All 10 entries tagged Fiction

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December 31, 2006

Mappalujo

What is Mappalujo?

See also: Jeff Noon on Wikipedia

Thankyou Internet! :D


November 25, 2006

Sci–fi story, Pt. 2

I’m watching you. I’ve been watching you for a while now. Heaven knows you’re a handsome young man. Greg Space, Engineer, Information Systems, Deck 13. Your room is in Section A3 – it has a little camera in it. You are, in fact, Infosys’ most talented Engineer. And I’ve always admired a man who knows how to use a screwtool.

Ha ha! My, how smutty I am. But don’t get the wrong impression: I’m not stalking you. No. I need you.

Right now you’re frightened and trying to fend off a growing feeling of despair. It’s been two days, one hour and fifty-two minutes since it happened, and you have been trapped in Section A all this time. You have no idea what happened. But ever since that afternoon (you were reading mystery novels in bed) the electrics have gone, most of the doors are jammed shut (though mercifully not the door to your bunk), and you’ve had to find your way around with only a box of matches and the dim emergency lights. Also, you’re alone.

Or not quite alone. There is Cerpin. He’s a quiet man, and a paranoid schizophrenic. He helped you find food from the ration store, and has discussed with you his views on death and organised religion.You don’t know it yet, but he’s only half human. Not to worry though – he’s mostly harmless.

I know a great deal about your emotional life. Enough to suppose that there is one thought – one person – you cannot shake from your memory. Laura, the Exec from Deck 3. The one with the odd face and two pairs of awful shoes. Perhaps I am not as sentimental about this individual as you are. But your memory of her is enough that, when Cerpin passes your bunk and announces “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?”, you just mutter mm-hm and fail to give it a thought. You are reading lyrics from the sleeve notes of a very old Ella Fitzgerald recording,

The way you wear your hat
The way you sip your tea
The memory of all that
Oh, they can’t take that away from me.

Perhaps you are remembering that time on the observation deck when her eyes found yours, her irises two cobalt discs in the thin starlight. Or perhaps when you danced – listening to Ella’s cool voice and the fine, faint trumpet – and all the tender feelings the girl expressed in her careful swaying.

If only you understood! If you were here, we could have a real heart-to-heart, and I could explain how horribly pointless an art form jazz music is. What a sorry little diversion it was, how it represented the aesthetic nadir of an age already drowning in mass produced popular garbage. But you’re not here, and you can’t hear me. Yet.

As it turns out, something else needs my attention. Cerpin pokes his head around the doorframe and says, quite seriously, “I think the mascara snake is coming to visit.”

“The mascara snake?” you say.

“That’s right, the mascara snake.” Cerpin giggles to himself.

There is wisdom yet in his wild and whirling words. But I can tell that you’re bored almost to death, so before I deal with our visitor, I decide to give you a break.

You hear a clunk and a creak. Cerpin runs off, toward the Section A exit door. He calls back – “It’s open!” Now you can go exploring. Perhaps you will find me by yourself, without my help. If not, I will send Ariel to bring you up here. Or perhaps you’ll hear from Laura – she’s still on the station. But first, I must deal with this pest, who appears to be flying an obsolete vacfighter named “Troutmask”. Hm. Missiles should do fine.

Take care, Greg Space. I’ll be looking out for you.


November 18, 2006

Sci–fi story, Pt. 1

As I arc the vacfighter o’ertop the station, three crimson blips appear in my lower peripheral. These are missiles. “Shit!” I pronounce, “I wonder, do these people play their music on 8-tracks?” Mawhrin’s sophisticated irony circuits make a tinny chortle, and the blips knot closer. But then his brand new intelli-jammer routines send some radio magic out into the vacuum, making the red blips blue. “Bees,” he tells me. I thank him for saving my life in yet another interesting way.

The blue bees will now follow me at a respectful distance, since Maw has capped their velocity. I could shake them with a flare, but I want whoever’s sitting at this station to register my presence. So I continue the arc, but whip back round at the precise moment that Maw drops our radar profile. Bereft of a target, the bees buzz along a straight vector, heading home to the station.

Maw detonates the warheads 50m from the hull, enough to shake the sensors but leave nothing broken. This seems like a superfluous flourish, and so I question his judgement loudly.

“But there may be people on board, Captain!”

“You’re funny,” I reply.

Now someone wants to talk. I park the fighter in a loose and weavey orbit pattern and flick the screen up. A girl!

“Hey-” I begin

She replies: “Station security regrets to inform you that, unless you immediately cease h-”

I claim to be a dodecahedron and threaten to explode with the force of a million suns. This sort of surrealist non sequitur is a good way to tell if you’re speaking to a person or just an AI answerphone. “No games,” she says. She’s not a bot. “Cut power or we retaliate.”

“With more missiles? Go ahead. But I warn you, my robot and I will not show clemency twice.”

Mawhrin is chuckling his spinning robot head off, as he does at times of great excitement.

“This is a civilian vessel,” the girl reproaches.

“Don’t lie! I know full well it’s not, else I wouldn’t be here. Now please throw a rope so we can climb aboard.”

She seems to tut before closing the channel. No dice. I look for my mala beads so I can have a quick think. Mawhrin says, “Er.”

I bring up my HUD. The sky is full of tiny red dots.


July 17, 2006

CARING

You are reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller. You are also eating a salubrious clementine. The first chapter is permeated with the scent of frying onions. This is to be expected, as the novel was borrowed from the library. Eventually you realise that, befitting a novel of such ambition and some might say pretension, that you are bored. Bored to distraction.

You put down Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller, and begin considering the nature of boredom. It is the brain's natural, neutral state, you conclude. However, it also gives rise to a certain anxiety – a restless desire to occupy oneself with other things. God, you must be bored. Bored stiff! What do you do?

If you decide to put out the cigarette, get out of bed and go for a walk, then carry on reading (duh).

If you decide to do something else, then stop being a rotter and write your own story.

So you have decided to go for a walk. I'm glad. Far be it from me, the author, to presume anything about your mental state. Indeed, I the author would like to suggest that I'm not your therapist, and I'm honestly disinterested in your mental state, bored or otherwise. In fact, let's change perspective. You are not going for a walk. You are reading about me going for a walk. There, isn't that more sensible.

I venture some way into the campus grounds and find a small pond, at which I smoke a cigarette and feel like a Jedi. I come up with a very profound story about a samurai in the moment before I flick the butt into the water, and then I wonder if the air trapped in the filter will cause the butt to float or perhaps sink more slowly – and in that moment, the story is lost forever.

Inclined to adventure, I decide to head towards the campus lake, which is not in point of fact a lake but a river corridor. This involves traversing a car park and then a short stretch of unlit woodland. Remembering my druid training, I shapeshift into a bear. Doing so gives me a 180% increase in armour class and renders me immune to polymorph effects, two things which prove useless in this case, so I shapeshift back into an English Literature student.

As an interlude, Lord Byron would travel with a bear at all times. Historians have suggested a causal link between this and his club foot. This would make more sense if bears were small, more the size of a large badger or dog.

I enter the realm of the waterfowl, where geese prowl the shitheaped gravel paths looking for violence and a quick fuck. They will not challenge my druidic might, providing that I take care not to enter their threat radius. I walk further along the bank of the lake, sorry river corridor, passing under electric lights until I reach a dark cranny near a bin.

The Night Elven blood in my veins allows me to meld with the shadows, becoming invisible to the gaze of any passing security officer or goose enthusiast. I use this stealthy cover to light up a drugs joint. Dave Brubeck's Take Five plays softly in the background as I pull on the business end, one of the few compositions in the jazz idiom to be set to a 5:4 rhythm.

As I inhale the dope fumes, heat–sensitive nanites stored in the barrel of the device begin to activate, streaming past my lips, into my lungs and throughout my bloodstream, bolstering my considerable bionic abilities. I know that the slightest twitch of my right foot could send me hurling into the night sky, screaming like a demented firecracker.

Eventually, the feeling settles, and I park my cheeks on a bench. I remember fondly how the loss of short–term memory caused by such crazy drugs caused me to believe I had teleported from one riverside bench to another, when in fact I had merely forgotten I had walked between them. Mad days.

Joseph Watson's autobiography Unusual Events is published by Phoenix.


December 31, 2005

On Certain Other Extraterrestrials

Follow-up to On Certain Extraterrestrials from Joe's Blog of Funk

There is a planet populated by sentient beings much like ourselves.

But their language is more like code. Synonyms are few, and syntax is strict.

Talking to one of these beings can feel like talking to a computer.

There is no poetry. Their novels are far more realistic than beautiful.

But on this planet, the writers don't write words – they write music.

Music so rich and deep that it can change the way you think and feel.

To these people, music isn't abstract. It can stand for concrete concepts.

Their greatest philosophers are all composers.

And their greatest lovers are all musicians.

Images, ideas, meanings and feelings are built up from chords and melodies.

The rhythm of this music is spontaneous and impossibly complex. No human could make sense of it.

One of these people, a female, ran away from her home. She travelled for months, lost, confused.

She was sitting under a tree, eating a fig, when a light went on in her head.

Throughout the next month, she composed and recorded a short collection of music.

She sang every instrumental part and built up simple textures with digital effects.

No one knows why, but it's the most beautiful thing you've ever heard.

It was published anonymously. None of the media channels would touch it.

But it spread, like wildfire, from friend to friend.

It had the most extraodrinary effect on people.

People were selling their automobiles. Walking out of their dead-end jobs. Falling in love, running away. Starting a farm. Deserting their regiments. Reprogramming their telescreens. Refusing to pay taxes. Joining happy-clappy tambourine cults. Forming revolutionary unions.

Of course, it had to stop. First, the churches called it devil-music and held mass burnings.

Then it was made illegal. The authorities issued a blanket ban, deleting every copy of the music on every digital device, introducing prison sentences for posession.

Within a year, they erased nearly every trace of the music.

A few individuals have comitted parts of the music to memory. Some of them still choose to risk imprisonment and meet in secret. They hum together, quietly.

This planet is populated by sentient beings much like ourselves.

Their language is more like code. Synonyms are few, and syntax is strict.


December 28, 2005

The Wizard's Tower (fragments)

These are fragments of something that I will probably submit for assessment. It's a CYOA. I need thoughts and opinions, please!


You try the door again, tugging at the iron ring with all your strength. Juna stands back and watches, amused. “I don't see what's so funny!” you announce, indignant. “A little help, at least?”

“Didn't you think a wizard might lock his own tower?” Juna replies. You fix him with a glare. He shoots back a wicked grin. “Don't worry, Kerin. It'll take more than a rusty lock to stop us!”

You step back and watch. Juna moves forward, stretches his fingers out towards the handle, and intones: “Kah goh meline-ah luv-ah!”

You hear a low clunk come from inside the door. “A little trick I learned from the gypsies,” Juna explains. “Ladies first!”

You try the handle – the door swings open effortlessly. Beyond the threshold, there's only darkness. Good thing you brought a torch…

————
Go on to the next page.


You are sweating with nerves by the time you reach the top of the first staircase, and Juna has bound ahead. “Hurry up, Kerin,” he shouts back at you, “the wizard's treasure will be in his room – on the top floor!”

“Is it just me, or do these dark, winding staircases seem a bit… creepy?” you reply.

“All the more reason to get to the top of the tower, Kerin.”

“All the same, I think we should be careful as we go.”

You catch up with Juna, and come to a sort of landing. Stairs continue upwards. An opening, flanked by two suits of armour, leads from here onto the tower's only balcony. Juna is examining the suit on the right. "Not worth taking," you say. "I know," he replies, "it's just -"

Juna is cut short by a screech of metal on metal. The suit of armour lunges forward. It's alive!

Juna jumps back. "Tower defenses," he mutters.

The suit of armor strides towards him, backing him against the wall.

"Magical slaves," he continues. "They're powerful…"

The suit of armour raises its axe and steps forward. Juna makes a deft sidestep at the last moment, and the strike misses completely, causing the suit of armor to topple over and smash on the wall, falling to pieces.

"Powerful, but stupid." He grins. "Kerin, look out!"

You whirl round. The other suit of armour has come to life, and is lifting its mace, ready to strike!

————
If you attack the suit of armour with your flaming torch, turn to page 21.

If you try to lure it onto the balcony, turn to page 35.


The small, red book is lying under a table in a pool of dry ink. The cover is cracked and dusty. It reads: "Journal of Summonings and Bindings". Somehow, you know it belonged to the wizard. You flick through the pages – the beginning of the book is just dense, careful writing, but as the book continues, you see strange symbols that remind you of Juna's runes, and you notice that the handwriting becomes more tense, more desparate. The final page is a mish-mash of scribbling and unreadable words.

"This wizard sure was a strange character," you say to Juna, but he's elsewhere in the room and doesn't hear you. You look back at the book. Overwhelmed by curiosity, you turn to the first page and read…

The last pheasant has died. All spell scrolls have been written, the divining dice prepared. My dreams last night contained nothing of portent, and no blackbirds have visited the window this day. At midnight, I will call this shadow, and bind it. All that remains is to mix the ink.

I am exhausted to my very core – I have been writing, fevered, for these last six hours. At midnight I summoned the thing by its runic name, and used the ash staff to subdue it, though it would not stop babbling filth and violence until I compelled it to swear silence. I called it ur-hadoth, and it became cowed and silent, for in knowing its name, I knew its nature. But in its eyes I saw a challenge and a resentment, and a violent strength.

I had determined not only to master the thing, but to bind it, and this I did with quill and paper. I made it tell me each of its binding-names in the Old Languages, and how it was first birthed, and its various qualities and codes, which I transcribed carefully onto the scroll. It then began to tell me of its birth, and ascent into consciousness and life – I transcribed this too, thinking of it as a curiosity which may have use in another project. Now I see that it told me its story not by choice, but because it was compelled to. I had asked for all its names, and it had one more to tell me.

At first, he seemed to be telling me about a time of pre-material existence, in which he inhabited a place of chaos and brutality. I wrote of all the tortures he endured and inflicted – and saw how this had twisted his mind, far beyond reason. Then, he began to tell me some disconnected tales – which I continued to write down – tales from the lives of young boys, mostly, mere vignettes which were over before they began. Some boy who was spurned by his friends crushed the head of a wounded bird. Another shut his sister's hand in the door, made her scream. I have all this down in the scroll. I came to realise that many of the demon's tales were my own. In fact, as he continued, I was not dictating his words, but my own past, remembered in sudden, vivid detail. Acts of violence I had committed, when compelled by fits of rage – and more than that. All the cruelties I have inflicted on my friends, I relived. The day I cursed Kamma to her face, never to see her again. Though my eyes were stinging with tears, the shadow would not relent – I was bound now to write down every word, and remember.

He then brought me to the cliff edge, and Piter was before me, arrayed in his ill-gotten robe and carrying the ash staff. Piter who betrayed me, who used me as a pawn and kept me from the dark-texts, like a mother hiding sweets from her child. He did not deserve the staff, and the rage that killed him was just. But the creature was mocking me for it, calling me “murderer”, threatening to rush up and possess me again, as he had done all those times before. I could feel him compelling me to clench my fingers more tightly about the quill – to break it in two – but instead, I took up the ash staff, naming and subduing it thus: “Anger! I swear you again to silence!”

It obeyed me. And thus I bound my spirit of anger into a parchment scroll. I cast its ethereal body into the only place here that will hold it. It did not speak word as it left, but fixed me with a gaze of such threat and menace that it haunts me still now. The scroll is unfinished. I have five of its names – but are there others? Can I be sure that I have command yet over this shadow?

I was reminded today that not all spirits are of wrath and chaos. Not all must be caught and bound like wild beasts. And truly, many cannot be bound. The spirit who visited me today was of so deep and strong a vitality that may never be chained. I believe I was visited by the goddess Mar Eleiya, or a form of her, for she came in the form of a sea-dove to my window. She is not popularly worshiped, and some might describe her as obscure, but she has shrines amongst some people of the western coast. To them, she is a spirit of serendipity and cloudless skies.

It is hard to convey the sense of what happened today. If I were pressed, I could admit only that a sea dove with azure wingtips came and sat on the parapet in the clear day. Mar Eleiya did not speak audibly, nor manifest her power in the bending of light as demons do. But I was overwhelmed by a sense of peace, and curiosity, and potential, as if her message to me were the sheer and simple infinity of the sky. Ensconsed in my studies, I rarely notice these things. But this time I revelled in the simple pleasure of the afternoon light; the dappling of tree-shadows on the grass below; the low silence of the woodland all around. The sea-dove flew closer, right on to the windowsill, peering in at me past the wooden frame.

Then Mar Eleiya's message became clear to me. She was imploring me to wander, to take a staff and live on the land, learning from nature in the way of the wizards of old. I was shocked by the humility of this request. She did not command it of me, as any god might. She merely offered it up. And for a moment, I desired it, and was willing to abandon myself to it.

It did not take long, though, for my mind to come back to the weight of my unfinished studies – the scrolls half-written, realms of the mind yet to explore. To wander about in the forest, neglecting these duties I had set for myself, would be a betrayal of this responsibility. I remembered, then, the games of logic I played with Piter in the days when he taught me. In the days before I came to hate him. We would sit and play games with black and white stones long into the night. He would say, “a stone, once laid, cannot be taken back. It is the same with our lives. Our actions are permanent, and set the pattern for our future.”

So it is with me, now. I made a choice when I began to study the dark texts – to bring power and knowledge to myself. The pattern has already been set. So sullenly, I told her “I cannot”, and looked up at the windowsill. But the dove had already flown.


December 24, 2005

On Certain Extraterrestrials

There exist creatures who do not have music.

To them, all sound is monotone.

Oddly, their palms emit coloured light

according to the flow of felt emotions.

This is difficult to control. In formal meetings,

hands are kept clasped.

They find it very affecting

to watch such shows of light.

Special binocular headsets exist.

It is a popular and subtle form of entertainment.

But the strangest, most intimate thing

(though it is often considered to be

the preserve of only poets

and impressionable young lovers)

is for your lover to cover your eyes with their hands.

It is said, to see another's light like this

is to know their marrow.

It is known as "shrouding".

These people do not have music.

To them, all sound is monotone.


November 22, 2005

The Fall of Oswald B, Part One

“Oswald, you are a weak man. Perhaps it is time to face that.”

“Weak?”

Oswald and Mr. Kovacs regarded each other cooly. A waitress began to approach but decided that to do so would not be prudent. Oswald stirred,

“Yes, I suppose. Weak. I often need help opening jars and suchlike.”

“I don't think you understand me, Mr. B.”

“My name… is Oswald.”

Mr Kovacs removed his secret agent shades, revealing keen, piercing blue eyes. He reached into his voluminous trench coat and pulled out a brown manilla envelope.

“Inside this brown manilla envelope,” said the Hungarian, “is all you need to know.”

Oswald took it and examined it with trepidation, noticing some pencilled numbers on the back: 365 721. He met Mr. Kovacs' gaze and then opened it up. Inside was a photocopy of a page from a certain Tolkein novel. Oswald reeled, for the first paragraph read:

end li! sha wus shronkon: e slandar ilf-wemen, clod on samplo whete whese gontla vuoca wis suft und sud. "I pess tha tast," shi soid. "I wall demenush, ind gi onto thi Wast ind rimuin Geledruel

“Yes, Oswald. The Lord of the Rings, with all the vowels re-arranged at random. If I'm right, you have nine copies of this book hidden at home. I have the tenth.”

“Then you must have met Bernard,” said Oswald.

“Yes.”

“And what did he tell you?”

“Everything.”

Oswald took this in. His first thought was this man has ruined my day. His second thought was this man could ruin my life.

“You can't tell anyone. Really you mustn’t.”

Mr. Kovacs just laughed and finished his frappuchino. “We'll see. Meet me outside the bank at noon. I'm sure we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“Yes. I do like those sorts of arrangements, Mr. Kovacs.”

Oswald sat there for up to three minutes staring at his coffee cup. He then sat there for a further three minutes staring at the numbers on the envelope. He got up and went to the telephone booth in the corner of the cafe, and dialled: 365 721. Two rings, and then a voice, low and syrupy:

“What's the status?”

Oswald, a keen reader of spy thrillers, replied, “The Package is en route.”

“What package?”

“You know… the Package… from Kovacs.”

“I didn't order no damn package.”

And the voice hung up.

Oswald's trip to the bank was uneventful. His head was in the clouds and his stomach full of butterflies. The one thing that reassured him was the weight in his coat pocket, cold and metallic under his fingers: a lunch banana that he had wrapped in foil. Kovacs was waiting by the ATM machines. Oswald took the initiative.

“Why did you give me that phone number?”

“Phone number?” replied Kovacs.

“Yes: on the brown manilla envelope!”

Kovacs looked puzzled for a second, then remembered. “I was doing the Sudoku before you came, that wasn't a phone number. Now mentally prepare yourself. There is somebody I want you to meet. That's right, Oswald. I didn't bring you here to extort you out of all your money, but for something much more significant. That said, if you could spare me a fiver for some lunch, I'd appreciate it.”

“Certainly. Who is this man? An associate of Bernard's?”

“You could say that.”

A black limo pulled up in what seemed to Oswald a ridiculously intimidating manner. I could make a run for it, Oswald thought. But he got in the limo nonetheless.


May 16, 2005

The Eve of the Vernal Equinox [part two]

Follow-up to The Eve of the Vernal Equinox [part one] from Joe's Blog of Funk

It's rough - very rough - but it went in my super portfolio.

Again, please reply with your impressions, comments and criticism, and be harsh if you need to be.

I must have sat for half an hour on the cold stone of the pillbox, lost in my own world of thoughts. The dusk deepened around me, invisibly. My attention was entirely elsewhere.

Then the skin of my reverie burst like a bubble, and I fumbled for the paper in my pocket and the quill behind my ear. On the paper was the aborted beginning of a sonnet:

"My thoughts are not my own: they wheel and yearn
Like birds returning home when spring arrives."

I immediately wrote:

"They trace the high equator as they turn
As sunflowers do, and yearn for your clear eyes."

I said the word "sonnet" aloud to myself, as if to confirm its reality. To a poet, form is seductive. The sonnet is a seductive thing that draws obsession to itself. Not an inert thing – a living thing, a changing thing, like a river. Its rhyme and rhythm are not laws. They are mutable and beg to be tampered with. Scores of poets have worked with the sonnet form, and every one of them tampered with it, and that is what gives it life. Life, character, a person.

Writing, though solitary, is a collaboration. There is a spirit to a poem that you must greet, and know, and be faithful to. I imagined then a girl called Sonnet, wrapped in a thin dress, with the most perfect pale skin, knee deep in cold river water.

I lay on my back while I turned all this over in my mind, draped in Hubertine's huge cloak. The whole world had turned to black and white. It was very strange. I couldn’t fathom it. I knew that I couldn’t go back to campus, that I had to remain detached from the world and from people for at least that evening. I couldn’t understand the dusty lightness in my chest and I couldn’t remember what I had done that day. The stars scattered themselves over the dusk like motes of dust, like flecks of brilliant oil paint.

I coughed, to make sure that I could still cough. I knocked the back of my head gently on the stone. I felt for my heartbeat inside my shirt. I said the word "bats" to myself – pairs of tiny shadows were flitting almost imperceptibly beneath the night sky. I was thoroughly distracted by the world around me. The first thing I usually notice in this state is the birdsong, but in the absence of birdsong I noticed the wind playing over me and sounding a susurrus in the trees.

"Nothing is happening." I whispered to the night. "Leah is away and everything is perfectly still." I hardly knew what I was saying, but it rang suddenly true to me. The world needed Leah's wind in its sails. Without her, everything was as still as a picture.

Inhaling deeply, I sat up, curling forward to stretch my spine. Then I reached for Hubertine's package. She had left me a little pot with herbs in: a rather dusty substance with a few small leaves added. She had also given me a piece of paper, which I unrolled then. It had a design drawn on it in thin charcoal, something of Hubertine's own invention, curiously detailed. A rough arc of black stars – a constellation in which the shape of a cross seemed to emerge – was topped by an orb, half-coloured: the moon. The stars were symmetrically reflected in the horizontal center of the paper, though not exactly. The lower reflection was distorted, and did not carry as many stars, nor were they defined as brightly.

I considered Hubertine's intention in designing this. These sigils – and I had used them before – were intended to be used in meditation, as a sort of vortex that pulls attention and imagination inwards. It seemed to me that Hubertine was trying to make me think asymmetrical thoughts with this sigil.

I do not know what made me decide to light the herbs, what in particular about my state of mind made me want to lose myself in imagination that night. Certainly, I was lonely. But it was not just the solitude, but a creeping and unpleasant feeling that I couldn’t be happy in the company of others, even if I wanted to. I imagined that a fair amount of drink would disappear on the eve of the vernal equinox, so it would be trivial to walk for ten minutes to the tavern and quaff ale until I became approachable. Timo would probably be there. But I knew I couldn’t.

So I lit the herbs, and placed the corner of the paper underneath the bowl. I crossed my legs and thought about my breathing. It was quite shallow, but regular at least, and my nose was clear. I worked, very carefully, on making my breaths slow and deep, such that I was soon taking very long and natural draughts of air. Air laden, of course, with the herb-smoke. Its distinctive smell brought a measure of clarity to my mind, even as I felt my consciousness gradually slackening under the effect of Hubertine's secret ingredients.

I maintained the rhythm of my breath; slowly in, and slowly out. My body began to feel slack, as loose and comfortable as the big cloak on my shoulders. My face too, melted away from its usual frown into a blank relaxation. My mind was up to something. I felt curious, like those waddling ducks I had seen earlier. My mind wanted to go places. So I brought my eyes down to the sigil.

“Flat,” I thought. The paper seemed very flat to me. It didn't interest me as much as before. As I stared at it, though, it occurred to me that even the trees around me and the stone I was sitting on were flat in this way. They did not have a life of their own, they did not surround me, but were just impressions that I happened to be regarding. And shifting impressions, although I knew they were not moving. They seemed to expand and contract with my breathing, coming into clarity with each expiration. And then the sigil was big. It was very significant to me, very interesting. It was a diagram of my own thoughts, and my ego seemed to project itself in a wobbly arc of black stars towards the center of the page.

Then the stars weren't black, but bright white sparks on a dark background of sky.

Then the sigil wasn't a sigil at all, but a place.


April 30, 2005

The Eve of the Vernal Equinox [part one]

I actually wrote this on the 8th of April but for some reason the date changed to 30 April. You can ignore it now.

Please reply with your impressions, comments and criticism. Be harsh if you need to be. ;)

I found myself alone, with a quill and paper in hand, in creative repose – or perhaps just in much-sought solitude. My own Dark Lady was on my mind again, dusk was closing, and I could not bear the thought of another melancholic night under the branches and the moon. So I folded up the half-finished sonnet, resolving to leave the forest-side before dusk fell.

I trudged a short way over the pasture and, taking the roundabout way back, came upon the high pillbox. Standing on top of its stone roof, I could see a way down into the Seminary campus, just beginning to light up. Some chimney-smoke came from the low thatched dormitories, and further along, the meal halls were filling up with voices. It was a picture – I wished then for some charcoal, and the talent to use it, so I could capture the moment without having to use words. But I am no artist.

The sun, setting behind me, lit the campus with its dying shades. So I turned to it – to the west, where it set over the roads and hills. Not long ago, Leah had stood perched on the corner of the stone, looking to that same westering evening sun. She held her shawl in her hand, in spite of the cold, and let it unfurl in the wind: a bright thing, I remembered, the blue of the sea.

I missed her. I missed her simple presence, her conversation, her voice with its inflections. Her voice, as I once said to her, sounded like the colour brown, and her singing like the voice of a clarinet. I missed the talk of books and of music, learning of her past and her parents and the old Eastern poets whom she loved.

My missing her was a simple thing, and is a simple thing to say, but it was not simple to feel. I could not think of her without thinking too of regret, and of confusion, and of my attempts at love cut short. Perhaps love itself is hewn of these confusions. But if my love for her was ever clear, she had eluded me.

My anxiety was broken by a low noise – a quack. When I am lost in introspection, I find that I detatch myself from the world, and my field of vision becomes a sort of flat plane that I regard from a few inches back. Hubertine tells me that this is the first stage of a meditative trance. But the quack of the duck brought me back into the world of depth, and I found myself surrounded again by sensation, by the trees, and the sound of the slow wind in the trees, and the cooling air, and the dissonant birdsong.

Two ducks were waddling on the grass beneath me: a male, with a brilliant plumage and a head of bluish hue, and a female, dun-coloured, a bit farther behind. They quacked at me expectantly. I was pleased to see these creatures, and I thought of them as harbingers of the approaching New Year – that night was the eve of the Vernal Equinox. I thought I would mention this to Hubertine, or to Timo, if I saw either of them on campus. Then I heard a familiar voice from behind me.

“Raymond!”

“Hubertine.”

“We must stop doing this.”

She made an attempt to vault up on to the roof, and managed on the second effort. She sat there for a moment and peered into her bag, smiling distantly – Hubertine's smile is a thing to savour. It is broad and subtle, the wistful feeling of a long summer afternoon. Then she got up and joined me. Her hair was tied up under a straw hat, which bore a droopy daffodil, and she wore her five-coloured cloak. Well, I call it a cloak – she had improvised. Leave her alone with a blanket and some old scissors and pins, and clothing is miraculously created. “Ducks,” I said.

“Indeed,” she replied, producing a muffin from her bag.

“You're not feeding them entheogens, are you?”

“No. This is a blueberry muffin.” She picked bits off and threw them down.

“What a shame,” I smiled. “Why do ducks go around in pairs, Hubertine?”

She sat thinking about this for a good half minute. “Unless they get married,” she said, “ – and I'm fairly sure that they don't – I can think of no reason for it. But everything happens in pairs and halves at New Year. Like the black and white eggs. It's balance you know – the equinox is a moment of balance between halves. Then spring begins and the balance is broken again.”

“I see,” I said, and absorbed this. “I was talking with Timo today. We were assigning metaphors to people we know. He said that you were a kitten with an agenda.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You look good today, Hubertine. You look very becoming.”

She bit her lip. “Where's Leah?”

I decided not to evade her. “I have some of her letters. She's traveling west: by foot to Opal Port, and then by boat across the strait. I expect she's arrived at the port now; she'll sail in the morning.”

I kept Leah's letters next to my notes and poetry. They were written carefully, and had about them the crispness of the outdoor air. In them, she told me of her progress, and of her plans to meet with Sol. They were to meet at the Watch above St. Azimuth's – the sister monastry to our Seminary – on the day of the equinox. That is all that she said. She did not mention whether she thought anxiously of him, or how much he was missed. I imagined that he was missed. I imagined how Leah must have stood that very night, looking to the west, listening to the waves and to her heart and aching for the dawn.

“You are sighing like a Renaissance prince,” said Hubertine. “You worry about her, don't you?”

“I do.”

“Do you love her?”

I frowned. “I… cannot love her. She is in love, deeply in love. I should have seen that a long time ago. She has a way about her, the way of someone who has…”

Hubertine looked at me, puzzled. “Wait, go back a step. She's in love? With whom?”

I am a good one for sharing others' secrets by accident. “Well, I can't tell you. And anyway, I would tell the story badly. It will suffice to say that the two of you have some common ground, you with your absent lover and all.”

“Oh.”

“Share some tea with Leah some time. I highly recommend the experience.”

Hubertine peered at me with concern – I gave a plaintive look back. “You might feel badly now, Raymond, but all you need to do is to wait. Everything is changing. The way you feel will change. You yourself will change in time.”

“Thankyou.”

Before she left, she gave me a narrow roll of paper, and a handful of herbs in a little earthen pot. The paper was a sigil to meditate on, a diagram of her own design. The herbs were to be burnt as incense. I asked if there was anything special in the herbs; she nodded enthusiastically and said, “you could smoke it if you're really keen.” Then she put the cloak around me, kissed my cheek and told me to take care.

So I found myself in the cold air, alone, watching the dusk finally die into night, warm under my friend's thick cloak. The half moon was hanging low in the sky, strange and peaceful. My unfinished sonnet beckoned – and the thought of another melancholic night under the branches was becoming more appealing.


May 2019

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