Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: humor

The End of the Feud – a Christmas story

This is how it all happened. Leastways, this is how I heerd it. See, there were two families – the McCratchits and the Scroogefields. The McCratchits lived up on McCratchit Mountain, and to say they were dirt poor is to give disrespect to dirt. And they didn’t take kindly to folk trespassing on the mountain. The Scroogefields lived down in the valley where the river runs and the land is sweet, and old Eb Scroogefield was rich, by Appalachian standards that is. Now, old Eb Scroogefield and Paw McCratchit didn’t much like each other, didn’t have no reason to like each other. Both families were Scotch, like you folk. Leastways, Paw McCratchit’s granddaddy and old Eb Scroogefield’s daddy had both come from Scotland to America, but the Scroogefields were what you’d call Low-landers and the McCratchits were High-landers. That was bad enough, but old Eb Scroogefield held the mortgage on the McCratchit place, and as the land didn’t grow much cepting rocks, the McCratchits owed old Eb Scroogefield and owed him big.

Old Eb Scroogefield, last of his line, could have afforded to be generous, he could have cut the McCratchits a whole lot of slack. But he had a tight fist, deep pockets, and short arms. He was a by-word and a hissing in the valley when it came to meanness, and a plain cuss to mountain folk. Not that people would say so to his face. He counted every cent, made an inventory of all his possessions, and wouldn’t spend if he could mend. If charity began at home it stayed there as far as old Eb Scroogefield was concerned. If anyone was collecting for worthy causes they knew to walk right past the Scroogefield house. If you knocked on old Eb Scroogefield’s door and asked him for a drink of water he’d tell you to lie on your back, open your mouth, and pray for rain.

Not that he was much for praying. I guess you could call him a rationalist. Yeah, he rationed everything. He had been a church-going man oncet, but folk could remember when the preacher took as his text “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and Eb Scroogefield walked out.

From that moment on nothing metaphysical bothered him much. That is until one night when he got metaphysically bothered big. It was a cold night in December, the threat of snow was in the air. Old Eb Scroogefield shut his ledger, shuffled out of his coat, his shirt, and his pants, and into his night-shirt, blew out his candle, and huddled into the blankets on his bed. He had calculated that two blankets was enough to keep in his body-heat, no sense in having three on the bed – they’d only wear out quicker. Anyways old Eb tried to settle to sleep. Sleep never came easy to him, but this particular night it eluded him entirely. In the darkness the figures from his ledger seemed to dance the polka with dollar bills right in front of his eyes. He lay there and worried. First he worried on his right side, then he worried on his back, then he worried on his left side. It seems like he stayed awake for hours, but then maybe he did fall asleep, because he suddenly heerd his daddy’s old long-case clock downstairs strike midnight.

Old Eb Scroogefield started and sat up in bed. He was no longer alone in the room. Someone was standing by the side of his bed.

Eb began to reach for the old flintlock pistol he kept by his bed, but then stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up like bristles on a hog. The man standing by his bed was his former business partner, and that was impossible, because he had been dead for seven years.

Old Eb Scroogefield pinched himself. “Ow!” He tried to look away from the apparition but his eyes were drawn back in-exorably.

“Jake? Is that you?” he asked, his voice scarcely above a whisper.

“Well it sure ain’t Thomas Jefferson,” said the apparition. “Yep, it’s me, it’s Jake Marley come back to haunt you.”

“Horse-feathers!” said Eb, a collecting himself. [By the by, it weren’t exactly ‘horse-feathers’ – like I said old Eb Scroogefield was mean and he wouldn’t waste two syllables where one would do.] “You’re dead, Jake. How in heck can it be you?” He pinched himself again, and sure enough it hurt again.

“I’m a sperrit,” said Jake, raising his arms and looming over the bed. “I’ve come to you with a warning. If you don’t want to spend eternity wandering the world as a ghost, you have to change your ways.”

“Horse-feathers,” said old Eb again, but with more uncertainty.

“I knowed you would be hard to convince, Eb,” said Jake. “But heck, just look at me… I wasn’t half as mean as you are, and yet I’m a-floating round in limbo and a-dragging these here chains after me, never peaceful, never resting. It’s no way to spend eternity, Eb. You’re not getting any younger, you’re running out of time to change your ways. If you could just do one act of generosity, then maybe… maybe…”

“What kind of act of generosity?” said old Eb. By now he was commencing to get frightened. But his meanness was fighting with his fear. “Not a big one, just maybe a little one?”

“The size doesn’t matter, so long as it shows a change of heart,” said the apparition. “You’ve got to change, Eb, really change! Aw, I knowed I wouldn’t be able to convince you. I’m going to hand you over to three other sperrits, Eb…”

“No! No!” begged old Eb, now getting really frightened.

“Too late, Eb… they’ve been summoned… they’ve been summoned… they’ll visit you one by one, on the stroke of midnight…” The words of Jake’s ghost faded as he himself faded.

With the disappearance of the apparition old Eb Scroogefield began to regain some of his composure. He must have been dreaming, he surely must. It was dark in his room and his shoulders were cold, so he huddled back down in the blankets and shut his eyes. He still didn’t sleep, though, because Jake’s words would not leave him be. He heerd the clock strike the hour and opened his eyes in surprise. Surely it was only one o’clock? But the clock was striking two… three… four… Old Eb held his breath and counted all the way to… twelve!

A figure stood beside his bed, and again old Eb Scroogefield’s eyes were drawn to it. “Who in tarnation…” he began, but couldn’t get no further. Jake’s ghost had come as a shock, this here second sperrit added confusion to that. One moment it seemed like a youngster, the next a grizzled old-timer. Eb rubbed his eyes, but couldn’t look away. “Who… who in tarnation are you supposed to be?” he managed to say at last.

“I ain’t supposed to be nobody. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” said the sperrit. “Ya’ll ready fer a ride down Memory Trail?”

The sperrit didn’t wait for any answer, but touched Eb Scroogefield on the arm, and suddenly there they both were standing outside an old log cabin. Eb recognised it, but more’n that he recognised the two young people setting on the bench outside it. “Why, that’s the old McCratchit place, and that’s Mary Lou McCratchit and… me! That’s me when I was no more’n sixteen, and we were sweet on each other.” Well, the young couple were a-gazing into each other’s eyes and a-talking, and they didn’t notice when someone else arrived on the scene – Grandpaw McCratchit. Well, he wasted no time in ordering Mary Lou inside and telling young Eb to git. Old Eb watched as his young self ran away and Grandpaw McCratchit followed Mary Lou inside, taking off his big leather belt. Old Eb went to call his younger self back, but the sperrit told him, “Won’t do not good, he cain’t hear ye.”

The scene changed, and there was the young Eb setting at the table in the Scroogefield house, while Big Daddy Scroogefield paced the room. Old Eb and the sperrit stood by like lollygaggers at a medicine show.

“Eb, boy,” said the patriarch, “I jest had Robert McCratchit Senior come to the front door, with his shotgun, giving me a piece of his mind that he could ill afford. I resent it when the likes of that mountain trash come to my house armed and loaded, but if what he told me is true then jest maybe he had reason. About you and Mary Lou McCratchit – that true?”

“It is, sir. We love each other. We aim to get married.”

“And if I say to you, here is a silver dollar,” said the patriarch, putting a coin on the table, “and it’s yourn if you give up the girl, what would you say?”

“I’d say no, sir, I love her,” answered young Eb.

“And if I put another silver dollar on top of it?”

“No, sir. Wouldn’t change a thing.”

“And another?”

“No, sir.”

“And another?”

This went on until there were forty silver dollars on the table in front of the young man. It was more’n he’d ever been told was his in his life. When he answered “No, sir” that time there was hesitation in his voice, and when he heerd that, Big Daddy Scroogefield grinned. Well, the pile got to forty-eight before young Eb changed his answer.

“I’d think about it, sir…”

“And another, then… makes forty-nine?”

Young Eb stretched a hand out towards the money. Old Eb wanted to cry out and stop him, even though he knew he wouldn’t be heerd. Jest in time the youngster saw his daddy’s hickory switch come down – didn’t exactly miss, caught him a stinging blow.

“Merry Christmas, son,” said Big Daddy Scroogefield, shoveling the silver dollars into a leather bag. “And no need to thank me.”

“Merry Christmas? Thank you fer what?”

“A valuable lesson I jest taught you,” said his father, grinning more, and leaving the room, while the young man sat nursing his stinging knuckles.

“Horse feathers!” he said.

Those were the very words old Eb Scroogefield said as he came to himself, setting on his own bed, alone in his room. But he said them with far less conviction than usual. He was thinking about the time in his life he chose money over love, and wondered whether it had been as wise a decision as his daddy had convinced him. Still, saying “Horse feathers” again gave him some comfort.

But then he heerd his old clock striking, and again it was striking the full twelve. Eb looked around him for another sperrit, but he couldn’t see nothing. After a few minutes, maybe there was a chink of light under the door, though, and from outside the room was that the sound of laughter?

“Ya’ll fixing to stay in there all night, Eb?” said a voice.

Cautiously, Eb Scroogefield got up from his bed, crossed the room, and opened the door. He expected to see his staircase, but what he did see instead was a big room with a big chair in it, and in the big chair there sat a big, big man, quite the biggest man old Eb had ever seen. he was dressed from neck to toe in fringed buckskins, with a coonskin cap on his head and a couple of eagle feathers stuck in it. His buckskin shirt was open to the waist, and round his neck there were strings of Delaware beads. He had a skillet in his right hand, and he was frying chicken wings in it over a roaring fire.

“And who in tarnation are you supposed to be?” asked old Eb.

“I ain’t supposed to be nobody,” answered the buckskinned apparition, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, and I’ve got something to show you, Eb Scroogefield.”

Eb was about to ask him what that something was, when the sperrit reached out and touched his arm. The fire and the skillet and the chicken wings disappeared, and Eb found himself staring  at a table in a mean room. Around the table sat a crowd of poorly-dressed critters, and at the head of the table… why, that was Bob McCratchit Junior, head of the whole McCratchit tribe. He rose to his feet and spoke.

“Brothers, sisters, cousins, McCratchits all. Today’s Christmas day, and this here’s our annual Christmas dinner. Now, times is hard, game is scarce, and money’s even scarcer. So all we’ve got fer dinner is squirrel stew, same as yesterday, same as the day before. But as it’s Christmas, I’m a-breaking out the moonshine, so at least we’re gonna get a mite merrier than usual.” There were cheers all round the table, as he reached for a big old fruit jar, and splashed a helping of mountain dew into each McCratchit’s cup.

“We’ll drink a toast,” said Bob, “to old Eb Scroogefield!”

Well, that surprised Eb, to see each one of the whole tribe of his enemies raise their cups to their lips and take a mouthful. It was less of a surprise when each one of them spat that mouthful on the floor and cussed!

“Is this supposed to make me feel better towards this trash?” he asked the sperrit.

“Hush up and watch and listen,” the sperrit replied. Eb did as he was told, and he saw a look come onto Bob’s face like he never saw on any McCratchit. It was a soft look, with a smile concealing deep worry, as he looked down on the little boy setting hunched on the next chair.

“Hey, Tim-Bob,” he said, gently. “How’s my little man?”

“I’ll be fine, Daddy,” said the boy. “I’m jest a mite tired I guess.”

“Well jest you go and sit next to the fire, and I’ll get your maw to bring over a bowl of stew.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” said Tim-Bob, throwing his arms round his daddy’s neck and kissing him, before hobbling off to the fireside on a home-made crutch. Bob McCratchit drew his wife to one side and spoke quietly to her with tears in his eyes.

“He ain’t getting any better.”

“No Bob, he ain’t. To speak the truth he’s getting worse. Bob… Bob… can we not ask the doctor to call?”

“Now Mary-Jean you know we cain’t. Doc costs money, and the next mortgage repayment’s due.”

Eb looked at the Ghost of Christmas Present and was about to ask him a question, when the sperrit touched him on the arm again, and Eb found himself in the middle of a desert. A man in ragged clothes was crawling over the stony ground, gasping “Water… water…”

“Sperrit, will he find water?”

“He might,” said the sperrit, “if he lies on his back, opens his mouth, and prays for rain.”

Eb put his chin in his hand. “I suppose you’re telling me that nothing good happens without somebody making it happen?” But there was no answer. The sperrit and the desert had gone, and Eb was standing in the dark outside his own bedroom.

Well, he went back inside, but he didn’t get near his bed before he heerd the clock begin to strike. He didn’t have to count, he knew it was going to be twelve. On the twelfth stroke the room became cold. Eb didn’t quite see, more like felt the presence of someone… something… in his bedroom, over in a dark corner. The moon came out from behind clouds, and a shaft of moonlight fell on the frock-coat of a figure, dressed entirely in black. Old Eb was rooted to the spot with fear. Of all the sperrits that had come to him, this one was the worst by a long mile!

“I guess you’re supposed to be…” he began. “Darn it, I know you are the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come. I also know this ain’t going to be no picnic!”

The sperrit moved forward noiselessly. He was dressed in mourning clothes, and his face was in shadow. He said nothing but pointed out of the window with one hand and touched Eb’s shoulder with the other. Window and night melted, and there they were outside, in the main street of the town. A buckboard went slowly by with a coffin on it, followed by a whole line of mountain people, and a couple of townsfolk stopped to watch it pass.

“There’s been some deaths this past month,” said one.

“True enough. And some mourned more than others.”

“I reckon so. There goes that poor little critter. And two weeks back it was the old skinflint.”

“Him? Oh yeah. Well no one went to see him buried, that’s for sure.”

“Who’re they talking about, sperrit?” asked Eb. “Not that little McCratchit? Not Tim-Bob? Heck, I know I’ve been no friend to that family, but he’s just a kid, a harmless, sickly child. What does he know about feuds and such? Tell me it’s not him!” As though in answer the sperrit touched him on the arm again, and there they stood in the town graveyard. Right in front of them was a tidy little plot with a bunch of mountain flowers placed lovingly on it. There was a plain wooden board placed at its head, and in neat pokerwork were the words “Timothy Robert McCratchit, beloved son of Robert and Mariah Jeannette McCratchit.”

Well, old Eb shed the first tears he’d shed in a long time, and they were like fire in his eyes.

“Sperrit, tell me these things ain’t fixed. Tell me they’re just things that might happen, and all it takes is for someone to…”

The sperrit pointed to another grave, and Eb approached it in terror. There were no flowers, the earth was piled on it in a tumble, and already poison ivy was spreading its leaves-of-three there. A single plank was stuck in the ground at a crazy angle. As the sky darkened, Eb strained to read what was written on the plank. It was hard in the twilight – the words appeared to have been cut crudely with a bowie knife. There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lighting, and Eb could make it out…

“EBENEZER SCROOGEFIELD”

“No!” he cried, falling to his knees. “No! Look here, sperrit, surely all it takes is for one person to do… well… something, and all this could be different. Couldn’t it?”

There was another peal of thunder, and Eb found himself kneeling on his bedroom floor. Outside it was light, and he could hear townsfolk shouting “Merry Christmas!” to each other.

He stood up.

“The feud has to stop,” he said. “It’s brought nobody no good for three generations. I’ll stop it. I’ll start by cancelling the McCratchit mortgage and giving Bob the deeds to his family home.

Now folks, this is the point I’m going to have to take you to that same McCratchit home, up McCratchit mountain. You got to see things from their point of view. So, there’s Bob McCratchit setting by the fire, and there’s his eldest, Pete, standing by the window.

“Hey, Paw!” the lad calls out. “Here comes old Eb Scroogefield on his horse!”

“The heck you say!” says Bob. “Here? On McCratchit mountain?”

Bob got his hunting rifle, opened a window, aimed, and fired. Shot old Eb right between the eyes.

What? What? You were expecting a happy ending? Heck, this is the Appalachians. These are mountain folk.

It was the end of the feud, though. That enough “happy ending” fer you?

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.

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.

“Down with Experts!” – a fable

There was once a village where they had their own way of doing things. Every week the villagers would get together and hold a meeting where everyone had the right to speak and every voice was equal. Here they decide how best to do things. By and large this worked pretty well.

One day in November, the villagers realised their boots were becoming worn out. Winter was on the way, so they raised the issue of new boots at the next weekly meeting. Now, their normal way of doing things, when such a need came up, was to ask the advice of someone who knew something about the subject, and then make a decision. So this time naturally they asked the village bootmaker.

“Well,” said the bootmaker, “for boots you can’t go far wrong with good, strong leather.”

That sounded reasonable to the villagers, and after having discussed it for a while they were about to take a vote, when a sly fellow got up and addressed them.

2“Down with experts!” he said. “For too long these so-called experts have been telling us what to do. What do they know? They come here with their fancy ideas, laying down the law like they own the place, like they’re somehow ‘better’ than the rest of us! Who do they think they are? Take this boots thing – there are plenty of other materials you could use that are as good as leather, if not better. Good old honest wood, for example. Cheap and plentiful cardboard. But oh no, Mr. Expert wants you to pay through the nose for fancy leather! Ha! Down with experts!”

The villagers began to mutter amongst themselves.

“Down with experts!” said the sly fellow again.

The muttering began to grow to a grumbling, and one or two villagers started to join in with the cry of “Down with experts!” Encouraged by the sly fellow, they voted to have boots made of alternative material, and the meeting broke up to much cheering. The sly fellow got a lot of pats on the back as he left the village hall.

To give the bootmaker credit, he did his best with the wood, leaves, cardboard, and other stuff the villagers brought him. He made the strongest boots he could make. However, winter was upon the villagers, and the boots soon wore out and fell to pieces. An emergency meeting was called. Before anyone had an opportunity to speak, the sly fellow got to his feet.

“You see what Mr. Know-it-all Expert has done?” he cried. “I blame the bootmaker for this disaster. All we asked him to do was make us some boots, and look at us now! Can’t he even do a simple job like that? Down with experts!”

“Down with experts!” cried the villagers, and asked the sly fellow what they ought to do.

“Well, first hang the bootmaker,” he said, and they frog-marched the bootmaker out into the villager square and lynched him from an old oak tree.

“What now?” they asked the sly fellow.

“Make me the Head Man of the village,” he said. “I’ll do right by you.”

So they did just that, to much cheering, comforted by the thought that there were no more experts interfering with their lives. And every week there was a village meeting, in which their Head Man addressed them from a newly-built platform. He told them how he had single-handedly made their village great again, the greatest village in the land.

“Down with experts!” was his cry at the end of each speech.

“Down with experts!” they all shouted, happily, nursing their cold, blistered feet.

Keats and Chapman refuse to leave you in peace

1Keats and Chapman2 were having a friendly game of quoits one day. They were neck-and-neck on points, each being as good as the other at the sport. Chapman, desperate to pull ahead, flung his penultimate quoit to the furthest peg, and ringed it perfectly. He drew back to let fly his last missile, when Keats stopped him.

“Tell you what, old man,” he said, “if you can pull that shot off again, we’ll say you double your tally and win outright. But if you miss, your score is wiped out to zero. What say, old sport?”

Chapman agreed, and put his entire skill and effort into the last pitch. The quoit sailed through the air in a perfect parabola. It struck the peg, spun on its side, and for a moment teetered there. Keats and Chapman held their breath. If the quoit fell one way, it would decide the match for Chapman, if the other, Keats.

The quoit fell. It almost circled the peg. It fell to the side.

“Unrequoited. Love,” said Keats.

Once more Chapman had to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while.

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.

Marie Marshall – Lady wot writes

Just a little note to say I have revived my occasional blog for humour, politics, and folk dancing.

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Mr. Coelacanth considers Uppsala

Uppsala

Uppsala, broad-axed, bearded, Nordic kings
take thrones of state, mead and ale flow
from foamed hartshorns, suns sear a midnight sky,
or so it goes in my idle dreams.

Behind the harbour wall at Norrtalje, bobbing in ripples,
the finn-sold, fin-sailed, flying-fish galleys nod,
talk in the undertones of the halyards’ slap on masts,
of the Baltic swells they tacked and snake-hulled
a year ago as they rounded Åland lodestone-bound
for Riga, the amber city, and for the broad rivers of Rus
where their berserkers leapt ashore to found kingdoms
to the glory of Uppsala.

Here in Uppsala every fourth man is mailed,
every fourth woman is green-gowned,
gold-kirtled with runes, every corner rings
with the sound of lur, of stråkharpa, of fele, and of psaltery,
wheat-shirted children run the blond street
singing the Trettondagsmarchen, begging for bezants.
Here sits their solemn All-Thing, to decide the right
to barley and to wives, to monopolies in akkavit,
to axe and holm, to dour theology, to clinker-hulls,
to the wearing of fox-fur and elk-hide, to the franchise
of the Saami of Laponia, to red-gold, to weaving,
to patterns in knitted wool, to the bourns of charity,
to the meanings of stage-plays, to the enmity of peoples,
to the grey of suits and ties, to the served time of doctors.

Mr Coelacanth 1

And in the bleak, birched, lake-banded hinterland
dour detectives rake for bones, wooden houses
sting the air with pine-resin, the fishbone arrowheads
that hunters use are traded in the market-villages
for barter-goods to change for Uppsala silver –
the beaten silver of the holy plates hidden
in the reliquaries of sitka-spired churches.
Across the sea marshes and inlets comes the mist,
the breath of the great Dragon of the Baltic,
cold monster that tells of ice, migrating bears,
and the clangour of strange, brazen bells.
She reminds the burghers of Uppsala
that the balance of their simmer-dim is
the death-in-life of winter night, the sightless days
chased by old, lancing stars and northern lights.

The stride of beard-brave champions on pitching boards
or flagged thoroughfare, the ringing fall of boots,
the wending of men who measure time in leagues travelled,
all these come to Uppsala in the end; all the salt-fish
come here by net, by lure, or of their own seeking,
all the following, hungry glutton-seals and seagulls,
all the scuttling crabs too; every adventuring clan
of Lett, of Rus, of Tatar, and of Gael gravitate to kneel
by Queen Uppsala, each chieftain swearing by his pagan-ness
to be her man-at-weapons, each chieftain’s daughter
to be her maid-at-linen, each thrall to be hers
to use as she will. Each oarsman dedicates his blisters,
and the trip-trap of horses from the longship’s slender gangway,
to the quays and godowns on the Fyris-side,
over cobbles, to the smooth mountain-stone
of the chateau-courtyard, sounds for the Queen.

Mr Coelacanth 2

Ah, Uppsala, a Queen to whom bow lesser
and bend the knee – Osthammar, Hallstavik, Nacka,
Vaasa, Turku, Mariehamn, humble embassies –
your scepter and your bow, your altars to the Æsir
and to the Lutheran God, your awesome Majesty,
how happy must your burghers be in their guilds
and free assemblies, their crafts and churches,
their marching bands, their fire-watches,
their coteries and snug brains-trusts!

I am not a Finn, says Mr Coelacanth to himself.
Otherwise I would hale a dragon-boat through
the fogbanks of Dogger and trace the fractal fjords
to my heart’s content
. And he settles back, shutters his eyes,
and wanders the dreaming, cobbled, castled, long-halled,
long, hauled, old-strawed, old-strewn alleys of Uppsala,
his sense of geography untainted by the truth.

He is unaware of the halo-flight of bismuth beetles
japanning around his head – so many spies
looking for a landing-place.

__________

From I am not a fish

© 2013 Marie Marshall

If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop

image: Dan Meth

image: Dan Meth

BuzzFeed contributor Shannon Reed came up with this wonderful piece, in which a bloke in a Writers’ Workshop commented on ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Any of you who are writers and are part of such a gathering will recognise his type instantly, sitting there in his hat, glasses, and beard, reading out his epistolarily-framed critique. I gave in to a whim and penned Jane Austen’s reply. So below you will find Shannon Reed’s original, and my rapid response in the persona of Jane Austen. Enjoy!

Dear Jane,

I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!). Anyway, good job. I do have a couple of notes to share, in the spirit of constructive criticism.

So, a big question I have is “Why?” Why does Elizabeth do the things she does? Why does Mr. Darcy do the things he does? Why does Mrs. Bennet do the things she does? Have you read Hamlet? I feel like you could really learn something from how Shakespeare (the author) has Hamlet tell readers why he’s doing the things he does.

Another problem I noticed: Mr. Wickham (great name, by the way, evoking both a strong but flexible plant, and an earthly, bestial pig) is in the army, but you don’t make use of that. What if Mr. Wickham, instead of just being sort of a scoundrel (Again: why?), is a scoundrel because he’s suffering from his experiences in the war? (Which war, btw?) That way he could tell Elizabeth about it, and we would be able to see that she’s not just an independent young woman, but also a really good listener. He could tell some jokes, too, to liven up the mood, and show that Elizabeth has a good sense of humor. This could be the middle section of the book, like five or six chapters in there.

Also, why five sisters? How about just two? Combine Jane and Kitty. Or, better, make one of the sisters a brother (named “Jim,” maybe?), and then he could be the narrator who mentions his sisters from time to time! Like Hamlet!

While I’m on the sisters, is it just me, or does everyone treat Kitty really badly? Personally, I want to say “Huzzah!” to Kitty, and it’s annoying that everyone else — literally everyone else — wants to hold her back. Even you, I think— and, sorry, don’t mean to hit too close to home here, but… I’m just saying that I would totally court Kitty. She’s got a great sense of humor. But anyway, if you change her to Jim, problem solved!

A few other concerns: Mrs. Bennet is annoying, and you don’t have any people of color. Also, there aren’t a lot of men in this book. Only about the same number as there are women. I was thinking that what you could do is have Mrs. Bennet be dying, but give her a black best friend. Like Othello? (Have you read it? It’s also by Shakespeare, fwiw.) The Othello character could be her butler, maybe? There you go: three problems solved. You’re welcome!

I don’t know if you noticed this, but there’s a lot about hair ribbons here. Did you mean to do that? Maybe you could develop them into a kind of motif throughout, the way Shakespeare uses a skull in Hamlet? Maybe, when Mrs. Bennet is dying, she could ask to hold a hair ribbon? And Othello the butler could bring it to her, and tell her a story, or, better yet, get Wickham in there to tell her about the war. Oh! Perfect: just have Wickham, Jim and Othello talk about the war, while Mrs. Bennet lies unconscious in the background, holding a ribbon.

What do you think about Jim, Othello, and Wickham: Brothers in Arms as a title instead of Pride and Prejudice?

Anyway, while this isn’t something I would pick up on my own to read, I still enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Thanks for letting me take a look, and let me know if you need any more help with it.

Keep writing!

Tim

*

3630,Jane Austen,by Cassandra AustenMy dear Mr. Timothy, may I begin by saying I am obliged to you, sincerely, for the time and trouble you have taken over your critique. Also, sir, your kind offer of assistance with a re-draft is greatly appreciated, by one so recently arrived from Hampshire and yet to be fully sure of her place in society here (though surrounded by so much simple generosity of spirit). It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single lady in possession of a manuscript must be in want of a good beta reader, so I shall respond extempore to some of your salient points.

Your reputation, amongst our little circle of mutual acquaintances, for admirable frankness, is indisputable. I well recall your helpful comment to Mr. James, regarding one of his short stories – set in Norfolk, I believe. You challenged him thus: “What’s so scary about bedsheets, I mean, really?” Also your words to our Irish friend Mr. Joyce, when you opined that his novel fell “… somewhere between gonzo and mofo, and maybe too much of one and not enough of the other…” and also that you felt that his story arc lacked something by omitting the episode where the hero blinds the one-eyed giant.

By the way, I do notice that neither gentleman is here today, and that our feedback group, though quorate, is a little thin. I declare I have no idea why.

I do take to heart, Mr. Timothy, your suggestion regarding the Bennet siblings. I could, I suppose, recast my novel in a slightly more tragic mould, and have two of the sisters carried off by typhus. However, to my mind that would put at hazard the point of my essai, which is, after all, a douce satire on the station of women on the periphery of genteel English society – rather in the same vein as our colleague Ms. French’s work is of our station in American society. Yes? No? I believe this is something you may have missed, and although I am relieved that you did not hate my novel, I wonder if I could urge you to read it again. Persuasion is my forte, after all. It is not a work solely intended to be read by women, and although, again, I must thank you for the suggestion that I insert ‘Jim’ into the Bennet household, I have to say that such an amendment would mar the isolation of Mr. Bennet – an essential of the plot.

Ah – Shakespeare! Yes, modesty would normally forbid this, Mr. Timothy, but a friend of mine, who must remain nameless, actually likened the quality of my authorship to that of Shakespeare’s. I see the surprise in your expression, and I myself smile at the comparison, but suffice it to say that I am familiar with the writings of the bard. In fact I had already considered a sub-plot in which Mr. Darcy is the Colonel of Mr. Wickham’s regiment, and the latter being enraged by his commanding officer’s advancement of… of… of Mr. Bingley, provokes Mr. Darcy to a murderous jealousy by somehow placing one of Elizabeth Bennet’s hair-ribbons in Mr. Bingley’s possession. Much confusion, eventually resolved of course, but in fact I abandoned this as being a little too contrived. Oh, be assured however, Mr. Timothy, that I fully intend to continue my literary efforts.

I notice Ms. French is also absent today…

Well, would someone ring for tea?