The Black Tent

Philomena Bucket and Doctor John Dee stood hand in hand, gazing into the mist-filled mouth of the mysterious cavern that lay deep beneath the island of Hopeless, Maine.  Philomena was on a mission to unleash the magic which, apparently, resided within her. She had enlisted the aid of the sixteenth-century alchemist, Doctor Dee, who, until being hurled through time and space to the island, had been Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth. Exactly how this magic was to be released, however, neither had any idea; they were led here purely by Philomena’s intuition that this cavern was the place where her magical abilities were choosing to manifest.

The two looked around them in wonder. As soon as they had stepped through the misty cave mouth, they found themselves transported to somewhere deep within a rich, green forest, where dappled sunlight played through the leaf canopy, high overhead. The air was filled with birdsong and the scent of the wild garlic and bluebells, growing in profusion all about them.

“It must be Springtime here,” observed Dee. “What a delightful place this is.”

“Well, I’d bet anything that we’re not on Hopeless,” said Philomena. “Spring flowers? Birdsong? No, it is all too perfect. I wonder what we’re supposed to do, now that we’re here?”

“We could look in there,” said Doctor Dee, pointing to a ragged-looking black tent, that neither had previously noticed. It was squatting beneath the branches of an equally ragged-looking black tree.

“It must be there for a reason,” declared Dee, not particularly convincingly.

As they drew closer it became clear that, at some point, the tree had been struck by lightning, leaving its branches blackened and skeletal. The tent, which had obviously seen better days, was based upon a yurt-like design, but without any indication of the comfort that such structures usually provide. Doctor Dee unhitched the door flap and, with no little amount of trepidation, the two ventured in.

Philomena looked about her with a certain amount of disappointment. Daylight showed through the threadbare sides and roof of the tent, while the floor had no covering. Could it possibly have any relevance to her mission? She turned to ask John Dee his opinion.

“Do you think…” she began, but the sentence died on her lips as she watched Dee gradually fade away into nothingness. Her last sight of his semi-opaque form was to see him reaching out to her. She thought that she could hear him calling her name, but the sound came from far, far away. She tried to touch his outstretched arms, but they were as insubstantial as a sunbeam, and then he was gone. Philomena was not a woman who cried easily, but, feeling suddenly alone, she fell to her knees and wept.

Upon entering the tent, John Dee was surprised to find that he was in his study, at home. Everything was as he had left it; his obsidian scrying bowl was still on the floor, where it had dropped when Philomena, Norbert and Bartholomew had first appeared. He turned to speak to Philomena, and was not a little shocked to find her disappearing before his very eyes. He reached out, at the same time anxiously calling her name. As he did so, the thought crossed his mind that, until now, he had always referred to her as Mistress Bucket. It was ironic that it was only when he was losing her that he felt familiar enough to call her Philomena.

“And who is Philomena? Some bawd or other, I do not doubt.”

Dee turned to see his wife standing in the doorway.  

“Jane, my precious, I… I was just contemplating writing a treatise upon Saint Philomena,” he stammered, crossing his fingers behind his back.

“I cannot say that I am familiar with her,” replied his wife, suspiciously. “Anyway, I came in to remind you that you have an appointment with Sir Francis Walsingham in an hour.”

An appointment with Walsingham? Dee suddenly remembered that he had been due to meet with the Queen’s spymaster on the very afternoon that he had been whisked away to Hopeless. It dawned upon him that, incredibly, those weeks of his life spent on that strange little island in the New World had apparently passed by in but a few minutes in Elizabethan England.

“Walsingham… yes Walsingham, indeed my love. I will make myself ready,” he said hurriedly, gathering his composure and relieved that he had somehow succeeded in getting away with inventing a Saint Philomena.  Incidentally, and apropos to nothing at all, it would be another three hundred years before the bones of the third-century Philomena of Corfu, patron saint of Infants, babies and youth, would be discovered, and the girl eventually canonised.

Philomena Bucket was feeling anything but saintly. She was angry; angry with herself for coming to this place, angry with John Dee for disappearing and angry beyond words because she could not find a way out. She wandered back along the path that she was certain they had taken, but there was no welcoming cave mouth to guide her back to The Squid and Teapot. She searched the forest all day, but to no avail. The light was fading and Philomena was tired and hungry. She realised that she needed to get back to the black tent, and shelter within its thin walls for the night. Her main concern was, however, that she would never find it again. She had walked miles, and in no particular direction. What were her chances of stumbling upon it once more? And then the realisation came upon her, that she was here to unearth her latent magical abilities, and doubtless, the forest, the tent and the lightning-tree all had a part to play if this was to be achieved. There was no point in being frightened, or resisting the inevitable. All she needed to do was to surrender to whatever it was that had created this illusion, for illusion it surely was, and hope for the best.   

No sooner had these thoughts formed in her mind than the lightning-tree came into view; the black-tent still sitting beneath its branches. Accepting whatever might befall, Philomena slipped inside its dark interior and closed the door-flap behind her. In the gloom she could see that a pitcher of water had been placed on the ground, next to a simple straw palliasse. Gratefully Philomena drank some water, then sank, exhausted, onto the little bed, desperately wishing that Drury was there to keep her company.

To be continued…

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