Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: story

2016… 2017…

Wow, what a year for the world 2016 has been, with all the good guys checking out. Even the arguably worst person to die in 2016 was passionate about public health, public education, and anti-colonialism. I keep trying to stop myself hoping that if the carnage continues into 2017 we lose some of the bad guys too, but – hey! – I don’t like to indulge in that kind of Schadenfreude.

2017 is, as yet, an unwritten page. I do know that the Winter Words festival in Scotland has been shortened, so presumably the ‘Fearie Tales’ competition will be tougher. I have a story ready to go, as it happens.

In 2016, I suppose my major writing project was, in response to a request, to come up with a text for the ‘history’ of I Tamburisti di FIREnze for this year’s Burning Man (see previous news items here). I thought you would like to see how some of that turned out, so there follows some images of the Renaissance section of the book. Enjoy.

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Images are ©

“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.

The Emerald…

… the story of the last Scotsman in the universe!

1

I met the last Scotsman in the universe in a bar on Cargo, a hole of a planet about sixteen jumps from Galactic Home. You can’t get much further away. There’s only one more jump in that direction, and that drops you by a cluster of unimpressive, wobbly rocks on the edge of a supervoid. Cargo isn’t a whole lot more impressive than that, it’s just a planet where people dump stuff, stuff that might, or might not, go on to the prospecting stations on Coral or Juke, the two other planets in the same system. Anyhow, that’s where I met him. Mack Gregor Elcho was what he called himself. He was much like any of us that turn up in such places – those of us with a shred of dignity try to smarten up our one suit, our one shirt, our one pair of dirtboots, and those without don’t. I guess Mack Gregor Elcho was on the cusp. He had a beard, because he said all Scotsmen had beards, and he wore a skirt woven from some obscure sideworld fibre. He carried his scrip, which he kept fingering and shifting, on a hide thong round his neck. His eyes, when he bothered to hold your gaze, seemed to have a cold fear lurking in them, as though he was not only on the cusp of desperation there on Cargo, but also of insanity.

And he had an emerald.

He showed it to me. It fitted into the palm of his hand. I had never seen an emerald as big as that in my life, not anywhere, not even on Gemstone Five, not even in the markets and bazaars of Jackson’s Moon, not even in the crown of the Merovingian Queens in the Great Museum of Innsmouth City on End-All. I wondered why the hell he held onto it – and oh brother did he hold onto it! – why he didn’t sell it, buy himself a handsome skirt and scrip and dirtboots and book a jump back to civilisation. But he didn’t. He showed it to me for a brief second, then closed his fist on it again, and it winked at me, deep green, between his fingers. I couldn’t keep my eyes of that glint of deep green, and he knew it.

“Buy us both a drink, laddie,” he said in his strange accent, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”

That was an invitation hard to resist, so I didn’t resist it. I weighed up the few roundels of base metal that I had, the dull discs that pass for currency out there on Cargo, and blew them on a shot of hard liquor for us both. I pushed his over to him, and told him to go on. He did. Thus.

“Laddie, I was the last man to leave the planet of Scotland. It’s a world that has some kind of curse on it, for folk either worked themselves to death under its blue sun, or died young of despair, or left as soon as they had siller enough to their credit. All who left, few enough of them at the end, gave up the name of Scotsman, gave up our lingo, gave up our names and our way of dressing. Where they are now, who can say? I’m the last one to keep his Scotland name, the last one with tales and songs of the old place, the last man to wear skirt and scrip.”

“I had a place kept for me on the very last evacuation jumper, and if I did not take it, I would be marooned there for ever. But I had to make one last quest. I had heard a tale… in a bar much like this except that the owner was nailing boards over the windows and pouring the last of his liquor into glasses for us last-gaspers… of this emerald. This very emerald. It was to be found, I was told, way off in the jungle, in a castle called Elcho. Yes, a castle with my name on it! How could I resist? I fuelled and provisioned an abandoned, ramshackle skimmer and, despite the protests of the other last-gaspers and of the Captain of the jumper who said he would not wait for me, I set off along the coast towards where the castle supposedly lay. I skimmed until I found the mouth of the bronze, oily river Tay, where it spews its metallic water into the sea. There I turned inland, and wound my way along the river, as the grey jungle closed in on me. To one side the great Kinnoull Volcano rose, filling the air with acrid dust, choking the filter of my mask and fogging my visor. I knew that the castle was to be found on the other side of river, and from time to time I had tantalising glimpses of something rising above the great ferns and weeds that made up the jungle, but as soon as I caught sight of it there would be a bend in the river, or a higher patch of vegetation, or a drift of smoke and dust from Kinnoull, and it would disappear again.”

“At last I figured that I must be close enough to it to attempt a landing. That wasn’t easy, as the jungle didn’t just grow down to the Tay, it overhung it. Tendrils hung down that looked as though they might snake out to grab, and things moved and rustled in the overhanging limbs and stems. But I found somewhere where the ferns and weeds had died back, and I cut the skimmer’s drive and beached it there. Walking on the dead vegetation was like walking on corpses, stepping on what felt like human arms and legs. Something told me to go back to the skimmer, to get out of there and join the others on the jumper. But equally something – greed, I guess, and stubborn curiosity – drove me on. Keep in mind, laddie, that these two feelings pulled and tugged at me all the time. I cut through the living jungle with a small plasma-spade, using it like an axe, leaving a fingertip-to-fingertip trail behind me, ignoring the scuttling and snarling in the untouched vegetation. I don’t know how long I kept this up, but it got to the point I was sure that the charge in the spade was about to give out and I would never find the castle. I was close to despair at that point, the tears of frustration being the only thing to wash the sweat out of my stinging eyes, when suddenly the grey ferns gave way, and I came out into a clearing. It was a place of bare, hard, blue dirt, as though the jungle somehow didn’t dare grow there. And in the centre of it stood Elcho Castle.”

3“It was a ziggurat of grey-blue stone, with a way – part ramp, part stair – that wound upwards to the topstone, in which an apparent doorway gaped. The air was heavy and still. Even the dust from the volcano seemed to shy away from this place. As I climbed the sloping path cut into the side of the castle, I was aware of the eroded carvings on the walls. Figures seemed to dance, to bow, sometimes to stand erect like guards; but all seemed to be gesturing upwards, urging me on. It felt as though these figures had been waiting for no one but me to come here and climb this winding path. But this was a structure unlike anything I had ever seen on Scotland. It was unlike the castles and granaries and towns that generations of Scotsmen had built in the south, since the planet had first been peopled. It seemed to be made of living stone, not of Scotland Iron and off-world concrete like any civilized building had been until everything had started to crumble from neglect. It was old, far older than our generations. It felt durable, almost eternal. The erosion spoke to me of not of centuries but of millennia, or of hundreds of millennia. Who had built it? What civilisation had been here before the first Scotsman? What people had they been, who had left no other trace on the planet apart from this everlasting place?”

“When I reached the topstone, the final stupa, and stood before the dark maw of the opening I had seen, I hesitated. The fear I had felt urging me to go back was now stronger than ever. But also that insatiable feeling that I should go on had increased. I gripped my spade, hit the on-button again to make it into a torch to see by, and stepped inside the chamber. I was surprised to find that I didn’t need any extra light. Something in there was making its own illumination. At the far end of the chamber something was glowing green. It was this emerald. The story had been true.”

“I stepped towards it, and found myself teetering on the edge of a void, my right foot swaying over black nothingness. I had been so intent on the emerald that I had not seen an opening in the floor. Sweat streamed down my body, prickling as it ran. Whimpering in fright, I sat down on the lip of the opening. I cried, I laughed, sanity slipped away a little as I realised how close to death I had come, rather than to a fortune. Recovering myself after a few minutes, I picked my way carefully round the opening, until I reached the emerald. I had thought it might have been fixed somehow, but in fact it lay cupped in a hollowed-out niche in the stone. All I had to do was to pick it up. And I did just that.”

“Laddie, it continued to glow. It threw a light onto the walls. There were carvings there, just like those on the outside, but less worn. They beckoned and gestured, but not upwards this time, rather they pointed towards the opening in the floor, in which I saw steps leading down. As though under an unspoken obligation or command, I held up the glowing emerald and walked down into the interior of the castle. I reached the first level down, where I stopped, held up the emerald, and looked around. Beams from the jewel shone onto the carvings on the wall. Before my eyes was an incredible scene. It was the meeting of two races. One race, the hosts, had faces that were like the lemurs of Azimov Seven, dog-like, mouths turned up in smiles. They were bowing in welcome, honouring an embassy from a second race. Tall, erect, proud, the second race was unmistakably… human. I walked round and round this level, taking in the details of the carving, studying, making mental notes, imagining myself stopping the flight of the last jumper and leading an expedition back here to study this archaeological marvel. A fascination had almost swept away my fear. But then something caught my attention. I held the emerald close and looked intently at the lemur-faced people. There was something sly in their eyes, there were backward glances, furtive looks shared with each other, their smiles seemed suddenly less those of welcoming hosts, but more of smirking conspirators. My fear returned. What was I seeing?”

“Ah, but don’t think that fascination died, laddie! I could see another opening in the floor, and another set of steps leading down. I followed them – what else could I do? – into the second level down. In a chamber larger than the last, the walls had carvings of the lemur-people setting a great feast before the human ambassadors. They brought to their seated guests great chargers full of food, goblets of drink. They waited upon their guests with courteous bows. They toasted their guests and were toasted in turn. The guests sat and reclined at their ease. As they consumed the feast, a troupe of lemur-women danced for them. It seemed a noble celebration. But again in the eyes of the lemur-folk were the same knowing, conspiratorial glances. I wanted to warn the human guests that they were in some kind of danger, but how could I warn figures of stone?”

“The walls of the third level down made me gape. The feast had been cleared away. The lemur-people were now debauching their guests, coupling with them, mating with them, pleasuring their bodies. And still… still… those smug looks of conspiracy passed between them. It was as though the lemur-people themselves had made these carvings themselves, to show how clever they were. Or maybe some third race was responsible for this show, and had placed the carvings here as a warning. But why, and to whom? I was, as far as I knew, the only human ever to have set eyes on them. I can tell you, laddie, it was with my heart in my mouth that I went a further level down. Aye, I did, though…”

“The walls of the fourth level… how can I tell you how the sight of them paralysed me, how that prickle of terror broke out all over me again. By the light of the emerald this is what I saw.”

Mack Gregor Elcho took a breath, a swig of his liquor, and went on.
“On the walls of the fourth level, laddie, the conspiracy had been launched. The human guests, where they had sprawled in lust, were now trapped, pinioned, bound. They were being subjected to all kinds of torture at the hands of the lemur-folk, who sunk teeth and claws into them, pierced them with instruments of torment. The humans’ faces were contorted in a rictus of agony, or frozen in screams. They writhed, struggling to escape, but impotent to do so. It was a scene of total horror, and it was made more horrible by the smug satisfaction in the faces of the lemur-people.”

He paused again, picking up his glass and looking at it but not drinking from it. His other hand clutched the emerald as tightly as ever. I broke the silence and said that I imagined he would now tell me what was on the fifth level down. He sighed, and with his eyes still on his glass, he went on.

“Laddie, you have no idea how I have tried to hide behind glasses, and bottles, and needles, and tokes, and cyber-probes, and every trick known to sentient beings, short of suicide, to eradicate from my head the nightmares I have every time I shut my eyes. Every sleep-cycle they come, and they won’t stop. Yes, yes there was a fifth level, and I looked down into it, laddie. I didn’t go down, otherwise… well… who knows. But I looked into it. And do you want to know what I saw? I saw… moving down there… tormented and tormenting, locked into an eternal scene of torture, the writhing, agonized humans, and the lemur-folk reveling in their pain, rending them with teeth, claws, knives, complicated instruments, licking their blood!”

“I have no idea how, but I must have climbed back into the daylight, fled from that unholy place back down the path I had cut through the jungle, not caring about any danger from jungle creatures or the hanging tendrils of predatory plants. I must have piloted the skimmer back to the jumper port. I vaguely recall hands tugging me inside the last open hatchway and the hatch slamming shut behind me. When at last I came to my senses, I was three jumps past Scotland, lying in a filthy bunk, my right hand buried deep under my tattered clothes, clutching this emerald in my fist.”

The self-styled last Scotsman in the universe stopped, pausing for a long time, fixing me with a gaze that was watery but piercing.

“Do you believe me?” he asked.

I took a deep breath.

“No. No, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a word!” I said loudly, pushing myself back in my chair. “For a start, who could have told you about the emerald except someone who had already been there? Why didn’t this person take the jewel for himself? No, I don’t believe you! There’s no such planet as Scotland, no such river, no such jungle, no such volcano, no such castle. If there were, you would take back your lousy emerald and leave it where you found it. If it is an emerald at all. Look at you, you’re a space-tramp, a derry, a has-been. If that was a real emerald you would be a rich man with a jumper of your own, not some old chavo in a skirt and scrip begging drinks in bars. It’s a worthless piece of glass, and you’re trying to get me to buy it, or something like that. Last Scotsman in the universe – ha! ”

He waved his fist in front of my face, the jewel still glinting between his fingers.

“Oh it’s true right enough,” he said. “Every last word is true. But I can’t put it back, and I can’t sell it. Laddie, you believe me… I can see it… you believe me!”

“No, no!” I yelled. “I don’t believe you!”

But I did, you see. I believed it all, from beginning to end. That is why, I guess, the last I knew of Mack Gregor Elcho was the swish of the airlock of that bar on the planet Cargo as he left. And this emerald tight in my fist. That’s what my belief brought me. That and his nightmares. Every sleep-cycle I take every step of his journey, I live it, I live every moment. I am myself, if you like, now the last Scotsman in the universe, and my own name, the one I have carried throughout the whole of space from one end to the other, is scarcely relevant. I know, sure as I know my own unshaven face in a mirror, the same bronze, oily river, the same volcano, the same jungle, the same planet Scotland. And the same dreadful ziggurat of blue stone under a blue sun, in which, in sleep after sleep, I see the same proud human embassy debauched, seized, and tortured by the lemur-people, the same blood, the same agony. Oh brother, the torture in my mind is as great as theirs. It’s eternal, it never stops. And it’s all as true as true can be, it’s as true as this emerald you see winking in my hand, as true as its green light, as true as its awful fire that reveals what should never be revealed, the truth at the heart of that cursed planet, Scotland…

Hey… buy me a drink now. And hey… do you believe me?

Do you believe me?

Do you?

2

The Last Bullet

(c) Dynamite comics

image ©Dynamite Comics

“The Wild West, that’s what they called it,” said the Ranger, his breath rasping like a blacksmith’s file on a horseshoe.

“Called it, you said. Called it. Called, not call,” said the figure in buckskins, kneeling beside him. The Ranger drew in his breath sharply and winced, his eyes shutting hard and his teeth clamping together in a rictus. When the pain eased a little, he opened his eyes again and looked long into the face of his kneeling companion.

“Yes, Tonto,” he said softly, “Past tense. The Wild West is dying, just as I am.”

His companion did not contradict him, did not say anything for several minutes.

“How come we got so old, you and me, Kemo Sabe?” he said at last. “How come the world got smaller the older we got?” There was no trace now of ‘Fort Indian’ in his voice, there was no one around to object to his talking like a white man – the only white man for miles was lying there by him, his head resting on a saddle, and that white man was his brother, as good as. Gently he tried to staunch the blood that ran from the deep gashes in the Ranger’s side, with a piece of cloth torn from a spare saddle-blanket. The Ranger winced again, and turned his head to look at the corpse lying about ten feet away from them.

“I never killed a man before today,” he said.

“You didn’t kill a man today,” said Tonto, looking over at the corpse as well. It seemed to be shrinking in size, becoming more emaciated, as though the desert sand was trying to claim it. A wind nagged at the clothes that covered it – the Levi’s, the old cattle duster pulled up around its waist, the battered sombrero that covered its head, the bandana knotted loosely round its neck. The corpse’s fingers were curled, as though they were clawing at the sand. It’s frame was big and broad still, even with the illusion of shrinking. Tonto did not want to lift the sombrero to check. He knew what he would see, and knew he wouldn’t like it. He shivered a little and told himself it was the fault of that nagging wind.

“That wasn’t a man,” he went on. “More like – my kin have a word – more like a Wendigo.”

“What will you do, Tonto?” said the Ranger, softly and hoarsely, changing the subject.

“Me? Go back to Canada, I guess.”

“You never told me what brought you to Texas in the first place.”

“You never asked.”

“True enough.”

Tonto continued to press the piece of blanket against the Ranger’s side, but the Ranger pushed his hand away.

“No. No. I’ll hold that,” he said. “There are three things I want you to do for me, Tonto, and you have to do them without question. First thing is, dig a grave for me, while there is still daylight. No, no, just do it. Second thing, once you’re through doing that, take my mask off, let me show my old face to the setting sun. Last thing – here! – take this. Take my gun. There’s one bullet left. One silver bullet.”

Tonto reached for the gun, but stopped.

“No. Not that. I can’t,” he said.

“Tonto, you must! You must! Or you’ll have no peace, ever. You can go to Canada, or Alaska, or China if you want to, but you’ll have no peace. This gun, this last bullet, they’ll protect you, and they’ll end this once and for all. They’ll put the final period at the end of an old legend, one we shouldn’t have been in. This is one story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto they’ll never tell, and by golly I’m glad of that. Leave me riding off into the sunset of some other tall tale, with someone asking who the masked man was. Let the other thing, that thing over there… well… I guess that’s died its own death… part of a different legend. With luck, me too.”

The Ranger’s voice had become very quiet, barely a whisper, as though giving these instructions to his companion had taken what remained of his strength. Tonto tucked the six-gun into his belt, propped the Ranger against the saddle with his face towards the setting sun, and untied the mask. Then he fetched the shovel an old prospector had given him, and set about digging a grave. He knew why he needed the grave. It would buy him time. From time to time he stopped digging and looked over at the Ranger. There was still something there in his sere face of the young man he had been at their first meeting, but it was buried beneath a few decades’ wear-and-tear, and now beneath pain too. Each time Tonto stopped to look, he listened for the Ranger’s breathing. Eventually there was none. He laid down the shovel and half-carried half-dragged the Ranger’s body to the grave, letting it fall in as gently as he could. But down in the grave it looked broken and untidy, nothing of his old friend left, so he quickly shoveled the dirt and sand on top.

When that task was over, Tonto sat with his back against the saddle. He took the pistol out of his belt and checked it, checked it again, and checked it a third time. He looked over at the corpse of the rougarou – there was no danger there, it was dead. It had taken four silver bullets from the Ranger’s gun and had kept coming. The fifth, fired at point blank range, had found its heart, but not before its teeth had ripped into the Ranger’s flesh. The sixth was still in the chamber. Tonto checked it again.

A little way off, the Ranger’s white horse – the third to have been given the name ‘Silver’ – whinnied. It was getting dark. The last glow of sunset faded from the horizon. The moon had risen behind Tonto in a cloudless sky, lighting up the desert, casting a shadow behind the little mound of earth he had piled over his dead friend, his dead brother. It was the last night of the full moon.

Tonto blinked a couple of times, wiped away something wet from his cheek, and cocked the pistol. Any disturbance to that little mound would give him some warning, he would be ready. This night’s watch was his. He would do what he had to do.

(c) Topps Comics

image ©Topps Comics

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.

A victory

boys-playing-war-gamesThe boys put down their Commando comics, in which the heroes were square-jawed and wore their helmets at a jaunty angle, and the enemies’ eyes were always in shadow, and determined to play war in the woods. One or two were lucky enough to have their dads’ old berets, a helmet, or a toy gun, the others grabbed dry sticks of the right size, with which to extemporise a weapon. They picked sides and fanned out into the trees.

One of them – the youngest – struck out on his own. He could hear the others. Sometimes a twig would snap as a boy stalked through the bushes. At other times there were yells, whoops, or the staccato cry of “Er-er-er-er-er!” in imitation of a machine gun.

After about fifteen minutes alone, the young boy began to climb up a bare-topped knoll, dodging from tree to tree, imagining that he was storming a stronghold under heavy fire. When he reached the top he brandished his stick and began to cheer loudly. After a couple of minutes his cheering attracted the other boys, who began to climb up towards him, wearing puzzled frowns.

“Why are you cheering?” one of them asked.

“I’ve won! I’ve got to the top of the hill.”

“That’s not what the game’s about,” said another boy.

“Yes it is,” said the youngster. The others shook their heads at this, decided to re-start the game, and they all trooped back to the outskirts of the coppice. Fanning out again, they disappeared into the trees. Their occasional yells, imagined military commands, and mimicked gunfire could be heard, muted by the trees, saplings, and undergrowth. Once more the youngest boy made for the knoll and climbed, ducking and dodging the imaginary hail of bullets, taking the enemy’s machine-gun nest for the second time that afternoon. Once again at the top he waved his stick and cheered. Once again his racket attracted the other boys.

“I’ve won!” he proclaimed loudly.

“Look, we told you – that’s not what this game’s about,” said the biggest boy there, coming up to him.

“Yes it is.”

“No it bloody isn’t,” said the biggest boy, punching him hard on the shoulder to make his point.

The boys all trooped back to the edge of the wood and, starting their game again, filed between the trees in improvised patrols. Doggedly, the youngest boy made his way directly to the knoll. This time when he arrived there he found several of the other boys already on the top, and more climbing up to join them.

“It isn’t about getting to the top of this hill,” said the biggest boy, “and anyway this time we beat you up here!”

The boys couldn’t understand why their young playmate gave a broad smile at that. Shrugging, they made their way back to the edge of the wood. Instead of beginning the game again, they decided to go home. The afternoon sun was getting lower, and they didn’t much feel like another skirmish. Let the imaginary enemy hold the wood. They threw their sticks away, the owner of the Commando comics retrieved his dog-eared property from the hedge, and they set off into the nearby streets that the woodland fringed. At each junction some went left, some went right, until the biggest boy and his brother were left walking not quite along with the youngest but in the same direction. The biggest boy tugged at his brother’s sleeve, held him back, and jerked his thumb towards the youngest boy.

“Why’s he still bloody smiling?” he muttered, and his bother shook his head.

The youngster marched home down the middle of the street, shoulders back, as though he was about to be invested with a medal. He alone had kept his stick, and it was now tucked under his arm, like a Field Marshal’s baton.

‘Pitlochry, as the dread hour approaches.’

I don’t appear to have a ‘reblog’ function, so I can’t re-post my agent’s report on the reading of my short story ‘The Ice-House’ here. So, please click the photo of Pitlochry Festival Theatre at dusk to be taken there.

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Hear ‘The Ice-House’ at Pitlochry!

Ice House

A stretch of the Scottish coastline, though deceptively close to the port of Dundee in one direction, and the ancient city of St Andrews in the other, was a lonely expanse of sand dunes little more than a hundred years ago. Nowadays there is a pinewood and a car park near one end of it, and tracks to walk, but back then it was a solitary, almost inaccessible area. Somewhere, hidden in the dunes and pines, is an old ice-house, once used for storing salmon. A young woman, out for a day’s hike in the summer of 1919, stumbles across it, and awakens an old, dark mystery…

That is the premise for my eerie short story ‘The Ice-House’, and if you come along to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre on Friday 12th February, you will hear the whole tale unfold, as it is read out to the audience there by actor Helen Logan. Yes, once again one of my stories will feature as a winner in the Winter Words Festival‘s competition – ‘Fearie Tales’.

The time, 9.30pm. The venue, the River Room at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. I dare you to be there!