The Song of the Sunset
I will never forget my fleeting glimpse of the castle and, whenever an autumn sunset reaches across the sky, I recall the songs and dances impressed upon my soul by the most strangest of places.
You see, there was one particular evening when, as I left work and turned off the roundabout and onto the road to the motorway, I looked towards the distant sunset through a gap in the hedge. The sun was low on the horizon – within a thin band of bright, apricot light where the shroud of the day’s overcast greyness was clearing from the west. There, so low and so very far away on the edge of visibility, was a dark silhouette. An illusion of a castle – a cloud of shadow edged with gold. Then it was gone. Hidden behind nearby trees as my perspective changed.
A country lane provided an opportune moment for me to turn off the main road and try to get a better viewpoint. I knew I had only minutes to spare before the dusk would arrive. The lane turned a corner and I carried on ahead down a rough track where an ancient hedgerow of hazel, oak and ivy arched over me. My headlights struggled to pierce the dense blackness ahead. I was lost in a zone of concentration. White knuckles gripped the steering wheel as I forced a line as straight as possible between the steep, banked verges. I felt I was almost gliding with mesmerised focus on a distant light drawing me to the end of the tunnel. It grew larger, until the trees gave way and my field of view opened to a landscape of pastures and orchards bathed in the golden brilliance of the setting sun.
My surprising arrival in a place I didn’t recognise was nothing compared to what lay in front of me on a cliff-edged promontory. I parked on a patch of grass and walked forward, gasping with astonishment as I gazed up at grand, crenelated stone walls and towers. Much was in shadow, but the sunset outlined edges of castle structures of immense magnificence – with dramatic, decorated stonework and unknown wonders lying hidden within.
I was in countryside devoid of traffic noise and the only thing I could hear was music. There was singing too, drifting towards me from within those great castle walls. Curiosity drew me to find a pathway up the rocky cliff. My hands and feet felt for footholds as I climbed, rock after rock, until I could touch the huge lichen-covered lumps of granite forming the base of one of the walls. Why had I found myself here? The main gatehouse must be further round, hidden from my view. My position was precarious, with no visible path around the cliff edge. My heart thumped heavily – I was a mountain goat with no obvious way to go in any direction.
My salvation came when I saw a small hand-hewn opening in the rock face which I was sure had not been there a moment ago. Crouching down, I slipped into the darkness to find myself in a low, narrow tunnel. Candles had been placed at intervals along the damp, musty walls and these I followed, bent awkwardly – hands touching sharp jagged stonework and feet slipping as the incline steepened.
A small wooden door with aching hinges; then a cold cellar lit by a small lantern. My shadow flickered against the wall in front of me and my stomach tightened. Walls of stone. Floor of stone. Roof of the thickest joists supporting the room above. A narrow wooden staircase cowering in one corner led to a small door almost at ceiling height.
The music was louder, muffled by oak and granite. I needed to know from whence it came. The stairs creaked beneath each footstep and the handrail gave little confidence of support. So steep, almost like a ladder. And then the door, eased open by cold, clammy hands. A room, overflowing with a sea of song and gregarious chatter lay before me, but I was hidden behind a magnificent tapestry. It reached from floor to ceiling, hanging against the wall. I felt the soft threads on my face and hands as I eased myself to one side to find an edge. My arms were alive with goosebumps. Adrenaline surged through my heart. Millions of pin-pricks of light pierced the fabric. I reached a corner and there was no choice but to peer out.
She grabbed my hand. Cool slender fingers which had earlier been eased into numerous jewelled rings, pulled me into the middle of a circulating crowd of flamboyant elegance – a whirlwind of dazzling opulence, resplendent fabrics and sumptuous beauty. A blur of dazzling sapphire she became as she led me into a dance, hair swirling around a smile a thousand knights would die for. My feet carried me through intricate steps as though I had known them all my life. I was passed from one pair of hands to another as partners were exchanged in a frenetic blend of the finest dressed men and women I had ever seen.
When the music stopped, I was able to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. Above me, great oak beams straddled the great hall and hanging from them were garlands of greenery intertwined with cascades of flowers. Ornate decorations sparkling in the light from huge candelabras formed from dozens of exquisite lanterns holding a single candle each. Over all the walls hung large tapestries, sewn with the brightest coloured threads and embellished with copious amounts of gold, depicting what looked like scenes from battles and heroic tales of old.
The group of musicians seated on a raised platform at one end of the hall began to play again. Flutes, drums, a variety of stringed instruments, a hurdy-gurdy and several accordions were almost drowned by the cheering and clapping that accompanied the call to another dance. My companion grabbed my hands again and, interweaving a path between jubilant revellers, escorted me to one side of the hall. Here, I found myself presented before a long table laid out with the largest banquet I had ever seen. I turned to my companion and tried to speak but my words were lost in the cacophony of the evening. She smiled, saying nothing, but swept a hand over the lavish spread, encouraging me to help myself to as much as I wanted. She turned away and was gone.
I stared at the highly decorated plates of breads, game, fish, meats, pies, cheese, pastries, desserts and fruit all prepared to absolute perfection. I stood, looking around, bewilderment taking hold of my senses. I felt raw, incongruous. Naked with self-consciousness.
A hand touched me on the shoulder. I started. A man laughed – a big hearty laugh as he held high a large goblet of wine that spilled down his arm. He rubbed his stomach in a very exaggerated fashion and pointed towards the food. He said something. His words were lost in a language I did not know. He pushed me forwards to take my fill, then disappeared.
I ate a little. Hands and arms appeared, pushing and jostling for position around me as they grabbed at anything to be eaten. Bottles of wine were all but thrust in my face, along with hot and steamy bodies, loose hair and veritable assortment of hats, tiaras and head-wear adorned with great plumes, flowers and assemblages.
Backing away, to let the throng devour to their hearts’ content, I looked for the sapphire girl. She appeared and led me to the centre of the hall where we danced again for what seemed like hours. Dance after dance. This was so liberating, so freeing, so beautiful. I didn’t even feel tired.
And then I noticed it. Although the dances changed from one to another, the music didn’t. The same tune, repeated over and over. First in one key, then another. Then, maybe, with a tempo change and, later, as a solo rather than the full ensemble. Every so often, voices would break into song and the roar would fill the hall with wonderful harmonies which seemed surprising since many of the people looked very drunk. I, too, began to sing. Words etching themselves into my mind with every new rendering.
How long I was there I do not know. Well into the night, I assumed. My companion came and went, I hadn’t even asked for her name. No-one actually talked to me. She caught my hands once more and this time ushered me to the tapestry behind which I had first entered the room. She pulled it aside and showed me the door. She said something I didn’t understand, but I knew what she meant.
I stood on a patch of grass, looking up at the great castle and listening to the music and the song I knew so well. The sun was still setting. Still setting? Nothing had changed. It was still low on the horizon, a glaring ball of orange within a sky of salmons, creams, reds and pinks. The castle was still bathed in light as it stood gazing out from the promontory.
The memory of the sapphire girl, the music and the song remain with me still. One day I might write the words down – though no-one else would understand its meaning as much as do. It was a song meant for me alone.
Copyright Matthew Slater 2022. No reproduction allowed in any form without permission.