A winter forest: dark stripes of trees against the snow, and the girl’s red coat. He followed her, away from the glistening road and inert car. She moved through the black and white, folding herself into the trees.
He was two hours’ drive from the city. The car had died in the narrow corridor of road. No phone signal, no passing traffic. He lifted the bonnet and stared, perplexed, at the engine, its incomprehensible hieroglyphs of steel.
To north and south, he saw twin vanishing points, neatly ruled: road, snow, trees, sky.
Then he saw her, impossible, mythological—a running girl.
“Hey!” he called out. “Hey! I need help!”
The forest swallowed his words. The girl didn’t hear him, didn’t stop. He looked again at the car and stepped away from the road.
He found her footprints in the snow. The road disappeared behind him. Silence—except for the crunch beneath his boots. Prepared for the cold he had a hat and black sheepskin mittens. His mobile lay in his zipped up pocket, a protective charm proved useless.
The trail wound to left and right, sometimes circled a tree, back-tracked and looped, as though to tease. He’d lost sight of the girl, wondered about wolves and bears, and when the snow grew deeper, sweated. The light would fade in another hour. What then?
He heard a clink, observed a stab of colour.
He stopped and looked up, shading his eyes to see. A dense net of twig and branch, ink-black, drawn against the sky and a blot, a knot of colour—scarlet, blue—turning on the air.
He stretched out his hand and grabbed. The branch bent and rebound, like a bow, spraying him with snow. He shook his head, wiped his face and stared at the object in his hand.
A round, white face: bead eyes, stitched mouth and nose. A dress of rags, cunning strips of cloth, a tiny bell hanging from wooden feet. He rolled it from side to side, observing sequins, fragments of glass, silver embroidery, a stuffed pouch made for a body. As his fingers probed, the doll lay like a dead bird in his hand, lolling and gaudy.
He’d broken the string from which the doll depended so he propped it in a cleft of the same tree and walked on. The footprints veered east. He followed.
Another doll, then a few paces, three more on one tree. He felt them watch, bead eyes turning in his direction. Then dark pines gave way to silver birches with peeled–paper trunks. He saw the girl again, vivid, only yards away. The birches melted on the air to make a clearing in the forest, a lake of sunlight—and a church with a high turret.
The church floated above the snow.
He blinked, struggling to make sense of it: a wooden church with a steep shingled roof, narrow stained-glass windows, the tilted cone of a spire, jostling with statues and gargoyles. A church with six huge wooden wheels to carry it through the forest.
“What’s your name?” The girl in red was standing in front of him, a hood pulled over her head. She was about fourteen, with dark hair, tawny skin and a slight squint.
“Rider,” he said. “Dan Rider.”
“What are you doing here, Rider?”
“My car broke down.”
“You followed me.”
“Yes. I need help—a phone. Someone who can fix cars. Or give me a lift.” He gestured vaguely at the forest, the way he’d come.
The girl didn’t respond. She narrowed her eyes.
“The church,” Rider said. “Does it actually move?”
“Of course.” Her voice was deadpan. “You want to go inside?” She didn’t wait for an answer but turned away holding out an arm to guide him.
As they drew closer, he saw an encampment of caravans beyond the church, horses tethered and browsing on hay, the twining smoke of a dozen small fires where several anonymous figures huddled.
They climbed a flight of wooden steps at the front of the church to an arched door. Above it, in a tall niche, stood a statue of the Virgin Mary made of dark, polished wood. Her gaze was raised, her hands pressed together in prayer.
“Come in,” the girl urged.
Rider glanced back, aware of time passing, the imminent approach of night.
“I need to—I have to . . . ”
“Come on.” The girl was impatient, imperious. Rider’s words died. He followed.
They entered a wooden box with an uneven floor. Light leaked through stained glass windows—three narrow slots on each side and one elaborate circle above the altar. The walls were not quite true, creating a sense of vertiginous hallucination. The church seemed to totter. Rider’s brain struggled to make sense of it, the out-of-true walls, the shadows punctuated by candles burning in lanterns. He grabbed the back of a pew.
The girl seemed immune. She walked up the aisle, pushing her hood back, and stood before another statue, beside the altar.
“The church is dedicated to the Virgin,” she announced, the tour guide. “Our Lady of Ruins.”
Rider, grasping each pew ended as he proceeded, stared up at the statue. Of painted wood, taller than he was, Our Lady of Ruins wore silver armour and a sky-blue cloak. Her right arm, stretched out to her side, held a sword, and on her left a shield painted with white lilies. A snake languished beneath bare feet. Her face was pure and insane.
“So pray,” the girl said. “Kneel—here.”
Rider dropped to his knees, lost and perplexed. He’d never prayed in his life, didn’t know how to. He stared at the Virgin, opened and closed his mouth, his mind a perfect void. Outside the sun sank behind the trees. Darkness swilled through the forest and filled the church.
• • •
Rider crouched by the fire. An ancient man, sunken-faced with feathery white hair, nodded and smiled at him beyond the flames. Rider’s questions about his car and need for help made no impression. He could hear them talking, but apart from the girl in red, struggled to make out what they said. The conversations were opaque. Were they speaking another language?
The old man nodded again. They’d given him a bowl of oily rabbit stew and a slab of black bread. Something in the stew, herbs perhaps, left an acrid taste in his mouth. Red (the girl wouldn’t tell him her name) had unstrung one of her many necklaces as they left the trundle church and slipped it over his head. The pendant, a carved, painted effigy of the Lady of Ruins, dangled from his chest as he hunched over his bowl.
“We make them for pilgrims,” she said.
“I’m not a pilgrim,” Rider answered.
Sitting at the front of the caravan, an elderly woman sewed the face of another doll.
“They represent the saints,” Red said. The dolls were hung in trees as prayers and petitions to God in the forest. Saint Michael, St Catherine, St Perpetua, St Sara the Black, St Maxentia, St Caesaria. Rider saw the old woman stab her needle in the cloth face as she stared at him across the fire.
When he’d eaten, the travellers gathered. Some carried lanterns, others crucifixes and statues. Myrrh smoked in a silver censer. Rider stood up. Around him the travellers murmured. Above the miasma of hot breath, wood smoke and incense, he looked up to clear cold air, a circle of tree-tops and a bowl of stars. From far away he heard the low, wandering chorus of wolves.
“It’s time.” Red held out her hand.
She smiled, encouraging: “The church, Rider. The church.”
They walked in procession and oddly Rider’s unease deserted him. He accepted the situation, the strange faces, the low, untuneful hymn rising from the procession and wondered briefly if the stew had been drugged because his gums were numb, his tongue stinging.
The church door was open, the interior lit with a host of candles. The travellers watched as he climbed the steps and went inside. He looked back at the uncanny faces, the calm, well-meaning smiles, and he stepped inside. They closed the door behind him.
He stood on the threshold. A single figure stood before the altar. The statue, Our Lady of Ruins, presided over the empty space. Yellow light played over the multitude of figures painted on the walls, monsters and angels, winged and fanged.
“Thus saith the Lord; Behold, waters rise up out of the north, and shall be an overflowing flood, and shall overflow the land, and all that is therein; the city, and them that dwell therein: then the men shall cry, and all the inhabitants of the land shall howl.” The man at the altar had his back to Rider but his words filled the church.
Rider took a step forward. On the walls the painted figures swam, a mass of limbs and faces, gesturing, reaching out, rolling their eyes.
“Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual ruins; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary,” the voice said.
“And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the ruin, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.”
The man turned. He watched Rider approach and gestured for him to kneel.
“How long have you searched for this place?”
Rider raised his face. The priest had long white hair and aged, riven skin. The Lady of Ruins gazed over the priest’s head. Her sword shone.
A ribbon of thought ran through Rider’s mind: his home, the city with its glass towers, offices and housing estates, his distant wife, meaningless business, journey, the dead car by the roadside. His memories seemed thin and false. The ribbon dissolved into nothing.
“I don’t know,” he said, bowing his head. He hadn’t been searching. This place, the church on wheels, a dream he’d fallen into—and from which he might yet wake up to resume in that other faraway place, his life.
A swelling sound filled the church—a multitude of voices, a storm wind, the choir of wolves—or perhaps just the roar of blood in his eardrums. The priest pressed Rider’s forehead with his thumb and made the sign of the cross above his head. He took a silver cup from the altar and held it to Rider’s lips. Rider sipped, tasting honey on his tongue, feeling dust and ash in his throat. He coughed, choking, unable to breathe, losing balance.
He tottered, his body a helpless column of flesh and bone, without its bearings. Slowly, slowly he fell to the wooden floor and then he was looking up at the dark shape of the priest. Beyond him, the hectic paintings on the walls, the snarling demons, the dancing angels, each merged into the other. Then the priest was gone. Rider lay on his back, helpless, in the giant cradle of the church. The light in the church intensified, blinding, bleaching out the paintings, burning his brain.
He opened his eyes. Daylight coloured the windows. The spot on his forehead burned. Rider sat up.
A woman was standing in front of the altar, tall and lean, with a face so exact it was almost androgynous. Rider struggled to his feet.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “For a long, long time. I was afraid you’d never come back.”
Rider stared. “I don’t know who you are.”
“Yes, you do. You know. Everyone knows. You were looking for me, but you lost sight. You forgot you were looking.” She had pale-almond skin, black, crow-feather hair. They stared at one another. Then she smiled.
“Time to go,” she said.
Outside the church, the forest had disappeared. Tracks wended from the giant wooden wheels, a twisting parallel line in the dry dirt that disappeared into the distance, illustrating its journey. Now the church stood at the heart of a ruined village, on a wide, paved square blown with dust from the desert.
They walked, Rider and the woman, seeing walls like broken teeth, trees rooted in cracked stone, yellow grass spouting from a clay bowl lying on the ground. In a tiny courtyard they found an orange tree, still covered in leaves and fruit. Rider picked an orange, split it open with his fingers, and found inside a ring made of buttery gold which he slipped over his thumb.
In a small, dark house a book lay open on a table. The words had run from the pages, covering the top of the table, the legs, the floor, and had begun to climb the wall. Rider tried to read them, but couldn’t.
In a square, between half a dozen white houses, stood a well with a wooden lid, which the woman pushed back. Rider leaned over, seeing far below the glim of water. He heard voices, cries, whispered conversations, in the column of air. When he stood up, the darkness inside the well seemed to have tipped out, filling the sky. A huge round moon loomed over the village. The trundle church had gone, moved on. Tracks indicated the way it had come, and the direction of its leaving.
“Where are we?” Rider asked.
“In the ruins,” the woman said.
They walked from the village across the desert, finding old paved roads. Once a ghost funeral passed, and at one of the several carved stone waymarks, a multitude of rusty keys hanging on a fig tree.
At the end of the desert, they passed into ancient woodland. One evening, by a pond, a nightingale began to sing and Rider saw, over the tops of blossoming hawthorns, the tiled roof of a circular tower. He climbed the spiral staircase winding around the tower to a single door at the top. Inside, illuminated by candles, crowded a multitude of statues: Our Lady of Ruins, repeated over and over, the largest towering over him, the smallest, perched in a niche, thumb-sized.
The woodland passed from spring to smoke- and mud-scented autumn. They found a suit of armour by a smouldering fire and later, an orchard of wild apple trees beneath which lay the skeleton of a horse, caparisoned in silver.
At the wood’s end, on a grassy plain, Rider saw the banners of two opposing armies, heard the cries of soldiers, blood leaking into a river. All melted on the air, but as they walked, Rider felt innumerable phantoms passing through his body.
That night, in a roofless marble temple, Rider and the woman undressed and lay, shivering, in each other’s arms. For a measureless time they kissed and caressed. The shadow land melted: they contained it, marked its boundaries. Rider held her gaze when she came. His body burned.
“I do know who you are,” he said. “How did I forget?”
“Because you always forget,” she said.
• • •
He was cold when he woke, clothes soaked and filthy. Leaves moved above as he lay alone, body aching.
A car passed on the long straight road through the forest. Seeing it, Rider’s mind seemed to collapse on itself. Memories fell over each other, shaken up, a kaleidoscope of images.
Deftly his mind knitted back to the time (how long ago?) when his car died by the roadside. The vast in-between, the trundle church, the woman, the landscape of dreams, seemed to shunt sideways into a parallel realm of dubious memory.
Rider struggled to his feet. He was still wearing the clothes of that day in the snow, and zipped into his pocket, a mobile phone, battery dead. Considerable time had passed—his hair was long, face bearded, clothes soiled. One boot had vanished.
He lurched to the road, guessing, from the weather and vegetation, it was April. Had he been gone five months? He’d have to hitchhike, though he wasn’t a good prospect, a wild man covered in filth. Eventually a truck stopped, offering a lift to the city. They talked, Rider and the driver. Rider asked the date. He’d been gone not five months, but seventeen.
His wife cried and shouted when she saw him. She’d believed him dead, had grieved, moved on and now seemed put out he was inserting himself back into her life. She asked what had happened, where he’d been. He had no plausible explanation. She followed him into the bathroom as he undressed, asked about the gold ring on his thumb, the pendant, the odd red scar in the middle of his forehead, the picture inked across the skin of his back, a woman in a blue cloak, dressed in armour and carrying a sword. When he couldn’t answer, she shouted and cried again, pummelling his chest with her fists. His disappearance was unfathomable. He’d taken no money from their account, he had returned in the clothes he’d left in. The car had been recovered not long after he’d disappeared, on the forest road.
Rider shaved but didn’t cut his hair. He’d aged: lines etched his face, strands of white grew in the mass of dark hair but he was thinner, stronger, lacking the soft paunch of two years before. The first night back, his wife dragged him into bed, evidently intrigued by the stranger who’d returned, the lean, muscular, tattooed man, the mystery of him. Before they slept, she pressed her hand to the side of his face and asked him again:
“Where did you go?”
“I don’t know, Marion. I can’t remember. The car broke down, I followed a girl in the wood to get help. And then? I don’t know. My mind’s blank.”
“You’re different,” she said.
“Am I? In what way?”
“I don’t know. Before you went you seemed—well, absent.” She gave a short laugh. “I thought—I was afraid, when you disappeared. Depression maybe.”
“You thought I’d killed myself.”
“Yes. We did—the police. You didn’t leave a trail—no money gone, nothing.”
While she slept, Rider lay awake wondering who he was. It wasn’t true, that his memory was empty. He remembered a sequence of images and emotions—the saint doll lying in his hand, the trundle church in the forest, the woman, the orange tree in a courtyard. He turned the ring on his thumb as his wife slumbered, her hand resting on his chest. Most of all he felt loss, and exile.
Marion didn’t have to go to work the next day, allowed leave for the unsettling reappearance of her dead husband. He heard her speak quietly to a man on the phone, in tender, familiar terms and realised she had indeed moved on. After breakfast, they drove into the city and over a coffee she explained she’d started seeing someone, but that was over now. She apologised and cried again. Rider reassured.
Beyond the café window, traffic passed on the city road before a backdrop of shops and offices—so many smooth surfaces, cut-outs pressed against a sky of cloud and rain showers. Marion was still talking. He studied her face, the short blond bob she pushed back over her ear from time to time, saw the wedding ring back on her finger.
“You’re not listening to me,” she said. “You’ve not heard a thing I’ve said.”
“What? I’m sorry.” He shrugged. “It’s hard,” gesturing to the window, the city scene. “Nothing seems real.”
He saw hurt in her face. “I didn’t mean—not you, I didn’t mean you.”
“Yes, you did,” she said. “Yes, you bloody did. Do you know what it was like for me all that time? Not knowing where you were, what had happened, all I had to deal with?” More tears, angry this time. “I lost a year of my life too. Everything stopped. And you can’t even tell me where you were!”
She tried to stand up and get away but Rider grabbed her hand. The couple sitting at the next table stared.
“Don’t go,” he said, voice low. “You’re the only real thing. I need you, Marion. I’ll be lost if you go.”
She stood where she was for a moment, hand pinned to the table. She blinked.
“Okay,” she said, dropping back to her seat. “Okay, I’ll stay. But you’ve got to help me too. You’ve got to be here.”
• • •
Rider resumed his life, after a fashion. He found a new, if less important job. He worked hard, managed his occasional wayward thoughts and plunging moods. Marion seemed resigned, treated him kindly. Sometimes he wondered if she still met, or merely longed for, the other man, the one who’d briefly taken Rider’s place.
One feeling never left him—that his true life had stopped the moment he woke up at the side of the road, unwashed, wild-haired. Every day since he made an effort to accept and to appreciate the life he had but it was an effort, a falsehood. Marion wanted a child, and he agreed, but no pregnancy ensued. He sensed this was his failure, that he was dried up and infertile. Some nights, lying awake, he heard Marion crying in the bed beside him, in the dark. She seemed to age quickly over the following years, as though infected by his ruin. He was destroying her chance of a life. When Rider refused the tests and medical interventions, Marion left him, swiftly remarried and conceived. Rider felt only relief. He wished her well.
He lived alone, through a succession of thin grey days. He bought a motorbike and at the weekends, rode around the country, to the mountains and the coast, the long forest roads. Sometimes, sleeping outside, he’d dream of the wooden church on wheels, Our Lady of Ruins, and wake, as though drunk, desperate to hold onto the image, the tumult of emotion. Each time the memory faded within minutes, leaving him emptier, drained out, lacking substance.
Seven years. When the snow fell he rode along the forest road to find the place, as he’d done every winter since. Hard to be sure of the exact location: the road was featureless. He relied on intuition, an unreliable tool, waiting for a particular quiver of feeling, a sign in the landscape. He listened to the familiar note of the engine, longing for a breakdown. The road reeled past, the forest stripes of black and white. An image rose in his mind—Marion playing with a child in a bright warm house, a man in the background, familial comforts he’d declined.
The cold made Rider’s hands and feet ache. Wind stung his face. Ruts of grey ice glistened at the edges of the road. His speed crept to ninety.
Then he saw it—a splash of blood-red.
He braked so hard the bike slewed under him, pitching on a skim of ice.
The bike skidded, on and on, Rider’s leg caught underneath, helmet dragging against the rough asphalt.
At last, it came to rest in the middle of the road. For several stunned moments Rider lay there, staring up at the strip of cloud between the tree-tops. The engine died. He smelt petrol, and a vague metallic burning. His leg began to throb.
“You have to move,” he said. His body didn’t respond but the pain rose a notch.
“You have to move,” he repeated. Rider pulled himself free. He stood for a moment, stupefied by shock and pain. The winter trees seemed to tilt. He squeezed his eyes shut, gathering strength, and hobbled to the side of the road.
Rider tugged off the helmet and dropped it in the snow. Blood leaked from his knee through torn leathers but, ignoring the pain, he scanned the tree-line. Where? How far back? He lurched along the road, like a monster, like Caliban, desperate for another glimpse.
Nothing. He almost wept with frustration.
“Where are you?” he yelled. The snowy forest soaked up his voice. He shouted again, choice words. Trees absorbed the sound. Nothing moved. Rider limped away from the road. A trail of blood, chthonic, marked the virgin snow—a perilous choice, to leave the road in the dead of winter, with an injury. He ignored his mind’s sensible advice and proceeded. What did he have to lose?
His lame leg dragged a rut through the snow. He sweated, though his hands were numb. His thoughts, like thin ice, seemed to break up and drift away. The forest filled him, the black and white of it, the spaces of sky between trees. Then he saw them: splashes of colour, saint dolls suspended from branches. He cried out and sank to his knees, oblivious to pain. Above his head the dolls turned on strings embroidered to their heads.
Saint Michael, St Catherine, St Perpetua, St Sara the Black, St Maxentia, St Caesaria.
Rider recited their names from memory, repeated them like a rosary. Sunlight flashed into his eyes. He felt himself falling, finally losing grip. The ground seemed to rise up, banging against his back, his head.
When he opened his eyes the light had changed and he was moving. Nothing made sense at first: he was still on his back, in the snow, and sliding through the trees. He tried to shift his position, but could not. He was tied and someone was pulling him on a low sled. Late, golden sunshine flooded through the trees.
“Hey, hello.” He tried to speak but his voice was hoarse. He tasted stale blood. He raised his head as far as he could to see a red cloak, the back of a figure pulling him through the forest. His heart soared; he felt a surge of emotion so powerful he couldn’t breathe. His head dropped back. His body shook.
Time blurred. When they stopped, night had blacked in the gaps between the trees. A small wooden house stood close by, a lantern burning on the porch. A statue perched on a lintel by the door. The yolky light painted the angles of its female face, robe and outstretched arms. The red-cloaked figure dropped the rope and turned to Rider. Beneath the hood he saw an old woman’s face, shadowed, deeply lined, with hooded eyes. She loosened the straps binding him to the sled and helped him to his feet. Her age belied her strength.
As they crossed the threshold into the cabin, Rider glanced at the statue.
“Our Lady of Ruins,” he said. The old woman raised her head. She didn’t smile, precisely: some other more inscrutable expression.
She tended his leg, and he slept. She fed him some kind of spiced, meaty gruel. Day and night passed through the tiny window above the bed. He smelled wood smoke, the blood and meat of animals, herbs, burnt apples.
The cabin had one room, a large fireplace along one side, a table with two wooden chairs where the old woman sat sewing dolls, amid shreds of fabric and glittering scraps. Icons covered the walls—too many to count—pieces of wood painted with the depictions of saints, angels and demons, the face of the Virgin. On shelves he saw fragments of statues—marble, granite, painted wood -hands and broken feet, half heads, pieces of wings. Amid these ruins he saw parts of plastic dolls, some sanctified by halos of wire, wings made of birds’ feathers.
The old woman didn’t speak but in the long winter evenings, sewing or painting, she hummed to herself. At night, dreams like long golden ribbons unravelled in Rider’s mind. He tried to catch hold of them, to follow, but failed.
After three days Rider sat up in bed. Cloth bandages wrapped his frost-bitten fingers. The old woman was out, the fire low.
He struggled to his feet and stood up, weak and swaying. He crept, hunched like an ancient, across the room to the door and looked out at the forest. Above the tree-tops he saw the peaks of mountains.
When the old woman returned, he had revived the fire and was sitting beside it on one of the two chairs. She nodded and smiled to see him up and began preparing a meal—a broth of meat and roots. After they’d eaten the old woman said:
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “For a long time. I was afraid you’d never come back.”
“I searched for seven years,” he said. “The church on wheels, the other people.”
The old woman picked up one of her dolls. She squeezed its cloth body. “They’re stuffed with ashes, did you know that?” She gave a tiny smile. “Little pouches of ash.”
“Can I go back?” Rider said. “To the church, to the other place?”
The old woman shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“You left it all behind?”
“All?” she said. “The other, other place? The world? The nothing.”
“Ruins,” Rider said.
They lapsed into silence. The fire crackled. Beyond the window, snow fell, blown flakes swirling in lantern light.
“So you wait,” Rider said. “Maybe you’ll wait in vain.”
“Maybe,” she said. “So what? There’s nothing else—only waiting. I pass the time, walking in the forest—making dolls, the pictures.”
Rider’s thoughts flew briefly to the road, the motorbike, to Marion. Might he have waited with her, after all? Would time with Marion have offered more pleasing distractions? The idea lasted only a moment. The other world had gone. Here, at least, he would wait on the threshold of his dream, with someone who knew what he’d seen.
When the fire had burned down they went to bed, lying side by side. The old woman gently took his bandaged hand in hers and touched the gold ring on his thumb.
“Tell me what you remember,” she said. “What did you see?”
“Hundreds of keys hanging on a fig tree,” he said.
She squeezed his hand, not hard enough to hurt, but tears filled his eyes and one leaked, burning, on his face.
“I remember,” she said.
The scene rose up in Rider’s mind, a memory so bright and charged his heart seemed to swell and shine beyond the narrow confines of his body. He shook with pleasure. The tears ran over his cheeks.
“I could paint it,” he said, like a boy. “A picture.”
Rider felt her tremble, the brush of her long, old-woman’s hair on his shoulder. He touched her forehead, where he’d seen the old red scar.
The wind moaned in the cabin’s crevices. He stared into the glittering dark.