What Child is This? - Part Two
For a child reared in the back alleys and knotted lanes of East London, to slip unnoticed out a window as dawn breathed blue beneath the stars was easy as taking a breath. The man and woman in the next room did not even stir. To patter down the tree-lined street of an Oxford neighborhood was even easier, and to slip into the shadows at sight of an adult, like a slim, swift shadow himself, was easiest of all. When the neighbors were questioned later that day, not one of them remembered seeing a small boy, freckle-faced and thin, though many had passed him unaware on their way to work or early church. Bren loped through the dim streets, loving the ease of his stride. He did a small dance, and shook his skinny arms as if to rejoice that no hand held his own and curbed his movement. When he crossed the bridge by Magdalene College, he knew himself safe and free as one of the birds cutting circles through the cold dawn sky. The morning crowd was at flood tide; at the least scent of danger he could disappear within it, darting through its flow like a minnow disappearing in a stream.
In the city, with the hard cobbles firm under his feet, with the shouts of the morning merchants like a chorus of trumpets and the air taut with the wakening day, he was at home. He stood a moment to watch the does graze in the misty Magdalene deer park and then he was off in a scamper. The tide of noise and the rising light were in his very bones and he scampered down the streets twirling circles as he did. He followed his nose as he always had in London and it led him straight to a bakery in Cornmarket. He spotted a plump old woman with a face creased in all the right corners for smiles and kindness. His blue eyes widened to an enormity that gave the impression of starvation and he gave her a shy smile.
“Please ma’am, just a bit of bread? I’m so hungry.”
The woman’s face creased with instant motherliness. He presented a far more piteous sight than he knew. His small face was thin and wizened, not by hunger, but a fear too great for his size. She saw the dart of his eyes toward her giant of a husband, and knew that he was too wise in the ways of hard men. With a glance of caution herself, she snatched two rolls and put them in his hands.
“There you go love,” and she rumpled his hair with the lightest touch and shooed him off with a smile. He scampered away but something in his throat swelled and his eyes stung so that he blinked them hard and fast. For two months he’d known only cold eyes and hard hands from the people who told him they were saving him, a refugee child, from the dangers of wartime London. He’d take bombs any day. Even bombs at the orphanage. But the thought of his hosts spurred him to a faster trot. They would know he had escaped by now. He ducked down two side streets and into a graveyard where he sat behind a giant, moss-eaten headstone and tore into his roll with a swiftly-beating heart.
The sun reached over the church roof to pour a dazzle of golden light over his head. Calmed by its warmth, mouth full of bread, Bren considered his next step. His escape of that morning had been sheer impulse. The resolve had come as a flare of hope in the darkness of his bewildered, childish despair. The sudden joy he had tasted, the wink of the angels, put life back in his bones and the first move they made was toward escape. Now, the only plan he had was his desire to get back to that dim, friendly cave of a place. He opened the small bag he’d brought with him and rummaged through it, gratified at touch of a pocket knife, a half burned candle, a packet of matches, the penny-whistle that was like a friend to him, and a thin woolen blanket.
Food was his first need, followed by a cap to hide the mop of rusty curls that quite distinguished him in a crowd. A few tunes on his whistle would earn him enough pennies to begin and then he could search the old stone streets until he found the entrance to the college he planned to invade. All he had to do then was scheme a way to get past the porter. By the sun’s slow set behind the hoary old walls and sharp-nosed towers, he would be safe in the destination that glowed in the back of his mind as brightly as the new day sun.
He leapt to his feet, dusted the crumbs off his jacket and shouldered his pack. In half an hour he was happily ensconced on a street corner with his penny whistle summoning the sunlight to dance and chasing the birds in giddy circles through the sky. Pennies were scarce with the war on but when the hurried travelers heard that merry, haunting music and saw the piqued face and star-bright eyes of the boy who made it, they reached for their pockets. By noon, Bren had four coins winking in his palm. The last one had barely clattered to rest when he was up, whistled stowed, pack slung as he ducked through the crowds back toward High Street.
The afternoon he spent in scouting out the best deals for his money. It took him three shops before he was satisfied with his purchases and gratified at the plumpness of his pack. This, however, exhausted his cash. He roamed the streets, ducking his head to hide his bright hair. He was very afraid that if he tried to enter the college without a hat, he would be remembered, and if his pursuers came searching, recognized. When he sat for a moment of rest on a park bench and found a tweed cap right beside him, he gasped. It was as if an angel had dropped it from the sky. He took it in his numb little hands and plopped it on his head; it perfectly covered the mop of curls. Could the angels in church ceilings communicate with those in the sky? He felt sure they must and off he scampered with joy in his heart. (The poor gentleman who had stepped away to retrieve his wind blown newspaper would have been quite shocked to know that angels had appropriated his hat.)
When the murky glow of the early winter dusk made a twilit land of the streets, and the windows of the shops burned like hearth fires in the gloom, Bren turned his steps toward the college gate behind whose walls his shelter waited. When he arrived, he loitered about the entrance, careful not to catch the porter’s eye.When regular knots of well-bundled people began to drift through the gate, headed for Evensong, he stood in the shadows of the taller men, kept his head down, and shuffled through. Once in, he stopped, breathless. His heart quickened, his cheeks reddened with the sudden rush of joy that flooded his heart. He was almost there. Above him, the first stars laughed their congratulations and he sped like a small star himself through the shadowed courtyards and cloisters.
When he reached the great wooden door far back behind the oldest walls of the college, it’s oaken beams strapped by iron as if to guard a mighty secret, he slipped into a far corner of the courtyard. As the dons and their wives passed him on their way into the chapel, he pulled off his cap and spit in his hands and ran them through his unruly hair. He scrubbed at his face and hoped it wasn’t dirty. With a last tug at his jacket he gave up, squared his shoulders, and slipped through the giant of a door.
Light gripped him the moment he entered, a strong arm of brightness that reached toward him from the candlelit nave. A thousand whispers scampered to greet and tug him toward the inner, sheltered room of the chapel. He ran for the entrance, careless of curious glances or donnish frowns, and when he got inside, for one swift moment, he stared up at the rafters. The angels grinned down at him and he thought he saw the tip of one wing tilt a hello over air filled with candlelight and the swoosh of long robes. A laugh rose in his belly and he could not keep it down. He grinned. He chuckled. He almost danced a jig.
But the raised eyebrow of an impatient elderly gentleman reminded him of the need for caution. He doffed his cap and slipped into a high corner pew. He sat just under a stained glass portrait of a woman holding a sheaf of wheat. Her face was round and homely and glad and he loved her. He loved everything he saw and everyone near him. As the rest of the congregation filed in, he swung his small feet and feasted his eyes upon the gem-toned windows and counted the rows of martyrs and kings that lined the alter wall in a great tower of saintliness.
Just before the service began, a tall, pale woman slipped into the seat beside him. She stared at him a moment, then gave him a smile that made him feel he had arrived on his own doorstep after a long and arduous journey. But he quickly dropped his eyes and tried to look as if he was part of the family on his other side lest she realize that he was alone. The service began. The tall priest with the dark hair and the face of a disappointed boy sang out the prayers and Bren watched him closely, surprised to realize that he moved with the same dejection that Bren himself had known through all the past months. How could anyone be downcast in so friendly a place, Bren did not understand.
But he forgot the priest in his eagerness for the service to end, for the only really risky part of his scheme was about to begin. When the last note of the organ died away, he shuffled out with the rest, chin tucked down, face appropriately solemn. But when he reached the narthex and the others were distracted by buttoning their coats against the cold that huffed through the open door, he slipped behind an old statue. For a moment, he held his breath and peeked round a stone arm. No one even glanced his way. He sighed and crouched deeper into the shadows. All he had to do was wait.
An hour crept by in which he heard the last voices echo and die in the deepening night. He heard the giant groan of the chapel door and the crash of its closing as all the bolts and locks leapt into place. He waited until silence crept into every corner of the church, until the night and quiet were unbroken by a single sound. Finally, he was alone.
Out he crept into the blackness. Not a single light burned, but he felt his way straight to the gate pulled across the arched entrance to the chapel. He held his breath and slipped through the iron bars and the great quiet of the chapel gathered around him. He shuffled forward a few steps and craned his neck, trying to see his angel friends. But the darkness was very thick. His steps sounded like the lonely drip of water in an eerie cave. For the first time that night, he felt suddenly cold.
“Hello?” he whispered toward the ceiling, “are you there?”
Just then, the thick swathes of night mist parted outside and several things happened at once. A full moon glimmered through the stained glass windows and filled the nave with fairy light. Bren leaned forward to touch it, and just as he did, there was a loud rustle in the ceiling far above him and a low note of song. He looked up. The angels in the rafters were awake. Their wooden wings swept the air and swayed like trees in a mighty wind. They reached long, wooden arms toward Bren, waving and beaming a wordless greeting to their friend.
“Hello!” Bren shouted, his high voice like a bell ringing his amazement as he waved frantically back. “You are real! I knew I saw you wave.”
His answer was the tumult of great wings fluttering swiftly as giant butterflies so that the roar of their movement was like the pound of the ocean as the angels opened their mouths to reply. No words came forth, only music, eight voices, each holding a single note in perfect harmony as the sound of it swelled, filling every corner of the church until it seemed one with the silver light. And the music came to Bren as meaning itself, an instant infusion of welcome and exultation that needed no words and felt familiar as his own thoughts singing in his head.
“Glory to God in the highest,” he suddenly sang, and startled himself, for the angels music had been so loud in his ears he felt an urgent need to join them, but the idea sounded so different when it came from his mouth in words.
“Glory, glory, glory!” he chuckled and spun in circles, face lifted to the ceiling where the angels watched him and laughed their tuneful mirth and sent storms of angel breath whirling warmth through the church in gusts that blew the hair from Bren’s face.
A screech and scratch from the corner distracted him and he whirled toward the altar to see the first of the statues on the east wall shrug a stony shoulder and shake its head as if to cast off a long sleep. Bren ran down the aisle and stood just beneath them as the church filled with the smooth grating of a dozen statue saints awakening. The middle statue spoke first. His stone curls were cropped close over a wide, square forehead and he had a nose that was a small mountain over a mouth like a wide river and he brandished a fist and looked as if he would step straight down from the wall if he could.
“I am Peter,” he growled, “and on this stony head my Master has built his church. Do you know that, boy?” And he stared fiercely at Bren until Bren nodded a vehement yes despite the fact that he knew nothing about it. He was glad when the statue next to Peter interrupted him.
“The Word became flesh,” he whispered dreamily, eyes raised as if to a vision, “and he dwelt with us, with us. Boy,” and his eyes too dropped to Bren’s and he reached out his long stone fingers as if to offer something to the child who stood beneath him, “do you understand?”
“The kingdom has come!” shouted the next shadow, before Bren could answer the dreamy one. This statue stood stout and tall with mischievous eyes and muscular arms that he flung to the sky as he closed his eyes and reveled in his proclamation again, “the kingdom has come!”
But Bren did not wait to hear what the other statues might say, for a sudden sway in the light turned his eyes to the windows. The moonlight rushed through the jeweled panes so that the room glowed with orbs of emerald and ruby set amidst a million pearls of moonlight, but the light now began to bend and whirl into a river woven of rainbows that leapt through the darkness. The people in the windows were moving. Their gemlike arms and bright, jeweled faces turned toward Bren as they stretched themselves like children waking from a long sleep. Bren turned to look at the window with the woman holding her armful of wheat. She caught his eye and smiled.
He ran across the aisle to her window and clambered on top of a great monument and stood on the stone belly of a sleeping knight who showed no signs of waking yet. He reached up to touch Ruth’s feet. She beamed down upon him, shaking her bundle of wheat so that tiny bursts of gold dust mixed with moonlight shimmered down around his hands. She set her head to one side and her eyes grew tender and she looked so much like the image he made of his lost mother in his mind that he felt tears in his eyes. She blew him a kiss.
He laughed and leapt away with a wave, running from window to window as the people came fully awake. The window folk could not speak any more than the angels, but a faint chiming attended their movement so that a choir of fairy bells joined the hum of the angels. Bren barely stopped for breath, scampering back and forth between the windows. The prophets on the north aisle glared upon him with fierce, sapphire eyes, and jagged eyebrows, but when he gave them a tiny bow their faces erupted in smiles. Moses held his stone tablets a little higher, Isaiah and his glass angels lifted their arms and Aaron struck his staff hard into the glimmering, emerald mountain at his feet.
In the south aisle, the disciples were in an uproar of argument and laughter, Bren could see it in their vivid faces, almost hear the exasperation that Peter thundered at Andrew, and the quite intellectual discussion between Philip and Thomas. Many of them broke off mid-word or gesture to wave at Bren or give him a brisk, manly nod. But John, the gentle one nearest Jesus, turned from his introspection to kneel on his glass knees so that his face was nearly level with Bren’s own. Bren met his gaze bravely, steeling his muscles a little, for it is a strange thing to have one’s soul searched by the gaze of a saint in a stained glass window. But John like what he saw. He gave a short nod and a long smile and his gleaming hand pointed toward Jesus, who stood a little apart from the busy disciples.
A bevy of radiant children frolicked round him, and his golden face darted back and forth between theirs. As Bren obediently inched toward them, Jesus turned abruptly from the midst of their tumble and looked straight into Bren’s eyes. To meet that gaze was to look at the heart of the noonday sun or all the stars combined and for a moment it blinded Bren. All he knew or felt was light, a diamond light that did not burn or chill him, but rather filled him as if with breath, breaking in even to the secret rooms he locked within his heart. No door of thought could keep that light at bay and as it rose within him, he felt that he was becoming the light, no longer separate from its brilliance. All of the sudden he could see again, and what he saw were two eyes, merrier than any he had ever known, the eyes not of a saint, but of a child, and with a single dart they invited him into the whirl of light that the children made on the stone floor.
For what felt to him a small eternity, he danced in the woven, glittering rainbow of the children. Their color and bell-like laughter spun a circle that seemed to reach out and envelop him so that he was almost part of their world. He laughed and jigged and caught the merry glances of ruby and sapphire and emerald eyes and felt the brilliance of the face that smiled above them all. Round and round he spun, swift came his breath, swifter still the mirth that was greater than any he had ever known. He danced and laughed until he could not breathe and stumbled back, panting.
Exhausted, he took a few paces back and looked round the church. The angels above still hummed their golden music, like giant, holy honey bees at rest in an ancient hive. The statues continued their pontifications, to each other if they could, or the air in general if no one else was in reach. And the window people sparkled and danced and argued and waved in the strength of their light. Ruth caught Bren’s eye and he trotted back to the pew beneath her, slumping into the wooden seat and leaning his head against her gleaming feet. She put a hand to her heart and shook her bundle of wheat again and again so that the gold dust shimmered over him in tiny flecks of light.
A sigh, a deep, gentle breath of relief came from deep within him, from one of the rooms that the light had opened in his heart and Bren forgot the fear that set his muscles taut and ready to run. The darkness was gone and he was at home. He needed to find a hiding spot and make a small camp so that he could remain within his refuge. But comfort delayed him. He rested there on the pew, warmed by Ruth’s light and the angel’s breath, with the faint lullaby of bells all around him. Before he could resist, he fell fast asleep.