The Lost Tower
by James Bruce May
When Casey was a boy, his father had told him that his name meant vigilant, brave, and watchful. Sitting in a creaking leather chair, speaking with careful cadence kept steady by an old mantel clock, he’d tell his only son of his name’s Celtic beginnings. Casey would stand quietly before his dad on the worn wooden floors of their grey stone cottage, staring out past the lattice windows, out into the woods that surrounded their home.
‘A long tradition of watchfulness did persist with the people of this area, you see,’ Casey’s father had said. ‘Once, all the land hereabouts had been covered with a thick forest – much greater than the one you see out there today – and folk had to be on their guard against what might emerge from those woods.
‘So the folk of those old times, they built up these strong watch towers, they did, to protect and warn the people living nearby of any trouble – one was even built not so very far from where you’re standing now, my boy, it’s true.’
Listening to his father’s stories, images of clansmen keeping watch for raiding warriors filled Casey’s young mind, and he imagined himself on guard outside, cleverly hidden amongst the trees, straining to hear the approach of a dangerous foe. He liked the stories of the towers best of all and asked his dad time and again to hear about them, especially about the one that had stood close by.
‘Well, the truth be known, Casey,’ his father said one day, quite unexpectedly, ‘they are all lost to us now. With the way the world has changed, the people did lose their connection to the woods, and so forgot their fear of the forests as they moved away. The towers were all abandoned as trade took people off to the towns and the cities. Deemed unnecessary, see. Not many of us still live up here by the woods, and no one ventures, or strays, I should say, inside.
‘Nature has full sway over the places where those towers did stand, and there’ll be nothing left of them now but rubble – you mark my words – just rubble and some old, old memories: but nothing more.’
When Casey thought again of his father, he thought of him as being like one of those old watch towers. Casey could recall a clear image of his tall silhouette, dominating the windows as he peered with blue eyes out into the woods himself. Casey had believed then that his dad was borrowing the qualities of his name, holding a vigil over the house to the clock’s tick, tick, ticking refrain, poised to defend Casey against any would-be marauders. But as Casey grew and learnt to be more watchful himself, he began to realise that his dad was not in fact watching, but waiting.
Casey’s mother worked long, late hours, and so was absent from the house for much of the time. The little square cottage, which sat secluded on the outskirts of the woods, seemed silent whilst she was gone. The nearest neighbour was out of touch and far away, the main roads passed the whole district by without even coming close. Only the wind stirred in the treetops and occasionally a bird would call a forlorn sound, eerie in the quiet.
Casey’s father stood waiting by the telephone, staring along the flint-strewn road that led up to the clearing in which they lived. Casey would be somewhere close by, sitting in solitary play or watching for movement on the road with his dad.
Sometimes the phone’s ringing would come crashing into the room, startling Casey with its sudden noise. Casey’s dad, unfazed, would turn and lift the receiver, clearing his throat before speaking.
‘Hello. Oh. So you’ll be late again? I see. Okay,’ he’d say.
Casey was mostly sent to bed long before his mother arrived home. His dad occasionally told him a story, but often he just tucked a blanket snug around his son and brushed his hair flat across his brow, telling him to close his eyes until morning. Casey did as he was told, but when his father shut the door and went away, Casey would open his eyes again and then kneel by the window to carry on watching, looking out for signs of his mother.
He’d watch the trees surrounding the house, their brittle branches darkening as the day diminished. He watched as the first stars appeared in the night sky, cold and distant. He could hear his father’s footsteps as he moved about the house, drifting from window to window. He heard the trees creak as they cooled; leaves rustled out there and twigs snapped. Strange echoes followed, reverberating fast between the trunks and then ricocheting away to nothing, leaving the forest tense.
Sometimes Casey saw the moon rising, lighting up a road bleached of colour and turning all but the tops of the trees into one deep shadow. Sometimes Casey would see a fox, a rabbit or even a deer come creeping out into the clearing, pausing to scan two eyes over the tree line.
Once a stag came tentatively from the trees and stopped to look straight up at his window, peering directly towards him for a moment before stealthily returning into the woods. Casey could still remember the blue moonlight falling about the animal’s body, turning its antlers silver and slipping a glistening sheen over its glossy coat, casting a ghostly nimbus around the long hair of its neck as it held its head up towards the house.
Casey spent many nights kneeling at his window like this, patiently waiting and watching. And he would always try to stay awake until he saw the headlights come sweeping across the shoulders of the trees; bright beams which turned the night pitch and sent shadows staggering away into the woods, all swaying as one from side to side as his mother’s car drove up the road.
When those lights shone up at his window, Casey’s pupils shrank to dots and his perception of the outside world blackened entirely. He’d duck out of sight until the lights went off, then sneak back to watch his mother getting out of her car. She often smoked before coming inside, standing and gazing out into the woods towards nothing. When she did enter the house, Casey would get into bed and listen. He’d hear his father’s impassive voice, a deep murmur through the walls, reacting one sentence at a time to the voice of his mother, which quickened like melt water, rushing her words against him.
On those nights, his parents’ conversation would end suddenly: a signal for Casey to squeeze his eyes shut and pretend to be asleep, so that if his mother came to look in on him, she would not have to worry after finding that he was awake.
On other nights, those lights would never come at all. After what seemed like ages, Casey would surrender haplessly to his dreams, his tiredness carrying him to bed and brushing sleep tenderly across his brow, covering him in its warm blanket and continuing its vigil of the house to the steady tick, tick, tick of the old mantel clock.
Casey woke up. He turned to see his wife sleeping contentedly beside him, curled up in their soft duvet and oblivious to the middle of the night. He sat up and sipped some water from a glass on the bedside-table but stopped drinking when he heard a creak at the door. He peered through the dark and could just make out the small shape of his only son, Silas. Casey quietly replaced the glass, got out of bed and walked across the room.
‘Hey, what are you doing up? You should be asleep,’ Casey whispered.
‘I can’t sleep,’ Silas said, reaching out to take his dad’s hand.
Casey scooped the boy up into his arms and carried him along the hallway to his bedroom, making almost no sound on the apartment’s soft carpets. ‘But it’s the middle of the night and you should be fast asleep,’ he said.
‘I woke up. I wanted to see you and Mummy.’
‘Mummy is fast asleep, Silas. You need to go back to sleep, too.’
Casey switched on the lamp in Silas’s room and placed his son onto his toy-covered bed. ‘Go on, lay down,’ he said. The child did as he was told and Casey tucked him in. ‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘Now close your eyes.’
‘Tell me a story, and then I will.’
‘You’ve already had a story tonight, remember?’
‘Tell me again.’
Casey brushed his son’s hair across his forehead with his fingertips. Silas looked up at him, and then turned his drowsy blue eyes away with a little yawn. He was almost asleep.
‘Alright, the same story again. Now, let me see,’ Casey said softly, sitting on the edge of the bed. ‘When you were born, your mummy and I decided to name you after your granddad, and so we called you Silas.’
‘Is granddad called Silas?’
‘Well, you see, your name has a special meaning. It means man of the woods, and that is what your granddad is.’
‘And he lives in the woods?’
‘That’s right, he does.’ Casey smiled down at Silas, continuing to run his fingers through his hair. ‘Your granddad lives in the woods in a big tall tower. He stays there to look out for any danger, and he keeps us all safe from harm.’
‘And when I grow up, will I keep people safe, too?’
‘If that’s what you want to do, Silas, then you’d make your granddad very proud.’ Casey smiled again and drew his thumb over Silas’s cheek. ‘Now, close your eyes until morning.’
Silas tried a smile but his eyes were closed before it could even make a dimple. Casey leaned forward, kissed his son’s head and then stood. He turned off the lamp and watched the dark for a minute, letting his eyes adjust whilst listening to his son’s rhythmical breathing. When he could see well enough, he made his way back along the hallway to his room. His wife stirred as he got into bed but she remained sound asleep. Casey stretched out next to her and closed his eyes, pushing his head back into the soft pillow.
As he felt himself floating off towards unconsciousness, the memory of the last time he saw his father shimmered into his mind. He recalled sitting in the front seat of his mother’s car as it pulled away down the bumpy flint road in bright sunlight. Casey looked out of the rear window past the suitcases in the boot and saw his father, lost, turning away from the car, away from the driveway, away from the house, to walk with fallen steps into the woods.
Photography by Oscar May.
©' The Treacle Well 2013