Behind the Sun

My mother always loved to tell of my birth, in all its peculiar and unprecedented glory. I can see her now, sitting in the rocking chair carved by my father, and I curled on the wooden floor around her feet. She was slim, tall and dark, and loved to rock back and forth into the dark of each evening. You were born behind the sun, she would say, in a part of the world where no light reached. I suppose that it was her explanation for my appearance – no colour in my face apart for in my too-pale green eyes and hair so dark it could dissolve into the night, with a non-genetic curl to it. Mother also used to say that when she first saw me, first looked into my eyes, she was transfixed for a full minute. Personally, I think that was just the simple shock of absolute communion, a side effect that no one had thought to warn her about, since a birth was so uncommon in our family.

Life for me has always been largely dichroic in nature; so often I feel like a stone with no true colouring. The truth between literal and figurative has, over the years, become utterly indivisible to me. For decades I had no understanding of my origins or my place on this earth, not aided by my family's total consternation at my arrival.

Our clan folk were immigrants who settled in Sweden, although where they had been before that is anyone's guess. To tell the truth, I would not be surprised if there were no precise location. The whereabouts of my birth is also a mystery to me, hence my constant interest in the subject as a child. I imagine I was born in transit, although where from there is no clue.

When I say that we settled in Sweden, I should explain that my family has shunned towns and cities for as long as I can remember. Ironic, I suppose, but they hated the milling streets and torrents of mankind. As a result, our residence in Stockholm was a brief one, and something that does not arise in my mind with particular ease of memory.

Sweden is a bleak country, if beautiful, and leaving the metropolitan opening to the archipelago to live in the windswept northerly regions takes a hardy type of person. As a child, I remember the frozen ground and the ice patterned across the windowpane; how my mother would dress me in so many clothes as I stood before the perpetually burning fire that I would begin to look like a ball. Outside, it was always dark, night polished by a myriad of stars above our tiny collection of wooden buildings. When I played, I played in ice and snow with no light in the sky. When I tired of playing, I helped my mother and other women of the clan heat water for bathing or the cleaning of clothes – a never-ending task.

My father was the somewhat incongruous particle in our extended family. That's not to say he was not welcomed as my mother's choice or ignored as a new son – on the contrary, his new in-laws were quite delighted with this relatively easy method of clan extension. Rather, it was his own personality that isolated him. He was Portuguese, dark-skinned and dark-eyed, raised by sea-faring parents when the world was still young and fresh and there were still far away corners to be discovered. His wanderer's spirit never left him, even in the icy plains of Sweden, and then, though his body was at rest, his mind would travel the universe. Even my mother's hold on him was limited, a fact I think troubled her more and more in his diminishing years.

There is one special moment I remember in my life as a child, although the rest of my pre-adolescence was largely uninteresting to me. This moment lasted an entire afternoon, and was spent with my father as he salted the fish he had caught that morning. I sat, as usual, on the floor before the fire, watching his hands ceaselessly dip and rub the drying fish. Suddenly, and to my supreme surprise, he began to tell the story of how he met and married my mother.

He was still a traveller then, and had traversed the globe in search of adventure or perhaps some deeper meaning to life. Eventually he returned to the Mediterranean and sailed it non-stop, up and down, for three years. Growing sick of the same old sights, he began looking for a new challenge, and found that it lay in deep concealment under the ground. An old man told him of a stone he had found half a century ago, buried so deep in the earth and so far away that no one had ever seen it before or since. It was black, the old man had told him, and soft with saturated evil, but spun through with the colours of heaven. This stone he had called Black Opal.

So my father set off, and found his decision to rediscover this mysterious stone again an admirable final challenge. It was many years in the making, but he did finally finish his quest, on a lonely, empty hillside in the depths of an unknown land. In that far-distant past, as he hacked away the rock and dust that led towards his ultimate goal, he told me in the present how he had felt as though a whole new world was creating itself, just out of reach of his sight. Then, suddenly, the stone revealed itself, huddled deep inside a roughly hewn cache of marble, hiding itself from the sunlight. As he gouged and dug at his prize, my father recounted how it seemed to cleave deeper to the earth, and he felt voices, not aloud, but somewhere beneath the deepest part of himself.

Eventually, the opal let go of its sanctum and he looked at it as it knelt deceptively in his palm, pitch black with a galaxy of stars caught in its belly. He was unsettled, but pleased with his success, a success that had taken him the better part of a decade to achieve. As he climbed out of the hillside once more and into the daylight, he once again heard a flurry of soft voices talking, although they were no longer emanating from within himself, but above on the hillside itself. He emerged from his tunnel to find a body of people sitting around the opening – though he had no idea where they could have come from, for he had passed no one since setting foot on this land. At their head was my mother.

In my past and his present, he stopped the story there, and cleaning his hands he walked around the table towards me. Digging into his pocket, my father pulled out a pouch of reindeer skin and knelt down beside me, opening it to reveal a stone, worn smooth with time. Pushing his hand in, he coaxed the stone from its hiding place and into the light. It was the opal, his talisman, as it had been since that he found it and my mother. He held it out to me, the colours arguing in the dull light of a Swedish afternoon.

"If you were an oak tree," he said to me, "that is the seed you would have grown from. It is your embryo, and holds every particle of you within it."

He stopped talking then, returning the stone and its pouch to his pocket and going back to his fish. I will always remember that afternoon as the day I discovered my father, and the day I lost him too. He had never before spoken to me in that way, and he has never done so since, and although I regret that I also understand that it would never have been the same. His relationship was with my mother, in whatever supernatural kind of way he had been brought to her attention. I did not figure greatly in his life, and I am glad to say (because then the fact of his indifference towards me did not hurt as it may have done) he was not a large part of mine, either.

I live in Oxford now, having flown the nest too long ago to remember the date. Sweden remains in my thoughts as a childlike place that I enjoyed at the time but have no wish to return to. I am not like the rest of my family – I like the quiet rush of this town, with its colleges and gardens and academic people. I love hearing their thoughts, those reading Whitman and Plath, or those just visiting, their foreign languages floating into the air like opaque strands of coloured vapour.

But Sweden remains the place of my changing, and so marks the point where my life and my understanding of life began I earnest. Everything that occurred before that memorable time was simply a biding of time…'until'.

On my eighteenth birthday, the opal that my father had so treasured (or perhaps it was simply a latent kind of fear) passed to me. I was surprised that he had let it go, but apparently a meeting of the older members of the clan had decided it was time for me to understand, and so it was. I don't think he begrudged that: as with almost everything over the centuries, he had learned to accept the clan's ways with no less difficulty than one would expect. He should be admired, I always feel, for giving up so much of a normal life just because he discovered an immortal life for my immortal mother.

It had been ten years since I last saw the opal. Ten years since my father handed it to me with his worker's hands smelling so strongly of salt. Looking back now, as special as it was, I wonder what he was trying to do on that bleak afternoon. Perhaps it was an attempt to help me escape the inevitable, or maybe it was just an attempt at contact with the only other person like him in the clan. He must have known that my existence would come to this, that my whole personality and life-mould would be built into the cornerstone of our next 'generation'. That day must have been lonelier than I remember. Whatever it was I wanted back then, whatever my hopes and dreams were, they hung in the air and stayed there for ten years, suspended and pendulant without form.

On my birthday, it was high summer in Sweden, still cold, but with an air of nature's festivity surrounding our holding. Birthdays wer enot a great time for celebration in the clan; after several centuries they had a tendency to seem slightly pointless. Anyway, as far as I knew at the time, it was only I and my father (the two who ate apart from the rest) who had to worry about the implication of passing years, and then only after several hundred years.

I washed and dressed as usual, beginning to help with the days chores as if there were nothing unusual about the dawning of this day. Indeed, I would not have had cause to suspect it was otherwise, were it not that after midday, the oldest woman among us took my hand in hers and smiled. She led me to a low building that I had never entered before, but yet had had much cause to wonder about. It was where the others ate, but before this day both my father and I had been under unspoken law never to enter.

She led me inside a room that was lined with books – a fact that confounded me. I had never seen this volumes before and had no idea where they could have come from. I had no concept of literacy at that point, and equally no idea that the rest of the clan had any literary capabilities. Down the centre of the low building were tables, and as I counted them I realised that there was one enough for each other clan bar my father and myself – with one, at the head of the row, spare.

Going to one of the bookshelves, the old woman took down an ancient manuscript, dusty and bound with decaying iron strips. Instructing me to sit with the wave of one hand, she started to read. It was obvious that she intended me to listen, though not a single word had been directed at me since she took my hand outside our lodge. She read on and on, fluent and flowing with a knowledge I was not aware existed, either in our clan or elsewhere.

She told me of the clan, of their origin in a country so black that even day was night. She told me of the colours in the sky, and how each strand of vibrancy was an entrance to another world where sunlight had to be avoided at all costs. I learned about the myths surrounding our people, their persecution and the terror we inflicted – inadvertent and unfounded (for the most part only, I'll admit). And the I learnt of my mother an father, and how her choice of husband meant that he could never be changed – that he would live for a few millennia but eventually fade and die. Then she told me about their child – myself, who was unexpected but nevertheless a blessing, a strong link to a greater future if I were robust enough to complete the task. Every now and then, out of a union such as that of my parents, comes an entirely new being, born out of flesh instead of simply out of blood. On him or her rests the task of building a new clan, a completely fresh line to carry on our traditions and culture.

At first I didn't understand. It was a lot to take in at such a young age. The fact that I was going to be responsible for integrating and teaching a whole new race – that we would roam the earth in growing numbers, searching for the place where night was perpetual and we could walk as in day.

It's been more than a century since that day now, and I am still learning. I have seen so many things in the world and marvelled at most of them, just as some have marvelled at me. My growing family – and that was hard at first, the asking. Asking them to leave their own families and their homes, to follow me into darkness and to never fully return. But I reconcile my guilt by looking at their alternative – eternity for the weak and needy, hope for the hopeless who find themselves in otherwise meaningless lives.

I have got used to it, slowly, although still I miss the sun, and I have an overwhelming desire to see Oxford by daylight. Well, I guess I have plenty of other concerns to occupy me. The opal has been restless of late, and I suspect it will soon be time for us to move on. The darkness is out there, somewhere, and I know we will be safe if we can find it.

And in the mirror tonight I see my blood-teeth have grown just a little more. It is time for a new recruit…

The End.

Ó Sharon Gosling 2003.