Waste Disposal

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amy-3“I think I asked you to put out the trash, didn’t I?”  Amie asked.  “I did, didn’t I?”

“Amie, clearing the refuse isn’t time sensitive.  I’ll do it after I’ve finished.”  Malcolm, frowning with concentration, applied a wing strut to his model of the ‘Wright Flyer’.  It was his sixth attempt.  The glue wouldn’t let the piece sit in position, but kept sliding it to one side.  “Isn’t it amazing people used to fly a thing like this?”

“I don’t care.   I don’t care about your bloody pile of sticks.  I asked you to put the rubbish out.  You haven’t.   Just like I asked you to clean up the living room, and you didn’t.  Or cook for us last night….”

“All right!”   Malcolm sighed in resignation.  “So I don’t do everything you want, the moment you want it.  Look, Amie, I’m entitled to some time of my own, you know?”

“I suppose I have to do it myself!”   Amie grunted.  And it was a tiny, porcine grunt, one of her mannerisms that Malcolm had found so attractive, once.   She stood in the corner of their living space, glaring at the model and its dedicated constructor.   “Must you keep tuning the light to orange?”   She demanded.  “You know I hate it.”

“I told you, it’s a good light for intricate work like this.  I won’t be long.”

“Work?   That isn’t work, Malcolm, that’s a hobby.  You know, like making cathedrals out of matchsticks or little handbags out of string?  I wouldn’t mind if sometimes – just sometimes – you actually did some real work!”

Malcolm treated Amie to one of his paternal, superior looks.  “I work just as hard as you, Amie.”

“Oh, you do!  You mended the cracked tile behind the cooker. Let me see, when was that?  Yesterday – or was it the day before?  That’s just it, Malcolm, you don’t!   You don’t do anything I ask, you don’t help, you don’t…”

“Okay, okay!”  Malcolm was on his feet, blazing back.  “While we’re on the subject of ‘don’ts’…”

“Yes?  While we’re on the subject..?”   Amie strode forward, facing her partner like a pugilist, legs astride, hands on hips, only the table and the model aeroplane upon it separating them from total war:   “What are you going to bring up next?   Come on, let’s have it!”

“Well’ it would help if we…I mean, if you…”

“If I still slept with you?   That’s what you mean, isn’t it?  Same old, same old!”

“Knowing there’s no affection, no love anymore.”

“Oh, right!  No lurrrv!”   Amie breathed deeply. “So the fact that you’ve developed into an overweight, bone idle bore is my fault, is it?  So the sum of your romantic accomplishments would measure up to those of a rampant bull elephant is down to me, yes?”

“Possibly!  Not that it would worry you, and mostly it doesn’t worry me anymore.  It’s just that we still keep nights and days, and right now is the time of night when I miss it most.  But no problem:  any inclinations of a pachydermatous nature have long faded; although I’m surprised you even remember them.  Do you realise we haven’t had sex in ten years?”

“And you’ve been counting, of course…”

“Absolutely I’ve been counting.   And you know that very well.   How many times have we walked through this same argument?  Every month?”

“Every week.”  Emotionally fatigued, Amie drew out a chair to sit across the table from Malcolm.  “Every week.  Look, Malc, I know my role in this relationship.  I haven’t forgotten what we promised, and I will sleep with you again, honestly, when the time feels right.  I simply need a little space, like you.  Me time, you know?”

“Ten years?   You get out of practice, Amie.  People forget.” Malcolm met Amie’s sad look, determined to hear the words he needed, yet dreading his answer, too.

“We’re a couple.  That’s never going to be in doubt, Malc.”

“But you don’t love me.”

“Why must we always confuse sex and love?”  She clasped her hands together, resting them on the table-top.  Her fingers seemed to fascinate her.   She tapped them, each onto its opposing knuckle, making a hollow sound.

“Because without it we get unhinged.  Or maybe that’s just me.”  Malcolm said gently.  “Amie.  You – don’t – love – me.”

Her mouth twisted around her words.  “You’re cornering me.  Don’t do that, Malc.  Perhaps we don’t have the passion we used to share, but…”

“Amie, it’s time to be cornered.  It’s time to be honest.  You don’t love me, do you?”

“I’m not sure I ever did.”  As she spoke them aloud, Amie ruminated upon the power of those words, and the freedom they engendered.   Not to live the lie anymore, to have said the truth she had known for all of their years together.  “Are you sure you want to do this now?”

“I want to have it out so I can look at it, think about it.”  Malcolm’s voice was dangerously quiet.  “Why on Earth…?”

“We were young…”

“Idealistic.”

“I admired you, so much!”

“But you weren’t stupid, surely?”

“Malcolm, you represented hope, for me:  you did!”

“Hope – that’s a poor substitute for love.”

“It was what brought us here.”

“Yes.  And now we’re stuck together, like this bloody model!”  Malcolm rose to his feet.  “I think this might be a good time to put out that rubbish.”   He disappeared in the direction of their kitchen.

Amie called after his retreating back:  “If we’d just met and got to know each other like any normal boy and girl?”  Malcolm did not answer.

Left to herself, Amie allowed a tide of emotion she had contained rigidly within herself for so many years to wash over her.   She wept gently, recalling the dreams she had dreamed, all the joys she had believed she would share – all come to this dark nothingness.  And her thoughts, as they slipped ever closer to the precipice of despair began to fuel a sense of bitter injustice, of inexcusable wrong.   Those linked fingers still rested upon the table; now, though, they grappled, wrestling each other, left hand against right in self-mutilating fury.

Malcolm found her thus, taut with simmering rage, when he returned ten minutes later.  “The rubbish chute’s blocked again.”  He said mechanically.  “I’ll have to clear it from outside.   I won’t be long.”

Amie’s reddened eyes followed him as he went out through the vestibule, closing the door behind him.  ‘We don’t want you to catch a chill from the draught’ – her mind repeated the stale old joke he always made when he closed that door, although this time it remained unsaid.   She watched through the window of the door as he prepared himself to face the conditions outside, then his back and the opening and closing as he finally left, trash bag in hand.

She hated that back!  She hated his smug expressions, his indefatigable humour, the very smell of him!

Inside Amie all the strings were snapping, all the contents of her emotional cauldron bubbling to a boil.   With a deliberately closed fist she smashed the model of the ‘Wright Flyer’, slammed it into the table; then with determined force she raised the table edge to throw it on its side, screaming at the pieces of wood and plastic as they scattered across the floor.   Having achieved her necessary outlet of destruction, an icy calmness overtook her.   She was apart, somewhere outside herself, watching as she walked towards the vestibule, through the door.  At the outside door she stood for a moment, quite still.   Then she reached before her and threw the lock.

“Amie?”  He was outside, no more than four feet away.   He heard the click as the tumblers interlocked.  “Amie, what are you doing?”

Her mind fixed in a grim determination of which she had never thought herself capable, Amie glared through the window in the door as Malcolm turned and headed towards it.   He tried the door handle, shook it vigorously.  “Amie?”

Amie did nothing.  She just smiled.  She smiled at Malcolm, at all the failed years.  She smiled because she could already see the first traces of vapour on his visor; the panic in his eyes.

“Amie?   For God’s sake, Amie!”

She smiled because she knew that for such a simple task he would not have attached his safety line, or bothered to check the bio-systems inside his suit.  Custom and habit had made him careless with the years.  Those systems would fail very soon, and when they did his grip would loosen.  But the last surprise was his.  She saw his eyes – saw the flame within them quieten.  He accepted. He understood.   Perhaps he even wished it.  And he let go.

Amie’s last sight of her life partner was a dwindling white dot in the sparse light of sun star Proxima Centauri. The little craft that had been constructed so carefully to make its interior feel like a warm and comfortable home had already begun to slow down.  Soon, in only a matter of months now, it would navigate itself into orbit around that fertile planet where they had been entrusted to settle, she and Malcolm, and to raise the first children of a new civilisation.  It had always been a vain and tragic hope, this last gesture of a dying race on the burning world they had left behind – two people meticulously chosen for their compatibility, for their patient, sanguine natures, for their mutual respect.

Amie listened for a little longer, until Malcolm’s gasping breaths were lost, out of the range of his communicator, then she switched it off.   She returned to the kitchen to make supper.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spine Call

Great writing from Sean Patrick Whiteley’s blog. Please, go visit!

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spinal-column-sara-youngRrrrrriiiiiiiinnnngggg. Rrrrrriiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggg.

‘Hello.’

‘Roland, hi, it’s me.’ Breathing. Breathing.

‘What’s wrong? You sound out of breath.’

What’s wrong? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong, Roland. It’s my spine.’

‘Well, that doesn’t sound good, friend. The spine is important. The spine is everything.’

‘Don’t ya think I know that? Aaaahhh!’

‘What just happened? Are you okay?’

‘Aaaaahhhh! Egads!’

‘What’s happening over there?!’

‘My spine! It’s my spine, Roland!’

‘What’s wrong with it? Do you need help?’

Breathing. Breathing. ‘… No… No, it’s stopped, now…’

‘What’s stopped? What’s happening?’

‘My spine, Roland, it’s doing something to me.’

‘What do you mean it’s doing something to you?’

‘It’s moving. It won’t stop moving.’

‘I don’t follow you, friend.’

‘You don’t need to, Roland. Just listen to me.’

‘I’m listening, I’m listening.’

‘My spine is moving. Moving, violently. It hurts.’

‘Perhaps, you should lie down, my friend.’

‘I can lie down…

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Princess of the North Wind

 

I’m cheating a little, because I wrote this story a few years ago, and I rediscovered it this morning in an editing fit.   It is very long, so please pass by if you do not have time to read it, or find it irksome; but it is here because it is one of my favourites, and it ventures into a genre where I do not often stray.

In the Kingdom of the North Wind where the mountains meet the sky there is a valley, which is no more than a tendril of poor pasture pointing towards heaven like a tremulous finger.  Few will ever travel this way, but those who do will find within the valley basin where the trail ends a village, a cluster of dwellings made from stone and straw that huddle in a frightened circle.  Sparse fields of grain lie thinly on the stony dust; cattle and sheep accustomed to starvation’s edge graze where they may.  You who discover this place should feel no guilt if you shudder and quickly pass, for here can there be no rest for human life.

Yet if you pause long enough to turn your eyes to the east of the valley and towards the highest peaks you may see against the grey mist of the mountains a hill which stands apart, and a house upon it.  When the sun sets on a summer evening; and when at dusk a wolf gives tongue in mournful echo, the windows of the house glow red as blood.  No birds sing.  It is a lonely house, in a lonely place.  And no-one living is there.

By a cracked untended path you may reach it, this house:  where sometimes in a night of dreams you come, brushing through weeds that reach for you, that cling and wrap themselves about you, grasping the great iron ring upon that dark, dark door and turning the cold iron latch – and I may be waiting there to greet you on those nights.  For I am darker than all nights – I am darkness itself.

Who am I?  To my chosen few I am salvation, the one true promise of eternal life:  to you I am a visitation, she who stands behind you at your passing – she who waits.  Where peace can be found in a bite, I am teeth:  where solace waits at the end of a slash or a cut, I am knife.  Where nemesis is a gun, mine is the bullet.  I will take you to Him when there is no returning.  Fear me, for I am death.

Who is He?

To me He is a condor in the evening sky, a soaring majesty, a noble hawk.  To me He is at once love, and the synthesis of love:  spiritual and final, creation and oblivion.  When I am with Him He is all that I am, all that I aspire to be: as He leaves me, my life leaves with Him, and I am as nothing – sand – until He returns.

Once as a child I trod that path; once, a very long time ago.  In days when I was too small to reach the iron ring but the door of the house was opened to me, and the north wind bore me through.  I came although all in my village forbade me:  I came seeking a way to leave my hunger, to turn my back upon fear.  I was six years old and fair, the first evening I sat before His table and I had never seen food such as the food He gave to me that night, nor heard spoken wisdom as wise as His.

Within these walls I stayed:  who would not?  Within these walls I fed, slept and grew to be a woman: tall with flaxen locks and beauty for no-one’s eyes but His.  Yet He did not come to me, though so often I would have welcomed Him.  There were long, solitary days when He was far off,  long nights alone listening to the wind for a hint of His approach, desperate for a word from His lips, a smile or a kindness.  But there was always food upon the table, always wine to drink, a fresh, clean bed to sleep upon, and then, when He would return, hours upon hours of talking, so the night stretched out forever before us.

Ah, such times!

It was the winter of my eighteenth year, was it not?  Aye me, my memory plays such tricks upon me now!  The snows had come early.  There were logs piled high upon the hearth and a fierce fire in the grate that night.

He had returned upon the blizzard’s wing, an apparition first, then a man.  As always, I knew He was with me long before I saw His noble face, heard His voice like honey in my ears.  We were seated before the flames, deep in thoughts of times, and I may have been close to sleep when He bore me up as He had never done, took me to His breast as He had never done.

Upon that night He gave me life: eternal life.

#

Kinorvich probed the embers with a stick, as though his moody eye might read some message from the sparks.

“There were two more on the moor today.”  He said.

“Three last week.”  Cabal muttered through yellowed moustaches.  “One of my best breed ewes among ‘em.  It would be better if all the meat was taken, or at least if we could bring home what’s left.”

“You’ll not bring bewitched flesh to my door!”  Ursa’s voice, keen as scythe on stone, warned him.  “I’ll not have death enter here until its time.”  For emphasis she beat a wooden paddle into the pot of cornmeal that hung above the fire.  “It’s spoiled meat, Cabal.”

Rochar grunted his agreement.  “Bled dry.”  He said.

Calchis contented himself with a silent nod.

There were four men around Ursa’s cooking fire:  Kirnovitch who was her husband and three others who counted themselves the elders of the village.  They were no more strangers to Kirnovitch’s poor hovel than they were to this theme, for every week they gathered here to tell the same dark tale of carcasses left ravaged for the wolves upon the mountain slopes.  Were they to acknowledge the truth they might concede those that were slaughtered were semi-wild creatures, strays that had wandered from the flock to eke out their own existence:  but these were poor men, and every kill was counted as one of their own.

“The sacrifices make no difference. Something must be done.”  Calchis said (as he had said each week of each year since any there could remember).

“We could stop the sacrifices?”  Kirnovich suggested (as he had suggested countless times).

“Don’t you!  Don’t you!”  Ursa warned.  “She will come!  She will and she’ll have us all!”

And usually the conversation would end there, because that threat held them in terror.  This day, though, maybe because of the onset of winter, or maybe because the harvest had been blighted and stores of corn were low, it continued.

Cabal said:  “Has anyone ever seen her?”

The gathering fell to silence.  After a while, Rochar, whose voice lisped through teeth jagged as the rocks on the fell, murmured:  “Don’t no-one ever see her.  She comes by night – as demons come.”

But Cabal was not to be deterred:  not this time.  “We speak of Yelena as if she were some supernatural thing, still among us.  Why?  I remember the day she left us and I tell you, she died.  She just wandered up into the hills and didn’t come back.”

“She was a beautiful child.”  Ursa reflected:  “Always sad.”

“There were those saw her enter the house.”  Kirnovitch remembered.  “There are those say they saw the witchery come upon her.  She was warned.  Oh, she was warned!”

“Yelena’s dead.”  Cabal affirmed.  These killings – they’re some beast, something we don’t see, but lives up there.”

“With teeth that cut so?”  Rochar asked.  “Those bites are made by no beast, Cabal.”

Once more, silence:  four men and one woman studying the fire.  At last it was Kirnovitch who spoke.  “We could send for the Shaman.”  He said.

#

face-stage-1-2016_04_04-15_16_25-utcOnly when the snows lifted from the high pass, only with the springtime, when the first buds were appearing and the grass was spattered with harebells would he come; unremarkable at first, a hunched figure who bore a burden upon his shoulders and a festoon of mysterious sticks, stones and bags about his waist.  He was smaller, he was more care-worn than the common man and there was a dark scent of nature about him which was neither unpleasant nor enticing, but made the villagers step aside, for they were at once both curious and afraid.

His tunic of thick hide was stiff, as though badly cured.  Beneath it a jerkin of un-dyed wool, woven in light and dark thread so it had the appearance of rough chain-mail.  His leggings were of a woollen cloth too and bound to his calves by thongs of cow-hide.  There were no shoes upon his feet; these so hardened that his toes resembled walnuts and his nails were black.  The whole untidy assemblage of skins and cloth was topped by a head somewhat larger than a normal man’s, a head framed by bleach-white hair which fell untended about his shoulders.  His face?  Well, by the constant attention of the elements this was blackened too, a midnight only brightened by two tiny stars of eyes – and as you moved these stars would follow you.

Without a word he sat down on the hard compound of the village square while the people gathered around him.  He took the food they brought him to eat, picking through the best they had with his blunt fingers, snuffling and grunting like a hog.  They brought him their best mead to drink, which he quaffed heartily through thick lips.  Then, in the middle of the village in the middle of the afternoon he fell into a deep, snore-punctuated sleep.

That night it threatened rain.  For hours the villagers had prowled and sniffed about the Shaman’s slumbering heap like hungry dogs, never venturing closer than an arms-length, never daring to reach out.

“Will we invite him inside?”  Kirnovitch wondered.  Ursa and he sat eating their meal by the doorway of their stone hut, where Cabal joined them.

“Better not to.”  Was Cabal’s opinion.  “If he wished it he would ask.”

“The rains are cold this early in the season.”  Ursa observed.  “He is a great age, I think.  Should he die that will bring another curse upon us.”

“He is a Shaman.”  Cabal reminded her.

“He is still mortal.”  Ursa said.

So Cabal and Kirnovitch made a shelter of a goatskin, which they stitched onto a frame of sticks.  Very carefully they arranged this canopy over the Shaman’s inert form.  He did not stir.

Next morning the whole village was awakened long before the dawn to a cacophony of human sound:  screams of anger, curses, a banging of staves; wood on wood.  Its sleepy citizens emerged from their hovels to witness their Shaman jumping as though the earth beneath his feet were aflame, flailing at the empty air with the remnants of the shelter Cabal and Kirnovitch had so thoughtfully constructed and shouting in gouts of meaningless language.  A particular space above his right hand drew those pin eyes like some invisible enemy.  He swiped at it viciously then unsheathed a knife from his belt as he set off in pursuit of it across the compound, yelling at the top of his dry voice.  When he seemed to finally have his imaginary foe cornered at the side of Calchis’s hut he thrashed at it, swore at it, stabbed it until he was satisfied it no longer threatened him.  Then he stopped, pulled his leggings to one side and urinated.  At some point in this final process the Shaman seemed to become aware of the eyes that were watching him.  He glared about him defiantly.

“I piss upon the spirit.”  He growled.  They were the first intelligible words he had spoken.

“He’s possessed!”  Said Ursa, awestruck.

“He’s drunk.”  Calchis said.  “Better give him some more mead.”

So the Shaman slept once more, and the village was returned to peace.  All morning the villagers went about their tasks, skirting around his crumpled form with the respect they might give to a corpse.  The sun had slipped beyond its zenith in the sky before he woke and they fed him, still clinging to a thread of belief which hung from this faded cloth of hope.

He ate hungrily, he let pass a propensity of wind, then he rose to his feet.  Without a word to anyone, he walked out of the square to a place beyond the village’s edge and stood facing the hill, staring upward toward the house that neither did nor said, but stared blankly back.

Then he took a single stone from his belt, held it up above his head and shook it three times.

Three times.

Next, he took a single stick from his belt, a stick no more than a hand in length and carved with tiny symbols which he also raised to point at the house, and shook it five times.

Five times.

Then he drove the stick into the ground and stamped upon it with his feet – seven times.  And still the house stood as it had always stood, expressionless and empty, upon the hill.

The Shaman stepped forward, walked ten paces towards the house.  Now he began a song, a song from behind closed lips in a high, keening voice – a song with words no-one, perhaps not even he could understand.  But the house heard; and the house answered.  It answered with a breath of chill air that ruffled the grass of the valley as it came to wrap itself about the Shaman; circling, finding out.  And the Shaman took from the bag that hung from his right hip a handful of earth – earth that was little more than dust, to cast into that air:  and the air took it up.  The air made the earth harden, and sharpen, so each grain of soil became a shard of glass and each shard flew about the Shaman until it found its place – then it struck, piercing the old man’s flesh with not one, but a thousand barbs.

“Ay-HA!”  Said the Shaman, swiping at himself irritably.  “Ay-AH!”

At the last ‘AH!’ the shards dispersed, falling to the ground as soil once again.  The villagers who had gathered at the edge of the compound to watch gasped in astonishment.  Grunting his annoyance and bleeding not a little, their Shaman stamped back to them, wordlessly accepting another bladder of mead from Cabal’s wife with which to re-seat himself in the middle of the village, quaffing and burping by turns.  The elders, Rochar, Kirnovitch, Calchis and Cabal stood watching him.

“Her name!”  The Shaman demanded gruffly when he was done.  He met with an uneasy silence.  Hers was a name rarely spoken, and never in the open air where she might hear, where she might be invoked.

“Her name?”  He repeated.

“Yelena.”  Calchis muttered at last.  “Her name was Yelena.”  Feeling how all the eyes of the village were turned upon him, he added uneasily:  “She was my daughter.”

Behind him Mutai, Calchis’s wife, stifled a sob.  The Shaman rose to his feet.  He shuffled across to where Calchis was standing and without ceremony grabbed the poor man’s head between his hands, squeezing as though he might draw every thought that was held secret there.  For a minute, maybe more, the pair were joined so, eyes locked upon each other.  Then the Shaman stepped back.

“Not ‘was’.”  The Shaman growled.  “’Is’.  But she is no longer your daughter.  She is wedded now.”  He enunciated the word ‘wedded’ with such weight of meaning that it brought a gout of spittle to his mouth which he rounded and hawked onto the floor.

Mutai’s expression was incredulous:  “Yelena?  Alive and married?”

This news brought such light and joy to the woman’s sad head that she even contemplated a celebration – a feast.  A wedding feast!  Her daughter was not dead!  The ludicrousness of the situation came upon her more slowly.  Yelena would not return to her; the Shaman’s eye vouchsafed it.

It was up to Calchis to ask:  “What is she, then?”  And he immediately regretted his question, for it earned him a look of withering scorn from the Shaman.

“What is she? She is a warden, a Thresher: one who feasts on the blood of the dying, who waits at the door of death.  Sometimes, when hunger is upon her she may take the living, too – for that is the bargain she has struck.  That is the essence of the man or the beast she has taken to her bed.”  Then perhaps Mutai’s helpless expression softened the Shaman’s old black heart, because the hard edge in his voice was missing when he added:  “You should not rejoice for your daughter, woman.  Her bridegroom is not of this world.”

“But she lives!”  Mutai clung to the thought.  “While she lives, can we not hope?  Some spell, magic man; some incantation, surely, to bring her back to us?”

“Yes.  In her fashion, she lives.”

“Has she grown to be beautiful?”

“Yes, in her fashion, she is.  When she comes to man in the night she is beautiful….”  Here the Shaman paused, as though dwelling upon some memory of his own.  Then he came to himself again, and said.  “Even if there were spells to bring her back to you, they were better left unwoven.  I tell you again, she is no longer the daughter you knew.”

At this, the elders of the village – Rochar, Kirnovitch, Calchis and Cabal – gathered together and spoke between themselves:  now they were given the truth, what should they do?

Rochar and Cabal favoured asking the Shaman to make a spell that would cast Yelena out from the house on the hill.  Cabal reminded them once more of his ewe, left savaged upon the hillside.  Kirnovitch listened impassively, knowing Rochar’s capacity for exaggeration and suspecting Cabal’s ewe, like all the other stock that had been taken, was a wild stray which had once borne Cabal’s brand.  Calchis defended his daughter.  After all, he pointed out, Yelena had never troubled them.  Yes, they were wild strays, the creatures she took, not their own precious animals; and she had never come to the village.  She had never attacked the place that gave her birth.

The elders went to their beds that evening undecided as to what they should do.  The Shaman accepted Kirnovitch’s offer of lodging for that night.  And that night, she came.

Whether it was because of the Shaman’s probing; whether it was the Shaman she sought, no-one could know.

#

How strange it seems to travel this path, the wind and I moving as one!  And in the stillness, how small the house – the tiny womb – that was my house once!  Was that woman my mother- he my father?  They lie curled within their womb, asleep so deeply; husks of corn long winnowed:  they will be gone so soon – so soon.  And it is not they I seek.

Who was it?  I move from house to house as only I can move, listening.  I know he called me:  I heard his summons in my earthly name and I will know that voice again, mewling in its muddy craw, sodden with mead, devoured by rabid age.

House by house:  faces I knew, rapt in sleep: all who curse me, none who understand that it is by my Prince’s patronage alone that they are here:  it is by my intercession they are spared.  It was I, was it not, who pleaded their cause the year of His great anger, the year I wintered in His bed?  ‘Lord, is it not their food we plunder; their creatures we feast upon while they barely live?  If you should erase them from your land, who else would tend these cold, dead slopes?’ Yelena the cursed, who should be Yelena the blessed – but what care I for them?  They are as nothing.  They are dust.

All but this one – face wizened as a furrowed field, snores heavy with drink; he is something other.  I would speak with him.

“Wake, old man!”

My voice is soft as the mist of a dream, yet he hears it.  His eyes open.  He sees me!  Marvel at my beauty, old man!  Ravish with those pig eyes all your wasted body cannot have!  “Who brought you here?  Show me the ingrate who summoned you!”

He smiles:  “You did, hag!  It was you who brought me!”

There are others – two others – in this hut and they waken now.  I hear the sharp intake of breath; I smell the woman’s fear.  She does well to fear.

“What do you want, old man?”

But he does not answer me.  Though he knows that his neck would break at my single stroke, though he knows I may take his gut in my hand and twist it until he is beyond pain, he says nothing.  Instead he opens his hand so I may see he holds a stone within his palm – offers it to me so I may touch it.  He wants me to touch it, to take it.  I might do that yet, so strong is his will…’take the stone’…

#

Cringing, hardly daring to open her eyes, Ursa watched as the woman – who was not real, could never be real – stretched out her arm to the Shaman.  Yelena!  This was Yelena, come so far from the human child.  She saw long white fingers extend – as an eagle’s claw extends – to something in the Shaman’s hand.

She felt, rather than heard, the old man’s incantation as sweetly and richly as any music:  saw those fingers close about something – something small.  Saw both figures; recumbent, bent old man and tall, inexpressibly elegant woman in frozen stillness, their eyes only for each other.

Then, of a second, the Shaman’s hand had reached and grabbed.  His grip was a vice about the woman’s wrist, tightening.  He was shaking the wrist, shaking the hand, shaking the stone it held, three times.

Three times.

The woman screamed: and her scream was the cry of the rabbit in the snare, the fox to her young from the hill.  Her body shrank back – drawn flesh about the bones which made her, the small stone she had taken searing red between her fingers.  Her robe of grey mist swirled to wrap itself about her, and she was gone.

On his feet at once, the Shaman ran from Ursa’s hut in pursuit.  He ran and the black night in a cloud gathered to follow him.  He ran to the stake, the stake with runic signs he had driven the previous day into the ground.  He ran there and he stamped upon it five times.

Five times.

Then as if upon his summons the ground opened at his feet, but still the Shaman, shouting fiendishly, ran on, chasing the grey ball of Yelena as it rushed faster than a lightning bolt towards the house on the hill.  In his wake, the earth was split by a jagged fissure which opened wide enough to swallow him.  He might have been running for his life, but fast as he might run the spirit that was once Yelena was faster.  The door of the house on the hill slammed shut behind her.  The ragged earth ceased to split.  There was silence.

For a long time, it seemed, the world stood still.  The villagers, huddled in the village square, staring in wonder at the crevasse; the Shaman before the house on the hill with his arms outstretched, fingers pointing to the stars.  Then came the cloud.

It swept in from the east, above the mountains.  In the featureless night sky there was little evidence of it at first, save for the flickers of lightning emanating from its midst.  Sheep that saw its coming bleated piteously from the pastures, and as it drew closer the air itself took up the vibration, an angry bee-swarm buzz of higher, ever higher pitch.  Above the house on the hill it gathered in a boiling mass, black on black, and the blue flashes of discharge from it spread like a fan across the sky.  From its heart He came, a white fury in human form twenty times the height of any natural man with lightning playing about His head and arms of fire to strike down upon the Shaman.  Ursa wailed her horror as the old man’s body was lifted and tossed into the air like a thing of rags:  and a thing of smoking rags he fell, still upon the ground.

A bless of spring snow and the first light of morning would discover the old Shaman crumpled upon hard earth.  He wakened slowly, sending reluctant nerve-pulses to each of his limbs to see if they would still move for him.  Only when he was sure nothing was broken did he open his eyes:  only when the pain in his head began to clear, did he raise himself to look around.

Before him the house upon the hill stood as faceless and lifeless as ever, still shaded by the mountains:  behind him the path which led down to the village was much as before;  the fissure had closed so only the irregular line where it had been was visible.  But all about him was dust, and nothing but dust.  No spring shoots, no grass, no crops – no food.  There was not an animal in sight.

With a sigh, the Shaman dragged himself to his feet.  Turning his back upon the house he limped down the hill towards the village.

The villagers were gathered in the square, their fear still etched in their sleepless eyes.

“She is gone.”  The Shaman muttered.  “Give me mead.”

Ursa mutely offered the bladder of mead and the Shaman emptied it.

“What…” Rochar asked, “has become of the land?”

“It is cursed.”  The Shaman shrugged.  “It was always a possibility.  She is very strong, and the bridegroom still comes to her – he was stronger.”  He probed his bones delicately, wincing at each new weald or bruise.

Cabal stalked forward until his face was inches from the Shaman’s own.  “And the animals?”  He growled.  “Are they cursed too?”

“Cursed, or scared.  They might return, they might not.”

“Then how do we live?”  Calchis, his arm about Mutai’s heaving shoulders, shouted:  “Without animals, without crops – look at this!  Look what you have done!”

The Shaman rounded on Calchis, and his reply had the snap and snarl of a timber wolf.

“Why did you call him?  Why?  You wanted rid of a Thresher and he did as you asked.  Do not blame me for the consequence!  Did you think I would leave without a fight?  Did you?”

Cabal stepped back, a furrow of perplexity in his brow.”We called you.  ‘He’; ‘I’; what is this?”

“And has she?”  Kirnovitch asked suspiciously:  “Has she left?”

First to realise, Mutai sobbed.  For all she saw was changing, and it was not the Shaman’s bent form that stood before her now.

#

They see me!  They all see me – she who claims me, and her man, the one with the vile teeth, the self-important one – all of them.  I rise before them from that dried husk like a bright angel.  They see me and they cringe with their terror writ in tears upon their faces, their whining fear writhing from their lips!

I tell them.  I speak my words to the wind; the north wind:  “Did you think – did you dare to think – you would find salvation in this old snakeskin of a man?  Did you think in your arrogance; in your ignorance, he would be any match for the power of my Master?  He is chaff!  His magic had no more potency than an innocent child’s wish!

“Foolish people!  Foolish, and doomed!  I will go; leave now, before the sun discovers me.  Yet do not run:  you cannot run for I shall always find you.  Wait upon the night, the darkest night of the moon, and hear this, my promise to you who would destroy me.  When that night comes I will return.”

#

In the Kingdom of the North Wind where the mountains meet the sky there is a ruined village, a cluster of dwellings wherein I feasted once, on a dark night of the moon. Within those walls nought but bones remain.  Sparse fields of weeds lie thinly on the stony dust; cattle and sheep accustomed to starvation’s edge graze untended where they may.  You who discover this place should feel no guilt if you shudder and quickly pass, for here can there be no rest for human life.

And I – where, now, do I live?  In life the house upon the hill stands empty now, though in dreams you may still find it, and I will wait to welcome you.  Remember always I am near.  As your breath shortens with the years I am closer.  But upon any night – any dark night when the North Wind blows and I am hungry a black cloud may bring me, for I am Princess of the North Wind.  Know me – I am death.

 

©  Frederick Anderson, June 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Momentous Year

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harpy-imagesA coke and a smile and it’s already 6th of January, most New Year’s resolutions are well on their way to being broken and a whole new seedbed of freshly sprouting tragedies are preparing to break the soil of 2017.    So, will this year be better than last?

No.

At least, not in the eyes of the media harpies who sit on the branches  of the ‘London Bubble’, glaring balefully at me through the window of my northern turret.   Now these are interesting birds:  for they are gifted in their description of impending misery.  The instant I venture to share their wavelength they bombard me with carefully measured doses of doom, interspersed with worthy advice concerning avoidance measures.

Brexit, they persist in wailing, will be a disaster as yet beyond human experience, one we cannot possibly calculate in terms of the millions who will starve, the race riots that will injure us and loot our properties, or the unmitigated fury of the spurned bankers, who will all leave for France.   Have we not already been swept up in a tide of hyper-inflation, with savage price rises, critical supply shortages and assaults by irritable German Federalists?

Well again, no.

In fact, virtually every prediction for Armageddon has so far proved false, apart from the one concerning the lowered value of our dear old dusty English Pound, which, as it turns out, is a boon to industry, because at 2.2 percent the British growth rate for the past year is the highest in the western world.   Meanwhile, across the Channel, the European economies are either languishing or in trouble, one way or another.  The euro is showing all the early signs of terminal disease.

Without indulging in lengthy (and very boring) discussion of comparative ills, the political right is hauling itself up several electoral ladders, notably in the big European players – France, Italy, and possibly even Germany, with electoral processes due to chart their success this year.  Right-wing political thinking is broadly anti-EU, but political science is a lot like theology: a subject with no substance in itself which is guided and reinterpreted by those who administer it.  Where it exists it is upon an ideal or a myth, and the problem for the ministry of a fashionable creed is their vulnerability to being swept aside when events disprove their ineffable vision.  There is no in between:   saints or heretics; the Vox Populae judges only by results.

Britain’s greatest enemy in the execution of Brexit lies within itself.  Pandering to instinctive British obsequiousness, and unconvinced of its negotiating power or the cards it holds, the government seems to be falling over itself in attempts to ‘achieve the best deal’, regardless of its record in that department when David Cameron was lashed to the helm, and without any acknowledgement to the bigger world that waits to trade and interrelate.

Hot news!   You cannot ‘negotiate’ with zealots.  They don’t listen.  Whether Federalist or Islamist they are convinced of their cause in the face of all reason, and their pursuit of it will be relentless.   The only way for the European ideal to break down is the way it must, whether in months or years: by collapse from within.

Complications, EU rules and agreements founded upon them, are really a distraction from what will be UKs final recourse, just to walk away and close the door.   The vast amount of money, and work for the Civil Service, though, that will be expended in reaching that conclusion, is not for the EU.  It is to gratify powerful influences within UK.

Make no mistake, the greatest obstacle to a smooth and effective severance is rampant self-interest.   I can understand it, in a way.  In the long term, as everyone knows, the Carney Bank of England interest rate, which has lingered at fractions of a percent for some years now, must rise.  In most of the country such changes are manageable, but if you live in a two-bedroom flat in London which cost your lenders the north side of £600K a half percent rise is tantamount to ruin, especially if the property starts to devalue as well…

On a personal level, this is the year (so my harpies, in concert with the British Brainwashing Corporation tell me) I am sure to contract a significant disease – diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Ebola, terminal flu.   All will be well, if I could only bring myself to take the wisest course the moment I experience early symptoms and consult my medical practitioner.  Okay, although due to the medical staff’s extensive holiday commitments the waiting list for appointments with my local General Practitioners’ exceeds one month.  By which time, of course, I will have expired.

Meaning, I suppose, I need not be too concerned that a piece one-quarter the size of Wales is about to break away from the Antarctic ice pack, or that due to billions of gallons of extra melt water filling up the oceans, the world is getting too fat in the middle and wobbling on its axis a bit.   This is no surprise to me.  Ever since acquiring extra weight in middle age my pirouettes are definitely more erratic.  A lesson for us all.

It will not be a bad year, 2017.   Whether we like or loathe Donald and his rug, the system will blunt his excesses I am sure, and all though the treatment may be painful, it will be beneficial, by and large, in the end.  If one thing, and one thing alone, could make 2017 a very good year it would be to see peace break out in Syria.  Those poor people have been bombed and shot at for too many years, and for once I find myself applauding Russia for its logical approach.  I hope that, at least, succeeds.

Happy New Year, everyone.

No – NO!   Put that drink down.  You promised!  God is watching!

Dark Sky

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The sky this morn is black with crows,

The rising sun an angry rose

Casts blood in petals on the land.

And I sing, to remember all I was

In another age, in another time,

Beneath a sweeter, brighter sky

When all the world was you and I.

 

White horses walked in sylvan glades

In days when knights could honour maids

And seek their favours in return.

And nought I sought in recompense

But ever fought in your defence

Long after honour was all gone

And long before I lost the dawn.

 

The twilight now, in softened hue

Fades all my memories of you.

Evening mist now veils your face

Treasured thoughts of so long ago

Will soon lie cold beneath the snow

In shelter from the wind’s embrace

To be awakened never more.

 

Night clouds gather, my day is past

I will take you to my bed at last

That part of you forever young

Though undefined within my heart

Shall be the verse of my last song.

And when I lose my final fight

Your wraith will guide me into night.

Cat

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catThis, the man decided, as his eyes took in the comfortably chintzy living room with its gentle colours and mysterious nooks and crannies, was the most unbelievable stroke of luck!  Not an hour since, the lady who owned this house had been a total stranger; a far-off star of loveliness way beyond his reach.

Since he first met this woman he had been besotted.  He had (there was no other word he could honestly use) lusted after her, watching her through her windows from his shop across the street and dreaming.   Only In the silent watches of the night, alone in his room, had he found the words he sought to seduce her and cried them aloud, knowing she would never hear them.  A purity, an innocence defended her, so he could never speak plainly.  His innermost desires, his private yearning, remained a sad and rather squalid secret.

Now?   Now he was sitting in her living room.  Suddenly it was all possible!   Somehow, her cat had turned up in his bookshop, the cat he had seen on her windowsill; the cat she brought into his shop once on one of the occasions when she came to buy a book and her radiance had, as ever, rendered him tongue-tied and stupid.  It had made a home for itself upon his bookshelves and refused to leave.  In the end he had no choice other than to carry it across to its proper home.

She had answered the door.  Her face had lit up with pleasure; no, with joy, when she saw he had brought the cat.  And now he was sitting on her sofa in her front room, drinking her tea.

“I must just leave you for a moment.  I won’t be long.”

Another opportunity was slipping by.  He was alone with the cat, which sat upon the armchair, watching him.

“Oh, Kitty, what a night I could spend with your mistress!”   He enthused.  This was man-talk, of course, but then it was deeply felt; and after all, this was only a cat.  Who was it going to tell?

“Just a night?”  The cat responded.

“Well, alright, two or three nights I suppose.  We’d probably get bored with each other after that.”  He checked himself.  “Wait!  I shouldn’t be telling you this!  I should be telling your mistress.”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”  Said the cat.  “Do you usually conduct your amours at such a noble pitch?”

“Too direct?  A little unsubtle, I concede.”   Something felt odd.  “Just a moment!  Why am I talking to a cat?”

“I am a pretty creature, am I not?  Or so my mistress describes me, after she has called me Furis, which is my given name.  I do not answer to ‘Kitty’, generally.“  The cat stretched, anchoring its claws into the fabric of the armchair.

“You are certainly a very fine cat.”  The man agreed.  “But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should engage in  conversation”

“Why not?  All humans talk to their animals, don’t they?  They see their own image in our eyes and they talk to that.  They even persuade themselves we understand them, a little.”

“And do you?”

“All too well.”  The cat flowed from chair to window sill with liquid grace.  “Sometimes I can see myself as if I were another cat, here in this glass, in the dark time.   We might play with one another and hone our skills for a while, my pretty other self and I, but I know my reflection:  I am not a fool.”

“This is different.  I think you do understand me and I can hear you, quite clearly.  Your mouth does not speak the words, yet your meaning is distinct.  I’ve not experienced this before.”

“Does it make you uneasy?”

“Somewhat.”

“Then stop talking.”  Said the cat, licking a protruding paw with an air of distaste.

The man tucked his legs beside him on the sofa, and lapsed into an edgy, impatient silence, but it was clear to the cat this restraint could not last long.  “Very well;”  it said.  “Let us test your assertion.  Ask me something, and try not to make your question too boorish.”

The man stared, for the cat had formed these words without interrupting its wash.  It had draped itself before the window, relishing the light of a bright spring morning.   Taken aback, he groped for something to say.  “Is that your favourite window?”  He muttered nervously.

“Oh, do speak up!”  Snapped the cat, brusquely.  “ Is this my favourite window sill?  I cannot answer that.  There are two you see –two windows, two sills, two worlds.  With the morning sun upon it this is my choice.   At night the window at the back of the house is where I sit, making my plans for the gardens and fences and waste bins outside the glass that are my world – my night-time world.   There I can chase down the little creatures, to play with them a while before I kill, or sit with my brothers upon the copings, telling tales or serenading the moon.

Now, though the street beyond this window is not of my world the sun is warm:  all the little ones sleep; while here I stretch myself on the warm paint, do the combing and washing so necessary to my body’s machine, and some sleeping too.  There!  Was my little speech sufficient to prove your point; or mine?”

“Well, you certainly weren’t speaking in the normal sense;”  acknowledged the man, frowning.   “It could be that my mind is inventing words for you; lending articulation to things I would expect a cat to say.”

“Could it?  I gather you have the monopoly of what is normal?”

“Ten minutes ago I would have presumed so.  Not now.”

“Nevertheless, I am just a ‘normal’ cat, aren’t I?   Look at me – you can stroke me if you wish!  Admire my claws.  See how I hide them, so my feet are soft and silent?  I can pat you – thus – and you will barely feel my touch.   Now see how sharp are my claws when these outstretched limbs reveal them?  They are my secret.  When my mistress cuddles and plays with me I pat and dab and keep them to myself. But they are weapons, and the little creatures have reason to fear them.”

Somewhat hesitantly, the man reached out to run his fingers over the soft fur of the cat’s warm flank.   “You must want to sleep, if the night is your time.”

“ I feel tired – I do!  Such luxury!”  The cat yawned.  “So easy to sleep, here in the sun, on the safe side of the glass.  You have questions to ask, though, don’t you?  I promise I will stay awake.  What would make you feel at ease?  Should you have brought one of those repulsive books you keep beneath your bed to help you pass the time?”

“So you know of those, too.  What do you not know?  Explain to me.  Why are you so harsh with me?”

“Because you richly deserve every barb you draw, dear man.  Yet I see there is a sweeter, finer side to your nature and so I would teach you, if I could.”

“Really?”  The man managed to dredge up some dismal sarcasm.  “Perhaps we could concentrate upon my finer points?”

“You carried me here, didn’t you, across that frightening street.  The world which is not mine.  Your hands are gentle.  Just as my mistress was carrying me, out there, when first I saw you; as you stroked my side a moment since.  You may not purr, but you are not all the leprous creature you pretend.   Your hands betray you:  you are capable of love.

“Come and join me, look down to the street that is a good jump below us, watch as I watch:  humans blundering about, vile smelling cars and lorries and vans dashing by.  Oh, I can mingle down there – sun myself upon the step, or collect plaudits from passers-by; and It is amazing what I can achieve by simply purring, or rubbing myself against an ankle – mutual grooming; favours, even food.  But the street is a place of horrors.  I have seen friends taken to Forever Stillness by the stroke of a car wheel, or crushed to meat beneath a lorry’s tyre.  To make a crossing there is fraught with peril, so my mistress carries me across, when there is the need.”

Mollified by the cat’s altered tone, the man rose to his feet, carefully balancing the cup of tea the cat’s lovely mistress had brought him.  His eyes followed the gaze of the cat, across the thoroughfare to the bookshop where he worked.  “She brought you to see me the other day.   I think she wanted to show you off.  She dotes on you, you know.”

“As I dote on her.”  The cat said.

“I still don’t quite understand, then, how she managed to leave you behind in my shop.”

“My mistress has bought a lot of books from you in recent weeks.”

“True.”  The man frowned.  “Should I deduce something from that?”

“If you wish.  What better contrivance than to let me hide among the shelves for a while, knowing you would discover me?  Then you would have cause to return me to my owner, wouldn’t you?”

“Just so I could have an excuse to come here?”  The man found himself wondering if the object of his desires shared his feelings and needs:  but no – this was, after all, no more than an imagined conversation.  “Surely your mistress missed you.  She could have come to the bookshop.  She must have known where you would be.”

It was important to me to bring you to our home.  My mistress is beautiful, is she not?   Her raven hair, her dark eyes, her warm smile?”

“Yes.   Yes, she is.   Wait a moment!   Important to you?  You make it sound as though you plotted this.”

“Do I?   Is she not grateful?   She will return in a moment.  Meantime, you sip her warm tea and seem as though you belong here.  Was I wrong?”

“Yes….no…I don’t know.   I’ve no precedent.   I think this is the first time I’ve ever been invited to tea by a cat, especially one with critical faculties as sophisticated as yours.”  He thought of the cat’s owner, of the bottomless lake that seemed to exist behind her eyes and the intoxicating scent she wore.  And he realised that although it was a month since he had first encountered her, he had been too shy even to ask her name.

The cat was watching him intently:   “Well, then, will you stay?”

“Stay?”  Had the question been framed by a person the man would have been shocked.  But when a cat asked it, it was amusing.   His lips curved in a smile.  “What, you mean – actually stay?  The night, and so on?”

“And so on.  Yes.”   The gaze of the cat was suddenly focussed on his face, keen, almost harsh.  The intent look of a predator ready to spring.  “You must agree to stay.   Willingly agree.”

“Well, perhaps with time, if your mistress and I got to know each other better…”  What made him wary?  Why did he suddenly want to run?

“No.   Not ‘with time’.  Now.”  The cat rose to its feet, back arched.  “Feel in your pocket.  The left one.”

The man decided to remain silent.  This was becoming ridiculous.

“Check your pocket.”   The cat insisted.

“Where is your mistress?”  He countered.  But his hand explored his left jacket pocket, nonetheless.

“She is near.  She will be waiting.”

The man’s fingers encountered something roughly rectangular, which he withdrew.   “How did this get in here?”

The small rectangle of paper that now lay in the palm of his hand was wrapped, curiously, in hair – human hair.   When he pulled the hair away the rich perfume of the cat’s mistress assailed his senses, and when he examined the paper inside he saw it was a photograph of himself.

“My mistress, or I, we put it there.”  The cat replied.  “It does not matter which of us – we are one and the same.  It is a spell that binds you, and now you must fulfil your promise.  The promise you made in the night, when you believed you were alone.  But you were not alone.  I was watching.  I am always watching.”

Feeling his anger grow, the man rounded upon the cat:   “What if I choose not to?  You presume a great deal, for a cat!”

“Or a woman.”   Said the woman, who had transmuted from the cat before his incredulous eyes, standing with her back to the window so he could no longer see the street.  “For I am both.  My name is Ellandra, by the way.”

Although his heart pounded in his chest the man’s anger melted, because Ellandra was every bit as beautiful as he had thought her the first time they met.   “I don’t know what’s happening to me!”  He protested.  “This isn’t real.  It can’t – you can’t be real!”

Ellandra smiled a bewitching smile, and said simply:  “Stay.”

“But I can’t.  I mean if this was real I couldn’t.  I have a business…”

“You have no choice, I’m afraid.  You are bound by my spell, and if you try to leave, I shall simply have to turn you into a mouse.”

“And”  she said, suddenly a cat again;  “I would hunt you down and kill you.”

Aghast, the man collapsed into the sofa.  Breathing in storms, he could find no words.  The cat immediately slipped onto his lap and curled up, and there, after a few seconds, no more, it began to purr.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

I Don’t Mind

Great little poem! From Debtadema’s blog…

Debtadema's Blog

I don’t mind the blowing snow

If it’s not biting cold

I don’t mind the slippery ice

If it’s not on my road

I don’t mind the driving rain

As long as I can see

I don’t mind the lightning strike

If it’s far away from me

I do’t mind a little breeze

And won’t fear the swaying trees

I don’t mind when it’s too hot

If I can find just one cool spot

I don’t mind the big ice berg

I will watch them float on by

I don’t mind the drifting sand

That disappears with the tide

I don’t mind the sudden storms

As long as it’s not harming

I don’t mind the upset seasons

But I do mind this global warming

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Snow

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victoria-xmas-cardSome stories demand attention.   Any writer can find them – or rather, they find him, eagerly salivating little gangs that pounce each time he opens his laptop and switches on.  Headlines, oddities, issues that invite comment, or exercise a turn of phrase.  Stories that beg to be told.

So here I am, staring at the keys.

Christmas stares back at me.

Christmas makes it abundantly clear:  it does not beg to be told.  All it wants is to be put back in its box.   Its greatest hope is to be left in peace.   Over the centuries it has been written about incessantly; it has been turned over, forensically examined, boiled down and put into test tubes, sculpted by the greatest, depicted by the painty-est (yes, I know it’s a new word – I just invented it) and sung without mercy.

There is nothing about Christmas we do not already know.

We know that St. Nicholas began a legend when (allegendly – another new one, do you like it?) he dropped bags of money down the chimneys of a deceased friend’s daughters to save them from penury.  We know the first Christmas trees were religious symbols Eastern European people hung upside-down from their ceilings (or medieval equivalent) as appeasement to evil spirits, just as ‘decking the halls with holly’ dates back to days when the dark woods were never far from our doors, and we needed to be sure our friendly sprites and fairies would feel at home when the party started.

We are aware our celebrations are intrinsically pagan, and early Christians hung their own festival of Christ’s Mass upon them for convenience, because it was easier to get converts if they didn’t try to impose additional celebrations on people whose winter resources were limited.   They understood even then that Jesus was not born on December 25th:  they argued about His actual birthday from the very beginning.

So where is the new angle?  What startling revelation can I bring?

I have seated Christmas on my window sill, hoping a little cold air will wake it up.  It just stares at me, blankly.  Beyond the glass, Washington Irving’s rotund red fellow ho-ho-ho’s at me before fading away; heading back, presumably, to his inhospitable den at the North Pole.   How the hell does he cover Australia in midsummer from there and still get home before dawn?   Albert and Vicky smile regally from their cardboard portrait, the first Christmas card, before disappearing into an envelope to be despatched by a postal service that hasn’t been invented yet, making me wonder – was it an ill-advised penchant for adorning our Christmas trees with lighted candles that stimulated creation of a national fire service?

“No.” Christmas assures me.  “Insurance companies created the first organised fire brigades.  Nicholas Burbon initiated one after the Great Fire of London to protect properties he insured.  The first organised municipal brigade was probably Edinburgh’s, in 1824.”  It squirms in a weak attempt at enthusiasm.  “That’s something new for you!”

“But nothing to do with Christmas.”

“Oh, well then.”  It appears to be dropping off to sleep.  I give it a prod.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, WHAT?”

“I want a new angle.”

“There isn’t any.”

“Just something – anything – a bit different?”

It tucks its chin into its chest, adopting the shrivelled appearance it always has just before twelfth night, when nearly all its needles have dropped off.   “Snow.”  It mutters.

Snow.

Snow, of course, is the great enemy in Eastern Europe’s icy winter heart.   The Germanic peoples of history knew all about snow – the white blast that drove them to huddle within their huts, sealed up and buried, for the winter of the year.   It was an enforced hibernation, a somnolent wait for the coming of spring, and a habit as old as time.

Equal in tradition was Yule (the Nordic houl), the time of the hunt.  It began once the huts-on-the-steppeharvest was gathered in, and, just like the harvest, it culminated in a great feast – the feast of Yule.  Carcasses kept frozen by frost could be stored, so as to provision the months of incarceration.  Given a good hunting season, whatever was left over was consumed in feasting, sending celebrants to their hovels with full stomachs and hopeful hearts.

The Yule Festival – kept more formally by the Romans as ‘Saturnalia’, equally an occasion for seven days of self-indulgence – had added significance, for peoples of early times, as the winter solstice; important for those who relied so heavily upon the mood of the sun, and therefore a religious occasion:  of course, wherever there was a religious occasion the witches could be expected to put in an appearance, so it was a time of superstition and fear, too.

Perhaps it was that weak underbelly of terror that the Christians, four hundred years after the time when Christ is said to have lived, latched onto in the spread of their gentler creed; but it took all that time before Yule could be reborn as Christmas.

So there’s my angle.  It isn’t really new, and I’m sure you knew it already, but I thought I should just remind you that whenever someone laments Christmas’s ‘commercialism’, and insists upon the ‘true message’ of Christmas, it is you who has the moral high ground.   It is the time of the solstice and it is a feast:  the Romans gave gifts at Saturnalia, and so should you.

Christmas looks at me archly.  “Can I go back in my box, now?”

“Yes, of course.  Until next year, at least.   Oh, and thank you for ‘snow’.”

 

f

A Material Girl

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utility-room-hero-230816She did not remember when it began.

At first it was not a fear – not as such; but just a nagging sensation that something she had accepted without question for so long, was no longer quite right.  Ella considered this as she loaded the washing machine – was it a sound that first alerted her?  If so, when?  Days ago?  weeks?  Months, maybe?  No, not years.  It couldn’t possibly have been as long as a year…

Perhaps it wasn’t a sound at all. After all, this was a utility room, and no matter how expensively equipped, it was often filled with sound:  hard, practical sound.  So perhaps it was one of those taut strings in her brain slightly vibrating; at so low a tone, at so deep a frequency she couldn’t actually hear it.  Or even the cool basement air, so exquisitely conditioned by the silent machinery of the house.  It was simply – there.

And now it was louder.   Or more vibrant.  Or rarified to such an extent she had difficulty in breathing.  Which was why she always stayed close to the door, ashamed to admit to an instinct to actually run, yet comforted by the firm feel of the latch behind her.  She couldn’t account for it.

Above her head, the games room with its snooker table solidity was empty, now that James no longer played.  It was kept locked.  So the unpleasantness, whatever it was, couldn’t emanate from there.

She emptied her basket of clothing into the washer, reflecting how small her needs were, now her husband had gone.  A single wash each week was well within the capacity of these glorious machines, so, much as she admired them as possessions, they tested her strong sense of practicality; and she really did not like being here, in this windowless room, in this stately old house.

Ella’s reaction to the room was shared.  Angelina, her erstwhile housekeeper, had been equally reluctant to spend time down here.  In fact the woman had refused point-blank to go anywhere near the utility room in the end.

“Is bad place!  Very bad!  I am not surprised if dead people under floor in there!”

Angelina had talents in other directions which removed any question of dismissing her at the time, so Ella had choked back her own hatred of the place and taken the task of loading and discharging the machines upon herself.     But now?  A more modest utility space would suffice, would it not?  And in place of this?   Machine set, she retreated to the door, casting a backward glance over those smooth, tiles, clad walls and shining steel appliances.  A basement swimming pool maybe?  Then at least if Angelina’s suspicions were correct, the digging process would surely find out.   She would suggest this to Maggie when they met this morning.  Maggie would agree, of course.  She always did.

Maggie and Ella had remained fast friends since their childhood years:  same school, same tough, ghetto estate.  Two girls alike in their gritty approach to life, both firm in their intention to raise themselves above their impoverished beginnings, determined to consign the famine of their early years to memory.  Each had known a measure of success:  Maggie’s was a successful business, carefully honed into a franchise that had gone ‘national’ more than a decade since.   And she had married well, too:  Fergus, her husband, ran a flourishing construction business.  Maggie seemed happy with him, something Ella could not quite understand.

It was many years since the pair of lifelong friends had joined hands in a pledge that nothing; least of all love, should distract them from their ambitions.  No man would stand between them and fortune, though men were not without use; far from it.  To marry well was imperative; the fast track to a fortune:  to love, however; that was anathema to their plans.  Affection should never cause them to swerve or falter along their certain road to riches.

“He should be rich, and he should be good-looking, if possible.”  Ella decreed.  “It would help if he was older; much older.”

“So far,”  Maggie commented, “I’ve found those things rarely go hand in hand.”

“Which makes the challenge all the greater!”  Ella said.  “But once you have found him…”

“Never let him go?”

“God, no!  We want the money, not the man.  Money and independence, Mags!  Think of it!”

“Divorce, then?”

Ella reflected for a moment.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  Are you with me?”

“Hell, yeah!”

A few years would have to pass before Maggie and Ella were at the same party as multi-millionaire James Morgan Maltravers.  Ella set her cap at the fifty-year-old socialite so single-mindedly most who witnessed it agreed the poor man had no hope of escape.  Comments frequently referred to Ella’s ‘claws’, but she was unabashed.  Their marriage adorned the pages of ‘Hello’, helicopters almost drowned out the utterance of their vows.  Maggie, a strangely sad maid of honour, watched as her friend pledged her life to James Maltravers.  Should Ella have noticed?  Should she have seen those first signs that Maggie’s resolve was showing signs of weakening?

The honeymoon was barely over when Ella and Maggie met for coffee.  Maggie’s eyes betrayed her fervour of anticipation:  “So, when’s the divorce?”  It was only half a joke.

Ella bit her lip.   “It isn’t quite that simple.”  She admitted.

“How do you mean?”

“His people made me sign a pre-nup.  If I leave, I get only the contents of my suitcase. “

“Zounds!”  Maggie buried her lip in her coffee cup.  “Wedded bliss, then.  Poor you!”

“For a while, perhaps.”  Ella acknowledged, thoughtfully.  “The pre-nup doesn’t cover death.  I was able to negotiate that, at least.  If he dies, the majority of his estate comes to me.”

“Ella!  You’d murder him?”

“No, no.  Of course not.  Would I?”

“Quite possibly.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.  For a start, his family lawyers are firmly convinced I’m a gold-digger and they will be watching me like hawks.  Nevertheless there are ways…”

Ella found ample compensation in the loveless years that followed.  She had, after all, largely achieved her dream – a mansion in a leafy suburb and a fantasy lifestyle.  Only Maggie, who knew Ella so well, and one other, could discern the substance behind Ella’s mysterious comment; ‘there are ways’.  Although Ella never elaborated further, Maggie watched her friend’s relentless pursuit of her scheme with a mixture of grudging admiration and horror as James Maltravers’ naturally quite retiring nature was subjected to a social maelstrom of parties, a crammed agenda of political projects, and  a frenetic succession of exotic foreign vacations.

The one other was Angelina, whose position as Ella’s housekeeper seemed extremely secure and comfortable.  Angelina was discreet: discreet about her employers’ sexual athletics, even though at times she found it difficult to get out of their way, and reserved in her opinion concerning the growing regimen of prescribed medicines in James’s bathroom cabinet.  Angelina’s special talent was cooking; and her remarkable ability to cram the maximum amount of calories into the least plate-space.

You see, Ella had discovered James’s weakness.  James was addicted to food.  Looking on, she pecked like a bird at her own portions while her husband, kept afloat on a pontoon of alchohol, wolfed his way through trenchers of buttered vegetables, roasted meats and compound sauces.   As a reward, Ella might have expected James’s girth to reflect the richness of his diet, as Angelina’s undoubtedly did.  But no, he remained as slim as a whip while his pallor altered from a healthy pink, through beetroot red, to an ominous grey.

Meanwhile, the good life was there to be lived, so Ella lived it to the full.  She lacked for nothing other than the independence she craved, and the only smeary bit on her rose-tinted window was Maggie.  Somehow her friend had lost enthusiasm for the aims they had shared.  Despite Ella’s urgent warnings, rather than reap the harvest of her success in business, Maggie had chosen to marry Fergus.  They shared a gentle, almost resigned affection Ella could not penetrate, no matter how often she reminded her friend of their original vows to one another.  Maggie’s only response would be a sad smile, which Ella suspected was an expression of pity.

“Look, Mags, you’ve done well, there’s no denying.  You’re wealthy,  even.  But you haven’t got to where we promised to be:  you can’t leave your business, so there are no summers on the Riviera, no homes in the Bahamas.  There’s no yacht in your harbour.  You’ve given up on it, girl!”

Maggie replied with that same smile.   “No, I haven’t.  Give me some time.”

This conversation was raised again in the year of Ella’s twelfth wedding anniversary, when her beloved husband’s overloaded flesh finally surrendered to a massive heart attack which, by the time Ella had found the telephone to summon medical help, had already proved fatal.  Maggie attended the funeral; more in support of her friend than for any other apparent reason, because Ella was being shunned by James’s family, and together they indulged in a little genteel weeping.

“He was such a kind man.”

“He was always so thoughtful.   How is Fergus?”

“Healthy.”

The subject came to prominence just once more, on the first anniversary of the passing of James Maltravers.   Maggie’s mobile fluttered.

“Mags sweetie.  Come over for coffee, yes?   Or maybe something stronger?  It’s a year today, after all!  Kind of a celebration, here, and me rattling round this great mausoleum all by myself.”

“You sound sort of scared?”

“I’ve been in that damn laundry room again.  It seriously spooks me, that place.”

Maggie arrived within the hour, bearing Champagne.  “Where’s Angelina?”  She asked, as soon as she arrived.

“Hell, Mags, where you been?   I had to let her go; oh, ages back.”   Ella dismissed any possibility of conversation on that subject with an airy gesture.  For some reason she felt she should not admit to ‘paying Angelina off’.

“So you’re here on your own now?”

“Isn’t it wonderful?  I’ll get some fresh help, of course; but just for a while an echo or two seems good.”

“Yeah, dust is good.  What was it you said:  ‘rattling around in this mausoleum’?”

“I was depressed.  I’d been loading up the washer downstairs.  I’ve been thinking: maybe it would be better to have a pool down there, how about that?”

“Don’t rush into it.”

“Come on, babe, let’s get canned, yeah?”

Maggie understood it had not been an easy year for Ella:  James’s will had been contested, and yes, there was some unpleasantness, although nothing Ella couldn’t handle.   In the end, she had her inheritance.   She was a multi-millionaire; a status she had always sought.   Yet she seemed almost to prefer the solitude of her widowhood, for no-one with her kind of riches could fail to attract company of one sort or another.  The magnificent proportions of the house, with its endless corridors and extravagant excess of marble would have been intimidating to any lesser woman.   Why did the words ‘as cold as her heart’ pass through Maggie’s head?

The anniversary became an uninhibited morning lubricated by very good champagne, and by the time Maggie had poured out ‘one last drinkie’  Ella was drunk beyond shame.  She proclaimed her intention to go to bed.

“I’ve just got to take out some washing from the ‘chine.  That goddam ticking noise, it’s so loud now.  I hate it!”

“You go ahead, Ell.  I’ll see myself out, yeah?”

So Ella was alone as she snaked her way down the stairs to the utility room in Maltravers House; buoyed up by wine and unsympathetically inclined towards those odd vibrations:  those sounds.   Yet once she was inside – once she had closed the door behind her – they found her again.   Louder now; much, much louder, like the tick of a thousand clocks they found resonance with the champaigne bubbles in her head and turned it:  around, and around, and around.    Stranded somewhere between anger and fear, Ella made a grab for her washing basket, missed, and crashed to the floor.  She was drunk – much drunker than she had thought.  Cursing, she raised herself and attempted to crawl towards the washing machine that waited for her at the centre of the bank of machines.  There seemed to be more and more machines:  washers and driers, pressers and steamers in ranks of cold steel that whirled about her.  What was happening to her head?   Her vision danced, her eyes were blurring.

At the edge of consciousness, Ella fell back onto the floor of the utility room.   Above her, faded and indistinct at first although growing in clarity with every moment, she thought she saw the image of her husband crucified against the ceiling, his body half in decay, his eye sockets empty, his outstretched arms festooned with rotted flesh.   Did she scream?   Was there anyone to hear her, to hear the explosion of noise, the staccato cracking rupture of the beams above her head?  ?  How profound was her terror as the ghost of James Maltravers rushed down upon her, to wrap her in a final, deadly embrace?

Maggie’s attorney laid aside any doubt.   “Your agreement with Mrs. Maltravers stands.   It has not been superseded by any new bequests.”

Maggie knew that it had not.  Ella had always been honest with her.  “I get everything then?”   She recalled the day, all those years ago, when she had sat in this same office with her friend as they pledged that whatever fortunes each should make, they would bequeath to the other.

The attorney nodded.  “All of it.  The Maltraver’s estate with all of its liquid assets, property and land.  Now you have to decide when and how you wish me to initiate your divorce proceedings.”

As she opened the door to the street Maggie breathed deeply.   She had played a game and won!   She had been patient, she had taken her time, watching Ella’s scheming and revelling in the element of chance, the randomness of her own little plot.

The coroner had remarked upon the unusually localised nature of death watch beetle infestation in the Maltravers mansion, but conceded it was not unusual for these pests to make their home in old timbers.  The beams beneath the snooker table in the games room had been eaten through by the creatures, so it was only a matter of time before the 2400lb table plummeted through the floor into the utility room below.   The collapse of the table’s heavy Victorian lighting canopy and its impact like a hammer blow upon the table had triggered the process.   He recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Maggie, of course, knew why the infestation had been so concentrated.  She knew because she had put the beetles there, culture upon culture of them, down the years; and when Ella had described the loudness of ticking sounds she heard on that fateful morning, Maggie knew her moment had come.  While Ella, filled with Maggie’s drugged wine, was descending to the basement,  Maggie was upstairs, letting herself into the games room.   That rotten canopy needed no more than a nudge to bring it crashing down.

And now she had one more appointment to keep.   Angelina would be waiting for her in Starbucks.

Angelina and Maggie had known one another a long time, but their relationship had become much closer in the last year.   Angelina had supplied a copy key to the games room because, after Ella had dismissed her, she was no longer able to assist with Maggie’s sabotage.  Angelina, who knew everything, and who was already handsomely rewarded for her silence, was about to have another major payday.

Maggie ordered coffee, sat down opposite the big woman, and handed her an envelope.   When Angelina opened the envelope to reveal the check inside, her eyes widened.   “This is big, big lot of money!”

Maggie nodded.

“I do not ask for so much…”

Maggie stretched out both her hands and grasped Angelina’s pudgy fingers.  “We’re friends, aren’t we?   This is yours, you’ve earned it; you’re a rich woman now.  Together, Angie, we can go on and make this grow.  We can make much, much more money.”

“You would do that with me?”

“Yes!  Of course, yes!   That’s what friends do – they help each other.   All I ask in return is one little condition; an agreement, if you like.   If I die, Angie, all my money will go to you. Yes; yes it will!  And I would like you to agree to do the same for me…”

 

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.