The little house stood at the edge of the world, reaching out into that strange no-place between universes. At times, vast winds would whoosh, whistle and wail around the little house, and it would wobble and creak and the ceiling would leak. At other times, when it was still, it felt like the wait of the silence might just crush the little house into the surrounding earth. And then there were other times, as the moons drifted lazily across a deep blue sky, when whispers, almost like siren song, echoed and rippled through the air. From the unknown emptiness of the no-place, came voices from different worlds, spoken in corners of some distant universe, governed by some different understanding.
From where the little house reached out, the rest of the world reached back, into a forest and beyond. The forest, like the air, rippled and bent at the edges, and was so impossibly vast it stretched out until there was no more earth on which for the roots to grow. The forest, at this point, simply fell off the edges of the earth, for the earth itself was flat, spinning through space in its own bubble-like atmosphere. Within this atmosphere, the sun rose each morning and burnt red across the southern end of the world, before making its way in an arch across the earth to set in the ‘Evening North’. The world was therefore lit by an interesting light, and so was the way of the world, and to everyone living upon it, they could scarcely imagine it existing in any other way.
Now this story begins at this particular, forgotten edge, for it was quite unlike any other. As the little house stood, and the voices sang, a little old man would sit on the porch of his little old house, close his wrinkled, ancient eyes, and listen to the voices that echoed from the no-place. In these moments, the wizened old face, lined by years too numerous to count, lit up with a childlike wonder. It was as if the voices were meant only for him, as if drifting back from some past life.
As a boy, Alf had never had any dreams of adventure. Adventure, rather, had found him. He was born in a village on the edge of a forest. His parents were millers. They ground grain which grew from particular kinds of wild flower. With the grain they made soft, round boules of bread, and with the petals they made incense. As a child, his world was enclosed by the great wall of trees on one side, and two rivers that flowed out from the forest’s edge, running miles apart before winding together and becoming one. The forest loomed over the village, but not in the ominous way forests so often did. There was nothing dark or scary about those tall evergreens, at least not to those who lived in its shadow. From within, Owls hooted, mice hid, and nature went about its business in an entirely non-scary way.
It was said that the two rivers were lost lovers, and flowed from deep within the heart of the forest. Wandering one day, the two lovers had gotten lost and in the darkness they diverged. Alone, each river twisted and turned through the trees, their banks narrow and their flows rapid and desperate. As they broke the forest’s edge, they slowed and widened and each sensed its lover in the distance. They eased and waited, until eventually, at River’s Meet, fate brought these two lovers together once again. In joy, each river leapt into the banks of the other, and they flowed into one inseparable being. The villagers spoke of this story as if it were fact, and when two people fell in love it was tradition for each to sleep where the rivers escaped the trees, and at dawn begin walking the miles of the lost rivers’ flow. The rest of the village would gather excitedly at River’s Meet and line the last mile with torches and ribbons. Night had fallen by the time the tired and weary couple met once again. Before the onlookers, they exchanged ribbons, and like the two Rivers were taken in the arms of the other. The ceremony was short, for the meaning was in the walk and the arrival not the words or the ribbons. Yet in this way, the rivers helped forge the very character of the village they surrounded.
Between the forest and these two love-lorn rivers, the village – its houses, its fields, its farms, its mills – sat safely nestled in what the inhabitants called Nature’s Gate. Nature’s Gate was a strange place, and its inhabitants a strange, small-worldly kind of folk. Doors were seldom locked and children ran in and out of houses as if each were their natural home. When food, clothes and fuel were in abundance, families took their spares to the Townhouse as gift to neighbours who didn’t share their good fortune, knowing that one day the favour would be repaid. There was an easy flow to life and a kindness of heart that underpinned each passing day.
From time to time, the adults would have cause to leave Nature’s Gate to sell their bread and their incense in neighbouring market towns. They went in whirling flying machines called Whirligigs, which they dusted down and polished, and turning the propeller they sputtered and spun into life. It was quite a sight, seeing hundreds of these little machines rise into the air, and like bees slowly buzz out of sight. Alf and the other children excitedly chased after them to the River’s Meet, and when they could be seen no more, they ran around the river’s edge, playing games and making dens. In warm summer evenings, they would light fires and sit singing songs and telling spooky stories until grandparents and neighbours either called them in, or joined them to tell stories of their own. When his parents returned – sometimes days, sometimes weeks later – they brought sweet treats and strange new instruments, and flung their arms around him in a big crushing hug.
And so his childhood years passed like this, in gentle happiness. Each night the moons drifted across the sky, and when it was clear the little family would sit at the top of the mill tower and read to each other by moonlight. There was a haziness to these memories as they came back to him more in feeling that reflection.
The voices gradually faded and the sky went still. He wondered how long he had sat in his reverie; sometimes he found himself lost for hours at a time. He stood up and wandered back into the house, a great sadness falling over him.
The interior was sparse. There were no photos or objects to hint at any other life than this. No tokens of sentimentality. An old carriage clock on the mantelpiece was coated in a thick layer of dust and had long stopped ticking. The old man moved slowly around the place, drifting by memory rather than sight. The kettle boiled on the stove and he made himself a cup of sweet fruit tea. Darkness was falling outside and he could see one of the moons rising through the window. Through another window he could see only forest: tall, dark and uninviting. Sat at the table, the only noise was the rhythmic tapping of his fingers against the cup. Everything about the old man was detached somehow, content to exist his own little world: alone, forgotten, at this strange juttering edge of the real one.