The Ceremony Of Innocence
by John G. McDaid
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer."
–William Butler Yeats
The tourists arrived as they always do, slumping dazed out of stinking pre-Eschaton diesel busses on High Street, heads still spinning from their trip into the bubble, internal Voices fallen silent, reality stripped back to unaugmented presence. They shuffle, first in hesitant arcs, taking in crystal-filled shop windows, drifting patchouli, the rumble and buzz from half-open pub doors; then they begin sizing up each other’s actuality, throw surreptitious saccades at passing locals in cloaks and staffs, only gradually tilting up and out of themselves, recentering their bodies in space. Noticing a cornice. A road sign. The Tor beyond...
I try to catch them before that happens.
Two Americans, graying upscale retirees (cha-ching!), a striking African man and Nordic woman, classically married with understated gold wedding bands, are trying to make sense of a paper map, something they've probably never used in their lives. I'm guessing they're booked at the George and Pilgrim, literally right behind them. I slide in ahead of the other guides, earning some momentary side eye. Sharp elbowed, well, okay, yeah, that's me.
"Afternoon." Tip of the grey fedora. "Welcome to Glastonbury. My name's Fiona. Can I help you folks?"
They've been warned about people like me. They hem and haw. But they're disoriented, and I present as a pale, smiling twenty-something redhead with a messenger bag and combat boots. Oh, oh, oh, they are such fresh meat. I point them to their hotel, offer to help with bags even now being disgorged from the bus. How can they refuse? Americans are so bloody polite--when they're not paving over your indigenous culture.
Three of us guides wait in the tiny lobby, chatting up the ringletted, peasant-bloused concierge until our marks return from inspecting their rooms, heads swimming with redolent oaken four-posters and delicately creaking floorboards. My god, the magisterial authenticity of it all.
My couple are Hans-Wilhelm and Marielle Namene, management consultant and pre-school teacher, respectively, from Rowayton, Connecticut. I've memorized facts about every U.S. state to riffle out in the first few minutes, and manage to keep them talking—about their town, their daughter in grad school, the ghastly mesospheric turbulence of Virgin Galactic—all the way out to my car parked out back of the hotel. I time it to end just as I pop open the doors, to give the atavism maximum shock value.
My cousin Vicki keeps this piece a' shite running. An impossibly antique electric-blue Vauxhall Corsa, lord knows where she finds the parts. Probably fabs most of them. The Namenes climb in and I twist the key to fire up the internal combustion engine. Ah, the delicate syncopation of cylinders tuned a few degrees off top dead center; the sudden pungent hydrocarbon plume. I've pre-loaded the player with a 20th-century American classic, Springsteen's "The River."
"Seat belts," I say. "It's a bumpy ride."
We're off on the standard tour through town: King Arthur’s tomb in the Abbey ruins, a stop at Chalice Well, the twin oaks Gog and Magog, a view up Wearyall Hill, all culminating at the foot of the 150-meter-high Tor. I park off Stone Down Lane where the village police know to stick a fake ticket on the windscreen; I split the take with them when guilty tourists offer to pick it up. It's an ecosystem. We work all the angles.
The April weather is mild and the ground is dry, so I narrate the plan to take them up the steeper but more direct Eastern path and show them the ruined tower. "In ancient times, the Tor rose above the flooded marshland below, becoming the Isle of Avalon of legend..."
Poor fuckers, unused to unpaved roads and burnt hydrocarbons; Marielle mutters to her husband in German, thinking she's safe, but I had to learn it reading Husserl: "As soon as it stops I'm going to take a quiet moment alone, and probably vomit profusely." I'm almost sympathetic; we leave these ruts in place for verisimilitude, and the local Council does tend to go a bit overboard. I try to bounce us gently into a parking spot with a bit of shade.
They climb out and stare. "Sheep..." blurts Hans-Wilhelm in amazement. The sheep look up, assess the threat, and return to cropping clover.
I start in on my foot-of-the-Tor patter, threading in facts about the livestock we're allowed to keep and slaughter for those rich mutton stews at the G&P, the hops and barley we import for brewing, the tobacco and cannabis which keep the town chugging along between Festivals. Nothing clicks. They appear blankly indifferent.
Hmm. So they're not the usual tourists, here for the delights they can no longer, for their own good, enjoy in the outside world.
My mental map of outsiders features a bi-lobed distribution: they come here either for Casablanca or the Khumbu Icefall. These two didn't strike me as daredevil skyclad neo-Crowleyans, so I had them pegged as genial Rick Blaine +1. Fuck, was I ever wrong.
"You can guide us to the egg stone, right?" says Hans-Wilhelm.
"Sure, it's right at the top by the..."
"The real one," interrupts Marielle.
"Not the tourist version. The one on the hidden path on the south slope," says Hans-Wilhelm.
Interesting. I've clearly underestimated my charges.
There is nothing more authentic—nor less visited—than the true egg stone of Glastonbury Tor. Even local guides can get lost scrabbling along the unmarked path seeking the oblate rock, half-buried, shielded by an ancient, twisted thorn tree. You can walk right by it two meters away if you don't know what you're looking for.
I do know. I've wandered the Tor for as long as I can recall, followed barefoot in processions around its invisible ley-line labyrinth, watched with a child's wide-eyed reverence as Ovates and Druids chanted around the wheel of the year on the hill's cardinal points.
And the egg, of course, the egg.
I've often sat on the thorn tree and considered its mute gray enigma; recalling stories told and re-told, half-remembered myths, inchoate projections from preliterate ancestors seeking to manage what Walter Ong called their “always fugitive noetic universe.” Omphalos. Gateway of the Fae. Axis Mundi.
Or, maybe, just another roadside attraction.
The Namenes are puffing and sweating as we swing under the branches, out of the glare of the sun—and the swarming eyes of the Saoshyants undoubtedly peering down from orbit—into the tight space by the stone. The smell of damp earth rises from the raw cut face of the hillside. I stand back and watch them as their eyes adjust, take in the scene: the meter-high egg encircled by flattened earth, the dozens of ribbons and prayer cloths dangling from the limbs of the tree, the candles, scrolls, bottles, scrawled messages jammed into the earthen alcove limning the stone.
They have come prepared. Marielle slips a picture sealed in thin plastic—plastic? where the hell did they get that?—and scrapes a spot in the alcove to hold it. It's a photo of a smiling man, maybe late 20s, clearly with his father’s features, wearing what is recognizably the graduation gown and dark blue tam of a professor of philosophy. My av wore one when I walked.
Hans-Wilhelm has unlaced his left hiking boot, and he sits in the crook of the tree as he removes the lining, pulls at something inside, and plucks out a packet of gray powder. It was then that I knew what they had on their mind.
Guides are warned, early in our training, about outsiders who bring the cremated remains of loved ones. It's more of a problem at places like Stonehenge and Avebury, but only because those have a higher profile. I'd heard stories, but never seen it myself. I was spooked. I suddenly felt very exposed; looked around, tried to calculate angles, sight lines.
The Namenes cup hands together, holding the few grams of powder. They're both crying as they release the dust, bend to kiss the stone, hug each other. I want to look away. I can't look away. It takes them several minutes to compose themselves.
"This was a special place for our son," says Hans-Wilhelm, without turning around. "He was a professor of comparative religion. He always told us he was going to bring us here. To see what it was like. Before. I wish we had come." Hans-Wilhelm breaks down into sobs.
"You're not going to get in trouble for this, are you? Asks Marielle.
"No.” I think for a second. “Uh, maybe. Nothing I can't handle."
"We'll do whatever we can to help," she says.
I shake it off. “I’m sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." Hans-Wilhelm tugs out a handkerchief, blows his nose.
Against my better judgement, I blurt it out. "What happened?"
"It was a mass shooting," says Hans-Wilhelm.
"He was...shot?" I can't quite believe it.
"While teaching," says Marielle. "With twelve students.”
“In a school?”
“University,” Hans-Wilhelm mutters.
"But your Voices?"
"You've never been to America, have you?" says Hans-Wilhelm.
I shake my head. "Not really.”
"Just as it is here," says Marielle. "The Voices keep us safe. Guide us. Paint over the world we see. But in America, we long ago made a decision about where the limits were."
"You have your bubbles," says Hans-Wilhelm, "Where you remember and celebrate history. Allow the forbidden."
"It was the Faustian bargain we made when we immanetized the Eschaton," he continued. "The price of submitting to that order was to leave open the door to chaos."
I swing into the car park back of the G&P, drop them off at the rear door. We do not exchange pleasantries as Hans-Wilhelm shakes my hand, passing a sheaf of folded bills. They disappear inside. To wait for a bus and a flight back to the insanity of an America far down the track of amusing itself to death. Roll credits. Fade to black.
I sometimes wonder about the world my tourists go back to, the seething, sentient noosphere of Things, humans threading amid post-Eschaton complexities far beyond meat-brained comprehension, clinging, insistent, to lacunae of irrationality. My family has lived within the Glastonbury bubble for three generations, and I have no inclination to poke my all-too-fragile head outside. But it does cross my mind, on occasions like this, to wonder about the divergent paths we seem to follow.
Ah, hell, nothing a couple of pints and an evening with my mates won't fix. Maybe I’ll give that receptionist from the G&P a jingle. Time to get properly pissed.