fairy-fellers-masterstroke-detail

Believing, then, that the whole Cosmos is such as to satisfy the claims of human Reason, we are irresistibly led to ask whether it satisfies other claims of our nature which are as imperious as Reason itself. Infinite Intelligence would see the Cosmos as infinitely intelligent; but would infinite Goodness also see it as infinitely good? (i)

Maudsley Hospital, London, March 25, 1968

Doctor Burke reviews his notes then asks:

‘Can you remember your name?’

The patient, a tall man in his mid-fifties rolls his eyes at the ceiling and replies:

‘Sims. Michael Sims.’

‘Do you know how long you’ve been here, Michael?’

‘About six months?’

‘And how are you feeling today?’

‘Better. Much better, thank you.’

‘Do you think you’re well enough to go home?’

‘Certainly.’

‘And where do you live? Can you remember?’

‘Er… Paris?’

‘No, not Paris.’

‘Not Paris?’

‘No. Before you came here, you lived in Camberwell.’

‘Camberwell?’

‘Yes, Camberwell, London, SE5.’

‘Camberwell. Not Paris. Sorry.’

‘Do you know whereabouts in Camberwell?’

‘Er, Denmark Hill?’

‘That’s right. Denmark Hill. Very good. And can you remember what you had for breakfast?’

‘Fried eggs?’

‘No. A bowl of porridge.’

‘Of course. Porridge. How stupid of me to forget.’

‘What’s the last thing you remember?’

‘You mean, before I came here?’

‘Yes, if you like – what’s that last thing you remember before coming to stay with us at the Maudsley?’

‘The Light. I remember the Light.’

‘What light?’

‘The orb.’

‘Can you describe this orb?’

‘Not really. There aren’t any words to describe it.’

‘Try.’

Sims looks anxious and squirms in his seat:

‘I’d prefer not to talk about it.’

‘Why? Does it frighten you?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Why should I tell you?’

‘Because I’m a doctor. I’m here to help you. Don’t you want my help?’

‘I suppose.’

‘So where did you see this light?’

‘In the hills.’

‘Were you hiking? On holiday?’

‘No. I was on business.’

‘And when was this? Can you remember?’

‘Christmas Eve, 1959.’

‘You seem very sure of the date.’

‘I am.’

‘But you can’t remember anything of your life since then?’

‘Not much. But I remember The Old World.’

‘Do you know what year it is?’

‘Sorry doctor. I’ve forgotten.’

‘That’s perfectly all right. It’s 1968.’

‘Is it really? How dreadful.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, we haven’t got long left, have we?’

‘Tell me what happened on Christmas Eve, 1959.’

There follows a long pause. Sims scowls and his face hardens. Then, flinging out his hand, he slaps the table:

‘Why are you asking me all these stupid questions?’

‘I want to ascertain your state of mind.’

‘Let me go home.’

‘You can go home when you’re better. But first, we must establish how you got sick. Tell me about the orb. Do you remember it?’

‘Yes. As if it were yesterday.’

‘What were you doing in the hills?’

‘I was on a secret mission with Blyth.’

‘Who’s Blyth?’

‘He’s MI6.’

‘And what was your mission?’

‘To build a time machine.’

‘That sounds very exciting.’

‘Yes. But we got lost in a blizzard.’

‘Did you abort the mission?’

‘No. We spent the night in the car.’

‘Where?’

‘Wolf Fell.’

‘And where is that, precisely? Do you know?’

‘The Lancashire moors. It’s where The Sidhe live.’

The Sidhe? Who are they?’

‘Faeries, mostly.’

Burke scribbles excitedly in his notes. Then he looks up and smiles:

‘How do you mean, mostly?

‘They come in many guises. But mostly faeries. I knew it was The Sidhe, the moment I saw the orb.’

‘You had a seizure, Michael.’

‘No. I saw it. The orb.’

‘Can you describe the sequence of events leading up to this orb? What happened exactly?’

‘We were sleeping in the car. Blyth and me. I don’t know the hour. Sometime after midnight. I awoke with a pain in my chest. I thought it was my asthma. I suffer from solderer’s lung.’

‘Solderer’s lung?’

‘Molten solder gives off toxic fumes: the resin flux irritates the bronchi.’

‘I see. So you thought you were having an asthma attack?’

‘Yes. But then I saw the orb, hovering on a ridge.’

‘Could it have been the moon, perhaps?’

‘No. It was much bigger than the moon. And brighter. A thousand times brighter.’

‘How far away was it?’

‘Hard to tell. About a mile… The whole valley was flooded with ghostly light.’

‘Weren’t you frightened?’

‘No. I felt strangely disconnected with myself, as if part of me had been switched off. Then I realised I was above the car, looking down through the roof. I saw Blyth sleeping behind the wheel, and my body lying in the passenger seat. I thought I was dead.’

‘You were obviously dreaming.’

‘No. I was between worlds.’

‘These sorts of hallucinations are very common in people with epilepsy.’

‘You can’t explain it away like that. Epilepsy.

‘Do you know what a seizure is Michael?’

‘A brainstorm. Right?’

‘In layman’s terms, yes. A seizure is an electric phenomenon provoked either by an excitation of the cerebral cortex, or by optical disturbance on the retina of the eye. The impulse travels from the ganglionic layer, via the lateral geniculate body, into the superior colliculus, then onward to the pretectal nucleus and into the visuosensory cortex, where it invokes halo effects, aureole, and other radiant hallucinations. From this point, by a series of numerous reflex and complex actions, the excitation is transformed by mediation of the cerebellum into a spasmodic excitation which radiates outward by means of the spinal nerves to the peripheral muscles.’

‘No doctor.’

No doctor?

‘I’m not epileptic. At least, I wasn’t back then.’

‘According to your medical records, you suffer from periodic focal brain psychosis, brought on by traumatic epilepsy.’

‘But this wasn’t epilepsy. You wouldn’t understand. The Light was miraculous.’

‘There’s nothing miraculous about it. Your case is not unusual; nor does it conflict with existing medical theory.’

‘This was above biology. Above the brain. It was supernatural.’

‘On the contrary. A seizure explains the light in the most material terms.’

‘Not this kind of Light. It was sentient.’

‘What makes you think that?’

‘I felt a connection. The Light knew all about me. It was watching me.’

‘You felt this connection because the light was generated by your own brain… Your personality had dissociated into two distinct selves – the “switched off” part, and the observer. But both were still connected on a much deeper subconscious level. Hence you perceived the light as something outside yourself, with an intelligence of its own.’

‘It was sentient, I tell you.’

‘Yes, sentient, because you are sentient.’

‘No. It wasn’t me. It was The Sidhe.’

‘Faeries? That’s nonsense Michael.’

‘Are you an authority on spiritual matters?’

‘I am on the human brain. Temporal lobe epilepsy is strongly associated with psychotic symptoms. Just as impaired language centres are with schizophrenia. Why not admit the truth? You had a fit. Plain and simple.’

‘I don’t have fits.’

‘But you’ve suffered from epilepsy your whole life.’

‘I knew this was a bad idea.’

‘What?’

‘Trying to convince you. The moment I walked in through that door, I said to myself: What’s the point in trying to convince Dr. Burke? I mean, the Universe is a very large and complex thing. Do you assume to know everything?’

Burke looks vaguely amused then asks:

‘Then who are The Sidhe? Where are they from?’

‘I don’t know who they are, or where they come from. But my Aunt Maggie called them The Anointed Ones. They were pre-existent, super-eminent, before the Earth was formed.’

‘Angels?’

‘Fallen angels.’

‘The human imagination is a hiding-place for many supernatural creatures; but such beliefs blunt our common sense and corrupt our reason. Superstition is very dangerous Michael. Do you not see? These wayward visions have strained your nerves. You have superimposed them with emotive religious elements. But religion causes all manner of morbid insanity. The supernatural is fraught with every kind of peril. Religion is the most prevalent source of conflict and mental disintegration; it threatens not only our morality, but our humanity. Do you understand?’

‘Yes doctor. I understand. The supernatural life absorbs the natural life.’

‘Exactly. The invisible world is all in the mind.’

‘But you believe in radio and X-Rays?’

Burke frowns in annoyance and picks up his pen:

‘So what happened next? You were out of your body, and floating above the car. Correct?’

‘Correct.’

‘And the orb?’

‘I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was pulsing blue and green, darting like a bee. Then it drew near and hovered by a thorn. I don’t know how it happened, but the Light was suddenly upon me. I was engulfed by a presence.’

‘Presence? What kind of presence? How would you describe it? Good or bad?’

‘It was… transcendental. I saw colours everywhere. The colours were alive. They were whispering.’

‘What did they say?’

‘It was a language that I didn’t understand. I mean, I did then, but not now. Not back in the body. The meaning gets lost. Garbled. Filtered out. The Sidhe won’t allow it.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because if we knew their secrets, we’d become gods.’

‘You still believe this was a religious experience?’

‘Yes. The Light was all knowing, all seeing, all powerful. Omniscient.

‘So you were absorbed by the light? You became a part of it? Correct?’

‘Yes. I felt my essence, or that part of myself they call the soul, was part of the Light. This mysterious Light. Then all at once I was translated to another realm.’

‘Where? Heaven?’

‘I don’t know. It was a place that was not a place. Time and space had no meaning there. All my earthly burdens just fell away.’

‘What about your body?’

‘What about it?’

‘I mean, how did you experience all this without a body? You had no eyes, yet saw beautiful colours; you had no ears, yet heard mysterious voices; you had no brain, yet comprehended the whole event…’

‘I had a body, but it wasn’t a physical body.’

‘What did this body look like?’

‘I don’t know what form I was in. I just had a perception of myself. A perimeter of being. A soul. I realised my physical body was just a container. I was quite unconcerned with it.’

‘But what about Death?’

‘What about it?’

‘Weren’t you afraid?’

‘Why should we be afraid of Death? Annihilation is impossible. We are inmates of infinity. Nothing perishes. Nothing is lost. The Unus Mudus preserves all.’

‘So you didn’t want to come back?’

‘No. My only desire was to stay with the Light. I was glad to leave my mortal coils. I felt exulted; liberated; more alive than I’ve ever been. I was bathed in a warm radiance. And my only desire was to get closer to the Light.’

‘Why is that, do you think?’

‘Because the Light was love.’

‘Love? What sort of love? Was it a platonic love? Or did it have a sexual aspect? What do you think?’

‘Only a Freudian could ask such a stupid question.’

‘Pardon?’

‘There was nothing sexual about it. It was an all consuming Love. You can’t imagine that kind of love; it is beyond anything we experience on Earth. I felt a connection to everything and everyone. And I knew that I was home.’

Burke scribbles in his notes then says:

‘What if I told you that Death is dissolution. Nothingness. Oblivion. That all flesh is grass; that we must repay our debt to Nature and return to dust; that human consciousness cannot survive Death; that any hope of an afterlife is utterly impossible. What would you say?’

‘I would say that you have a very puerile idea of Death.’

‘Oh? Why is that?’

‘If the end of Life is nothingness, does not Birth bring us out of that same nothingness? Why should Birth be any more impossible than Death?’

Burke leans forward on his elbows; he looks like a hunched dark mass; a bane; a mildewed moth and haunter of shadows. He folds his fingers together and asks:

‘Are you a saintly person?’

‘That’s a bit of a leading question, isn’t it?’

‘Well, are you?’

‘No. I’m just an ordinary Joe. A sinner.’

‘You were brought up Catholic?’

‘Yes. But before the Light, I was an atheist.’

‘And what about now? Do you pray?’

‘Of course.’

‘Does God answer your prayers?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Do you hear him speak? Do you receive celestial communications?’

‘No. Do you?’

Burke scrawls in his notes again, and without raising his eyes from the page, he asks:

‘Do you know who I am Michael?’

‘Yes. You’re a gatekeeper of medical procedures: surgical mechanisms by which the Freudian code is enforced upon dissident members of society; so that all heretics are impelled to think and act in a manner which the code prescribes.’

Burke looks up and smiles politely. He studies Sims for a moment, then shrugs:

‘So what about your mission?’

‘Mission?’

‘To build the time machine.’

‘Ah yes, well that’s where things get complicated.’

‘Well, they would do, wouldn’t they?’

‘When I awoke the following morning, I was lying in the gorse, about half a mile from the car.’

‘Do you sleepwalk often?’

‘No you misunderstand. I hadn’t been sleepwalking. I was away – with The Sidhe.

‘No Michael. You were sleepwalking.’

‘But I had grown a beard.’

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘At least ten days growth. You see, the previous night, I was clean shaven.’

Burke scratches his head in puzzlement:

‘A hormonal imbalance perhaps. And what did Blyth think of your new beard?’

‘He was very upset about it. We both were. I cut it off, and we said no more about it.’

‘And did you continue with your mission?’

‘Yes. We went to see Jack Vallis, a patient at Sunhill Asylum.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘Near Preston.’

‘But there is no Sunhill Asylum near Preston.’

‘Yes there is. I went there with Blyth. Sunhill Asylum, Christmas Day, 1959. I’ll never forget it.’

‘You mean Rainhill. You’re confused. It was a long time ago.’

‘Rainhill Asylum? No, I’m positive it was Sunhill…’

‘And this Jack Vallis? Who is he to you? A relative?’

‘No.’

‘Then why were you visiting Rainhill Asylum?’

‘I’ve already told you: it was Sunhill, not Rainhill.’

‘Sunhill doesn’t exist, Michael. And the only other asylum in that region is Whittingham…’

‘No. It was definitely Sunhill. Christ! I should know! Why are you keeping me here? I haven’t the faintest idea how I arrived… I suspect there’s a portal somewhere in this very hospital.’

‘A portal?’ jests Burke. ‘From one mental asylum to another? How very novel.’

‘Don’t make fun of me. I meant a portal to The Old World.’

‘No Michael.’

‘Well how else did I get here?’

‘You came by ambulance.’

‘Ambulance? Are you sure?’

‘I saw you arrive at the gate.’

‘But why a psychiatric hospital?’

‘Because you were found naked in the park.’

Sims gasps and turns bright red. He lurches in his chair, almost buckling under the weight of this revelation:

‘Naked?’

‘Apart from a crown of thorns.’

Thorns?

He trembles as one vanquished and hurled to earth: a naked Christ, condemned to a life of ruin and shame amid the thorns and briars of secular society.

‘You have no memory of the incident?’ asks Burke.

‘No. None. What happened?’

‘You were tangled in a rose tree, cut to ribbons, and screaming at the devil.’

‘How awful! How dreadful!’

‘You were found by two schoolgirls. They were both quite terrified, by all accounts.’

‘What? But doctor! You must listen to me! It wasn’t my fault! I’m not a pervert! I’m not a flasher! Can’t you see I’m the victim here? You must see that!’

Burke scribbles in his notes again, his pen moving with furious intensity.

Sims clasps his head and groans in despair:

‘Naked in the park? I wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for Jack Vallis.’

‘Was he part of your mission?’

‘Yes. Vallis was a thaumaturge.’

‘Thaumaturge? What’s that?’

‘He had a great power, which went out from his body like heat. He was a healer; a miracle worker; a telepath and clairvoyant. He invented the time machine, you see.’

‘Did he?’

‘Well, that’s what he claimed. But I think the spirits showed him. I mean, I don’t see why he should take all the credit, do you? Not when he took instruction from higher intelligences. I didn’t believe it at first. I didn’t believe any of it. His gnostic causal chain was incompatible with my sense of reason. I thought reincarnation was a fictitious process; an opium for the people. A cosmic wheel of justice might sound appealing; but the more you look into it, the more you find unpleasant ideas which are grievously troubling. But Vallis convinced me that it was true. All true…’

‘Could he see faeries too?’ asks Burke.

Sims ignores the question and ponders for a moment, fumbling with his bottom lip:

‘…So, the portal is in the park.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Which park did they find me in? Battersea or Brockwell?’

‘It was Crystal Palace, actually. Is your memory returning now?’

‘Yes…’

‘Then you will know that you’ve been here six days, not six months.’

‘Days. Months. They’re both the same, relatively speaking.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘That life is fleeting.’

Burke opens a drawer and produces a fat file with dog-eared corners. He lays it ritually on the desk and stares ominously:

‘Your medical records arrived from Galway this morning.’

‘Oh? What do they say?’

Burke opens the file and turns the pages, slowly, deliberately:

‘It’s all here in black and white: recurrent mania; melancholia; dementia praecox; epileptic psychoneurosis; delusions and hallucinations; religious colouration; intolerance to flashing lights… It says here that your mother was a manic-depressive. And you first manifested short depressions at the age of nine. Two years later you became agitated, euphoric, loquacious, deluded, and hallucinated. Your first grand-mal seizure occurred at eleven years…’

‘No, that’s not right.’

‘– You were found naked on the Kilcolgan road. You got sectioned, and spent two years in Ballinasloe. The diagnosis was hallucinatory insanity.’

‘Insanity? No. That’s the wrong file. You’ve confused me with someone else.’

‘You are Michael Sims, aren’t you?’

‘Well, yes. But that must be another Michael Sims. I mean how could I have got a job in MI6, with a history of mental illness?’

‘Quite. A spy who believes in The Sidhe. It doesn’t stack up, does it?’

Sims reels with nausea and anguish, as if his impressions of eternity have been suddenly effaced; that The Sidhe are nought but optical illusions; that the entire cosmos and human race are nothing but banal accidents.

Burke thumbs through the file, shaking his head:

‘That’s odd… There’s no mention of Rainhill in here…’

‘That’s because I never went to Rainhill.’

‘What happened on the Kilcolgan road, Michael? Do you remember?’

‘I remember the place, but not the time.’

‘It was 1925. You were eleven years old.’

‘Eleven…’

‘You told the doctor that you saw an elf.’

‘Perhaps I imagined it. What do you think?’

‘I think that you’re afraid. You saw an elf – correct? And you lost your mind because of it. Did you see an elf, Michael?’

‘I don’t know. I have no idea. Like I said, The Sidhe have many guises…’

‘So you admit your time in Ballinasloe?’

‘I don’t remember Ballinasloe. I was between worlds.’

‘Out of the body? Where did you go?’

‘The Light beyond. I was with The Sidhe.’

‘Another realm?’

‘There were many souls there.’

‘People you knew?’

‘They felt like old acquaintances. They seemed to know me. But I couldn’t place them – at least, not at first. Yet I felt my entire inner life had been spent in their company. Then one by one, their faces came back to me. They welcomed me with open arms, as if I had returned from a long and treacherous journey. “Well done Michael!” they said. “Your time on Earth is done!” And I saw my old house in Paris, with its crooked little alley to the church. That’s where I met the Alchemist.’

‘A doctor, perhaps?’

‘He paid us five florins.’

‘Paid who?’

‘Me and my wife.’

‘When was this?’

‘I loved my wife.’

‘Of course you did.’

‘It wasn’t my fault.’

‘Of course not. These things happen.’

‘Yes they do.’

‘Do you miss your wife?’

‘Very much.’

‘Can you remember her name?’

‘Selene.’

‘No. Your wife was called Deborah.’

‘I mean my wife in The Old World. Selene.

‘I see. The Old World, yes. Go on.’

‘She was beautiful. But wicked.’

‘Why was she wicked?’

‘We both were.’

‘How were you wicked?’

‘Five florins. You can’t put a price on a human life…’

‘Whose life?’

‘Our child.’

‘You sold your child?’

Our unborn child…

He breaks down in tears and blubbers:

‘We wanted rid of it!’

‘It was just a dream Michael. The Old World isn’t real. That child never existed.’

‘But it was real! The alchemist took it! That horned devil!

‘What did the devil do? Can you tell me?’

Sims clutches his head in torment, rocking in his chair:

‘He… He put Selene on a plinth and applied a magic plaster. We waited and waited, but nothing happened. Hour by hour, the plaster turned from white to black, and every colour in between. Selene was taken with fever. She began to scream and wail. Then at cockcrow, she suffered a violent abortion. A bloody horrid mess. The alchemist gathered it up and put it in a jar.’

‘What did he want with it?’

‘I don’t know. He took it away into his chamber. I watched him through the curtain. He had hundreds of jars, stacked to the rafters. Babies, floating in brine. He called them foetuses. But they weren’t foetuses. They were babies. I was glad to see the back of that place. We took our five florins and left. But the gold was cursed.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because that night, Selene took her own life.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that Michael. But you mustn’t feel responsible for your wife’s death.’

‘Of course I’m responsible!’

‘The tragedies of life can cause us great distress. Sometimes our mental anguish becomes too much to bare. Human existence seems cruel and meaningless. So we invent fictions – narratives – to try and explain it away. We distance ourselves from the grim reality of things; we become observers in our own story, rather than living participants.’

‘You think it was fiction? You weren’t there! You didn’t see her body shattered on the cobbles!’

‘How did she die?’

‘She jumped from Saint Jeane en Grève…’

‘Shall I tell you what really happened?’

Sims pleads in earnest:

Oh yes! Please tell me, doctor! Was it just a dream? Please god, tell me it was!

‘A delusion Michael. A delusion. You became manically depressed after the suicide of your wife. You felt responsible in some way. You wandered about aimlessly for days, in search of her ghost. Of course, you only have a very dim recollection of this journey. But you were seen on the No. 3 bus removing your clothes. A policeman tried to overpower you, but you fled naked into the park. And now you cannot say definitely whether it was just a dream.’

‘No, no, that’s all wrong. You’ve got it all wrong!’

He stands and paces up and down, pulling at his hair and beating his temples:

Five florins! Five florins! Five florins!

‘Calm down Michael, please.’

‘But you don’t understand! I’ve got to get out of here!’

Burke grabs his shoulders and steers him back to the chair:

‘Sit down Michael, please.’

‘There’s no time. I’ve got to save her. Find the portal. Get back to The Old World.’

‘But what about this world, Michael? Do have any relatives? Someone we can call? Any children to speak of?’

Children? Don’t you get it? Are you stupid or something? Didn’t you read my file? I’m sterile, you idiot!’

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 1992-2021. All rights reserved.

i. ‘Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death’, Myers, F.W.H. Chapter X, Appendix A p.301.

Image credit: ‘The Faery Feller’s Master-Stroke’, (detail) by Richard Dadd, 1855-64.