Two thin forms were moving silently in grey-blue mist. At first you couldn’t identify them; they were just dark shapes, drifting. But once the sun began to disperse the wisps you caught a glimpse of what you had guessed but could not at first be certain of: the visitors were here again. They had been coming regularly for some months now. No one ever saw them arrive, but then you couldn’t make out much through the morning mist, which was like, as my youngest son had announced portentously, ‘the breath of underground gods.’ Everyone in the close admitted the visitors were definitely there during breakfast and when the children were taken to school. You could see them holding their instruments, which we all agreed were not alike. Usually they were quite far apart, but often they stood close together, as if they were discussing something of importance whilst watching the last of the mist’s delicate lace, on some days almost pale lilac, fading to nothingness. By the time we came back from school, work and shopping they had gone. I have heard it said that in other countries the mist is a different colour.
I was observing the visitors when my eldest son, Daniel Bowyer, came into room. I am his father and we are not related. He’s thin, quite tall for his years, with white skin like animal fat and pale red hair, the colour of Welsh gold. That he resembles neither my wife nor me, is unsurprising, since all we have in common are accidents of birth. I am officially his father for three more years, until he is eighteen.
‘What do you think they are doing?’ he said. Unusually he was standing quite close to me as he said this. He asked few questions, but they were always stupid.
‘You will not tempt me,’ I replied, ‘to go beyond the available facts.’
Many in the close were willing speculate on the aims of the visitors with the instruments. I was not one of them. A few of the theories were credible enough, but useless since unverifiable. The land that has attracted their attention lies in the middle of a cul-de-sac and is easily accessible to all. In spite of this, I have never seen it used as a place to picnic or walk the dog; the children do not play football there and even in the hottest weather there are no sunbathers. Some say it is possible a stream flows beneath it. Admittedly the grass is luxuriant, vividly green and fresh, even when no rain had fallen for months. I am told there are other such places in the world. Our mist is often a silvery grey that at times turns a soft blue with the faintest suggestion of violet. Those who have returned from the Land of the Fish speak of green mists that rise as if they were the spirits of lawns, trees and rain forests.
I had begun to clear away the breakfast before I noticed Daniel had already left.
For a moment, I felt, as I often do, a faint stirring of sorrow, both for myself and him. He was the first of the three December children to be entrusted to our care. In spite of having applied to become a family, when our wishes were finally granted we were not able to find much in the way of warmth in our hearts, only duty and stale efficiency. The twins, at least, have each other.
I went out of the back door and down the gravel path in our garden that leads to a small shrine to Jupiter. There was no one about, but someone, presumably my wife, had started to use it to store gardening tools. The flameless fire-fountain reminded me I had neglected the ritual duties that fell to me as the head of the household. I was just about to turn on the gas tap at the back of the plinth when the sound of a football smacking against the garden wall told me the twins were playing when they should have been getting ready for school. I tapped on the window. Teme glanced in my direction, pretended not see me and kicked the ball back to Tyne. They were both in their maroon sweatshirts with the crest of the Centaur School on the left breast. I opened the door of the shrine.
‘You two get your things now. We’ll be off in five minutes.’
This was the signal for them to run towards me, their blond hair streaming backwards, and their almost indistinguishable round faces matched to the same shade of pink. Mirror twins. Genetically identical, their similarities somehow accentuated the rest of the family’s many differences. The way the last one to arrive was cradling the ball in his right arm confirmed he was Tyne. ‘If you can’t tell them apart, just see which hand they use to write with in class,’ I told the form teacher on their first day.
‘Do we have to go school,’ said left-handed Teme. ‘We’re tired out.’
‘I know. So tired you can play football and run about like lunatics, instead of heading in that direction,’ I replied, pointing towards the back door.
‘But it’s true,’ put in Tyne. ‘There was a baby crying all night. We both heard it.’
‘The Fletcher’s baby,’ said Teme. ‘It was in the room opposite ours…’
‘The Fletchers haven’t got a baby.’
‘They have now,’ announced Tyne with the blithe authority of a ten-year-old who was born two minutes before brother.
‘Honestly, they have,’ said Teme, jumping up and down inches away from me.
‘And did you see this baby?’
‘No, not exactly see,’ he admitted.
‘Ah, so it looks as if this baby shares at least one quality with your famous underground gods: invisibility.’
They were insistent all the way to the front gates of the Centaur School and so I was a little surprised when they made no mention of it on their return that evening.
‘The twins claim that the Fletchers have a baby,’ I said to my wife. It was almost midnight and the boys were in bed.
‘Really,’ replied Jade, through thin lips. ‘I hadn’t even noticed that she was pregnant. Although when I come to think of it, I haven’t seen her for months.’
‘Needless to say the evidence they have produced is characteristically flimsy. They haven’t actually seen this baby. They have only heard it, from their room. Do you think that’s possible?’
Most of the houses in the close were separated by a narrow pathway, but I was sure there was no window directly opposite the boys’ bedroom.
‘Well, it would have to be in their loft conversion,’ she said, putting down her Star-reader. ‘If both windows were open, or the baby was crying very loudly…’ her voice trailed off uncertainly. Her skin was chalk-white even in the hottest of summers.
I looked up at the date on the main astrological monitor above the mantelpiece. Jade followed my gaze.
‘It’s too early in November, whichever calendar you use. Will you report them if they don’t…’
‘We certainly don’t need to go as far as that at the moment,’ I said. ‘After all, we haven’t seen this child, and we’ve only got the twins’ claims to go on. Not the most reliable source. It could just be another one of their little fantasies.’
I went over to the window and parted the curtains slightly. It was a clear winter’s night. The stars appeared brighter than usual, luminously certain: no trace of a disturbance in the firmament as they fixed our fate. The crescent of houses overlooking the green was lit by the burning torches of the night fires. The Fletchers had been married for well over a year now. They’d had plenty of time in which to make their home a fit place for a Sagittarian. Whether they already had a child or not one thing was sure: by the end of the first week in December there would be crying in the close.
I missed being brought up by my birth parents by two days. Even with all the advancements of medical science it is still impossible to plan pregnancies accurately. And besides it has become the moral norm not to appear determined to have responsibility for only one’s own biological offspring. This society is predicated on the belief that our relationship to the stars takes precedence over genetic inheritance. Here racial identity and what was once quaintly called ‘family background’ all count for nothing. We live together harmoniously because we are all Sagittarians sharing a collective destiny. Our tastes, temperaments and fates bind us together. We have the privilege of worshipping the greatest of the gods.
The Fletchers moved in next door about three months ago. The house had been empty for some time before that and the garden was still ragged with the uncut grass of summer. A branch from a beech tree blown over in a gale lay on the lawn; weeds sprouted from the gravel and between the cracks in the patio. The fire in the shrine to Jupiter was unlit. The Fletchers made no attempt to tidy up and it was not long before the house itself began to show signs of dilapidation: a downpipe dangled from the wall; patches of bare wood appeared on the window frames; the paint flaked from the front door. There was even a gap in their hedge that would allow them to walk through into our garden without having to do more than stoop very slightly.
Jade went round a week after they moved in. The bell was answered by a tall thin man with a curiously narrow, emaciated face. He had the large eyes and the black beard of an El Greco saint, but there was some strange sadness shifting behind his unwelcoming half-smile. He claimed his wife was out and did not invite Jade inside. I saw Mrs Fletcher three or four times: a woman with long lank hair, there was something odd about the way she went hurriedly about her tasks when outside, as if fresh air were an inimical element.
The garden showed no signs of recovery. A bush that had grown large over the summer cast a shadow into our sitting- room. In spite of several requests, it was not trimmed. Jade said we should be patient. There was probably a lot to do to the interior of the house. No doubt they would deal with the garden in the spring.
It was a Saturday afternoon when three men in navy blue uniforms came up the path to our door. Two of them had hand guns in their holsters and the third carried an automatic rifle: priests of the Temple of Jupiter. I felt a flash-flood of dread, but did not wait for the bell to ring. I went straight to the front door and opened it. They were looking around as if they were not quite sure they had come to the right house.
‘Mr Fletcher?’ said the eldest of three, a stocky man.
‘No, next door,’ I said, pointing in the direction of the damaged drainpipe.
‘We’ve tried there. No answer. You wouldn’t by any chance happen to know where they are?’
‘Not at the moment, I’m afraid. To be honest they’re not at all sociable and my wife and I haven’t got to know them well.’
‘Is that so?’ he said meditatively, and then scratched his chin. ‘You don’t think, by any chance, they might have moved away.’
‘No, not as far as I’m aware. They were certainly here yesterday evening. I saw them coming back with shopping.’
‘And I saw them this morning.’ Daniel’s voice from close behind me. I glanced round. His red hair was dishevelled and for the first time I noticed that he needed to shave.
‘And what were they doing, son?’ said the stocky priest.
‘Nothing much. They were in their back garden. Just looking around.’
‘The place seems to be in a bit of mess,’ put in the priest with the rifle.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It does.’ I tried to keep the heat of my voice. With the priests, it was always best to imply that you agreed with everything they said, but without providing scope for further speculation. It wouldn’t have been a good idea to suggest there was any animosity between us and the Fletchers. Weren’t we all supposed to be living harmoniously under the sign of Sagittarius?
‘Well, when you see them tell them to drop round to the Temple,’ said the stocky man. ‘Their attendance on Festival days has not been good.’
‘I’ll pass the message on,’ I replied.
Daniel went straight into the house, but I waited until the three priests had got back into their blue patrol car with its thunderbolt emblazoned on the side and driven off.
That evening I scrawled a note to the Fletchers. As I walked up their path, I was careful to look straight ahead and keep my head bowed, so as not to see any pale faces pressed to the window-panes. I didn’t knock or ring the bell first. I just dropped the message through their letter-box and hurried quickly away.
To avoid upsetting Jade, I didn’t mention the priests’ visit until several days had passed. I had just come downstairs after spending an hour alone in my private library.
It was late and she was making herself a mug of hot chocolate in the kitchen.
‘The priests came last Saturday,’ I said. She stopped stirring her drink and spun round in dismay before I had time to add an explanation.
‘What?’ she said, wide-eyed and so pale as to appear on the point of dissolution. ‘Were they …’
‘No. Don’t worry. They were looking for the Fletchers. It would seem our neighbours are not highly esteemed at The Temple. They’ve been asked to make an appointment.’
Jade stirred her hot chocolate and then took the spoon out of the mug. She hadn’t drawn the curtains and so we could still see the pitched roof of our shrine to Jupiter outlined against a limpid, star-flecked night sky; the planetary patterns were no doubt being studied at that very moment in the Central Observatory. The door under the portico was made of glass and I could see the fire, which I had been quick to relight after the priests called; it was burning with a steady flame, adjusted to a precisely controlled red point.
‘Do you think we were right to take Daniel away from school so soon?’ she asked.
‘Well, he’s not at all bright. He’s better off at the Tech learning something practical.’
‘It’s just that with the twins still at the Centaur School, and doing so well, I sometimes think he feels…’
‘We made the decision together,’ I reminded her; ‘there’s nothing we can do about it now.’
Daniel and I were born on December 15th, which was one of the reasons the priests gave for placing him with us after Jade’s miscarriage. The fact there was no affinity between us troubled Jade as being contrary to the natural order. She could not love him, but surely I, whose nature had been so closely aligned to his by providence, could compensate for that. My books told me this was all nonsense.
I rose early and dressed without waking Jade. The twins were asleep in their room, dreaming perhaps of the wisdom of centaurs or archery on the butts. I closed the front door quietly and made my way into the mist. The long grass wet my ankles. At first I couldn’t see the visitors, but as I pressed deeper into the shifting wisps I made them out. They were standing five metres apart. The one furthest away, on the slightly higher ground closer to the houses on the other side of the cul de sac, was holding what appeared to be a long pole nearly as tall as himself. Although he was quite still, there were moments when the mist thickened, obscuring him from view for more than a minute at a time. A second man, who had his back to me, was crouching down and looking in the direction of his companion. I could see only part of his instrument, the top of which was pointed like a harpoon. Although I had long ago intuited there was no possibility of speaking to them, I thought that if I could get close enough, I might gain an understanding of the nature of their instruments. Contrary to local opinion, their activities had little to do with the land on which they stood; the Council of Archers would never have sanctioned building on ground almost as moist as marshland.
On three occasions, the Fletchers had been seen standing haplessly in their forecourt whilst the priests of Jupiter searched their house. Mrs Fletcher, looking gaunt and bedraggled, was taken to the Temple for interrogation. There was talk she was at the Hospital, accompanied by two priestesses; no doubt she was waiting for a medical examination. I suspected the priests would have been more successful if they had arrived with less pomp and fanfare, without sirens blaring and a contingent of ceremonial crossbowmen in a pick-up truck to accompany the two squad cars. We all knew what they looking for. For myself, I was fearful of my little library, hidden in a concealed cupboard at the top of the house.
Since the visit of the stocky priest, I’d kept my distance from the Fletchers, who had not acknowledged my note. Now I had decided to speak to them about the hedge, which formed a far more porous boundary between out properties than I liked. Late one evening, when I was on my way to attend to the fire in the shrine to Jupiter, I noticed a figure by the gap that leads to the Fletcher’s garden. It was difficult to gauge the height of the person, as he was crouching forward, no doubt to avoid the twigs that were not clearly visible in the poor light. It was hard to be sure, but from the way the figure’s arms were positioned, I suspected he was holding something, possibly a bundle. I did not investigate the matter nor, after I had tended the flame, wait for the figure to return.
As the sun started to burn away the mist, revealing nothing but grass and the familiar crescent of houses, I began to wonder if I should mention the nocturnal visitor to Jade. It was worrying that the incident had occurred some hours after the priests had raided the Fletchers’ house. But when I thought about it, I was sure that even if someone had seen me in the garden they could not be certain I had spotted the intruder.
By the time I had made my way back to the house, the twins were up and eating their breakfast. It was the weekend and they were both in the green uniforms they wore for archery practice. Both had exactly the same number of badges sewn onto their shirts and for a moment, as they were raising spoons filled with cereal to identical mouths, they fell into a rhythm, a unison too natural to have been consciously synchronised.
It was just past midnight when the squad cars arrived in a storm of roaring engines and flashing lights. I watched from my bedroom window as four priests got out and hurried down the pathway to the Fletchers’ front door. Three of them peeled off in the direction of the entrance of our neighbours’ garden. A second car parked outside our house. As the priest got out of the driver’s seat, I recognised his stocky frame, illuminated in the glare of the nearest night torch. Just before he opened our gate he glanced up towards me. Instinctively, I backed away, even though I knew he must already have seen me silhouetted against the orange glow of the bedside lamps.
Jade was sitting up in bed and looking at me, her eyes enormous in a white face the same shade as the sheets.
‘Is it the priests?’ she leaned back slightly and drew the counterpane up to her shoulders as if it could somehow afford her protection.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so. One of them is coming to our door. I’d better go and speak to him.’
The bell rang as I was half way down the stairs. I tried to remember whether I had shut the door to the library and its forbidden thoughts. The face of the stocky man was just visible, grizzled through frosted glass. Before I unlocked the bolt, I made an effort to compose myself, setting my face to an expression of bewilderment and polite enquiry.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you at this late hour,’ the priest said, unrepentant and smiling slightly. ‘I believe you have a son called Daniel Bowyer.’
‘That is correct.’
‘I wish to speak him as a matter of urgency.’
‘He’s gone to bed.’
‘Then I’ll have to ask you to bring him to me.’
I was half up the stairs before I realised that the priest, far from waiting on the doorstep as he had implied, had followed me into the house. As soon as I reached the first floor landing, I saw the light was off in Daniel’s room; the door was slightly ajar. Knowing how tightly he always shut it against us and the world, I knew at once he would not be there. Nevertheless, I said nothing, but went in and switched the light on. The bedclothes had been flung back as if he had left in a hurry. I decided to affect surprise.
‘That’s odd; he must just have…’
‘I’ll check the other rooms, if you don’t mind?’
Without waiting for an answer, he opened the door to the twins’ bedroom. Their blond heads were clearly visible above the blankets and we could hear their regular breathing. From the light in the landing, it was evident there was no else present in what was a cramped space.
‘They’ll sleep through anything at that age,’ he said, shutting the door.
Jade, wearing her night gown, stepped out onto the landing. Her arms were folded across her stomach and she was shivering even though it was not cold.
‘Have you seen Daniel?’ I asked.
‘No. Isn’t he in his room?’
‘There’s no sign of him.’
The priest must not have shut the door behind him for at that moment I heard the sound of voices in the hall. One of them was Daniel’s. We went to the top of the stairs. My son, wearing a dressing-gown, was standing between two priests: a tall man with a pencil-moustache often favoured by the clergy and his much younger colleague, who was holding a baby. When he saw his superior coming down the stairs towards him, he raised it aloft, as if he had just triumphed in a ball game.
‘This young man was found in the garden in possession of a baby. Not his own, I presume.’
‘No, it’s not his.’ I said.
And then the Fletchers’ child, born at the wrong time, and soon to be placed in a house of strangers, whose fate he was destined to share, began to cry loudly and writhe with a will of his own in the arms of the priest, as if not yet content to know he could never thwart fortune.
‘And so we are no longer his parents.’
‘That’s right. I went to the Temple and signed the papers. He is now a ward of the Council of Archers. Once he has completed his sentence they will assume responsibility for his social reintegration.’
Jade looked out of the window. The twins were setting up the targets in the back garden and re-stringing their long-bows. In the last few months, they had grown much taller; their features were sharper, less round; the puppy fat had gone and they went leanly about their tasks. Their good citizenship badges sparkled in the sum. It was odd to think I had less in common with them than I did with Daniel. I wondered where Daniel had found the independence of mind to assist the Fletchers. Certainly I had not tried to share the contents of my library with him. Perhaps it was just compassion that drove him.
‘The twins are so thrilled to have their own rooms,’ said Jade.
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Darling, you’re not tormenting yourself over what’s happened to Daniel? He put us both in great danger. If it hadn’t been for the testimony of the twins, we might be in re-education right now.’
‘You’re right. And I was fortunate they didn’t mention I failed to take their concerns seriously.’
Most mornings now I walk in the mist and stand for a time poised between the empire of the sky god and the kingdom of the underground deities. The mist is not their breath, but my condition, as I try to move closer to the figures and their incomprehensible truth. I have come to understand they are always here, perhaps calculating, quantifying, weighing; possibly enacting a ritual whose significance cannot be understood by us. They are part of some hidden process, which is obscured almost at the instant it is glimpsed. I believe we will never know what connection they have with our world. If they are gods they refuse to be worshipped; their ambiguous instruments will not become weapons of knowledge. Many of us have seen them; they are part of an unfinished story in every culture, and yet because they tell us nothing we choose to worship in the wrong way, preferring the false truths of the priests, the errant certainties of sacred texts, which bring us tears in December.
Cars are starting up in the crescent. It is the hour when Sagittarians begin to go about their preordained tasks, moving through the world in paths fixed by the stars.
I shiver, as if alone in my uncertainty.
‘I know it’s been upsetting, but it is for the best. Daniel never seemed at home here, and it was hard having three boys in this small house. By the way did the twins tell you that they’ve been made monitors?’
Their arrows are swishing through the air, hitting the targets unerringly. Soon they will be shooting competitively.
I will have to find a way of disposing of my library.