‘This Empire will not fall
until Annwn’s doors are opened’
Our labour is lost.
Our bodies are ours no longer.
Our breath is torn from our lungs
to feed the might of Empire.
Our time is lost
to the clocks on the factory walls.
We shall forever be enslaved
until this Empire falls.
This Empire will not fall
until Annwn’s doors are opened
and on the winds of our breath
the last words are spoken.
I am afraid these words, scrawled on a blood-stained handkerchief, will be my last. Arthur’s Empire has insinuated itself into my lungs like the serpents of smoke wreathing from the chimneys of the furnaces, blacking out the sun, strangling the red brick streets.
I was born beneath its pall - the seventh of twelve children tumbled top-to-tail in one bed. My parents put me to work before I could read; sweeping beneath spinning engines, piecing broken cotton, stuffing carding machines, until my last job operating the looms.
My last job - I’m only twenty-five years old.
For years I have been coughing up cotton dust, lumps of coal, the blood of miners, chimney sweeps, piecers, spinners, weavers, watching it run down factory walls to join the poisoned river.
Unable to kill me from without Arthur’s Empire is killing me from within, but I will not let it take my soul.
In this sanatorium grey people lie on white sheets, gasping in fevered air thick with sickness masked by wild indigo, permanganate of potash, white vitriol, carbolic acid, with which the stiff-uniformed nurses scrub the walls and floors as if they could erase illness, erase us. None of us have the breath to speak. We are simply waiting for the end.
Three nights ago Mr Humphries got out of bed and, leaning on his walking stick, pottered over to my bed, patted me on the shoulder and spoke in a husky voice, “There will be better worlds.” The next morning I awoke staring at his corpse.
Some of the ghosts don’t leave. I see them when I’m half-asleep, half-awake, drifting on laudanum. They mix with the ghosts of my past: Jonny the piecer with his leg crushed under a spinning engine; my mother, father, and sister Elsa coughing until their last gurgling breath; my wife... my poor wife Betty... dead in childbirth, with our child still inside her, screaming “Richard, help me!”
Betty was a breath of fresh air. When our eyes first met in the Moor Brook she was playing her flute and singing folksongs about the Old Grey Man, Will O Wisps, Peggy Lantern, the Lost Ones who followed gabbling hounds across the moors to a strange land and never returned.
She was a free spirit and I didn’t want to bind her to my small life and long shifts operating looms in this mill town. Yet we were in love. She said she wanted to settle down, have a terrace of her own, babies to sing lullabies to, children to teach her songs to. She pretended not to mind working the spinning mules even though it drained her.
It was she who taught me to read and write (I was so embarrassed not knowing how). I had a talent for it, she said. Soon I was writing poetry, reciting it at the meetings of the Chartists on the moor. She told me I got carried away with campaigning for the ten percent, the votes for all working men, the constant struggles against the Cotton Lords.
She died during the Great Lock Out. I blamed myself. If we hadn’t rebelled they wouldn’t have locked us out of the factories and stopped our wages. With more to eat and less stress she’d have been stronger.
Now I see clearly it’s the fault of this damned Empire that forced us to rebel. Still, it wracks me with grief that she never saw her first-born.
Betty joined the grey ghosts of those dead before their time in the maws of machines, shot down by police, riddled by the debilitating diseases that shift through the streets like smog. Sometimes I see her face, hear her playing a tune, trying to entice away the sorrowful crowds.
“They’ve forgotten the way back,” the Gatherer of Souls explained the first time I saw him, dressed in funeral garments; a figure of calm amongst the distraught, reminding them of their names, introducing them to his hounds who entered like mist through the ventilation shafts and pushed damp noses into their hands.
“Back?” I croaked, an inexplicable longing filling my heart at his confirmation of an elsewhere. Some part of me rose up and followed as his hounds led the ghosts through cracks in the windows and he seated them on horses of night to ride with his barking pack through the skies.
I grasped hold of a black tail and was pulled away from the mills, the slums, the foul ditches, the smoking chimneys, across the moors to where the air was clean, then higher where the atmosphere grew thin.
We headed toward a star that was unendurably bright... or was that the light at the end of a dark tunnel? Its brightness was agonising. I lost my grip on the tail, fell back into this frail body, awoke with a jolt, gasping for breath, horse-hair corded between my fingers.
Where have they gone? Why can’t I follow? Why must we die like this? I launched my thoughts like flying shuttles across the endless night.
Nothing but silence and the chink of hail on the window.
Tears squeezed from my eyes for the first time since I’d entered the sanatorium. I’d tried so hard not to feel sorry for myself or anybody else. Sobs threatened to choke me. I coughed up blood and fought not to wail as the voices of quintillions of ghosts answered, you’ve forgotten.
What have we forgotten?
Annwn. All the voices converged in the voice of a hailstone rattling against the window which took the appearance of a man’s face with ice-rimmed cheekbones, commanding eyes, and a stern mouth.
A shiver of recognition ran through my fevered limbs. I hadn’t heard that word in this life yet some part of me deep within remembered a moorland where clear streams flowed, golden plover flocked, and I might hear Betty playing her flute inside her grandmother’s cottage and meet her grandmother and picnic with my ancestors.
An unseen hand offered me a white handkerchief to wipe my blood-stained lips.
I want to remember.
It’s been a long forgetting.
Over the winter nights as I drifted like snow between waking and sleeping I was blown from Prydain across the seas to Affrica, India, America, Awstralia, to survey the extent of Empire.
As I witnessed battles between cotton lords and workers, slave traders and slaves, knights and infidels, I saw two dragons fighting breathlessly overhead with rent wings and ravaged lungs.
Both sides have forgotten and the Sleeping King dreams on.
I saw Arthur slamming the doors of Annwn shut then being laid to rest in a doorless cave, an endless river of blood flowing from his wound, a sword decorated with two intertwined serpents beside him.
Through a chink in a door I glimpsed giants; fearsome animals; human-like figures with the faces of birds wearing antlers or horns, hoofed, winged, dancing to instruments I couldn’t name. Amongst them danced Betty with bare feet and whirling skirts calling me to join in.
I realised Arthur’s Empire has sealed shut the doors to the world that contains our living past, our stories, our myths, the souls of innumerable others who do not look or think like us. If we could regain that connection, break free, think what worlds we could create!
When I came back to myself it was like surfacing from the deep. My lungs were on fire. Deeply embittered by knowing I would not be an opener of doors, I scrawled these final words, sadly doubting my handkerchief would be passed on to the Inspired Ones of the future. I wipe my lips for a final time and set it down on my bedside table.
I feel empty now. Empty of pain, empty of the detritus of Empire, empty of the urge to fight that drives the dragons to tear each other to pieces.
I hear the playing of a flute somewhere in the distance.
With my last breath I commend my soul to Annwn and feel myself released from Arthur’s Empire.
The Gatherer of Souls pockets the blood-stained handkerchief I no longer need.
I am lifted through the brightness, inviting and wonderful, to where Betty is playing her flute, standing amidst cotton grass, enticing me to join her with a freckled smile, our child at her feet.
Lorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd. She has published three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls. She is a co-founder of Awen ac Awenydd and writes for Gods & Radicals. Based in Penwortham, Lancashire, she gives talks and workshops, performs poetry, and is learning Welsh. She blogs at Fruits of Annwn.