked older. He had been broken, cursed by a medical man who snagged him with the malediction of “neuralgia”, and thereafter all hope of painless nights left him.
On the train, he couldn’t feel the way the carriage moved under him, and he stumbled if he did not watch the scenery through the window. During the days, he felt nothing; it were as if his legs and the tips of his fingers were made of cotton wool. At night, the pain came.
His wife was dead and his brother was dead and his mother and father were long dead and dust in the wind. His son was alive, but they hadn’t seen one another for years. But the best years of his life had been in that city; now that every day, every breath, his life seemed to close in tighter, he found that there was no-where else he wanted to go.
The old building still stood where he had left it, all those years ago when he had left her, when he had left their son. She hadn’t changed the locks. There was dust everywhere and tired sunlight slanted through the still air. He walked through dark rooms, unsteady, peering. There were holes in the walls, but even the rats had deserted this dead place.
Caleb opened the door to the courtyard. The glass had been broken and the window was boarded up with thin chip-wood. The courtyard was small. The winter sun was already dipping behind the brick walls, and Caleb felt an anticipatory tingling in his toes. This was the one hour of the day when his flesh felt alive again, perfectly balanced between oblivion and agony. As the light faded, that tingling would kindle to something awful and clawing, fingernails shrieking their sharp pain down the inside of his skull.
The garden was bleak and dead. The boughs of a few tress, scraps of twigs and old, old leaves, and no wind to stir them. He closed his eyes and tried to remember them, tried to picture his wife and his son. But all there was behind his eyes was blackness and the red swelling of pain.
The sun sank and Caleb was alone in the darkness.
Caleb took medicines, but none of them worked. They had names that sounded full of sophistication and technology, gabapentin and amitryptaline and duloxetine. But when he opened the packets, they were just small sugared pills, and the best they could do was make him drowsy and slow. At first, he took them because he thought the sodden weight of sleep was better than the pain, but then the dreams began. He had not dreamt for years, but now that he was back in the city, in the house, dreams came every night. He would see Robin, he would see David. In the dreams, she was no older than she had been when he left, skin unblemished, eyes bright; but David was old, older than he had any right to be, older than Caleb himself. David never spoke in his dreams, but Caleb knew his voice would be old, too, hoarse and rasping. The pills trapped Caleb in these dreams, and soon he could bear it no longer and stopped taking them. After that, he bore the pain instead.
If his nights were frozen in half-remembered dreams, his days were stained with half-forgotten memories. He stumbled about the courtyard in the dim twilight of winter through the thin fog, reaching out for images, incidents. They loomed up, whispering, promising, the wisps of long-gone laughter and games in the summer sun under the trees. He would see the bright pattern of one of Robin’s skirts, hear the ghost of David’s laughter as he lifted the boy and swung him through the air. But he could never catch the memories, they rushed past and were gone.
So he groped tiny circles round the courtyard and wondered where all the green had gone.
He tried to contact David, he wrote to him, found a telephone number. At first there was a toneless answer-phone, and he left several messages. Then the number was disconnected. No one ever called back.
As he walked once more in the courtyard, he found his hand resting on the trunk of one of the withered trees. Strangely, he could feel the bark quite clearly under his skin. His fingers had felt like smoke for so long he had almost forgotten what it was to feel.
Slowly, he traced the faint lines carved into the old tree. He wasn’t sure, but it seemed to be a face. As the sun dipped and the daylight leeched from the world, he ran his hand back and forth and perceived two eyes, a nose, a beard. There was a mouth, it was open and the teeth were distinct.
Maybe it was smiling. Maybe.
Caleb made his choice. As the days grew longer and the mist gave way to chilly sunlight, he opened all the windows in the house and let the spring wind breeze through the tired rooms. In the courtyard, he cleared away all the old, dead wood and dry leaves. He swept them into a heap and made a bonfire, and the crackle and spit of the flames warmed his bones. His pain was a little better that night, and in the morning he found that a few slender stalks of grass were poking cautiously into the courtyard. The space seemed bigger than it had done. He told himself it must be because of all the old detritus he had burnt.
Before long, buds started to show on the trees.
Cautiously, as if uncertain how one did such things, Caleb bought a few plants from a local shop. Most of them died, but not all, and he found there was a subtle joy to be had in helping things grow; he packed the soil with his hands, and was delighted when he felt the cold, sodden earth kiss his fingers. For the first time in his life, his hands had calluses.
One evening, he was planting a rose in a bed of fresh-turned earth when a young voice called to him. He raised his head, hardly daring to hope. She called again, and stepped out of the darkness of the house.
Her hair was dusky gold and her eyes had their old light. She looked just as he she had done in his dreams. She waved to him and laughed, and he caught another voice behind hers, David’s voice, echoing in the house, playing somewhere. She darted forward and he called her name. Tears sprang into his eyes and he reached out for her and he blinked...and she was gone.
Caleb sat back on his haunches. He stared at the doorway where she had been, willing her to be there again, willing her return
Caleb stood on the grass and marvelled at the buds on the trees. Roses and vines flourished in their beds, and the air hummed with bees. Golden sunlight poured over everything, and Caleb felt the warmth suffuse his flesh. Pain seldom troubled him now, his nights were short and peaceful; his days were long and full of light.
Robin came to him often. He held her, drank her in. Her clean smell delighted him. She never stayed long, never as long as he wished she could. But he did not mind. Her visits were becoming more frequent. Sometimes he would glance up at the house, and catch a glimpse of another face in the window, his face, David’s face. But his son never came out into the courtyard, into the growing garden.
He was frightened, Caleb realised.
Of course he’s frightened, a traitor part of his mind spoke up. Anyone would be frightened after what you...what I...
But the thought trailed off. It was too painful to hold
Caleb seldom visited the outside world anymore. He detested leaving. He was at peace in his garden, and he felt his life was swelling towards something, some half-imagined goal, something strange and wonderful and fey; he risked missing it, he felt, when he left.
His own arms were growing strong. He walked confidently, surely. Often he would go barefoot, and relish the touch of the grass or earth on his toes. He could feel it all now, every slender blade of grass. He felt young again. He felt like the man he used to be, before things had soured, before he had left...
Sometimes, he caught a glimpse of another figure. A man seemed to walk at times in his garden. Caleb would catch a flash of green cloth, a movement of a limb between the branches of a tree (and when had there become so many trees? Surely there were only three or four when he first came here? Now there were more than he could count). He would see a face, eyes hazel or dark brown, a beard that was at times white as snow, or otherwise rich and yellow as harvest. Sometimes he saw the man’s mouth.
Sometimes it seemed to be smiling; sometimes he just noticed the teeth.
Caleb hardly slept at all now. There was never any pain. Never could he remember so glorious a summer. The sun shone every day. The short nights were sometimes punctuated by warm downpours; Caleb would stand for hours as the huge, tepid raindrops fell on his face, on his upturned hands.
Fruit swelled, and the branches of the trees began to hang heavy. The flowers exploded in bloom after bloom, and coloured petals blew across the earth.
Caleb walked for hours in his garden. Sometimes, he would not see the walls of the courtyard for miles. The space had unfolded, become part of something vaster, perhaps infinitely vast. At times he walked alone; at times Robin came with him. They held hands and made love under the trees, on the soft sea of petals that lay there. Afterwards, they would hold each other and speak soft words for hours. Caleb could never remember what they said. He missed David.
One day he met the green man.
A hill rose gently. Nearby, a stream babbled and many birds sang in the trees.
“Summer is at its peak,” the green man told him. His golden hair hung wild. His eyes were rich as the earth. “Harvest time is soon. Have I given you what you asked?”
Caleb smiled, but something hurt in his chest.
“Almost,” he said. “Almost, but not quite.”
The green man showed his teeth, and made a sound that could have been laughter.
“And you have almost given me what you promised,” he replied. “The year turns. Time is running out.”
Then the green man moved away, darting behind a tree. Caleb tried to follow, but there was nothing there. When he looked up, he saw the back door of the house had come into view.
The sun was setting as Caleb made his way into the house. Dusk was sweeping over the garden; the last rays of the dying day pulsed as red as blood.
Caleb no longer went inside. There was no need. It was warm enough at night to sleep on the grass; the fruit hung huge and ripe on the branches; when he was hungry, he plucked them with both hands and bit into their soft flesh, relishing the sweet juice as it ran in thick rivulets down his face.
The darkness was pinching in again a little, squeezing daylight from both ends. But Caleb did not mind. He walked with Robin always now; he was her consort, and she was his queen.
And he saw his boy. He saw David. David came to him.
Caleb held him in his arms, marvelling at the lithe beauty of his child’s body. And a small part of his mind whispered, the bruises are gone. The scars are gone. It’s as if I never did any of it.
And he realised that this was his chance, that in this where and when, he never had.
He ran his hands along his boy’s limbs. He took a breath, steadied himself.
This was his chance. This was what he had promised.
He closed his eyes and concentrated. He felt the boy’s body again, slower this time.
This was where I used the knife, he thought. And as he thought it, he felt a bright slice of pain run down the back of his calf and into his foot. He opened his eyes for a moment. David stood before him, eyes as open and loving as they had been before, once upon a time. As they could be again.
Caleb closed his eyes. He focused on his hands. He felt David’s shoulder, the curve of his small back.
The belt, he thought; and at once, his back was ablaze with four, five, six lashes. They were not soft. He had never been soft with the boy. Not once he had begun.
He caught his breath, and forced his hands onwards, even as he felt the welts purple and bruise.
The burning matches.
Caleb did not stop again nor open his eyes until it was done, until every remembered injury was undone and taken back onto himself.
When he finally looked, David was the same, clean-limbed, fresh, half-smiling up at him with trust in his eyes. Caleb smiled back.
His body throbbed. Blood ran down his leg, onto the ground, soaking into the earth.
At last, they turned, all three of them, together again, and sank beneath a tree.
As he drifted towards sleep, Caleb caught a glimpse of the green man, far off between the leaves.
Caleb felt the pain stirring again in his flesh, and knew the year was closing in. The weather had turned sour; the sun did not shine so bright, and the wind was often cold.
He walked at peace with his wife and his child. They did not speak. There was no need.
The flowers had all wilted and died. The last fruit was rotting on the branches, worried at by crows, and falling in sodden heaps for the worms. Caleb could no longer feel the grass between his toes, or the earth under his feet. The emptiness in his flesh was coming back: emptiness during the day, agony during the night.
But he did not mind anymore. Now he welcomed the pain like an old friend. In any case, he knew it would not last much longer.
From time to time, he saw the green man, a way off, leaning against the branch of a tree, or else laying in the grass. He looked old and content. Caleb knew the green man had taken his quarter, and was well satisfied.
He locked the door to the house, locked himself outside in the courtyard with his shades and with his memories. He threw the key over the wall. When he looked around his garden, he perceived that it was pulling in on itself again. The trees were fewer, the air was no longer filled with leaves and branches and growing things.
The pain was his. It belonged to him. He no longer thought of leaving it behind; it was a part of him just as much as was his face. He did not want to lose his pain. He would have sooner lost an eye.
Caleb stood in the darkness, and all the important doors were open. A wind blew through his garden. It stirred the bare branches of the trees, it played with his thin white hair. He walked carefully to the bonfire he had piled ready. He used a stick to steady himself. His feet did not seem to work properly, and he tottered often. The welts on his legs had not healed. The skin sloughed off them. His time was nearly done.
At his side, Robin walked, young no longer - as old as he, and bent, but smiling.
David was gone. He had lingered in the Autumn, he had been permitted to stay. Perhaps they would meet again. Perhaps not. Caleb did not mind. He had been given something so special, so wonderful, that he hardly dared to hope for any more.
“How many second chances can we have?” he wondered aloud, as he sparked a match and held it to the piled scraps, heaped from the year he had been given back.
The flames caught, and soon the fire was blazing merrily.
Suddenly, behind the flames, regarding him with an ancient, sylvan slowness, Caleb perceived another pair of eyes, staring into his.
The green man was green no longer. His hair was bedraggled grey-white, his beard was snarled and his skin was worn. Caleb stared at him through the dancing flames.
At length, the green man spoke.
“How many second chances?” he repeated. “None! Does a circle have a first place, or a second? And yet the circle turns; there are chances beyond number.”
For a single, bright moment, understanding flared in Caleb, as sharp and blinding as lightning in the dark. He had a sense of the manifold endlessness of the world, of time, of the endlessness of space and consequence and possibility. Chances beyond number, cycles beyond counting, a shimmering circle forever in balance, forever consuming itself.
Then the image faded.
Caleb smiled. The pain was gone.
He stepped into the fire.
In the morning, only ash and bones remained.
Caleb is gone. The courtyard is still again. The four trees stand with their silent, bare branches. No wind harries the slowly turning day.
And yet, if one were to look closely, one might fancy the shadow of shades at play.
Seeds sit, waiting, yet unquickened. There is no movement here, just potency.
And there is no pain.