The Tempting of Aoife

Aoife observes that the Guide is bored, taking this group of people round the power station, and uncomfortable in her tight navy uniform. The Guide is a woman of a certain age, so flushing may be a problem; and it can’t help that the uniform was designed with lengthy, windswept winters in mind, but there’s a heat-wave going on outside. A primitive air-conditioning system is just recycling the hot air, distilling the stuffiness. There is a smell of metal and dust, and maybe something else. Would nuclear power have a smell of its own? The Guide has bristly, striped-greying hair like a badger and a sprinkling of tiny red dots on her upper lip, which would be needle-marks from a recent electrolysis session.

Aoife McKendrick notices details like this. Connections snap themselves together in her mind so rapidly and effortlessly that she long since gave up trying to trace them back to any logical source. She would have made a good Sherlock Holmes, she often thinks. What she does not think is that her thought processes are wild and unpredictable, like cables arcing out in a flooded tunnel. She does not think of herself as dangerous.

Aoife has never told anybody about Bub, partly because they would say she is mad, and she is not mad, or if she is mad it’s none of their business. Degenerates! And partly because it’s such a foolish name, the sort a child might attach to their invisible friend. She thinks she knows where Bub comes from – that faint, continual buzzing of wasps, or maybe flies – is another clue. But she doesn’t believe in Where Bub Comes From, and Bub is not a friend. Bub is not something that sits upon her shoulder and whispers in her ear: it’s more subtle than that.

Bub tells her that the human race is doomed, eventually, anyway, but that the process needs to be speeded up. In visions sometimes he shows her the whole world, and she sees how it is infested, gnarled and infected by these filthy apes with their overstuffed brains and their lack of moral perspective. She sees how they are polluting the seas and even the atmosphere around this planet, how their detritus will eventually spill out into the furthest reaches of space, how they and their waste products will be everywhere, soon. She sees the murders in back alleys, the addicts shooting up, the children raped and the animals slaughtered and mistreated. Bub shows her all, and it is true. Something must be done about it. Bub wants her to do it.

There have been rumours on social media, about a Red Button. The Red Button, here, in this power station. These stories started popping up on the net about a year ago; before that Aoife had not really thought of Britain as having a Red Button at all. But it made sense that any nuclear nation would have a Red Button, and that it would be hidden somewhere inside their own country, and what more sensible place to hide it than a nuclear power station? This one is particularly remote, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands surrounded by purple heather and rabbits, and the kind of game bird that turns a snowy white in winter. A beautiful place….

Until they built a power station in it!” The background buzzing is quite loud this time. It tends to get louder the angrier Bub was. He tends to get angry if he catches her thinking that things are beautiful, or that people are not so bad.

They have come up on a day trip from the University of Edinburgh, where Aoife has been working on her MSc in biochemistry. Of themselves, power stations are of little interest to her and of little relevance to her studies, but this one – this particular one might just possibly be the home of the Red Button. She had seen a small poster advertising the visit on one of many scruffy, overcrowded notice-boards at uni. It was partly covered over by newer posters, but the date was still visible, and hadn’t happened yet.

Time to further pursue our investigations,” says Bub. “An opportunity not to be missed, and one unlikely to arise again.” Bub can be wordy at times. He speaks like a civil servant, Aoife thinks, or a police officer giving a televised statement.

Aoife lingers towards the back of the group, looking from side to side rather than ahead, where the Guide leads them, perspiring whilst explaining about fuel rods, graphite powder, the purpose of the little blue badges they had been given to wear on their lapels, etcetera. Earlier they had been forced to watch a scratchy film in which protons and electrons were depicted as billiard balls of different colours and sizes, whizzing – but conveniently slowly – about one another. How many generations have passed since people stopped conceiving of atoms as slowly-whizzing, different coloured billiard balls, she wonders.

She’s looking out for a door left ajar, perhaps, or an unattended corridor that might take her closer to the rumoured Red Button. Even now she can scarcely imagine that there could be such a thing, and that if it really is here they can be so cavalier about it, when visitors are about.

The human ape, in its arrogance and conceit, has an amazing propensity for carelessness,” Bub reminds her, neither on her shoulder nor quite inside her head. Sometimes Aoife wonders whether Bub is male or female. It seems to be both, or neither; or either one, depending on its mood…

And then, to her left, she spots it. Down a narrow green-painted corridor a heavy door has been left open, and from it spills a faint, reddish light. It isn’t difficult to slip away from the group. There are cameras in the corridor ceiling, she notices, but they do not alter their position to follow her as she tiptoes towards the door. The floor is made of springy silver metal, with raised patterns.

And there it is, a small room with nothing else inside it but a plinth upon which sits the Red Button; an enormous button, to fit a giant’s hand. Will she even have the strength to push it, she wonders. Will she have the courage? She is suddenly very nervous. Pressing it will result in her own destruction as well as everyone else’s. What will it feel like to die in such a violent way? She finds she cannot console herself with a paradise flowing with milk and honey and endlessly available virgins, or angels perched on clouds and playing harps… she can manufacture no belief in such things. What will Nothing At All feel like?

No more of me whispering in your ear,” says Bub. Bub knows her so very well. Silence, peace and quiet, a rest from Bub is an attractive prospect.

Aoife is momentarily afraid to cross the threshold in case the heavy metal door slams shut behind her. In films, that’s what always happens. Whether it is a heavy metal door, a secret panel or a concealed stone door in a cave on some distant planet, it always swings shut behind you. But she can read what is stencilled on the button, even from the doorway. It says: DO NOT PRESS.

It is those words that make it easy. For who can resist the urge to press any button that says DO NOT PRESS? It just has to be done, just as cliffs have to be jumped off and ledges on skyscraper buildings become unbearably confining, so that one must take flight…

Aoife strides towards the button. Shutting her eyes very tight, she presses it.

fruitfly

Thinking about it at her leisure – and she is to have a lot of leisure – she realises that any actual nuclear missile would take time to be despatched towards – the enemy, whoever they currently are – and many more minutes for it to reach its target. And then there would be an interlude of forty minutes or so before the enemy’s retaliation arrived. But at the time she was expecting a blast of shrapnel to rip through her, or at the very least to be deafened by klaxons or sirens. She was expecting lights to flash and all hell instantly let loose.

She isn’t expecting crude masculine laughter. Nor is she expecting, when she does manage to unglue her eyelids from one another, to see that an unremarkable rectangular wall-panel has transformed itself into a window, and that behind the glass are three uniformed security guards in high-backed black chairs, laughing and pointing at her.

Gotcha!

Bagged us another one, Harry. That’ll be three this month.

And then the door clangs shut.

fruitfly

Two year later Aoife McKendrick is discharged from the secure mental health facility in which she has been being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The authorities soon realised that she is not connected with the worrying phenomenon of Killer Queens, as the newspapers have started to call them – a surge in the number of young white women, seemingly unknown to each other, who have come to the conclusion that the human race is too vile to survive and that they are the ones to do the exterminating.
They have decided that Aoife McKendrick falls into a more familiar and explicable category: she is merely insane. Common or garden madness was normal in comparison to this mysterious, cold, destructive instinct that had arisen in women all over the globe. Aoife could be started on anti-psychotics. A bright young woman, by all accounts. No reason she shouldn’t return to her studies once her illness had been got under control.

Aoife is happy too, for she is finally free of the buzzing, and the insistent voice of her tormentor and companion, Bub.

She grew up a plain girl, fat and rather spotty, but during her two years in the facility the excess blubber has dropped off, without her even trying. The food was dull and there wasn’t enough of it for the old Aoife, but it was wholesome. Her acne gradually subsided. Towards the end of her sentence she selected as one of her therapeutic activities a few afternoons of Cosmetic Therapy, tutored by a visiting beautician. By the time she steps out into late summer sunshine at the end of her two years she looks like a new woman. In her bag is a letter from the University of Edinburgh, welcoming her back to finish the MSc in biochemistry.

And it is a beautiful day. The flowers in parks and gardens are somewhat past their prime, but the bees are buzzing. Honey is being made. Her past need not be spoken of, they have said, as long as she keeps on taking the tablets. There will always be a need for promising scientific minds like hers.

Of course, dear Aoife,” says Bub, resuming their dialogue as if he only paused it a second ago, “the Red Button is merely a metaphor.

It will have occurred to you by now that there is more than one kind of button, and that it doesn’t have to be red.

It doesn’t even have to be a button.

The Sewing Machine Mouse

Now, machines are notoriously grumpy. This is why the refrigerator elects to break down just before somebody’s birthday party. This is why the washing machine floods the kitchen floor on the very day you return from your holidays bearing suitcase after suitcase of unwashed smalls and sandy bathing costumes. Machines lead a boring life, on the whole, and they blame humans for this.

And this is why household appliances do not tell us that they can grant wishes. At least, selected wishes. An electric oven, for example, has the power to make it a nice sunny day for a picnic. If it chooses. It can cause a woolly blanket to wrap itself around the shoulders of an old lady who has fallen asleep on the sofa in Midwinter. If it chooses. But it will not choose very often.

A television can, if it chooses, happen to be showing your favourite soppy romantic film of all time when you are feeling particularly down and your boyfriend has just left you for some blonde floosie he happened to bump into in a supermarket car park, just by accident.

Except of course that it might not have been an accident. Cars can grant wishes, if they choose. Why, even supermarket trolleys have been known to grant wishes to passing strangers – if they happen to have woken up feeling full of beans that day. So your faithless boyfriend may just have happened to wish for a blonde floosie of some sort as he locked his Ford Fiesta with that funny little key thing that hardly ever works, or as he passed a trolley bay…

A fridge – ah, a refrigerator can only really do things to do with cold, or at any rate cooler. In a heatwave, say, it might cause a cool breeze to flutter across the heated brow of the plumber, quietly cursing under your sink to fix that awkward bit of piping. It might send a cold shiver up your spine to remind you that you have forgotten Auntie Gertie’s birthday yet again, and better get a card in the post right now.

And what can a sewing machine do? Well, sewing machines are a bit different. They do indeed grant wishes, but only to animals. Sewing machines prefer animals to human beings, you see, and I can’t say I blame them.

So when a funny little cloth mouse appeared on my sewing machine this afternoon, all crooked button eyes and wiggly stitching, with a piece of cord for a tail and ears that looked as if they might have been sewn on backwards, I knew… George, innocently asleep now in a basket of paper patterns for, of all things, aprons… George had just been dreaming of a mouse of his very own.

sewing mouse

 

Flash Fiction: When the alarm sounded…

When the alarm sounded we knew it could only be a minute or two so I took the tea-towels out of the tumble-dryer and folded them neatly (somehow I couldn’t enter Eternity without that being done) and

Pete went down the garden with a bucket to dig up the spuds for Sunday Lunch because that’s what he had been just about to do, and it wouldn’t be Sunday Lunch without new potatoes. Not that we’d get to eat them.

I thought about that Clause I’d put in my Will aimed at Cousin Julia who’d stopped talking to me in 1978 (or was it ’79?) but realised it was too late to have it taken out since all the solicitors would be down the shelters by now and anyway Armageddon was upon us and Julia was about to be toast along with the Will and all the rest of us.

Just time to let the canary out of its cage, poor dear, for one last flap around the living room.

Pete had been a very long time getting those potatoes.

new potatoes

Ah well…

(180 words)

From a Distance

It is a controlled fall from the ship. I have practiced it many times before, wings tightly folded on either side of my spine. As never before, I feel my own fierce strength, the glory of interconnecting mesh of muscles make it possible for wings and body to work together. I am tense. I must wait. There is a right time for wings to open, and I will sense that time as well as being able to read it on my wrist. A moment too soon and…

My ancestors had a tale of a boy called Icarus, who made himself wings of wax and flew too near the sun; hard to imagine not having wings, having to make them. What did he fasten them with, I wonder. Straps of leather? Straps of cloth? I have read of such substances, just as I have read of Icarus. The inevitable happened, of course. In the end he flew too close to Sol, the category 2 yellow dwarf now scorching my back as I fall – so very small, after our own, and so very hot. And why should this be a surprise? I have read a mountain of textbooks in preparation for this overflight of my home planet, seen pictures, viewed endless animations. I knew what it would be like. And yet I knew nothing.

What could that story have meant, really? Was it merely a tale of a foolish boy, designed to amuse an audience with a rudimentary sense of humour? Or was it more? Terra stories are known for a quality of symbolism so it might be that this one has a deeper meaning. A caution against arrogance, perhaps, and over-reaching.

The black chronometer on my wrist is set to Terra time. I must fall like this for six point five of their minutes. It feels like a lifetime.

I cannot believe I am finally here. I am so fortunate, to have been selected for this reconnaissance mission to my ancestral planet. My Terran genetic heritage would have helped, of course, though in training they warned me that I would need to set aside any false sentimentality about ‘the old country’.

‘Assessor Aiden, bear in mind that this is the planet that blasted your genetic antecedents out into cold space, in suspended animation and in a relatively primitive craft, on a mission to colonise Mars. Mars, of all planets – that hell hole! It was suicidal: those on the ground must have known it and those in the spaceship, as they stepped into their cryo-chambers and pressed the ‘freeze’ button, must at least have suspected it. It was mere political one-upmanship, vanity, showing off.

‘If our ancestors had not rescued your ancestors, studied them, bred from them and then, when it was proven safe to do so, interbred with them, there would be no Assessor Aidan. How many second-rate and failing races have we conserved in this fashion over the millennia? We are a long way towards gathering into a single race all that is best in the universe, whilst eliminating all that is worst. What an uncontrolled mess the universe be by now, without our Programme…’

Falling to earth. Like Icarus, I find myself thinking.

icaru-2

A sleek silver spaceship is in orbit around the planet known as Terra, a smallish satellite of star Sol. Ship’s Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are able to see everything Assessor Aidan is seeing, via his implant. In the ship’s control room they witness again what they have both witnessed so many times before – and what a succession of other Captains and First Officers have been forced to witness before that. They watch as Aidan glides over that drought-ridden continent known as Africa. Village after village of scattered dead bodies, starvation and thirst. Dead cattle. Dead everything. Men with guns in battered trucks, almost as starved and thirsty as the villagers they patrol.

With Aidan they sweep over what were once known as the Americas – two great lumps of land strung together by a delicate land-bridge. They see a stone statue with a stone crown, holding aloft a stone flame; very little else but scorched earth. Everything disintegrated. Shadows of bodies etched into half-demolished walls. Their instruments record increased blood pressure, stress levels through the roof.

‘Contain any emotional response, Assessor. Remember your training…’

How fortunate that Aidan does not know he is the five-hundred-and-first Assessor to have performed this sweep. Had he been aware that his vote and his alone will be the one to decide the fate of this cesspit of a failed planet, had he known that this very day he will effectively be Judge, Jury and Executioner for many millions of years of history…

They are never told, so that none of them has to shoulder the burden of guilt. All are equally guilty, or equally innocent depending how you choose to look at it. An Assessor performs but a single mission before moving on to other work. He might be the first, he might be the last, or any intermediate one of the five-hundred-and-one. Or there may be more than five hundred and one. Or there might be just one. Not knowing, he is able to maintain the necessary professional detachment.

Except that this particular Assessor does not seem to be doing so. His blood-pressure is still rising.

Through Assessor Aidan’s eyes Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are now viewing what was once known as Europa, and which the textbooks describe as a collection of individual nations, each with its own language and culture. They see War and, as the Assessor glides over a muddy, pockmarked battlefield on the eastern edge of that territory, they see a group of men in battered uniforms, gazing skyward, pointing, tracking the strange blue creature with their eyes. They exclaiming over its great muscular wings, its vast, exotic wing-span. And positioning what looks like an ancient piece of military equipment.

‘Abort. Pull him out of there.’

‘Aborting. Repeat, aborting. Maintain level flight whilst we position ourselves to tractor you out. Assessor Aidan, do you read us?’

From the ground arises a thud, a sudden explosion, an ominous hissing sound, a streak of fire.

‘What is that?’

Their displays are doing a wild dance, skimming through diagrams of Terran weapons at lightning speed.

‘Rocket-launcher.’

‘He’s hit. He’s falling. One wing…’

‘Assessor Aidan, give your report.

No reply.

‘Assessor Aidan, your decision, please, before you die. There is still time. Press Red or Green on your tunic panel.’

Still no answer.

‘Assessor Aidan, listen to me now. You have been hit. Give your report. Green for Save, Red for Cleanse.’

Green or Red, Assessor? It is your duty to report.

There is no sound in space as the half-human, blue-winged creature crashes to the ground. No sound as it lies on the ground with broken wings and neck. The ragged soldiers, though still a long way off, are running in its general direction.

icarus-blue

Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata exchange glances and know that they are thinking approximately the same few things.

That however accidental the death of Assessor Aidan may have been, the Captain and First Officer are likely to be held in some way responsible for it.

That there will be endless enquiries and inquests.

That there will be a forfeiture of bonuses and/or a docking of pay.

That this fiasco is bound to be noted on their service records.

And then there is the delay in completing this important mission. This particular planet is urgently required for Re-Seeding. The formalities have had to be observed, of course, due diligence carried out, but the Programme must go on. A Green verdict was never really on the cards. Terra has been degenerating year on year; noticeably worsening with each new sweep. No hope for the blighted lump of rock. Cleanse and Re-Seed is by far the better option: a new Eden.

Captain B’etal continues to hold First Officer Mata’s eye as, in slow-motion, he reaches towards the red button on his own console. He is asking her one final question, and silently, since all their conversations are recorded. Scarcely a nod and then she leans forward to place her hand over his. Together, they press the Red button.

Serious Moonlight

No signal was given. As the Bridge of Mists began to form the music from both sides of the Great Chasm died down of its own accord. On the green side, pipers clutched their flutes to their chests in terror and in rapture, and the voices of green-clad choristers died in their throats. On the purple side, drummers ceased their drumming, raggedly, a beat here, a beat there. The player of the Great Viol, that beast of an instrument, dropped his electronic bow. The light was changing. As the moon rose, the bridge began to form simultaneously from either end, iridescent, sparkling, entirely without substance and yet, apparently, real.

On either side there were old folk who had witnessed this event at the second moon of every seventh year, many times before, and yet they stood open-mouthed with the rest; each Bridge seemed more magnificent, more portentous than the one it succeeded.

The structure formed slowly, the purple span and the green span creeping towards one another, coalescing out of the mist that always existed in the Chasm, obscuring that which lived beneath, the Great Dragon who kept the planet alive – guardian of crops, channel for the two suns, bringer of babes and source of all fecundity. But now it had become hungry, as had happened every seventh year, time out of mind. Now it needed them, their joint and willing sacrifice.

dragon-eye

Rogoth and Jessika had never met in the flesh. For the past seven years they had communicated via Sunlink, exchanging images, ideas and thoughts. They had carried mobile communicators round with them and charted their days for each other. They had even sung lullabies to each other, when one or the other couldn’t sleep. They had documented their days for each other, and had never felt alone or single. They knew each other intimately and yet, the chasm stood always between them, for Rogoth belonged to the purple side and Jessika to the green.

Such cross-Chasm friendships – business ventures, collaborations – love stories, even – were not uncommon. The Children of the Dragon were one race, or had been once. Long ago, it was said, the planet had not been divided, at least not along the entirety of its equator, and people had moved to and fro. In those days the greens and the purples were almost indistinguishable but as the aeons of isolation passed they began to diverge, physically, the purples accumulating more of the dragon’s features and markings and tending towards the purple side of its iridescence. Greens, like Jessika, tended to have fewer dragon markings and the rudimentary spinal scales were missing, but they glowed more strongly green.

Rogoth and Jessika fell in love, as the stars had always intended them to do. Over the years their love for each other had grown until it equalled and then transcended their love of life. And that was why, as the two spans of the bridge joined over the central and deepest part of the chasm, they were setting forth from either side.

As he walked Rogoth examined his feelings and finally allowed himself to acknowledge that he was afraid, not so much of death – because when it came it his death would be unimaginably swift – but of heights. Ridiculous, he thought, to fear falling when you were about to fall anyway, and had volunteered to fall.

The bridge was substantial enough for the moment. No chance of slipping through it, though it was made of nothing more than air and magic. And it was wide, curving gently inwards at the edges. No chance of slipping off. When he – when he and Jessika – did fall it would be because the bridge had dissolved beneath their feet.

Jessika wheeled her chair towards the centre. Rogoth, of course, knew of her disability, as he knew everything about her. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she would be able to reach out, touch him, look long (or at least for a long last moment) into those beautiful dragonish eyes of his. Everything about Rogoth was splendid, she thought, finding it harder to wheel herself now, as the bridge became steeper. Her dear Rogoth was …elegant… that was the word for it.

She had sometimes wondered what their children would have been like, had they been able to breed the way people did on other planets, without the intercession of the Great Dragon. Would they have inherited his eyes? Would they have been green or purple, or some intriguingly random swirl of the two? It was possible, of course, that Rogoth would not have wished to breed with her, in such alien circumstances. What could he ever have seen in such a plain, crippled little thing?

Jessika was afraid too, but there was no turning back. She had promised this – they had sworn it to each other, and she would not let him down now. He was getting closer. She could make out his tall figure, an elaborate ceremonial gown, similar to the one she wore, except his was encrusted with amethysts and hers with peridot. Not , as yet, his features.

At last they were face to face. He smiled down at her, and she smiled back and great joy overtook them. Dragon-Bridge began to make its own music, far different from anything the merely dragon-begotten could produce. The Chasm, the Bridge and the Great Dragon that lived beneath it were combining somehow, singing as one.

“Shall we dance, Jessika?” Rogoth asked, extending a courtly hand. He had rehearsed that line so long, wondering if it was too… much. His hand was long and slender, she noticed, and the palms a pale violet. There was a hint of the curved claw to the long, polished fingernails. She could have examined them for ever, she felt. Every detail of every part of him, for ever.

“I’m afraid I cannot…” she began, embarrassed, as much by her own thoughts as by the chair, but he was already reaching down and lifting her. She would never have to sit in that contraption again, she realised. A moment’s exultation! Reaching around his neck to steady herself, she felt the rudimentary triangles of dragon-spine beneath the skin. She looked into his eyes, which were purple with golden flecks, the iris more slit-like and elongated than her own.

If only we could have had more time, she thought, as they commenced their first and last dance together in the swirling mist. If only… as they locked eyes, and the music increased in beauty and intensity, and the Bridge became less and less bridge, more and more air, less causeway, more mist…

Until at last…

Golden Emperor

Golden Emperor has declared that twenty citizens shall be sacrificed on the 20th day of each and every month, to mark the day of his Accession. By chance, Golden Emperor dies on the day and at the very hour of sacrifice.

It is the turn of Second Deputy Executioner to wield the blade this day. He is concealed behind a screen, already attired in the embroidered purple robe and the mask of ebony. With a soft cloth, he is polishing the implement of his trade. Second Deputy Executioner is sick to death of killing, and yet he will kill and kill. He has a wife and five young children to protect. They do not know his real job. He has told them he is an Assistant Armourer – a lowly functionary, but inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous is the safest thing to be: this they all know.

The citizen sacrifice begins the moment the sun’s turning shadow touches the golden sun engraved on the sundial plate.  Second Deputy Executioner puts down his polishing cloth and rises from his chair with a heavy heart. The twenty ragged men and women lined up in the market square catch the glint of the blade and attempt, in various ways, to prepare themselves for the unimaginable, the swift downward slash of the blade. A woman reaches bound hands behind her back for those of her teenage daughter, standing next to her in the line.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers. “Think of clouds in a stormy sky, or of rain drumming on paper walls. Think of cherry blossom. Make a strong, strong picture in your mind.”

And then the sound of horses hooves, a boy from the stable yard on a stolen horse. He stand up in the stirrups and yells:

“Golden Emperor is dead! Long May He Reign In Paradise.”

“Long May He Reign,” echoes Second Deputy Executioner, out of habit, dropping his sword onto the cobbles with a clatter. He falls to his knees, suddenly unable to remain standing, and behind the mask he weeps.

“Golden Emperor is dead!” cries the boy on the stolen horse, struggling to remain in control of it. “He is finally, finally dead!”

“Long May He Reign,” echoes the ragged crowd as it surges into the Square from all sides, laughing and crying, to free the sacrifices.

cherry

Kenshi sleeps well that night, behind closed screens, on the floor of his Grandmother’s house. He dreams of cherry blossom, slowly falling onto deep, green, silent ponds. He dreams of spring, and of the warm breeze that will soon begin to melt the snow on the mountaintop and in the lanes. When it is dawn he slips on his robe and goes out, meaning to walk just as far as the bridge over the stream, and bid good-day to a new world.

On the road, he passes a priest in a black robe and tall wooden pattens.

“Golden Emperor is dead,” he murmurs.

“Long May He Reign,” replies the priest, keeping his head down, taking care not to trip on the cobbles with their covering of snow.

Golden Emperor dislikes the idea of snow. He has therefore declared that snow does not exist. While he lives, he explains – and who knows, may even believe – the land cannot but be bathed in perpetual summer.

Golden Emperor is not very tall. He has therefore declared that no one shall be taller than he, and he has cut off the heads of all who have the temerity to grow taller, or who elevate themselves in any way as he passes in procession. Kenshi climbs a tree. He gazes up into the mountains and down into the valleys. He gazes all around, feasting his eyes on the view.

Golden Emperor has no liking for music, or indeed anything that might conceivably be more beautiful or interesting than he. He has therefore declared that he and he alone is the source of all music. Kenshi pauses by the stream and appreciates anew the song of a blackbird.

At the bridge, he meets an old man leading a donkey heavily laden with firewood.

“Golden Emperor is dead,” he says, by way of greeting, and in just case the old man has missed the news.

The old man smiles at Kenshi and continues on his way. His parting words trail backwards, almost buried in the noise of the birds and the babbling of the stream:

“And Long May He Remain So!”

Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.

 

Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.

muriel

I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.