Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: prose

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

A script to finish, a man to burn, a drum to build…

During my sabbatical from novel-writing, I haven’t exactly been idle. Here are a couple of things that are going on right now.

girl-gang

Turning my short story ‘Axe’ into a screenplay. I had been working closely with a Scottish screen-writer to turn my short story ‘Axe‘ into a drama for TV or the ‘big screen’. Currently, many scenes have been written, both from the story itself and from additional narrative material I have provided – and it’s looking good!

However, the screen-writer has had to pull out, for unforeseen private reasons, and he’s not certain whether he’ll be able to take up the task again. I fully understand the reasons he gave me, and he left the ball in my court as to what to do next. Between us we have a substantial amount of material. I think my choices are as follows:
1. Do nothing, in the hope that the screen-writer may be able to resume the project at a later date; this of course runs the risk of the whole project stalling completely.
2. Try to finish the script myself; this is not my area of expertise, and I am, after all, on a writing sabbatical.
3. Get together with my literary agent and look for another screen-writer; my previous collaborator would be okay with that, but it would need someone who could build seamlessly onto the work already done.

I’ll let you know what turns up.

I Tamburisti di FIREnze. If you don’t already know about Burning Man, find out about it. It’s a festival, for want of a better word, or rather an annual gathering of people in the middle of a desert in Nevada, USA. Whilst there, people perform, make things, share, live together, interact, laugh, work, and generally enjoy themselves. But the main thing is that they do so entirely without money transactions, or even barter transactions. Everything that is provided is a gift entirely without strings, given in the hope that everything will be paid forward in some way. It seems to work, right down to the clearing away of site debris afterwards.

renThis year the theme is The Renaissance. I was contacted a few days ago by the Project Coordinator of ‘Camp Thump Thump’, a group that regularly attends Burning Man, giving lessons in drum-making and drumming, letting people build, play, and take away their own drums. For 2016 the group has adopted a theme based on renaissance Italy – the time of the Borgias, the Medici, and Leonardo da Vinci – and have reinvented themselves as I Tamburisti di FIREnze for the duration of this year’s Burning Man. The Coordinator asked me to provide some Renaissance-flavoured text for their use, and I have been working on pen-portraits of (fictitious) 16c Guild-members for her.

I’m not yet sure whether or how my work will be used, but again if it is, I’ll let you know.

The wheat-child

wheat-childThe Sun came to the Earth and had a child with her. That child was a field of wheat, and it grew from its mother towards its father, becoming more and more golden.

The wheat-child learned from its mother and father how to mind its manners and show respect to its betters. So when that fierce knight, Sir North Wind, moved through the field in his shining steel armour, the wheat-child bowed to him as he passed. And when Lady South Wind came with her warm kisses, the wheat-child bowed to her. And when Boyar East Wind strode in from the Steppes, singing mournful songs, the wheat-child bowed to him. And when Widow West Wind let her tears fall on him, the wheat-child bowed to her.

But one night, while the Earth slept and the Sun was away on business on the other side of the world, the cruel landlord Squire Frost patrolled the fields, and because such as he walk silently, the wheat-child did not bow to him. Squire Frost was angry at the wheat-child for not showing respect, so he called on all his labourers, the Hailstones, to come with their scythes and sickles and reaping hooks to lay waste to the field and kill the wheat-child.

In the morning, when the Earth awoke and the Sun returned home, they saw the wheat-child lying on the ground, and their sadness was great. The Earth made to quake and to throw up mountains, and the Sun made to cover everything with fire, but suddenly they saw, in a corner of the field, one solitary stalk of wheat that Squire Frost’s cruelty had treemissed. So the Sun and the Earth called upon their friends the Four Winds, and together they made seasons to nourish all that was left of the wheat-child. And eventually that single stalk of wheat became a great Tree.

The great Tree grew straight and tall, and lived longer than any child of Sun and Earth ever had, even longer than Empress Slow of the Galapagos, whom the Tree could remember as a tiny tortoise when he was already as tall as a hill. The longer the Tree lived the more the Sun and the Earth whispered a secret to him, and that secret is that trees need not bow to anyone.

What’s that, little one? Yes, I expect the great Tree is living still. Unless some one has cut him down. Now go to sleep – even the Sun and the Earth have to do that, so why shouldn’t you!

Peace, War, Honour, and Death

Peace, War, Honour, and Death – a fable

Honour 1It happened that War saw a beautiful woman, whose name was Peace. Desiring her, he took her away to live with him. But Peace was never happy, and when he asked her why, she answered that it was because she was cold, for though War is hot he can never pass his warmth on to anyone.

One day a knight, whose name was Honour, rode by.

“This man serves me,” thought War, and called out to the knight, “Sir Knight, take off your cloak and give it to my lady Peace!”

The knight stopped, took off his cloak, and unsheathed his sword. Having cut his cloak in two, he put one half of it around Peace’s shoulders to warm her, the other half round his own, and rode away. From that moment, to his name was added Martinus Martianus, Warlike, and the word Generous was written on the cloak about his shoulders, for it takes an act of generosity to give warmth to anyone.

Soon the knight found himself in a battle, as all of his kind do. There he met with impartial Death, as one day do we all, good and bad. Death caught the knight with his scythe and he fell. The knight’s halved cloak was not enough to soak up his blood, which flowed like a stream. The stream became a great river of clear water, known as Generosity, and it flowed through the desert known as Indifference…

You ask me why? It is because, little one, all things are held in the Great Balance, and it must be so. Time for you to go to sleep, for sleeping and wakefulness are held in the Great Balance too…

The Lost Manuscript of Aë

Ae

The Lost Manuscript of Aë – a fable

There was once a very rich man who had in his castle an incomparable collection of beautiful things. He loved them, and would spend hours in his galleries and libraries, and amongst his showcases. There were paintings before which he would stand, lost in the world that they depicted or suggested, whether the painting was an intricate interior, a landscape, or a mere splash of primary colour. There were ancient musical instruments which, when he plucked, struck, or blew them, released into the room tones that had never been heard for centuries – he had a lyre, for example, that was said to have been carried to hell and back by a minstrel looking for his lover. There were statues so beautiful that the urge to kiss their lips was almost irresistible – one of them was so beguiling that the sculptor had fallen in love with it himself, and gone mad when his love remained unrequited. There were books of poetry, philosophy, and fable that transported the reader between all the realms of Fun and Profundity. There were weapons that the heroes of the world had wielded in defence of the weak and in pursuit of the wicked – there was a bow said to have been strung by a demiurge and drawn by a demigod. There were machines that were marvels of ancient and modern invention – each one had changed the world when they had been introduced. There were jewels, royal regalia from the past, emerald rings that burned brighter than forest sunlight, jade necklets that seemed warm to the touch as though the emperor who had worn them had only just taken them off – the, scepters, orbs, diadems, and touchstones of the most enlightened princes and the most terrible tyrants.

There was just one thing he lacked, something which he coveted and desired beyond all else. He had heard of the vanished civilisation of Aë, which some men say flourished thousands of years ago and others say is legend. He had been told how their last artefact – a manuscript that contained everything that gave joy and wisdom – had come down through the ages, or indeed had never existed. Rumour had reached him that this manuscript, which had been lost, was now found, and was circulating amongst men, or was so in someone’s drunken dream.

If it existed, he had to have it. He called his most trusted employee to him, and charged him with the task of tracking down and obtaining the manuscript. His man set out and, to cut a long story short, found the lost manuscript of Aë. It is not recorded how he found it – some say he won it on the turn of a card, others that he seized it in a brawl with an inebriated sailor, others still that he found it hidden in a cave, and others still that he paid a Romany woman half his patron’s fortune for it. No matter how he came by it, he went out a boy and came back a man. And he gave the manuscript to his rich patron.

The rich man unrolled the manuscript. It was old, it was beautiful, it was in Aëan. The rich man looked around at his people – his servants, his employees, his acolytes, his friends whom he had gathered together to see his new possession, others who had simply come on the off chance – did anyone read Aëan? No, certainly not amongst them. But someone did know of a scholar of antiquities who was adept at old languages and undecipherable glyphs, and so he was sent for.

The scholar, with the rich man always in attendance, worked for months at the manuscript. Piece by piece he began to make sense of it, and piece by piece he told the rich man what it said. Yes, there was joy in it. Yes, there was wisdom in it. The rich man was glad. But eventually, when the scholar had translated some three-fifths of it, he sadly came to the conclusion that the manuscript, though old, was not Aëan. It was a fake.

The rich man was devastated. He was not angry with his employee, who had done his best, but he did send him out to see if he could find the real one. In fact he found two, both of which were also fakes. The rich man never did possess the lost manuscript of Aë, and one day he gave his entire collection to the nation, which dispersed it amongst its many museums. One spin-off, however, was a general interest in all things Aëan, a fashion for Aëan gew-gaws and imaginary robes and adornments, market stalls full of scrolls and parchments with supposed Aëan glyphs all over them.

Is there a moral to this story?

A moral? Yes, never underestimate the power of bathos in fiction.

Ah.

I’m in a subjunctive mood…

I wasted a lot of time recently arguing with a blogger who had ‘learned the rules’ of English at school. My use of English was, according to him, ‘lazy’ because I broke some of these rules. No use my telling him I’m university-educated, that I have spent a lot of time examining historical texts and their linguistic usage, that I’m aware of every rule and rubric that the English language has been saddled with, and that I know full well which ones come from the natural eloquence of everyday speech and which ones were foisted on us despite that natural eloquence. No matter that I have followed and marvelled at the development of modern English from its Medieval roots to its present position as a vibrant, living World Language, with a host of attendant lects and sub-lects that handle every discourse, every social and ethnic specialness, every creative need. No, his schoolmarm knew better, and now so did he!

Aye, right.

Let me examine two of these rules and see how they stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, the question of ending a phrase or sentence with a preposition.

1“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the euphony of that phrase of feminine-ended tetrameter shines out of the dark of four centuries, reminding the audience of the essentially ephemeral existence of that redemptive fantasy and its characters.* Shakespeare was a genius of language; it was all he had to hold his audience with, in the days when CGI effects were not even dreamt of. And this phrase, shining like a candle, ends with a preposition.

Likewise the roll-call of drowned sailors making this wonderful piece of iambic pentameter:

‘Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon.’ (Richard III, 1.4.25)

But I over-egg the pudding, friends. Shakespeare ended sentences this way simply because that’s exactly how everyday English – the English of Kings and commoners alike – was spoken. So when King Henry V, wandering in disguise around the camp of the English army before the battle of Agincourt, is challenged to answer the question ‘Who servest thou under?’ he does not ‘correct’ his challenger’s question. And when, in As You Like It Rosalind asks Orlando ‘Who do you speak to?’ it raises no eyebrows, because it flows off the tongue of a native-speaker like water down a country rill. Moreover, as a king may not quibble at a question, and a well-bred lady may use a preposition as she pleases, a prince may speak of ‘the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to’ in his most famous soliloquy (Hamlet, 3.1.61-62).

2So, where did the rule to the contrary come from? Many consider that the attribution of Shakespeare’s usages not to one-part-observation one-part-inventiveness, but to ignorance and lack of education, started with John Dryden in the late 17c. Dryden was a scholar of Latin, and since in Latin it was impossible to end a sentence with a preposition, he decided it should be improper in English, usage or no usage.** Influential amongst his own circle though Dryden might have been, ‘Dryden’s Rule’ was not codified until the second half of the 18c, when Bishop Robert Lowth produced his A Short Introduction to English Grammar. 3But even he acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was dominant ‘in common conversation’ and suited ‘very well the familiar style of writing.’ So not even Lowth would go as far as saying it should never be done!

Nevertheless, by the early 20c it became the norm amongst teachers of English in schools to preach up the banishment of prepositions from their natural place in colloquial speech. Notwithstanding that, the preposition knew its place better than the teachers did, and kept to it in every discourse except in the speech and writings of pedants. Even Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage referred to the preposition’s banishment as a ‘superstition’!

4At this point in the discussion of prepositions it is usual to cite Winston Spencer Churchill who, it is supposed, replied to a torturous memo from a civil servant, in which prepositions had been engineered away from the end of phrases to the extent that the prose resembled crazy-paving, ‘This is something up with which I will not put!’ However, nice though this piece of ridicule is, the story is apocryphal.

So, is it actually wrong to take prepositions away from the end of sentences? Well, no it isn’t. It is no more wrong than to banish them. As in all things to do with English usage the principle guidelines*** are: clarity, i.e. there should be no confusion, no ambiguity about what is meant; euphony, i.e. it should not sound ugly; emphasis, i.e. the placing of any word depends on how the phrase or sentence is nuanced, thus to say “Where are you going from?” can be used not only because of its colloquial currency, but because it may draw attention to the most important component of the question. 5Equally, when Abraham Lincoln drew the preposition away from the end of a sentence in his address at Gettysburg – ‘increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion’ – he knew precisely where the emphasis should fall in his rhetoric. Thus both are correct, in their own way, according to the context.

Clarity. Euphony, and emphasis are only guidelines, however, and I can think of many reasons why, for the sake of artistic effect, even they can be (carefully) discarded.

On to the next issue, the use of the double negative.

The blogger I was discussing my usage with seemed to be too busy reading his own prejudices to read what I was actually saying about this. It all came about because I deliberately used a negative word to negate a negative phrase I had lifted from him. I was in fact using two negatives to resolve to a positive. He couldn’t get his head round that, he couldn’t cope with any idea except that two negatives together were ‘wrong’. Yet the concept of two negatives resolving to a positive is actually straight-down-the-line schoolmarm English! I’ll leave that point there, as it needs no embellishment.

6There is, of course the question of using a double negative as an intensifier. Now, do I need to quote Shakespeare and Milton to anyone? It is usual for anyone who hears a usage in English that they think is ugly, ‘lazy’, or just new, to shake their head, wring their hands, and lament “Oh, the language of Shakespeare and Milton!” The thing is, both of these writers sometimes used double negatives as intensifiers. Oh yes they did!

Viola says of her heart, ‘And that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it,’ (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 3.1.156-157) and actually I counted four in there!

‘Nor did they not perceive the evil plight in which they were,’ (Milton, Paradise Lost). This is an interesting example, as it has the common use of ‘nor’ as an intensifier at the beginning of a phrase. And by the way, yes, I spotted where Milton had placed his preposition. As I said, both are correct usage.

The difficulty that some readers have with such intensifiers is that, post-18c and the introduction of books like Lowth’s, their use has been identified with a lack of schooling. Whether that identification is a fair criterion to judge them is another matter. In my discussion with the blogger, I cited ‘African-American Vernacular English’ (AAVE), which is recognised by academic linguists as being a legitimate lect of English. Its usage is so ingrained, that it is not simply current but widely influential. Its origins are unclear, but it is probable that it drew its strongest characteristics not only from African speech-patterns but also from the speech-patterns of early English-American settlers. Certainly a very clear factor in its development was the generations-long deprivation of the African-American societal layer from formal education. However, in no way does that invalidate its legitimacy as a lect, in no way are its users inherently ‘lazy’ for using it. I find it highly ironic that ‘laziness’ should be an attribute so often applied to a people who for generations had to suffer slavery!

6In AAVE, as I said, the use of a double negative as an intensifier is very common. So, for example, when Ray Charles sang “I don’t need no doctor…” it was perfectly clear what he meant. Again – clarity. But my stubborn blogger again could not get his head round the fact that to use or not to use a double negative depended entirely on context, not on a supposed laziness or lack of education. Certainly not on my part.

So, is my own English usage ‘perfect’? Well, should I even be aiming for that? In this essay I have deliberately used colloquial forms which have been frowned at by generations of schoolmarms. I have used the singular they/their, I have ended sentences with prepositions, I have started sentences with conjunctions, I have mixed British and American criteria for double and single quotes, I have sprinkled this essay with all kinds of things that some readers may find questionable. But did you, at any time, not understand what I was saying? I doubt it. That’s because I know my English, I know what it does, I know how it’s used, and I know how to use it.

But no, my English has never been ‘perfect’. I headed this article ‘I’m in a subjunctive mood’. That’s because I have to confess that I wrestled with a particular grammatical issue for many years – the subjunctive.

In the English language, strictly speaking, verbs no longer have a subjunctive mood. English does, however, retain a few zombie elements of it, and for a long time I had a big, big blind spot about these elements. Were I to illustrate this by saying that, if I was you, I would read no further, then you would see what I was driving at. I said ‘Were I to illustrate this…’ and that is pure subjunctive, expressing something conditional. I said ‘if I was you’, which was pointed out to me by someone editing my work as being ‘wrong’. To my mind, the word ‘if’ was enough to carry the conditional sense, and the phrase ‘if I was you’ required no subjunctive form of the verb. However, I had never been pulled up on this issue until that editorial process. I checked up on the matter, and I found that ‘if I were you’ was generally regarded as being ‘correct’. Was this another of these arbitrary ‘rules’ that had been foisted on us in the 18c? That didn’t matter to me. What did matter was the question of register and discourse – for whom I wrote generally, and in what context. In that respect ‘if I were you’ would be better received, and actually I had to admit it sounded better to my ear when I spoke each over. It sounded right. It sounded right. It had the benefit of euphony, this use of a double – ha! – conditional.

Wonder of wonders, there’s a grammatical construction that you must double.

Interestingly, though, the way it had been put to me was that ‘if I was you’ was the way the idea was commonly expressed amongst users of English as a second language, in a particular country, and was regarded by many users of English as a first language in that country as the speech of the ill-educated. And there I think we have come full-circle!

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7* Humphrey Bogart’s final words in The Maltese Falcon – “The stuff that dreams are made of” – is in fact a misquotation. But that isn’t a problem, because there are many, many misquotes from Shakespeare, from the Bible, from other sources, floating freely out there. The English language is not poorer for them, it is probably richer.

** This is precisely why splitting an infinitive used to be considered incorrect – it was impossible in Latin, so it should be improper in English. See? Modern linguists consider that to be a silly, unnecessary rule, and I’m with them!

*** Inasmuch as rules are for the blind obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise.

 

 

My Gothic spring continues…

The manuscript of KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE is open in front of me, and my collection The Last-but-one Samurai and other stories is currently being edited. Meanwhile Angélique Jamail has featured another of my Gothic poems from 2010 on her blog…

candlelight

Claire Pellucida – a Fable

castleOnce there was a town. In the middle of the town stood a castle, and in the middle of the castle stood a high tower, and at the highest point of the tower was the chamber of a princess. Her name was Claire Pellucida, and the people of the town loved her, because she was pretty, and her eyes shone. They found her wise, because they would come to her and ask her what she could see from the window of her chamber, and she would tell them the most wonderful things. And the town itself was called Pellucida, in honour of its wise and pretty princess.

One day the people of the town assembled in the courtyard of the castle, and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the north.”

The princess looked to the north, and said, “Far away I see mountains, with summits and pinnacles as sharp as needles. There are trees growing there, that are of solid silver, and on them hang fruits and berries that are pearls and hard diamonds. There is a river of clear crystal, like ice, that flows with such slowness. And in amongst the silver trees I see the glint of the eyes of ermines and foxes; and above the trees, on snowy wings, fly white birds like eagles, with silver beaks.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the north laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There are no such mountains to the north of here, no such trees, nor birds, nor animals, nor a crystal river!”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a beautiful young woman, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the east.”

The princess looked to the east, and said, “Far away I see a forest, standing stark against the rising sun. The trees are an army of gigantic soldiers in a livery of black and dark green, and they roar in the wind, brandishing their long spears angrily, because they cannot march upon us.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the east laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There is no such forest of roaring giants to the east of here.”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a handsome matron, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess, “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the south.

The princess looked to the south, and said, “Far away I see a land where the sands ripple as the sea does, and the mountains are like children’s bricks, stacked chequered – white limestone, red sandstone, pink granite. And the trees wave in the breeze, like many-fingered hands, and amongst them step lithe girls and boys in linen robes, gathering the amber fruits that hang on them.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the south laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There are no such mountains like children’s bricks to the south of here. Nor are there such waving trees with amber fruit.”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a stately old woman, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the west.”

The princess looked to the west, and said, “Far away I see a peaceful sea of liquid silver, where the sun shines like copper. There is an island on that silver sea, and a great city on that island, with tall towers of yellow-veined marble, on which the copper sunlight glints, and shines, and dances. And upon that silver sea sail great golden dhows.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the west laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There is no such silver sea to the west of here. Nor is there such and island city, nor golden dhows.”

But the people of the town still believed their princess, as they had always done.

The night after she had looked to the west, and told the people of the town what she had seen there, Princess Claire Pellucida was wakened by a great glow outside the window of her chamber. She rose from her bed, and looked out of her window, to the west. There was the silver sea, the copper sunset, the island with its city of yellow-veined marble; and more marvellously, a silver river was running from the silver sea right to her castle. And on that silver river was a great, golden dhow. And on that great, golden dhow stood tall mariners and fine ladies, all dressed in saffron cloaks sewn with golden-thread. There were circlets on their heads of interwoven white gold and yellow gold, and torques of copper round their necks and wrists, and rings of gold upon their fingers. And they saluted and bowed, and called out to the princess.

“Princess Claire Pellucida, come down and sail with us to the island in the silver sea; for the island city with its towers of yellow-veined marble, has need of a queen to rule it.”

So Princess Claire Pellucida came down from her chamber in the highest point of the tower, in the centre of the castle; and she sailed away with the tall mariners and fine ladies, to the sunset, to the silver sea, to the island city with its towers of yellow-veined marble. And there she ruled as their Queen for ever.

But that is not the end of things.

The next morning, the people of the town of Pellucida gathered in the courtyard of the castle, and called up to their princess. But she did not answer. One brave townsman entered the castle, and climbed the tower, and from the window of the chamber at its highest point, he called sadly for five of his friends to join him.

In the chamber, the six men stood, and looked down at the bed, on which lay Princess Claire Pellucida. She lay smiling and peaceful, as though she slept, and in her face the six men could see the fleeting prettiness that had been there when she was a girl, the beauty that had been there when she was a grown woman, the loving gentleness that had been there when she was a matron, and still, still the stately splendour of their dear princess in old age lingered also. But they knew that she was not sleeping. She had left them, and was dead.

But even that is not the end of things.

The six men carried her, with great sadness and reverence, down to the townspeople, and they all processed solemnly out of the town, and laid the body of the princess – as was their custom – a mile away, in the great, open wilderness that surrounded the town for mile upon mile, for the wild beasts and the birds to devour.

But even that is not the end of things.

The townspeople continued to tell stories to their children, of all the wonderful things that the princess had seen from her chamber in the castle tower, and of all the things she had told them. The children believe the stories, and worshipped the tower where the princess had lived. They told the same stories to their own children. These children did not believe them, but still they told the same stories to the next generation. The children of that next generation believed nothing at all, except what travellers from the north, from the east, from the south, and from the west told them.

And who knows if that is the end of things!

golden 2

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I’m thinking of putting together a collection of my short stories – most of which you have not seen here on the web site, and presenting them for publication. What do you think? If you would like to read through the short stories that I have published so far on this web site, please click here.

M

‘Crocodilism’ – a dem⦁n’s definition

crocodilism, n.

 

  1. The political principle whereby a state claims or occupies smaller states, territories, or disputed regions; extended to any corporation, body, or individual who appropriates possessions by virtue of their proximity rather than by any recognised right.

 

  1. The practice of girls walking in a long column of twos whilst holding hands; extended to the progress of any slow-moving procession of objects close together.

 

  1. The practice of weeping or making any pretence of woe for the purpose of entrapment; extended to the general philosophy that such pretence and the gaining of an advantage by it is acceptable.

 

  1. The worship of Sobek.

 

  1. The deliberate eating of something considered by others to be unnatural or unacceptable.

    “Thes forsothe among polutid thinges shulen be holde, of hem that ben meued in erthe; a wesil, and a mouse, and a cokedril, eche after his kynde.” Leviticus 11:29 Wycliffe version (1395)

 

  1. The practice of a philosophy where captious or sophistical argument is used; extended to any deliberate use of trick questions.

    “A woman sitting by the side of Nilus, a Crocodile snatched away her child, promising to restore him, if she would answer truly to what he asked; which was, Whether he meant to restore him or not. She answered, Not to restore him, and challeng’d his promise, as having said the truth. He replyed, that if he should let her have him, she had not told true.” Thomas Stanley, The History of Philosophy vol. II, viii, 57 (1656)

 

  1. The affectation of flattery, clemency, or any other favourable behaviour by a person holding any power or influence over others.

 

  1. The habit of removing irritations from a person from whom one wishes to gain favour.

 

  1. The hoarding and bringing into use of things past their time of practical usefulness.

 

  1. The condition of being all mouth and no ears.

[I recently rediscovered this introduction to a poetry project. I thought it might be worth popping here. M.]