The Light Cutters
Short story by Ewan Macpherson.
The Light Cutters
We envy those who walk together when we walk alone; we envy those who walk alone in silence when we are trying to hear the wilderness.
Everything had changed: the big snow was transforming all the ugly, concrete buildings into something else, something different and mysterious. Car parks, warehouses, sprawling industrial estates now softened and hidden under the relentless, silent white.
The serene flakes fell gently at first, quietly stopping cars, inexorable and compassionless. Uniting a history of bad weather and perfected over thousands of years especially for today. The biting polar front moved across the land oblivious to the havoc in its wake, whispering ‘respect us, respect our power'. The wind was getting up, throwing the orderly, silent snowfall into directionless confusion.
Gregor was watching the slowly changing scene from his cosy flat in a little, old, town street. He loved snow days because everything began to look ancient, a brief insight, a timeslip, the usual undersong of the city was silent.
Man's arrogant stamp on nature was taken away, replaced by a sparkling unknown. It was early afternoon, but the street lights had come on, looking out of the window excitement rolled in his stomach, telling him to get outside, get involved in this scene. As he finished his coffee Gregor could hear the whispering.
Heavy coat, leather boots, Tibetan hat with ear flaps, the front door closed behind him like a full stop. The cold was sharp, the hushing journey of snow piling into drifts, first footsteps, senses awake, breath floating, nose running
In these moments Gregor could see through time, to an age when winters were always hard. When the brittle, creeping cold was heavy and taut, trees like frozen bronchi in lungs that won't breathe out for months and months.
He wandered at first, enjoying the sensation, feeling the thinness of time. Along the soft streets, edging and feeling his way into history like a root finds its way underground. Focusing only on things he saw in the corner of his eye and trying to catch time by surprise, desperate to return to years gone before.
Right here on this spot, just a few hundred turns of the moon away, the sodium lights were gone and the only electricity was lightning. Recklessly diving towards earth, drawing deathly dark lines through the kindly trees. Gregor was getting closer, he could sense them now, somewhere in the smoky medieval air. Timeless places modern society has forgotten, quiet places progress hasn't noticed. Bright flaming torches and braziers, tiny streets, dark woven cloth, the sound of horses and the smell of wax. He is ready.
Magic is everywhere.
For many the surprise turn in the weather is just an inconvenience, a symptom of global change. Another bargaining chip, something for humanity to worry about later, or perhaps just a distant memory of youth, an old freedom.
Nevertheless everything had changed: blackouts, power lines down and cold seeping under the door. The news called it unprecedented, a closing, not an opportunity. For those like Gregor this is an opportunity to experience life from a time that is not his own, a chance to learn from the old powers. He found himself wandering towards the railway station; he needed to get away, there were too many distractions here. There was a thin place near an old wood, high up in the hills, yes that's where to go, he thought.
The lowering, heavy snow clouds have left now, bearing down on distant hills. The wind has fled, leaving a pristine sparkling peace, resonating under the inky blue sky. Day has not left here yet, but you can see the moon clearly, perhaps the cold stars are coming out too. Anything is possible. The world has such a blue tint you want to rub your eyes and find another colour. In weather like this normal light is replaced by something altogether different.
The only train out of town that day was quiet, just a few low voices, wet floors, numb feet, the world seemed dim outside the bright carriage windows.
Through the dripping condensation, light chased over snowy trees on the trackside. Broken only by the occasional loud black tunnel, or the stark silhouette of some unknown mountain. No one came to check Gregor's ticket, just the click-clack of wheels on cold steel rails. No sandwiches or hot drinks available today, just the counting carriage grinding into the hills.
On weather days like this there is a certain undefined freedom; all the stupid rules and regulations somehow don't matter anymore. No one can be bothered to enforce them, even conductors know better than to leave their warm cabins.
A few hours later, just two sets of footsteps leave the train and crunch over the salty platform. For a moment we can hear a familiar voice reading the weather report on a car radio. A friendly greeting, before the door shuts and the car slowly drives away, wheels spinning in the deep tyre tracks. The train pulls away too, leaving Gregor in the empty station.
He walks through the silent village, past the closed shop, past the last house and out into the fields. He follows the path alongside the dark river as it moves sluggishly under the ice. He turns away from the water, up a small gully into the young trees that grow on the fringes of the woods, birch turns to pine, silver shifts to red. Gregor steps into the deeper forest that covers the hills as far as the eye can see. The village is out of sight now, replaced by nothing but the wind shouting in the top of the trees, high and harmless above the calm of the forest floor.
Winter light, shafts of low sun appear every so often between the trunks, neat and perfect on the clean snow. They seem to come from many different directions, with no apparent source. Gregor wonders if he'd seen the sun earlier at all, had the day been darker than usual? Or had the memory of that afternoon moon distracted him? And slowly, slowly the light is dimming, almost so you don't notice until it catches you out...
... it had come to the point in the walk when he'd lost all track of time, wandering in a happy daze. Pushing through deep drifts and exploring the contours of the land hidden by the trees. He could have been days out here, lost in the flow, in tune with the rhythm of the pines. Light had faded to dusk now, a black and white world, even the wind in the tree tops has dropped to a whisper. Broken only by an occasional thump of snow, falling off heavy laden branches, dusting Gregor's coat like icing sugar.
This deep wilderness was his alone, untouched by human hand, satisfyingly different from his summer walks. This was as close as he would ever get to feeling into the past in his own world. Hungry now, it was time to head home.
With all the winding through the trees his sense of direction was gone, so Gregor decided to follow his own footprints back through the snow.
He set off at a determined pace, but after a time started to wonder why nothing was familiar. There was still enough light around, surely he should recognise something by now? He had crossed a small burn earlier, but saw no sign of it. He'd passed a distinguished old oak in a clearing, obvious amongst the younger pine trees. He'd sheltered by a rocky outcrop, but why hadn't he seen any of them? He hadn't seen a soul all afternoon, besides some deer melting into the undergrowth, these footprints had to be his, but they were leading him somewhere else...
This is the place where anything can be.
Gregor had been going uphill for a while now, he saw neither sun or moon. Something invisible brushed against his face, feathering, almost at the edge of his senses. He thought he could hear the sea, so far away, and with each feather brushing past him new memories entered his mind. Memories that didn't belong there, a falling leaf, a bright smiling face. A sharp blade cutting skin, the feeling of moss under bare feet, a dark unknown fear ... then gone. He could sense hundreds of them, undisturbed by wind or time all crowded into this place.
As he re-traced his own steps a movement caught his eye; he started to think he could see a tall figure forming in the space between the trees. Beginning as a vague grey indefinite shape, moving along ahead of him. A translucent, hazy being walking in the snow, but leaving no footprints of its own. This strange, opaque figure thickened and darkened, but still appeared to be edgeless. Rough and loosely sketched from tree shadows, leaving dark trails, tracing behind it with each movement.
Suddenly, from some unseen fold it brought forth a great lantern and held it aloft. The light was scattered, cut and broken into thousands of shafts, but none of them lit up the figure. The lantern was not giving but collecting and directing light. Mesmerised, Gregor followed, senses assailed, for all the while he walked through a thicket of memories. Hearing and experiencing a tumult of time shots, moments of lives, from before and lying ahead. He felt no fear, only curiosity. And a strange kind of relief that he could really finally believe all the stories he loved so much.
They were at the top of the hill now, the mysterious figure melted away, blurring into the deep dark. But it remained bright, the hilltop was bare, it seemed as though light was arriving from everywhere, converging here. There followed a few minutes of stillness and silence, anticipation. Gregor felt he was inside some kind of invisible dome, it was not cold in here nor exposed on that hilltop under the stars.
Then came the music.
Or rather the feeling music gives, there was no melody or rhythm, no singers or harmonies, no orchestra. But music all the same, bringing the whole turmoil of emotions that overwhelm you after experiencing something truly amazing
A full soul, unity and understanding, joy and power.
Shortly after the music came the dancers, just tiny footprints at first. Footprints in the snow that circled round with smooth and easy motion, kicking up the powder. Gregor could gradually pick out more and more couples dancing together. Transparent or perhaps just dressed in white, part of the background but growing slowly more three-dimensional.
As he watched the stars spun around them, quicker and quicker, it seemed like they were at the centre of it all. The broken light became organised; hundreds of tiny bright holes appeared everywhere around the dancers. They looked like tunnels, hollow beams of light floating in the air and leading off the hilltop in all directions.
Some of the dancers held up their hands, their palms were covered in hundreds of tiny mirrors. They placed them in the beams of light, cutting and shaping the tunnels around them like a thousand tiny lasers. Heads on one side listening and then directing, herding and shaping the light with their skilled hands like a potter might mould clay.
Suddenly, as the stars were spinning their fastest and the energy seemed to reach it height, all the small folk stopped dancing. They formed into a tight line and ran into one of the tiny tunnels. As the last dancer got to the entrance she turned and looked straight at Gregor, holding his gaze for a second.
Then with a snap the whole place went dark, the cold rushed in, the stars were once again steady and the wind was biting into his clothes.
Gregor shivered, like he had turned away from a bonfire or stepped out of a warm car into a blizzard. The sense of emptiness and loss was acute as he started to stumble and slide downhill; so not knowing which direction to go he just went. All the while trying to make sense of everything, trying to find something in the memories and music to hold on to. For a terrifying moment he thought it was all just a tantalising glimpse, never to be understood.
Then he thought about the tiny dancer's eyes. Thousands of years lay in those eyes, uncounted distances, wisdom and a deep, beautiful kindness. As he thought about her he could feel a new energy filling his mind. A sensation like nothing he had experienced before, a knowledge and understanding from somewhere else. That's when he knew all was not lost.
We are the light cutters, we are the watchers, every night we sift through the ages, bettering. You are the new listener, you are tasked to carry this knowledge until your final breath. You will find another such as yourself who listens and pass this on to them, so there may always be one amongst your people who understands. If the lantern bearer should be captured by the cimmerian or we dancers become lost, you will ensure time will not forget us.
We dance to see the future and the past, we cut light and send it through time. We save lives and stop tragedy before it happens, there is no greater being. We are the light cutters and the time dancers, memory collectors, guardians of balance and beauty. Find us when the darkness takes your hope, we bring light to save souls.
It was dusk, Gregor passed through the trees as they turned from red to silver. Carrying the knowledge and keeping it buried safe, eyes open, alone with a secret, searching now for another face, listening.
We envy those who walk alone when we walk together; we envy those who walk together in silence when we are trying to hear the wilderness.
All blog posts:
Modern Fairies Gatherings at The Sage, Gateshead, 12 May 2020
Of Land & Story The Process of Forgetting and Remembering, 30 April 2020
Time Squint, 24 January 2020
Fairy Sources, 24 January 2020
Sleepers and Glitches, 24 January 2020
Alyson Loathly, 24 January 2020
The Green Children, 15 January 2020
Fairies of the Trees, 15 January 2020
Hares, 15 January 2020
The Light Cutters, 14 January 2020
We Dance to an Other Tempo, 14 January 2020
Selkies, 13 January 2020
Artist of the Week - Elly Lucas, 10 June 2019
Artist of the Week - Fay Hield, 15 May 2019
Artist of the Week - Natalie Reid, 1 April 2019
Signed posters for everyone, 24 March 2019
Artist of the Week - Steven Hadley, 18 March 2019
Podcast Series 1, Now Live, 14 February 2019
Artist of the Week - Patience Agbabi, 5 February 2019
Artist of the Week - Ben Nicholls, 8 January 2019
Artist of the Week - Marry Waterson, 11 December 2018
Artist of the Week - Barney Morse-Brown (Duotone), 6 December 2018
Artist of the Week - Terri Windling, 19 November 2018
Artist of the Week - Inge Thomson, 12 November 2018
Modern Fairies at Festival of the Mind - Sheffield, September 2018, 4 November 2018
Artist of the Week - Sarah Hesketh, 2 November 2018
Artist of the Week - Fay Hield, 4 September 2018
Artist of the Week - Lucy Farrell, 31 July 2018
Artist of the Week - Ewan Macpherson, 22 July 2018
Modern Fairies and Loathly Ladies - the First Workshop, 11 July 2018