Just as the summer hedges began to bloom along the Culm, Martha Fowler finally felt the pains in her belly. With a simple nod of understanding, Samuel Fowler hitched the wagon and they rode, passing the High Mill on the way to St. Andrews. Neither spoke as they rode along the river, the pain building in her womb. They rarely spoke at all anymore.
They rode to the church because Martha had decided Rev. Moore was the best choice to reach under her skirts to gather her first child. At 31, she was considered by most too old to have a child. The town surgeon said he expected her to die giving birth. He agreed to help her, but only if she paid up front and if Mr Steele, the mortician, was present at the delivery. Some snickered and condemned her because the child’s father was Samuel, the simplest and least successful of the Fowlers.
Others simply said orphans make other orphans. Martha parents were long dead. She grew up at St. Andrews – the only place willing to take her. Tucked into straw and old robe provided by a much younger Father Moore, young Martha would fall asleep in the loft dreaming of a life beyond the green hills. She had hoped to gaze upon London or Paris, even Exeter. But the recent bloodshed in the colonies and in France made it impossible for her to leave, Moore said. Not alone.
As a daughter of Quakers, quite frankly, finding the Fowlers was a stroke of luck for the orphaned Martha. The Fowler stead was a source of pride for the district. The leat the Fowler’s built fed the fields that sustained the High Mill and the town itself. Edgar Fowler, Samuel’s father, was a kind man who helped employ many looking for work. He sold part of his land to the Mills family who had a crazy notion of making paper – the paper mill where Martha now happily worked. His brother Edmund was a member of the council and the wives all looked after each other.
Samuel was the youngest and best known for his imagination, not his work ethic. He had hoped to leave Cullompton for the New Word. He had heard stories of the great expanse of wilderness, of bears, Red Indians and adventure. But his dreams of manifest destiny were cut short when he was thrown off his horse and knocked unconscious. Brought to St. Andrew’s for his last rites, though his hazy, delirious vision, he saw Martha helping the priest. He survived the night and seemed to have recovered completely. He and Martha were married, and, together, they were able hope for escape from Devonshire.
But, now, over ten years later, Samuel was the laughing stock of Cully. His brush with death left a few lasting reminders. He was tormented by nightmares and considered by many to be a madman. He started a fire in the main stables blaming the horses for an imaginary limp, and even failed to wear breeches one Saturday market day. As his outbursts and exploits became more and more common and less and less excusable, it was thought best Samuel and Martha move beyond the tannery, downwind, on the other side of the Culm, and separate from town.
It was by themselves that Martha became pregnant. When the wheel crumbled and wagon tumbled into the leat, it was by themselves that Charles was born and Martha died.
He sat looking out the window from his office on Great Ormond Street. The rainwater poured down from the rooftops. The street vendors and urchins all clung to the alcoves and under the eaves hoping to find a dry spot. In the first six months of the year since he opened the office, Charles had gone from the toast of London society back to a simple country bumpkin. His design for the new City Bridge had won the House of Commons award, followed by the immediate success of the Piazza at Covent Garden. But now, claiming that of paupers, the government won’t build his bridge for sake of finances. And now they are building Rennie’s bridge who has been dead going on five years. He was a complete laughing stock. He wasn’t be fit to design a mental institution. Maybe that is where he belonged.
Sitting watching the rain, he thought about the mother he never met. He thought about the numb father who never spoke to anyone anymore, just made more and more wagon wheels. Wheels that would never find a wagon to carry. After he was born and his mother died, Charles and his father moved back onto his grandfather’s manor. His aunts raised him while his father sunk deeper and deeper into silence. Motherless, Charles was given everything he needed by his grandfather and that included an excellent education. At 15, he was brought to Exeter to be the architect John Powning’s apprentice. After just seven years, he excelled as a designer and moved to London. The bankruptcy courts, the piazza, the bridge, it was all going so well. Until the wheel of fortune began to turn away from him, and he felt alone.
The ring of the downstairs bell brought his mind back, followed by the footsteps upstairs of the building’s caretaker, Mrs. Clomp. There was a delivery of unexpected post, the wheel made another spin for Charles. This time spinning back towards Devon.
It was a letter from John Powning’s office. Charles had resigned himself that the news of the London Bridge embarrassment had finally reached Exeter. He prepared himself for the ridicule and jibes from his Devonshire past because of his failure in the capital. Those back “home” loved the misfortunes of others who tried to escape.
As no one else was willing to do so, I agreed to despatch this news to you. Edgar has passed on to God’s Kingdom. Your uncle and councilman has requested you collect your father at the utmost urgency. Despite counselling to contrary, Edmund has decided Samuel is no longer welcome on the manor. As I write this to you now, it is well known Samuel has been sleeping in the south fields with no cover or modesty. Please return in haste for your father’s sake.
His ears began to burn. His hands itch. He knew his father was not well, but that did not matter. The horse throwing him, his mother’s passing, the wagon wheels – he had made something of himself in spite of the tortured life of his father. Charles pretended it was the work that brought him to London, not the truth was he was escaping his parents. Living in Cullompton and being the son of Samuel and Martha Fowler was a burden he desperately tried to leave behind him. But no matter the success he achieved, the uneasiness, guilt and mania trapped in his genes was always with him. The ghost of his mother and the silence of his father haunted him.
He rubbed his eyes, then his gaze returned to the falling rain over the cobbles. He watched the vendors rolling their carts away, their vegetables soaked, rotting and unsold. Checking his pocketwatch, he crumpled the letter. Before sitting as desk to stare at the countless un-finished drawings upon it, he tossed the paper into the fire. A flash and a wisp escaped up the chimney.
Hundreds of miles away, another wagon wheel was tossed onto the pile . They were also ablaze, along with Samuel’s house and possessions.
For grandmothers across the Devonshire countryside, it was common knowledge there were pixies living in the hills, only coming out at night. Knitting and coiling yarns in their laps, they would pass on this information to wide-eyed children avoiding bedtime. The pixies would crawl from the green grass to sprinkle dust on sleeping children to give them good dreams.
The sparks and embers rising from his belongings into the night time sky looked like dancing pixies to Samuel. He doubted they would bring him good dreams though. He doubted they would scare away the bad birds.
Just shy of 55, an old man really, Samuel had been mostly silent for well over forty years. In fact, he had not spoken since he and baby Charles were moved back to the estate in the summer of 1792. He rarely wore clothes; preferred the company of trees; and was committed to his sworn quest. He did no work other than making wagon wheels. Despite the questions, the pokes and prods, the priests, the surgeons, the nervous twittering when he walked throught the village, Samuel knew it was easier to be quiet than to tell anyone what he trying to accomplish. He played along. He had a job to do.
The secret he was keeping was that in the autumn of 1782, 10-year-old Samuel was visited by the pixie king. He had entered his bedroom in the dark of night to set him on a mission. He was to find a pacifist bride and travel across the sea. He was to take his wife to confront the faery king hidden deep in the American mountains to end the centuries of war that plagued their kind. If he tells no one of his purpose, upon the completion of his quest, the true meaning of all things would be shared with him.
Despite his size only being that of a large man’s hand, Penn-Ruw’s voice was thundering and austere. He warned the boy of the evil forces that would try to stop his journey. He talked of the dangers he would face. He spoke of winged creatures sent by the faery devils to stop him. Samuel tried not to show fear, but he could feel his blood starting to boil in trepidation. With a thunderous “Go!!” that defied his size, Penn-Ruw created an overpowering flash of light. Samuel fell back onto his bed, unconscious.
It was still dark when he awoke and he saw a red circle singed into his palm. He threw his clothes on, his boots and ran to the stable. Digging his heels into Ixion, the strongest destrier on the farm, he rode towards his destiny, to fulfil Penn-Ruw’s commands. At the south gate, no more than just two wagon wheels lashed together, he decided to jump Ixion rather than take the time to dismount and open it himself.
In searing pain, he woke up in St. Andrews. Martha was sitting over him, washing the sweat from his brow. He knew her from the village. She was the orphan ward of the church. The daughter of dead Quakers. He knew to keep silent about seeing his future wife; rather, he focused his attention on the throng of black crows flying outside. Their shrieks filled his ears and he found himself entranced by the fire-lit eyes the birds. They knew about his secret meeting with Penn-Ruw. They were here to stop him. He looked back at Martha. The cool, purplish grey of her eyes soothed his fears. He was not quite as afraid looking at her.
In the days after his accident, Samuel kept silent because he didn’t want anyone to know what Penn-Ruw had told him. But now as he watched his life literally burn, Samuel felt the heat on his face and the silence becoming unbearable. Sitting in the dirt, watching the farm hands throw his bed on to the scalding heap of wheels, he grabbed a stick. In front of him he wrote: “rota fortunae.” Quickly, he scribbled it out, leap to his feet, felt the heat on his nakedness, and bolted towards woods. Even at his age, he found it easy to jump the two broken wagon wheels that once served as the south gate.
IV. Fire-Eyed Insanity
For centuries, Malan Bran simply waited. He waited for her return and for the battle to begin. He endured the stench of the Dartmoor swamps, the bitter, cold rain of winter, and warm mist of the summer. The prophecy had promised she would be born to these lands and she would bring the end of the war. Her victory would ensure the pixies ruled the shadow world. The faeries, for which Malan’s family were the sworn defenders, would perish upon her return. That was a prophecy Malan could not allow to be fulfilled. He and his brothers would find her and destroy her. So he waited. He waited for the pixies to make a mistake.
That mistake took place in Cullomptom. His waiting ended when the usurper king, Penn-Ruw, crawled from underneath his slime-covered rock to enlist the help of the boy. He cocked his head to the side as he listened to Penn-Ruw tell the quivering boy of his mission. Malan’s eyes lit up ablaze when he mentioned the pacifist bride. It was true. She was alive. She was here!
In the flash caused by Penn-Ruw’s petty magic, Malan quickly retreated to the woods. He watched the usurper flitter by and back into the dark forest. He let him go. The so-called king was weak and not worth the meal his scrawny pixie-carcass would make. The boy was Malan’s target now. He would infect the stupid child’s mind, move inside of it, until the insanity drove the fool to find the girl. Then Malan, champion of guard, would bring honour to his family of protectors by destroying her.
He quickly realised his job was going to be easier than he ever imagined. He cackled inside as he saw the dishevelled boy run from his room towards the stable. Moments later, the child, tiny in comparison to the great beast he rode, burst through the stable doors and galloped straight towards Malan. He focused his gaze into the horse’s eyes. Deeper and deeper, he pierced through to the animal’s soul. He found the soft heart of the horse just before they attempted to jump the gate where Malan stood. The horse crumbled into a massive heap, crashing through the wagon wheels that formed the gate. The boy was thrown from the horse into the pine needles, his head smashing on a rock, and a dribble of blood finding a path to the ground below. Malan moved towards the boy. Leaning over the limp body, he inhaled the boy’s scent. It was a mixture of fear and hopefulness. Malan also sensed weakness.
Did this creature truly think he could help to defeat him? For centuries, stronger men than this tried to conquer Malan. And time and time again, they were unsuccessful. When his fiery stare broke through to your soul, you were Malan’s prisoner. And there was no escape from the torment he could inflict. Voices coming from the main building behind him, and Malan saw lights and action flicker, people moving across the field towards him and the boy. With one last gaze at the boy, he returned to the trees to watch the commotion from a safe position above.
Malan watched as the boy was loaded by the men into the cart. The oldest, possibly his father, announced they were to take the boy to Rev. Moore at St. Andrews. Malan cursed at the idea of his new found treasure dying. He tore from the woods to find his brothers. Find them and gather at the church.
The men, the cart and horses were all outside the church when Malan’s and his brothers finally arrived. Surrounding the building, they created a horrible ruckus, a storm of evil to engulf everyone. Malan made his way to the light at the tallest window in St. Andrews. The boy was there. He was still alive! Malan hissed as a nun tended to his wounds. As if pried open by the gods themselves, the boy’s eyes then opened to meet Malan’s own. The evil inside the creature latched onto the boy’s gaze. Malan’s eyes were lit by the fire. He knew the boy’s soul would soon be his, bringing him one step closer to finding the queen.
Inexplicably, the boy blinked, and then looked directly at the nun in front of him. Never in Malan’s 1,000 years had anyone broke his gaze. His blood boiled, his brain burned. Just as the boy fell to sleep, the nun turned to meet Malan’s incensed stare. Her purple eyes blinded him in an instant. He fell to the ground like a stone. Just before he struck the ground, in a heap of thwarted rage and black feathers, Malan realized he found Joan of the Torch, the true queen and the true strength of the pixies.
V. The Embrace
She could feel the warm, stickiness on her neck working its way down her chest and back. Her hair was matted and tangled with it. Martha expected this moment to be different. She expected herself to be in pain, or afraid. Rather, she felt as if she was enshrouded in peace, safe from the world and all its dangers.
Covered in blood, Martha felt ready to die. Like she predicted, fortune had indeed spun in her direction.
Before she could move on, she needed the baby to be born. She needed to hang on long enough to greet her child, if only for a moment.
Martha and Samuel had been riding along the leat when Samuel began screaming at the birds. He was convinced they were chasing the cart, convinced they were here to kill him and his family. He began whipping the poor horse to move faster. There had been a great deal of rain so far that spring, and the ground along the leat was caving in with the extra water. Just before the crash, Martha heard the guttural caw of the crow, but as she looked for the bird, the wheel buckled in the mud, gave way and the world went upside down.
When she opened her eyes, the wagon was broken in half. The back part lay under her, the front half suspended above her body, seemingly floating in air. The wagon wheel spun, inches from her face. Her feet were cold, and as she looked down, she saw them laying in the leat. Beyond the broken cart, she could see Samuel on the ground, his face covered in mud. He was expressionless, looking oddly content. Unconscious, Martha thought to herself, at least asleep he does not have to run from the birds.
In the last few months of her pregnancy, she felt Samuel drifting further and further away. She knew it was her job to take care of him. She looked upon him more as a son than a husband. Ever since that night in the church when they brought him to die, she cared for him. She listened to his manic, crazed stories of demon birds, fantastical creatures, and questions about her family, questions about the colour of her eyes. She would simply listen, say little, and let him drift off to sleep. It was when he slept, when he was quiet, that Martha hoped he found peace.
The pain shot up through her back. Reaching down between her legs, she expected to find blood, further evidence of her injuries. But it was clear wetness, her waters had broken and the baby was ready. Squeezing on the broken spoke of the wagon wheel, Martha gritted her teeth to push her child into this world. She knew she would never have any time beyond this moment with her child. She knew Samuel and his mania would be the child’s burden. She hoped her child would have strength to resist the desire to cast him aside like the rest of his family. She prayed her child would be like her, not Samuel. She prayed the child would be free of the demons that tortured its father.
With a shriek, she cried to the heavens as the baby’s head made its appearance. She looked beyond the leat, tears burning her eyes, and saw them in the distance. Crows, hundreds of them, lining the hedge, clinging to the trees. She dismissed the sight, attributing it to the searing pain in her womb. The baby pushed further, its shoulders passing, then its torso. In one last rush of pain, Charles met the world. In the distance, Martha saw the birds scatter into the dusk sky as he let out his first cry.
She pulled her son to her chest and finally relaxed. She exhaled slowly, finally feeling the weight of the moment. She glanced up to see Samuel was still unconscious. Her son let out small whelps as she held him close. He opened his eyes and looked up at her. Even at brand new, it was unmistakable. His eyes shone of purple. Martha lent her head down and kissed the boy on the forehead. She placed the child on her chest and wrapped her arms around him. It was the same way as her mother died, newborn Martha wrapped in her mother’s embrace.
A smile of contentment lingered on her lips as she died. The Torch lived on. And she knew Samuel would be safe.
VI. Stone Crows
He stood with his back to the church. The Church of St. Mary here in Honiton had been his fourth religious restoration in the five years since he left London. Getting closer, Charles thought to himself, as he slid his watch back into his breast pocket. The sun burned low in the western sky, silhouetting what appeared to be hundreds of black flies. He squinted, recognizing what they really were. The nagging, burning itch at the back of his head persisted and risked scorching his brain. He knew, despite his best efforts to stay away, he was closer to the place he was desperately trying to avoid, merely half a day’s ride. He knew he was almost home – whatever that meant. He also knew he was being driven there by a murder of crows.
Despite the nominal success of the Hungerford project in London, Charles could not quell the feelings of shame surrounding his life and work in the capital. He felt guilty in waking and rest. He did not know why, but he knew life would not be livable until he discovered why he was tormented.
Fate, he assumed, brought the vicar into his office that day. The cleric has a simple request, complete the façade restoration of the church. Charles was slightly awestruck by the faint purplish hue to the priest’s eyes. The church was not rich, but Charles agreed to the restoration at a pittance of what he usually charged.
St. John’s in Kilburn was a small north side church. Charles led the project and in six months, the reconstruction was complete. Church leaders were more than pleased, the proud keepers of “new” Gothic church in working class North London. For St. John’s, he turned his back on Italian Renaissance proclivities, instead choosing a Gothic design. Inspired by the ornate fireplace in the office, Charles design came complete with eight portals sculpted from Cornish granite.
One day during construction, after a brilliant overnight storm, workers showed up at the church the next morning to find eight sculptures waiting for them in the courtyard. Without questioning where they arrived from, the eight stone crows were placed into the portals embedded into the façade. By an unknown sculptor, each crow was given eyes of brilliant amber – so they seemed aflame. When he arrived, Charles found himself staring at the crows. He felt uneasy, felt strange. His hair began to feel warm. He thought the birds were watching him.
That night, without collecting his pay or seeing the job done, he closed his office on Great Ormond Street and left London. He scratched at an invisible spot on the back of his head. He had not commissioned any sculptures for St. John’s.
His fleeing journey took him back towards the South West. In Charmouth, he found another church looking for a revival and he was compelled to help. It was as if something drew him there. Again, his gothic revival of the building included the portals. And again, eight stone crows appeared to fill the portals. This time, rather than run, he put them in the design. As he did, he felt the burning reach his scalp. When he redesigned the church at Bickleigh, the stone crows that appeared were angrier than the previous ones. The burning and itching was angrier as well. After the unveiling, he watched the birds, staring at them long after the others left. A dull pain began to grow in his head.
Now, as the large shroud was pulled from the face of St. Mary’s Church in Honiton, Charles heard the gasps. He stood facing west, away from the unveiling. When they showed up a week ago, the stone crows had become more ghoul than bird this time. Charles felt a red-hot poker dig through his skull and touch his brain the minute he saw them. The crows were the embodiment of fear.
Not wanting to see them again, as the pain in his head became excruciating, Charles ran towards the sun dropping in the west. He could not stay. He could not face the clerics that entrusted him to rebuilding their church. He jumped on his horse and rode. He rode towards the black specks on the horizon. He rode through Penscome Woods, past Alder Grove, finally crossing the Culm River. When he dismounted, he found himself standing before St. Andrews. The building’s façade was alive and crawling. The church was covered with crows.
In front of the building, holding a torch and screaming at the birds was his father. It was the first time he ever heard his voice. Letting the sound wash over him, Charles felt the pain in his head subside and slowly fade away.
VII. The Burning
Samuel crouched in the pine needles. He saw the specks of fire scouring the fields. This was the moment Penn-Ruw told him to prepare for. This was Samuel’s chance to end the war. This was his chance to avenge the death of Martha and forever end the reign of the crows.
Since his return eight months ago, Charles had helped him find a new optimism that he would be able to fulfil Penn-Ruw’s wishes and help to end the war with faeries. Samuel was hopeful he could finally fulfil the mission he was given by the pixie king. He felt in his aching bones that time was running out.
His brother Edmund let them convert and move into the southern gate house. The house stood on the very spot where Samuel was thrown from the horse. Above the door of the house hung two wagon wheels. Two wooden crows were perched on the wheel’s spokes. Charles told him it was a bad idea to place them there, but Samuel was persistent. Every house needs a protector to ward off evil spirits. Besides, his son had won that contract to build the new hospital in Exminster. He was too busy to worry about Samuel and his evil spirits. Charles’ distraction had given him time to prepare for battle.
He was fishing in the Culm when the battle started. A great black throng of birds swooped down on him from the trees. He dove into the cold water to avoid their grabbing claws and sharp beaks. He dove under the murky water and swam for the weeds growing on the other side. He crouched in the water and waited for them to fly off, frustrated they couldn’t find their intended prey.
He had to wait for darkness before climbing out. He made his way towards St. Andrew’s to put his plan into action. Tucked away behind the largest stone crow, Samuel pulled a large sack from the portal. Pulling out a large, wooden club, the end wrapped in white muslin, he walked into the church. At the altar to St. Andrew, he dangled the torch over the offering candles. The bright flame filled the empty church. The grim determination on his face was shown in the flickering light.
Walking from the church, he entered a world alive in black madness. Crows, hundreds of them, darted and flew around the building, blending with the darkness of night. Occasionally, one would test Samuel’s resolve, but he merely smashed the attacking bird out of its path, charred feathers and meat dropping at his feet. When he felt all of the demon crows had finally gathered around him, he sprung his trap. Pulling another torch from his bag, he lit it and threw the burning staff into the church doorway. A handful of birds dove into the flames, burning alive thinking they were about to ensnare Samuel.
He began walking through the village, tossing burning torch after burning torch into the doorways of the buildings. The entire town was soon ablaze. Again, birds attacked the fire and burned themselves in their foolish hatred. Samuel worked his way through town, finally reaching his family manor house.
Crouching in the pine needles, the remaining crows filling the sky, he stared at the two wagon wheels above the door. On the ground, he saw Malan Bran perched on Charles, pecking at his face, trying to get the unconscious man’s eyes. With blood curdling shriek, Samuel leaped from the cover of the pined and pounced. Swinging the torch, he smashed through the crow, mixing his flame with the fire of the bird’s eyes. He grabbed the bird, stunned by the attack, and squeezed its neck. Watching its eyes flicker, he dug his teeth into the bird’s neck, tasting the acrid, bitter blood that flowed through it. He cast it aside and crawled over to his son.
Charles slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Samuel, a mixture of blood and feathers smeared across his face. Half smiling at the crazed look of the man, Charles pulled him close to whisper in his ear. After hearing his words, Samuel cried as he watched the purple fade from Charles’ eyes.
VIII. Rota Fortunae
The body of Samuel Fowler was taken out of the room on a stretcher made of pine logs and burlap. The bag of straw was taken from the stone slab that served as his bed. Etched into the wall, just below the window, was drawn a crude black bird and the words “rota fortunae deducta est mihi. i own anima tua. meum es vinctus.” (the wheel of fortune has spun to me. i own your soul. you are my prisoner.)
The orderlies at the Devon County Lunatic Asylum did not know the significance of the patient in Room Eight. They did not know the asylum, built in the shape of a wagon wheel, was designed especially for him. It had been 17 years since the Cullumpton Fire and 14 years since he was committed to the asylum.
Supervised by a man dressed in black, the orderlies lowered his body into the ground in a nearby meadow. Sunshine washed over the entire scene. As the orderlies walked back, a herd of Dartmoor ponies ran to visit the grave site. The animals lowered their heads at the sight of the darkly dressed man who lingered by the grave, and he stroked the largest of the ponies.
Throughout the Devonshire countryside, as purple light darts in and out of your vision, some say it’s a reflection from the lavender that grows throughout the green hills. But others, like Samuel, know good fortune will nod, if you carry upon you Joan the Torch. The pixies will hear your call, and protect you from the crows.
Before turning and walking back to the asylum, the man in black motioned to the horses – his eyes reflecting purple as they caught the light. With a nod from Charles, the ponies, now in full gallop, disappeared amongst the surrounding pines.
The preceding story represents an idea I had regarding Wikipedia. The Internet-based information site has become part of our everyday lives. With Google literally at our fingertips throughout the day, we invariably search for random bits of trivial knowledge. No matter how obscure, I am constantly amazed by the minutia contained in the millions of web pages on Wikipedia. But, as many know, Wikipedia is written by anyone and everyone. There are references, but in the end, the writers of the website offer expertise, knowledge, and, yes – fibs.
All of the stories in this series are fiction. But for all of them, the basis of the story comes from relevant Wikipedia entries. Where the fiction begins and the truth ends is for you to decide. If at all curious I searched Charles Fowler, Cullompton, Pixies, Crows, Rota Fortunae and Joan the Wad in researching this short story.
Hopefully, after reading, you are willing to offer some feedback. I would really appreciate it.