a short story by Peter Cowlam
If Peter Cowlam were a painter he would be Gustave Moreau. His story is a treasure chest of sparkling symbols. His writing reads like the libretto of an opera. The Lottery Gates is a mystical quest full of unexpected encounters and luscious vistas. The protagonist would like to be worthy of travelling through the Lottery Gates. This is a Hermetic story, a story Hermann Hesse would have enjoyed and understood.
1 The Transmutation
Si came down from the fields, where he’d been working, for the day was nearly departed. The sun had sunk towards the mountains, while the mingling hues of evening had faded in a wash of summer twilight. It was a pleasant, tranquil hour. As was his habit at this time, Si went home through his hamlet’s tiny communal gardens.
He came to the old path he had often used as a child, and with it meandered down where there were miniature trees, and a stream. Here, on every other evening, he had paused reflectively, jumped across, and re-joined the path in its climb through the hillside shrubs towards home. But Si, so long had it been his wish, turned to the left and began to follow the stream, east to west.
‘In good time, I shall have you see the Lottery Gates.’
The words echoed. They had been spoken by a greying old man of the roadside, who had told him that dreams were realties, realities dreams. The rest was all riddle, for cannot the trickling stream also become a mighty river, and the river reach the sea?
‘Make sure your vessel isn’t ill-equipped.’
Si hesitated, and glanced over his shoulder. On a crest he could see the wooden gate that opened onto the road to home. He wondered. Then he looked in the direction of the stream, as it drifted to greater distances before him – and he wondered again. The old man’s words still echoed, quietly.
The sun sank down behind the great mountain. The last of the daylight fled. Si decided to venture no farther.
The landowner’s son had also been out walking, and was making his way home. He stopped at the wooden gate and gazed into the gardens. Presently, he saw Si coming towards him. They had been friends.
‘Months pass by,’ he said, ‘and I see nothing of you. You no longer call.’
‘I am just too tired,’ said Si. ‘When the work is done, all I want to do is rest.’ So saying, he walked on past.
His one-time friend called after him, but he did not break his step.
Presently, Si returned to his tiny abode, where he made a simple supper. His neighbour was out back, smoking a short cigar, and staring at the heavens. The stars had begun to appear – there was promise of brilliance – as now he thought there were signs of less troubled times ahead.
Si would have welcomed the news but did not believe in starry portents. He was too much burdened by the encumbrances nearer to home to commit his destiny to remote unknowns. His preference was the Lottery Gates and the bower he’d heard of there, reputed to have the power to change the course of anyone’s life. Although he knew no one who had been there, many were adamant the gates were the one dependable opening into a better world. Si hope that one day he would find out for himself.
At supper he gave up thanks for the land’s bounty, and afterwards went out back and talked to his neighbour. Throughout their conversation there were thoughtful silences, supposedly a sign of good omen, though to Si the atmosphere was gloomy. He was unhappy. His disillusion permeated everything.
‘The heavens are propitious. I think you will not have to wait long for a change in fortune. You will have a place in the world.’
‘I am encouraged,’ said Si. ‘But I am not so certain as you of the stars, and the heavens. They are so vast, and the stars are numerous. I cannot see how they govern the affairs of mere mortals. I’d prefer to try my luck at the Lottery Gates.’
The other shook his head, and on this night they spoke no more of the stars.
Si set off for work the following morning before the sun had risen. As was usual, on his way to the fields he stopped when he met the greying old man sitting peaceably at the roadside.
‘What news,’ asked Si, ‘before I start my work?’
There was a pause while the old man considered. ‘I hear strange stories,’ he said, ‘from the landowner’s son. You have been seen in the gardens, following the stream towards the forbidden west.’
‘That is true. But I stray no farther than the bounds of the gardens, for the sun falls away and darkness prevents me.’
‘The landowner’s son speaks also of fading friendship. Yet it wasn’t so many years ago you played so well together.’
‘The landowner’s son grows idle in his wealth. I work all day and have no time to share in his pleasures.’ So saying, Si made to pass the old man, for already he was late.
‘There is no work for you in the fields today,’ the old man declared. ‘A walk in the gardens is better for your peace of mind.’
‘I appreciate your concern. But today is the same as any other. I am expected to toil in the landowner’s fields.’ Again, he made to pass the old man.
‘No, Si, today is not the same as any other. It is different. You do not have to toil in the fields.’
‘But how can this be?’
‘Go down to the gardens – your day is come – and follow the stream. From there you are on your own. I cannot foretell your future after that.’
Astonished and silenced, Si did as the old man suggested.
He entered the gardens and again walked among the miniature trees. At the stream, he stopped, and took account of his situation. The sun was rising above the hills in the east, in a golden flush behind him. There was a sparkle in the rushing stream ahead.
There were moments when the gardens petered out, and there were thorns, wildness, a profusion. The hazards increased once the stream had narrowed to the merest trickle. But he did not panic. He beat his way through the bushes, and patiently sought the stream whenever it disappeared beneath ground.
He walked on nervously, and chanced to look away to the wooden gate, where there were two figures, waving – the old man and the landowner’s son – who continued to wish him brave farewells. In reply, he bowed solemnly, then hurried on, until he could see them no longer.
Soon he relaxed his pace and was careful to note how the gardens gradually altered. Sometimes, it became difficult to follow the stream. There were moments when the gardens petered out, and there were thorns, wildness, a profusion. The hazards increased once the stream had narrowed to the merest trickle. But he did not panic. He beat his way through the bushes, and patiently sought the stream whenever it disappeared beneath ground. He persisted.
In due course he grew tired, and his patience wore thin. The journey had left his limbs with bruises, and the flesh of his face and arms was scratched. So daunting seemed the terrain ahead that he wished he’d remained in the fields, where he knew his work, and the routine. That yearning for what he knew grew more acute when the way ahead was more arduous, with swamps and quarries, dark, inhospitable woodland, a dustbowl, and finally a wilderness.
He was lost, and exhausted, and had little hope of finding the stream, which had vanished. Unwilling to go farther, he sat down, and buried his head in his hands. On daring to look up once more, his troubles and anguish did not diminish. The dilemma only worsened. The sky was dark. It seemed as if night had descended. There was little he could see of the strange world around him. He hoped his neighbour might be missing him, or his fellow-workers in the fields. Thoughts of home reminded him of the smell of tobacco out back, and his neighbour prophesying, gazing at the stars. That simple recollection relieved his distress, but that was only momentary.
The beasts of the wilderness had sensed his presence. As he listened, it seemed their moans and cries grew louder. Their footfalls too. He reasoned he must light a fire, but had no means. The truth was he had come to the wilderness ill-prepared in every way. He wondered that the greying old man had not advised him so.
He glanced back on his past, and found his judgements milder than before. That the landowner was wealthy, with possessions, money and power no longer disturbed him as much. It was true that he paid his labourers little – just enough to live – yet his was a life of worry. There were his fears of flood or drought. There was an ever present threat of harvest failure. To top all else he had constantly to adapt himself to the market price of grain. How odd it seemed now that Si had chosen to lose himself in hostile country as a solution to the injustices of home. He thought too of the landowner’s son, and again was less harsh in his judgement. He was lazy undoubtedly, spending his days riding or shooting or swimming, but soon enough he would take his father’s place. Then he too would worry endlessly over floods, droughts, harvest failures, the fluctuating market price of grain.
‘Yes,’ Si concluded, ‘I am here because I rebel, but what is rebellion if not an unanswered cry in the wilderness?’
The beasts around him pressed closer on Si as he plunged deeper in meditation. Somewhere the stream curled away through the darkness and undergrowth. And far away, behind the famous Lottery Gates, the keeper there was strolling in the gardens, enjoying the summer sun.
Now there emerged from the woodland behind Si the weirdest-looking man, boyish in physique but reptilian in overall appearance, who was quick to apologise for himself—
‘Do not be alarmed. I am a friend, not foe.’
Si, mesmerised by the depth and mellowness in the tone of the voice he heard, turned in its direction, but could see nothing. Only the vague mysterious shapes of the landscape he was in.
‘I am here.’
Si turned again and in the light of the lantern the other man bore saw how little prepared he had been for the part-boy, part-man, part-reptile. Nevertheless, he repressed a gasp of horror. The creature sat down some way apart from him, and explained that since the hour of his transmutation he had never again experienced the warmth of human kindness. Strangers had laughed, jeered, resorted to finger-pointing, had spoken in derision, and in the end had made him feel to be the monster they said he was.
‘Well, be at ease. I am Si.’
‘I – I have no name.’
‘Well I shall call you Lanternman. Lanternman, who has lit my path.’
‘I have not always looked so hideous. Once I enjoyed healthy manhood, as you.’
There was a tale to be told. And since the man without a name – or as Si called him, Lanternman – seemed familiar with the wilderness, Si listened patiently, even as the moans of the wild beasts echoed around them. Indeed, he ignored them, not noticing that by now these animal utterances were more akin to laughter, and had grown ever more so since the arrival of the nameless man with the lantern.
Years ago, in his youth, the man without a name lived in a country advanced in its civilisation, and prosperous. When his schooling was over, he set out to work in one of its famous cities, finding an abundance of merchants and traders there, who were known the world over.
Our lantern-bearer soon understood that there were people cleverer, in a peasant sort of way, than he was. He had to acknowledge that, in matters of trade, they had superior abilities. He made little progress, and in the course of fifteen years won only two promotions.
Even then, he might have been nameless, for most people never remembered him.
He was approaching middle-life when he had reason no longer to accept but to examine his failings. He had expected, as an older man might, that the young men and women newly initiated into the business world would regard him with politeness and respect. But they did not. As with everybody else, to them he remained a nobody. He was mystified, of course, but understood for the first time exactly what this feeling of inferiority meant. He requested, and was granted, an interview with his immediate superior.
‘I can spare you,’ he said, ‘five minutes.’
The unhappy subordinate shifted uneasily, and in overwhelming embarrassment could not muster the courage to speak. He was ashamed.
‘I haven’t got all day,’ his boss snapped at him.
‘Well, you see, the problem is—’
‘The problem is what, man? Spit it out.’
‘It’s that I’m, I’m – inferior. Incompetent.’ His face turned to such a crimson hue, and he squirmed so uncomfortably that the other was bound to agree.
‘Well, glad you’ve got it off your chest. It’s the first step to redemption. Now, may I suggest, we both get back to work. Time, as we say, is money.’
This did not seem to the Lanternman – who felt only more inferior – a satisfactory response. Instead of receiving help in steps towards his rehabilitation, he slid further into feelings of insecurity, a situation that couldn’t be allowed to go on. Eventually, as things were explained, there were places abroad where programmes and institutions had been set up to offer training to inferior, incompetent men of trade. He would have to save, and pay for a course.
‘We can only make the recommendation. We do not have the authority to send you.’
‘By whose authority can I go?’
‘Whatever institution accepts you. You could make appeals yourself.’
‘Oh no, no. I am too inferior for that.’
That, really, was his need for help, but happily a suitable course was found and he paid his application fee. After a few days he received forms and questionnaires to fill in, and was shown the box where he was expected to make his personal statement, headed in block capitals. He took no exception. Indeed the method suited him, for he, lowly and of no account, unable to voice his problems in the presence of great and clever men, felt much better doing so in writing, on an official form designed for that purpose.
Months went by, and the forms continued to reach him – until, one day, he received a letter. He was free to go, it told him. Sufficient assessment had been made, the verdict being he was now ready for his training. For the sake of economy, he must make his own arrangements for the journey. The letter was signed by one of the very greatest traders. That could be seen by the haste with which the signature had been scrawled.
Never having earned much money, he couldn’t afford any form of passage. He would either have to walk, or give up the idea. It was a question he debated with himself for an unexpectedly long time, and which he did not resolve entirely alone. He noticed his employers beginning to frown, and that the severity of those frowns increased the longer he remained. The situation became more and more uncomfortable, and reached the point where he felt compelled to throw over his old life. Even at the expense of a long walk.
On his journeys into foreign countries he followed the laws and customs every traveller must. He showed his papers at frontiers. He offered no resistance when uniformed officials searched his clothes and baggage. He explained to a thousand suspicious inquirers the object of his journey. Once he spent a night in jail while confirmation of his identity was sought.
…he stumbled on a much more exquisite garden than the one that had lured him in the first place. It had extensive lawns, terraces, a folly, lofty cypresses, little clear pools, and a bank of white, blue and purple agapanthus.
The whole venture tired him greatly, and to top all his flight was hampered by his limited grasp of geography. He had only the vaguest idea of the whereabouts of the country he was aiming for. Maps he had never learned to read, and so those that he carried were an enigma. It was therefore more by luck than judgement that he reached the town where his retraining was due. He rejoiced, but later despaired. The institution he’d applied to was nowhere to be found. None that he asked could direct him there. He was helpless.
He cheered a little when he chanced to find a small but delicately tended garden, open to the public. His heart swelled with simple pleasure when he strolled among its miniature trees, with summer sunlight dancing on the leaves. In a valley was a glittering stream. He put aside his cares for the moment, and happily sauntered in the sunshine, and followed the stream. But gradually, and too late to do anything about it, these carefree distractions melted into anguish. He was lost. Perhaps his journey would never end.
At length he came to a wilderness, where he wandered uncertainly. Then his fortunes changed again, when he stumbled on a much more exquisite garden than the one that had lured him in the first place. It had extensive lawns, terraces, a folly, lofty cypresses, little clear pools, and a bank of white, blue and purple agapanthus.
But, at the garden’s Lottery Gates, the keeper there did not share in the lightness of his mood. She had the burden of responsibility, and the strain told. She was feeling unwell, she said, and her patience wasn’t endless. It was unlikely that the mere troubles of a man should concern her in any way, for despite the levity in his step she saw that he was troubled. She asked rather off-handed why he had come. He approached nearer, but on reaching the gates, and peering through, could not see her. He must, he thought, have imagined the voice, but he did not turn away. He had hope in his heart, and he spoke—
‘I have come,’ he said, ‘to acquire competence and superiority.’
This the keeper already knew, for it was the aspiration of all men who consulted her. She asked him to say how he would use these acquisitions.
The traveller thought for a moment. Then it occurred to him that perhaps he had reached his destination after all, and that this was his training, and that to gain access he must answer preliminary questions. He hoped his answers were right.
‘Well,’ he began, ‘I would like to be skilled in matters of trade and commerce, able to make money for my employers, and have plenty of people beneath me I can order around. And of course, I must make money for myself, so that I don’t have to walk everywhere.’
The keeper was enraged. How could a man of such miserable ambition be so rash as to solicit her guidance? There and then she transmuted him, by what powers none could say, turning him into a man-child of reptilian aspect. Immediately he experienced twinges, but it was not until he peered into a pool in the gardens that he saw the full extent of the terrible changes that had taken place.
Now there was so much more to be lamented. Not only was he psychologically damaged, but now physically altered too. Why he had been punished in this way he could not fathom. In hopeless self-pity, he sat and wept and moaned at what tragedy had been wreaked on his weak inferior life. A more grotesque and graver lot could not have befallen any other man. But at least he still had his reason. If there was a power on earth able to inflict such morbid disfiguration, then the same power must be capable of unbinding that spell. He thought to visit the Lottery Gates again.
His inferiority was now at its most pronounced, but the desire to have his natural appearance restored was great. Trembling, he came to stand at the Lottery Gates a second time, hardly noticing that nearby and within easy reach was a lantern. It seemed unimportant. The all-knowing keeper had been waiting for his return. Her anger had subsided, and she prompted him, gently, to speak.
He said he had never wanted much: a little respect from others; reasonable subsistence in exchange for reasonable labour; an occasional sign from his superiors, whom he wished only to serve faithfully. His severest handicap, he explained, had always been his acute inferiority. In an attempt to overcome the problem, he had embarked on a long journey, in search of the kind of training that would help him overcome the worst of his life obstacles. Only by mistake had he come this way. He did not wish to be a nuisance, he added, but would be eternally grateful if his usual features were restored.
In her omniscience, of course, the keeper did not require these explanations. But she was touched.
‘What you are asking for,’ she said, ‘requires effort, determination.’
‘What must I do?’
She drew attention to the lantern, and told him to take it up. ‘The wilderness is dark. Travellers are infrequent. However few they might be I do not deny them a light and guide. Go into the wilderness, and seek out all those roaming in spirit. And bring them to me, safely. But before that, you must find the first gardener and return him to me.’
Si had listened to the tale in some consternation. The keeper, he now understood, was far from certain to dispense favours. He looked strangely at the lantern-bearer, and now wondered if it might be wiser to return home and resume his work in the fields, and forget about the Lottery Gates. The other seemed to know his thoughts. Speaking almost apologetically, he told Si that he had been at work for so long in the wilderness that he had forgotten the pathways out to the world. If Si wished to leave, he must find his own way. Worse than that, the wilderness itself was changing all the time, and he was unsure if he could even find the Lottery Gates again.
Si pondered greatly, for the decision was not easy. ‘It must all have something to do with this first gardener,’ he said. ‘I will help you find him.’ It was his intuition that that was the best first step in reaching the Lottery Gates and their keeper.
2 The Golden Rod
Si had been sleeping heavily when he at last stirred, his eyes heavy with slumber. His thoughts were clouded with passing dreams. The man of the lantern was raking the fire, who on seeing Si wake bent down and blew on the embers, and raised a flame. The air was cold and damp, and despite the fact that it was dawn, darkness prevailed.
‘We must set off and find the stream,’ the Lanternman said. ‘It will help in our search for the gardener.’
The wild beasts were uneasy. The air shuddered with their squeals, and the earth quivered under their groans. There was a rushing of undergrowth. But just as the Lanternman feared the wild beasts, the wild beasts feared him, and stood off, their eyes a smoulder in the undergrowth. It eased their journey once the two had damped their fire and set off into the darkness, under the pale light of the Lanternman’s lamp. At every turn they asked themselves which way should they go, until finally a tinkle and a little silver trickle showed them they had found the stream, whose course they followed. That, by its mysterious attraction, after what seemed days, brought them to the first completion in their quest. For here blocking their path was a wild, uncultivated man in blue overalls, to his right hand a wooden staff, in his pockets tools for the garden. He spoke, and was not so fearsome as he looked, a man who lived on locusts and wild honey.
‘You would be lost,’ he said. ‘In search, I would guess, of the Lottery Gates.’ For everyone who had come this way had only that in mind.
The Lanternman took the light from his lamp off his face, so that in the gloom of the wilderness his features wouldn’t be seen. ‘You are the first gardener,’ he said.
‘That I am. You are going to ask of me which way to go.’
‘That is correct,’ said Si.
‘Sometimes,’ said the gardener, ‘I think that only this is reliable as a guide,’ and he held up his staff before plunging it into a tight bundle of undergrowth. Behold, the staff lit up – a golden rod. The green of the bush he had speared burnt as a light in the darkness.
‘A miracle,’ said the Lanternman. ‘Surely this will light our way to the Lottery Gates.’
‘It is not that simple.’ The gardener demonstrated, by pulling up the golden rod from the clump it had lit. Immediately the light in the bush went out, and the rod returned to its original form, a wooden staff.
‘How can this be?’ asked Si.
‘The staff was given me when I was set to work in the public gardens, which were by no means extensive. In fact they were so small my work was soon done and I got bored with little to do.’
He went on to say that he looked to the wilderness, and the possibility of extending the garden into it. He set out not too far in that direction, such that the beasts, birds, raptors, and the creeping things did not intimidate. His intention was to make of the wilderness a garden more exquisite than the one he had worked on to date: lawns cut to regular shapes, little stone pathways running between the flowerbeds, water features, follies and statuettes, a shady grotto. When on first discovering the magical properties of the staff he had been given, he felt sure he would meet his aims. But as both Si and the Lanternman saw, the golden rod was only fleeting in its gift, and so soon as he pulled it from the ground all the work he had done was undone. Scrub he had turned to earth returned to scrub. Seeds he had planted choked. Turf he had laid regrew as wild grass. The golden rod became a wooden staff.
‘However hard I worked, I could not make the smallest patch of wilderness into a garden.’
He went further into that wasteland, and now had to overcome his fear of the beasts and the creeping things. He lit his way at intervals by thrusting his staff into the undergrowth, sending out a golden light in all directions. Wherever he stopped to work, it was always the same – nothing he did had permanence. Then one day he saw in the distance the pale gold of what he took to be the Lottery Gates, for a greying old man at the roadside he had talked to on his way to and from work had mentioned them, and spoke of what was behind them, recounting his thoughts as one recounts a fable.
Said Si: ‘I have talked to that man myself.’
‘Not all his news was good,’ the gardener replied. ‘On other days he spoke of wars and terrible times ahead.’
‘I heard nothing of that,’ said Si.
In time the gardener was able to beat a path very near to the Lottery Gates, and in a sense of wonder surveyed all that lay behind them – trees tall and serene, turfs, terraces, water features he had hoped to build himself, a blaze of agapanthus, blue, purple, white, and sunshine pouring down on this spot alone. The whole place was filled with golden light, not unlike that of an autumn afternoon. How could this be, when everywhere in the surrounding wilderness was darkness?
‘I see how little I understand the world.’
He edged forward, hoping for an even closer look at what lay behind the gates. Was there someone there he could talk to? He thought so, on hearing a voice. Someone seemed to be asking why he had come, what it was he wanted.
‘The voice was so quiet, and so unlike any I had heard, that I imagined my senses deceived me, and that really there was no voice.’
The Lanternman thought of his own experience, and how the voice had treated him, but chose to say nothing to the gardener. He was sorry for his errors, for he did not know that he had found and lost his Paradise. He had seen serenity in the trees and wealth in abundance in the gardens, but still thought of those qualities – serenity and wealth – as the preserve of men of business: serenity in their pride, and wealth in the riches they amassed.
‘In my joy,’ said the gardener, ‘is also my frustration. For it is not possible for me to enter. The wall and the gates are too high. I was left gazing wistfully into the fountains.’
There the figurines depicted guardians of the water, the spring of all life, with one of the figures surmounting all others, blowing into a trumpet. So lifelike, the gardener said, he thought he could hear its fanfare. At this the Lanternman fell silent again, knowing how the gardener in the work he did had been granted the greater insight. The only things in his past life that had lifted his eyes were two white peacocks, strutting with such authority, and a goose – a lost goose – a forlorn creature their very opposite. Now, he had grown so tired of the wilderness, and bewildered in having so angered the keeper of the gates. It seemed there was nothing in the world for him, though he still had hopes that the power that had altered his looks so outlandishly would alter them back. He was acutely aware of his life as having passed in a procession of chaos and disaster, and of the futility of all humankind, and how lacking he was in rectifying all such waywardness. He was haunted by his errors and mistakes. And had forgotten that he alone of the three here – Si, the gardener, himself – had been chosen to carry the lantern.
‘Is it possible,’ asked Si, ‘that with the help of your staff we can beat a path through the nettles and thorns and reach the Lottery Gates?’
‘The wilderness is ever-changing,’ the gardener replied. ‘I doubt if I could find my way again. Unless, of course, by the light of your friend’s lantern….’
And lo! Another miracle occurred. Where the gardener struck his staff into stony soil, the golden rod lit up again, and pointed a path west. The Lanternman took up his light, and led the way, with the beasts and creeping things of the wilderness in sudden retreat, for all that was seen were their frightened, flashing eyes, as they backed away.
Still these were hard times for the Lanternman. With his light he toiled feverishly, leading the way. The gardener followed up immediately behind, and with his staff drove aside the undergrowth for Si, who brought up the rear. Much time they spent in this, but by slow, steady degrees the path they made through the densest waste brought them in hearing of the stream – a gentle tinkle. By now the Lanternman had torn his flesh in many places. The wounds had begun to bleed. But he rejoiced with what appeared to him sights and sounds of a clear spring morning, with its great crash of early light, a radiant flood bathing his being, and a chirrup of birds in the trees. Old fables had purveyed the groundless rumour that the stream flowed beneath the Lottery Gates. It was popular romance that in following its course lone souls of a melancholy nature had found their dreams. In folklore, there were tales of young heroes, who had battled on alone and found the elusive Lottery Gates. But to the Lanternman the truth was otherwise. Zealously as he strove, under the harshest conditions, the one lesson he had learned was the need for other people, of a like mind and different talents. Steadily, with the gardener’s staff and his own lamp, and with the friendship and sympathy Si had shown him, he had battled on, and in uncovering the stream had brought them in sight of the gates. They and their keeper were just to the north of west. The three of them turned in that direction.
In the darkness they began to hear music, vaguely so. Then a shaft of light poured through a tangle of branches ahead. The Lanternman held his lamp higher aloft, while the gardener struck with his staff with vigour. Then added to the music was a voice, and a song whose words were indistinct. Then suddenly there was light, a melodious light.
3 The Lottery Gates
Si, when he woke, admonished himself for sleeping, but could not have known just how tired he’d become. There were the embers of a fire, which the Lanternman had lit the night before, but the only signs of him and the gardener were the lamp and the staff, left on the ground. For no reason, Si recalled a dream, if imperfectly so, where an orchard hung with fruit was bathed in autumn sunshine. Stark in contrast, as he looked out, the wilderness pressed on him more oppressively than ever, with the distant Lottery Gates a pale reflection of the sight greeting him just hours before. He reproached himself again—
‘I have slept too long,’ he said. His goal was tantalisingly close, but fading from view, and that was not a good omen. He was filled with perplexity.
He damped down the fire the Lanternman had left, until only ashes remained. The beasts of the wilderness drew near, as now their eyes flashed with laughter, and not the predatory instinct Si was accustomed to. He glanced up in the direction of the Lottery Gates, where in a sudden blaze of gold a tall, stately man in a blue tunic passed through and approached. His hair was dark and glossy, his eyes bright, and his complexion clear. Where he stood in the glow of the gates, Si could make out, stitched into the lapel of his tunic, an ornamental torch, with an orange flame. His features were open, friendly, and his presence commanding. One gesture only saw the laughing beasts of the wilderness disperse and disappear.
‘Ashes gone cold,’ he said, looking down at the remains of last night’s fire. The stranger sat himself next to Si, and paused for thought. ‘I know how it is,’ he said. ‘Lost. Living not as you should. In a search, but of what?’
‘You read my thoughts.’
‘Not difficult. Affliction colours everything you do. Its debilitating effects can be crippling.’
‘How to become whole, that is the problem.’
‘Your wanderings have led you here, to the Lottery Gates.’
‘I have heard much about them. Entry cannot be easy.’
‘There are obstacles, yes. But transformations are possible – even from what it is that hurts us most.’
‘I hope you are right,’ said Si.
The stranger left him and returned through the gates, and strode in the greatest self-possession across the lawns, where he stopped to gaze into a clear, unruffled pool, and Narcissus-like beheld his new reflection.
Si, humbled, asked about his own passage through the gates. The stranger looked to the two objects Si’s departed friends had left him with – the staff and the lamp. ‘Which of these two would you choose?’
Si didn’t know.
‘Perhaps,’ said the other, ‘you bear gifts of your own.’
He approached the gates, where the keeper immediately wished to know of Si who had summoned him. He heard her voice only, and could not see to whom he was talking.
‘I had the help of two companions,’ he said.
‘That is not unusual.’
Si looked through the gates and saw the gardener, dressed in a blue tunic, at not too great a distance, vigorously turning clods of earth. Stitched into his lapel was an ornamental rose.
‘I know that man,’ said Si. ‘He was one of my companions, for the arduous journey.’
‘Is that so?’ said the keeper. ‘You know him by name?’
‘I do not.’
The gates parted, but when Si tried to pass through he found that he could not enter. There was too much resistance, of he knew not what. He walked back to the fire, which was now only ash and charred remains, and looked to the staff and the lamp. ‘Which must I choose?’ He picked up the staff, but immediately cast it down, which on striking the ground took the form of a serpent, which slithered away and uncoiled itself under the Lottery Gates. Next he picked up the lantern, and turned to the wilds and the darkness of the wilderness.
‘You have chosen,’ said the keeper.
Si understood. On a last look back through the gates he made out a goose and two white peacocks, but the gardener and the strange
The gardener had gone. He turned his lantern in such a way as to guide him through the wilderness, and knew he must return to the place he had come from, and walk among his people again. On whom, he’d be asked, should he shine that light? Si thought for a moment. He’d begin with the greying old man at the roadside, then turn to the landowner and his son, then to his neighbour, for whom all things were written in the stars, for quite possibly that was an error of judgement.
Peter Cowlam is a poet and novelist. As a novelist, he has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. The Quagga Prize is awarded for independently published works of fiction. Other work has appeared in En Bloc, The Battersea Review, The San Francisco Review of Books, The Blue Nib, The Galway Review, Easy Street, Literary Matters, Eunoia Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal, and others.