Monthly Archives: April 2013
Flies have multifaceted eyes.
This gives them a 360° field of vision.
That’s why they always see you coming.
A fish-eye lens on a peep-hole does the same thing –
widen your binocular eyes
to a 360° field of vision.
But I was thinking:
what would happen if the flies’ eye
was to take a quick peek through a fish-eye?
What would it see?
Would its vision become so large it…
could see the Truth?
This would answer a major philosophical question:
is it possible to get a grip on reality?
7th May 1885
I have been looking forward to this. It was a relief to leave Southampton and I anticipate a rewarding journey. I initially had misgivings about the thought of a solo crossing to the Americas, but I must say that I have now steeled my mind and soul to the endeavour and, with God’s blessing, shall be the first to achieve this aim. My sponsors, William Gray’s Insurance, have warned me to keep my mind on the voyage, not to have either morbid or grandiose thoughts whilst I travel alone. And yet, as I now move out into the Channel with the sound of the water slapping the hull of my vessel all I am aware of is the lofty walls of the tide that echo my expectations.
Into this short, constricting, boat I have bought along a pet for company. My cousin, Edward, has given me a small canary to help distract any wanton thoughts I may have. I have decided to hang the cage from the yardarm during the day, so that it may enjoy the air. However, I have also thought that the gulls may make it aware of its imprisonment since it constantly flutters about the cage in an agitated state. At night, or during storms, I shall take the cage below decks. Have named the canary Poseidon.
I opened a packet of biscuits for dinner to eat with some cold soup I could not be bothered to warm. Must discipline myself more.
9th May 1885
A difficult night’s sleep. I rose from my slumber as if pulling myself from a muddy pool. The sound of Poseidon’s fluttering and scratching and the constant resonance of the water kept me awake most of the night. I sleep in a compartment a little shorter than I. My head rests on a jerry can and I have the bird’s cage beside me. My knee sat in a pool of water all night and it sent a chill through my entire body. I have no blankets or pillows, just layers of clothing to insulate me.
I have just had a peculiar thought: this is the first time I have ever been alone. Truly alone. My loneliness echoes off this hull almost like a song. I hope I do not suffer from morbid thoughts.
I have lost sight of land, but gulls still hang in the air around me. At night my lantern illuminates their underbellies and they seem like phantoms as they shift across its beam.
I wonder how often we look at the world around us. I now see Turner’s fixation for ships and water. The light is dazzling – the blue of the sea merges with the sky and the waves are little more than clouds on the surface. And equally soft to the touch. I’ve been looking around me and the clouds in the sky lay immobile with tracks across them like furrowed fields. The blue is dark.
Shortly after dawn the wind had subsided. By mid-day it was quite calm. I peered through my telescope but nothing was to be seen.
10th May 1885
I dreamt last night. I was on a beach that curved away to an infinite horizon. The tide was out. The sky was clear blue. I was a young child, but I do not know exactly how old. All eyes looked at me, laughed at me. I sat on the beach, trying to tie the sand into knots.
I have decided to audit my vessel. The width of the ship can be no more than ten feet, whilst from stern to prow I calculate to be a fraction over thirty. On deck and below, any available space is taken with supplies. I have decided to rearrange them so that I have aisles to help me get around. I have decided to store the oil above decks, along with the water; whilst food, clothing and perishables I shall keep below with me. I have also decided to remove the rowlocks because I keep snagging my clothes on them. The boat sits quite low in the water with most of the hull below sea level. At first, this did cause me much consternation that I would sleep with my head below the waves. It seems a dangerous proposition and I would have thought a taller hull with a deeper keel would have been safer. I trust the designers. They tell me my boat uses the same principle as a Viking longship: a flatter, wider hull provides more space and stability.
When the days are clear and the wind brisk, I can make good time with little to do but sit by the tiller, singing an aria and suddenly realise this glorious realm is my home, and castle, from prow to the horizon. My worldly delight is to govern as I see fit with Poseidon my sole subject. The waves may groan assiduously at the beam of my palace and yet…and yet, I know that I am the master of all I survey – as the first star shifts into the evening sky or the sun spreads out at dawn; I command it all. Even the steel-hard waves that butt against this vessel must part for my journey.
13th May 1885
I’m in the middle of the ocean with the past behind me and the future open.
17th May 1885
I saw dolphins! They came within 20 feet of the boat. Instead of a blue colour they were a dingy brown – even duller than the reluctant blue of the sea we call grey.
It is several days now since I last wrote in my diary, and it seems difficult to fathom that I am the same person who set out ten days ago. I find it odd that it was indeed me who has set down these words.
It causes me concern to be alone. Indistinguishably alone. I have only Poseidon for a companion; and in so being, the means to instil in my soul the feeling I am not the last creature alive in the cosmos.
I cut my hand on Poseidon’s cage as I tried to fix the oil pump. Got the pump working again. The red blood was a curious sight. My eyes have been blind to everything except the blue and white. The blood was not only a cut on my hand, but a cut through the monotony.
Wind came up today and with it the waves that sung a syllabic song. Poseidon, caught outside in the storm (I forgot to bring him in as I was below decks manically pumping the bilges) has been constantly agitated since. He flaps futilely around his cage and gnaws at the bars. I have put him below decks. The water that came in once more destabilises my faith in the boat’s integrity. It was an odd feeling trawling through the waves. It was both exciting and terrifying. It must be an anomaly of life that those things that cause us most danger are the most exhilarating.
25th May 1885
When considering this endeavour I had taken myself to be a man who was capable in mind and body. A man who was not given to the arbitrary needs of a self-absorbed and hamstrung society – a society whose aspirations I thought disgusted me and whose rituals I thought of as sham and needless. Now I find myself desiring the company of another person; to see the crinoline and commerce that is so many miles behind me. The pleasure of seeing the painted faces of the ladies of a Sunday afternoon as they walk down the high street and a lighted breeze blowing through their hair. Or, indeed, the rough curses of the gin-drinkers. I find myself longing for this company – anything, anything. Whether it be foul or fair – something to remind me that I live and that I am not truly alone in this world.
Though I am. I know I am. And I shall continue to be so for as long as it takes me to reach my destination. I will admit to a secret thought: sometimes, sometimes (in moments of clarity and desperation) I dread that I cannot get to where I am going from where I am. The world is so far away.
30th May 1885
Missed opportunities. I hope the dolphins come back – I want to talk to them. Anything has to be better than Poseidon who has still not recovered from his malady. I have put him deep down in the boat because his agitation annoys me.
Who am I? I feel no identity. I don’t exist if no one can talk to me. Language is the source of our being. I only am when I can use the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ – without them I have no being. Our souls rest not with God but with language. It is through language that I exist. My only comfort is the sea’s song.
4th June 1885
Five centuries have passed. Nothing.
The wind came up again. As it rose I sang the Carmina Burana. Somehow it seemed so apt. I’ve felt the wind on my face, the rain and the sea’s shadow. I can hear the scream and the sigh, everyday. The sea sings with such relentless rhythm – a baritone! Hear it! Hear it!
All around me is alive. I hear the ocean. Its song is a bitter one, but I know its tune and I believe I can sing its refrain.
The mast stretches away from me, into the midnight sky. The blue is black. The world is a wonderful place and we are all victims of its apparent simplicity.
Can it be twenty-eight days since I was cast into this prison? The sea has changed; the bleak winds have bedevilled the ocean so that they promise a tempest to replace the calm. There is a chill in the air that our heater cannot dissipate, even though I am sure it is not the drop in temperature that upsets me so…
I find myself compelled to confess to a dark truth. I feel I must submit this to my journal if only to prove that I am, once again, in full reasoned control of my wits. As the water toiled about the boat I found myself possessed of a dreadful urge to commit myself to the waves. The waters were a tumult of wild excess and there, as I stood, I wished myself to be one with it. I feel shame in admitting this, but why should I? I will set out my thoughts now: I was aware of a sudden urge to throw myself into the waves.
7th June 1885
Some days past now I have tackled with a violent storm that raped the sea and threw about this shallow vessel a terrible cloud of ebony water and withering squall.
During my battle I knew no notion of time; I knew only the unforgiving roaring of the storm and the fear that I would be ripped from my vessel, dragged out to sea by the very powers I sought to control. As I fought, as I contested the small berth of the ocean I rested upon, I heard the force of the cyclone sing a powerful song that at once both out-roared the clamour and sung in perfect harmony with its vigour. How shall I express this? What can I say? I felt at times as though I was riding the most fiery black stallion, that charged with sharpened hooves, that spoilt the ground it trampled upon, that ripped and lashed its teeth upon whatever stood in its way. Yet, at other times, I was aware of the black sky, aware of the rain against my face and the bones beneath my skin.
The storm has now abated. The ocean is calm once more. The sky’s colour is a passing mauve and there, low on the horizon, rises the sun. It is a steady fire that lifts, drowning the sea and sky – the air about me – with its colour. As I watch, the firmament turns to blood.
15th June 1885
I have constructed an experiment. It is said that we use only a small share of the mind’s potential. I intend to tap the reservoir. As a child I had an imaginary friend. For me, he was very real – I gave him identity and existence. In this respect he was real. Since he could be interacted with he had to exist. Now, what I propose is that using my mind I will bring something into existence (say, a simple trinket to begin with). Diligent concentration and eyes to believe will be my resolve.
The mind is the key. I have been concentrating and Poseidon remains silent, although he shrinks away when I approach, and he has taken to scratching himself, rending his body with weeping scabs.
What trace of my past can I conjure? I need a whisper of companionship – what is it I solicit from the world? What is it that betokens the missing grades of life and light?
A book. The last refuge of the lonely. Seated here before the tiller I have dreamt, I have mused, I have then concentrated with every fibre of my being upon a book.
For the last hour I have read such a fantastic tale the likes of which only poets and dreamers may think possible. But as I finished the tale all I had in my hand was this journal. I have read another story in another’s words. A simple palimpsest. I am removed from this earth, no less than the seas around me. A token, I seek a token.
I ask a simple sign. An expression of the world I have left behind: a dew-covered flower, bright and vital. A rose.
I closed my eyes and pictured in my mind a field of scarlet. Not the scarlet of the light through my eyelids, of the blood in my capillaries, but the heavy and radiant scarlet of the rose. Steadily I trained my mind on this resonant image and found the noise of the seas around me dissolve away, the confines of my cabin vanish and I found myself absorbed with the smell, tint and texture of the flower – I fused with the substance of the rose.
But then its form died with the smell of its flower, and in my hand I held a piece of seaweed taken from the water.
18th June 1885
Poseidon has died. I saw him this morning in his cage. He has destroyed himself in a vile way. The creature’s body was bare almost, only the most tragic and forlorn feather stood on its body like a palm tree on a tropical island. Its corpse was pale, its pink skin showing the blue veins beneath. I threw the bird’s carcass into the water where it was clawed beneath the ocean.
22nd June 1885
I do not know how much longer I am going to be on my own. I am being carried away to God knows where. We are all transients in life. We can’t get to where we are going from where we are. I’ve had enough, so I’ve decided to proceed and summon something new. A woman, obviously. I’ve thought about this, and shall try.
I have been cursed.
After eating I tried to search my mind and bring her into being. A light! From beneath the waves I saw a light slip to the surface, and then a form.
What have I done? A thing I cannot, will not, recall. Her hair has the sight and stench of seaweed and her pallid skin has two sunken orbs where the eyes should be. I have dragged from the seabed a bloated corpse – a casualty of a sunken wreck.
I fought with her. The boat nearly fell beneath the waves that screamed and sang around me. The timbers of my craft cried under the stress of our battle as water seeped on board. I pulled the tiller from its place and used the wood as a weapon in our contest. Her eyes! Her eyes! Venomous teeth that chattered not with the cold, but with passion. And her clawed hands flailed over the beam of the boat as I struggled against her, and she tried to pull me under.
All around me was damnation; a purple sky shot with brilliant gold as a storm ransacked the sea.
We fought for over two hours, but eventually she submerged once more into the brackish waste.
26th June 1885
Each night since her first appearance, the lich that I have created has haunted me. Each time we fight a hurricane reigns, a chorus of destruction heralds our contest.
But last night something new happened. I had given up the fight, and when she came I decided not to fight but to let her take me as I once plotted to take her. But no. When she came she mounted the prow and stood there looking at me. She was a hideous apparition, haloed as she was by a violent sky with an electric nimbus surmounting her head. Then she jumped over board and I never saw her again, although I waited.
I understand now. I hear her call, the song. All day I’ve sung it. I rode the waves and brows, singing, singing, singing. I followed the chant over the sea – I laughed at the words, at what she sang to me. I cried at the utter truth and power of the melody. It is a chorus of all that I feel. However, one last verse evades me. I’ve strained my ears so that I can make sense of the words but from here they make no sense. I have tried. And so, because I need to know those final words, I have resolved myself to an ultimate plan as I sail upon this vast and lonely ocean.
When she comes tonight I shall join her. I will take myself unto the depths to escape this malady, cast myself into the granite waves to join this wild performance. Finally I will hear the whole song.
Sometimes I’m a lame duck.
Not a metaphorical duck either.
But a real duck that is actually lame
from stepping on a rusty nail or something.
At what point does a bush become a tree?
Perhaps trees are born and not made.
Once a bush, always a bush.
Perhaps bushes branch out.
In every forest across the land, but not across lakes and things…
‘Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a majestic oak,
swaying at the caress of the south-westerly breeze,
Force 3, blustery showers.’
The sticky out bits are called ‘leaves’
because each Autumn they all leave.
Such trees are called ‘deciduous’
because all the leaves decid to fall off.
The other type, ‘evergreen’,
are known as such because all the leaves evergreed not to.
Thence into dotage,
when the old chestnuts come out with those, er, old chestnuts.
‘When I were young, all this were car parks,
now you can’t move for trees.’
And so on until death,
but I won’t lumber you with that.
This is an extract from a longer radio play about two mountaineers who get lost atop the Alps. In the section below they have just climbed down to reach an abandoned tent. Down there they also find a ship’s anchor and wonder how it got there, which leads them onto talking about coincidences…
Brian I’ve an interesting story along those lines about the Blitz.
Alan Go on.
Brian During the war, London was divided into a series of squares to work out the probability of any one square being hit by a falling bomb. Should London consist of just one square, then the chance of it being hit by any falling bomb would be 100%. If in two squares, then there would be a 50% chance of either square being hit. In other words, the greater the number of squares, the less chance there is of any one square being hit.
Alan I can see where this is going.
Brian The proposition is this: if they had reduced London to millions upon millions of squares, then the chance of any square being hit would be so low as to be almost zero. Think of all the lives that would have been saved.
Alan Maybe they could have widened the area to the whole of Britain.
Alan And my Uncle Walter would still be alive.
Brian How nice.
Alan Especially for my Aunt Elizabeth.
Brian Is that the Irish Polish Jewish one who lives in Deptford?
Alan No, that’s Aunt Greta. Aunt Elizabeth married Walter, who came from Tennessee, a few years before the war. He loved a roast on Sundays – Aunt Elizabeth said he used to smother the meat in mustard until it was almost unpalatable. As a treat she would cook him peanut butter sandwiches, deep fried in butter to remind him of home. Once, as a special treat for her, he made griddled corn cakes. Unfortunately, he got confused between the sugar and salt pots.
Alan Yeah. Aunt Liza was good about it. Apparently she mustered all the politeness she could and just replied, ‘it doesn’t taste like I thought it would.’
Brian (with outrageous fake Virginian accent) Yes ma’am.
Alan Aunt Greta believes that we are all descendants of aliens who landed in biblical times and bred with the primitive inhabitants they found. She thinks that the vision of Ezekiel is the residual memory of a UFO landing.
Brian Sounds a bit like my cousin Frank.
Brian He’s a Presbyterian.
Alan The anchor, though, does pose a question.
Brian I don’t know…
Alan Clearly, it has no right here – it clearly doesn’t belong.
Brian It makes the place more interesting, gives it more character. You’ll remember this mountaintop.
Alan If only for the reason I’m marooned atop it.
Brian Switch on the radio, let’s see if we’ve got our fifteen minutes.
And I was laughing
because those two were laughing…
…we was all laughing.
Every night for two weeks I have walked the same lane.
I have walked every evening and cut across a particular field.
I find that when I walk there my eye is always drawn,
it is always drawn to the same small patch of trees
beneath which I know can be found prehistoric earthworks.
Flowers grow in the hedges – wild daisies with giant blooms
and wood hyacinth with purple petals that blow their scent
on evening walks as I descend down into the woods.
On the air I could hear a finch’s song and saw a falcon
hover out across the field where I walked.
I could see it all and I had a thought, an idea that
often occurred to me as I walked.
As I brushed past the harebells and turned down through
the field I saw the copse of trees sitting perfectly still as a
manor house may do on a hill. It was just before sunset
and the odd thought occurred to me in the salmon light
of the clouds how strange it looked, how enchanted but
ordinary it made me feel – I felt these things as I strode
to it. I paused as I looked and listened to a stream
of starlings shivering overhead and found the woods
beckoning me, I felt sure of this as I stood. I often thought
that down there dancing bogles and bogies could be seen.
Caught out as I was, with the fading light casting
mysterious shadows, I looked to its edge but saw nothing,
so I pushed aside tall grasses to continue on my way; sure it
was all so ordinary but still aware of how certain I was
that in these trees amid the roots and fallen branches,
down Bronze Age gullies could be found faeries dancing
around buttercups and bluebells. Down there, beneath
branches of hazel and chestnut, I hardly needed to tell myself
what I would find and so I determined to watch them, to spy
and lie among the ferns as they marched across this
idyllic scene and the petalled field.
I was not too far away from the trees and approached
in the lee of a farmer’s hedge along the length of a fallow field,
and then I froze because I thought I saw a movement. No.
There was nothing. It had gone. And then again! I saw
there, coming out of my woods a small form, skipping along.
I knelt and hid and hoped to watch and then, as it came
closer I saw: a small boy, a young lad from the estate.
I stood up and waved over to him to ask a question,
‘Will I see faeries dance in the woods tonight?’ I said so plainly.
‘Faeries dance in the woods?!’ he answered surprised. I told
him how I hoped I would find them there.
‘No,’ he said and pointed off across the field.
‘Over there is where you’ll see them tonight.’
This story is taken from a fantasy role-playing game called Runequest that we used to play a lot. I played a character called Aransar who adventured with a group of freedom fighters trying to resist the Lunar Empire (an invading army from the north). Aransar was decidedly anti-Lunar, and this animosity had to come from somewhere. So I wrote this story to explain Aransar’s hate of the Lunars…
Aransar woke up feeling fresh after having had a good night’s sleep. He had fallen asleep at sunset and didn’t wake up again until sunrise. It was a sunny, fresh Spring day and he was keen to be up and out.
His mother sat by the hearth, breastfeeding his baby sister. On the fire was an earthernware skillet and Aransar broke an egg in the pan and fried it, then ate the egg and used a piece of bread to mop up the oil.
“Don’t come back ‘til you have a brace of good-sized eels or a couple of plump rabbits. Preferably both,” said his father.
“I will, father,” answered Aransar between gulps of goose egg and flat bread. “Aye, I will at that – the bunnies will be out, full of glee, on a day like this.”
His father said nothing but smiled at his young son and he went over to his wife and newborn babe. The man kissed his wife on the forehead then awkwardly stroked the head of his baby daughter. Aransar watched them, sitting aside, and poured some water into a large waterskin, wrapped up a block of cheese in a cloth and took what remained of the bread. This would be his meal for the day.
“I need you to be right canny, our Aransar,” said his father. “Your mam’s still weak after giving birth to your sister and needs all her strength for looking after the wee bairn.”
“I’m not so weak…” started his mother.
“I will father. And mother. And I’ll be back with a good haul for the pot and in time to help with chopping the wood. Our sis will be the best wee girl in the village and all the Uroxi and Vingans will shudder when they see her.”
Both parents laughed.
“I know you will, son. Aye, I know you will.”
Aransar met Rhys ap Cluddoc down by Slowduck creek where they set their eel traps and then made up for the heath land atop the Malani hills. The mid-morning sun warmed up the land, fat bees wobbled past them and waves of starlings took to wing. Whilst the rounded hills were glorious and green with fists of bright yellow daffodils and primroses among the bramble bushes and trees. The top of the hills were flat, with a cool summer breeze that kept the sweat off their brows and it was here they decided to hunt the many rabbits that lived on the downland. The two boys sat in the shrubs, looking for good stones for their sling shots, turning them over, checking they were smooth and rounded. The sun was high and warming and the distant Starfire Ridges were purple against the spring skyline.
“So how’s your new gal, then?” asked Rhys.
“Our sis is right strong and will be the talk of the village – the whole Greydog will be proud of her. Mam and dad are so chuffed and happy. They’ve called her Voriasa – after the Spring.”
“Aye. But in fifteen summers time she’ll be ripe for the plucking, and no spring virgin anymore.”
“Aw, give way speaking like that! Man, that’s wrong!”
Rhys laughed and Aransar took a small stone, wiping off the earth, shaking his head.
“Watch me get this,” said Aransar as he folded the stone into the pouch of his sling. “See that big bugger there,” he said, nodding out toward the field of rabbits in front of them.
“Aye, I see it – the big grey one with the brown rump.”
“That’s the one. Watch me get it between the eyes!”
Aransar kept behind the bushes and started swinging his sling. Slowly at first but then building up momentum, watching where the rabbits had their burrows for when they ran. Keeping low behind the shrubs, moving behind Rhys, then suddenly stepped out and let the stone fly!
The rabbits had been caught by surprise. The stone was halfway there before they saw Aransar and by the time they had started to move the slingshot had rattled across the heath and bounced in the grass. The shot had missed and the rabbits were gone.
“Aw, shit, man. Missed the sod!” cursed Aransar.
“I knew you would miss,” said Rhys, “you’re a right pansy with that there sling. You couldn’t hit Old Ma Thompson’s arse from five yards!”
Aransar shook his head. “Aye,” he said, “that’s a big arse.”
“Come now,” said Rhys, “let’s off to Farmer Wilko’s field – there’s rabbits-a-plenty there. Leave it to me, this time.”
With that the two of them took up their belongings and made off across the downland, heading to Big Elm Valley. But as they followed the trails eastwards they saw in the yellow valley below a line of soldiers, some two-score in number, making their way south toward Greydog village. With the soldiers were two covered wagons and instinctively Aransar and Rhys took cover among the trees and undergrowth to watch the line of bronze-clad hoplites march slowly south.
“Wretched bastards!” spat Aransar. “What are the Lunars doing here?”
“Shh!” said Rhys. “Keep yer head down.”
The two boys watched the soldiers. There had been talk of Lunar tax missions in the countryside – one had even been to the king at Swordvale – and the invaders had been raising revenues from the tribes throughout the land. Each of the soldiers wore a crested bronze helm and carried a spear and bronze-faced shield – some had been painted with demons or crimson-red. Others polished bright and left to shine sharply in the rising sun. When they’d passed, Aransar and Rhys came down off the hills and made their way across the road and into Big Elm Valley and the farmlands.
* * * * *
By late afternoon the sun was beginning to set. Aransar and Rhys had managed to kill three rabbits and snare half a dozen black birds. The eel traps had proven to be empty, and so the two boys bickered about who should take what home. As they came across the north common they saw two black columns of smoke coming from the village, and both knew these were too big to be simple hearth fires. They approached the village at a walk, but as they got nearer the pace speeded up until they were running full speed for their home village.
They ran into the village square amid snatched half-conversations – “there’ll be hell to pay for this one”, “the bastards!”, “there was no earthly reason to do this”, “get me my spear, woman!”…
Then Aransar saw that his family home was the source of one of the fires, and that the thatched roof had long since burnt away, and that the wattle and daub walls were fiercely ablaze.
He looked around for his family. “Where..?” he stammered. “Where..?” He threw down the rabbit and blackbirds he’d got off Rhys and tried to make his way to the burning roundhouse.
“Where are they?” he called. The panic in his voice was now obvious. “Where are they! Someone, where are my mother and father? Where is my little baby sister?”
Then a hand came down on his shoulder and a voice called to him, “Get away from the fire, you young devil; or else the flames will take another life!”
And then he was abruptly pulled away by his collar and he fell to the ground, scared and alone. Standing in front of him was his father.
“Calm down, laddy,” he said to Aransar. “Calm down. I’ve some terribly sore news for you.”
* * * * *
Harridan Banshee had been called from Swordvale and arrived in Greydog village just before midnight. She had with her a bag full of the tools she would need – a small trowel, some charcoal, a handful of spring blossoms, and a small stone-carved figure. And she also had with her a bottle of brandy to keep off the night-time chill.
When she arrived in Greydog village she made for the hall of chief Kornos. They all knew the Ty Kora Tek crone was in the village and they spoke about her in hushed, and fearful, tones – she only came to the village when there were dead to be buried.
The funeral cortege made for the top of Spiny Fell among the Starfire Ridges. The way was strewn with bracken and thorns and crossed with fox tracks. The stars above were bright and from atop the hill one could see below the glow from the hearth fires.
Aransar walked at the head of the procession with his father, who kept his son close and whose face showed the tears he had shed and whose eyes showed the defiance and rage. They walked ahead of the bodies of the young child and its mother, wrapped in linen shrouds, carried by the village thegns.
Behind them was Harridan Banshee, who wailed for the murdered woman and child. All else was silent. Filing behind them came the rest of the village, led by chief Kornos. The silent, solemn, procession gradually made its way to the top of Spiny Fell where a pyre was built.
“Aye, aye, this shan’t be left to lie,’ said Aransar’s father to his son. ‘There’ll be hell to pay for this,” he said.
Harridan Banshee kept up her wailing and lamentations, screeching to the very winds, appealing to the gods for mercy and damnation. She made a pledge for the souls of the fallen – through the songs and dirges she sang. Then at the appointed spot she unwrapped the bodies, still smeared with their own dried blood, and she began to draw symbols and runes on their faces with charcoal – blessings so their souls may pass peacefully to rest.
Aransar looked on the scene with a numb expression. The cool night time wind billowed about him and the crone’s songs left him with a sorry feeling.
‘You did the right thing, chief,’ Aransar’s father said to chief Kornos. ‘I bear you no ill-will and do not hold you responsible.’
‘You’re a kind and fair man,’ answered Kornos. ‘Though I still say that my household now owes yours a favour or grant. Name your boon, and it will be yours.’
Harridan Banshee finished her preparation of the bodies and it was to the thegns to lift them to the pyre. The old priestess resumed her death-songs and stood alone, fulfilling her vows to sing for the dead.
‘What did they want, father? How much?’ asked Aransar.
‘Never mind such questions.’
‘I want to know. I want to know how much me mam’s life and our sis’s life were worth.’
‘Don’t talk like that, son – you’ll regret speaking those words.’
‘I’ll regret nothing. I’ll regret that they’re now dead – killed by those bastards. I’ll regret that they’re dead because…because…’ he looked at chief Kornos, who had heard everything, unsure whether he should continue, ‘…because the chief refused to water and feed their horses!’
‘Stay your tongue, boy – you’re still young enough for a hiding!’ ordered his father.
Still Harridan Banshee wailed, and the bodies lay atop the pyre, the winds blew and the stars shone down on the hill top.
‘The lad can speak,’ said chief Kornos. ‘Let him speak. Let him have his say. No need to keep it in.’
‘I don’t have anything else to say,’ said Aransar sullenly. ‘I don’t…’
Harridan Banshee’s cries filled the air and she walked around the pyre offering blessings and curses and she placed a small statue of the Earth Crone among the logs and turned to Aransar and his father.
The father and son each took a flaming brand and one stood at the head of the pyre and the other at the foot. Aransar’s father said a small prayer to his wife and child but Aransar did not speak a word, he just stood there, shuddering in the wind, crying.
Then, as one, they cast the flaming torches onto the pyre, which caught and burnt bright against the night sky, atop the hills and ridges. The wind fed the flames which were soon burning hard and fast.
The fire was soon fierce. Harridan Banshee knelt some way from the villagers and she whined and keened at the burning of the corpses. As the flames took hold of the bodies Aransar could hear a high-pitched screeching and he bowed his head, sure that even the earth cried for his mother and sister. The villagers made their way back down the hill, leaving Aransar and his father to keep vigil around the burning pyre, and Harridan Banshee wailed for their souls, because that was her job.
All the movers were there: Rudolf Lloyd, Gertrude D’arcy, Maisy Williams and Carter Goodman . The Ball had been paid for and organised by Colonel Bo Pankiewicz – a big-time producer. Colonel Bo had written on the invitations that the Ball was to celebrate all that was AMERICAN.
Pankiewicz’s family had fled Poland in 1938, just for the young Bo (real name unknown) to join the Free Polish Army in ’39. Bo was not a colonel, but it was an affectation that he liked. After the war he’d come here, working on sets and stuff, you know? He’d got himself into a couple of pictures – westerns, after being spotted by one of the directors in these parts. But from acting, he went into cinematography, because he couldn’t act and his accent seemed out of place in the wild west.
Pankiewicz had an ‘eye’. He was soon directing his own pictures – and making a helluva lot of money. From this he financed his own production company – Prince Prospero Productions. PPP made that picture about a medieval prince who feasted while plague ravished the land outside his palace – a ‘sort of’ hit in ’49. He’d gotten invited to a load of parties and stuff in his early career and gained a name as a man who liked earthly pleasures, even if he hardly drank himself. I was told he developed his taste after the poverty of his origins, and that on the invites he instructed guests to be willing to indulge themselves. His attitude was as corpulent as his deviancy.
“Boys,” he told his followers, “we don’t want no comoonists here.”
“No, sir, ” they nodded harmoniously.
“For I tell you,” continued the Colonel, “they spread like a Red Death across the globe.”
The Ball’s doors had been locked to outsiders. Pankiewicz had gathered all around him – all those who he believed had not caught the disease. It was a protected world they lived in – sanitised and cleansed by their own fire.
The Ball room had been cleared in the centre, to make room for dancing. The highly polished floor had been constructed from a mosaic of different coloured marbles to form an image of a Portcullis on which the guests danced. To the north, east and west were large dining rooms where the guests ate and drank. The bars held wines and spirits from places not known to Pankiewicz or many of his guests and banks of tables held the food for the evening’s buffet. Each table had been covered with a black silk cloth so that the food underneath was not visible. Just the rhythm of its richness could be seen.
To the north the lights were a soft yellow. All ornaments and fittings were of gold and anyone who sat in this room found themselves vested with a brilliant nimbus that shone through their hair and the delicate fabrics they wore. To the west the lights were green and the tapestries on the walls showed scenes of trees and forests and animals running through them. Anyone sitting here was pleased to smell pine as they, doused in this light, moved as graceful as the animals depicted on the walls. To the east the light was red. The richness of this colour flushed the cheeks of anyone sitting here and gave this wing a passion and fidelity that attracted more of the guests than the other two wings combined. To the south was the doorway – a great, oak-panelled, double doorway that opened inwards to swallow anyone who entered in the suction of air. The whole layout was not unlike that of a cross.
Be sure the guests were grotesque. On Pankiewicz’s orders they had dressed to their fancy and once the masquerade had begun, the carnival took hold. Dames dressed as gentlemen and gentlemen dressed as shoe-shine boys with no heed given to who was whose superior in the office. In the carnival atmosphere each was disguised by a disfigured mask with horns and tusks sprouting from the mouth or pig’s ears standing erect at the sides. All this to create a feeling of anonymity to help encourage their passions. Only the richest materials were seen, stitched with other gaudy fabrics to create a devil’s motley. The spectacle was an arabesque of taste and body. Ladies caressed with each other as gentlemen watched in aroused fascination. A dwarf, attired as a bell-boy, carried a plate of creams and fancies which he left by the naked body of a woman as another guest (I know not which gender) arranged them over her body before lying atop her with the cream lubricating their bodies.
In the green room two men had taken the form of a centaur and both, with erect phalluses, harshly made intercourse to two others, whilst above them another dwarf broke open ripe tomatoes, melons and other fruits into the mouth of the human part of this chimera. In the northern room a woman in a golden, silk dress that shimmered like the lights of New York hoisted her hemline above the waist before urinating into the mouth of a man, on his knees, chained to an ebony pillar. In the red room the warm light had caused all occupants to undress, their bodies perspiring from the heat. So sultry was the temperature that, instead of rushing from one passion to another, those who entertained here made do with writhing slowly on the floor, and each other, like a nest of serpents. While at all times anonymous couples could be found in silent booths fumbling with each other’s bodies with neither name nor gender known until the last when all seemed not to matter and they continued unabated with their lusts.
Pankiewicz stood by the archway leading into the east wing. This man, not yet forty, leant against a large ebony Grandfather clock that struck dully on each hour. Dressed in his white military uniform, he was surrounded by his secretaries and aides and engulfed in the red light.
“I want to do a big picture,” he stated.
“Yes, sir. A BIG picture,” they chimed.
“A western. Yes, a western,” he said, remembering his earlier career.
“A western. Oh yes, sir. A western. Great idea. Buffaloes…”
“Nah, I don’t want buffalo. Buffalo are dead. I want cows. Cows are more…sympathetique.”
“Er…cows. Yes, sir.”
The clock struck 11.00.
“Dammit, that’s some chime,” said the Colonel.
“Some chime. Yes, sir.”
“Who’s that lady over there?”
“There,” said Pankiewicz, pointing. “The broad in orange taffeta.”
“Oh, that lady. Well, sir, that’s Margaret DuMuis. She’s French.”
“I want her in my next picture. Who’s that guy standing next to her?”
That guy was me. Only I was slightly younger then. I hadn’t been invited directly – I knew someone who was going to be there. For my costume I wore a bright red tuxedo with a scarlet shirt and bow. I never knew who Pankiewicz was and so paid him little notice when I walked by.
“Boy,” said Pankiewicz to me, “do you have an invite?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said.
“Then you don’t belong here.”
“And how does one go about not belonging?”
“What the…is that supposed to be clever? Is that socialism?”
The clock struck midnight.
“Are you dressed as a comoonist?” asked Pankiewicz.
“No,” I said, “I am Death.”
“Same meat, different gravy. Boy, how dare you come to my Ball as a goddam Red!” As he said this he clicked his fingers in the air and all the dwarves drew curved daggers from under their jackets.
When he stopped speaking they all moved forward and so I took another step nearer to Pankiewicz. Colonel Bo stepped back, away from me and into the red room. I followed, but the dwarves refused to follow me into the red room. They all seemed possessed of an unspoken awe or fear, even Pankiewicz’s minders parting way for me so that I came within a few inches of their grasp – they had all fallen to a single, collective impulse to not seize me, and to shrink away. Pankiewicz, now doused by the red light, grew enraged at his own cowardice and that of the revellers. So, half in an attempt to rally his followers, and half in an attempt to bolster his own fear, he stood his ground and raised his fists to exaggerate his anger like one of his cheap movie posters. Running at me, Pankiewicz fell, sobbing at my feet – his fear overcoming his bravado. Looking into my face, he drew one last gasp and died. At once the revellers and dwarves charged me and as they reached the threshold of the red room I took off my mask to reveal the face of Time.
It was then that they all knew that Death refuses those who seek him too early, because Death itself will claim them in his own time. Slowly, but inevitably, each room fell to darkness, and the hands on the clock stopped turning.