When Nathan Ashe disappeared from the ruined streets of Southwark, I couldn’t help but think the horror was, at least in part, my own design. I’d infected him, after all, filled him up with my so-called disease. The rank shadows and gaslight in the human warrens beyond Blackfriars Bridge did the rest. Madeline Lee, my dearest friend, would come to hate me for what I’d done. She said I ruined Nathan because of love, and that infecting him was my way of laying claim to his attentions. I couldn’t make her understand how he begged for it, begged me to touch him until he was changed. It wasn’t me—Jane Silverlake—he desired. He wanted the Empyrean, that improbable paradise, and I was its doorway. By the end, Nathan was no longer the boy we had adventures with on the Heath nor the young man who went to war in the Crimea. He grew to be half a human being and half some ancient and unnamed thing, and despite my warnings, we were all pulled into his hell, as if by the swift currents of an unseen river.
I can see the three of us there in the Roman ruin of my father’s garden. It was a warm day in spring, two months before Nathan’s disappearance, and looking back, I realize he was already beginning to lose himself. The ruin was a folly, meant to resemble the baths of Emperor Diocletian, and the broken gods of Rome stared down at us from their high pedestals—regal Apollo with hands and forearms missing and Venus with her face nearly worn away. Maddy and I sat together on the cool terrazzo near the sunken bath, our skirts pooled around us. We were the same age, not yet two and twenty. Maddy tended to be bold where I was circumspect, yet we shared a common affection for Nathan Ashe. He was a year older—aristocratic and lissome— and most importantly, he treated us as something more than girls. The three of us had been friends for years—taking restorative walks on the Heath and making our discussions in the garden. When Nathan began to change, everything was thrown off balance. We lost our careful orbits and began to fall.
In her lap, Maddy held a bouquet of purple comfrey she’d gathered from the outlying wilds. Her dress was a pale yellow with lovely white fox fur trim at the collar. Even her buttons were elegant—carved from ivory. I felt insubstantial beside her, wearing my fawn-colored linen gown and dark sash. A passing stranger might have mistaken me for Maddy’s servant or perhaps even a chaperone, present only to ensure nothing untoward happened between the lady and the young man. It’s difficult to even picture myself in those days—a mere girl in a plain dress, filled up with longings for things I could never have.
Nathan stood near the cracked bathing pool, which was littered with the remains of winter. Piles of decaying leaves and odd bits of bramble obscured the painted tiles. A lantern casing had fallen into the pool, and Nathan attempted to fish it out, using the tip of his cane. He’d only recently returned to us from the war in Crimea and still sported the red uniform and high jackboots of the Queen’s Guard. I could not help but admire his lithe figure as he strained to reach the lantern. He looked every bit the noble son of Lord William Ashe, famed arbiter in parliament, though Nathan was set to prove he did not share his father’s appreciation for power—at least not the traditional variety.
Crimea had clearly changed him, fraying some indispensable part of his consciousness. Since his discharge, Nathan had become involved with what amounted to a cult in Southwark, a gathering of the wealthy sons of London’s elite. These lost boys met in the chambers beneath a broken pleasure dome called the Temple of the Lamb, where they were instructed by their spiritual leader, Ariston Day. Day was a foreigner who’d recently appeared on the London scene with all manner of arcane philosophies in tow, and his Temple was our topic that afternoon in the garden.
Miss Anne, Father’s servant, brought a steaming pot of Indian tea from the house, but none of us touched it. Maddy and I were too caught up in our concern, and Nathan was oblivious to simple refreshments. As he worked to rescue the stray lantern, he described to us, for the first time, how he wanted to live upon the bedrock of the earth—this being Ariston Day’s own mantra. “Reaching a spiritual bedrock is the hidden enterprise,” Nathan said, a faint breeze playing at his auburn hair. “It’s the secret tract to all the world’s religions.”
Maddy lowered her head, running her fingers over her fox fur collar. Her rosy lips and large expressive eyes appeared less vibrant than usual. “I’m not sure I understand your sudden interest in these foolish ideas,” she said.
“It’s not meant for you to understand—not yet, at least,” he replied. “And the ideas aren’t foolish, Maddy. Living on the bedrock elicits a state like death—a perfect state, which is, in fact, eternal life. We can all attain such an existence if we find the right path.”
“So you’re looking for death?” Maddy asked. “Your adventures in Southwark have turned you morbid, Mr. Ashe.”
“Not actual death,” he said. “A state like death.”
“Those are Ariston Day’s words, not your own,” she replied. “It’s not a Temple he’s created down there. It’s—I don’t even know what to call it—a pit where good people get lost.”
Nathan finally succeeded in hooking the tip of his cane through the loop atop the brass casing of the lantern. He slowly pulled the rusted thing free from the bramble and deposited it neatly at his feet, looking proud, as though he’d accomplished something of merit. “Your father really should have this place cleaned up, Jane,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a folly and quite another to make your guests feel as though all of Rome is going to come toppling down on their heads.”
“Father is—distracted,” I said. This was of course an understatement, as both Nathan and Maddy were well aware. My father had cut our family off from London’s social line after the death of my mother, years before, and I’d been largely a recluse in our decaying house until my friends came into my life.
Forked shadows of oak branches creased the brows of the stone gods that surrounded us, mirroring the troubled look on Maddy’s face. She said, “Why don’t you return to telling us how you’re going to avoid getting yourself murdered down there in wretched Southwark, Nathan?” I could see she wasn’t going to give up on her inquisition of him, and though I took exception to her willful approach, I agreed with her intent. I wanted to know more about Nathan’s experiences at the Temple as well. He’d always had an interest in spiritism, ethereal planes, and the like—such curiosity being provoked by his mother’s frequent séances and my own unnatural abilities, which I’d shared with him. But joining Ariston Day and the other young men at the Temple of the Lamb revealed a far more serious commitment. I couldn’t comprehend Nathan’s talk about the spiritual bedrock any more than Maddy, but I knew from firsthand experience how easily our Nathan could be affected by the promise of transcendence.
“I wouldn’t expect any response from you other than dismay, Maddy,” Nathan said. “You’re afraid of every little thing. If we’re being honest, you’re even afraid of Jane.”
“I am not,” she said. “Jane, you don’t think I’m afraid of you, do you?”
I smiled at her, letting her know things were fine between us. “You have your moments, dear.”
She laid the bouquet of wildflowers on the stone floor of the ruin and looked sternly at Nathan. “I think fear is an absolutely appropriate response to Ariston Day. Since you’ve been crossing Blackfriars Bridge you’ve changed, Nathan. And not for the better. Now comes all this talk of death.”
“I merely know my purpose,” Nathan said.
“What is your purpose?” Maddy asked. “Define it. Stop being so cryptic.”
“You know I can’t do that,” he said, then looked to me. “Jane, why don’t you speak up? Talk some sense into Maddy.”
I found I couldn’t respond. When the two of them argued, I became even more timid. Maddy said my quiet manner made me generally less attractive and was sometimes even off-putting. “Girls should be demure, Jane,” she advised, “but there are times when I see you from across a room, and I think you might have turned to stone. I’m loath to sound conventional, but we must at least sometimes consider how we are perceived by prospective suitors.”
Such concerns as my comportment had gone by the wayside when Nathan’s involvement with the Temple came to our attention. Maddy and I were privy to precious few details about Ariston Day and his rituals, but as far as I could gather, Day was a charismatic who spouted half-formed theories about a return to the original Paradise— his so-called bedrock—that lay beneath the scrim of common reality. He promised his followers that if they continued to provide support, he would help them find the entrance to that Paradise. Day was a dangerous creature, the type of worm who worked his way into minds already weakened by boredom and alcohol, and I worried that his hold on Nathan was only growing stronger.
“Wouldn’t it be better to simply live freely,” I suggested to Nathan finally, “away from any sort of rocks?” I tended to side with Maddy in our discussions, as solidarity put her at ease.
Nathan came closer and took my hand. I found his touch all too hot, and he smelled of the awful glue factory near the Temple of the Lamb. “We are free,” he said. “But with the help of Ariston Day, we could be so much more. We could find the bedrock and live together like this—the three of us—forever. Jane, I tell you, Day would be fascinated by all the things you can do, your secret talents. I believe he could even help us achieve the Empyrean.”
I pulled my hand away. “I don’t want to start talking about the Empyrean again.”
“Please, let’s not,” Maddy said. There was fear in her voice, real fear. Nathan was right; my closest friend, more often than not, found me unnerving.
“That business is finished,” I said. “It has to be.”
“I’m only saying that Ariston Day might be able to help you, Jane,” Nathan said. “He knows so many things.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine without his help.”
Nathan released my hand and walked toward the edge of the folly, pausing to look toward the southern woods. Afternoon was quickly slipping into evening, and the whole sky had turned the color of granite. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind stir the branches of the budding oaks, trying to calm myself. Beneath the blossoms of spring, I could still smell winter. Nathan would not be deterred. Soon he’d insist on experimenting with the Empyrean again, and I wondered if I’d let him.
We’d previously put our explorations aside after the terrible events that occurred before Nathan left for the Crimea—events that had changed us all. I certainly didn’t want the likes of Ariston Day probing those memories, nor did I like it when Nathan talked about my abilities in the presence of Maddy. She was apt to start calling me a witch again. There’d been a time, shortly after I’d revealed my talent to them, when Maddy carried the Malleus Maleficarum, a hoary medieval text otherwise known as the “Hammer of Witches,” that was meant to help inquisitors suss out and dispose of so-called unnaturals. When I told her I took offense, she replied that the book had nothing to do with me or my “afflictions.” Rather, it was research for a series of historical daguerreotypes she intended to make. I wasn’t certain about Maddy’s explanation. For weeks after her initial experience with my talent, she’d adopted an air of mistrust in my presence. I didn’t think she wanted to go as far as tying me to a stake, though the looks she gave me were, at times, as searing as any fire.
It was clear that both of my friends misunderstood me. I wasn’t a witch meant for burning, nor was I precisely the doorway Nathan imagined. I had no lock that could be picked. If anything, I was the landscape behind the door, and even on that day in the ruin, I was still only beginning to comprehend my own flora and fauna.
“We should go for a walk on the Heath,” I said quietly. “It might clear our heads.”
“Jane’s right,” Maddy said. “Let’s forget all this business about Ariston Day—at least for a while.”
“I don’t want to walk,” Nathan said. He took a cigarette from the silver case he kept in his uniform jacket. “I’m sorry, girls. Maybe another time.” He struck a match on Mercury’s pedestal and lit the cigarette while gazing out across the unkempt garden. The more time Nathan spent at the Temple of the Lamb, the quicker he slipped into such bouts of melancholy. There was nothing Maddy or I could do to wrest him from these moods, so we fell silent there among the broken gods.
The Heath remained a memory of younger days when our friendship was still elegant—not yet fettered by jealousies or thoughts of unnatural forces. The three of us had forged our bond walking those houseless heights beneath the great marble skies, watching stormdark clouds cast shadows on the tall grass. We passed through forests of hawthorn and birch that rose above purple bogs and walked fields lush with wild iris and lavender. Hampstead Heath was like a chapel, serene and godly, and I loved the feeling of the wind burning my cheeks as it swept down over the hills. When I walked there, I felt the poetry of Keats and Coleridge clinging to its winding paths. But such poetry was nothing compared to the presence of my friends. Our walks provided a sense of stability and comfort that I hadn’t felt since before my mother died. When I was with Maddy and Nathan, I was no longer the lonesome girl lurking in shadows. Instead, I imagined I belonged. I could laugh and even felt that I might one day fall in love.
It was Maddy who’d rescued me from obscurity. Her family had been driven from central London, where they’d lived in the fashionable area of Mayfair, and they settled at the edge of Hampstead Heath not far from where I lived. She accompanied her father on his first visit to our home, called Stoke Morrow, as he sought legal advice from my own father. I remember watching Maddy from the dark recesses of the stairwell on that long-ago day. She was a petite girl in a honey-colored dress with an impressively complicated braid in her hair. To others, she appeared to be a displaced society girl, charming and quick with wit, but I would come to know her secret life. Her beauty was of her own invention. She drank a glass of vinegar mixed with honey once a week to banish the color from her skin and darkened her hair to a near black with silver nitrate from her father’s daguerreotype studio. Her wish was to become the opposite of all the simple, sunny girls who’d rejected her after her father was ousted from the London Society of Art for a series of unsavory daguerreotypes. Perhaps this will toward difference was why she chose me as her friend. I was as far from a society girl as one could get.
She’d moved about our foyer slowly, studying Father’s collection of oil paintings—all of them odd and varied depictions of the Holy Ghost. To me, she seemed impossibly fresh and alive, and I held my breath, not wanting to hear her scream if she mistook me for a spirit. But when her gaze finally fell upon me, Maddy did not seem taken aback. Her features softened, and rather than moving away, she stepped toward me. The smell of lilacs that wafted from her made me realize all the more how much I smelled like dust.
It was later, as we walked in the garden, that Maddy said something marvelous; she declared that we were going to be companions. “We’re so clearly meant for that,” she said. “Both of us are all alone out here in this wilderness. I had so many friends in the city, Jane, but out here, well, out here there’s only you.”
I wondered if I detected a slight bitterness in her voice, and I considered, for a moment, whether Madeline Lee might feel that she was “settling.” In all honesty, I didn’t care. I’d never had a proper friend before. I’d never even imagined that I could have one, and I wasn’t going to lose my chance. Though we were only fifteen at the time, Maddy seemed a woman of the world, and I could think of nothing finer than remaining constantly in her presence.
Nathan Ashe joined our little group soon after, a graceful creature of myth who’d ventured out of the tangled woods. He was a wealthy boy with manners such as I had never seen who played equally at games of war and more mystical enterprises. It was Maddy who pulled him in. She was charming where I was not. She was the one who first invited Nathan to take a walk with us on the Heath, where he lived in a great Tudor mansion, called Ashe High House. To my astonishment, Nathan took a liking to both of us and even began visiting Stoke Morrow of his own accord. After our first charmed walk together, I never wanted to be lonely Jane Silverlake lost in her manor house again. I wanted to be always with my new friends. I imagined that the three of us might even make a little cottage of our own one day in the hills beyond the Heath. Nathan would hunt and Maddy and I would make a garden. We’d have everything we needed.
Such memories of my naïveté are painful even now.
Nathan left us there in the ruin that spring evening after our discussion of Ariston Day’s Temple, cigarette smoke trailing behind him as he made his way toward the path that led through the southern woods. I followed him with my gaze for as long as I could, watching as his red uniform coat dimmed and finally disappeared in the shadows of the trees. The air was becoming cool as dew set in, and I felt my consciousness drifting, mingling with the old gods. I wondered about Nathan and the trouble he was involving himself in at the Temple of the Lamb. I wondered about Maddy too—what would become of her should anything happen to him?
“We have to do something, Jane,” she said quietly behind me. There was a new desperation in her voice.
“What do you suggest?” I asked.
“Is tying him to a heavy piece of furniture out of the question?”
I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath of spring air. “I don’t know, Maddy,” I said finally. “Do you really think we could catch him?”
Adam McOmber is the author of The White Forest: A Novel (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, September 2012). He is also the author of the short story collection, This New and Poisonous Air (BOA Editions 2011). He teaches literature and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is also the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. His fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions, Third Coast and The Fairy Tale Review.
Adapted from The White Forest by Adam McOmber. Copyright © 2012 by Adam McOmber. With the permission of the publisher, Touchstone.