Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: fiction

The water of life *

There is a building in our burgh that once was – several generations ago, after it had been a cottage and before it became a warehouse for garments and then a dance studio – a chapel of sorts. Its small congregation was looked down upon by the Kirk, by the Baptists, by the Romans, and by the Episcopalians, and its pastor or preacher, John Michie, was a byword in the town. He was an incomer, along with his family and a couple of members of the congregation, from Clackmannan, and his church was of no noted denomination, save that some said it had been set off from the Sandemanians. One thing was certain, however, was that John Michie was a man who preached sin, and its consequences in eternal fire.

He was dead against strong drink, and preached every Wednesday and Saturday in the street, handing out tracts about the dangers of alcohol, of how it polluted a man’s soul and body, and how pure water was enough for man’s thirst. It was mainly this that made him a byword. He said it himself. “But he has made me a byword of the people, and I have become one in whose face men spit, Job chapter seventeen, verse six. I am now their taunting song and their byword, same book, chapter thirty, verse nine,” he declared. Small wonder, it could be said, because his Saturday preaching was done outside the Johnstone Arms, and his Wednesday at the gates of the distillery. Taunts he endured, sometimes he was pushed and shoved, an occasional stone was sent flying his way. Once a pebble struck him high on the cheekbone, just under his left eye – he never flinched, and his bearing of the wound seemed to make him stand straighter. For all their detestation of him, people said grudgingly that he had the courage of his convictions.

One Wednesday, having had enough of the disruption caused by Michie’s regular visits, the General Manager of the distillery, a Kirk man, came down in person to the gates and harangued him. The precise words of the exchange are not recorded, but the parting shot of Campbell, the Manager, as he ground on his heel and stalked back to his office, was to the effect that Michie was a fool; Michie, to his back, shouted, “Matthew, chapter five, verse twenty-two!”

Campbell had some influence in the Kirk of Scotland, and it was little surprise that on the following Sunday the Minister there preached about the Marriage at Cana, and how Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine, about how this prefigured the coming of the New Covenant and the ending of the Old, in which the injunction had been “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup” according to the Book of Proverbs. Moreover, said the Minister, the Apostle Paul had told Timothy, his fellow-disciple, to take a little wine for the good of his stomach. When he heard of this, John Michie said very little, except he made a remark about people who confused fermentation with distillation.

People thought that perhaps he had been silenced by one better versed than he. However, next Saturday he appeared as usual at the Johnstone Arms. Only this time he did not preach outside. He pushed open the door and walked in. He walked right up to the counter and, in a room that had fallen silent, addressed the landlord.

“I believe you sell whiskey here, is that not so?”

The landlord placed his fists on the counter and leaned forward.

“I do, John Michie,” he said, “and it is my business if I do, and none of yours!”

“Landlord, I wish to buy some.”

If it were possible for a quiet room to become even quieter, then the bar of the Johnstone Arms did. For a second or two, the landlord, stunned, did not move. Then he reached for a glass.

“No,” said Michie, “I wish to buy more than that.”

The landlord raised his eyebrows and reached for a bottle.

“Landlord, please do not waste my time. Sell me a case. I presume you have one in your cellar? Yes? Then sell me a case of whiskey!”

Every denizen of the pub watched this drama unfold, disbelief on their faces. The landlord went down to the cellar and brought up a case of whiskey. Michie paid for it, hefted it onto his right shoulder, and walked outside. Several – most – of the drinkers followed him, watching as he marched up the road that led to the sharp glen cut into the Ochil Hills, at the foot of which our burgh stands. Some then walked after him, others went into the burgh, to passersby in the street and to customers in the shops, saying “John Michie has bought a case of whiskey, and he’s away up the glen with it!” Soon there was a long straggling line of townsfolk following behind the preacher.

John Michie wasn’t a big man, but he was wiry and tough, and even with the burden of the case of whiskey his pace up the steep glen was hard to match. The path, laid alongside the pipeline that carried the burgh’s water supply from the burn, was narrow, and the drop to the torrent below often sheer. As a result, the preacher kept ahead of the following crowd. When they eventually caught up to him, after a forced march of about an hour, he had stepped onto a rock in the middle of the burn, just below an artificial weir, and just above where an intake had been built to divert some of the water into the pipe. There he sat, the case open, and a whiskey bottle in his hand. The gathering crowd watched as he unscrewed the cap of the bottle.

He poured the contents into the burn.

“That’s a waste of good whiskey!” said one of the younger men in the crowd, and made as if to loup onto the rock himself. But Michie took up another bottle with a reverse grip, testing it as one might test the weight of a handy weapon.

“A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength, Proverbs chapter twenty-four, verse five,” he said, and the young man decided not to intervene after all. In fact every single one of the preacher’s pursuers, come in ones and twos to that place where the hand of man first interferes with the wildness of the burn that runs through the steep-sided glen, simply stood and watched as he emptied the contents of bottle after bottle into the water.

Eventually the crowd was joined by Sergeant Turnbull. Or rather they made way for his slow approach; Turnbull being a man of some girth, and what is more another incomer, from Lothian, his stripes and his exoticism gave him a cachet in their eyes, and so they showed him a good deal of deference.

“John Michie,” he said, “Can ye no see what it says on yon notice?”

water supply for MarieThe preacher looked across to where the policeman was pointing – a sign stating that anyone found polluting the water supply would be prosecuted – and nodded. “I see it fine,” he said, emptying the last whiskey bottle.

“I shall have to arrest you, then.”

“Aye, I think so.”

Packing the empty bottles back into the case, and hefting them once again onto his right shoulder, the preacher followed the Sergeant on a stately progress back down the glen. The others stood back to let them pass. In answer to the occasional quizzical glance, the Sergeant jerked his thumb at the case and said, “Evidence.”

Two days later John Michie stood before the Procurator Fiscal at Alloa Sheriff Court. When asked how he pled to the charge of emptying bottles of whiskey into the water supply of the Burgh of Alva, he said only, “Guilty.” The Procurator Fiscal had been minded to fine the preacher twenty-five pounds, but because of his plea and his obvious subjection “unto the higher powers” as scripture has it, the fine was reduced to seventeen pounds and ten shillings.

If anyone thought this was the end of the extraordinary episode they were wrong. On the day after his appearance in court, John Michie caused a handbill to be circulated widely in the burgh – pinned to posts, handed out to all and sundry by members of his little congregation. The headline on it ran thus:

“THE LAW DECLARES WHISKEY TO BE A POLLUTANT.”

The text below was an honest account of the preacher’s actions, his deliberately disobeying the precise words of the sign, his subsequent appearance at the Sheriff Court, and his guilty plea. And of course no one would gainsay the headline, because it was literally true. It is not recorded whether this actually altered anyone’s drinking habits, but the story is always retold with a smile, and a note that no one ever called John Michie a fool after that. For a while his little congregation was even a person or two larger, and it is said that, with a twinkle in his eye, he preached less about hell fire and more about baptism, and about the pure water of life.

__________

*I was sent the photograph which accompanies this story, with the suggestion that I could probably find a story in it.

Whichcraft

Recently, someone asked me what my fascination was with the tarocky pack – better known as tarot. I don’t know whether I can answer that, without telling a tale I first told in verse in 2008, about how I came to put on the mantle and hat of le bateleur!

Le bateleur

I met a man some time ago,
….beside the old High Road.
He asked me whither I would go,
….he bade me rest my load.
His doublet had a pearled jabot,
….pteruges, sleeves that flowed;
he asked me what I wished to know,
….beside the old High Road.

Upon his bench he set a stall,
….beside the old Highway,
with cups, and coins, and swords, and all,
….and said “I will soothsay.
All Nature answereth my call,
….no man can say me nay;
I can raise up, I must let fall,
….beside the old Highway.”

His beaver hat was lemniscate,
….beside the road to Town,
which is to say a figure-eight
….gave shadow to his crown;
a yellow thatch sprung from his pate,
….its ringlets hanging down.
His words gushed like the Rhine in spate,
….beside the road to Town.

He said to me, “Nu, zay nisht beyz’
….beside the Avenue.
“I’ll tell you all the mantic ways
….of Which, and How, and Who.”
And from his sleeves he drew bouquets
….of Pink, and Green, and Blue –
Abba-Dabar” was his catchphrase,
….beside the Avenue.

I took him for a Mountebank,
….beside the old Towpath,
that peeped and muttered, with an ankh
….scribed on his wand of lath;
or was he German, Celt, or Frank?
….“Forsooth,” thought I, “He hath
an eldritch air, a touch of swank,
….beside the old Towpath!”

“In my land, dwellings with mansards,
….beside the Country Lane,”
he said, “have in their sparse dooryards
….a trug of blue wolfsbane,
a driftwood cross, a pile of shards –
….a shattered windowpane.
Come friend, please buy my pack of cards,
….beside the Country Lane.”

I took a shilling from my purse
….beside the Old, Straight Track.
I took the cards and, with a curse,
….I put them in my pack,
as though his offer did coerce –
….I could not give them back!
The dyke and fence he did traverse,
….beside the Old, Straight Track.

I have not seen him from that time,
….beside the Thoroughfare,
although through every land and clime
….I’ve sought him here and there.
I’ve heard tell of his sleight and mime,
….at country wake and fair,
as fickle as the new springtime
….beside the Thoroughfare.

And I’ve heard tell that Woden, blind,
….beside the Great Turnpike,
where gibbets creak and nooses wind,
….walks by the misty dyke;
I’ve heard the Flying Dutchman pined
….to slip ashore and strike
his foot upon the tussocks, twined
….beside the Great Turnpike.

Along the weary moorland trench,
….beside the Boluevard,
amongst the Romany, the French,
….the Breton Campagnardes,
I searched in vain; but then – oy mensh,
….the canny old canard! –
I found his old three-legged bench
….beside the Boulevard!

No more I search, but set my stall
….beside the Old High Road.
Step up, mayn her – come one, come all –
….your fortune I’ll decode.
Come, try my cards, see how they fall;
….my scrying’s à la mode:
THE MOUNTEBANK – you’re in My thrall
….beside the Old High Road.

Are things moving again?

Yes. Maybe not so much on the writing front at present, but I hear encouraging noises on the publication front. What might it mean? Well don’t hold your breath, but:

  • My collection of short stories, The Last-but-one Samurai and other stories, is coming forward for publication.
  • My novel KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE – sequel to From My Cold Undead Hand – is also coming forward. I hear that the earlier novel is to be re-launched and they are both to have an entirely new cover concept.
  • Possibly my first collection of poems from 2010, Naked in the Sea, will be re-issued.

All of this is up in the air at the moment, so…

graphic-watch-this-space

Voicebox

 

Voicebox

…..I’m not sure when I became aware of the voice, I mean really aware. I’d had the feeling that there was something going on for a while, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. No, literally, I couldn’t put my finger on it, even though I poked and prodded myself, examined myself for lumps, pressed places on my body to see if they were painful, that sort of thing. Then I realised I could hear a voice.

…..Now, I know what you’re thinking. The P-word. The S-word. No. See, I took this to a professional and, frankly, she was nonplussed, couldn’t make sense out of it. As long as I wasn’t hearing commands to dress in armour and fight the English, and I wasn’t. It wasn’t like that at all. It was ordinary, banal I guess.

…..At first it was just a vague murmuring, like I could hear someone talking through a wall. I thought it was a weird buzzing in my ears – you know, tinnitus – but though I couldn’t make out words I could tell from the intonation that it was speech, definitely speech. And it wasn’t actually in my ears as such, more like I was taking this through-the-wall stuff with me wherever I went. It shifted, but only slightly, sometimes seeming to come from my right, and then my left. It got clearer, and then it faded again as I tried to catch what was being said. Then I did catch something. Just like that, one morning, I made something out.

…..“Can you hear me?”

…..“Yes, I can. I can hear you,” I said, and instantly wished I hadn’t because I was in a shop and I said it out loud. Several people turned and looked at me, as you’d expect. I had to hurry to the ladies’ in the shopping centre and lock myself in the cubicle nearest to the wall and keep my voice down as soon as I heard anyone else coming in. This was before I realised I didn’t have to answer out loud.

…..“Good. I’m glad you can hear me at last. Honestly, you are bloody awkward in the extreme. I’ve been trying to get you to hear me for a dog’s age!”

…..“Who are you?” I asked. I was scared of getting an answer to that, and now I come to think about it that’s a question the voice has never answered. “Where are you?”

…..“Where do you think I am?”

…..That was a good question, of course. As I said, this wasn’t like the voice-in-the-head thing. It had a definite direction, a place if you like. At this moment, as I sat on the loo seat in the ladies’, the voice seemed to be coming from just below my right shoulder, at the front, behind my collarbone. And here’s the funny thing – as time has gone on, it has always occupied some place or other in my body, a definite box, a cube about four centimetres square. I can feel the shape inside me, its sides, its edges, its corners, it’s definitely there without pushing anything else out of place, if that makes any kind of sense. I know, I know, this makes no sense at all.

…..“This makes no sense at all,” I said.

…..“When did anything ever make sense? I mean really?” Something I would get used to after a while was this voice’s habit of answering a question with a question. It wasn’t all the time, just enough to be mildly annoying. And there was the one question it kept avoiding, I mean the who-are-you one.

…..I haven’t talked much about the voice to anyone except that professional I mentioned… and you. What’s more, I realised a few things about it quite early on. Firstly, I’m the only person who can hear it. I guess in that respect it is, well, at least similar to what people think of when they think of paranoid schizophrenia, but there is still this outside quality to it, a direction like I said. I know it’s coming from this cube-like shape in me, but it’s still like it isn’t. Secondly I found that I didn’t have to answer it out loud. It’s always been convenient to do it like that, of course, and that runs the risk of people looking oddly at me, but I got round that by using a set of those mini earphones with the lead running into my pocket, so that people would think I was using a smartphone. Speaking out loud means that I’ve organised my thoughts, you see. As far as I know, the voice can’t actually ‘read’ what I call my ‘background thinking’ – or if it can it has never said so – only the thoughts I actually direct at it. Thoughtspeak, if you like. Oh God, that sounds so George Orwell, doesn’t it! Sort of Big-Sister-is-listening-to-you, haha.

…..Oh yes, that’s another thing. The voice is female. It sounds a lot like me, only not quite. It can put on a ‘telephone voice’ when it wants to sound pompous, but basically if I imagine what a person would look like talking the way the voice does, it would be a middle-aged woman a lot like me.

…..However, it knows things I don’t. For instance, I went in for a pub quiz and it fed me answers on football, death metal, and astrophysics, and I don’t know anything about any of those subjects. I thought this was great, and the team I was on won everything in sight. I even thought about going in for one of those big prize game shows on TV. But the voice must have got sick of this, because after a while it started to feed me the odd wrong answer, and then a whole string of them during one quiz and I fell out with me team mates. I kind of fell out with the voice too at that point.

…..“I don’t want to be Betty-no-mates,” I complained.

…..“You’ve got me. I’m your mate.”

…..I suppose it was, in a way. For a while. When I was lonely we would have conversations. When there was nothing worth watching on the TV, I would sit in the living room with one table lamp lit, hugging a pillow, maybe sipping from a glass of wine or picking from a box of chocolates, and the voice and I would chat. I told it my life story. It seemed patient, it seemed to want to listen. I never considered that it was part of me, part of my own mind talking to me, because while I talked about my life it would listen, it would be surprised, delighted, angry, whatever, when I told it about things good and bad from my childhood. It would tell me what it would have done under the same circumstances, and that was always something totally new to me. Another think the voice would do, was to sing duets with me in the shower. I’m a soprano, a rather weak soprano, and the voice is a contralto with much better control than me. It would harmonise. I had to teach it the words and tune to some of the songs I knew – that’s another sign, I guess, that it isn’t my own mind talking to me.

…..You remember I said it moved about? It wasn’t always just under my right clavicle, it could be anywhere. I suppose it was most disturbing when it lodged in my head. I made it plain I didn’t like that, so most of the time it was somewhere in my torso. Once it stubbornly decided to stay down there. God, I don’t know why I’m being so coy about this – I don’t know why I was so coy with the voice either, after all it’s female, it’s just that I didn’t and don’t like it being down there. It just feels somehow like I’m being invaded, violated. I suppose I was and am being invaded anyway. But down there kind of brings it home to me, you see?

…..We did have some really good times, by the way. Those conversations would go on for hours sometimes, and when I ran out of things to say, the voice would tell me stories. They were good stories too.

…..But I still didn’t know the why and the who and the how of it all. Was I some kind of experiment? Was the voice some kind of alien entity? Was I going barmy? I put this to the voice and it just laughed.

…..“Why not just accept me – make the most of what you’ve got! When you were a kid, didn’t you always fantasise about having a secret friend? Well, now you’ve got one. What was your secret friend’s name? You can call me by that name if you want to.”

…..See, to me that was taking things a bit far. The voice already knew such a lot about me, I had told it things from my life I’d almost forgotten about, and some things much better forgotten if I’m honest. Now it seemed like it was asking to take over one of those things, like it was tired of just being a voice inside me and wanted to be a permanent part of me. I think that was the time it started to occur to me that the things I didn’t like about this situation were adding up. The evasions, the moving down there, the secret friend issue. One day it was telling me one of its stories and it seemed familiar, then I realised it was made up from something I had told it from my own life. Well, we had a blazing row. We’d had niggles before, but this was a mental screaming-match. Only it wasn’t just mental. I must have been yelling out loud, because a neighbour of mine knocked on my door to find out if I was okay.

…..I decided to see if I could ignore the voice. I was surprised to find that, yes, I could. It was no effort at all not to reply out loud, just a bit harder to shut down the talking-by-thinking thing, and it didn’t always work. Sometimes I relented and replied, but not as much as before, and when I got really good at not speaking to it, I noticed that it actually began to fade a little, became more muffled again. I cut it off completely, and after a while it was back to that almost inaudible murmuring.

…..The voice did try to attract my attention. Sometimes I was sure I could hear a kind of pleading tone to the sound. But I suppose I just hardened my heart. Once it tried to – I don’t know – make me feel how sharp its corners and edges were, but somehow I got the knack of smoothing them out again, as though I had a plane or some sandpaper in my head. What’s more, I found I could stop it moving about, in fact I could move it myself. I banished it to my right calf, where it remains. I can feel it there now, like a patch of pins-and-needles.

…..I got in touch with my friends again, stopped being a loner, became more sociable, went of girls’ nights out. Life became normal again.

…..Except sometimes, usually at night when I can’t sleep and I can feel that shape and hear that murmuring, I feel guilty. This has all been like falling in love and falling out again. I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish this was nothing but a story.

The Garden at the End of the World

1

“You ought to get that garden seen to. Tidied up a bit.”

I can remember hearing that said to an elderly person I visited once, when I was a child. I loved visiting the elderly. I loved especially obtaining permission to go and wash my hands, so that I had an excuse to explore as much of their house as lay on the route between the back parlour and the bathroom. I used to dare myself to open a door and look in – perhaps to a bedroom, a spare bedroom with cases and boxes stacked, a bed with a flat, level, chenille spread that looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed for years, a wardrobe with a mirror in which I could glimpse the fur coat or the bathrobe that hung on the back of the door I had just opened. I might treat myself to a frisson of fear, fancying that the movement of that coat or that robe was due not to my opening the door but to some animation of its own; or I might simply wonder when last it had been worn, and when it had moved due to the whim and will of the once-young, now-elderly person downstairs, or to that of a dead loved- or hated-one. I might, if I felt brave, walk as quietly as I could, wary of the telltale creak of old floorboards, into the room to see whether any of those repositories of the silent past – the boxes, the cases, the wardrobe – would open. Once or twice I dared to brush my hand against the black suits with shiny lapels, the gowns, to make them sway, to see them in my mind at some cocktail party or dance. I even wondered what it would be like to put on one of these man-size suits or woman-size dresses, whether I would feel weighed down and small in them, or whether I would be possessed by the dancing gentleman or lady who had worn them.

Downstairs their might be a front parlour, cold and undisturbed save for the ticking of a clock or the buzzing of a forlorn bluebottle at the window. I would look at a sea-green collection of glass paperweights with their bubbling patterns of ferns and fronds blown into them, a painting of a harbor, a fragile case of Murano figures, a row of framed photographs with their anonymous faces looking out of, and at, a world that had long gone. I would search the photographs for any resemblance to the elderly house-owner, wondering if I would recognise the eyes of a bridegroom or a bride, or the cheekbones and curve of the mouth of someone in a uniform cap. If the front parlour was curtained I would never draw back the drapes, I would let the room sleep. I would, however, press my face to any chink that allowed in the green light of the garden beyond…

Everywhere in an elderly person’s house was still and cold. The kitchen, where the tap dripped, smelled of hard water and the day before’s cooking. The dark hall always had angles and shadows, the plaster head of a jester leering from the wall, a painting where a patch of threatening sky lowered over top-burdened trees and the figures suggested in a bottom corner were too small before nature’s enormity. A door I passed by on an earlier visit might turn out to be a broom cupboard, and the handle of an antique vacuum cleaner might tumble out to fall against me with a clatter.

“What are you doing?” such might be the words called to me from deeper in the house, or “You took your time!” when I arrived in the back parlour. But more often nothing would be said.

2If I had found houseplants my absence would have been stretched out longer. On finding an Aspidistra or a Meyer lemon, a Clivia or a Kalanchoe, or a Christmas cactus, I would use my fingertips and my lips to navigate and explore it. I would dare to move a pot slightly so that a plant would face more towards the echoing greenery outside; I would gently lift a vine of trailing Hedera and reposition it, draping it over a chair-arm or along the narrow top of a folding table. I would whisper to it – just a gentle hiss of breath in harmony with the leaves’ rustle as they caught and brushed against a man-made surface – I trained myself to feel the slight trembling of each plant, convinced myself that it was the beating of some life-force, or a coded language. I would whisper back, “I know, sister. I know.”

3I liked the silence of the elderly people I visited. Grown-ups in their prime might have taken it for vacancy. I took it for serenity, and equated it with the silence and serenity of their houseplants. Outside the French window, through which an elderly person gazed, there was always a garden that was more ocean-scape than domestic. The little light that fell on the elderly face would have the green of the laurel or the rhododendron that pressed close to the window, the green of the overgrown grass and the dandelion leaves, the green of the moss-covered York-stone flags, the green of the trees beyond. The elderly person was a submariner to me, looking longingly at the emerald light, wishing to be part of it, the only reminder of their life on the surface being a dancing little rainbow when the shifting sun caught an imperfection in the glass. Where other children would have become bored and restless, would have mithered for a glass of orange squash or a jeely piece or to go out and play or to go home, I sat, and loved to sit, as long as the elderly person was content to have me there, content to have me share their closeness to the unruly garden, to the ocean-scape that formed a barrier between them and the noise and bustle of the world beyond. If the window was open, and the breeze that came to us did so in the same measure as the movements of the leaves, so much the better – we would both be alive to that other world, the garden world, we would share but say nothing.

I have remembered all this recently, though my childhood visits are decades in the past and I myself am not too far away from the age of those whom I visited. Well, let’s say I am closer to them than I am to my vanished childhood. It may well be that the envy I once had for the elderly’s serenity and solitude brought me to this house in which I now sit.

There is a loch that suits the metaphor ‘an arm of the sea’. To the south of it sits an equivalent arm of land, one of the more westerly of Scotland. The two arms stretch out, as though willing to embrace, but blindly missing each other. On that ness, on the shore of that loch, sits my house. The brae behind it is close enough to shelter it from the gales that sweep in from the South-west, but low enough to allow sunlight. The higher hills on the other side of the loch often break the winter weather from the North. The loch itself traps the warmth of the Gulf Stream. It is an ideal place for a garden.

It is all the more ideal by there being little chance of a visitor by land. The nearest track peters out half a mile away. A few visitors come, or rather did come, by boat. The temperate conditions here mean that exotics thrived – a marvel this far north – and that drew a handful of tourists to the little jetty. I never minded too much their wandering round the garden’s sparse gravel paths, well to the front of the house, so long as they did not wander too close and disturb my privacy. There was a tin nailed to a fence-post for their donations as they left, and Alastair who owned the little motor-launch that came up from the Lochmore Hotel would regularly leave me a cut of his fares. But Alastair was old, and when he died no one took on his business. If I needed word from the world, or supplies of something, I had a rowing boat of my own which I could scull down to Lochmore. But if living in this house with its garden has taught me anything it is that I don’t need much from the outside world. If I have needs at all.

4It really is remarkable how the garden has repaid me for allowing it to be wild. I have learned, sometimes by trial and error, what fruit, what berry, what exotic nut or seed can be eaten; what sap can be tapped and distilled; what leaf or shoot is palatable and nourishing. The garden has allowed me to take sparingly, to re-seed, to re-plant and to husband what I do not need, spreading it to rot down and feed. Every day has been one of learning and coping, and I have become lean, also – I like to think – wise and serene like the elderly folk I knew in the past. I became self-sufficient, or rather the garden and I became sufficient to each other.

It came as a shock, then, when I heard a loud “Hullo?” from outside. I thought I might have been dreaming, or heard the limb of a tree creaking, or the bellow of a stag and mistaken it for a human voice. But no, there was someone here.

Robertson, he said his name was. A reporter from Glasgow. I didn’t ask how he had reached my seclusion. How he had breached it.

“I am right,” he said. “It is you. You know, people have been saying for years that you had died. You left all your fame – maybe notoriety is a better word, eh? – you left all that behind you and disappeared. My, my, this really is the end of the world out here!”

“It is about as remote as one can be on the mainland.”

“Your house is difficult to spot,” he said.

“So much the better.”

“I mean,” he went on, “it’s pretty much camouflaged by the ivy or whatever growing up the outside – that green against the green of the trees and bushes. I gather you haven’t been seen at Lochmore for some time. How have you been living?”

“I get by.” I explained to him as sketchily as I could how the garden sustained me, how we sustained each other, how the garden produces nourishment to last me all year long. He wanted to know whether that was all; he doubted that anyone could live a purely vegetarian lifestyle on that basis alone. I confessed to him that, no, one couldn’t, and that I had foraged the loch shore for shellfish, being careful to leave more than I take – my principle whether it be fruit, fish, or flesh. “Some time ago I took down the fence that surrounded the garden. I destroyed – nullified – the boundary between the cultivated and the natural. Broom and heather and fern penetrated the garden. Hardy azaleas and apples and strawberries colonised the wild. I let my jetty rot, fall, and be covered with seaweed. I let my maritime exotics explore the shore on their own. Once a deer fell, just outside my back door, and I had a season of meat, before the garden overgrew what was left of it.” Beyond that, I confessed, I relied upon the tumble of the wild garden through my French window – the apples, wild raspberries and blackberries, beech nuts, nettles for soup, the mushrooms that could be eaten without harm, though some brought fierce dreams to me.

“You always had a unique way of seeing the world, with or without hallucinogens,” said Robertson, with a mocking grin. I began to hate him. “What was it exactly you did, again? What was it lost you your place and your reputation in the world…”

“I disremember,” I said, but he ignored me.

“The ethics of your experiments were questionable, to say the least. The ‘science’…” I could hear the quotation marks around that word as he spoke it. He said it again. “The ‘science’ was roundly contested, disputed, denounced as pseudo-science. The fact that your assistants didn’t know what you were doing until it was to late. The unexplained…”

The unexplained what? Did Robertson ever finish that sentence? In any case, what could there be to explain? How could I, how can I, express that deep, vein-deep, consciousness-deep connection between the plant world and the human that my theories had proposed and my experiments had explored? Robertson had cited ethics – I know, I know, the debatable area between the hunger for knowledge and the morality of how to satisfy it has always been a dense and contradictory jungle. But this had been much more than knowledge – my grail had been the essence of being, the marriage feast of nature, the triumph of sap and blood! The child-me had born the adult-me, the person who was part mystic, part scientist, the person who dared, who reached out…

How long is it since Robertson came here? I don’t know. I have ceased to ask what time is, anyway, or to consider the ticking of a clock when seasons are the only real and relevant measure of time – and they circle round and round, again and again, in a garden where the end of the world is its beginning, and the beginning its end. Robertson never left, of course. He sits opposite me, where he sat when his last sentence trailed away, and when his last breath failed. I can make out his eye-sockets, where new foliage has grown through. I can see the shape of his shoulders, his thighs, his knees under the waterfall of green that has seemed to flow through the French windows, left standing open to the garden since before his coming. What stopped his words, his breath, the flowing of that red, oh-so-human sap in his limbs? The blood-metal of my rusty secateurs that are lying beside my chair? The purity of the sap in the cup that has fallen beside his? The stifling of nature’s motes and spores borne by an insistent breeze through the open window? “I disremember, I disremember,” I repeat to myself in a whisper; and the garden whispers back to me.

Somewhere in the house there was a muffled and distant crash – how long ago was that? – which I thought was probably the old chimney, weighed down with creeper and rocking in a stronger-than-usual gust, falling through the roof. No matter. What could it matter?

It is as I said – I leave, or give back, more than I take from nature, from the garden. And now I give to it my childhood memories, the look, the feel, the name of the precious houseplants that exist only in my head. I give the Red Shamrock, the Crassula ovata and the Sago palm, the Lemon Cypress and the Dracaena Marginata, the Peace Lily and the Rhapsis excelsia. I give the knowledge I uncovered as an explorer of the symbiosis of plant and human. I leave it all here, giving it all back to secrecy to this garden at the end of the world. Is there a beginning in this end?

Is there? I do not know, I do not know. The tumble of nature has blown in dry leaves, husks, dandelion parachutes and Spinning Jennies, dust and scents, grey light and emerald green. It has ceased to give me sustenance. But there is no more need for sustenance, there is only need to give back to the genius loci of the garden. The Green Man? Mother Nature? Whatever. It has been a mystery, it has always been a mystery, but now I hear the wind, I hear the rattle of those dead leaves, I hear the sigh of leaf against evergreen leaf and the answering echo from the ruined cave of my house. And at last I understand the language, I hear with utmost clarity what is being said. There is a torque of ivy pinning my wrist to the chair arm, but why would I want to move? A tendril – at last, at last! – brushes my cheek. It is the touch of a lover.

5

©Marie Marshall 2018

Grandfather

Please note: Adult content, violence, and characters using racist vernacular.
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1

I don’t know why we called her Lazy Susan, no idea if her name was even Susan. She weren’t lazy, worked as hard as any other hand, never complained, rode drag with her face mostly covered and her eyes slitted, said nothing about it, said little anyways. Bout the most I ever heard her say was one evening when we’d scrubbed our plates with dirt and were drinking coffee, and got to talking about who was the craziest bastard we ever knowed. She’d been listening, furrowing the ground in front of her with one boot heel like she was getting riled, losing patience, like she thought we thought how in hell could she know anyone crazy. She almost interrupted the tail end of someone else’s story, like she was a kid scared not to get a turn, started off to tell her story and we shut up to listen. Here’s what she said.

I was working on a station right on the edge of terra nullius when we got a message from our neighbour station to say one of their bonded blackfellas had gone walkabout and would we help ride out and look for him. There was a bounty to be paid. Yeah we have blackfellas in Australia, not like the blokes over here, ours are tall, very straight-backed, naked-arsed, ugly bastards, you get the impression the whole bloody land was made around them if you know what I mean, like they sprung out of trees and rocks. I can’t put it any different way. So a bunch of us got leave, we even had a couple of our own blackfellas, they were churched Bilingara and really good blokes, I liked them. The walkabout we were looking for was Anmatyerre, and they hated his people for some reason and didn’t even speak the same blackfella language as him. There were about six 5of us, and one of us went by the name of Grandfather, because of his white hair and beard, cracked on he was French and had fought in Napoleon’s Guard at Waterloo, but that was a lie cause he’d have had to have been there in his baby dress if anything, and we reckoned he was about a quarter boong himself and no bloody Frenchman. Anyway, for his years he made himself our leftenant and gave us orders. The two Bilingara acted as trackers and we set off with no real idea where to go, just spiralling out from the neighbour’s station. The Bilingara boys reckoned we should’ve just gone straight towards where we knew we’d find Anmatyerre and cut him off, but Grandfather said no.

As it turned out they were just about right, and they picked up what they thought might be a trail on our third day out. A blackfella’s difficult to track, but if anyone can do it then another blackfella can. He had a start on us but he was on foot and we were on horseback. At first from what the trackers could see he was making straight for his people, but then they lost the trail completely and we had to cast about for it. When we picked it up again one of the Bilingara said he’d been a clever sod and waited for a rocky place to cut off at a right angle to the east. So it was obvious he knew he was being chased.

A handful of mornings later we were riding along and Grandfather stood up in his stirrups. There’s the bugger, he yelled. He was squinting straight into the morning sun and swore he’d seen the fugitive standing on one leg, naked, blackfella fashion, on some high ground. We shaded our eyes and looked, but none of us saw anything, but that was enough for Grandfather and he ordered to set out in that direction. One of the Bilingara said that if the bloke had let Grandfather see him that was because he’d wanted to be seen and he wanted us to go in that direction, but that didn’t stop Grandfather. Not one bit.

Well, we saw nothing more that whole day, and eventually we got to this place like I’d never clapped eyes on before. No idea where we were and I couldn’t find that place again if you had me at gunpoint. It was like a red, rocky slope led gently down to a lake, only it wasn’t a lake, or it might have been a lake once but now it was a flat, smooth layer of white salt as far as you could see. And we got there just as the sun was about to go down. Well, we hobbled our horses, got dry wood from wherever we could, and made our camp there right on the edge of the old lake. We made a kind of half-circle, and the firelight reflected on the white salt, boy, I can tell you it was weird. I had the taste of salt on my lips, and it was like I could hear waves lapping on the shore. None of us spoke. The two Bilingaras drew things in the dust and wiped them out as soon as they were finished – that’s the closest anyone came to conversation. We hadn’t found the walkabout bloke and we didn’t think we would. He must have been teasing us and was miles away in another direction by then, taking our chances of bounty with him.

I woke up just before sunrise. The horizon was such a line of angry red that half-asleep I thought I must be staring at the embers of the camp fire. Then I wondered who had put a tree right there in camp. As I came to and my head cleared I first thought it must be some kind of statue dropped from heaven as a joke, then one of us who had got up to go for a piss, then as it moved it suddenly came to me what it was. It was a tall, straight, silent blackfella with a hunting spear notched in a woomera. It was the bloody walkabout bloke standing right there in our camp, about to skewer someone.

3I yelled out, Hey! Blokes startled, began to move, to leap up, and the walkabout let go with his woomera. You can talk about your Apache arrows and your bloody bayonets but there is nothing like the force a woomera can lend a spear close to. There was chaos in the camp, shapes against the red dawn as blokes jumped up and bashed into each other, curses and shouts of what-the-fuck, and one of the Bilingara screaming with the spear right through his thigh. I saw the silhouette of Grandfather, his revolver in his hand, blasting off shots into the darkness. By the time we had stopped panicking and milling about with Grandfather cursing and yelling orders at us, the Bilingara was down again, blood pouring out of his leg. Maybe the walkabout had been aiming for his body, but in the confusion he’d done him just as much damage as if he’d killed him outright. We couldn’t stop the bleeding, and eventually the Bilingara boy just lay there and died quietly, with his mate singing softly to him in their own lingo.

The sun was coming up. Grandfather was up on his toes looking this way and that.

There’s the bastard, there he bloody well is! he shouted suddenly, pointing over towards the flat, white salt. And indeed there was the bloke we were after, crawling away on all-fours, trailing his woomera after him. One or two of Grandfather’s wild shots must have got him and lamed him entirely. Well, the old bloke himself dashed after him before any of the rest of us could move, covering the fifty yards or so like a bloody wallaby. He caught up to the fugitive and, quick as you like, whipped a leather thong round his neck, hoicked his strides down, and shafted him, rode him like a pony as he choked to death. We’d followed him a little way, and we were totally thumpstruck. Our jaws dropped. We didn’t know what the hell to do. When he’d stopped twitching, Grandfather pulled his strides up again, grabbed him by one leg, and started to haul him back to our camp.

Well, we debated what to do with our dead Bilingara. The ground was too hard and dry to bury him deep, but we didn’t want to leave him out for the dingoes, so we scooped away as much dirt as we could with our knives and anything else we could use, laid him in it, and piled stones on top in a kind of cairn. That took us into the afternoon. And where was Grandfather all this time? Well, he had spread out the dead Anmatyerre like Saint Peter on the cross, his arms and legs out like a big letter X, his eyes staring up into the sky, and there was Grandfather sitting and watching the flies settle on him.

We didn’t want to stay around. We were pissed off that our bounty was lying there and we couldn’t redeem him for hard cash, and that one of our blokes was dead. Grandfather said we were staying put to watch what happened.

Watch what? we asked, as a few more flies seemed to come from nowhere, but Grandfather said nothing more, just sat there looking at that dead blackfella. Well we calmed our horses, they’d got pretty scared during all the shenanigans and were sweating, rolling their eyes, threatening to buck and trip themselves in their hobbles. We didn’t want to be walking back or sharing one horse to three blokes or something. We packed up our gear. We made sure the cairn over our dead hand was secure, put a couple more stones on it for good luck, stood round with our hats off and mumbled a few words, and all the time Grandfather just sat there looking at the corpse he’d stretched out. We told him it was time to go.

We’re not going anywhere, he said.

Look, let’s make a scrape in the salt as best we can and bury this bastard in it, that way he may not bring dingoes here to dig up our mate, I said. I moved forward but found Grandfather’s revolver being waved under my nose. I stood my ground while he weighed up whether to shoot me and maybe a couple of the others as well, and how he’d explain that back at the station.

Look we’ve got to go, I said.

There’s nothing bloody stopping you!

And there wasn’t. we got on our horses and rode off, leaving him there. Let him stay there forever and watch the dead bloke rot and rot himself, we thought. At least I did. The others were pretty pissed off too. But he caught up with us a week later, on the back leg of our ride home to the station. He told us he had moved a couple of hundred yards off and watched through his old field glasses while the dingoes came and ate the dead fugitive, and once that was all over there was no need for him to stay. He talked about it calmly, like it was an everyday happening. Then just as calmly he told us that we’d all say we hadn’t found the Anmatyerre, and that out Bilingara bloke had fallen of his horse and broke his neck. We said nothing, just looked at each other, no way was he our leftenant any more to be giving orders about who’d say what.

When we got back to the station the neighbour was there along with our boss. Grandfather stepped forward right away before anyone else could speak and gave his version of what had happened.

Bollocks, said the boss and gave Grandfather the sack there and then. So off he went and we never saw him again. Now that might not seem like much to you, maybe you know blokes who have done crazier-looking things than buggering a dying blackfella and watching dingoes eat him, but I’d bet on Grandfather as the craziest inside.

That was Lazy Susan’s story and it was the most any of us had ever heard her say. After she finished we all went quiet for a while. No one else volunteered any crazy bastard stories.

What brought you to America? someone asked eventually.

A bloody great boat, said Lazy Susan. And that put the lid on any more talk completely.

See, the thing is, it occurs to me that Lazy Susan was more than a little crazy herself. A few nights after this one of the other hands tried to jump her and she clawed one of his eyes out, just like that. Mad with pain and rage he went after her again, swearing he’d kill her. She let him come on, let him get close, then curled one arm behind him and buried her knife in the back of his neck. Then she just stood there with her hands on her hips and watched him waltzing round and round trying to reach it and pull it out. Then she stood and watched as he crawled round doing the same. Then she stood and watched as he lay face down still with one arm crooked backwards awkwardly and his fingers scrabbling for the knife. She stood there until he stopped twitching, then she put one foot on his back, reached down and pulled out her knife, wiped it on the leg of his pants, and sheathed it. The trail boss was mad at losing a hand, but he wasn’t going to risk another one by telling Lazy Susan to get out. She was one of the best hands he had.

As it turned out he ended up losing four hands altogether. Two of the boys had been whispering about the Lost Dutchman Mine and they lit out one night. We heard them ride away, but by the time anyone was up it was too late to go after them, and anyways we couldn’t leave the herd. Then one morning Lazy Susan was gone too. God knows where and without getting paid off. Most like she shipped back to Australia, had enough of America, but I can’t shake the notion that she’s maybe on some bluff, up there on one leg, naked and straight-backed as one of her wild blackfellas, and it was her telling the story of old Grandfather that put it in her mind. Or in mine.

6

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©Marie Marshall

Someone answering my description

1

Just after the junction where the side-road curves away to the prison car-park, the main road begins to slope gently upwards. If you didn’t know this was because the railway ran underneath you wouldn’t realise it was a bridge. I know, I realise. To me it’s a zone of demarcation – that’s precisely the term I use, along with the fancy word liminal – because it marks a transition between town and suburb, amongst other things. As I climb up onto the stone wall and test the slightly rounded capstones with the soles of my shoes, I take in the other demarcation. To my right is the pavement, three flagstones wide, and the busy road with its double yellow lines worn by constant traffic; to my left, between the bridge and the side-road and the railway line is a piece of scrubby ground where the grass is grey from the winter drought, and a couple of forlorn carrier bags flutter from the bare branches of alder trees.

It’s one of those days in early Scottish spring when the sun never gets above the brim of your hat, but leers from the cover of mobile grey clouds. I’ve walked past the car-wash, the flagpole belonging to the construction company, and the Inch where drooping crocuses are already being obscured by new, blind daffodils. Ahead will be the grey, Victorian ribbon-development, its 1930s hinterland, its parked cars. If I make it. Right here is an edge-territory, a frontier.

At the moment I’m a kind of non-event, I feel. The wall is only my head height above the pavement, and only little more than that to the grass on the other side. This thing has hardly started, and if it stops it will never have happened. Does that make sense? It does to me. I start to compose a shopping list in my head, while my shoes slow-march, continuing to test their grip on the capstones. I get to milk, cheese, and compostable rubbish bags before the wish that I’d chosen slightly flatter heels overtakes it. These are my day-shoes. I could have worn trainers. I tell myself that would have been cheating, and in any case it’s too late to go back and get a change of clothing – a change of clothing will mean a change of heart, I will find myself somewhere else, telling myself my plan is a stupid one. I will laugh, busy my fingers with stuff, listen to the radio.

They tell you not to look down from a height. But looking down is the whole point. I have to. To my right is normality, the difference between myself and the pavement is no more than it was before. To my left I can see that while I made that shopping list I’ve walked past the point where it’s possible – just – to jump down and land with a jar, maybe injuring myself a little but not badly, and I could have done that and walked away shamefacedly. I’m now above the tops of the alders. A dozen-or-so sparrows are maintaining a shrill argument, chasing each other from branch to branch, and I’m higher than them. To jump would be to fall. In five or six more paces I’ll be above the railway line. Now I really begin to appreciate what it means to be betwixt and between. I wish I hadn’t brought my shoulder-bag. Slung across me from left to right like a satchel, it makes me feel as though my weight isn’t even – I’m sticking my left hip out slightly to compensate, I’ve spread my arms out a little for balance but I’m holding one higher than the other. This is wrong. A piece or mortar between two capstones is slightly loose and I’m unsteady. My body’s hot but my hands are freezing, and my armpits have started to prickle.

I obey the command not to look down. Not to look down. Coward! Failure.

That’s the point at which I meet myself coming the other way. It’s not a mirror image, because she is – I am – wearing a shoulder-bag that crosses right to left. She tells me I’m not playing by the rules, I’m not doing what I came up here to do. It’s not about getting from one end of the bridge to the other it’s about – here’s where she uses, deliberately, the term suicidal ideation – looking down, about knowing the difference between one step to the right and one step to the left. One step to the right means a jump to the pavement and to the normal world. One step to the left means a handful of seconds of fear, a split-second of pain, and a long-deserved rest. I tell her I want to live. She won’t let me pass, grins cruelly and tells me that if I repeat that often enough I’ll even believe it. Her voice is the fast pulse hammering in my ears.

Two things happen together. On the road, a heavy articulated lorry passes, and the whole structure of the bridge shudders. On the track, a train speeds through the bridge, sounding its klaxon. I bend my knees, spread my arms wider, regain balance.

She’s no longer there. Somehow I have passed the summit of the bridge without knowing it. I’m still in danger, but when someone shouts “Jump, you silly cow!” from the open window of a passing car it doesn’t matter. The walk from here to the point where the heights are equal and I can allow myself to climb down is a formality. I just do it. I have done it. I’m there.

Scrambling down, I bark my knees against the wall and land heavily. The soles of my feet smart from the impact with the pavement. I brush my knees, inspect my hands for dirt. I need to blow my nose – I realise I’ve been sniffing as I walked the wall and my eyes are watering – so I get a tissue from my shoulder bag and, while I’m at it, some cologne to cool myself with. A police car pulls up ahead of me, its nearside wheels come up onto the pavement, its hazard indicators and its blues flashing. It takes and holds a liminal betwixt-and-between place, half on the pavement and half on the road. Two officers – a young man and a young woman – in hi-viz vests get out. There’s an empty foam-plastic box from the Indian takeaway skittering along the edge of the wall, impelled by the wind that has sprung up. I fasten the top button of my coat. The male officer back-heels the food container carelessly, and it lodges under the car, trapped by the nearside front wheel. He stands in my way while the young woman directs traffic around their car.

“Have you been on this bridge during the last few minutes, madam?”

“I’ve just crossed it. Why?”

“We had a report that someone answering your description was seen walking on top of the wall.”

“Good Lord! Why would anyone want to do that? Would they have broken a law?”

“None that I know of, madam.” The young woman comes round the front of the car and scrambles up so she can see over the wall. She looks over for a couple of seconds, then lets herself down again. She kicks the food box loose from behind the front wheel of the police car, picks it up, and shoves it behind the passenger seat. She doesn’t like litter, obviously. The young man looks at me and I look at him. I tell myself that, okay, I haven’t broken the law, but they have by driving onto the pavement. I won’t tell them.

“Well, if I had seen anything like that – if I’d seen someone who looked like me, even – I’d have noticed, if you know what I mean. I mean, well, I don’t walk around looking at my shoes.”

“No, maybe not.” He looks me up and down, just once. The young woman is talking into the microphone clipped to her lapel. They need to be somewhere else. “Well… you mind how you go, okay?”

“Indeed.”

They get back into the car. The blues stop flashing and the car pulls away. Five minutes walk from here is the supermarket. The sun’s out. I grin and shake my head. The supermarket has a café where they keep sausage rolls hot under a lamp, have a shelf of wrapped cakes, and serve flat white coffee. I’m ravenous.

 

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©Marie Marshall

‘The Golden Casement’ – a new version of an old tale

In a town not far from here there lived a beautiful young woman. One day there was a knock at her door, and when she opened it she found a man standing there holding the frame of a casement. He was a swindler, but she did not know this.

“Good morning, Miss,” he said, “I have here the unique and wonderful Golden Casement, and I offer it exclusively to you for the bargain price of fifty coins.”

The young woman reached over and tapped the casement.

“It’s wood, not gold,” she said.

“Ah, Miss, its name is ‘Golden Casement’, and though its apparent nature is wooden it is golden in its magical qualities. It has the property of being able to discern the difference between some one who is wise and someone who is a fool. A wise person looking through it will see beauty, a fool only ugliness. Yes? I see you are interested, and it can be yours for fifty coins. For a further fifty coins I will set it in the wall of your house, and for a further fifty I will make its properties known to the whole town!”

The young woman was indeed interested, because as well as being beautiful she was a little vain. She paid the swindler his hundred-and-fifty coins, and he set the casement in the wall of her house. Then, while the young woman sat at her window, he ran round the town telling everyone about the wonderful properties of the Golden Casement. Everyone 1flocked to see it and to gaze at the young woman, and because she was young and beautiful, everyone was glad to feel inside that they were wise and not foolish. The swindler, of course, slipped away from the town and was never seen again.

Thereafter the young woman spent all her time sitting at her window, enjoying very much being admired and told how beautiful she was. The townspeople never tired of coming to see her, and indeed the news spread to neighbouring towns and villages, and people came from far and wide to look at her through the famous Golden Casement, going away relieved to know that they were wise and not foolish. But as time went by she grew older and her beauty began to fade. Still the townspeople and visitors came, and still they said how beautiful she was, because none of them wanted to admit to being the slightest bit foolish.

Age and vanity and a lifetime of doing nothing but sitting behind a window being gazed at eventually took its price. Her former beauty was lost, the wreck of age untempered by kindness or modesty set in. Still townspeople and visitors declared that she was beautiful, because none of them wanted to appear to be a fool.

One day a little boy joined the crowd outside her house. He hadn’t heard the reputation of the Golden Casement, and when he looked in at the window all he saw was a mean, old woman.

“How ugly she is!” he cried. Someone put a hand over his mouth and hurried him away.

Eventually the woman died. Perhaps the handful of people who put her in her coffin realised the truth of the matter, but they said nothing, and when the townspeople buried her they raised a monument to her as the most beautiful woman who had ever lived.

The little boy who had spoken the truth out loud spent the rest of his life in an asylum. The swindler went into another country, where he taught two apprentices the mastery of swindling. Those two taught another two, each of whom taught another two, each of whom taught another two, and so on. That is why the world today is full of swindlers. And storytellers.

‘Westward’

In 1924, at Port an Eilean Mhoir on Ardnamurchan, the remains of a Viking ship burial were found.
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1

We buried Hoskuld, our captain, on the north coast of that ness the Gaels call Àird nam Murchan – the Ness of the Great Seas – on a day when axe-blades of sunlight cleaved the heavy clouds, and arrowheads of rain spattered us as though shot by the defenders of some dark and forbidding broch. We sacrificed the smaller skiff for his funeral, being fewer than when our expedition set oar to water in the little fjord where the River Stjør licks the lips of the sea. We used our axes and ship-mending tools to scratch a narrow trench in which to sink it, and we placed Hoskuld’s corpse in it, with his spear, sword, and axe laid beside him, and a shield over him, all as befits a Jarl; for although our little home-village and the outlying farms nestling at the foot of the tall, steep mountains that narrow the arms of the sea was a poor one, Hoskuld, our leader and captain-adventurer could fairly be called its Jarl.

As well as his weaponry we left him a knife and a whetstone from our native Norway, a drinking horn, some meagre dishes of porridge, and the bronze cloak-pin he had seized from a slain Ulsterman during a raid on Donegal. Then we filled the bows and stern with stones as is our custom, and piled the earth in a mound over him. Thorvald, our singer with the high voice, chanted of Baldr, the god slain by a spear of mistletoe, and we stood for a while, all trying to remember Hoskuld’s face as it used to be, before it had become little more than a bleached skull with a mouth set in a grin – a mouth from which few recognisable words had come, but much keening – and with eyes that stared past us to some horror only he could see.

Hoskuld’s dog, whom he called ‘Hopp’, would not come back to the longship with us, but stayed ranging round the mound, whining, occasionally scratching at the raw, brown earth. I tried whistling to him, slapping my thigh, and calling “Come on, Hopp! Good dog, come on!” but he only yelped at me and went back to his ranging and whining.

“Leave him, Skorri,” said someone. “We can’t stay here. Ours are not the only ships in the Minches – Mac Somerled is Lord of these waters, and no doubt the Gaels will already be sending word from clachan to clachan that we are in their sea, and he’ll be readying his galleys.”

So leave him we did. Even so he came for us as we pulled away from the shore, barking, howling, skipping round in mad circles with foam flecking his jaw. Mad he must have become, and none of us would now risk taking him in the longship. Even when we had pulled so far out that we could no longer see him, we could hear his howls, until one was cut short and we heard no more. We shivered and looked at one another. I do not know how many of us were thinking that it would be a clean and honourable end for us if Mac Somerled’s galleys did catch us, for there was a doom upon us, perhaps as great a one there than had been on the dead, buried Hoskuld.

When we had set out – a larger boat and a smaller skiff – from the Stjør village, Hoskuld had insisted on taking Hopp. One or two men grumbled that there was little enough in the way of provisions for our crews, but Hoskuld silenced them with a glance. Indeed we had had two years when harvests had been bad, and salmon and herring scarce. It is only such things that drive us out to range the seas around the kingdoms of the English, the Gaels, and the Irish, looking for food to carry home, or gold, or a couple of Gaelic slaves to barter at the river-mouths of the Baltic. Once or twice we have come looking for better land to farm, maybe thinking of sending back for our wives and children; but these lands are spoken for, being by-and-large claimed by this king or that, and the clans and tribes seemingly owing allegiance now to something greater than themselves. Some of those clans have names that are as Norse as ours – Thirkell, Gunnr, even Somerled – though their Jarls now speak the outlandish Gaelic and have forgotten their old kin from the fjords. The land they call Alba, though it is still wild, is changing – and with it, our own lives.

2.pngAs Hopp’s howling and barking died, so suddenly died the daylight. Someone struck a flint to his axe-head and kindled the iron-banded torches fore and aft. They guttered in the wind. I had been chosen as Captain in Hoskuld’s place, though I could tell that the others thought there was little to choose between myself and anyone else. I am no Jarl, and all wished Hoskuld had lived, or if not Hoskuld then his younger brother Solmund who had died in the Donegal raid, or one of the wheat-haired sons of Eyvind lost to great ocean rollers when one dived overboard to save the other, or even one of our axe-brothers who fell during the last day of slaughter at that Gaelic clachan. How long ago was that now? Any of those would have made a better captain than I for such a desperate band as we now were. We had stood out a little to westward from Port an Eilean Mhòir – the harbor of Mikill-Ey as we called it – where Hoskuld’s corpse now lay. No light from any Gaelish peat-fire could be seen through the gloom, but we needed to be at sea, as though we now feared the land.

“What orders, Captain Skorri?” asked Thorvald eventually, as the strengthening easterly wind drove us aimlessly away from the ness. I could almost hear resentment in the way he had said ‘Captain’, and gladly would have cursed him and said “I do not care – let us drift, choose another captain, let us sink – I do not care!” But instead I gave us a heading.

“Set the sail,” I said. “Haul it as close as you can and keep the wind to our steer-board. We’ll round the great Winged Island these Gaels call Eilean a Cheo, then North-East to Hvarf-ness. There, if the wind veers, we’ll sail for home, by the Orkneys.”

“If it’s against us?” queried Thorvald.

“We have oars. We row.” I said. “For now, let’s set that sail as I have ordered.”

On board a Viking longship, a captain, even a Jarl, does not simply give out orders and stand back to watch. I seized a halyard with the others and did my share of the hauling, and that seemed to settle their mood a little. It was either that – my establishing myself again as one of them – or the thought of home. We had left our fjord in mist and drizzle, and our village in poverty and hunger, but as my own thoughts turned to my wife Gudrid, and to the barefooted, noisy children who ran in and out of the bustling boatyard, I saw them only in sunshine, their cheeks fat and pink with good health. I wondered whether the others shared this vision, each seeing his woman and his children, happy under a blue sky.

We were foolish of course to be out at sea on a night like this and I had been foolish to order it – we should have been safe in some inlet until morning – but there was that fear. Where had it come from?

It had come, of course, as a consequence of the clachan raid. None of us had expected resistance at the little settlement. Each village we had come across had been poorer than the last, and this one was the poorest. In each place the Gaels had fled, giving us the freedom to take what little they had. We didn’t even bother to pursue and take as slaves the handful we saw scrambling up the hillsides. This time, however, it seemed as though desperation had bred a madness in this particular flock of ragged Gaels; farmers had found wicked little swords somewhere, boys and old men had armed themselves with hoes and reaping-hooks, women had taken up flails or kitchen-knives, and perhaps there were even a couple of wild and well-armed warriors there who had stopped on the way to some Gaelic chief’s hall. For whatever reason, they flew at us, and though we hacked many down they did not back away. Even little children buzzed around us like wasps, throwing stones, jabbing with sticks.

Then a strange figure came out of one of the hovels, and as it did so the sound of the fighting muted, sword- and axe-blows seemed to cease, our eyes as well as the Gaels’ seemed drawn to it. Bent at first, the figure straightened. Long, grey-white hair, as long and as grey-white as Langfoss, fell from its head, over its face, over its shoulders, over its earth-brown clothes. It leaned on a staff, as wandering Odin does, and its face was lean and pale, almost the same colour as its hair. I paused in belabouring a villager – and he paused also – to watch her. Her? To me the figure looked like a woman but more, I thought, more like a Dark-Elf from Alfheim, or a corpse from Hel, the land of the dead, nothing that could be called ‘him’ or ‘her’. A breeze sprang up from nowhere, and the sweat on my body grew cold, I couldn’t tell whether that was from fear or from the chill of the wind, but I saw others shiver as I now did. The breeze blew back some of the hair from the figure’s face, and we saw the eyes. They were milk-white and blind.

And yet they saw! How else could the figure have moved slowly and deliberately, through those locked in combat but now pausing as it passed, unerringly towards Jarl Hoskuld? How else could the figure have stopped a blade-length from the Jarl and turned its face directly to his? But this it did. More, it raised its right arm. From the loose, falling sleeve a slender, white forearm rose, scarce more than skin on bone it seemed. The fingers spread wide, seemed to direct themselves at Hoskuld’s forehead. The figure opened its mouth, said a few words in the Gaelic tongue. Everyone – everything – else was silent.

Then it spoke again, very clearly, but only a handful of strangely-accented words in our own language.

“No home,” it said. “Never home.”

For a few long seconds Hoskuld stared. Then, breaking free of his immobility, he swung back his axe, and brought it in an arc as wide as the rainbow bridge to Asgard must be, up and then down in a killing blow. It struck the figure upon its skull. The figure fell. It crumpled, rather, or dissolved, so that its form on the ground was little more than a mound of earth over which rainwater flowed. Hoskuld stared at it, then around him, and filled his lungs with air.

“Blood!” he cried in a great voice. “Blood!”

And the fighting continued, but with each of us Vikings suddenly berserk. My pulse thundering in my ears like Thor’s hammer on its mountain-anvil, I clubbed down the villager in front of me with the back of my axe-head, then hacked at his neck with the blade, until his head rolled away. All around me, my axe-brothers and shipmates were swinging and jabbing with sword, and shield-edge, and fist, and knife, and heavy blade. The villagers were giving way, throwing aside their weapons, beginning to run. We took up Hoskuld’s cry of “Blood!” and cut them all down, every single one, every man, every woman, every child. We spared no one. Even then, even when that slaughter was over, Hoskuld, his helmet, face, and mail sark the bloodied colour of the sunset, still gave his terrible cry, and we set about butchering every beast in the clachan. That was not enough for our Jarl, as he – then we at his example – began to cut and tear down every hovel, every byre, every beast-pen. It was as though the simple curse laid upon Hoskuld by the brown-clad, white-haired figure was so terrible to him, that he had to obliterate every trace of anything connected to it.

Afterwards we stood around. I think we were shocked at the utter devastation we had made in laying waste to this little, poor, community. We took nothing from it. There was nothing to take. But when we looked at Jarl Hoskuld, already we saw the stare and grimace of a cursed man, a mask instead of the face of the captain-adventurer we knew and had followed. To a Viking, a curse is a serious thing, often working unseen; this was the first time I had ever seen the evidence of a man’s doom with my own eyes. If the Norns truly twine the thread of a man’s fate, then Hoskuld’s was severed, sheered apart from his life, its ends fraying in the wind.

As we walked by the corpses, pulling turf roofs and stone walls down upon them, or throwing them along with their meagre possessions into the midden-pit, or piling logs upon them and setting fire to the pile, no one could swear that there wasn’t one corpse with long, grey-white hair. But equally, no one could swear that there was. Perhaps that’s why, later, as we sat around our camp fire, no one dared to look up, for fear of seeing an extra person in our number, next to the muttering, keening Jarl Hoskuld, its hand on his shoulder. And perhaps that’s why no one stared into the darkness for too long, for fear of seeing an eldritch walker stride into the firelight. And perhaps that’s why no one spoke during daylight, if they thought they saw, out of the corner of their eye, the shape of someone sitting on a rock, or walking across the narrows of one of Alba’s fjords without either disturbing the waters or sinking. And perhaps that’s why no one mentioned a still shadow that turned into a tree, or a running shadow that turned into a fox, or a mist that swirled, gathered, and faded. At least… I never spoke of such things. Hardly anyone else spoke at all, except of everyday necessity – hauling a rope, foraging for food, digging a grave.

So, all the night after we had buried Hoskuld and abandoned mad Hopp, we fought the wind. When dawn came – grey, cold, dull – we found ourselves no further north, simply stuck there in the Minches, going nowhere, making no headway, no matter how close-hauled we were, no matter how we pulled on the oars. I heard several of our crew groan, and one curse. I saw little light in anyone’s eye, as I looked from one man to the next. When I spoke to them it was with a kind of mildness.

“Come on, friends, brothers,” I said. “One more try, eh?”

And they gave one more try, but with only half a heart, and we slipped, drifted, looked desperately at the shapes of the islands and the mainland never seeming to vary. Hope died in us. Doom came over us. By the end of the day, when sunlight died, a thin rain soaked us, and the fore and aft torches barely gave any illumination at all. I was glad that they didn’t, because I now hated to see my shipmates’ faces. I scarcely recognised them now. There was no more Thorvald, no Ottar, no Frodi Hard-head, no Frodi the Small, no Ulf, no Magnus, no Isleif. There were only bare, white skulls, hair wisping back from them in the wind, to reveal mirthless grins and staring eyes. There was only doom. There was only madness. And I was glad there was nothing shiny to see my own face in, because I knew that if I had looked, I would have seen the same thing. So, when one man took his knife and slit his own throat where he sat, and another clasped his axe and sword to him and stepped overboard, I could not have named either of them.

The Gaels tell of one of their Dark Elves – they call her the Bean Sith, the Fairy Woman – and they say she walks amongst the dead, the dying, and the soon-to-die, lamenting. Others say that she can be seen washing the bloody clothes and armour of slain warriors, like one of the Valkyrja. Others still that she is a bringer of curses, and it is not she who keens, but those she has doomed. On our longship now, that is the only voice that can be heard. I do not dare open my own mouth, for if I were to hear my own voice, I would lose the last fingerhold I have on life, and fall into madness. I long to call my wife’s name, but I dare not even try that.

I know madness will come, nonetheless, or maybe death before it – much better death before than after. My last actions while in my right mind have been gestures of surrender to the East wind. I have lashed the steering-blade amidships, I have set the sail square, I have headed the ship between the outer islands of Uist and Barra. We shall sail westward. We shall go into the black ocean where the waters boil and there is no daylight, from which no ship returns. We shall go to death, to the cold of Hel or Niflheim – for us there shall be no Valhöll – we shall go to where dead Hoskuld waits for us, but without cheer or greeting. Westward, westward, driven by the merciless, murdering wind. Wordless, wordless and keening, men doomed and nameless. And we shall never go home. Never, never home.

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__________

© Marie Marshall

How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, or not, as the case may be.

“An attempt has recently been made on the life of Robert Browning.”
Reuters.

 

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
We galloped and galloped, oh Lord how we galloped,
We galloped like billy-oh over the lea.

My steed gave a whinny, Dirck’s ass gave a bray,
As Joris, who rode in the van, cried “I say,
Three riders are galloping – My, how they gallop! –
They gallop like anything, heading this way!”

We held up our gauntlets and shouted halloo,
Demanded “Whence from, lads, and whither go you
Flat out at a gallop? Good grief how you gallop!
Oh please stop your galloping, good gallants, do!”

They reined to a halt and exclaimed, “Mercy sakes!
We’re three men of Ghent, all redoubtable rakes,
Who’ve galloped and galloped and jolly-well galloped,
a-bringing good news to the burghers of Aix!”

We cried, “We’re from Aachen – that’s Aix-la-Chapelle –
And we have glad tidings a-plenty as well.
We’ve galloped and galloped, right manfully galloped –
Supposed to reach Ghent by the Angelus bell!”

One rider from Ghent, with a beard like a Turk,
Said, “Though I’m not known as the fellow to shirk
A jolly good gallop – I love a good gallop –
It seems all this galloping’s double the work!”

I wanted to answer, but Joris said, “We
Could all turn around and be back home for tea.
Oh why don’t we gallop – a rattling gallop –
Let’s all gallop back and have several hours free!

We’ll take up each other’s work; nothing will daunt
The six jolly gallopers out on a jaunt.
Let’s gallop and gallop, mon dieu how we’ll gallop,
We three back to Aachen and you lot to Gaunt.”

I sprang to the stirrup; with whip-cracks and kicks
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all six!
We galloped and galloped, oh Lord how we galloped,
Past such rustic nonsense as hen-coops and ricks.

We galloped to Aix as the rush hour was near,
No thoughts in our minds save for pork pies and beer.
We galloped and slavered – my word how we slavered –
For pork pies and barmaids and lots of good cheer.

We reached a fine inn, and Dirck could not refuse
To galumph right in for a tray-load of booze.
He galumphed for wallop, for gallons of wallop,
And Joris said, “Hey! What about the good news?”

I muttered to Dirck, and then Joris conferred –
The subject? The substance? And so we concurred
We’d galloped and galloped, all bloody day galloped,
But of the good news had forgot every word!

I spoke to the subject: “We’ll gallop to Ghent
The very same way that the other chaps went.
We’ll gallop and gallop, bejabers we’ll gallop!”
But Dirck said, “You’re barmy – our horses are spent!”

I raised my pint Bierstein, and Joris said, “We
Can do that tomorrow. The evening’s still free
To swallow our wallop. Tomorrow we’ll gallop…
…to whatsitsname… billy-oh… over the lea!”

__________

I thought we could do with a reprise of the above piece of nonsense I wrote a few years ago. It will, of course, be lost on anyone who was never forced to read Robert Browning at School, and most of the population of America, who, if they have heard of Ghent, probably think it’s in Columbia County NY.

What have I been up to lately? Not a lot. My poetry blog ticks over, and I have recently written a couple of pieces for my satirical blog. One of the latter is yet another Keats and Chapman story, and the other a short but serious piece about Holocaust denial.

It will soon be 2017. I have no idea what next year will bring. I’m hoping to provide another macabre short story for the ‘Fearie Tales’ event at Pitlochry’s Winter Words Festival, but we’ll have to see. I can’t make any other writing promises, but I will say I’m hoping that my teen-vampire novel KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE will be published. It was finished some time ago and, as I understand it, lacks only a cover design. If you missed the first novel to which KvsV is the sequel – From My Cold, Undead Hand – then now would be an excellent opportunity to read it, or even to buy someone the e-book as a Christmas present.