Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How Often Is Holy Mass Said Every Day, All Around the World?

At least 350, 000 times, according to Fallible Blogma in 2010.

The same statistic is repeated on a few other sites. I'm not sure where it's from, how it was arrived at, or how accurate it is. But it's a very pleasing thought.

Has Mass ever been celebrated in outer space? It would appear not, from this post by Father Z.

I think I got to thinking about all by way of thinking about Ireland's much-reported annual biker Mass.

On a Dedication

I like to think that this blog is, amongst other things, a tribute to the essay form. (I know I've written a lot about the essay form already, but bear with me.)

When I was a kid, the word 'essay' had the same flavour as 'multiplication table' or 'technical drawing'. I couldn't imagine anything less exciting, less fun.

Even back then, this didn't make very much sense, as there were essays that I enjoyed reading without considering them essays. I had a collection of newspaper articles by Keith Waterhouse, the veteran English journalist and all-round literary jobber, which I read again and again. Later on, I became a fan of Flann O'Brien, the Irish literary genius and newspaper columnist, whose Best of Myles was such a favourite amongst several members of my family that it took on that familiar look of favourite books; not only was it missing the front and back cover, but several pages from either end, too. (It's heartily recommended, by the way, although much of the observational humour and the pastiche might pass you by if you're not Irish.)

Of course, much of my dislike for the idea of essays came from the sort of essay we were taught to write (and often given to read) at school-- the sort of essay where you start off by declaring what you are going to write, you write it, and you finish up by summarizing what you've written. I'm certainly not criticizing English teachers for requiring this from their students. The whole idea that education should focus primarily upon 'unleashing creativity' seems very silly me. Children, and learners in general, need to learn how to plod before they can somersault. (When I was about fourteen, our English teacher made the class come up with a list of words to use instead of 'nice'. When I grew older, I looked back on this exercise with scorn. But then I grew up a little more, and it occurred to me that, although there is nothing at all wrong with the word 'nice', youngsters are indeed all too inclined to pepper it in places where another word would make a nicer distinction.)

But, though the kind of essay I encountered in school was valid as a teaching exercise, there was nothing very inspiring about it. So it never occurred to me that a lot of the stuff I did enjoy reading was, actually, in essay format. Newspaper columns were essays. Magazine articles were essays. Memoirs, when they were reflective rather than just chronologies, were essays. Biographies, subject to the same condition, were essays. Film reviews were essays. Book reviews were essays. History books were essays. Introductions and prefaces (which were so often the best part of a book, in my view) were essays. And then, when the internet came along, blog posts and website articles were essays.

Or rather, they could all be essays. An essay, to me, implies a certain infusion of personality, a willingness to step back a little from the subject at hand, an atmosphere of being at ease rather than on duty.

Having developed a taste for the essay, I've found myself occasionally borrowing anthologies of essays from my library. I'm invariably disappointed. They're nearly always full of essays by 'masters of the form' such as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Michel De Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Hilaire Belloc, Richard Steele and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Chesterton, too, although they usually choose his least interesting essays-- 'A Piece of Chalk' and 'On Lying in Bed', for instance.)

The sort of essays that appear in these collections, almost without exception, are written in either a 'whimsical' style-- as effervescent and flavourless as sparkling mineral water-- or are as ponderous as a speech at a headmaster's conference. A common perception of the essay seems to be that it should be a burst of linguistic and rhetorical fireworks expended upon a trivial subject-- the more trivial, the better. (This is why 'A Piece of Chalk' and 'On Lying in Bed' are the usual choices from Chesterton.) This sort of essay always has the tone of a clever, precocious schoolboy amusing his elders. On the other hand, essays by luminaries like Montaigne and Bacon, though I shudder to admit it, are so general and abstract as to be unreadable. (I have an ally in C.S. Lewis here, who wrote very witheringly of Bacon's essays.) The supposed masterpieces of the essay format tend, in my view, to be either too specific in subject matter, or too general-- 'How to Name a Dog' on the one hand, 'Of Friendship' on the other.

Anyway, all of that is-- believe it or not-- simply by way of preamble. It's not what I set out to write about at all.

A particular collection of 'essays' that I prize (though more for its atmosphere than its quality) is the splendidly-titled Don't Shoot-- I'm Not Well! by Ted Bonner. Ted Bonner, who died only two years ago at the age of 85, was a businessman, a motoring correspondent, a raconteur, an after-dinner speaker, and a writer and broadcaster. He was once a stand-in host for 'The Late Late Show', the most famous television show in Irish history.

I've never read anything he wrote other than this book, which has a very 'after-dinner speech' flavour to it. It's full of anecdotes of hilarious (or not so hilarious) mishaps and misadventures, observations on the absurdities and frustrations of everyday life, and so on. A fishing trip where it rains non-stop, an unsuccessful attempt to find the Washington Bridge, recollections of the author's enormous appetite as a child-- you know the kind of thing. It was published in 1974, so it has a nostalgia value for me (even though I was born in 1977). It belongs to that period in Irish history when we had a modern standard of living but we were still solidly nationalist, Catholic and genteel. (Genteel, at least, to the extent that explicit vulgarity and nastiness in print was rare.)

But even all that is preamble, and not my subject proper. I don't want to write a review of Don't Shoot-- I'm Not Well. I only want to discuss eleven words out of the whole text. And that's the Dedication at the beginning.

This is it: For anyone, anywhere, with whom I have ever shared a laugh.

I've found that dedication coming into my mind again and again recently. As a matter of fact, and in all sincerity, I find it profoundly moving.

Partly this is because I've been thinking about prayer so much lately. The more I pray, the more I find myself trying to remember as many people as I can in my prayers. And the more I do that, the more I realize how many people there are to cover, and how easy it is to leave them out. And I especially find myself thinking of all the people whose names I never even knew, or whose names I've forgotten; people I spoke to once at a party, or who did me a kind deed, or who laughed with me when we both witnessed something funny.

And that gets me thinking about the abundance of life. This is a thought that haunts me constantly. I haven't had a very eventful life-- less eventful than those of most people my age, or even younger. But every human life is packed with such a variety of character, incident, scene, atmosphere and plot that it outdoes the most ambitious of epic novels. I wrote this post to express it, once, but I still feel I haven't got close to expressing the wonder of the thing.

I once owned a children's encyclopedia (or, more accurately, a compendium of questions and answers) which included a reproduction of a painting called Dickens' Dream. It showed Charles Dickens asleep in an armchair, surrounded by a cloud of the characters he dreamed up. But we are all like Dickens in that picture. It fascinates me to think how any man, woman or child sitting in an armchair, alone, is surrounded by a similar cloud-- not of fictional beings only, but of memories and sights and sounds and knowledge.

Since I was a boy, and long before I started to write poetry in a disciplined way, there was a poem in my mind that I could never successfully translate into words-- a poem about how the lustre of a human eye is more wonderful than any precious stone's lustre. The pupil of a human eye is a gateway to infinity. Even a five-year-old child remembers and thinks more than he could ever tell you. This seems marvellous and surprising to me.

The closest this poem has come to existence is a poem by Pat Tierney, a local Ballymun poet, that appeared in a community newspaper. It was written to a priest (a athair is Father in Irish), and the only lines I can remember, and probably misremember, referred to the priest's eyes in this way:

Those God-made galaxies, a athair
How deep God made those galaxies.

In this light, a line like For anyone, anywhere, with whom I have ever shared a laugh takes on a certain sublimity, like the sky at night or the view from the top of a mountain.

But isn't it funny how important such acts of remembrance are, even for those who don't pray or don't believe in prayer? Why does the human race build memorials and statues? Why do we have days of remembrance? Indeed, why do we dedicate books? What does dedicating a book do? Ted Bonner dedicated Don't Shoot-- I'm Not Well! to everyone, everywhere, with whom he ever shared a laugh. Presumably, many (if not most) of those people will never know he dedicated it to them. But it doesn't feel like an empty gesture, any more than a song or a movie or a book dedicated to a dead person feels like an empty gesture. It feels very meaningful.

It's not just prayer that is a strange notion. It's thought itself. What is a thought? How long does it last? How complex can it be, and remain a single thought? Why do we feel that thinking of something, and especially of someone, can be a generous and meaningful act in itself? "There wasn't a day I didn't think of you" is the kind of thing one person might say to another to show how important she is to him. Or, conversely: "Did you ever even think of me?".

Even if you don't believe in prayer, finding a place in your thoughts for everyone you've ever loved, or liked, or shared a part of your life with, or even felt any kind of connection with-- the people who died in 9/11, or your remote ancestors, or some skeleton you saw in a museum-- somehow seems like an imperative. At least, it does to me. I don't imagine I'm alone.

But enough. I realize I've written hundreds of words on an eleven-word dedication, and I thus qualify for the Penguin Book of Essays.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Bard's Apprentice Continues

Chapter Twenty-Five

Jasma’s day came at last. They left at dawn, towards the end of summer, when the season seemed tired out by its own heat. Perhaps Swan had hoped to avoid a scene, by setting off at the break off the day. He should have known better; once the wagon was glimpsed, laden down with supplies for the months-long ride, the village roused itself out of sleep.

Children were hanging from the branches of the Benefator tree, staring at the scene as if they planned to remember it forever. Only the oldest inhabitants had not come out to see Swan, Jasma and Greatcastle setting off for the Seven Nations.

When had the Anarchy become the Seven Nations? That was what Fox found himself wondering, staring from the edge of the crowd. There were still people who used the older term. It was mostly those who remembered the Great Trek to this place, those who had lived in that other society to which Jasma was travelling.

The younger people, though, had been swayed by Greatcastle’s tales. When he was not smiling at women, or smoothing his clothes, Swan’s servant liked to proclaim the greatness of the Legislatrix, and he always had an eager audience. He had been giving his own readings on her Star, using his copy of The Flame of True Self. Most of the young people—and quite a few of those not so young—knew where they fell on the Star. A boy of twelve would tell you, with an air of pride, that his direction was North, his season was summer, his animal was a bird, and his colour was blue. Asked to explain what that meant, he would usually shrug, as if the explanation didn't matter in the least.

Others were more sophisticated in the art of the Star, though. A sixteen-year-old girl might tell you she was East, winter, an insect and green. She would then explain, with great solemnity, that she had to check her tendency to dominate others, to stop striving for perfection in all things, to accept her impulsive side, and that her special gift was to help others develop their true nature. It was
astonishing how accurate these readings were; nearly everybody felt the Star described them perfectly. There was advice, too, which many of the more serious students of the Star followed to the smallest detail.

Even those who refused to join in were given readings. The questions used to find your position on the Star were almost impossible to answer for another—“What is the saddest time of day?” was one—but it didn’t stop people trying. Not only that, but the questions had become so familiar to the Star’s students that they managed to drop them into conversation with those who took no interest in it, using them later to read on their behalf.

Fox had agreed to be read. He had learnt he was West, autumn, a bird, and his colour was white. Greatcastle had read the description of this “house” aloud. Everybody agreed he had a pleasant reading voice, and he seemed well aware of that fact. Nobody else was allowed to touch the book, which he called his “sword and shield and bread and wine”.

Fox, sure that it would all be nonsense (but curious nonetheless), had been surprised by how much he agreed with the description. How could the Star have known that he hid his true feelings from others?

He had asked Armala what she thought of the Star, at the end of a long lesson where she had got him to recite a short ballad more than fifty times.

“The Star?”, she’d asked, not smiling as he had expected her to. She frowned instead. “People have been creating systems to make sense of the world for centuries.”

“And all of them have been failures?”, asked Fox.

“I didn’t say that”, said Armala.

She became more mysterious as time passed, not less. But Fox had begun to win a reputation as a storyteller, as well as a reciter of poems. People seemed to regard him as almost an adult now. He wasn’t sure that he liked that. It embarrassed him at times.

So now the young people called the Anarchy the Seven Nations, and wondered—when there were no older people around—if it was really such a bad place as the Elders said it was.

The crowd stood around the wagon, watching Greatcastle and Jasma loading it with the last of the packs. It had stood in the stables ever since the visitors arrived, and most people had gone in to look at it, but its bright paint and velvet cushions looked so much more impressive in the rising sun.

More than one girl was fighting tears at the prospect of never seeing Greatcastle again. Now and again, one of them would call, “Our love follows you, Greatcasle”. He would look up, wave and smile. From time to time, Jasma held his arm protectively. She seemed to be always watching him, as if she was frightened he would disappear, unwatched.

Swan sat at the front of the wagon, smiling at the scene. He did not look at Fox. He had left him a book as a parting gift. It was a history of his own city, Arganth. There was a street map printed across two pages, showing the centre of the city, and Swan had pointed out the street where his own house was.

“It’s never been the same since Anki died”, he said. “But it’s still that one place nowhere else can ever replace. The centre of the universe. Home.”

“I don’t have a home like that”, said Fox, missing Grandy’s old house in the Empire. “I don’t have a home at all.”

“Maybe you do”, Swan had said, his eyes twinkling. “Maybe you just haven’t found it yet.” His finger still rested on the map, and he smiled.

Fox had cried when they said goodybe, and Swan had dried his tears, telling him that he still cried every year on the date that Anki had died.

Now he was grinning though, and occasionally waving at at those who shouted messages of goodwill. And, when Jasma and Greatcastle had finally boarded the wagon, and Greatcastle had taken the reins, he stood up.

“My dear Ezwayna!”, he had shouted, in an unsteady, quivering tone that gradually grew more confident. “I thank you with all my soul for the welcome you have given me and my servant! And he thanks you for the beautiful lady you have given him!”

There was laughter and cheers at this, and Swan went on, encouraged.

“May you prosper ever more in this wild, wonderful country! And when I return to the Seven Nations, and the people ask me about the Ezwanya, I shall tell them: the Ezwayna are the most remarkable people in the whole world!”

There was a huge cheer at this, as might be expected, and they could hardly hear Swan’s last words: “Greatcastle, take us home!”

The dignity of the departure was only a little reduced by the fact that most of the children raced after the wagon, so that it seemed that half the Ezwanya would follow them to the Seven Nations. But before long they had fallen behind, and soon even the figure of Swan, still standing and waving, became a speck in the distance.

“I wonder how long it will take him to realise what she’s really like?”, said a female voice behind Fox.

He turned around, and saw Secret standing there, wearing a thin grey shawl and a dull brown dress. She had just arrived, as if she had decided to turn up at the last moment. Fox hadn’t seen her talk to Jasma in a long while.

“What do you mean?”, asked Fox, though he already knew.

“Oh, she’s been all honey and sunshine for the past few months”, said Secret, and her face was pulled tight with emotion. “But when he’s made her his wife, then she’ll show her true nature.”

“Won’t you miss her, Secret?”, asked Fox, remembering what friends they had once been.

Secret said nothing for a moment, and then her face crumpled, and tears started from her eyes. “Oh, shut up”, she said, and she turned around and stalked back towards the village.

A lot of others were walking back, too, though most were still standing around, as if they expected the wagon to come back for something it had forgotten. Fox saw Truevow’s sisters amongst them, and he realised that he had not seen Truevow in the gathering.

Suddenly concerned for the young man who had saved his life, he turned and made his way back to the village. It had a curious atmosphere about it now; awake earlier than usual, but no longer having any reason to be. He saw people standing around the tamzans, chatting, looking rather disappointed. Life was back to normal, and suddenly normal felt rather duller than before.

He knocked on the door of Truevow’s tamzan, but there was no reply, so he lifted the flap and stepped in.

It was hot. Truevow was standing in front of the fire, dressed in nothing but a pair of long shorts, his body yellow with the glow of the flames. He was staring into the fire, and he did not turn around when Fox said hello.

Fox stepped forward himself, looking into the crackling fire, and he saw three or four books were burning in the flames.

“What are you doing?”, cried Fox, who had to stop himself from reaching into the blaze to save them. “What are those books you’re burning?”

“Only poetry”, said Truevow, his voice flat.

“Why?” asked Fox, looking around the tamzan to see if there was anything he could use to fish them out. But they looked past saving now.

“It’s all they’re fit for”, said Truevow, a little more energetically. “Idle rubbish written by airheads. None of it really means anything.”

“But…” said Fox, marvelling at the complete lack of expression on Truevow’s face, his eyes lit only by the glow of the fire. “But you were the one who taught me to love poetry!”

“I taught you foolishness, then”, said Truevow. “I should have listened to you, instead”

“What do you mean, listened to me?”, asked Fox, stepping back a little from the heat of the fire.

Now Truevow turned to look at him, but his eyes had become dark holes, no longer glistening with firelight. “You told me the truth and I didn’t listen to you. My poetry is terrible. Jasma would never love me. Who would love me? And people think I'm a joke.”

“I was angry when I said all that!”, said Fox, hating himself. He felt almost as angry now. At Truevow, and himself, and Jasma, and Greatcastle. “Nobody thinks you’re a joke. They think you’re brave, and a hero. They say you’re one of the best Spiral players.”

“Spiral”, said Truevow, with a bitter grin. “Maybe that’s all I’m good for, after all.”

“What’s wrong with Spiral?”, asked Fox. What he had said was true; the Spiral fans all said Truevow was the best of the Ezwayna players, and might be soon good enough to challenge the players from the Empire. None of the other beginners were even close to that level.

“Oh, get out”, said Truevow, back to staring into the fire. “Just go.”

Taken aback, Fox stood where he was, hesitating. “You said we’d always be friends”, he said, after a minute or two.

“I said a lot of things”, said Truevow. "None of them meant very much in the end. Just go”.

So Fox left, and did not see Truevow again until the day that Truevow played Grandy at Spiral. And that was the day that everything changed forever.

Chapter Twenty-Six

The Spiral board was very different now. The original boards the Ezwayna made had been simple. Now that it mattered more to them—to the young ones, at least-- new and fancier boards had been built. They were richly painted, with little details along the sides; mermaids, dragons, hoops of fire. All the pictures were based on the dozens of pieces used to play the complicated, ever-changing game.

The new pieces themselves were a pleasure to look at, carved like miniature works of art. The knights and demons and wolves had tiny hair, teeth, and pupils painted on.

There were three “official” tables. Every game played on those changed the rules of Spiral, little by little. Once, the players had noted their own moves. Now, the young Ezwanya took turns to record the games. They sat by the players, writing the moves down in long black log-books.

On the side tables, people played out the games from the logs, analysing them and discussing them. It was absolutely forbidden to play practice games, and no true Spiral fan would dare. Every game had to be part of the Game’s history; that was the very essence of Spiral.

The Spiral House was full right now, and Truevow was playing Grandy.

Grandy had always been irritable. Recently, he was as prickly as a thorn-bush. He lost every game against Goodfellow now, and every face in the Spiral House was a mask of misery when he was playing. Watching his humiliations was something they did out of love, and not for pleasure. Where once they had come to admire him, now they turned up out of respect.

Truevow, on the other hand, was improving at a frightening pace. There were five or six other Ezwayna who had been judged strong enough to play games.

Those other players were not nearly strong enough to play Grandy or Goodfellow. They were working through the stages the older players had left behind more than a decade ago. But Truevow was way beyond that.

Goodfellow could still beat him easily. But Grandy was another story.

Truevow was running Grandy closer with every game. And today he was within inches of beating him.

The young man sat there, gazing at the board with a strange expression upon his face. He seemed utterly wrapped up in the game, but as if he didn’t care much about it, either. It was as though all his thought was concentrated upon the pieces, while his emotions were off somewhere else. His long, sensitive face was a blank, and only the eyes were alive, darting from piece to piece, flashing with thought. Now and again, he looked up at Grandy for an instant.

Grandy…it pained Fox’s heart to look at Grandy. He knew that he was not the only one in the audience who felt such distress. Grandy sat rigid, almost glaring at the board, as if he was trying to will the game to go his way. Years later, when he was old enough to think about such things, Fox would decide that nothing was more horrible than desperation. But he was too young to think like that now. Now, he just wanted to get Grandy out of the Spiral House, to make him forget all about this stupid game, to make him proud of himself again. Somehow.

The faces in the crowd looked almost tortured, and none more than Goodfellow, who might have been watching the execution of a relative.

Fox turned away. He couldn’t look. Hoping that Grandy would not see him, he weaved his way through the bodies surrounding the table, heading for the air, tired of watching his grandfather having his spirit crushed. But when he was almost at the edge of the crowd, a huge cheer went up. He turned around.

“What happened?”, he whispered to a girl who was standing beside him.

“He won. Grandy won”, said the girl, and he saw there were tears wetting her cheeks. Tears of sheer relief.

The cheer echoed for a minute or two. This was usual enough; Grandy had always been the most popular player, and his victories were always hailed like this. But never was the cheering so prolonged, so enthusiastic.

Then something else happened, only moments later. The mood in the Spiral House turned as suddenly as it had before, and Fox felt his stomach tighten. Silence cut through the cheers like a knife. Everybody was looking at the players, and Fox could just see—through the tangle of bodies—that Grandy had risen to his feet, and was standing upright as a post.

Soon, there was absolute quiet in the Spiral House, and everybody could hear Grandy’s words: “You let me win.” Fox had never heard such frozen fury in the old man’s voice.

There was silence in the Spiral House, a silence that became more agonising every second. Finally, Truevow spoke, and for the first time in many weeks Fox heard an echo of the old Truevow in his voice.

“No, I didn’t”, was all he said. But his voice held with a spark of feeling. It was not the same mumble he had used since Jasma left. There was pain in his words, barely to be heard, but still there.

Silence again, except this time with whispers running through the crowd, as low as the buzzing of flies in a hot room.

“I’m going to ask you again”, said Grandy, the fury rising in his voice, though he did not speak any louder. “Upon your honour, this time. Upon your honour, Truevow. Did you let me win?”

That awful silence again, but shorter this time. Truevow spoke the single word they were all expecting, and dreading: “Yes”.

A wave of anger passed through the room, and Fox heard more than a few swear-words being muttered. “Shame”, somebody cried, and the girl standing beside him whispered: “I’ll murder him.”

“Of all the players I have played”, said Grandy, and now his voice was rising, and becoming hoarse, “and there have been dozens, none of them were low enough to insult me like that. You’re a swine, Truevow.”

Truevow said nothing, but there was a chorus of voices agreeing with Grandy.

“Come outside and I’ll respond to an insult the way I always have”, said Grandy, almost shouting now.

“I’m not going to fight you, Grandy”, said Truevow, and his voice had become flat again.

“This is my last game of Spiral”, shouted Grandy, and the very next moment the tamzan was filled with groans and cries. Fox heard “no”, “please”, “don’t”, repeated over and over, in various different phrases. But Grandy’s voice cut through it all.

“That’s the end of it. That’s the end of it. Let me out. Get out of my way.”

The crowd hesitated, perhaps thinking about blocking his passage, but none of them were brave enough. A channel opened between Grandy and the door, and only Fox stood in its way.

He put his hand out, grabbed Grandy’s sleeve as he passed, and said: “Grandy—“. But his grandfather, still physically strong, pushed him away like he was a puppy.

“Leave me alone”, he spat at him, and then he was moving through the fields outside, storming towards the village, his head down, his fists clenched.

Fox stood outside the tamzan, watching him, hardly hearing the commotion that was breaking out in the Spiral House. Distress made him stand still for three or four minutes. Then, desire to be with his grandfather erupted within him, and he broke into a run.

He had only managed two or three paces when a hand grabbed his arm, and another wound its way round his chest, holding him in a tight grip.

“Leave him be”, came Goodfellow’s voice from behind him. For such a small man, he was amazingly strong. “The last thing he wants is anybody with him. You least of all.”

“Why me the least?”, asked Fox, though the words were broken up by tears. Only at that moment did he realise he was crying.

“Because you love him so much him, Fox”, said Goodfellow. “He’ll feel more shame before you than anybody else. He needs to be alone now.”

“I hate Spiral!”, shouted Fox, struggling against Goodfellow’s grip. Not out of desire to escape, but from sheer fury.

“I know”, said Goodfellow. “But if it wasn’t Spiral, it would have been something else. Believe me, Fox.”

Fox sobbed violently for a few minutes, aware of a crowd forming around them. He was not the only one crying, he could hear. Eventually, Goodfellow gently withdrew his arms, leaving only a single hand upon his shoulder..

“Just leave him for now”, he was saying. “Leave him, Fox. Let him curse and swear for a little bit. Give him a few days and he’ll laugh at himself for a fool. I know he will.”

But he was wrong.

Grandy did not emerge from his tamzan that day. Or the next day, or the next day after that. When Goodfellow knocked, he did not answer. When they went in, he was not there. But there were two notes on his bed. One was for Fox, and the other was for everybody else.

The one for everybody read:


I apologise for my behaviour yesterday. Most of all to you, Truevow. You shouldn’t have thrown the game, but I forgive you.

My fellow players, keep on playing Spiral, and thank you for all the joy you have shared with me. But I can’t keep embarrassing you all. My part in the game has ended.

The wilderness is calling me now. I always knew I would end my days away from mankind. I am on my last adventure. Don’t grieve for me.

Prosperity to the Ezwayna, and good cheer to my friends!


The one to Fox read:


Why the tears yesterday? You’re too old for tears. Let those be your last.

I hope I have done right by you. I know you can be strong if you try. Be a MAN.

Think well of me


Everybody told Fox that Grandy would be back soon. Who would he have to complain to in the wild, they asked him? Dozens of Ezwayna were searching the countryside for miles around, hunting for the old man, determined to persuade him to return. But night after night, they returned with downcast faces, and the hollow inside Fox grew bigger.

Week stretched into week, and soon they stopped pretending. Grandy was gone, and he was never coming back.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“I didn’t know if you were going to come back at all”, said Armala.

It had been two months since Grandy left, and Fox had not spoken to the storyteller in all that time. He had not even stepped inside her tamzan.

Can I come back?”, he asked.

“Backwards is the one way nobody can ever go”, said Armala, after a pause. “But come closer, Fox.”

As he walked towards her, she said; “Sleep says you spend all your time wandering the wild now.”

“That’s right”, said Fox, stepping carefully over the sleeping cats, the cups, the boots that cluttered the tamzan’s floor.

“He’s not coming back,”, said Armala, in a low voice. “You know that, don’t’ you?”

“I know”, said Fox. It was almost easy to admit, after all this time. “That’s not why I do it.”

“Why do you do it, then?”, asked the storyteller.

“You told me that any question that begins with why is a pointless question”, said Fox, sitting down in front of her, crossing his legs and gripping his ankles in his hands.

Armala gave a little smile. She looked like a different person when she smiled, no longer like a bronze statue in the glow of the fire.

“That’s true, though not quite what I said”, she said. “You were never a fast learner, Fox. But you’ve learnt everything I can teach you.”

Fox thought she was joking for a moment, but there was no laughter in her eyes.

“What?”, he asked. “A little while ago you were telling me I still had years of learning to go”.

“Things have changed”, said Armala. “You’ve changed.”

Fox didn’t reply. He didn’t need her to tell her he’d changed. Even his body felt different, after Grandy had left. The wind and the sun felt different. Food tasted different. Life was somehow more and less vivid at once. More real, almost too real, but not as bright as it had once been.

“The stories and the poems aren’t the most important thing”, Armala said. “You can learn those on your own now. You will, whether you want to or not. The important thing is what you understand now.”

“I don’t understand anything!”, said Fox. If he was sure of anything, it was this.

“You do”, said Armala. “It’s like a seed lying in the earth, in the depths of winter. The time will come when it blossoms, if nothing frustrates it. Or kills it.”

“But you could—“ started Fox.

“I can do nothing anymore”, said Armala. “You’ve gone in another direction now. I can’t even tell you which direction.”

“Why do you talk like that?”, asked Fox, months and months of frustration foaming over. “Why can’t you give a straight answer to a straight question?”

“Life isn’t made up of straight lines”, said the storyteller, and now there was amusement in her smile, and a sparkle in her eyes. Her eyes were the eyes of an eighteen-year old girl. “It’s crooked and backward and circular. It’s anything but straight. Apart from sometimes, when it’s straighter than a drop from a great height.” And she laughed.

“Is everything a joke to you?”, asked Fox, though he knew that Armala could be more solemn than a tombstone when she wanted to be.

“By no means”, said the storyteller, though she was still smiling. “But I can’t help finding you funny, Fox.”

Fox laughed himself now. Armala had too much experience of swaying her hearers’ emotions to be resisted.

“So—“ he began, and stopped. So what, he thought? What was next?

A sudden gust of wind whistled through the tamzan. The tapestries and walls and hanging plants shook. The fire dwindled for a moment, then blazed even brighter. It was an old tamzan, and close to falling apart.

Fox thought of Grandy out in that barren, merciless wilderness. Was he still alive? After all, he had gone out there to die.

Grandy was gone. Jasma was gone. Truevow might as well have been gone. He still played Spiral, and was now good enough to beat Goodfellow occasionally, but he had never been forgiven for humiliating Grandy. He made no effort to defend himself, which only made them dislike him more. And he ignored Fox. Fox wished—

“You wish you had gone with Cambrice Swan”, said Armala, watching his face.

Fox was not even surprised. She often anticipated his thoughts. “It’s not like Grandy even said goodbye”, said Fox. “You tell me that my lessons here are over, and the village—“ He stopped.

“Go ahead and say it”, said Armala. “I know already.”

“Well, things have changed here. There are…sides. And whispers. And nobody trusts me. When I walk into a tamzan, I feel….watched. People stop talking. Especially the young people.”

“They think you’re my spy”, said the storyteller. “They think that their schemes and their plotting are secret, the fools.” There was no bitterness in the last word. In fact, Fox could not remember ever seeing Armala so sad.

“They want to leave, don’t they?”, asked Fox, encouraged by Armala’s opennness.

“They’re going to leave” said Armala. “And before another winter comes.”

“But the Elders—“, said Fox.

“They think that we’re going to try to stop them”, said the storyteller, folding her arms around herself, though it was rather too warm for Fox by the heat of the fire. Armala was getting frailer all the time. “As if we’ve ever blocked anybody’s path, or forced them to do anything.”

“Aren’t you even going to talk them out of it?”, asked Fox, amazed at the old woman’s resignation.

She shook her head, slowly. “They’re beyond all that now. When the moment comes, we’ll warn them that they’re racing to disaster. But they won’t listen. Some of them might stay, but nothing in the world could keep them all here. You might as well try to turn back the winter.”

“What will happen to them?”, asked Fox, trying to imagine the empty, endless miles that lay between the village and the Anarchy. That place he had only glimpsed in stories.

“Who knows?, asked Armala. All the weariness of the world was in those two words. “I’m not sure that they’ll even reach the Anarchy. So many of us died on the Trek…but then, we were city folk. These younger folk are used to the elements, to the rigours of nature. Perhaps…perhaps that might stand for them. I don’t know.”

“And in the Anarchy?”, asked Fox. He thought of the pictures in the book Swan had given him, the book about his home city, Arganth. It seemed like a pretty place from those pictures, with squat, pointed towers, cobbled streets, three-branched lamp-posts. And well-dressed, smiling people. But the tiny people in the pictures had no faces. That spooked him a little. The book was written in a different language, so he couldn’t read it.

“Who knows?”, said the storyteller. “I pray that the tales are true, and that this famous Legislatrix has made a new world out of the old. I pray, but I hardly hope.”

“What about the coldfire stones?”, asked Fox, lowering his voice to a whisper.

“They will be given them, at the last”, said Armala, “and perhaps they will keep them fed and roofed for a while. If nobody swindles them, or worse. But we shall not tell them where they came from. We will tell them they were brought from the Anarchy. We will not let them throw their lives to the frolic bears in search of more.”

Fox shuddered. He still had nightmares about the frolic bears. The wind gusted through the tamzan again, and this time the fire was almost blown out. Dust danced in the air.

“And what will happen to the people who stay here?”, asked Fox.

“We’ll survive, probably,” said the storyteller. “Those who have children will remain, as well as those who are too old to make the journey, and those who cannot bear to leave. More will stay here than will set out. It’s the men and women of forty and fifty who are the backbone of our society, Fox. And they won’t leave. I do not fear for us. I fear for the ones who go.”

But the first go was Truevow, and he went alone.

Like Grandy, he went in the night, without saying goodbye to anyone. Even his sisters did not suspect him. They cried and wondered how he could hope to survive on that great journey, without any more supplies than he could carry on his back.

“Why did they blame him, Fox?”, asked his sister, her eyes puffed from tears, looking thin and worn though he had left only two days before. She was sitting by their scratched table, a cold cup of chora in front of her, an unheeded cat rubbing against her legs. Goodfellow had persuaded him to call on them. “Why did they blame him for Grandy’s leaving, when he was only trying to save his pride?”

“It makes no sense to me, either”, said Fox, wondering if he should put his arm around her shoulders. He was too embarrassed to try. “Armala always said that sense was the language of the head, and that the language of the heart was impossible to put into words.”

“I always hated that woman”, said Truevow’s sister, with startling venom. “So full of nonsense. No wonder so many people want to leave. We’ve been ruled by senile fools for too long.”

“That’s not true”, said Fox, feebly. Truevow’s sister only sniffed, and sobbed.

The Spiral games went on. The Spiral House was the only part of the settlement that seemed alive, now. Even though was an excitement amongst the young people, making their not-so-secret plans for departure, it was a fevered, nervous excitement. But in the Spiral House, people could forget the anxiety sharpening the air elsewhere in the village. They could forget about the Trek, and the Legislatrix, about the Red Dogs, about the pull of the future and the weight of tradition. Even Grandy’s absence didn’t make it sad. Fox sometimes felt that his spirit still hung around the boards, lingering where it had been happiest. He no longer pretended that Grandy was alive. An old man could not survive the biting cold that had come upon the world that winter.

The Day of Casting Off came. Nobody forbade Fox from participating this time, but he had no desire to join in. To his surprise, everybody else in the entire village turned out, apart from those who were too old. He watched them from a distance, watched them standing in a huge ring outside the Great Hall, chanting their history, all the deeds and disasters and triumphs that had made them into a people. It sounded like a lament.

After that, the rebellion went beyond whispers. Meetings were called. Not openly, but not secretly either. Two or three tamzans in the settlement became the centres of the conspiracy. The young people—most in their twenties, though some were in their forties—seemed to be goading the Elders into a response. The response never came, and the rebellion became more open all the time.

The rituals of the Ezwayna went on, as they had gone on for generations, and even those most eager to return to the Anarchy joined in. But the rituals seemed meaningless now. On one of the coldest days of the year, the entire settlement gathered by the Firstfather Tree, the blue-green evergreen that had been the first tree the Ezwayna had planted in this country. The epic poem, Seasons of the Seed, was recited by the Mother of Mourning. She had ceased to criticise her hearers; now that the battle had been lost, she was as gentle as silk. Fox saw tears shimmering in many of her listeners’ eyes.

He watched the games in the Spriral House. He spoke to Goodfellow, who always seemed pleased to see him, but embarrassed and at a loss for conversation. Grandy had always been there to keep the discussions flowing, in the past. Fox had mostly listened. Suddenly he was aware of the distance of years that separated him from Grandy’s friends.

He visited Armala, who seemed neither pleased nor displeased to see him, and insisted she had nothing left to teach him. She had even stopped making mysterious remarks. He milked cows and herded sheep. He helped to build walls. He went out on the lakes with the fishermen a few more times. They were not as talkative a they had been before. There was an atmosphere of mourning about the whole village.

So he spent most of his time wandering the country beyond the village. Always hoping to see Grandy, and knowing that the hope was ridiculous. He climbed the highest hills he could find, and gazed out at the landscape beneath. It seemed so stubborn, so hostile. It had taken the Ezwanya such a colossal effort to win a living from it, and now it all seemed wasted.

Even on the coldest days he roamed through the wild, wrapped in a heavy leather greatcoat and woollen undercoat, with thick boots. One frozen morning, he was already miles from the village before most people had even woken up. It would not be light for hours, and the cold kept any early risers indoors. But the village was becoming unendurable to Fox. It made him think of Grandy, and Jasma. He no longer felt he belonged there; he no longer felt he belonged anywhere. Sometimes he had cried, despite what Grandy had written in his last note. He kept wishing that Piper had never walked into Grandy’s house, on that day in the Empire.

His despair reached a peak that frosty morning. He had climbed the hill called Fancy’s Peak, and was gazing down on one of the biggest lakes in the era, the Great Ring. He was too high above it, and it was too dark, to tell if it had been frozen over. It was merely a huge patch of darker darkness, under the sky that seemed like it would never be touched by dawn.

He thought of the village, which now seemed even emptier than this landscape, and his soul seized up with horror at the thought of returning. He longed, with all the force of his heart, to be somewhere else, somewhere far away, where life could begin again. A picture in Swan’s book came into his mind. It showed the enormous statue of three-handed Saram, the young god who carried a book in one hand, a sheaf of wheat in the other, and a sword in the third. Beneath the statute, in the huge Sagacity Square, tiny figures went about their business, in ones and twos and threes.

And then it happened. As if the heat of his longing had set the air around him on fire, there was a flash. A purple flash. The world disappeared behind it, and when the flash had faded, he was no longer standing in the country of the Ezwayna..

He stood in an enormous, paved, echoing square, looking up at a massive statue, around which snowflakes whirled. Its three arms held a sheaf of wheat, a book and a sword. The crowd swirled around him, a sea of humanity.

This, at last, was the Anarchy.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Prayer Request

I ask prayers for my beloved wife Michelle, who is facing into something of an ordeal tomorrow, though hopefully nothing to worry about.

I also want to thank readers for all the times they've responded to my prayer requests in the past, which I deeply appreciate. If any of you have anything going on in your own life that you would like remembered in prayers, please do mention it and I will be happy to keep it in my own and to mention it in the blog.

Some Jokes

I am notorious in my place of work (and further afield) for making up (and telling!) terrible jokes. When people hear my home-made jokes, they groan and say: "That's terrible". Sometimes they laugh and say, "That's terrible". Sometimes they tell me how terrible they are and then, the next day, come up to me and say: "I was telling your joke to my wife/friend/brother..."

I can't remember a fraction of the jokes I've made up, but here are the ones I can remember at the moment. Be warned-- they are very, very bad-- if you proceed beyond this line you do so at your own risk.

Q. What did John McEnroe say when he took up amateur astronomy and saw something through the telescope that he didn't expect?
A: You cannot be Sirius!

Q. What did Hannibal of the A-Team say when he took up baking?
A: I love it when a flan comes together.

Q: Why is Saudi Arabia a strange country?
A: Because you can't get drunk but you can get stoned.

Q: What do you put on an imaginary rash?
A: Pseudo-cream. (I don't think they have Sudocream in America.)

Q. Why is Eminem like a used nappy/diaper?
A: Because they're both white (w)rappers full of....

Q: Did you hear that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger both had heart attacks and died after chasing the same pretty girl?
A: Yes, It was a case of two Stones killed with one bird.

Q: Did you hear about the troubled Unitarian?
A: He was tortured by a religious certainty.

Q; What's the difference between an American election and an American horror film?
A: Gore always wins out in American horror films.

Q; Did you hear they are simplifying the French flag?
A: Yes, they're removing the red and blue parts...

More Nightmares

OK, it's been a looong time since the last instalment of my Hundred Nightmares, the hundred "Daisy Duke" (or short-short!) horror stories that I wrote a few years ago. But here are some more!

New readers, please note that with my Hundred Nightmares I was really trying to write a lot of different horror stories, not just variations on a theme. That is why there are supernatural stories, non-supernatural stories, attemptedly quirky stories, very dark stories, gentle stories, stories set in the future, stories set on fantasy worlds, and so forth. So, if you come across a story that you think is particularly bad, I hope it's at least bad in a different way from any of the others.

One of the stories in this trio I wrote very consciously in the style of a 'family magazine' story, like the very gentle stories I'd always liked in Ireland's Own. I don't think you'll have any difficulty telling which.

Oh, and one of them is an incredibly cheap shot, kind of a shaggy dog story. I think I like writing those the most! If you groan at the end, I've achieved my goal!

Breaking the Barrier

“What’s all that noise, anyway?”, asked Patterson, wincing a little.

“It’s Stockhausen”, said Dimitri. “Another ground-breaker.”

The two men almost had to shout to be heard over the music. They were walking through a huge, darkened warehouse.

“Does it have to be so loud?”, asked Patterson. He was a small, thin man dressed in a neat grey suit. His lazy saunter and his slouched shoulders spoke of extreme self-assurance.

The man walking beside him might have been in his early forties. He wore a tight black t-shirt and black jeans. He had a wolfish look about him. He called himself Dimitri, but his real name was Danny Rooney, and he spoke with a Cockney accent.

“And none of this costs me anything?”, asked Patterson. He liked to be candid about money, especially when it was bad form. It gave him a kick.

“Nada”, said Dimitri. “You’ve bought enough of my pieces already. This is a treat for my most loyal patrons”

“I’m not sure I like it”, said Patterson, looking around.

Dimitri smiled. “I love your honesty, Mr. Patterson”.

“I never pulled my punches”, said Patterson, with a complacent smile. “Just like you. That collage of a baby you made from newspaper obits…” He chuckled. “I love showing that to pompous VIPs.”

“I think this is my masterpiece, though”, said Dimitri. “In fact, it’s my last work.”

“Your last work?”, asked Patterson, staring at the artist, disapproval plain on his face. “What are you going to do now? Swim in a pool all day?”

Dimitri shrugged. “God knows”, he said. “I’ve done all I wanted and I don’t care what happens now. Besids, I’m tired of all the jealousies and pettiness of the art world.”

“Man, don’t let them get to you”, said Patterson, energetically. “I never did. I’ve had death threats from the age of twenty-six, you know. I’ve had journalists calling me the poor relation of pond scum. And Joe Collier…”

Dimitri’s statuesque features were touched by a faint smile. “Didn’t he say he would like to see you in the debris of a plane crash?”

“He did”, said Patterson, scowling. “That doesn’t bother me, though. I wiped my ass with his apologies. What bothers me is him claiming that I stole his poxy marketing ideas. I’ve never stolen an idea in my life. I’m an original, just like you.” Suddenly a dark expression came over Patterson’s face. “He hasn’t been invited to this, has he?”

Dimitri shrugged again. “He’s bought a lot of my stuff, too.”

Patterson growled to himself. By this time they had come to the first display. It was a cardboard cut-out, lit by a spotlight.

“Is that the Wright Brothers?”, asked Patterson. “Or a pair of drag queens?”

“It’s the Wright Brothers as a pair of drag queens”, said Dimitri.

“Why is it all punctured and hacked?”, asked Patterson.

Dimitri gave a delighted grin. “Because my guests have vandalised it, that’s why”, he said. “At my invitation. I’m tired of art with a capital A. I’m tired of pedestals. I’m tired of posterity. I wish art was devoured and excreted like a pepperoni pizza.”

He drew a small knife from his pocket, and held it out towards Patterson. “Enjoy yourself”, he said. “Do your worst.”

Patterson did his worst with a schoolboyish glee.

After that they moved on to the clay model of a porn star Einstein; the photo-montage of the Rat Pack morphed to look like actual rats; and a chocolate Martin Luther King.

“What’s this one?”, asked Patterson, grinning and panting from his destructive labours, peering at a banner hung between two carboard walls.

“That’s Sylvia Pankhurst as a Catholic priest”, said Dimitri, who had dropped behind a little. He was tapping a text into his mobile phone as he spoke. “Don’t you recognise Sylvia Pankhurst?”

“Put that damned thing away and come here”, said Patterson, glaring at the phone. “If you were working for me, I’d sack you for that.”

“Like you sacked my father?”, asked Dimitri, still not looking up.

Patterson raised his eyebrows in surprise. He was opening his mouth when gunshots rang through the warehouse and he slumped to the floor.

Slowly, the banner—now studded with bullet holes—rose. Behind it stood a fat, bald man with a gun still pointed where Patterson had been standing. He looked utterly stunned. A beautiful woman stood by his side, smiling serenely.

“Oh Mr. Collier”, said Dimitri, shaking his head regretfully. “That’s altogether too enthusiastic. That’s called murder, isn’t it, Julie? You said you wanted to see him die violently, but did you have to do it yourself?"

The Ghost in the Exam Hall

Leanne was only twenty minutes through English, her first exam, when it hit her. The blank. The blinding glare. It had been her greatest fear for three years, and now it was here.

She stared down at the words that she had already written. They swam before her. She realised she was trembling and sweating. Just like before, but even worse.

She heard Sister Moloney’s voice, calm, reassuring, eminently sane. It was a phase, Leanne, she’d say. A phase.

Sister Moloney had believed in her. Sister Moloney, on the basis of one history esssay—- only a half page long, at that—- had told her that she had outstanding ability. Her grades had gone from Cs and Ds to Bs and As, and then they stuck at As. She was the star of the year, a contender for every scholarship that was going.

Sister Moloney had taught in St. Finbarr’s for thirty years. She told Leanne she was the most promising student she’d ever had.

“Along with one another, maybe”, she’d said, once, with a strange look of regret. “But she…she never…” Then, quickly, she’d gone back to discussing the subjunctive mood of German verbs.

Sister Moloney gave her private tuition. She made her take test after test after test. “Till it’s an instinct, Leanne”, she’d said, in the broad country accent that she’d never managed to make genteel, despite decades of effort. “Like a cowboy pulling his guns. We’re going to make you the fastest brain in the Midlands.”

And you’re not going to blank like you used to, was the unspoken promise.

Except now she was blanking. The white page seemed like a sheer cliff to her, with no grip for hand or foot. She felt like screaming in despair. She couldn’t even bring the words of Keats’s ode to mind, and she had known it by heart.

“It’s Thou still unravished bride of quietness, though foster-child of silence and slow time…”

Leanne looked up with a shock. A girl was standing before her in the brown and cream uniform of St. Finbarr’s. She was a pretty girl with a freckled face and reddish hair. There was something...studious about her face. Leanne recognised a studious face from looking at her own in the mirror.

She looked around, expecting the invigilator to appear with a face like thunder.

“Nobody can see me but you, Leanne”, said the girl. “Nobody can hear me but you.”

Leanne only stared at the girl, trying to look a question.

“You know who I am”, said the girl, with the shadow of a smile. “I’m the other one, Leanne. I’m Gillian. I started to sit my final exams here twenty-five years ago. An idiot behind a steering-wheel stopped me from finishing them.”

Leanne looked at the clock at the front of the hall. There were forty minutes left of the exam.

“Let me help you, Leanne”, said Gillian, leaning over her. “I’ve been waiting twenty-five years for someone who can finish these exams for me. I lived for them for three years, just like you. We need each other.”

The two girl, the living and the dead, stared at each other for a few moments. Leanne felt a vague, dark foreboding.

“The clock is ticking, Leanne”, said Gillian. “Start writing: In this ode, Keats contrasts the permanence of art and poetry…”

Leanne began to write at the ghost’s dictation. What else was there to do?

* * *

“Leanne”, said Sister Moloney, “why have you been avoiding me?”

The nun spoke softly, but Leanne looked away as though she had shouted at her. She gazed out the window of the café into the summer sky.

“I’m so proud of you, Leanne”, said Sister Moloney, reaching her hand out to grasp the girl’s. “The best marks of any girl in the school, ever! And it takes me three days to track you down and congratulate you! Oh, Leanne!”

Leanne forced herself to look at the nun. When she did—- when she saw the proud joy in her mild eyes—- she could no longer hold back the tears.

She confessed everything. She told Sister Moloney about Gillian, how she had been responsible for every word and figure in her exam scripts, except for half of one English test. All the honour belonged to her teacher’s first prodigy.

When she had finished, the nun stared at her for a long time, wordlessly.

Then she said: “Listen to me, Leanne. The girl I told you about never sat a single exam. She got a job in an auctioneer’s at seventeen."

Leanne said nothing, dumbfounded.

Sister Moloney smiled. "The mind has wondrous ways to deal with pressure, dear. Don’t you see? Gillian was you. Gillian was you all along!”

A moment later, Leanne had risen from her chair, and the woman and girl were locked in a hug. This time, Leanne’s tears were tears of joy.

The Pilot

They just kept coming.

Jexu looked down at his controls. His fuel had dropped to almost fifteen per cent. His sensors were picking up a Haven Ship, perhaps twenty minutes away. If only he could reach that, he would be safe.

But there was the small matter of a dozen or so Furies to deal with first.

How many had he shot down now? A hundred? Two hundred? They had destroyed all his comrades, one by one...there had been twenty or so Upholders flying alongside him, about two hours ago.

Or had there been? He had been fighting so long, he could barely remember. Was that this battle? Or was it the one before it? In this infinite blackness between the stars, time was little more than a concept.

He swerved to his right just in time to avoid a torpedo from the nearest Fury. The others were regrouping, preparing for another sally.

They think they have me now, he thought, and his hands gripped the power-clutches eagerly. Man, he was exhausted, but he was trained to fight through exhaustion. He would still be wasting Furies to the very moment he collapsed through fatigue. And his fuel would run out long before that happened.

He performed a sudden loop-the-loop—- nothing like a bit of bravado to put the wind up your enemies-— and hurtled towards the Furies.

His vacuum-cannons let rip, and three of the Furies exploded. He knew them at this stage, could guess how they were going to move. He knew they were going to swerve in just the way that they had. Conscious thought had nothing to with it.

As he broke away—- he thought of this as his “come-on” manouvre—- he wondered how many Furies he had destroyed. Hundreds, for sure. Thousands? Almost certainly. A hundred thousand? It was possible. Who was counting, when all your attention was needed for survival?

But he still found moments to wonder about the Furies. Did their pilots have wives, kids, homes? He had never seen one of their pilots. He had never heard one. Did they look human? Did they look at all humanoid? He had no idea.

What did they believe they were fighting for? Why had they attacked the Alliance in the first place?

Jexu knew what he was fighting for. The Amber Alliance. It had been so long since he had set foot on on a planet, he could barely remember the civilisation he was defending. Every respite from battle was spent on a Haven ship, waiting for his Upholder to be recharged and repaired.

Was the war anywhere near over? Were they winning? Jexu had no idea. He imagined himself getting out of this damned cockpit, finding a woman to love, raising a family. He was still young, though he felt like an old man. Old, and tired, and—

His craft shook. Goddammit, one of the Furies had caught him on his blindside! That was Jexu’s favourite trick, and it had been used against him.

Rage filled him. He spun, and hit the Fury with all he had, glorying in the orange fireball that spread before him. He dodged the torpedoes of the attendant Furies, and swooped below the range of their weapons. He could keep this up forever.

Except he couldn’t. He looked down at his controls. His fuel was at twelve per cent. It fell alarmingly once you dropped past ten, he knew. The torpedo that had nicked his hull had done only trivial damage, but he’d have to polish off these Furies pretty quickly if he wanted to reach that Haven ship.

He launched himself at them, firing all weapons. He called this his Demented Dance. There was no way it should have worked, but it always had. There was no time for anything resembling conscious thought now. Every action happened within the smallest fraction of a second, every shot and brake and turn.

Fury after Fury exploded, two of them even colliding with each other. He loved it when that happened.

He launched a smart missile at the last survivor—- he could afford it now—- and it blew apart in a glorious shower of fire.

And then, something extraordinary happened. A sudden ecstasy overtook him, a physical thrill that shot through his body, giving him goosebumps. That’s it, he thought, I’ve made it. Music rang in his ears, and filled his soul. He had reached…he had reached….what had he reached?

He looked down at his controls. His fuel was back to maximum. His ship was in perfect condition. And his sensors were picking up twenty-four other Upholders, just behind him. But ahead of him, there was--

He looked back up, and his heart almost stopped.

There were dozens upon dozens of Furies closing on him. They had appeared out of nowhere. And they were moving so fast. He had shot down thousands of Furies, but none of them had ever moved this fast. He gripped his power-clutches, and prepared to engage.

I’ve reached the next level, he realised. The game gets tougher now.

Watching the Coverage of the Canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII

I just heard one of the commentators use this wonderful phrase: "The Church is not a collectivity. The Church is a family."

Less than an hour before, I had been at Mass where the priest said: "I was watching the Mass on the telly before I came over. They'd only reached the Gloria by then. It will probably still be going on when we finish here. But it's the same Mass we're having here, even though it's more simple here and more full of pomp there." This, to me, is one of the great joys of the Mass.

And the reality of communion without collectivity, just as the commentator was saying, is another of the great joys. I love looking at the communion line at Mass. I love seeing the old people, young people, children, families, people on their own, stylishly dressed people, very un-stylishly dressed people, otherworldly-looking people, people who look like high-powered businessmen, serene-looking people, troubled-looking people....all become one family. The differences not done away with, but somehow transcended and harmonised.

I always feel that the Church is, perhaps, the only institution and philosophy of life in the world that lets children be children, young people be young people, old people be old people, men be men, women be women, celibates be celibate, sick people be sick people, and honours them all for their specialness. While at the same time, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus".

It is a source of tremendous pleasure to me to think that, in every church in the world on any Sunday, a different homily is being preached, though all of them are hopefully articulating the same Word. This is why I think we should be patient with bad homilists. As the great Chesterton said: "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." The bad homilist may be giving more from his poverty than the great homilist gives from his abundance.

Organized Religion Is, As We All Know, A Terrible Thing...

...but it has its moments. Like today, when all the Catholic world will be rejoicing over our two new Pope saints, most of the Christian world (apart from the minority of ultra-Protestants who still talk about the Whore of Babylon) will be joining in, other religions (for the most part) will be sending their congratulations and best wishes, and all but the sourest of secularists will find themselves getting caught up in the atmosphere of celebration and warmth.

In the same way, free verse poets always seem to draw on traditional poetry for their epigraphs and allusions.

In the same way, even the most hardcore art-house movie fan puts Bridget Jones's Diary or It's a Wonderful Life in the DVD player when they're feeling depressed.

Some things just work.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chapters 22, 23 and 24 of the Bard's Apprentice.

Continuing with my mildly popular serialized fantasy novel.

(Including the talkiest chapter in the book, which is the middle one here.

I've always loved talk. The first film I ever went to see was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when I was seven. I remember I wanted to see Star Trek: The Search for Spock, but my father said: "You wouldn't like that. It's all talking." I remember thinking: "That would be great!". My favourite chapter in Lord of the Rings, from the time I was a kid, was The Council of Elrond. My favourite part of Sherlock Holmes stories was always the initial consultation in 221B Baker Street. Nothing makes for riveting fiction, in my view, like a good long chinwag, especially in some cosy setting.

BUT, I realize I'm in the minority here. And therefore I ask your apologies for Chapter 23, and reassure you it's as sedentary as the book gets.)

Chapter Twenty-Two

The warmth of the fire lapped at Fox’s face, his arms, his shins. His back was propped against a huge pile of rugs, that reached almost to his shoulders. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of Armala’s tamzan, and watching the slow breathing of a white cat lying in luxurious contentment by the fire. If it had been lying any close to the flames, its hairs would have been singed. Fox wondered once more at the arrogance of cats, their disregard of danger. It was something he could never understand.

Cats were not the only visitors to the storyteller’s tamzan. Hens, dogs, crows and even mice wandered through, as well. Sometimes Fox wondered if they were her eyes and ears, bringing her news of the outside world. She seemed to know everything that was happening out there, after all.

Like the coldfire stones. Fox had told nobody except Grandy, when Cambrice Swan had gone. Grandy had been like a little boy, looking at the gems from every conceivable angle, holding them up to the light, running his fingertips over every inch of them.

“I’m the last person you mention this to, boy”, he had ordered, not taking his eyes from the coldfire stones.

And Fox had obeyed him. But this was the very same day, and Armala knew all about the stones. And the Blue Stag.

“So why are you sitting there looking like a dead dog?”, asked Armala, interrupting her story of the ancient widow and the man with twelve fingers.

“It’s just…” began Fox, when he realised that silence would only meet with silence. “It’s just that…I could have died.”

“Yes”, said Armala, matter-of-factly.

“You sent me”, said Fox.

Armala only looked at him. She reached her hand out to stroke the face of the cat, who woked up and strolled towards her, still sleepy. The storyteller gathered her up and held her on her lap. The cat purred, and Armala looked back up at Fox, still not answering, as if he hadn’t said anything worth answering yet.

“Did you know I could have died?”, asked Fox. “I could have been torn apart by frolic bears?”

“I knew something was going to happen”, said Armala. “Didn’t you?”

“No”, said Fox, after a moment’s thought.

“Then you haven’t learn as much as I hoped”, said Armala. “You’re not a quick learner, Fox.”

Fox tried not to look stung by this. “Did you know I was going to come back alive?”, he asked, his anger slowly burning within him.

“No”, she answered, scratching the cat’s stomach. “No more than I knew that I would still be alive when you did come back. I’m not a fortune-teller, Fox.”

“Don’t you care about me?”, Fox asked.

“Yes, I do”, said Armala. “Remember, you were the one who came to me, begging to be my apprentice.”

“And is that how you learnt to be a storyteller?”, asked Fox, not caring now if he showed his anger. “By wandering through the wilds and almost getting eaten?”
“No”, said Armala. “I’ve hardly stepped outside a tamzan in my life. But there’s a difference, Fox.”

“Oh? What?”

“I’m vastly more talented than you”, said the storyteller, with not a hint of boastfulness in her voice. “I never had to venture out into the world to know it. Since I was a little girl, I was able to read a man’s history and heart just by glancing at him. You have no such ability, or very little of it.”

Fox bowed his head, not out of shame, but out of agitation.

“You have something, though”, said Armala, and if there was no boastfulness in her voice before, there was no reassurance now. “A lot of confusion.”

“Confusion?”, asked Fox, looking up. He was certainly confused now.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing”, smiled Armala. “Confusion. Even by your age, most people are growing certain about everything. Far too certain for their own good. Confusion shows an openness, an awareness of life’s mysteries.”

“So the best thing you can say for me is that I’m confused”, said Fox, looking the storyteller in the eye. He always found that difficult, when she was at her most direct.

“I’m not here to flatter you”, she said, her smile fading. “I’m here to teach you. But don’t be insulted. Confusion isn’t all you have going for you.”

“What else, then?”

“I’m not going to tell you, for three reasons. First, that you wouldn’t understand. Second, that it’s never a good idea to tell people what they should find out for themselves. Third, because even I can’t see into the bottom of another person’s soul. Nobody can do that. Life would hardly be worth living if it was possible.”

Fox looked away into the shadows. The storyteller’s tamzan was no bigger than most, but it seemed endless. The fire was always burning so brightly, and there was so much clutter, that shadows sprung up everywhere. Suddenly Fox saw Sleep gazing out from behind a hanging tapestry, a tapestry whose details he had never been able to make out. As usual, she wore no expression except a voracious curiosity.

“What about Cambrice Swan?”, asked Fox.

“What about him?”, asked Armala. She always seemed reluctant to answer vague questions.

“I feel like he’s important, somehow”.

“How could he not be important? The Ezwayna have been cut off from the Anarchy for more than twenty years. He brings us stories of this Legislatrix, of great changes in the world outside. How could that not change things?”

“I mean”, said Fox, feeling Sleep’s eyes burning into him, “I feel like he’s important to me”.

“Then he probably is”, said Armala. “And you might not have been so backward in your lessons as I thought. But that’s enough of that. Back to the widow and the twelve-fingered man.”

And she continued the tale of deception and witchery, which he had already told him in five different ways. Afterwards, she would get him to tell it back to her in yet more ways. Being her apprentice was occasionally exciting. More often it was tedious.

When he left for the day, the children were cleaning up after Fools’ Feast. Little teams of them were scraping up whatever mess had not been eaten by dogs and cats into deep sacks. Some of them had less disposable marks of combat upon them, huge yellow and purple bruises on their faces. Fox guessed they were proud of them.

He realised Sleep was walking by his side.

“What did you do when I was gone, Sleep?”, he asked, irritated and knowing that his being irritated wouldn’t bother the girl in the least. “Who did you follow then?”

“Nobody”, she said. She always gave direct answers.

“Is Truevow working?”, he asked. Sleep always knew where everybody was. He had long since stopped wondering how.

“No”, she said. “He’s with Grandy in the Spiral House. Grandy won’t let him go anywhere without him. I don’t know why.”

I do, thought Fox. Grandy was convinced that Truevow was a giddy young man, the sort who would gossip about the coldfire stones. Fox had tried to tell Grandy about Truevow swearing him to silence, but Grandy was unimpressed.

“He doesn’t want you to steal his glory, boy. Well, the Elders are meeting tonight, along with me and you and Truevow, and I’m sure you’ll both be scared to say a word about anything for a month after that.”

“The Elders?”, asked Fox. “In the…”

“In the Stone House, yes”, said Grandy. “They’re going to decide what to do about the coldfire stones. Until then, I’m not letting Truevow out of my sight. So bring him to me right now. As for you, you know what’s in store for you if you even think about those stones in the wrong company, don’t you?”

Truevow had still been asleep when Fox got to his tamzan. His sisters, tall and thin like himself, were stepping over his body, getting breakfast ready, occasionally giving him a not-too-light kick to wake him up. Even when Fox joined in the efforts to rouse him, it was a long time before he opened his eyes.

“Jasma”, he moaned at one point, and both of his sisters cursed at once.

“Well, he can get that notion out of his head, for good”, said the elder girl. “She says she’s moving to the Anarchy.”

“To the Anarchy?,” said Truevow, sitting up, suddenly wakeful.

“With that grinning fool who came with the explorer”, said the younger girl, who was the skinniest of the whole family.

“The explorer?”, asked Truevow, staring at her.

“It’s meant to be a big secret”, said the elder girl, stirring a pot with brisk, almost violent strokes. “But lots of people know already. An explorer came yesterday, during Fool’s Feast. All the way from the Anarchy. There’s some new woman in charge of things there.”

“And he brought a servant with him”, said the younger girl, who seemed to take a joy in tormenting Truevow with the news. “A bragging, mugging fool who’s as crazy about Jasma as the rest of you.”

“But handsome”, said her sister, sniffing the pot. Her eyes glowed for a moment.

“Oh, wonderfully handsome”, emphasised the younger girl, watching her brother.

She must have been gratified by his reaction. He looked furious and desolate at once.

“And she’s going…?”, he began, unable to finish the sentence.

“That’s what she says,” said the elder girl. “If I were you, Truevow, I would put the silly chit out of your head. She’s vain, shallow, bossy, narrow-minded. I’m gladder than I can say that she’s never going to pay any attention to you. I’m glad she’s moving to the Anarchy, where everybody is as silly as she is.”

“I have to go to her”, said Truevow, rising from his bed. He was wearing the thin, long white robe that all Ezwayna wore in bed. “Tell her what a fool—“

“Not yet”, said Fox, putting a hand on his sholder. “Grandy wants to see you. Immediately.”

“Not before he has something to eat”, said the older sister. “And you, too.”

“How do you know I haven’t eaten?”, asked Fox.

“You can always tell when a boy hasn’t eaten”, she said, tapping the wooden spoon on the edge of the pot. “Or a man. He looks like all the blood has been drained from his body.” Her sister snickered, and they ate in silence. Truevow chewed the porridge like a dying man.

And now they were in the Spiral House. Fox made his way towards it, Sleep still dogging him. It was next to impossible to throw her off without ordering her.

“Summer is coming”, she said, looking at the thickening leaves.

“Something is coming”, said Fox. Dread and excitement had been welling up in him since he’d seen Cambrice Swan.

The Spiral House was as crowded as ever. Sometimes, Fox thought that it was the heart of the settlement. Nowhere in the village seemed more alive, more awake. He loved the solemnity of Armala’s tamzan; it was like a look-out post from which you could see all that had ever existed, in this world and every other. You could see all life from the gloom of her tamzan, but life was happening here. One tiny fragment of life, but that was always how life was lived.

It was full of murmurs, as always. The more time that went by, the more keen on the game its fans seemed to become, and the more fans there seemed to be. Most Ezwayna under the age of twenty-five took some interest in it now, if only because those who didn’t felt they were missing out on something. There were almost as many young women in the tamzan as young men. And it wasn’t just the young who had been hooked; some of the spectators were almost as old as Grandy.

Grandy was in the audience. As soon as he saw Fox and Truevow entering the tamzan, he moved through the huddle, which immediately parted for him. It was not only his crankiness that made them step aside. The Spiral fans seemed to consider Grandy the head of their little tribe-within-a-tribe. They adored him, and almost felt flattered when he frowned at them.

As he was moving towards them, Fox noticed that Goodfellow was playing a boy. He could hardly have been older than Fox himself. Fox had heard that some Ezwayna had—finally—been allowed to compete at Spiral, but somebody his own age? The very thought annoyed him.

But by then Grandy had caught up with them, and he grabbed Truevow by the shoudler, not roughly, but not gently, either. “You two”, he said. “Come with me”.

He led them outside—nobody seemed to be watching them, as all eyes were fixed on the game. He did not speak them as he marched them towards a clump of trees perhaps a hundred feet away from the Spiral House. Fox had otten seem boys and girls kissing here, or small groups playing marbles. (Marbles had lost some of its popularity, since the arrival of Spiral. It seemed to played now as a kind of relief from the new and more important game.)

When they had reached the trees, Grandy turned to them and addressed Truevow:

“First of all, I have to thank you for saving my grandson. That showed more guts than I thought you had.”

“You’re welcome”, said Truevow, without much enthusiasm. His mind was obviously elsewhere, and his face was white.

“But you’re a young man, and all young men are fools. The world would be in a pretty pickle if they weren’t. No more babies, for one thing. So I’m going to keep you with me until we meet the Elders tonight. To make sure you don’t drop even the slightest hint of what happened out there. Now I’m going back to watch the game, and you’re coming with me.”

“Please, sir—“ began Truevow, with a sudden urgency in his voice.

“What’s that?”, asked Grandy, who had already turned to walk back to the Spiral House.

“I want to talk to Jasma”, he said, and for a moment Fox thought he was going to start crying. There was a catch in his voice when he spoke her name, and Fox found himself feeling sorry for the young man.

Grandy swore under his breath, and said: “Please believe me, sonny. Jasma is a flighty, chattering fool. Loyalty is her only virtue.That, and a complete lack of sentimentality. And she’s besotted with this Greatcastle fellow. I’d advise you to leave it.”

“I can’t leave it”, said Truevow. His face was becoming harder, more determined. He seemed about to defy Grandy. Fox had never seen anyone do that before.

Grandy seemed to recognise it, too, because he sighed and said: “Very well. We’re going to see Jasma, then. I’m sure she’s mooning about somewhere with her sweetheart.”

You should just ask Sleep, thought Fox, wondering where she had gone. She came and went like a headache.

He went to follow Truevow and Grandy, but Grandy placed a restraining hand on his chest.

“No, not you, Fox. You still have a healthy young mind. I don’t want it to become polluted with love-talk. It will come to you all too soon. You stay here, and don’t talk to anyone. This isn’t going to take very long”. His jaw tightened after he said this, showing his determination, but Fox guessed Truevow might be just as determined.

He watched their figures shorten, moving into the distance, and realised he was alone for the first time since Truevow had saved him from the frolic bears. Around him, there was silence. Even the commotion in the Spiral House did not reach him here. The day was still; no breeze played through the branches overhead. Far away, birds were singing, but the distant sound only made the silence seem greater. It was as if the world was waiting, drawing breath.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The crow stood on the ledge of the window, staring into the room inside, like a sentry. Or a prison guard. It reminded Fox of the guilt-crow who had inspected Grandy’s house, back when all this had begun. The day that Piper came.

The day that Piper came. Armala had taught him about glowing phrases, phrases that would stick in the mind, and that was one of them for sure. Perhaps he was learning, after all.

She was sitting across the table from him now, her hands folded upon it, listening. Truevow was sitting to her left, still looking dismal. Jasma had obviously not changed her plan. Fox knew she wasn’t going to.

Grandy was at one corner of the table, and Goodfellow was to Fox’s left. Nine other Elders were present, and the Eldest himself was sitting at the head.

The ceiling was low, and the room—although it was the size of most tamzans—was no bigger than Grandy’s old study. This was the grandest house in the settlement, but it would have been of average size, by the standards of the Empire.

It still managed to be impressive, though. There was something about its very simplicity that made it seem important. All of the furnishings seemed several generations old. Even the poker by the fire had a wise look about it.

The Elder was talking. The coldfire stones were lying on the table before him. They flickered in the light of the low fire. They threw blue reflections on the faces of those sitting around them.

“They will destroy us”, said the Eldest, looking at the drops of blue fire as if they were poisonous. “Finding them was the worst fortune we have had since we came to this place.”

The last time Fox had heard the Eldest—the last time he had expected to hear him—he had been reassuring, thankful, good-humoured. It was a very different man who faced this little assembly. No, that was not quite true; even then, Fox had sensed this power within the old man. But now it was bared, and awesome. The glint of his eyes was harder than the glow of the coldfire stones.

Even Grandy seemed cautious in his presence.

“And yet, we did find them”, said the Mother of Mourning, who Fox had last heard speaking at the graves of No-Sooner and those who had fallen at the hands of the Red Dogs. “Don’t you believe there is such a thing as Providence, Eldest?”

There was an intake of breath around the table. She had not named God, but she had come close.

“Of course”, said the Eldest, smiling at her. It was not a polite smile; the Elders had no need to be polite. Fox had never seen a group of people so serious, so open with each other. Here were people who had known each other for decades, who had been through countless trials and sorrows together, who respected each other profoundly. Who loved each other profoundly. It was obvious in the way they they looked at each other, the way they spoke to each other. Even to an eleven-year-old boy who was not especially quick at noticing things.

But all of that—the love, the respect, the weight of a shared past—just made the tension even starker.

“Then surely”, said the Mother of Mourning, “we were meant to find these coldfire stones. Especially considering the…strangeness…of the manner in which they were discovered”. Fox blushed, though nobody looked at him. “Does Providence send us poisoned gifts?”

Again there were grimaces around the table, that God had come so close to being named.

“Providence is not a book for us to read, Mother”, said the Eldest. “How many terrible crimes have been committed by those who believed they knew what Providence wanted? If we are going to find a hidden meaning in events, who is to say we are not being tempted?”

The last word, tempted, hung in the air. Fox imagined that the coldfire stones glowed brighter for that moment.

“What are our choices?”, asked another man, whose name Fox did not know. There had been no introductions. The Elders had already been sitting when Grandy brought Truevow and Fox into the Stone House. This man was the only one of the Elders who was not white-headed; his black hair and beard was mixed with grey.

“As I see it, these are our choices”, he continued, in answer to his own question. “We can do nothing. We can forbid any mention of the coldfire stones.” He looked at Fox, and Fox could understand why he was so confident that such a ban would not be broken. To disobey the Elders, now he had seen them, was unimaginable.

“Or”, he continued, looking from face to face, “we can let their discovery be known, but forbid any further investigation. Of course, we can imagine the excitement the coldfire stones would send through the youngsters.”

The Elder with the beard had opened his mouth to speak again, but he was interrupted.

“It was Fox”, said Truevow.

All eyes moved towards the young man, and even he seemed surprised that he had spoken. He flushed, and looked down, as if gathering his strength for a speech. Then he said:

“It was Fox who saw the Blue Stag. It’s Fox who will decide.”

“Decide what?”, asked Goodfellow, looking at Fox anxiously.

“It’s a superstition that has grown up amongst us”, said the Mother of Mourning, promptly. “That the first person to lay eyes upon the Blue Stag would decide the fate of the Ezwayna. Just a superstition”, she added. She stressed the last word.

“Why has their been no mention of this before?”, asked the Eldest, looking straight at Truevow. Fox shrank in his chair, frightened he would be the next person on the end of that stony stare. Truevow merely looked back at the Eldest, as if he was trying to understand what he was saying. He had opened his mouth to reply, still looking confused, when somebody else spoke.

“It was me”, said Grandy. “I told them not to mention it.” He was staring at the Eldest in his steeliest manner, but Fox could tell that he was intimidated.

“Why?”, asked the Eldest, neither softly nor harshly. The Eldest had no need for dramatics.

“Because”, said Grandy, scowling, “I’m not going to let you lay any more burdens on them. They’ve been through enough already. Fox has endured more than any of us had at his age, and come through it better than any of us would have.”

Fox burned with pleasure. It was the highest praise Grandy had ever given him, or ever would.

“And besides”, continued Grandy, folding his arms, “the Mother of Mourning is right. It’s a superstition. A folly.”

“Superstition or not”, said the Eldest, “there’s no cause for anything to be hidden from us. Please don’t do it again.”

Grandy scowled a second time, but Fox saw respect in the scowl. His grandfather liked people to be blunt.

“The Blue Stag is important”, said the Eldest, and now he did look at Fox. But his eyes were gentle, even sympathetic. Then he turned to the adults again. “It’s important because our people think that it’s important. I don’t believe it’s a portent, or a sign. But there are those who will.”

“And who can say for sure that they’re wrong?”, asked Armala, with a slight smile. “Even the Eldest doesn’t know everything.”

“That’s the last thing I need reminding of, Armala”, said Eldest. All of the Elders were smiling now. Suddenly, Fox felt completely safe, sitting amongst these old men and women. He trusted them like he trusted the sky to stay up. It was a delicious feeling, even if it passed in a moment.

“Eldest, I agree with you that these toys are dangerous”, said another lady, sitting beside Armala. She gazed into the middle distance, and it took Fox a few moments to realise she was blind. “But I hate to think how insecure our lives are here, despite all our work and sacrifice. A few bad harvests, a plague, and who knows what will become of our people? The people we have sworn to protect?”

Now the smiles had faded from the Elders’ faces, and the image of sick, starving children seemed as real as the coldfire stones on the table.

“What do you suggest, Sana?”, asked the Eldest.

“I suggest nothing”, said Sana. “I do not know which evil is the greater. But these trinkets, and the news from the Anarchy, have only strengthened an anxiety in all our minds.” Some of the Elders looked down, and there was a definite tension around the table.

Fox looked up at Goodfellow, but he seemed as confused as he was. Only Grandy seemed to understand what was happening in the room. He followed it like he followed a game of Spiral, with the light of understanding in his eyes.

“It's anxiety that has been in my own mind for a long time”, continued Sana, cautiously. “The anxiety that we’re wrong to continue with out…exile. What right have we to force our dreams upon the young people? All through the famines and the epidemics, we kept going, because we believed in the future. But now…”

She paused for a long moment, and Fox thought she was going to leave it at that. But then she finished: “But now, even though we’ve survived and prospered, we can see that it’s not the country of joy that we dreamt it would be. The young people dream of the Anarchy. They do not feel this country in their blood, as we hoped they would. It does not belong to them, and they do not belong to it.”

Fox saw that Grandy was nodding and smiling. But his reaction was different to that of the others. The faces of the Elders were masks of sadness, and the Eldest was looking Sana with no expression at all.

“Sana”, he said then, and Fox could not decide if the name had been spoken fondly, or sadly. Perhaps it was both.

Then the Eldest shook his head. “We must see beyond the moment, my dear friends. I know that the young people dream of crowds, and excitement, and to be unknown amongst thousands of strangers. What young person never did? Any of us?” There were smiles around the table, and the Elder smiled himself. But the smiles were sad. “And what young person ever thanked his elders, in future years, for letting him have what he wanted?”

“They say that youth is the season of folly”, one woman said.

“So it is”, said the Elder. “And very properly so. But if our people return to the Anarchy, and if this Legislatrix proves to be a disappointment—like so many others who have tried to tame that miserable land-- then what will be the price of letting our young people follow their hearts? Our people—these innocents who hardly understand the concept of one man stealing from another—living out their lives in that mayhem of murderers and conmen? And, at the least, throwing away the chance for a nobler life, a chance that has been bought with the lives of many, and the sacrifices of many more?”

“Oh, rocks to that!”, cried Grandy, and the faces of the Elders were shocked, if only for a moment. Then they had resumed their calm, and everyone was looking towards Grandy.

He still seemed less than entirely sure of himself, but Fox glowed with pride at the way he met the eyes of the Elders. There was something in these old Ezwayna that might have made a bull think twice, but it didn’t stop Grandy.

“I’ve heard that too often in my life”, he went on, looking straight at the Eldest. “Parents telling their children that they must become a doctor, or get married to some haflwit, or not drink wine, or a thousand other things, because somebody made sacrifices or died on their behalf. You know what? I think you should ask for a person’s permission before you die for him.”

“That is not always possible”, said the Eldest, and he smiled. It was not an unpleasant smile. Fox felt a jab of disappointment. The Eldest seemed amused at Grandy’s outspokenness, rather than impressed.

“Your young people were babies”, Grandy went on, “or not born at all, when you started this trek into the wilderness. They owe you nothing. They have a right to dreams of their own, whether you think them foolish or not. Roast it, a man is not a man until he is allowed to risk everything.”

“Thank you, Grandy”, said the Eldest, and he spoke without irony. Fox realised he had not been looking down on Grandy at all. Grandy, for his part, seemed surprised at the Eldest’s reaction, and fell silent.

“I do not agree with entirely with Grandy”, said Armala, who looked very different outside the half-light of her tamzan. She looked older, frailer. “Responsibility is not such a simple thing. We have burdens we never agreed to, and that nobody can take from our shoulders.” With this she looked squarely at Fox, and he flushed with surprise and dismay. Everybody must have seen that look, and wondered what it meant. What did it mean, anyway?

“But in essence, he is right”, she said, and she gave a Grandy a slight nod. Grandy nodded back, looking more surprised than ever. He had obviously decided the storyteller was an idiot, before he even met her. “We cannot be wise for our people, no matter how truly our hearts beat for them. And I do not know that our course has been wise, after all.”

“You never did”, said the Eldest. He spoke wistfully, and Armala looked sad when she nodded in agreement.

“I never did”, she said. “But all along, I hoped that I was wrong.”

“Perhaps you still are, Armala”, said another man, who was sitting not from Grandy. He had a shock of curly white hair, but little else seemed old about him. More than anything else, he looked like a twenty-year-old who had somehow been aged fifty years in a single night. “Maybe the dream is not dead.”

Fox could see the Elders were stirred by his words. All of their faces seemed excited and pained at once, as if he was reviving hopes they had begun to give up.

“We have survived, and prospered”, he said. “I believe that, when the children of today are our age, this little village of ours will have given birth to towns, that thousands rather than hundreds of Ezwayna will inhabit this country. Perhaps ten of thousands. I believe that, one day— and perhaps not so long in the future— this land of ours will have as many people as the Anarchy. Can you imagine it? A society as great as the one we left, but built upon noble ideals, not the love of money and power. Perhaps,” he finished, looking at Grandy, “our biggest debt is not to the dead, but those who have not yet been born.”

Grandy shrugged. He seemed irritated, though the man had not spoken bitterly. “Where I come from there’s a saying,” he said. “The future is on everybody’s side.”

“Truly spoken”, said the Elder again. Fox thought he could feel a cautious respect between the two men, Grandy and the Elder, who were so different and yet so similar, like sunrise and sunset. “And yet, perhaps you are being more romantic than me, Grandy.”

“Oh?”, asked Grandy, who seemed too surprised at being called a romantic to be offended.

“Perhaps”, repeated the Elder. “You say a man has a right to dreams of his own. I can tell you, the Anarchy—unless it has changed very much—is not a good place for dreams. One man in a hundred might be a great success there. Twenty will do well, and the rest will scrabble for the leftovers. There may indeed be a wider sky in the Anarchy. But it’s a sky full of hawks.”

“Better a sky full of hawks than a cage”, said Grandy, though he did not seem entirely convinced by his own words.

“You say that a man is hardly a man, unless he can risk everything”, continued the Eldest. There was no hostility in his voice; he might have been arguing with himself. “But it’s a rare enough man who has anything to risk in the Anarchy, besides his life. And often he has no choice but to risk that, just to stay alive.”

“But, Eldest”, interrupted another lady, who was remarkably pretty for her years. Her eyes were dark and her hair was a silken white. She had a low, musical voice. “Aren’t we forgetting the coldire stones? I have as little liking for them as the rest of you”, she said, looking at them as if they were maggots. “But you know how important treasures are in Anarchy. If we were to return—and I am far from sure that we should, since I don’t know if I trust this Legislatrix—the Ezwayna would hardly be poor.”

“Not at first, Elleyr”, said the Mother of Mourning, who was also gazing at the stones with dislike. “But how long would our people remain together? Nothing turns people against each other like wealth. How many would demand their share of the wealth, and go their own way? And how many of those would not be swindled of every penny by the conmen of the Anarchy? Only when they had lost all their money would they return to us. Let us not rely too much on these stones. And let us not forget that we only have a few of them now, and that a troop of frolic bears stand between us and the rest.”

“And we shouldn’t forget”, said Sana, “that even wealth is no guarantee of safety in the Anarchy. Not all of the Ezwayna were hungry. The Eldest”, she said, looking towards Grandy, “was the richest man in a city of fifty thousand.”

Grandy tried very hard not to look impressed, but did not quite succeed.

“Everybody knew the Ezwayna were honest, and a good name can make you money like everything else. But that only made us more hated. When we were poor we were hated for poverty, and when we were rich we were hated for our wealth. And yet”, she said, sighing, “I do not know what we should do, either. Perhaps the future lies in the Anarchy. Or—as we should perhaps call it now—the Seven Nations. Our people yearn for it, and a life lived in yearning might be the worst fate of all.”

Silence fell over the room, and the eyes of all the gathering turned to the Eldest. Except for Armala, who—Fox realised, without turning his head—was watching him.

“I think we have said enough for today”, said the Eldest. “And this is my decision. It will surprise none of you. We do nothing. We leave the coldfire stones to the earth, or to be the toys of the frolic bears, who cannot be harmed by them. We leave the Anarchy, or the Seven Nations, to this Legislatrix. We do not let our people risk their lives in it. We continue to chase the dream that brought us to this country.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement around the table.

“And”, he said, looking at Grandy, with a smile that made Fox a little nervous, “we do not mention the coldfire stones to anyone, or stir up trouble amongst our people. Agreed?”

Grandy scowled again, but he said: “Agreed”.

“Then I think we can stop talking”, said the Eldest, rising to his feet, “and drink some chora, to warm our old bones and joints. And perhaps bore our young friends with tales of the old times.”

Amidst much creaking of chairs and with the incredible slowness of the old, they filtered into a smaller room, where chora and cake was laid out upon two small tables, and a faded tapestry showed the Great Pledge of the Ezwayna. Fox stood on the edge of the little gathering, listening to their conversation and wondering why it felt like nothing had really been decided at all.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“I’ve brought more books”, said Fox, when he realised that Swan was not going to look up.

Swan was sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading. The thing he was reading could hardly be called a book anymore. It had almost fallen apart. It was more like a bundle of pages, and it looked as if most of them might be missing..

There was a neat stack of books beside him, perhaps two dozen in all. Besides those, the tamzan was almost empty. There weren’t many books in the Ezwayna settlement. A truth becomes a lie when it is written was one of their proverbs.

Swan looked up now, startled. It was as if he had been woken up and had no idea where he was. Then he smiled. When he smiled, he looked almost handsome, despite his long nose and his bulging eyes. Fox had often thought it funny that such an awkward-looking man was named after such a graceful bird. His clothes, though, were as elegant as could be wished.

“Wonderful work, my friend!”, he said, rising hastily to his feet.

“Don’t get excited”, said Fox, feeling a bit abashed. “They’re not exactly books. I mean, there’s a collection of sewing poems—I didn’t even know there was a such thing, they’re poems women recited while sewing—and there’s a cookery book about soups, and there’s this one called The Merchant’s Mysteries. I think it’s some sort of guide”.

Armala had begun sending Fox from tamzan to tamzan, getting him to tell stories and recite poems. The Ezwayna seemed to prefer his poems to his stories, and often asked him to repeat them. On these visits, he also gathered books for Swan to read. The supply had never been steady, and now it was drying up.

“They’re perfect”, said Swan, eagerly taking them from Fox’s arms. He held them with reverence, glancing at each cover in turn. “Didn’t you ever want to climb down a mousehole? Or see the bottom of the ocean? Or know what the potions of the doctors are actually made out of? Or watch a book being bound?”

“The ocean one, maybe”, said Fox. “But I don’t see what that has to do with sewing songs.”

“Nothing, perhaps”, said Swan, flicking through the pages. Dust rose from them as he did so. “I’ve had this disease all my life, Fox. Nothing fails to interest me. Most people have a kind of mental net, a shield that protects them from the overflowing richness of life. I’ve never had it. I don’t understand why sewing songs are dull. I’m to be pitied.” But as soon as he said this, he gave Fox a cheerful grin.

“Aren’t you ever bored?”, asked Fox, who was often bored himself.

“Oh yes”, said Swan. He looked up at Fox, and must have read his mind from his face, because he said: “Don’t feel bad because you get bored, Fox. The mind has its seasons and its cycles, just like the body, and the earth. The body must sleep, and the mind must feel bored.”

“Jasma always said boredom was a sign of a dull mind”, said Fox, feeling reassured. “Whenever I went to complain about feeling bored.”

“Ah, Jasma, my servant’s beloved”, said Swan, still leafing through the books. He switched between them every now and again, as if he wanted to read them all at once. “What do the Ezwayna think about her new romance?”

“Well, the women are jealous”, he said. Since he became Armala's student, he'd grown used to keeping his ears open.

“Truly?”, asked Swan, still not looking up.

“Truly”, echoed Fox. It was one of Swan’s favourite expressions. “Because Hardcastle is so handsome, and because they think he might be well-off.” There was a question in that last remark, but if Swan heard it he ignored it. He just kept reading. “And because he’s going to take away to her the Anar….to the Seven Nations.”

“He’s always been a favourite of the ladies”, said Swan, still looking through the books.

“And many of them hope to be your wife, too”, said Fox.

Swan did look up this time, and Fox almost laughed at his bewildered expression. “Me?”, he asked, and he took a step back, as if he was afraid that a husband-hunting woman was going to step through the door that moment.

“Yes”, said Fox. “They say you never pay attention to them, though.”

“In truth, I never noticed them”, said Swan, looking thoughtful. Then he laughed. He did not seem flattered, but amused. “You might let them know that….that I didn’t come here in search of women”. He laughed again, and Fox felt sure he was laughing at himself.

“Don’t you want a wife?”, asked Fox. The whole village wondered about Swan, who was always eager to talk but never gave away anything about himself.

“I had a wife”, he said, and his bulging eyes filled with sadness. “One of the servants in my father’s house. She died.”

“Oh”, said Fox, feeling clumsy.

“More than twenty years ago, now”, said Swan, softly, looking back down at his books but not reading. “She died of what they called the dreaming sickness. She would pass into a trance and seem to dream, twitching and whimpering, and when she came out of it she would be horribly weak. There was no cure then, and there is none now. I suppose that’s what took me out of my study.”

“What do you mean?”, asked Fox.

“Well, when I retired from the cloth business”, he said, “I thought I might spend the rest of my life reading, and happily. But when Anki fell sick, I quickly went through all the medical tracts I could find. I went out to the people, looking for folk medicine and cures, hoping that the ordinary people knew something that the doctors did not.”

“And they didn’t”, said Fox, somehow surprised that Swan had ever been married.

“No”, said Swan, shaking his head and giving a sad smile. “But I found lots of other things. I learned that, though there was a world inside books, there was a world outside them, too. Part of me, Fox, wants nothing more than to sit in my study all my life, trying to get through a fraction of all the books that have been
written. But at the same time I’m gripped by the desire to see—to find out—to experience”. He said this slowly, thoughfully, as if he had spent a long time pondering this inner conflict.

“I’m glad you came here”, said Fox, a little shyly.

“I’m glad, too”, said Swan, and now he was buried in his books again. He seemed perfectly capable of talking while reading. “I just hope that I haven’t outstayed my welcome.”

“I don’t think so”, said Fox. “You give the Ezwanya something to talk about.”

“All the same”, said Swan, “I’ve been here two months already. For once, I find that my wealth means nothing at all. Except for creating excitement amongst the ladies.” He smiled again, as if he could not get used to the absurdity of this idea. “I can’t pay for my keep. It will soon be time for me to set out upon my return journey.”

“But—“ said Fox, hardly knowing what he was going to say. When he had left the word hang in the air for long enough, Swan looked up enquiringly. “What?”, he asked, smiling.

“But I thought…you were going to be important…to me. And nothing’s happened yet!”

Feeling ridiculous to have said such a thing, Fox was grateful to see understanding in Swan’s eyes. “I know what you mean,” said Swan, “because I have felt the same thing. But who knows? Perhaps something has happened. Perhaps we just don't know it yet.”

They stood in silence for a few moments, and then Swan said: “Where is that servant of mine? I want to speak to him. Do you think, Fox, you could find him and send him to me?” He smiled again. “I’m rather frightened to go outside, knowing what I know now.”

“Certainly”, said Fox, smiling back, and turning away.

But, despite his show of readiness, his heart was heavy at the thought. He knew exactly where Jasma would be, and he knew exactly what she would be doing.

He made his way through the settlement, keeping as far from the popular paths as he could. He had discovered narrow alleys between tamzans, lanes between trees, passages where he could pass without being seen. Ever since he'd returned from the quest for the Blue Stag, the Ezwanya children's fascination with his supposed powers had grown and grown. The rumour had got out that he had actually seen the Blue Stag. Grandy had been furious, but eventually he had accepted that neither Truevow nor Fox had let the truth slip. The rumour just seemed to have come about by itself.

It was the high tide of summer. The sun made the leaves on the trees seem like green fire. The lakes and ponds sparkled like glass. The heat clung to Fox’s body like a film.

The Ezwayna were a passionate people at all times. Now, men and women were locked in embraces everywhere you looked. Nobody stared. The sight was too common. Children hopped over the couples sprawled on the grass in their play.

Jasma and Greatcastle had taken one spot as their own, by the bank of a pond that was sometimes called the Pear, for its shape. More often it was not named, being too small and rather distant from the village. It was not very romantic, but neither Jasma nor Greatcastle had the souls of poets.

They were lying there, Greatcastle in his violet shirt and black trousers, Jasma wearing a green flowery dress. She was lying on top of Greatcastle, almost covering him, kissing him feverishly. Fox cursed under his breath—he had just started to learn Ezwayna curses—and started along the margin of the pond

Greatcastle spotted him first. Fox was startled when he met his eyes. The young man was not lost in passion. He looked rather bored with Jasma’s kisses, though he was clutching her body to his own. He was seemed to be staring into the sky when Fox came into his view.

“Jasma, it's your young friend”, he said, when he saw the boy. But Jasma did not hear. She was too busy kissing. Greatcastle closed his eyes for a moment, smiled, and said: “Jasma, it’s Fox. Fox.”

His lover rolled away and lay on her back, looking up at Fox. She scowled.

“What in the twelve heavens do you want, Fox?”, she asked. “We don’t want to hear a story now.”

Fox ignored her, and said, “Greatcastle, your master is looking for you.”

“Is he indeed?”, asked Greatcastle, sarcastically. “Well, the master must not be denied, must he, Fox?”

“I suppose not”, said Fox. He detested Greatcastle. He thought he was the most smug person he had ever met. He always seemed to be laughing to himself, laughing at other people. And yet Swan said he had become a better servant after becoming a follower of the Legislatrix. How bad had he been before that?

Greatcastle got to his feet, and carefully straightened and brushed his clothes. Jasma picked leaves of grass from his trousers. He looked at his reflection in the water of the pond, staring at it (Fox thought) for longer than was necessary. But then, he was not the only one who thought he was worth looking at. He was shorter than average, but his features were perfectly shaped. His skin was dusky and his eyes were a hazy grey.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, my sweetling”, he said. “Think of me when I’m gone.”

“Think of me”, said Jasma, but Greastcastle was already moving away. He looked back once or twice, placing his hand over his heart in a quick gesture.

Jasma followed him with her gaze until he had all but disappeared. Then she turned towards Fox, but she did not speak. It had been a long time since they had spoken.

“I wonder what Swan wants him for?”, asked Fox eventually, unable to think of anything else, but tired of the silence.

Jasma snorted at the irrelevance of this remark, and said: “I’m pleased to see that you’re making something of yourself, Fox. I’ve heard that you’re working hard at your apprenticeship. I’m very glad. Whatever a boy finds to do”—her tone suggested that storytelling might not be the best choice—“he should do with all his heart. Better than hanging around with undesirable company, anyway.”

Her tone irritated Fox, and he snapped back: “Who do you mean? Truevow?”

She glowered at the name. “I didn’t mean him in particular”, she said. “But that sort of person. They don’t have much to distinguish them, after all.”

“I don’t know anybody like Truevow”, said Fox, angrily. “He’s brave and he’s kind and he’s intelligent.”

“He lives in a dream-world”, said Jasma, venomously, as if she knew no worse insult.

“Just because he doesn’t care about money and getting on”, said Fox, wanting to push Jasma into the water. “Even when we found the coldfire—“

He stopped, with the feeling that he had put one foot over a cliff. He imagined the face of the Eldest, and went cold all over.

But Jasma, thank the heavens, seemed hardly to be listening. She had closed her eyes, basking in the heat of the sun. Obviously, she had never heard of coldfire. “When you found what?”

“I meant to say, when he found the cold fire of his courage”, Fox said. “You know he saved me from the frolic bears.”

“You’re beginning to talk like him now”, said Jasma, her eyes still closed. She smiled, as if remembering her lover’s embrace. “I don’t want a hero”, she continued. Fox was taken aback; she had never been so open towards him before. But recently, she had seemed less frosty than the old Jasma. “Heroes are impossible to live with. Just look at Grandy. I want a man who treasures his lady enough to make a home for her. Who doesn’t want his children to grow up in poverty. I’ve had enough of that in my life, thank you. What on earth do you know about poverty, anyway?”

“Nothing”, admitted Fox.

“And I like him because he’s handsome”, said Jasma, opening her eyes. There was defiance in her look, in her voice. “Why shouldn’t I? After all, your precious Truevow doesn’t mind yammering about my looks all the time. Why is it that men can write poems about beautiful women, and people think they’re very deep
fellows? But if a woman likes a man for his looks, everybody calls her shallow?”

“I don’t know”, said Fox. “I’m only twelve.”

“Then don’t come complaining to me about these things, little boy”, she said, closing her eyes.

Fox knew that was her signal for him to leave her. But he kept thinking of Truevow. They had hardly spoken in the last weeks.

“I wish…I wish you would say something to Truevow, though”, he said. Jasma gave him an angry look, but he kept going. “He’s like his own ghost now. He works as much as he can, and when he’s not hammering away, he spends all his time in the Spiral House.” Fox had been amazed to find Truevow there. Truevow, looking miserable, had told him that Spiral was soothing to him.

“You don’t have to feel anything with Spiral”, Truevow had said. His dramatic manner was gone from him now, and he muttered when he spoke. “Just think”. Then he had fallen silent again, lost in the game.

“You don’t understand these things, Fox”, said Jasma. “If I say anything, it will just encourage him. Truevow should be a man. A man doesn’t mope when a woman rejects him. He finds another.”

“Aren’t you be sad to be leaving Grandy?”, asked Fox, after another long silence that Jasma did not seem about to end.

“No”, said Jasma. “He obviously doesn’t give a spit about me. He hardly even says hello anymore.”

“He has…worries”, said Fox, feeling worried himself. How much of his life had he spent worrying about Grandy?

“What kind of worries?”, asked Jasma, without much interest.

“He’s not doing so well at Spiral”, said Fox. It hurt him even to say it. “He’s…he’s slipping behind”.

Jasma burst out laughing. She seemed genuinely amused, something that was rare with her. “And that’s something to be worried about?”, she asked. “Can’t you see how ridiculous that is?”

“It’s not ridiculous to Grandy”, snapped Fox. “Or anybody else.”

“Well, he is an old man”, said Jasma. Brutally, Fox thought. “He can’t expect to stay sharp forever. He always spoke about facing up to reality.”

“How can you be so cruel?”, asked Fox, wishing now that he could punch Jasma. Every Spiral fan was depressed about Grandy’s failing powers. His supporters had only grown more devoted to him. He was making embarrassing mistakes, spending more and more time over his moves. When he played, the whole Spiral House was nervous.

“I don’t understand how a rude, arrogant man can make you all love him so much”, said Jasma.

“Because he’s Grandy”, said Fox, wondering how she couldn’t see that.

“I suppose I’ll miss him”, she said, stretching lazily. “I’ll miss you, too. But life goes forward, Fox. Not backward. That’s what the people here don’t realise. Now leave me alone.”

“Don’t worry, I will”, said Fox, turning and striding away. His nurse had always been an ignorant, selfish woman. Why should she change now?

He had other things to do, anyway. Armala had told him to memorise seven verses of a hunting ballad, 'The Madman’s Chase'. He enjoyed that. He’d never thought much about poetry before Truevow had quoted those lines that woke his imagination, on the quest for the Blue Stag. Since then, Armala had recited verse after verse to them, and he had often asked her to repeat verses. When collecting books for Swan, he had feasted on what little poetry he had found. The best ones carved themselves on his memory without him even trying to learn them.

The summer air is made of lovers’ sighs”, he said aloud, wondering how love poetry could be so wonderful when love itself was so boring. His mind strayed towards thoughts of Grandy, but he pulled it away. He was used to doing that.

But it moved in another direction that was almost as disturbing. Once again he saw the long nose and bulbous eyes of Cambrice Swan. His face kept coming into Fox’s mind, and as always, Fox was filled with the belief that Swan could open the door to his future. He didn’t know if he wanted to walk through that door. He only knew that he was going to. And he had no idea what was on the other side.