Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
A gorgeous fantasy in the spirit of Pan’s Labyrinth, Frederic S. Durbin’s A Green and Ancient Light is available June 7th from Saga Press.
With the moon down, the night was very dark as we left by the kitchen door, let ourselves out by the back gate, and climbed through the steep field of arbors and the open meadow. From every side came the scent of living, growing things, so different from the city’s smells of dust, rust, and engine exhaust. Grandmother carried an old-fashioned lantern that she’d lifted down from a shelf and lit with a match. It smelled of heat and the oil it burned, and it threw a circle of golden light around us.
There was no sign of the man who’d come to our door. “That was Mr. Girandole,” Grandmother explained when I asked her again. “He’s a very old friend. He’s gone ahead of us.”
I was overawed by this sudden turn of events—we were really going up into the forest, the place I’d wondered about for so long. It crossed my mind that I might be dreaming, but everything was too detailed and continuous to be a dream. I could feel the tag of my shirt scratching against the back of my neck; occasional birds called. I didn’t want Grandmother to change her mind, so I kept all questions to myself. Somehow, talking would seem intrusive in the night. Besides, I was burdened with a bucket, a metal pan inside it, and the garden tools Grandmother had asked for. She’d tied them in a canvas bundle and put other things from the kitchen into a large carpet bag while I dressed. The bag hung from her shoulder; in her free hand, she gripped her briar walking-stick. I marveled that we were doing this, all before Grandmother had had so much as a cup of tea.
The grasses glistened with dew that soaked my pants-cuffs in no time and dampened my ankles, though my old leather shoes kept my feet dry. Mist flowed along the ground under the grape trellises. Insects sang all around us. The sky was a deep blue, sparkling with stars. I’d never seen so many stars in the city. By the time we reached the forest, I’d already seen two shooting stars flash and vanish.
I suppose it would have made sense to feel some kind of dread. But Grandmother was not afraid.
We didn’t follow a path, though we crossed trails at times, the foot-worn tracks of woodcutters and berry pickers. The lantern’s glow fell in warm swaths on the moss and leaves, sending shadows lurching among the trunks. We switched back and forth in the steeper places, sometimes coming to outcroppings of bare stone where Grandmother would perch for awhile to rest. In one narrow ravine, tree roots formed a natural staircase. The mist floated thick in places, its frosty whiteness broken by glistening black trees.
Beneath the hem of her dress, Grandmother wore thick woolen stockings, and her feet were snugged in sturdy leather high-topped shoes that I suspected had once been my grandfather’s, though he had been dead for many years. Like most villagers, she was accustomed to walking. Had Grandmother lived in the city, I doubt she’d have considered taxis worth the fare.
As we progressed up the mountain, the stillness deepened. The voices of insects and night birds faded away, and even the wind ceased to stir leaves or creak the high boughs. I wondered if this solemnity always filled the last hour before sunrise, or whether it was because of the place. Were monsters watching us now, lurking beyond the lantern’s shine?
Grandmother poked her stick at a moss-bearded boulder on our left, then at a dead tree on the right with two limbs like the dangling arms of a person. She was figuring out the way to go.
The brush rustled, and something ghostly and pale moved slowly between the trees, just beyond the point at which we could see any details. I kept still, watching it, and didn’t dare to speak. I thought it was a four-footed animal, probably a deer, though it might have been anything.
When it had passed, Grandmother led us onward again. Even in the wildest stretches, the footing was never too difficult. We crossed carpets of leaves, stepped over logs crusted with fungus like fairy dishes and cups; we traversed aprons of moss so plush that I felt guilty to set my feet there, as if I were blundering over someone’s bed. Though Grandmother never issued a specific warning, I carefully avoided treading on any mushrooms or stepping into the rings or half-rings they formed.
We came up onto a level shelf where the trees grew ancient and immense, soaring like cathedral pillars. As we rounded a shoulder of rock, I looked ahead and nearly shrieked. Dropping everything, I covered my mouth, feeling that the breath had been sucked out of me.
Grandmother raised the lantern toward a terrifying sight.
A human figure—a man—dangled limp, hanging among the branches. All around and above him was a web of countless strands, a silky whiteness draping the limbs, billowing gently with the wood’s breath. I thought of the spiders in Grandmother’s garden, of the webs they spun in the darkness, and of the tiny winged things caught there when the sun rose. But the spider that had spun this web must be the size of a horse.
My scalp felt pierced with cold needles. I turned in a circle, searching the gloom above and behind us.
“What’s wrong with you?” Grandmother shot me a scathing look, apparently unafraid to use her voice here.
“Where’s the spider?” I blurted.
She narrowed her eyes. Then her expression softened, though she didn’t smile. “You silly boy. That’s not a spider web. It’s a parachute.”
At once, my face flushed with heat. I knew I should have understood what the cords and the pleated silky cloth were. But it was a dark place, and I’d been looking for monsters.
Grandmother moved forward again, prodding her way through some bushes to circle the man and eventually to stand directly beneath him. His boots swung with the smallest rocking motion about two body lengths over her head. She poked with her stick in the leaves around her shoes.
“He’s lost some blood,” she said. Then she raised her voice and called up at the man, “Hey! Can you hear me?”
There was no answer, no movement. I could see that the right leg of his canvas trousers was soaked with blood. I crept closer. At first, I’d thought his head was bald and blackened, perhaps as an effect of the giant spider’s venom; now I saw that he wore a close-fitting leather pilot’s hat.
He hung completely limp in his harness, supported by two broad straps above his shoulders. When a draft of air bellied the chute and stirred the bundles of cord, he twirled ever so slightly.
Trudging a few steps away, Grandmother stooped and picked up something… a heavy twig. She clamped her stick in her lanternhand, took aim, and flung the twig up at the man. It missed him by a wide margin. So did her second try, with another twig… her third bounced off his hip.
Grandmother breathed something that might have been a curse word, set the stick and lantern down, and ordered me to help her.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked. A chunk of bark I threw almost hit the man’s arm.
Then, with a loud whop, a rock of Grandmother’s struck him squarely in the stomach.
Immediately, the leather-capped head flew up, and the man shouted and flailed his arms and legs, looking like a marionette… an angry, blood-soaked marionette. His eyes were hidden behind big goggles. The language he was shouting in was not ours.
It was then that I finally made the connection. The plane that had fallen from the sky to crash into the sea… Clear and bright in my memory, I saw again the emblems on the wings and fuselage. This man above us had parachuted out of it. He was an enemy fighter pilot.
I cried out as I saw him pull a handgun from a holster beneath his arm.
Spinning right and left with the frenzy of his struggles, the man yelled a stream of harsh-sounding words, trying to aim the gun at Grandmother. His arm swayed and bobbed, the gun bouncing up and down.
Grandmother said nothing. She stood as straight as her curving back would allow and watched the man. I have no doubt she came within a hair’s breadth of being shot, but she didn’t shout back or try to run. She only stood and breathed and studied the pilot trying to get her in his gun sight.
But I hollered enough for both of us. I ran toward her, screaming at the man not to shoot. The goggled eyes turned toward me, and the gun wavered uncertainly, swinging in my direction, then back at Grandmother.
The man peered up into the nest of straps and lines that held him. He clawed at the buckles on his chest, but his panicked shouts had now taken on the tones of complaint. He gesticulated with the gun, now waving it in the air, now pounding it against his side. At one point, he seemed to be weeping.
“That’s enough!” Grandmother had picked up her walking-stick, and something in her voice got the man’s attention. She pointed the stick at him and shook it. “Enough,” she repeated. “Drop that gun right now and be still if you want any help from us.”
“Shut up!” yelled the man. He spoke at least a little of our language. “Shut up! No drop gun, no drop gun!”
“Shoot it, then!” Grandmother called back. “Shoot it, and everyone in the village will hear you. Soldiers will come. Do you want their help or ours?”
It was hard to argue with her logic. After a few more epithets, he stuck the gun back into his holster.
“Not there,” said Grandmother, pointing with her stick. “The ground.”
This seemed too much for him, too tall an order, but then he lost consciousness again. He’d missed the holster, only shoving the barrel beneath his arm—and when his limbs went slack, the gun tumbled onto the carpet of leaves.
I stared and thought about how close to death we’d come. After a pause, Grandmother bent close, regarded the pistol as if it were dog manure on her front walk, and picked it up by its middle. Holding it at arm’s length, she moved off behind the pilot’s back and hid it among a pile of rocks.
“He’s alive, then,” said a voice at my back, and I jumped.
It was Mr. Girandole, peering around the bole of a tree and wringing his hands, like someone in a play.
“Too alive for his own good,” said Grandmother.
Gray light was brightening the thickets. Beyond the wood, the sun was about to rise. The leaves and trunks were no longer entirely black, though the mist still floated in curtains. The air was damp and cool in a fresh, pleasant way. Birds chattered again, near and far.
I had my first good look at Mr. Girandole. He came forward with what seemed reluctance, as if he would have preferred to watch from the shadows but had no choice. His thinness made him seem taller than he was; as he drew near, I saw that he was scarcely taller than Grandmother. His face was mostly large eyes and a prominent, sharp nose, his mouth and inconsequential chin half-hidden by a short, groomed moustache and beard. I could not imagine his age: perhaps thirty, perhaps fifty.
His skin was dark, only a shade lighter than his brown whiskers. He wore a knee-length coat, the belt cinched tight, and had the hat pulled low, so that the rumpled brim covered his ears. There was an oddity to his walk, which I guessed must be a limp.
Smiling awkwardly, he offered a hand. From his manner, I couldn’t help thinking of a child who has been ordered to shake the hand of a dubious stranger. His fingers were surprisingly long, and the back of his hand was hairy. I wondered if he were a foreigner, perhaps from behind the mountains—though he had no noticeable accent.
I was none too eager to shake his hand either, but as he was a friend of Grandmother’s, I did so.
“Well, it’s a fine mess,” he said, trudging past me and returning his hands to his coat pockets. His gaze took in the dangling pilot and all the entangled folds of parachute, the skeins of cord.
Grandmother stood studying the problem too, her palms on her waist. “He’ll die if he keeps hanging there,” she said. “May die anyway.”
Mr. Girandole nodded. “Which is why I thought it best to… As you can see…”
Grandmother paced slowly, examining the trees and limbs.
I was a passionate climber of trees now that I had a whole garden full of them to choose from. Grandmother had learned early that I was easily entertained by sitting in a fork among the boughs, reading one of the books I’d brought. Now I guessed what she’d had in mind when she’d said she might need my help.
But there was no way to climb these gigantic trees. The first limbs began high in the air, and no branch came anywhere near the ground. It would be impossible to get above the pilot in order to cut him loose.
“Let’s gather leaves and dirt,” Grandmother said at last. “Pile them right here.” She pointed with her stick at the bloodstained forest carpet straight below the hanging man. “Should have brought the rake and spade.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Girandole, as if he grasped her plan. She handed him the bucket I’d carried, and he hurried off in one direction; Grandmother untied the canvas bundle and led me in another. Finding a patch of soil where few plants grew, she sliced into the earth with the brush knife. Onto the square of canvas we piled handfuls of crumbly dead leaves and dirt. Beetles and gray rollup bugs scurried between our fingers. Grandmother hummed to herself, exactly as she did when working in the garden.
When we had a load, we dragged it back to the pilot. A drop of his blood spattered the canvas as we shook the soil loose. He groaned but did not raise his head.
Mr. Girandole worked quickly, bringing his third or fourth bucketful. He glanced up at the man and pursed his lips. “I fear this may be in vain.”
“H’mm,” Grandmother agreed. We headed back for another load. I looked with interest at a deep bed of plush moss, but Grandmother shook her head. “We’re not tearing up the grove for him,” she said, and I remembered the monsters. This was their home.
At first, we labored within the circle of the lantern’s glow, placing it on the ground near the growing earth pile, but when the forest lightened, Grandmother had me blow the flame out. Birds warbled, flitting from branch to branch. From the direction of the village, far away, a late rooster crowed.
Even by daylight, this section of the wood reminded me of parlors I’d seen—dusky rooms with high ceilings and forbidding furniture, reserved for times of greater importance than the present. And yet in other ways, this place was like nothing in any human dwelling. There were age and stillness here. The furnishings were alive.
Twice as we worked, the man over our heads woke up and grumbled. I supposed he was feverish.
“Perhaps we look sinister to him,” said Mr. Girandole, meeting us as we emptied our loads of earth together. “Perhaps he thinks we’re digging his grave.”
“Perhaps we are,” said Grandmother.
Here, where none but the rarest sunbeam reached the wood’s floor, it was still a summer day. My shirt was sticking to my back, wringing wet, and Grandmother had long since shed her scarf. Mr. Girandole, in his unseasonable coat, looked about to expire.
He dabbed with his sleeve cuff at his forehead beneath the hat’s brim and glanced furtively at me, not for the first time.
Grandmother announced that it was time for us all to rest. She perched on a rock, and I gratefully flopped down on the ground nearby. “Really, Girandole,” she said. “How long are you going to keep this up? Whose eyes are you afraid of here?”
Mr. Girandole’s mouth twitched. His gaze flicked toward me, then up at the man in the tree, who hung limp again. Two crows hopped along the limbs, clearly talking to each other as they assessed the pilot—speculating.
Mr. Girandole sighed. “I suppose you’re right, M——.” He scrunched his brows, took a breath, and played with the cuff of one sleeve. Several times, he seemed about to speak but didn’t— and always his eyes darted back to me.
Grandmother propped her arms on her walking-stick, laid her head on her wrists, and closed her eyes, lazily tapping one foot.
“Well,” said Mr. Girandole. “You see… That is, er…” Seeming to find his focus then, he crouched beside me and held up a spindly inger. I couldn’t help looking him up and down, trying to decide what was so unsettling about the way he crouched.
Yet it was also hard to look away from his luminous brown eyes. “Young sir,” he began with determination, “you have heard, I take it, the tale of Cinderella?”
Grandmother snorted with amusement—why, I wasn’t precisely sure—and continued her impression of nap-taking.
Mr. Girandole examined his never-still fingers, as if finding his words there. His nails had soil caked beneath them now, as mine did; his hands were smudged with drying muck.
“A lost slipper,” he said. “A slipper of glass—or of fur, as the tale used to be told. The details change. The truth… the truth behind the story… is that no foot would fit the shoe but hers— the foot of that one girl. Why do you suppose that was?”
I blinked, thinking of the story. “She… had small, dainty feet.”
“Do you really think so?” Mr. Girandole leaned forward earnestly, and I flinched, unsettled.
“The prince searched the length and breadth of the land!” he said. “Maidens from far and wide tried to force their feet into that slipper. Are we truly to believe that Cinderella had the smallest feet in the kingdom? The tale always assures us, no matter who tells it, that she was beautiful… that the prince had to find her again, at any cost.” Mr. Girandole spread his hands decisively, as if I could not fail now to see his point. “Tall people and small people can be very beautiful, of course. But could she have towered over him, or stood no taller than a child? Surely she must have been of a fairly ordinary size. If the prince had been looking for someone of extreme stature, why let all the typical maidens try on the slipper? Do you see?”
I had no answer. He did make an excellent point.
Above us, the pilot moaned and murmured something under his breath.
Mr. Girandole looked down at his own worn boots. “Cinderella’s foot wasn’t larger or smaller than that of most women. It was of a different shape altogether.”
Grandmother raised her head and said matter-of-factly, “That’s true. As I first heard it, the stepsisters mutilated their own feet trying to make them the right shape. One cut off her toes. The other cut off her heel.”
“And both attempts failed!” said Mr. Girandole. “If the shoe fit Cinderella’s foot, what does that tell us about her?”
I tried to imagine her foot, and the picture in my head wasn’t pretty.
“Why, she must have had neither,” said Grandmother brightly. “Neither toes nor a heel.”
“And what does that leave?” Mr. Girandole finished. “And who gave her the slipper? Who changed her fate?”
“F-fairy,” I managed. “Fairy godmother.” The sweat on my face and in my shirt had grown chill.
“And you don’t just get one of those.” Leaning still closer, he lowered his voice. “For reasons beneficent or nefarious, the tale handed down to us has been altered to obscure Cinderella’s origins. The fact is that she was ill-treated by her step-family because she was different.” He glanced sideways, conspiratorially, then straight back at me. “Cinderella was not a daughter of the Second Folk or humans. Her people were older.”
Before his words had quite sunk in, Mr. Girandole plucked loose the laces of his right boot, grasped it in both hands, and pulled it off. There, in the somnolent light of morning, I saw protruding from his trouser cuff a bony ankle covered in coarse brown hair— and instead of a foot, the sharp, split hoof of a goat.
I sprang to my feet, barely containing a yelp. “Old Mr. Clubfoot,” Mrs. D—— had said. “Witch-weasels and sickle-winds.” I backed away, heart pounding.
“Sit down,” Grandmother told me gently but firmly. “Don’t be rude.”
“I suspect it was a fur slipper,” Mr. Girandole said. “A hoof would shatter a shoe of glass.” He looked up at me with a sad, lop-sided smile.
My mind was so numbed that my body was left to make the decisions, and it decided on flight. I turned and bolted into the forest, too deeply shaken to obey Grandmother’s order that I stop. The ground descended in a slope, and the undergrowth became denser. Bushes clutched at my knees; branches lashed at my face. I skidded, landed on my arms, and got up again, dodging right and left between the trunks. As I careened down into a wide ravine, my pulse pounded in my ears.
It wasn’t long before I came back to my senses. Clearly, Mr. Girandole meant me no harm. I didn’t run far. But I ran just far enough, crashing through briars and low branches, to carry me headlong into the grove of monsters.
Looming above the bushes straight before me was the huge, dark head of a beast.
I stopped so abruptly, my feet shot out from beneath me, and I landed sitting, paralyzed with fear. The creature, too, seemed frozen in rapt attention, its round eyes fixed on me, its jaws gaping wide. Neither horse nor lion, it had round ears high on its head and tufts of streaming hair between them and its mouth. Overlapping plates of leathery hide armored its muzzle and neck. From its back, in the grove’s half-light, rose two shadowy wings.
I was certain this was my last moment of life—that the beast would spring upon me, snapping tree limbs with its lunge, and devour my upper half at one bite. I flung up my arms to cover my head.
But after a long space, when I opened my eyes again, I saw that the beast had not moved. Still its bulging eyes watched me, and still its jaws gaped; yet I heard no rumbling breath, no ponderous movements. Birds twittered, and a breeze stirred the branches.
Eventually, it occurred to me that the monster’s grayish hue was not elephantine skin but the gray of weathered stone, that the darker patches on its sides were fans of lichen, and that fallen leaves clung to its back. The beast was a statue—a craftsman’s sculpture.
I sat there breathing, clutching my shirt-front, the sweat drying on my neck. As I rose to a crouch and looked around, I saw that fantastic shapes loomed everywhere, half-buried in the undergrowth. Bearded stone faces peered between vines; a muscular giant towered among the trees; a sea serpent reared above green waves of bushes; a stately king or god occupied his throne. In the distance, a tall tower was just visible past three interposing trees. As I studied it, tilting my head to one side and the other, I saw that this building leaned at an odd angle, as if stuck in the act of toppling over.
So, these were the monsters, and this was the haunted woods, the sacred woods, a garden long overgrown and abandoned, hidden in blue shadows, in shafts of early sun. How truly strange it was! It sang to my heart in a silent voice. Every vine-obscured shape intrigued me—every secret space drew me forward. I wanted to plunge forward and discover every figure the garden would reveal. Yet I remembered how I’d left Grandmother and Mr. Girandole. With a last, longing glance, I hurried back toward them.
Mr. Girandole seemed to have been more worried about me than Grandmother was. He breathed a sigh when I reappeared, and he kept glancing at me as if seeking some kind of reassurance. His boots were both in place again, and I felt bad for reacting with such shock to his hoofed feet. He was Grandmother’s friend.
Grandmother watched me with a serious expression, waiting.
Mr. Girandole had taken off his coat and held it folded over an arm. Beneath, he wore a gray shirt with old-fashioned, pointed collars. When he laid the coat neatly on a rock, I saw the reason for his odd gait. His legs, clothed in trousers the color of dust, bent differently from those of other people. His knees were apparently backwards, sticking out behind him. Despite myself, I felt another rush of fear, but I resolved not to stare. I showed him a sheepish grin, which seemed to relieve him further.
Grandmother said, “Have you been to the grove?”
I nodded and fell in beside her as she took up the brush knife and started back to work.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked.
Again, I could only nod. The grove seemed too significant for me to wrap words around.
Grandmother scooped decaying leaves. “I first found my way there when I was younger than you. That was a long time ago. Obviously.”
I noticed that Mr. Girandole’s hands paused in his own labor across the clearing. Just for a moment, he was motionless, gazing at the ground—listening or remembering something.
I asked Grandmother, “Which monster did you see first?”
“The mermaid. I came upon her from behind, and I knew at once she was a mermaid, though she has two tails instead of one. I wondered why she wouldn’t turn and look at me. I supposed she was angry at me, like my mother. That’s how I found the place, you see: I was running away from a scolding at home.”
I laughed. This was the most Grandmother had ever told me about herself at one time, and I was enjoying it.
“What had you done to get in trouble?”
She shooed a beetle off our canvas. “I don’t even remember now.”
Mr. Girandole spoke as he emptied his bucket. “You’d gone out to play in your new shoes and lost one under the hedge, and you tore your dress on the fence.” He looked away suddenly. “At least, so you told me once, I think.”
Grandmother chuckled. “If you say it was so, it was so.” To me she added, “Girandole remembers everything.”
We worked then in silence. My mind was busy, thinking of Mr. Girandole’s goat-like legs, of his Cinderella story… and of the monsters in the grove’s half-light. At last, I said to Grandmother, “That’s all the people are afraid of—those statues?”
“That’s all I know of that could have started their foolishness,” she said. “Old stone shapes in a forest.”
Every now and then, Mr. Girandole would bound toward the pilot and wave his arms to drive off the crows, who were hopping nearer and nearer in the branches.
“His eyes should be safe enough behind those goggles,” remarked Grandmother.
“All the same,” said Mr. Girandole.
After a moment, Grandmother looked at me and said, “There’s a riddle to it, though—that garden of monsters. The longer you look at it, the more questions it raises. It’s a big mystery, a puzzle that wants a solution, though I can’t guarantee it has one.”
I waited for her to say more, but typically, she didn’t.
There was so much I wanted to know, but it seemed rude to ask. Did Mr. Girandole have those feet because he was born with a deformity, like a boy at my school whose right arm was withered and small? Or was he really a different sort of person entirely, like Cinderella?
Excerpted from A Green and Ancient Light © Frederic S. Durbin, 2016