The Original Word for Rain

The Original Word for Rain

Peter Higgins
When Saul Traherne received a small but useful inheritance following the death of his parents, he took stock of his life. He was twenty-nine, single, and lonely; he loathed his job; and he had no close friends in London. So when the money came, he calculated that he had enough to live on, if he was careful, and he felt free at last to leave the city and join that almost extinct social class, the genteel poor of independent means. Having no taste for material pleasures, he resolved to devote himself to the one real passion of his life, the study of the magical arts, and in particular to the pursuit his great ambition, recovering the lost original Edenic language of Adam and Eve.The question of where he should live was resolved a few days after the funeral, in a second-hand bookshop in Clerkenwell, when he came across a footnote in a monograph on the theurgy of Henry Cornelius Agrippa. “Viscount Thursby of Peignisbright (Saul read), a marginal figure on the fringes of the Order of the Golden Dawn, purchased widely across Europe and the Levant between about 1895 and the outbreak of the Great War. Though commonly rooked by unscrupulous dealers, he succeeded in amassing a considerable collection of authentic material, including MSS, incunables, scrying equipment and paraphernalia. He bequeathed his collection, and a substantial fund for its maintenance, to Peignmouth Public Library in furtherance of his noble belief that ‘the path of return to mankind’s rightful place should be made clear for the shopkeeper, the wet-nurse and the labourer in the field.’ “Peignmouth! Saul’s parents had taken their annual seaside holidays in Peignmouth when he was a boy, and suddenly in that Clerkenwell shop he was transported back to those long-lost days filled with light and spaciousness and a sense of plenty. He left the bookshop in a daze, and walked the London streets that afternoon in a state of longing and agitation. “It’s a message,” he thought. “A sign, a calling, not to be ignored. I’m meant to be in Peignmouth.” So to Peignmouth he went, where he rented a room in a red-brick terraced house in the hinterland behind the seafront and installed his few belongings.

It was the perfect place for him, small and homely, unchanged in forty years or more, with faded carpets and heavy wooden furniture. There was nothing in it that was new or modern or flimsy. “I can be settled here,” he said to himself with quiet satisfaction. He wanted nothing but solitude, and time to pursue his solitary researches. He intended to lead an austere life of study, renunciation and physical discipline. He would be a mendicant scholar, the eremitical neophyte of some obscure religious order. Freed from the need to participate in the compromises and self-distortions that getting money required, he would dedicate himself to the pursuit of luminous, hard-won truth.

Peignmouth Public Library he found to be a grim Victorian building: grey stone walls, steep gabled roofs and lofty mullioned windows that reflected only darkness. Entering the library for the first time, Saul’s heart sank when he smelled the familiar library smell of fat and shabby old books and stale raincoats. Any sunshine that might have crept in through the high, dusty windows was flooded out by powerful fluorescent striplights.

There was no sign to direct visitors to the Thursby collection: he had to ask at the counter, and was sent up a narrow staircase that disappeared behind a pillar. Several turns of the staircase and three stiff swing-doors later, he emerged into a long, warm, sleepy room where two or three people were reading under the gaze of an ordinary station-clock.

“Can I help?”

The curator supervising at the desk was a youngish woman, small and slight. Saul beheld waves of strong, pale hair; a blue T-shirt; brown arms; and clever eyes, bright and ocean-green. She blessed him with her smile. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“Um, no. I mean, well yes. I just wanted to have a look around, to start with. I’m planning to do some work here, but first, well, I need to… you know, get the hang of the place.”

She smiled again her beatific smile. “No problem. I’ll show you.” She left her station to show him how to use the card index, which stuffed several large cabinets – “Thursbury’s own classification, a bit idiosyncratic, but you’ll get the idea” –  and Thursby’s massive, privately-printed concordances. All the works he had hoped to find were there, and many more that were new to him, including – Saul was astounded to find – many original manuscripts, and volumes from the authors’ own libraries, with their own MS marginalia. Bookshelves ran from floor to ceiling, and alongside the shelves stood row after row of display cases and vitrines containing the other artefacts from Thursby’s collection. Here too, Saul found a strange plenty: a Hand of Glory; an ancient baby’s caul, mounted on yellowing paper and surrounded by intricate hand-drawn geometry; a collection of divining rods; lengths of black hair tied in a series of complex knots. Against each item was propped an explanatory card, yellowing and densely written in a cramped and backward-sloping hand.

Saul paused before a small, delicate orrery of brass and copper, complete and perfect and simply waiting to be set in motion. The intricate mechanism included an extra planet, represented by a tiny jewel-like sphere of green set to orbit at an extreme angle to the elliptical plane between Venus and Earth. The card read simply: Fludd’s own, shewing Rannalon.

“Do you want to look at anything more closely?”

“You mean, take them out of the cases? Is that allowed?”

“Sure. You can’t take them out of the library, of course. But you can study them here. That’s what they’re for.”

“Oh. Right.” He paused a moment. “Uh… no. Not just now. Later, maybe.”

After that first visit, Saul went to the library every day. Once he had got his bearings and planned out a programme of study for himself, he fell quickly and easily into a regular pattern of life. He would be at the library for opening time and work there all morning, reading and making notes. The afternoons he spent in long, ranging walks, and in the evenings he would return to his room and work again, until he was too tired to think any more, and then he would get into his narrow bed and fall into a heavy, dreamless sleep. He was alone, but he was fulfilled and happy. His collection of notes and sketches grew day by day, gradually taking over and filling his small room.

As he worked on in this way the days lengthened and the pale nights grew shorter week by week. It developed into a hot, bright, dry early summer. The lawns and roadside verges grew dry and yellow. Each day was like the one before: powdery blue skies with scarcely a cloud. The moon took to appearing early in the evenings, silver-white and intangible while the sky was bright with the lingering day, but as the night grew dark, so the moon would turn heavier and buttery, waxing towards the full. Every morning the sun rose earlier, and so did Saul. He found himself waking regularly at five a.m., feeling full of light and air and the currents of life and sleeplessness. He made himself breakfast and sat in the garden drinking tea until the time came when he could leave for his day’s work at the library.

But something was threatening to disturb the limpid calm of his monklike life. In those early mornings he found himself thinking less and less about his work in the Collection and more and more about the beatific smile of the curator. Her name was Julia Redgrove, he learned from the helpful notes of advice that she pinned to the reading room walls.  He thought about her at his breakfast, and on the way to the library, anticipating his first sight of her that day; and at the library he would look up from his books and watch her, surreptitiously. He got to know the clothes she wore and he watched her body as she moved around the reading room. He found himself wondering about her: where did she live? what did she do in the evenings? And if she did not appear for work as usual, he wondered where she might have gone.

One Sunday morning he came upon her sitting in the window of the café on the esplanade. She was alone, drinking coffee. A pile of newspapers sat on the table at her elbow but she wasn’t reading, just looking out of the window. Without stopping to think, Saul went in, picked up a coffee for himself at the counter, and went over.

“Hi,” he said. “I don’t know if you remember me. From the library.”

She looked up and smiled the smile. “Of course I remember. Mr Traherne. The Collection’s not exactly overwhelmed with readers.”

“Saul,” he said. “Can I, um, can I sit down?”

“Sure.” She shoved the pile of papers to one side. “I’m Julia.”

“I know. I mean, I’ve seen, I… you write your name on all those notices.”

She smiled. “So,” she said, “what’s your special thing, Saul? What are you looking for? In the library?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. Everyone who comes to the Collection is looking for something, some dream they’re following. So what are you looking for?”

“Well…” Saul hesitated. He’d never actually talked to anybody about this stuff before. He didn’t want to sound… strange. But, hell, he thought, she is the Thursby Curator, after all. “Well… if you really want to know… I’m looking for truth, I suppose. Complete truth.” He stopped.

Julia looked at him and nodded. “Go on,” she said. She seemed interested. Saul hadn’t talked to anyone about anything at all for months, not since the funeral, except exchanging a few words with shopkeepers and the like. Now, because he was with Julia and she was listening to him, and seemed to be interested, and seemed to like him, he let go, without really meaning to, and all the bottled-up ideas and images in his head came pouring out.

“When you were young,” said Saul, “I mean, really young, when you were a child, did you ever lie on your back and look up at the sky? You know how it looks as if the clouds are fixed in place and the trees are toppling towards you, always toppling but never crashing down? And you lie there and you look up and you feel sort of… complete. Completely alive. And everything is… more vivid. Better. Everything is so clear.”

“Yes. I know.”

“Well, that’s it,” said Saul. “That’s what I want. Not sometimes, but always, all the time, to be that happy.”

“But that’s poetry,” said Julia. “You don’t need to look for that in old books of magic.”

“No, I don’t mean just poetry, not like you mean,” he went on. “I mean for real. I think that something went wrong somewhere, a long time ago, and the world got… polluted. Like there’s dust in the air all the time, soot and smuts, making everything dim and, not dirty exactly, but… spoilt. Wrong. Disappointing, I suppose. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s only superficial. The dirt is in our head and you can wipe the dirt away.” Saul paused, embarrassed. “You think I’m  weird, don’t you?”

“No, look, sorry, I don’t, really. It’s interesting. I think about stuff like this too, you know.”

“Well… what I’m getting at is… oh, I don’t know where to start, but say…  everything has its right name, its true name.”

“You mean the name Adam gave it,” said Julia lightly.

Saul looked at her, full on. An obscure new thing moved inside him, a glimpse of joy. “You know?” he said. “You know? About that?”

“Of course,” she said. “Genesis. Adam in the garden of Eden. ‘So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.’” She couldn’t suppress a grin of triumph when she came up with that. “And the question is,” she continued, “what was the language Adam used to name the world as it was being created? Because we were made in God’s image and that was God’s language too.”

“Yes! Yes! That’s it!” People were looking. He continued more quietly. “The original language, that names things as they really are, and gives them their full and original meaning. You couldn’t lie in that language, you couldn’t say what wasn’t true, or what was only partly true. If you thought of something by its true name, you’d know it fully and you’d know everything about it. Nothing that mattered would be hidden from you.”

“That’s wizard language,” said Julia. “If you know the hidden name of something, you can control it. And if you say something in the true language, it becomes true. You say ‘you’re dead’ and… bang!” She slapped her hand on the table and flashed her sea-green eyes. “Dead.”

“No!” said Saul horrified. “Not that! You couldn’t do that, you couldn’t even want to do it. It’s the opposite of control. It’s seeing everything as it really and truly is: everything full of light and air: fire and air, earth, wind: alive with cold fire.” Now Julia was looking at him full on. Her face was open and clear and seraphic and full of… what? Saul didn’t know. “I want to find that original, perfect language again,” he continued.  “It’s been scattered and distorted and forgotten, but it can be found again. Fragments. Echoes. Remembered and handed down unrecognised from generation to generation. That’s what I’m looking for. I want to find it and learn it and speak it.”

“Blimey,” said Julia.

After that first meeting, Saul saw Julia quite often. Sitting in some huddled pub corner, they’d get slightly drunk together and talk about magic and the Collection and the rancorous office politics among what Julia called “the normal staff” at the library. Saul enjoyed these long evenings and looked forward to them, but he was never entirely sure about them. What did Julia want from him? What did she expect? And what did he want?

Every day during that long, dry summer Saul continued to work in the drowsy upstairs room of Peignmouth Public Library, ploughing through book after book, following threads of reference and allusion back through the works of the Renaissance and medieval magi, and then further back before them to their Arabic, Greek and Hebrew forebears. He consulted original manuscripts and he studied the ancient languages in which they were written.  As he read ever more widely and deeply, he began to pick up veiled hints and references to other scholars who had followed the same trail before him. And then flashes of insight began to come to him, slowly at first but then ever more frequently. He began to come upon ideas, words and phrases, diagrams, snatches of sound, that would make him physically tremble with excitement. He would note them all down, these shards and fragments, in his notebook.

His first major discovery, the one that put him on the right track, was a single word scribbled on a scrap of brittle yellow paper in one of the display cabinets. The accompanying explanatory card in Thursbury’s hand read: “Shem, retrieved from the mouth of the Prague golem by the Earl of Leicester, 1573.”  The next big step forward was a phrase included in an anonymous marginal correction to Paracelsus’ instructions for creating the homunculus. This in turn led him to Roger Bacon’s own manuscript of the Fons Vitae of Avicebron with an illustration added by a later hand (Bacon’s own, in all probability) showing the Sephiroth framed by a beautiful and intricate drawing (or map?) of a labyrinth.

Weeks passed. The summer was turning out to be the hottest and driest on record. It brought out insects in remarkable numbers: butterflies and ladybirds crawled in profusion over the wilting gardens; grasshoppers chirruped in the dry grass, and crane-flies clattered at every window. Spiders, wasps and harvestmen feasted on the profusion, while swallows and martins danced in the high, bright skies, and moth-hunting bats whirred ghostlike in the dusk. Saul would lie in bed on those strange electrified nights, hot and wakeful under just a sheet, with a notebook and pencil on the bedside table so he could scribble down whatever random thoughts came to him. His window stood open, and occasional breezes would enter the room, stirring the yellow curtains, bringing in the cries of seagulls, the brassy summer smells, and rumours of the  rolling of dry thunder out at sea. There were flashes of blue lightning, but it never rained.

Throughout that hot dry season, Saul continued to take long solitary walks in the afternoons, when he found that his thoughts returned again and again to Julia; to something she had said; to some small movement she had made; to the memory of the turn of her head. He never spoke to her about it, he barely even acknowledged it to himself, but in his loneliness he was falling in love with her.

However, when he was out on his endless walks, he found it easy enough to put his thoughts of Julia into a box in his head and close the lid. He was serious about his work, and as he walked he would sift through in his mind the phrases, sounds and ideas that he had collected that morning, looking for patterns and connections, keeping alert for the chime of something ringing true, and the answering tremor within himself that told him he had found it. Sometimes as he walked something would stop him dead in his tracks—ivy on a red brick wall; a swift, screaming across the blue sky overhead; a twisted tree-root; a sun-warm stone; the perfect curve of a bay—and he would stare at it and drink it in with all his senses. And then he would start to throw word-fragments at it, sometimes in his mind only, sometimes whispering and sometimes shouting aloud, hurling sound-shapes into the wind. He tried out words and phrases, hand-movements and even broken dance-steps that grew from the strange sediment of his findings and seemed, somehow, right. Then he would stand, stock-still, intent, focused, listening and watching for any response, any answering ring or echo in the world that would tell him he had got it right. But there was nothing. He wasn’t discouraged. “I’m like a baby,” he told himself. “It’s like learning to talk for the first time, all over again. I’ve got to learn how to make the sounds first. Meaning and understanding will come later. The main thing is to keep trying, and to keep listening. It will come.”

Saul’s walks tended to carry him out of Peignmouth. He developed a more or less regular route. He would stride away westwards along the coast, past huge Edwardian mansions, with their mock-Tudor frontages, their gothic towers and their gardens bulging with overgrown rhododendron, magnolia and privet. After the mansions came smaller houses, red-brick terraces that gave way to bungalows separated by clipped lawns, parched by the endless summer drought. Then came shabby, weather-beaten shacks and chalets and allotments; and then the dwellings stopped, and the path wound on along the cliff-edge, rising and falling with the contours of the land. Saul walked on, over wind-swept points and through still, warm hollows filled with the sweet coconut-smell of the gorse. The purple sea glimmered far below; linnets and stone-chats flitted beside him; a raven barked; a kestrel pinned itself to the sky against the wind. And Saul sang, every day, his song in Adam’s tongue. Every day his voice grew stronger and the song grew fuller, wiser and more complete.

One afternoon in August when the sun was burning and the sea shimmered, Saul walked further along the cliff-tops than normal. At about four o’clock he was beginning to think about turning back, when he reached a fingerpost: Rammas Wood. The OS map, he thought, showed a footpath that cut across the neck of the headland from about here, so he climbed the stone stile between wind-clipped thorn trees and passed into a still, green world.

Entering the wood was like passing out of time into endlessness, out of movement into rest. It was warm and quiet and earthy beneath the leaf-canopy of oak and ash. Saul paused. He felt the heaviness in the air, the hanging warmth, the watchful presence of the trees. A catspaw of wind stirred the foliage. A pair of fat woodpigeons burst out of the undergrowth in alarm and clattered clumsily away. Somewhere out of sight a green woodpecker gave its raucous cry. Saul found that he was trembling, and he knew beyond all doubting that there and then, in that moment, suddenly, something had happened, or something had stirred, or something had been found: something hidden but momentous. He felt completely sure of it. Somewhere and somehow a threshold had been crossed. There was a chance here, now, for him: an opening.

He sat down on the mossy branch of a fallen oak, shaken and elated. “This is what I have prepared myself for,” he said. “I am ready.” He listened. He heard the winding stirring among the trees, and he felt… movement. He laid his hand along the sun-warm branch and sunk his fingers into the moss, resting. Woodlice came onto his hand and explored the gaps between his fingers. A spider stepped delicately up onto his thumb and began to climb his arm. Caterpillars dropped from the trees onto his hair. Quietly Saul spoke the true syllable of greeting. A bird came to a branch above his head, a small whitethroat, and fixed him with a bright curious gaze. Saul gave the smile of welcome and felt in return the breeze stirring the feathers on the whitethroat’s back. More birds came. A shrew twittered at him from the leaf-mould. Saul began to rock gently from side to side, murmuring a slow oak-song, a rowan-song, a sleeping-owl-song, in tune with the rhythmical thrumming of the winds in Rammas Wood.

A pressure was building up: an intensity of there-ness and is-ness that could not be sustained. It burst like a berry against the roof of his mouth. Saul spoke. A pulse of heart-sound – Saul-sound, Rammas-sound – exploded outwards in concentric ripples of release, out from the epicentre of Saul, spreading outwards through the woodland in all directions, rippling outwards through fields and rock, touching the sea, touching the cloudless sky. And then it was over. The moment passed. Saul was alone, just Saul, in the ordinary wood. It was as if a cloud had passed in front of the sun, though the ordinary afternoon was as bright and warm as ever.

He felt tired and drained. His legs were trembling, and he wanted to go home. But as he stood up stiffly and turned to go, he saw a face watching him from under the trees: a thin cream face, as small as a child’s but not a child’s, with dark curly hair and a crow’s bright eye, just looking at him, and there was a strong, sour smell of earth in the air. Then the face opened its mouth and leaves came out. A sort of smile, a green smile. And then the face was gone, back into the woods.

Saul ran: back, back, out of the wood and onto the familiar, parched cliff path. The sun was lower on the horizon than he had thought. Running as hard as he dared for fear of pitching himself over the cliff-edge, he headed back towards Peignmouth. As he ran he became aware of a darkening of the air, until he was running through heavy copper light. A dark cloud-mass was rolling up out of the west, sliding across the high, empty blue and closing the sky above Peignmouth.  Saul ran on, harder, more desperate, and as he ran he found himself shouting. He shouted rain. The true original word for rain. He called the rain and rain came, warm fat rain, rain-buds splashing open, soft and dark on the hard, dusty ground. A few drops at first, and then many, many: rain came thundering down on the gorse, filling the wet air with sweet earth smells.  Saul ran on.

By the time he reached Peignmouth he was soaked to the skin. His clothes were drenched with rain and sweat, he was hot and muddy and breathing hard, and his hair was plastered across his forehead. The rain was streaming down the slate roofs, and the gusting wind was sweeping rain across the roads.  The hedges and the garden shrubs were dark and shining. Saul felt as if he were returning to the human world after a long absence. Everything in the rain-drenched street looked fresh and new. As he stood in the rain, gazing across the town that had become his home, he could hardly keep still on his feet, such was the sense of strength welling up inside him. As the rain poured down from the purple sky, he felt an answering torrent of truth and magic rise up within him like a river beginning to flow.  He went to find Julia, to speak to her of his triumph and his love.

She was waiting for him in the Fisherman’s Arms. She looked slight and bright and together, and her ocean-green eyes flashed with pleasure when she saw him come in.

But she wasn’t alone. There was a man with her, a stranger to Saul, tucked in next to her on the bench. Saul went over to them, feeling the confidence and elation draining out of him under the bland, open gaze of the stranger.

“Saul!” said Julia brightly. “This is Richard.”

Richard nodded and put out his hand, easy and casual. “Hi Saul. Nice to meet you.” He was wearing a striped shirt, long sleeves buttoned at the wrist. Saul felt painfully aware of his own wet clothes and bedraggled hair. “Saul’s the one I’ve been telling you about, Richard,” said Julia. Richard’s face registered nothing. “You know. At the library. He’s doing this incredibly interesting research.”

“Of course,” Richard nodded. Saul turned to Julia.

“Sorry I’m late. I was…”

“Are you?” said Julia, blithely. “Never mind, sit down. We’ve got some great news. Richard’s got this new job in Paris. He’s in banking, did I tell you? It’s all terribly high-pressure and he’s awfully good at it.” Richard smiled placidly and sipped his beer.

“No, I didn’t know. That’s nice,” said Saul.

“And the great thing is,” said Julia, “I’ve got a job there too. At the Bibliotheque Nationale. Second in charge of Renaissance manuscripts. I’ve been trying for a job like this for years. I can’t stay stuck here forever, can I?  And Richard and I will be together.” Richard took her hand in his.

“Oh,” said Saul. “Well. That is great. Congratulations. Look, let me get you both a drink.” And he went to the bar, dripping wet, cold and tired.

Late that night he lay alone in his bed in his tiny room, awake and lost. A cool breeze was stirring the curtain and his light was on but he wasn’t reading. A moth settled on the lampshade. It had pale mottled wings like lichen on a weathered gravestone. Saul stared at it emptily. In the pattern of its wings he saw inscribed the seven sacred letters. He spoke them quietly one by one as the curtains shifted in the rain-breeze. Beyond the rooftops and the lamp-lit streets, beyond Peignmouth pier, huge slender figures clothed in milky light were rising from the waves and walking towards the shore. Great whales roiled the surface of the waters, and the sky split open and the burning rain began to fall.