The Altar for Pan
by Sean Mulroy
Phillips House at 194 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island, was a vestige of traditional American values, the Phillips being one of the oldest families in New England. A grandfather, his daughter and her young son lived in the palatial colonial mansion.
Ancestral lore boasted they were pure Mayflower specimens descended from aristocratic English stock; though, to anybody who’d observed them of late, it was obvious this once illustrious family had hit hard times.
On a summer day in 1897, which was an exceptionally dry one for Providence, the front door of the Phillips House opened quietly with a squeak, then was thrown shut with a bang.
“Oh.” The mother closed both eyes and ground her teeth at the loud noise. “Off he goes again.” She walked towards the windowsill to call her son back inside.
“Leave him be, Susie,” snapped Whipple Phillips, the grandfather. “He misses his dad, and it’s a darn good thing he hasn’t been spending this fine weather stuck inside all day.”
“But he’s not playing with other children,” the mother said indignantly while putting hands on hips and staring out the window. “It’s been every day this week. He didn’t come back till sundown yesterday. I wonder what he does?”
“Only normal things children do. I’m sure he’s just run off to the boondocks and is climbing a tree or building a small dam over some low lying stream. I can remember doing such things as a boy,” chuckled Whipple with a reminiscent smile which almost immediately became a scowl, as if some unwanted memory suddenly replaced the good ones. The old man shook his head trying to dislodge whatever snuck inside.
“I worry about him,” lamented Susie. “What if he hurts himself? You know what he’s like.”
Whipple lit his pipe and opened the morning paper, flipping briskly to the finance section. His blue eyes flashed once more on his daughter. “He’ll be fine.”
The tone of the old man was final, and his daughter didn’t persist; she knew he had his own problems.
* * *
The boy was happy to see no one had discovered his secret place.
Providence was rich in containing deep hardwood forests that appeared to have no end. Two days prior he’d gone far into them and found the secluded spot. It was a small sandy bluff hidden away by a tribe of black willow trees and relatively flat and bare. The biggest rocks he could find throughout this area of the woods, and was able to carry, he took back to the bluff. After two days large piles of raw materials were accumulated, and the boy set about constructing them in strange formations.
To a secret observer, this behavior would appear normal idle conduct from any average youngster, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was much more complex.
Of late, Whipple had been reading Tales of Greek Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch aloud to the boy. From this he’d been infected with a nostalgic longing and begun yearning for more than what this visible world offered.
Many men become intoxicated with ancient Greece, and children are just as susceptible. Yet fantasy can have a devastating effect upon the youthful mind, if one is not careful. All great myths that have survived time and been passed down stir the impressionable brain if able to produce wonder. They ultimately succeed by making us want to believe - when finally we are convinced the world of the fable is preferable to our own.
“Right here will be my obelisk for Apollo,” the youth said to himself. “Because it is directly under the sun, no trees can hide it. Over there will be my temple for Athena, since it’s in the shade, and there is that bird’s nest just above.”
The boy looked around inspecting the bluff for any other good real estate on which to build his necropolis for dead gods. He didn’t think there’d be anything new to discover, having already checked the landscape over many times and devised in his mind the classical design this mortuary was to take. Now he was merely imagining the layout of that when, unexpectedly, he perceived a formation he’d failed to notice before. All the land sloped inward. Even though the bluff itself was on a descent, the land in it rose upwards towards the center creating a small mound.
The boy stood up. How had he not noticed this on the two preceding days?
He visualized the bluff from yesterday afternoon and remembered it well but couldn’t recall a protrusion in its belly like today. Maybe it’s something underground, lava or hot air or something.
He walked to the middle and scrutinised the mound closely then glanced back at his pile of stones. A few birds squawked loudly and flew out of a nearby tree, disturbing the branches and making them shake. The boy, being so wrapped up in his architectural dreams, had thought himself to be completely alone, at least in this part of the woods, if not the world.
This mound is perfect for building on, he thought.
He took a few steps back, allowing himself to survey the bluff with this newly incorporated feature. Then walking over to his pile of stones, taking the largest and heaviest ones to the mound, he placed them down carefully and started building...
Too soon, sunset glittered blood red, and he realised he’d been out here all day. The pile of rocks constructed atop the mound, which was starting to take a loose form, appeared to the boy’s eyes less like a temple or shrine and more alike an altar, so he decided that was what it must be. “An altar for Pan,” he said aloud to no one.
Already more than half the rocks collected were used, and still the altar wasn’t anywhere near complete. It was obvious the other gods would have to wait. “I’ll come back tomorrow and finish the job.”
With that, he raced out of the bluff, bolted through dense woods, always running towards Angell Street, trying to beat the sun all the way. He couldn’t though. It was past dusk when he stood on his front lawn, where the porch light shone bright, and there was his mother standing in the doorway waiting for him.
“And where do you think you’ve been?”
“Nowhere,” he answered bluntly.
“Well, wherever it is you go, it’s going to stop. Understand?”
The boy trod inside silently, with head cast down, ate his dinner then went to his room. Not long afterwards, Whipple Phillips shuffled upstairs to talk to him. However, after opening the bedroom door slightly and peering in, the old man decided against it for the child was fast asleep.
* * *
“Don’t you walk through that front door, mister!”
The child made a desperate attempt to dash at it but was too slow; his mother caught his arm and pulled him back.
“You’re not going anywhere I can’t see you,” she said, strengthening a vice-like grip on his slender arm. Her fingers reached around it completely. “If you want to play, you can fool around all day in the backyard.”
“But it’s the holidays! I should be allowed to do what I want!”
Susie squeezed his arm tighter. “Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone.”
The boy gazed longingly through the window above the front alcove where could be seen a cloudless sky, and he dreamed of getting out into it. He felt too close to give up now.
“Just what are you doing?” asked his mother in astonishment as she felt a thin arm slowly slipping from her grasp. “Stop that right now!” She grabbed the arm with her other hand as well, but still her son persisted to struggle against it.
With all his might put into the heretical action, the boy was slowly managing to pull himself away. He reached out with his free arm and took a firm hold on the doorknob. which helped even further in the battle.
“L-E-T M-E G-O!” he yelled, and his mother, in shock, actually did.
The separation happened violently, like busting a boil. His mother slipped over onto the floor, and he was quickly out the door. Running across the yard, he did manage to shout over one shoulder while jumping the fencem, “Sorry, mom!”
Susie rushed to the door but only in time to see the back of her son running away from her and the house as fast as he could.
“Oh!” she yelled down Angell Street in his direction. “You’re going to end up exactly like your father!”
* * *
It was the hottest day of summer so far.
Rocks on top of the mound were too hot to touch. The boy had an energy and determination today he’d been lacking on the three previous. He busied himself immediately in the shade of cool woods by picking up and taking to the bluff large rocks, ones he would of thought much too heavy to even attempt to carry before.
As the sun slowly cooled, he got back in the bluff and built up Pan’s altar. Quickly it was as tall as he, then taller. When dusk was upon the land, all the big siltstone rocks tinged with red, the round fine-grained stones, the large and tiny flint, shale, granite, slate and basalt were gone, and Pan’s altar was still far from complete.
There’d been few clouds throughout the hot day. Now, with afternoon coming to an end, the sun was sinking, setting slowly, a red eye flaming. It was close to the earth, closer than the boy had ever recalled seeing it before, and it scared him.
He was hungry, knew he was in trouble, and the longer he stayed out in the woods the more trouble he could expect once home. But the boy must have been tired because he sat down on the warm sandy belt of ground right next to his altar for Pan and leaned against it.
One arm slipped across it, then his weary head rested atop a large rock, which was unusually flat. Peeking at the sun every now and then, he continually told himself he’d get up when the bottom of that burning red disc touched the top of the swaying trees, then it was when the trees covered it a fraction, then just a little bit more, it was definitely before the sun was cut in half by them, surely before that glowing crimson ball was swallowed by the trees, the land, the night, surely...
* * *
The forest at night was different. Each tall standing tree that lined the bluff like a guard appeared, under star-shine, to stretch back and reach out to the rest of the forest, opening up the location to the naked night sky. A shimmering moon was in orbit, pockmarked and gibbous.
As the boy opened his eyes, it was the first thing he saw. It was so large, too large, larger than he’d ever seen it before. He got up quickly. He was still in the woods. A single shaft of moonlight illuminated the bluff, but outside existed pure darkness where nothing could be seen.
Before he could properly comprehend the situation, a screeching white owl swooped down out of nowhere and shrieked and flapped its wings in the boy’s face then flew up again only to descend once more with a baleful yellow light in its eyes and more vigor than the first time.
The boy had no choice. He had to get out, that or stay and fight the menacing owl. He fled into the darkness of the forest, which way, he knew not. Over brambles swallowed by eerie shadows from box elders, through scented groves stained in fall colors, against waving canes that hissed and creaked as they fought the wind.
Branches and limbs of unseeable trees seemed to navigate his movements more so through this invisible and ravenous labyrinth than his own compulsion. When his right foot suddenly stepped into a small stream, or tiny pond, he knew not which, he could instinctively feel he was at the edge of a spacious clearing.
Trees were not so plentiful here, and moonlight was able to shine down between them, in huge shafts as big as canopies, which made the clearing as fine and fragile as twilight. Yet this couldn’t be the same forest, the boy was realising. The soil was softer to walk on than usual. The stream rushing away from him, for his eyes had adjusted to the dim light and could now see the windy snake-shaped thing, possessed a rhythm to its current that was jovial, unnatural and all its own.
In the distance he could half make-out a world of wonders. Tall colonnades of veined marble rose from differing locations throughout the glade. Gigantic ivory statues stood beside them, spaced out evenly all in a row; the ones under moonbeams glinted immortally. There were arched bridges hewn of age-worn stones crisscrossing gargling rivers as well as suggestions of temples, shrines and other things more fabulous but unnamable.
A laugh was heard, and the boy peered to his left. The silhouette of a giant man dressed in armor who looked like a warrior, yet bore no scars, stood between two sycamore trees with hands on hips. A quiver of golden arrows was slung across the man’s broad shoulders.
The giant laughed again and pointed at the intruder. In situations like this the boy had always imagined he’d have run away, or at least taken a step or two back. Yet he felt no fear of the man and took a step towards him. This dark figure immediately lifted up the large bow and plucked from his quiver a single golden arrow.
The boy held his breath in terror.
However there was no need to do so for the man pointed the arrow high up towards a black sky, pulled back upon the bow with inhuman strength and released the arrow.
It left the cord with a magnificent twang and whine and, once past treetops, appeared to slow down of its own accord only to simply implode in on itself and instantly come aflame. The magical glade was immediately bathed in a sharp distinct sunlight from which nothing could hide. It was then the boy knew the man who shot the arrow was no man at all and also that light shining bright in the night sky was none other than fire from Helios.
He looked back to that place between two sycamores, but no one was there. Yet the fire still burned so bright the boy thought it would never go out and, what’s more, as he cast a dreamer’s gaze over the glade, he could now see everything.
It was then he heard the terrible hoot and flap of crazed wings from that relentless owl which must have been just behind him. Without fully knowing why, he ran into the fantastic glade. Always feeling the owl getting closer and closer, closing in on him, just about to snatch him up and carry off to some impossibly high perilous eyrie to be devoured by the owl’s famished young.
Over sculpted terraces carved from dragons’ horns he ran, under palisades wrought of granite stone and covered in moss, across arched bridges beside thunderous falls, through golden domed temples with cavernous halls and ghost-infested mausoleums of cyclopean structure.
Little was he able to take in of these dreamland surroundings; however, he did catch glimpses of winged ghouls sitting atop stone seraphs on high garret roofs and towering turreted lofts that all winked at him as he ran past. He saw dryads and nymphs in rapture skipping along beside him barely touching the ground and blowing moonbeam kisses his way. There were terrible shadows and cackles from deep under bridges he crossed, which always seemed to come nearer and get louder until he passed.
Innumerable shapes and monstrous forms slithered underneath the surface of rivers, streams and dells; some awful, others achingly beautiful like the nereids whose skin resembled alabaster, who bobbed vixen heads out of fathomless dark waters and smiled even more darkly, lifting dripping fingers gracefully out of the substance and motioning for him to come to them.
This went on forever.
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Mulroy