The King of Silent Passing
You never know if he has passed this way because he leaves no footprints in the snow, or so my old grandfather always told us wickedly, on nights when a billion white flecks danced around the streetlamps in the road like moths around a candle. If he does leave any marks to be seen they are never his own footprints. Have you ever seen the prints of a single cat, which has walked down a quiet road and left its tracks, through a blanket of undisturbed virgin snow? Or a bird, or a fox? That is his step, alone in the quiet of the night, leaving no sign of his own tracks and leaving only the print of creatures which wander unseen. His bare feet kiss above the snows and leave no impression of their own in the shifting surface, the crisp shroud unmolested by any physical weight at all. It is said he can walk up through the falling snowflakes, up into the sky, ascending them like a staircase, to stalk within the clouds.
As children we scratched the frost away from the landing window at bedtime, and shivered at the clean, smooth surface of the falling white blanket outside, unmolested by any embossing feet, certain that he had passed unseen when we were not looking. But dared ourselves to peek, half fearing we would catch a glimpse of him by accident when we dared to look, with beating hearts in the dark at the top of the stairs, straining our eyes through the crazily frosted glass. We never even thought to question our grandfather’s word. There was an awesome old-world truth to his storytelling, an almost old testament authority, and we took his tale as Gospel.
The story stayed with us well beyond childhood, and the memory of Grandfathers wicked, knowing wink, and tap of his finger to the side of his nose when we looked outside at the falling snow at night. And despite the changes and developing cynicism that comes with age, we carried that belief in our hearts as we grew to adulthood, and went out to see the world for ourselves. Like the Christ who walked on water, we knew, the King of Silent Passing, Lord of the Blizzard and the Frost, walks above his elements and sinks not upon the earth. He is seldom seen, and for good reason. Eyes turn naturally aside when he journeys past. Every creature instinctively knows his shade and looks away, and wise children watch the wall when he is near, for his cruel eye will not stand to be met. Doing so invites a shivering death from creeping insidious cold, as pitiless eyes quench the heat from your blood, and strike your memory of his passing from the living world. So those who have seen him have done so by accident, and quietly keep the knowledge secret. Anyone with sense enough to see know that those who would walk unregarded make sure that they do so without interference.
We questioned and we pleaded, as children do when told of fiends, cannibals, and murderers, about this walker of the snows, but Grandfather would only smile and shake his head, and tap a finger at the side of his nose again. I never told the others, but more than once I saw him looking out at the billowing snow as if meeting the eye of someone watching him, and his face when he looked away was deeply inscrutable. I did not care to meet his eye, as it was a frightening glance, I would feel suddenly cold.
Grandfather’s tale made a deep impression on me as a person. Throughout my childhood I yearned for snow in the winter time, and longed to glimpse the walker of the drifts. I lingered outside after dark when it was snowing, dragging my feet on the way home, and standing with my eyes closed and a blissful smile as the snow fell and tickled my upturned face. I love the amber reflection of the lights of a city on a sky laden with countless billions of falling snowflakes, and the odd silence which shrouds a city besieged by winter. The streets are a whole different place after dark, with barely a soul abroad, and the only vehicles moving are those with little choice, passing as sedately as the procession of a head of state with that unmistakable crunch of ice crystals.
I would roam the quieter side streets and alleys, the paths through parks and along canals, the only human being abroad. I drank in the beauty of the snow falling through the stark white halo of street lamps in quiet walks, along the backs of houses, beside the heavily laden Hawthorne bushes and railings alongside the allotments, when I felt like the only person in the world. And in a sense I was, because in the dead of winter, and the dead of night, the streets belong to the King of Silent Passing.
It was on one of these bewitching nights as I strolled alone, clumsily crunching through the fresh white carpet, that I resolved to meet him.
Not an easy quest when the object of your hunt is deadly and vindictively private. You might as well decide to meet the man in the moon, but the idea grew on me all the time. I thought of little else on my late night meanderings.
Then one night as I was walking, lost in thought in the glorious twilight under a generous moon, someone called out too me. It was a voice that knew the lesser-loved kindred of the human race, cracked as a broken organ pipe, but retaining all its beauty. It was cheerful, resigned, and not a little wry with private reflections of its own. A throaty cough made it unmistakeable.
“You won’t find an answer on the pavement, my friend! There’s nothing there but dew, the leavings of dogs, and fag ends....”It was then I realised I was passing Old Cogitating.
That made me smile. I could just make out a hunched figure sitting in the darkness, who beckoned me over with a throaty laugh and a cheerful wave of welcome. No-one knew his name, but everyone called him Old Cogitating, because if asked what he was what he was doing sitting there that’s all he would say, with a huge grin, “Cogitatin!”
Cogitating had a broken body and a soaring mind, and no home but a little porch, where he lived on the steps at the back of the tiny museum in Cannon Hill Park. For a couple of years he lived there, in all weathers, never moving and surrounded by all his worldly goods in a huge heap of bin liners, filled with this and that and more food than you can possibly imagine, as the good people of Edgbaston looked after Cogitating and made sure he wanted for nothing. If you stopped to speak to him in the evening people emerged from Range Rovers and Daimlers, coming and going, some with a thermos of soup, or some warm chicken drumsticks, perhaps even a Sunday dinner on a plastic plate, and he was so comfortably fed that often as not he was turning meals away. I saw so many people stop and bring him something one Christmas night when we were chatting that we had to keep breaking off our conversation, and laughed about the interruptions. He was well loved.
But he was broken. Cogitating was so strong he survived a crippling coach crash, making it out alive after 18 months on an intensive care ward, but when he left the hospital there was nothing left in the world for him anymore. He was the only survivor of 18 and the deaths of all his comrades weighed hard on his soul, as he was their driver. Something drifted his feet through the park, and when he had sat down on the steps of the museum, he did not move again for 3 years. His wrinkled little face grinned out at you from amongst a tangle of beard and a balaclava helmet, and his mind danced with a lofty education, and the memories of travels all over the world. Everyone loved him, and I was no exception.
That mischievous grin beamed at me out of the night, “Off on one of your excursions into fairyland again, eh? I always know when you’re in a world of your own, chin down on your chest like that, and searching the ground without lookin....”
I grinned back. We had often spoken about ghosts and elementals, when I was wandering past in the darker watches of the night, and Cogitating knew me well. But I had never told him about my quest. In fact I’d never told anyone, and that’s why what he said then really startled me.
The sky was crystal clear, and the stars particularly lovely, but on looking up he frowned; “There’s a touch of snow in the air tonight, can you feel it? Its walloped Scotland already, and it always hits us next, you know. Said to be bad.” Instinctively he huddled inside his donkey jacket, and it was then he lowered his voice, and with a curious significance which jerked my eyes away from the heavens and back around towards him, he added, “You know, I wouldn’t go looking if I was you....”
There is no light at the back of the museum, but there was an odd look in his eyes even in the darkness, something quite meaningful. I could see it as clear as day.
“What do you mean by that?” I was so startled I snapped, much more sharply than I intended.
Even in the shadows I saw him smile, and nod knowingly. He tapped the side of his nose, just like my grandfather used to, and that really rattled me. “Thought as much, my friend, thought as much..... I notice a lot of things, you know, a lot of things, you would be surprised..... I can read a hundred stories a day, watching people walking past here; I don’t need no library ticket. Furtive lovers having affairs, only holding hands when they think they’re well out of sight, or the sneaky ones, in denial, heading for the water closet, or the lost and lonely deep in thought, I see it every day. Now you, YOU for instance, I only ever see you like this when there’s said to be snow in the air, trudging about like the Wandering Jew.” He paused and gave me a very direct look, which I really did now find far too knowing and uncomfortable. But then he smiled again, “Look.... I know how curious you are about ... otherwordly things, but I have... an idea that you are planning to go looking for one who doesn’t want to be found. That’s not a good idea, my friend. Take it from me, that’s not a good idea at all. Don’t do it, eh? Just stay in the warm where you’re safe....”
We looked at each other for an odd moment, our eyes locked together, but I blinked first. That made him laugh, “That’s a good boy, that’s it. Better safe than sorry, eh?”
I had not said a single word about what was in my mind, but he was so shrewd, so observant, he seemed to know what I was thinking about without my saying anything at all. Some people can read through bone you would think. I was too taken aback to do anything other than admit it. I couldn’t see any point in denying anything, so I just shrugged it off. “Well, you know.... I just wanted to see what he looks like, that’s all....”
“Well don’t!” Cogitating pulled his old sleeping bags up around himself. “It’s bad enough if you see him by accident, never mind deliberately looking.....”
I did not mean to be so eager in my response, but a lifetime of pondering on a phantom came out in one rush of words, “You mean he can be seen? It is possible to see him then? Do you mean to say you have seen him yourself.....”
“I mean to say it’s a good idea to have the sense to avoid seeing what you shouldn’t see.” You could have knocked nails into his words, the oh-so-tangible warning. It obviously wasn’t a pleasant thought for the man either. “I know what I’m talking about, and you quite clearly don’t! You shouldn’t go prying....” Shifting haughtily in his sleeping bags, Cogitatin fixed me with a look, and almost stood up.
I have never seen him stand up, he was a fixture on those little stairs. But he almost did it, and in the effort he stumbled badly, and I actually had to help him sit down. It was obviously quite painful for the poor man, and he pushed me away with a lot of gruff complaints. It took him a minute or two to regain his composure, and when he did, he was quite emotional, “To notice what you shouldn’t be looking for, it’s always been a curse of mine. I always HAVE too look, don’t I!” There was savage self recrimination in his voice, and not a little fear, I thought. “To look when you see a sudden movement, and look and stare..... How do you think I wound up here, in the bridal suite of the Savoy? Did I ever mention there was snow in the air when we crashed?”
“No, you didn’t actually-“
“Ah well... There we are.” He had a thousand yard stare. “Too much curiosity, it’s always been my trouble. There’s snow in the air tonight, and I shouldn’t wonder that I do it again, I can’t help myself. It’s a good night to pay a social call on an old acquaintance. And he knows I can’t move.”
I stared at him silently, trying to frame a question or put this into context, but he just smiled. “Let’s just say I think I shall have a visitor this evening, someone I spoke too very late one night when I was in Prague, before the accident. I’ve always hoped I’d never speak to him again, because I can assure you, after I did and he turned to look at me.... Well, they found me unconscious, dead to the world and half collapsed into a snowdrift. I was in bed with pneumonia for weeks, and I’ve never felt warm since..... I have never seen a face like that.... I can see it now, never forgotten it....” Cogitating shook himself. “Never forgotten his face. Very deep snows they have there, REAL winters. You call this cold! You don’t know the meaning of the word! I’ve avoided snow ever since. Been lucky with the weather the last few years, too. But I don’t think I will be tonight. No, not tonight. It’s not a night to be outside.... Ah, well... You’d best be on your way, go on, get out of it. Can’t a man have five minutes peace.....”
His manner had changed, and I couldn’t get another word out of him except for his insisting that I shouldn’t persist, and all he would say was “Don’t go looking. Get back indoors.”
To say that I was troubled is an understatement, but he would not say another word, and even pretended to go to sleep until I took the hint and went on my way.
There was snow in the air that night, and the irony of the fact is that I never saw a flake of it falling.
I don’t sleep well at the best of times, but I was so disturbed by our conversation that I took one of my grandmother’s sleeping pills and went to bed. It knocked me out like a mallet, and I was flat out until well into the following afternoon.
While I was asleep during the darkest hours of the night, a weather front blew in, and we had the heaviest snow we have seen in Birmingham for over ten years, real blizzard conditions. For our region this was pretty significant weather, with snow well over two feet thick in places where the wind could blow unfettered, and where it really was able to drift the snow reached piles five feet high, like mini ski ramps. Then the temperature dropped like a stone, and a bitter North wind came in. Foxes were found dead in the alley ways from the cold, and ducks and geese were frozen to the lakes in the parks. Even I did not venture out when I woke up, and for two days I was muzzy-headed with exhaustion and a lassitude which even now I can’t explain. For a week I drifted in and out of a dreamlike, exhausted state, taunted by a dream that I was walking through the snow, trying to catch someone, someone tall and indistinct who I couldn’t quite see clearly. He was always somewhat ahead of me and try as I might I could not catch up with him, and every so often I went pass Old Cogitatin sitting on his step, a brittle frost etching his frail shape against the door, and all he did was smile and point after the disappearing figure who was vanishing into the night. My mother swears I had a fever, and that I called out constantly when it had me in its grip, but she could not remember what I was saying. I remember staring frantically at the temperature knob on the radiator, and constantly trying to open the windows, but everything else is just a blur.
When I finally came out of it I sat there in bed, half listening to the radio, and half watching the falling snow which was brushing again against the window. The Coldest winter in x number of years, they said yet again. They always say that, don’t they? I listened through the national news without any real interest, but when the Midland News came on, a story hit me very hard, harder than I might have supposed, in a report on the death of a local man.
I learned then that the cold weather had visited my poor, strange friend in his pitiful sanctuary on the steps, and taken his fragile life in his sleep, when the snow lay thick across his huddled body. There was an appeal from the city coroner for anyone who knew anything about him, and I helped with what little I knew. All the muscles in his legs had wasted away, and he would have been unable to move and find shelter. The City Coroner claimed that he had seen bodies taken from the River Thames in better condition than this unlucky lost soul. It is also recorded that he said that in death the late gentleman had the most incredible smile on his face, almost as if he had died greeting an old friend.
They say someone comes to fetch you when the time has come. I had deep and chilling suspicions about who had been his guide.
I couldn’t get it out of my head, it really played on my mind. I know what he had been hinting at when I last spoke to him that night, he had really seen something. And he was convinced, privately that he would see that something again, that he would look into the face of The King of Silent Passing once more. And so it would seem he had. But why him? Why did he have to see that unknowable face, to stare into those night walking eyes which knew all places in the world, and stepped where men avoided due to the cold and the bitter frosts? Why him? Was the last thing he had seen recorded on those dead eyes, like the reflection in a mirror, unnoticed by anyone else? The phantom I had wanted to see my whole life? I had to see if it was true, that the King of Silent Passing was real, not some unkind joke by the adults to keep us in at night during the worst days of the winter.
There was still snow falling now, but there were rumours of a thaw. Who knows when we might have any significant snowfall again, it had been years since we had such a bad winter. It might be ten years before we saw anything so bad again. I couldn’t wait that long. I had to see if it was true.
Now it came to it, I realized that I knew what to do. I had thought about it so often over the years, and now that a determination had taken hold it seemed so logical, so obvious, almost as if it has been written on the panes of the window when I was scratching at the frost as a boy.
Whenever any snowfall began to thaw there was one place I could think of where it lingered for weeks and weeks, sheltered by the shadows from a nearby building. Would not such a being perhaps visit this last outpost of his grip on a frozen world, when the thaw was destroying his dominion, before retreating at last to colder climes for another year?
I did not tell anyone I was going out, and pinched my brother’s coat from his wardrobe rather than go through the lounge to get my own when I had been so ill. It didn’t matter to me that it was late at night and dark, that it was said to be the coldest night of the year, or that my hand trembled under me as I rested it on the banisters going downstairs and my legs almost failed me. The taxi was waiting when I made my way quietly outside, and the driver gave me an odd look as I carefully slid into the back, but he said nothing.
There would be a short walk along the canal towpath from where he dropped me, but he said nothing when I gave him a ten pound tip. He asked me no questions and I told him nothing about my intentions. I said nothing during the whole journey.
Snow was falling as I made my way in the darkness along the canal, slipping slightly where earlier thaws had frozen into black ice, and been covered by the treacherous disguise of subsequent layers of powdery snow. I cut my knee badly on the concrete edging by the frozen waters, but I didn’t let it slow me down.
I knew there would be a price to all of this, there would be cost. I knew I would have to abase myself before this Pagan being, to try and show myself worthy of his presence, if I really did want to see him. I tried not to think about it as I stumbled and skidded along.
When I reached my destination there was absolutely no-one around, and it was a peculiar stretch of walk along the canal; a queer sloping path around the sharp corner of a factory, falling away from a swing bridge across the silent glassy waters. A single lamp post cut through the night, the only artificial light in sight within a good fifteen minutes walk in any direction, and there, in that deserted place, as tiny white clusters danced and weaved around the halo of amber light from the lamp, I removed all my clothes. I stripped completely, down even to my bare feet, and shaking with far more than the mere cold of the night I looked into the rawness of the elements and called out to the King of Silent Passing. I summoned him, I cried out to him. I opened my lungs and my heart and begged to make his acquaintance.
I never doubted for a moment that I would receive an answer, for I heard my grandfathers warnings in my heart, saw the secret fear in his eyes when he looked out into a night of blues and stark icy greys, and I thought of my lost friend lying cold from more now that the mere exposure which is said to have killed him.
I did not have to wait long, and I was not disappointed, although a fear clutched at my heart for the briefest moment that I was stupendously wrong, and the sound of a police car in the distance threatened to punch ordinary reality through into the depths of the moment.
For that second I doubted and I feared, cold biting at every pore and working its killing teeth deep into my body. But then, before the doubt took hold, he came along quite suddenly.
It was a gentle movement which changed everything, a natural shift in the air. A wind caught the falling multitude of snowflakes and whipped them around, causing a wave effect, where the snow is almost blown like breakers reaching the shore. And then, as if parting a curtain, a figure seemed to reach out from behind and pull the falling wall of flakes aside and step through to stand before me.
I fell back against the wall, my elbows hitting the stone. Casually he had parted the elements like someone casually pulling aside a net curtain, and the falling snow had dropped back into place behind him with a disturbingly fabric-like movement, a fluid motion, which sent a sickness through my bones at this nonchalant brush aside to nature.
I’ve speculated on how the lord of the snows would look from the earliest age, but nothing prepared me for the shock of He who strode across on that cold, clear night. I couldn’t help myself, and I stared at his feet, stared at his feet to see if it was true what my grandfather always said; and my soul was blanched by the fact that it was. Though walking towards me with casual, easy steps, I could see he walked upon the snows as light as a feather, his great feet not so much as disturbing a flake of snow from beneath or around him. And in his wake, impossible in his wake, were the tiny, well defined footprints of a bird. The tiny, well defined footprints of a sparrow or a robin, imbedded in the snow, and left behind whenever he lifted one of this great, shaggy haired feet.
Shaggy feet, of a massive size, with huge rounded toes. Standing twice my height in the light of the streetlamp, I thought he was clothed in a great fur coat or cloak. But when I dared to raise my eyes and look at him, I saw that it was no fur he was wearing but his own.
Like a walker of the remote woods all over the world, I saw the living reality of a Wildman; A Sasquatch, or a Yeti, call it what you will, but it was still a man. Long white hair grew all over his body, and he stood calmly, looking at me with penetrating serious eyes the colour of ice in the sunlight, his head cocked to one side, and a look on his face almost of amusement. I cannot speak about his face. I couldn’t meet his eyes for long, I don’t think anyone could. They were too penetrating and intelligent.
The King was wearing regalia. Around his temples he wore a kind of magpie crown, a cluttered thing twisted together from bent wire, and sticking up from it all around his head was a mad collection of odds and ends; Spark plugs, a snapped piece of car Ariel, and at least two broken screwdrivers. A slim dolls leg stuck up vertically towards the back of his head, still wearing a tiny red shoe, and there were lost keys jammed into it all the way around, and bits of lost jewellery, broken watches, and bits of lost cutlery wound around the wire rim, bent to bind it together as if they were as soft as rubber.
A belt of trailing power cables was platted around his waist, in places still trailing three pin plugs or bent jacks.
I felt the fear come upon me.
I had seen him, I had called him out and seen him, and I was seized with fear of this silent, ancient elemental being, this god of the snows, and then I Really, truly felt the bitter cold of the night around me for the first time, felt my stupid want of clothing and shoes. And I fell to my knees before him, fell on my knees in the snow shivering with fear, with my arms outstretched and my head bowed, falling on his mercy, at the back of the Sulphur Refining Plant, on Lifford Lane, in the corner of the car park.
For a long moment, I stared at the ground, stared at the snow beneath me, and waited, not daring to look up. I didn’t expect to live, and they say that death comes gradually at first, as he changes the temperature of your blood and internal organs, then speeds up faster and faster, until you are dead before you have stopped breathing. I cannot say. In as much as I dared to raise my eyes, all I could see was the pile of cleared snow in the corner of the car park. This tiny mountain would be my last sight in the world of consciousness and feelings.
But a lone finger tapped me, first on one shoulder and them the other, like a King touching the shoulders of a kneeling man with a sword, like a monarch making a man into a knight. Although it felt curiously ceremonial he said nothing, but when I looked up he was walking away, and I was still alive.
Incredibly still alive, and it was then I noticed that I could not feel the cold anymore.
I must be dead, I thought, I must be a ghost or hallucinating from hypothermia. But as I looked after him, he looked over his shoulder, just once, looked right at me with those frozen ice crystal eyes, and with one great hand he beckoned that I should follow.
Somehow I got to my feet, and when I stood, he pointed to the ground, as if indicating that I should walk in his footprints, like good King Wenceslaus in the Christmas Carol. I looked at the ground, and saw that the only tracks he left were those of a mouse. I stared at these and then looked up at him, and that was when I heard him laugh for the first time, and he waved to me to follow him again. I did as I was asked, and when I did, I realised not only that I myself was walking above the surface of the snow, but that I also was leaving only tiny tracks like a bird, like a sparrow or a robin. I tried to stamp my feet, but I could not make any impression on the surface of the snow whatsoever, no matter what I did, and all that I left were these tiny footprints. I heard him laugh again, a not unpleasant sound, and this time, unable to hold back my curiosity any longer, I ran after him.
It has been an unusual apprenticeship. I did not expect to live, never mind thrive after looking him in the eye. But sometimes there is something much more unexpected behind a legend, and it’s perhaps better to accept them when they are revealed. I could not have imagined anything that the King of Silent passing might want or require from the human race, but I never would have guessed, in a hundred years, that this Silent Knight might need a Squire.