Reaching the Shore
The water is cold, the waves are huge, and the night is dark.
But he can swim.
Cold water. It sucks the heat from his body, threatening to suck life itself from him.
Huge waves. They’re hitting him hard, violently. He knows that there are jagged rocks close at hand, stony blades ready to carve up his body. His heart leaps into his mouth every time a wave tosses him, awaiting the impact, awaiting the power of the blow that will tear the life out of him.
The dark. It’s a moonless night, clouds hiding the stars. As he founders in the grip of the waves, with the water blurring his vision, the border between the black of the air and the dark of the water is unclear and always changing. But the dark of the water is different when it pushes him down under it, and so he tries to keep his head above water. He could go under the waves on purpose, swim under the water when the sea surges. It would be a way of lessening its ability to toss him about like a toy at the mercy of the elements. But he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t want to plunge into that black water again of his own free will.
He had plunged deep when he jumped from the side of the foundering ship. He hit no rocks but leapt into a peril of a different sort—his body going down and down. The water black, and the combination of disorientation and dizziness confounded him, making it difficult to see which way was up and which way down. All of it black and cold, as if he had vanished into a pool of oblivion. This is the portal of hell, he thought. Not a hot, fiery pit, but a cold, dark hole, sucking you down and down, away from the land and the realm of the living.
But up he came, in the end, like a human cork.
And he can swim.
He’s lashing out, kicking, hitting with all his might. He knows that the waves are rushing to the shore, and so he too is moving in that direction. He’s trying to swim fast between waves, hoping to reach the rocks and cling to them before the waves toss him and grind him into tiny bits of flesh. Turning an instrument of death into a means of survival. Reaching them himself, not being thrown against them by forces beyond his control. That’s surviving, that’s living. And so he’s pulling through the water with his arms, kicking with his legs. Thrusting with his entire body. Swimming.
Rhisiart Dafydd has opted for and is moving in the direction of his own destiny.
Let us move to the past. Not too far, only a couple of months. We begin at the end of sumer, 1656. We begin in London.
Busy, noisy and filthy streets.
A myriad of sounds reach his ears. Merchants crying out to would-be buyers, occasionally a customer crying out to be served. Drivers shouting to clear the road in front of their coaches, the whinnying of their horses drowning out human voices at times. Acquaintances greeting acquaintances, friends calling out to one another across a street or square. Sometimes an argument, angry voices contending with one another about a deal or religion or politics or a command to yield and clear the way. A preacher chanting a psalm or verse, trying to gather a flock from the crowd that pushes on past him. Children laughing. Dogs barking.
A medley of smells too, but the unhealthy ones are stronger by far and overpower the others. The bitter smoke that came from the tanning house chimneys had lessened since he crossed the river, but there were still plenty of wretched odors there. The stench of animal and human excrement is the most prominent element in the entire mix. Smoke comes to his nostrils at times, billowing up from a house or tavern or smithy—something to be grateful for since it masks the other smells for a while.
And the bustle. It was at its worst on the bridge. Rhisiart came up from the south through Southwark and on across the bridge, the most congested, laborious and slow to travel of all the streets in the city. He thought of it as one whole small city uprooted by some crazed giant and pressed into a row along the foundations of the bridge: dwellings and shops and workhouses squashed into tall buildings, sometimes containing as many as seven floors, bending boldly over the river on one side and over the narrow street on the bridge on the other side, covering the swarms of people that filled it. Travelers seeking to cross on foot or on horseback or in coaches, merchants doing business, the poor seeking alms—a microcosm of London population squeezed into this confined route. He had to dismount and lead his horse through the crowd. It took him nearly an hour to elbow his way through this mass of humanity to the other side of the bridge.
Although he was in a hurry, he had paused in front of the gatehouse on the south side before stepping through the gate and starting to cross. Paused and looked up, studying the heads rotting away on pikes. Memento mori. Remember that death is near. He had destroyed engravings of the sort in churches in England during the wars, skeletal shapes on tombs carved in olden times to remind the viewer that death lurks beneath the living flesh. A reminder of the end that will come to every one of every sect and religion, but that seemed too much like Catholic images to the soldiers who believed they were doing God’s work, purifying the churches and cleansing the land.
Of course, the motive behind these sobering signs was to promote political ideas about loyalty, not support some kind of preaching. Remember that this is the end of traitors. That was it. But Rhisiart saw every head on a pike as a perfect memento mori, better than any carved on marble that he had ever seen. The skull gradually appearing from under the rotting flesh, mouths twisted ugly, lips torn to ribbons by birds, some without lips at all. All of them without eyes, the first delicacies that went to the beaks of the gulls and ravens that croaked and hopped and half-flew from head to head, fighting for that last little bit of flesh.
He had seen their likes many times before. His own hands had been the instruments to produce a number of them. On the fields at Edgehill, Newbury, and Naseby. And he had seen the heads on the pikes of this gatehouse before. He and his friends used to study them and try to identify this one and that one. That must be Lord Burnet over there, with the raven boring into his nose. And there’s James Parker, I swear: easy to recognize his face—only the day before yesterday that his head was cut off, and there’s plenty of it left to see. He didn’t try to play that sort of game this time, only to value each one for what it was: memento mori. That’s what was on his mind as he pushed his way through the crowd on his difficult move across the bridge. The face of this one or that one would catch his eye for a moment as some other traveler pushed past him or some merchant tried to get his attention. Take care, brother, he thought, death is at hand. Buying and selling worldly things is not important, sister—your death is number one. The skull pushes close to the face beneath the skin of every one of us. That’s what you will be tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that, sooner or later. A bunch of corpses, an assembly of skulls.
But he has crossed the bridge now, and although the streets are busy enough he’s able to move faster. He hasn’t remounted yet. He pushed his horse hard on the way up from Southampton, and he wants to give the animal a chance to recover. He’s walking as swiftly as possible, leading his horse, not slowing to look at anything or anybody. All the wonders, all the wealth, all the wretched humanity woven together on the streets of London. He’s not lost the way, knows precisely which streets to follow to his destination, though a few corners or squares have changed a bit since the last time he was here. Here and there a building has been torn down and a new one put up in its place, but the pattern of the streets has not changed. The feel of the place hasn’t changed either.
Since the last time. Nine years ago. 1647. The year of the Little Plague. That’s what some call it. It claimed just under 4,000 people in London that year. More had died in other places at other times, and sometimes very many more, and so some called it the Little Plague. But he couldn’t think of it that way. It had taken too much from him, had taken too much out of him too. So he had avoided setting foot in the city since then. Nine years. Had used every influence he had to turn aside any orders that would take him to London, had reminded those above him of debts, favors they owed him, reminded them of what he knew and what he did and what he had chosen not to do for their sake. Everything, anything, to make sure that he would not have to visit the city again. But now here he was, having returned of his own free will after receiving the letter from Colonel Powel.
He leads his horse along the Cheapside lane, past the tables of meat merchants. The morning is slowly yielding to afternoon and it’s beginning to turn hot. Swarms of insects are everywhere, rising up from one table and alighting on another, and the smell is assaulting his nose. It’s that smell that announces blood drying and flesh rotting in the warmth of the sun. He can hear the insects sometimes, despite all the noise—the voices of buyers and sellers, live chickens clucking, the clamor of carts clicking across stones or sloshing through mud and muck, and then the gluttonous buzz of the insects every now and then rising in a crescendo of buzzing. The path opens out a bit and Rhisiart moves faster, his horse following close behind. Onward, past the site of the Cross.
He had been here that day. Had witnessed the last moments of the Great Cross, the last moments of the Cross of Cheapside. There were plenty of foot-soldiers and cavalry there to keep the crowd away from the workmen, but Colonel Powel himself had ordered them to leave. In case. One of the foot-soldiers had told him that he had been there the winter before, guarding the Cross from violent townsmen who wanted to pull it down, and that by order of Parliament. But Parliament had changed its mind by spring, and now that same soldier was stationed there as part of a troop to make certain that the Cross would be destroyed. A memorial of just over twelve metres in height, a small tower of stone and lead lording itself over the bustle of the street, all of it beautifully and colorfully decorated. Images of saints and angels. A large, beautiful cross its crowning glory. The centerpiece of Cheapside life for centuries. A dozen workers had been at it for hours, cutting into it with hammer and chisel, battering it with heavy bars. Some began the assault on ladders, chipping away at the engravings on the topmost part. The face of an angel, its eyes gazing upward, pointing the beholder toward the mysteries of Heaven. The face of a saint, eyes looking down upon the crowd, urging the people to pray with him. Each one missing a nose, a chin, a mouth, ears. The hammer depriving the saints of their relics, a blow of the chisel clipping the wings of angels. Bits of stone, plaster and lead falling to the ground beneath the ladders. The crowd responding, some showing their approval with shouts of joy, others cursing the workmen and the soldiers who protected them. A rope was tied to the cross itself and it was pulled down from the top of the memorial, the roar of the crowd surging as it fell to the ground. Shouting, screaming, clapping, swearing. Singing psalms. Uttering curses. Acceptance and protest mixed together. One of the soldiers began to beat a drum, another raised a trumpet, the clear, metallic notes breaking through it all. The workers went at it breaking more, the column of the Cross of Cheapside descending in pieces, stone by stone, panel by panel, angel by angel, saint by saint.
May, 1643. He was eighteen and had been a soldier for a year or so. 1643. He had been in Reading with the army of Earl Essex that year, the fever decimating the ranks, killing more of them than the king’s guns. Camp fever. Rows of the dead layed beside their camps, turning it all into a horrifying sight, as if they were practicing for Doomsday. Rows of them, ready to be rushed into a hasty burial. Like the plague in London four years later.
He tried to push that plague out of his mind, the Little Plague that took such a big chunk out of his life. He tried to remember as much as possible about 1643, made his mind dwell on that year, trying to remember the time. He was eighteen and had been in Reading, witness to the devastation of the fever in Earl Essex’s army. And in London with the others, summoned by Colonel Powel, making good the will of Parliament. Like that day at the beginning of May, keeping the crowd back and letting the workers bring down the Cross of Cheapside. And again, a week or so later, at the site of the old Cross. Nothing left now but a mound of rubble, the most colorful pieces having been taken. A bit of the face of a saint seized by someone who held to the old faith, to be hidden in a church or home. The nose of an angel taken by someone who adhered to the new mode of worship, a memento of the victory over the papist remnants of the old pagan times. The lead was taken on the very day of the destruction of the Cross, seized by soldiers before they left the scene and carted off to one of the armories in the city to be melted down and turned into bullets. The Army of the Saints at work: turning crosses into weapons of war. And so nothing but a mound of rubble was there when he returned to the site. Litter and stone devoid of meaning. The devastation of war. Aftermath of a siege. Like the walls of Wessex and the ramparts of Drogheda. Some weeks later, Colonel Powel had asked them to come back to that same site once again, this time to keep the crowds back from the fire. They were burning The Book of Games in the flames, proclaiming that the Sabbath was the day of the Lord alone, announcing that the old pastimes were not to disrupt the prayers of Sunday any longer. The roar of the crowd swelled with the flames. Acceptance. Protest. Shouts of joy, curses called out. Some singing psalms. Others crying out verses: remember the Sabbath, keep it holy. The fiery flames rising higher, paper burning, and the smoke carried off into the wind.
Translated by Patrick Ford
Set in the seventeenth century, in the dangerous years of the English Civil War and its aftermath, Jerry Hunter’s absorbing new novel focuses on a devout Welshman, Rhisiart Dafydd, who has taken up arms with the Puritan opponents of king Charles I. In the wake of the king’s defeat and execution, and with increasing misgivings as the new regime beds in, Rhisiart is glad to accept Colonel Powel’s proposal of a mission abroad. His task is to discover what has happened to a Welsh community which had gone to found a new Jerusalem in north America some years previously but which has not been heard of since. After barely surviving shipwreck, Rhisiart is cared for by native Americans before finding his way with their help to the Welsh community, hidden away in the forest. Here he is initially welcomed but soon begins to sense corruption under the surface of the apparently well-ordered village, and finds his status shifting imperceptibly from that of guest to prisoner.
Underpinning Rhisiart’s travels from life as a boy in north Wales to the trained soldier and to envoy abroad, is his own internal journey from a deep, simple faith to increasing doubts as to what is done in the name of religion. With its clear contemporary resonances, this is a powerful, absorbing and timely novel.