Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: writing

The Garden at the End of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So much the better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©Marie Marshall 2018

Poetics: difficulty

But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality. (Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, p330)

I am grateful to a friend of mine for pointing me in the direction of the above quotation. It comes from a book of collected essays by one of the late 20c’s most challenging and fascinating poets, and one for whom I have a great regard. I say 20c, but of course Lyn Hejinian is still with us, and long may she remain. My reference was to the fact that it was in the 1970s that she, along with the likes of Barrett Watten, came to write a type of poetry that attempted to put the reader and the reader’s interpretation at the forefront of the creative process.

RolandBarthesI have often, in conversation and on line, mentioned Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’. These days it has become fashionable to scoff at Barthes, but for me he will always remain someone who forced home the important lesson that it is impossible to isolate The Great Poet-Goddess and Her Great Work from what came before and what comes after, that this Great Work is a work of a moment’s completion, after which it is totally free of the further influence of the Great Poet-Goddess, and is the property of all of us.

And that last phrase – ‘the property of all of us’ – is a principle that drives much of my poetry these days. I write for everybody. I write my poetry to turn it over to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. ‘Accessibility’ isn’t the point. Everything is inaccessible until you access it, and to access something doesn’t necessarily means you’ll instantly ‘get’ it.

People seem to think that it’s all right to be really into, say, Wagner, and yet also listen to Country & Western, and Trance. But not the other way round, for some reason. That’s where class and intellectual snobbery rear their ugly heads, and conversely intellectual reverse-snobbery too – yes, it works both ways. And all of this makes people feel that they can’t pick up something outside their comfort zone. We fear the facile and we fear the difficult.

HejinianBut my message today is that difficulty belongs to all of us. Lyn Hejinian’s words at the head of this blog post seem, at first sight, not to offer much satisfaction. They are not a key to interpreting the intentions of a ‘difficult’ poet’s work, they seem to leave all that up in the air – it might be this, it might be that, it might be the other. But that is nothing more nor less than openness. It is an invitation to take a piece of ‘difficult’ poetry (or art, or music, or whatever) and run with it. If you don’t ‘get’ all of it, so what? Get what you can, make something out of it, play with the words and with the associations they spark in your own mind.

My poetry, at least some of it, resides here. Pick it up and run with it. It’s yours.

‘the zen space’ – latest Showcase

In case you missed it elsewhere, the latest (Summer 2017) Showcase at the zen space is now published.

the zen space is an e-zine for haiku and related in-the-moment words, and I have been the editor since it started six years ago. Yes, with this issue the zen space celebrates its sixth birthday! The latest Showcase includes not only haiku and other recognisable Japanese-inspired forms in English, but also some poetry it’s hard to categorise. It also features some beautiful mandalas from our most ‘quoted’ artist Marie Taylor.

Although I say it myself, it’s a good ‘un this time. Check it out for yourselves – click on the Mandala below and follow the links.

MM.

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

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

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

The young woman reached over and tapped the casement.

“It’s wood, not gold,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ©

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.

The Emerald…

… the story of the last Scotsman in the universe!

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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

Burning Man 2016

3There’s a lot that can be said about the Burning Man festival, held every year in the Nevada desert, and not all of it is positive. But the one thing that I support is that its internal function depends on everything being free – not bought and sold, not even bartered, but free. Everything is, somehow, paid on. Now, of course I don’t attend, for many, many practical reasons, but this year I have had a remote presence. Not only did I write the script for the Guild History of I Tamburisiti di FIREnze, as posted here before, but I also provided some poetry for display there.

This poem, and this, are among several that were displayed inside the portable toilets!

This one, however, was displayed in the Temple.

I have to say that I am very glad to be able to contribute something to the overall experience of Burning Man, and to do it with no thought or expectation of anything in return. It’s a principle I admire, support, and wish to foster.

4

©Marie Marshall

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

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

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

girl-gang

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

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

I’ll let you know what turns up.

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

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

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