Saturday, October 29, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011

Yup - I'm in it to win it this year - though I'm gonna cheat (of course) by finishing my current work-in-progress rather than starting a new novel.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Snowdrop sonnet rewrite: Section 6.1

So I'm making a start on rewriting some of Snowdrop's sonnets. Because it has to be done, innit. The previous version of this poem was making Snowdrop sound weedy and needy, too childish. Hopefully this redraft builds on the things she was telling herself earlier in the poem.

Caught in a Hug of Madness

"I do not know you people: soldiers come
to life from history books, I think, and yet
you found me, fed me. Kindness, or ... a threat
perhaps, for something doesn't fit. This slum
of a church -- I knew this place before it congealed.
These stones feel hard and real and safe inside:
ruins they were, their roofless pillars wide
to catch the sun and rain. What magic healed
its broken state -- does your belief in God
build miracles from mists? Oh no. No!
Some prayers to a wood statue glued to a cross
cannot explain this mess, it rides roughshod
through every thing I know. No crop can grow
so quick ... this is a lie, and I'm still lost!"

Friday, October 21, 2011

Help me (re)write my poem, pretty please!

I'm looking for some help here. Not detailed comment. Rather: are these sonnets working, and which ones need to be re-thought.

The sonnets are from my Long Poem about a young woman, Snowdrop, who gets lost in the woods and has horrid adventures. When Snowdrop speaks, it's always in the form of a sonnet (IP, abba cddc efg efg). Sometimes the sonnet stands alone as its own poem; though more often it is split - intercut with other verses, either AV description verses, or other poetic forms spoken by various characters.

I've tried to give each poem some context (otherwise they just read as nonsense). Any thoughts at all on whether these are working, even the most casual of feedback, would be a massive help to me!

Anyways, onwards and upwards:
= = = = = = = = = =
Snowdrop doesn't speak during the opening sections, during which she does a little thieving, returns home and has an argument with her Gran.

1.3: Jenny Twig Dances
Snowdrop and her Gran have made peace after their argument, and decorated the best room of the cottage ready for Christmas. It's past midnight, and Snowdrop has had a strange vision. Following the vision, Jenny Twig (a dryad living in the christmas tree) comes to take Snowdrop into the woods. These lines are intercut with AV lines describing Jenny Twig's emergence, and dance.

"That was a shock, and no mistake! Are you
okay, old woman? Gran? You're fast asleep,
and snoring soon, no doubt. This night, it creeps
like a cat, no noise; our bedtime's long overdue."

"Did you hear a noise, behind us, Gran? A rat?
There's something going on -- is someone here?
This room's got ghosts, I swear, a pinch of queer,
of not quite right ... oh Jesus wept -- what's that?"

"You've got to be kidding! This is a joke, unreal!
There's no such thing as ghosts, just fear and dread."

"Yet you're not real -- you're hollowed like a sneeze
of germs -- don't touch me! Leave us be! Be still!"

"Don't hurt my Gran, please don't! Take me instead!
It's me that's bad, not her; don't harm her, please!"

1.5: Lost
Snowdrop is abandoned in the woods growing on the hill overlooking the marshes. She's panicking. This sonnet stands alone in its own section.

"I've lost my walls! The room has gone along
with heat and ceilings, leaves and mud where once
I had a floor -- I've lost the walls! She danced
with flames -- a freak with bark for bones -- that's wrong:
I'm seeing things awry; I'm dosed on pills
like sweets at Christmas. Close my eyes and reach
my arms out wide and wait until I touch
the walls with fingertips -- oh shit, I'm ill!
My walls have gone: these trees -- exist? But how
can this be happening? The air's so cold,
the earth -- it's hard like concrete frost, the mist
-- it glows? Look up! The moon's still there, still proud
and full. So where's the house? No roof to hold
the night away; my wall's are gone: I'm lost!"

2.4: A Girl in Strange Company, Afraid
Snowdrop has been captured by the Wild Hunt (led by Horsa, co-founder of the Kingdom of Kent) and is now presented to the Fairy Queen. Naturally, Snowdrop knows nothing about fairies or suchlike nonsense. This sonnet forms a single section.

"Too much; too much! This fever strikes too hard
to be a dream: a nightmare rather, come
to test my head; who are you people strung
about this hill? A cult of madness scarred
by life and hope that leads you here to meet
in secret? Like a club of losers left
to dress in costumes, bows and knives, bereft
of families and friends and incomplete --

"and yet she shines like summer caught in hail,
and white, so white her skin and gold her hair
and black her eyes and thin, so thin her face;
she looks at me and I feel -- vile, a snail
beneath a glitter model's heel -- how dare
I stare at her unbowed? What is this place?"

3.3: The Tall Gentleman
On being told where she is (Time Everlastin', a sort of purgatorial place), Snowdrop faints. After coming to, she is engaged in conversation by a well-spoken man who explains their situation to her in further detail. The sonnet is intercut by passages of blank verse.

"I cannot breathe, and yet as seconds pass me by
my chest expands and air moves into me
-- and out again -- my lungs are devotees
of habit: in and out they go, but why?"

"I'm dead. I must be dead: my breath is ice;
I sit on muddied ice and ice encrusts
each stalk of grass ... are you dead too? I trust
nothing. Not ears or nose or fingers. Eyes?"

"They lie to me. They tell me I'm outside
barefoot and dressed for bed and yet I know
I'm dead -- or knocked out cold by robbers, theives --"

"-- perhaps I'm mad, not dead. I'm still inside
the house, hallucinating nightmares. So ...
what must I do to break apart these reves?"

4.4: False Dawn
Snowdrop has more adventures in the wood, including a fight with the Green Children. She runs away and gets entangled in another vision which she doesn't understand. It's almost dawn, and Snowdrop is now running uphill, trying to find a way home. Sonnet is intercut with AV lines describing her attempted escape.

"I am not mad, and this is not a dream.
The world's not right tonight, no doubt of that,
but I cannot -- will not -- accept the facts
my eyes report: lies! Lies and schemes
to make me think I've gone insane. Stop, words!"

"I know these chalks and flints, my soils -- they must
hug the Marshlands, my home is there ... so trust
what you know, not what you've seen, or felt, or heard."

"I am not mad, and this is not a dream.
Look! Just a few more steps and then I'll hit
the top; I'll see the Marsh, the sun half-sliced
by the sea and Dungeness and this will seem --"

"-- a nightmare terror, soon forgotten. Grit
your teeth and push, push, push for your life!"

Of course, Snowdrop doesn't escape - when the sun rises, she dissolves alongside the rest of Time Everlastin'. Part 5 of the poem deals with her regaining consciousness on the hill at the start of another full-moon night ... Time Everlastin' only exists when the full moon coincides with the winter solstice, though Snowdrop doesn't know this

6.1: Caught in the Hug of Madness
Snowdrop has been rescued by a band of Napoleonic soldiers led by a corporal who has gone God-mad. She witnesses a chapel construct itself out of mists. This sonnet forms the opening section of Part 6 ... and isn't working: it needs a severe rewrite.

"How can you know the truth? Does your belief
in wooden dolls give you some influence?
It's stupid -- nonsense -- nothing here makes sense!
This nightmare's only gift to me is grief
and pain; I'm a raver caught inside my head:
there's singers and dancers, folks who hunt and fuck
and pray in churches built from mist! I'm stuck
between the lines of a joke, too sick to shred
this dream. I need advice! I need a sign
to tell me what to do to end this hell --
a list of rules, a tourist guide, a map
of stones and trees that cannot move. A line
of arrows to point me home. I can't repel
my fear ... please! Help me spring this trap."

It's a while before Snowdrop speaks again, during which time she is taken to the Oracle place, where she meets the ghost of her Mother - who apparently walked out of her life when she was much younger. She also meets Jack Frost, a fox who gives her a third vision; and the Shuck - a black hound who herds and protects ghosts.

7.3: The Moon on the Marsh
Snowdrop is rescued from the Shuck's attack by a Roman sea captain, who destroys the dog by quoting Latin verse at it. Now she arrives at the old Roman port built on the hill, again witnessing buildings resurrect themselves from the mist. Part of this reconstruction involves seeing the marshes flooded by the sea. This sonnet stands alone in its own section.

"I know the bones of this place! This tower's stones
were tumbled down the hill and sheep had sheared
the grass to a mat. I watched the ants who reared
their herds of greenfly here; I plucked the thrones
of bumblebees and wound them into crowns --
this place was safe, above the Marsh where I
could breathe the air and watch the seagulls fly
to the sea, free from care. And now it's drowned!
Gran's house is gone, dissolved by waves that chase
the moon's white path to France. No roads, no flush
of light from Dungeness, warning the ships:
beware! The Marsh is a snare, a bastard place.
It binds me down with memories that crush
me flat, and now it's drowned I'm lost in shit!"

7.4: Stutfall Tower
Snowdrop meets the Shaking Land (a victim of the Marsh Ague who lives with the Roman) and tells him about the madness. This sonnet (which also needs a revision) sits complete within a set of AV lines describing the scene.

"You said the sea had swamped the Marsh, as if
it happens every night -- how can this be?
Don't answer! Let me figure out the key
that holds this madness whole -- I saw the drift
of fog across the land turn into waves,
just like the scattered bricks became a church
as I approached it -- tricks of moonlight search
me out, perhaps, or maybe mist enslaves
my eyes! And yet that dog was real, the queen
was real, the little kiddie bled green blood --
that's nonsense! Stop it! Think! The soldiers knew
something, and so do you -- I think you've seen
the answer. Mist: where does this foggy flood
come from? You'll tell me while we eat this stew!"

7.6: Please Stop
This sonnet (which forms its own section) is, I think, the one most in need of a savage rewrite. The Shaking Lad has attempted to tell Snowdrop a story about how Time Everlastin' came to be, involving the Tallyman (the antagonist of the whole poem) and the fairy queen. However, Snowdrop interrupts the telling in some frustration.

"Please stop! You talk in riddles, all of you!
The sailor with his song of cartoon cats;
the man who spoke of doom and hell. The acts
of madness I have seen: a sea that grew
to flood the Marsh, a church that built itself --
this tower! How the fuck am I to cope
without the facts? There's big black dogs that lope
across the haunted wastes of this cursed shelf
of land -- I saw my mother! Spoke to her;
well, argued, anyways. I need to know
about the Tallyman today, like where he hides
and how to stop him. Should I burn the furs
on which he sits, or mumble verses? Show
me what to do so I can jump this ride!"

7.9: Decisions at Midnight
The Roman quotes some more Latin (De Rerum Natura) which trigger images in Snowdrop's head of a human sacrifice - she is beginning to realise that this may be her destiny, as it was her Mother's. Now she stands on top of the tower, where she is starting to learn that she can shape the mist just like (she thinks) the mad corporal and the Roman can. This sonnet, in its own section, is also crying out for revision.

"What new horror is this? I see the knife
my Gran was using when I saw her last
here in my hand. What magic trick has passed
this blade through fogs to me? Maybe my life
is truly done and I'm in heaven, hell --
wherever. Maybe I'm a coma corpse
in hospital, my Gran beside me. Thoughts
have power here: I know this tower fell
before the Normans came, and yet it stands
as proud as men before the beer can choke
their pride away. Did him downstairs remake
it just by thinking it? I need a plan --
I need to learn to use this gift, so folk
will help me out of here for their own sake!"

More adventures occur. Snowdrop leaves the tower and wanders back into the woods, where she meets the Hoodener troupe - a group of mediaeval men who go from house to house at Christmas time 'wassailing'. Naturally, they have to perform for her.

8.5: Shared Bread
Snowdrop is being followed by a man. After the act, the Hoodeners settle down to eat and the man joins them all. She recognises the man, from family history, as the person who is (probably) her Father. The sonnet is intercut with lines of AV describing the meal.

"Look at the state of you! Did I build you
just like I built the knife? The shoe? The rocks
and grass and trees and mad men wearing frocks?
I doubt that you're as real as mists and dew ..."

"And still you're here -- just like the way she spoke
of you: your hair so dark, your chin so wide,
your eyes the hue of slates and muds: she lied
about your death, it seems, sweet man of smoke."

"She claimed you worked the travelling fairs, a man
of grease and moments caught in the swirl of rides --
a sixpence man, a candyfloss of smile
and kiss and grunt between the lights -- she span
a tale of you, my friend! You pledged her a tide
of love: you left her flotsam, jetsam, a child."

9.4: Invocations
When the man (of mud) speaks, he repeats parts of the visions Snowdrop has been having - father or not, he is also the son of the Tallyman, come to claim this night's sacrifice. Snowdrop is wordless until she finds herself in front of the ancient man. This sonnet is intercut with ghazal verses (for the Tallyman speaks in ghazals) where he explains that he has to spill blood to help birth the new year's sun.

"I hear you talk, old man, I see your form:
are you the Tallyman? What do you count?"

"The tears of fear, the cries of those about
to meet your knife -- why do you kill at dawn?"

"Perhaps you are an Aztec priest -- we learned
of them at school: they killed to tame the sun."

"They tried to rule their gods, they were undone:
they culled the hearts of thousands -- still they burned."

"You killed my mother. Now you want my life
to feed your madness -- will my blood make mist?"

"Will dogs and monsters feed upon my meat,
a roast of Snowdrop? Best then take your knife ..."

"... and thrust it deep within my neck and twist
it hard -- a miss will end with your defeat!"

9.5: Dawn
As the ritual proceeds, Snowdrop touches the mist arising from the Tallyman's cauldron. During this section she forms a sword from mist and uses it to smash the cauldron. The sonnet is intercut with lines of AV describing the ritual, and Snowdrop's actions.

"A copper pot, as green as spring with ropes
of smoke coiled inside its rim -- who rests
within its roily depths? Did Mum protest
when shown her final home, did she lose hope?"

"I think this pot is full of life already:
look how it seeks the warmth of flesh, as if
it's lost its way - can it taste the air, sniff
the iron knife? And yet it's so unsteady ..."

"... a newborn lamb caught by the height of legs,
or maybe older, a shrivel of life that once
was whole and strong -- a giant beast -- a god --"

"no saintly prince will ride to save me: dregs
is what I am, the pikey girl, the thief. No lance
to spike this mad insanity, no rod --"

By smashing the Tallyman's cauldron, Snowdrop breaks the spell that binds Time Everlastin' - when the sun rises, nobody dissolves.

10.4: Gran's Cottage
Snowdrop finds her way home, but everything's changed. Beyond the confines of Time Everlastin' a dozen years have passed. This sonnet stands as its own section.

"This is my home: the bricks and slates are where
I know I left them. Someone's parked a jeep
where compost heaps should slump and steam and steep --
who's washed the gutters, fixed the roof? Who's dared
to steal the shittery? Has Gran gone nuts?
She can't have sold the place! I'm gone two days
is all and now she's had the windows glazed!
What is this fresh madness? The doors are shut
and locked -- she never bolts the cottage: who
would want to steal our scraps? It's not enough
that I should have delusions haunt my head
and hunt my flesh; with daylight comes a new
nightmare. I need to think. I need my stuff --
I need to hug my Gran, our rows unsaid."

10.6: Mysteries
After breaking into the cottage to investigate, Snowdrop meets up with the Tall Gentleman. This sonnet - another dialogue - is intercut with lines of blank verse offering the man's thoughts of what is happening.

"How long have I been gone from home? I know
there was a night of terror: madness claimed
my heart and guts, my mind -- I was ashamed
and angry ... visions came to me although
I fought them hard. I killed a man? No -- no!
A nightmare, nothing more! But you were there,
I think -- you told me things, you let me share
your food ... how long have I been gone from home?"

"I broke a window, climbed inside. I found --
a different place; fresh paint, new furnishings
and gadgets -- phones so small -- a thin TV --
computers, fabrics, shoes that bounce and bound --
so soft to wear. I do not know these things!
It's like the future's come to finish me!"

= = = = = = = = = =
That's pretty much as far as I've got. There's going to be another 3-5 Snowdrop sonnets (and other stuff) to bring the whole thing to a conclusion. Like I said, any feedback at all on what works and what doesn't would be massively appreciated!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writing SciFi stories with pregnant characters in them

A blog post by Kate Nepveu on the website started me wondering about how I deal with pregnancy and birth in my writing.

And the sad fact is that, for the most part, I've ignored it. Even though one of the main characters in The Gods in the Jungle spends the entire second half of the book wondering if she is pregnant - a fact confirmed at the end of the story. Yet Delesse shows no outward signs of her conditions beyond complaining (a couple of times, I think) about being tired. I certainly don't give her tender breasts, mood swings, cramps or vomiting. Maybe if (when) I rederaft the text I should include a couple of more explicit sentences?

The one place I do describe a pregnancy in any detail is in one of Maeduul's myth stories - the one about how the first humans discovered sex, and the consequences of their discoveries. This representation doesn't need to be convincing, I think, because it's a story. See what you both think:

Of Sex and Love and Politics

Solstice eve. It rained until after sunset, each cloud unfurling its blanket of fresh water across the city, the force of the liquid sheets flattening the river into a resentful calmness. The storm washed the city's stone streets to a dark grey cleanliness, rivulets digging and scrubbing away the rubbish and dust as they weaved their glugging paths down the great hillside.

The rain stopped as quickly as it had arrived. For a short while the only sounds were the city's sounds: the knocks of doors and windows being unshuttered; the splash and clash of the traders in the Market Square tipping water from their awnings and dismantling their stalls; the warbles of neighbours and friends greeting each other as they started their preparations for the festival celebrations.

Then from across the river and beyond the city walls the volume of the jungle began to grow. High-pitch chirrups, loud in the ears of children but blessedly damped from adult hearing. Deep yowls echoing through the dark from unknown mouths and snouts. Careful people listened to the growing cacophony, attempting to catch the cadence of the imps and demons now rustling through the vegetation, adjusting their personal wards to combat this night's special dangers: an extra green rag tied around the left wrist for some; a stone with blue veins placed in a pocket; a whispered blessing over a thimbleful of warmed ghevvesein turned opaque by the addition of water.

By the time the evening meal had been served in the Governor's House even these sounds had been drowned out as the land started to release the water it had soaked up during the afternoon downpour, like a heavy sponge placed on the side of a basin.

For Delesse, the sound of the jungle draining itself was the sound of safety. Surely no imp or demon would venture far from its home tree while the valleys expelled their waters.

Arbelle was not so sanguine. Delesse watched her younger sister as she followed the orders written down for them by Velledue, their father's astrologer, placing the candle he had prepared for them on a low table in the middle of the room and lighting it, then dimming the room's electric lights to a fraction of their full strength. Soon enough a sharp, peppery aroma pervaded the room, tickling the lining of her nostrils.

'We can tell stories in this room tonight,' suggested their guest.

'Ghost stories, Maeduul?' Arbelle stretched her eyebrows high in mock fright as she turned to look at the tiny woman.

'Who knows what stories the Corn Bird will try to distract us with tonight.' She pulled up the sleeve of her oversized blouse to rub her fingernails across her arms.

'Mother told you not to scratch. Do you want your skin to blister again? Anyway, the Corn Bird doesn't exist. It's just a Servant story to distract us from the real dangers.'

'As you must believe, Arbelle-ten. What imp do you think has fractured my skin?'

'The imp you were born with,' said Delesse as she folded away her dining dress, laying it in a basket ready for collection. She had changed into a pair of baggy hemp pantaloons and her rough goat-wool wrap as soon as she had reached the room – a protest, she had explained to Arbelle, at not being allowed out into the city to celebrate, though the truth was she had grown used to the scratchiness of the material, enjoyed the feel of it against her body.

Arbelle gave her older sister a calculated stare. 'Have you washed that old rag, yet? I'm surprised your skin isn't rampant with louse-bites!'

'Of course I've washed it! I wash it every morning in cold water just as Varoul's people told me to do. I'm more likely to get louse-bites from you – have you greased your hair?'

'Velledue!' replied Arbelle.

Delesse understood her sister's chagrin at the old astrologer: he had become decidedly more spiteful with his warding orders over the past few days. House rumours suggested the man was not happy with the Governor's decision that he accompany Delesse to the Imperial Court in Stal for the final marriage ceremonies.

'You don't have to follow his every order,' said Delesse. 'That man lost all interest in us the day Igell was born. He devotes every waking moment to protecting our little brother from evil influences.'

'I wish he'd find a way to keep the sticky devil away from the kid.'

'I wish he'd find a way to stop him picking his nose – it's unhygienic, an invitation to every passing imp! How long are you going to keep that gundge in your hair?'

'I'll have to wash it out before I sleep, in case it glues my head to the pillows.'

Delesse smiled as they settled themselves around the low table with its candle. She sat cross-legged on her floor pillow, while Arbelle folded her legs to one side and rearranged her prized pale blue jarales thread night robe around her. Maeduul, as ever, chose to sit on her heels. When she was settled the tiny woman grew still, closed her eyes.

'So,' started Arbelle, 'when is your next appointment?'

'Not tomorrow,' said Delesse. 'The dressmaker will be here in the morning, and Mother is teaching me more etiquette and intrigue in the afternoon.'

'She ought to let me sit in on those lessons,' said Arbelle. 'It will save her time.'

'You're so sure you'll marry a courtesan, sister?'

'Of course! I'm sure there's more than one Honoured Courtesan looking for a bride, or even an Esteemed Courtesan – that's a step up from our current rank, yes? The Clan needs strong alliances in the Old City. And they all need us. Everybody craves what we have.'

'But what of alliances here, in the province? You might find yourself contracted to an old man in Towes Ferhe.'

The shock on Arbelle's face made Delesse laugh out loud. She hadn't realised that her sister was convinced that she, too, would soon become a powerful figure at the Imperial court.

'Oh, little sister,' she said. 'Why does everything have to be political?'

Arbelle gave Delesse a hard stare. She didn't like being laughed at. 'Everything is political, Delesse. There is nothing but politics and misery in this world. Have you not bothered learning Mother's lessons?'

'You've been listening, haven't you.'

'Of course! Maeduul isn't the only one who knows how to sit quietly on a roof.'
This made Delesse laugh again, and soon enough Arbelle joined her with a smile.

'Even so,' said Delesse when she regained her decorum, 'you haven't answer my question. If everything is politics and misery, then why do we have love?'

'Do you have love?' Arbelle lowered her voice to a whisper. 'Have you found someone to love?'

'Of course not! But I wish for it every day.'

'You will love your husband, I am certain of it,' said Arbelle.

'But what if I don't? What if he is no more than a pretty leather glove wrapped around a knot of worms?'

'Then you must do your duty, sister. I can't have you ruining my chances of a good marriage! Anyway, the man comes to collect you in three weeks: don't you think it is a little bit late to be worrying about love?'

'Every person needs to worry about love,' said Maeduul. She had opened her eyes and was now staring steadily at Delesse. 'Without love, we are not human!'

Delesse turned her head to face the Servant's stare. 'Why do you say that?'

'It is the way we were built. It is the Creator's only desire for us, that we learn how to love each other.'

'Don't be silly,' said Arbelle. 'God does not love us. He cast us out of His house and sent His imps and demons and devils to punish us. That is why we suffer. That is why everything must be politics and misery. Only by enduring our punishments can we hope to gain His forgiveness.'

Maeduul ignored Arbelle, kept her gaze locked on Delesse. 'Is the act of sex such misery?' she asked. 'Is it a punishment to be endured?'

The room fell silent. Delesse found herself blushing as the others waited for her answer. She knew her answer, but it embarrassed her, here and now, to speak it out loud. To admit to having an answer so readily to hand – and yet she knew she had to speak, if only to fill the silence of the room with sound.

Finally she said: 'Why do you ask me that question?'

Maeduul hugged her hands between her knees, leaned forward: 'Why do we have sex?'

'To have children, of course.'

Maeduul cocked her head to one side, her skull ridges and jaw flanges making her look very alien in the dim light. She remained silent.

'To further the cause of the Clan,' Delesse continued. 'To have children, to be strong. To remain alive in a cursed world, together.'

'No,' said Maeduul. 'That is the purpose of your contracts and your marriages. Why do people have sex? Why can't we just bud new babies like the gar bush buds new shoots?'

The little woman's stare was penetrating: Delesse felt like she was being looked at naked, skinless. Even so, she met the question. 'We cannot bud our children because they would then be us. Men and women have to come together to mix themselves in the congress of sex. That way, our babies can be different from us, and will be able to fight off the demons and imps that finally kill us, their parents.'

Arbelle joined in the conversation. 'The first men and women were budded from God's own fingers. That is why only we are in the image of God. And it is why God created sex, as a punishment on humanity, and to prevent us becoming gods in our own way. I can't believe you don't know this, Maeduul!'

Maeduul ignored Arbelle, continuing to stare at Delesse. As the silence continued the sounds of the jungle became louder, invading the room. Finally Delesse spoke: 'Why are you challenging me, Maeduul?'

Still the Servant didn't smile. But she did move back onto her heels, relaxing her shoulders. ' I apologise to the Lady.'

'Good! I do not enjoy your company when you are suffering these strange moods.'

'I apologise to the Lady, for I had forgotten how much the Corn Bird has stolen from the Tall Ones.'

Delesse cleared her throat with an uncertain laugh. 'You and your Corn Bird! What can this Corn Bird steal from me?'

'Stories, Lady! Tipi-sasane steals stories from the head of the unwary child, and thus is the child diminished. She remembers nothing but the rag ends of stories, like a dream half-recalled five minutes after waking.'

'Remember who you're talking to, Maeduul!' said Delesse, her voice lowered to a sharp whisper. 'If Velledue heard you saying these things to me ...'

'... he'd assume you were possessed by a treasonous demon and demand that you be beaten in the Market Square!' finished Arbelle.

Now Maeduul smiled. 'Nevertheless,' she said, 'this is the way of the world. Your politics is beating the weak for telling the true stories, nothing more. Can we drink water now? Then maybe I can talk some more. I can tell stories in this room tonight, this special night, for those with the ears to listen.'

Sometimes, when she and her sister had been much younger, Delesse remembered, Maeduul would come to their room before bedtime and tell them stories: strange stories; stories that could get the girls into trouble if they repeated them to other people. For they were very different to the stories old Velledue told them during their lessons. They were about how things became and what things were and why things happened. There were no devils or demons in Maeduul's stories, though still they could frighten Arbelle to tears; then she would have to hug her sister until she fell asleep.

Maeduul had not offered to tell them a story for more than six years. For Delesse, the evening had already been strange, with the rain lasting hours longer than it should, and the Servant's even stranger than normal behaviour. Suddenly, for no reason – apart from perhaps a desire to recapture the certainties of her childhood – she wanted to hear one of the tiny woman's stories.

'It will do us no harm,' she said to Arbelle. 'What story will you tell us, Maeduul?'

'Not the one about the Waily Fish,' said Arbelle quickly. 'That story was too sad. How about a funny story instead?'

'I like funny stories,' said Maeduul as she returned to the table after filling her specially adapted mug with water. 'But tonight is perhaps a good night for a different story.'

She settled back down at the low table, sitting on her heels.

'Someone once told me – a wise woman, this – that the first men and women were budded from God's own fingers. That is why, she told me, people are built in the image of God.

'And she was right, this wise and wonderful woman, because people are built in the very image of the Creator. And men and women did indeed bud from the Creator's very own fingers.

'But alas for this clever woman, for even though she protected her thoughts and her words well, the Corn Bird was able to confound her and steal away the real story. The whole story.

'But tonight I shall help this wise and beautiful woman. Tonight with my words I shall do combat with Tipi-sasane and take back what is rightfully hers and ours to know.

'The Creator came and made the world, the mountains and the oceans, the rivers and the plains. And then He created life to make the world beautiful in His eyes. But He underestimated His powers. His life consumed the world, choking the rivers and sapping the mountains of their strength. So the Creator brought forth the Councils of the Imps, who are death and decay, and the battle of life and death became.

'The Creator was saddened by His world, and left it for many, many ages. But He never forgot this place as He travelled among the stars. He yearned to make things right again, and finally He returned. With new magic He undertook a second creation, a more powerful and ordered creation. And in His final act of this creation He formed the People Seed, which He threw across the arc of the world to land where it willed.

'This seed fell to ground in the Valley of Home, and there it took root and grew a great trunk and a great branch, and on that branch it formed a great fruit. And there, within the fruit grew the first man and the first woman, clasped together in their formation. When that fruit finally dropped from its branch it clove in two. From one half strode Sama-Lovare, strong and lithe and eager to hunt and explore. And from the other half emerged Mara-Gaye, perfect in every way: beautiful and intelligent and quick.

'These are the words of my story for those wise women who sit with me tonight. Listen to my words as I tell you the fortunes and misfortunes of Sama-Lovare and his birth-sister Mara-Gaye while they lived in the Valley of Home. Keep these words close to your hearts and your guts, so the Corn Bird may never steal them away from you again!

'The Valley of Home was the most beautiful place in the world. Through it ran a river whose waters were fresh and cold for the drinking, but which also provided shallow, warm pools where the first man and the first woman could wash and swim and play. Above the river were great cliffs, their faces dressed in a riot of vines and lianas, with wholesome mosses and sugar-sweet fruits for the eating. Within the cliff walls were wide caves where the siblings could shelter from the wind and the rain, and sleep in safety from the battles of life and death that still raged across the world.

'In those first days the world was a wonder to explore, with each day bringing a new discovery. Every morning Sama-Lovare would head off into the hills around the valley to seek new pleasures and sights, and every morning Mara-Gaye would head to the river to learn new knowledge by listening and watching the ways of the world.

'For the Creator was never far from His greatest achievement. Sometimes He would become the divine breath and sweep through the trees, letting their leaves dance at His passing. At other times He would become the giving rain, whose patters and spatterings would entrance the siblings. And sometimes He would send His other creations to teach His beloved children.

'For instance, one day Sama-Lovare met Wrak-Kateh, the cockerel that greets the hearth woman each morning with praise and song for the Creator, who came back to the valley to teach the siblings how to prepare and mix their food so that it would always be tasty and safe.

'And then there was the time when Uruk-We the toad stayed for a while in the valley. It was from the marks on her skin that Mara-Gaye learned the secret arts of reading and writing words.

'But their greatest teacher was the People Tree, for this was their birth tree. By listening to the voice of its creaking bark the siblings learned which foods were good for the eating, and which would harm them. From the whisper of its leathery leaves they learned the shape of the world beyond the valley, and from the curves of its questing roots they learned of the Creator, and how to worship him through their enjoyment of life.

'Ah, my wise women! Now you must listen hard to my words. For now I must rest from recalling the pleasant things, and instead whisper in your ears important words. Words that must not be forgotten!

'One morning there came to the Valley of Home Leprhe-he the rabbit, and his wife Leprhe-she. Mara-Gaye was enchanted to meet the couple, and begged them to stay with her and her brother for a while.

'The rabbits were glad of the invitation, for the grass in the valley was sweet. They built themselves a home in the ground and every evening they would entertain the siblings with stories and plays. Their speech was a treat, for they bickered their way through conversations – first Leprhe-he setting out a tale, then Leprhe-she correcting him in his details; sometimes their arguments would last so long that the story they were telling was forgotten! Then they would start a new story, for their quarrels were of the moment and conducted within the love the two creatures had for each other.

'A morning came when Mara-Gaye came across the rabbits beside the river. At first she thought they were fighting, such was the noise they were making. She grew scared for her friends and interrupted them. Leprhe-he was most annoyed at this intrusion, but Leprhe-she cuffed her mate around his long ears and led Mara-Gaye away to the stream.

'"You frightened me," said Mara-Gaye. "I thought you were battling like the storm clouds."

'Leprhe-she laughed. "You could call it a battle, little straight legs, if you like. But we were not fighting. This morning is a special time for me; it is a morning for making rabbits."

'"I do not understand," said Mara-Gaye. "Why do you need to make more rabbits? There are two of you already."

'"Oh, we are not the only rabbits in the world," said Leprhe-she. "The Creator has given me the gift of life, but only for a short while. A time will come when I shall no longer be. Then it will be the turn of my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy the Creator's gift."

'"What is a children?" asked Mara-Gaye.

'And again Leprhe-she laughed. "In a few weeks I shall be able to show you my children, if Leprhe-he has done his work well!"

'And sure enough, after a few weeks, Mara-Gaye led Sama-Lovare down to the river where they met the rabbits with their new babies – miniature versions of them squabbling and playing in the long grass of the bank. Sama-Lovare was amazed by what he saw. He went to Leprhe-he and asked him how this miracle happened.

'"I have no idea," said Leprhe-he. "There comes a certain time when Leprhe-she looks most beautiful, her fur is so sleek and her scent is so intoxicating, and then we play with each other the special game where we roll and bicker in the grass and I mount her many times, rubbing my nub in her until the Creator's own pleasure shakes our bones in our skins. Then Leprhe-she boxes my ears hard and tells me to fetch her the sweetest young shoots so she can eat them and grow fat. I do not mind; soon enough the children are born and then we can play again."

'"Do all creatures play this game?" asked Sama-Lovare.

'"Oh, yes," said Leprhe-he. "It is the Creator's greatest gift. Do you not play such games with your Mara-Gaye?"

'Sama-Lovare was confused. Later, he told Mara-Gaye what Leprhe-he had told him, and Mara-Gaye repeated what Leprhe-she had told her. Then they wondered what it would be like to play the special game and Mara-Gaye boxed Sama-Lovare around the ears, but Sama-Lovare said that that was supposed to come later. So Mara-Gaye apologised and placed her lips on his ear, and Sama-Lovare took her in his arms and placed his lips on hers.

'The sun fell out of the heavens and they didn't notice. The moons rose above the hills, the red dog hard on the heels of the white rabbit, and they didn't notice. When Wrak-Kateh summoned the blue sky back to the valley Sama-Lovare clasped and Mara-Gaye arched and their bones shook in their skins.

'Sama-Lovare did not go out exploring for many weeks. Each evening he brought the freshest green shoots to Mara-Gaye in her cave, and every evening Mara-Gaye would throw them to one side and take her sibling into her arms instead. Eight times the red moon grew fat and shrivelled away, and in time Mara-Gaye too grew fat, though she chose not to eat the fresh shoots and instead went hunting for mud and bark to sate her strange cravings.

'When the first waters flooded from Mara-Gaye's loins, the siblings grew fearful. "What is happening to me?" wailed Mara-Gaye. Sama-Lovare went looking for Leprhe-she, who by this time was surrounded by many children and grandchildren. Together they went back to the cave which Mara-Gaye had decorated in soft leaves and dry earth.

'"Now is the time for you to relax your limbs and let the birthing waves flush your children from your body," said Leprhe-she. But for Mara-Gaye the waves were earthquakes breaking her body. For a day and a night the pains wracked her spine and her stomach, until a time came just before morning and a tiny person pushed past Mara-Gaye's loins and entered the world.

'"Now is the time for you to lick the new one clean," said Leprhe-she. "He will bring you a present at the end of his tether, which you must eat. Then you can place him near your teat so you can return the gift, pressing the warm milk into his belly."

'"Why does he have holes where we have eyes?" asked Sama-Lovare.

'Leprhe-she looked at the baby. "I do not know," she said. "My children are born ugly and naked, but they all have their eyes hidden behind their lids. Maybe the next child will look better."

'But there were no more children born to Mara-Gaye that day, just the tethered meat which Mara-Gaye ate, its blood running across her cheeks. And by the time she had licked the baby clean and placed it by her teat, it no longer cried, or breathed.

'Mara-Gaye knew at that time a shivering and sorrow and hurt of such force that she could have rent the universe into pieces, if only she had known how. Leprhe-she said to Sama-Lovare: "Maybe if she had eaten the green shoots instead of mud and bark, your child would still live." And then she went away.

'For a time the siblings were sundered from each other, though no mountain or river separated them. Mara-Gaye had loved her son from the first moment he had tickled her ribs with his toes. Together the siblings dug a hole by the river and laid his tiny body within it. They showered him with flowers and moss, then filled his grave with tear-mixed earth and placed a great stone on top of him. And after, they left the Valley: Sama-Lovare climbed the mountains that lead to the Roof of the World, while Mara-Gaye followed the river down and down until eventually she found the ocean.

'Seasons passed until a new spring came, and time had curdled their pain into an ache beneath the heart; only then did the siblings – each in their own way – return to the Valley of Home.'

From beyond the window, the jungle was in full song, overloading the night air with unknown howls and chirrups. In the room, Arbelle was crying. Delesse moved over to her sister to comfort her, wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.

'This is an awful story, Maeduul! What do you hope to gain by scaring her like this?'
Maeduul rose up from her kneeling position, limped her way across the room to refill her mug with water from the tap in the corner.

'How could the little baby die?' sobbed Arbelle. 'This story is worse than the Waily Fish!'
Still Maeduul said nothing, instead returning with her mug to resume her kneeling position on her heels. She held her head down, nestling it to one side so the bony flange along her jaw line dug into her thin shoulder.

'I will have an explanation, Maeduul!'

Maeduul looked up at Delesse, the features of her face smudged and flickering in the light of the half-burned candle. But her stare was strong and steady, unfazed by Delesse's admonition.

Finally she spoke. 'You must know the truth of these matters. Send the young one to bed if she is too upset to hear more of my words.'

'What truth? There is no truth in your stories. They are an abomination to God!'

At this, the tiny woman smiled: 'And you have lived in the Old City for how many years?'

'What? I don't understand you! I live here, in Bassakesh.'

'And by your own words you confirm your ignorance, sweet one. They will eat you like a sugared date; they will suck your flesh like a mango, and throw the stone of you in the street.'

'I will be a Courtesan ...'

'You will be what your husband decides you will be, and nothing more, unless you know the truth of these things!'

Delesse was shocked at the sudden, harshness – Maeduul never used such a direct, challenging tone. Arbelle, too, was staring at the woman, her crying diminished to gulps.

Maeduul straightened her head, smiled at the open mouths in front of her. 'The wise ladies should settle themselves,' she said. 'Luetsa-ten has asked me to tell you both a story. It is a story I have told before. I told it to luetsa-ten many years ago, when she was scared to her death. Scared by not knowing who to trust in the windy courts of the Old City. I was sent by another to tell her this story; it horrified her, yes, the story can do that, but then that is the purpose of stories, is it not?'

'Mother told you to ...?'

'No, she asked me to tell you this story, just as she asked me – begged me – to tell you the stories when you were much younger, the Servant stories of Mara-Gaye and Sama-Lovare, of the Princes of animals and birds, of the majesty of the Creator Himself. And so I have done.' She sipped her water, then continued. 'But once this story is told, this night, there will be no more. Understand? Maeduul will not risk her soul's breath for luetsa-ten or her sweet kittens after this night is done!

'Now settle, my wise women, and listen to my words.'

'Seasons passed until a new spring came, and time had curdled their pain into an ache beneath the heart; only then did the siblings – each in their own way – return to the Valley of Home.

'But the valley had changed in their absence. Now it was the Valley of Rabbits – everywhere Sama-Lovare looked, he saw fur. The green swards along the banks of the river were trodden to mud; the warm pools filled with dung. Everywhere Mara-Gaye looked she saw Leprhe-hes mounting Leprhe-shes; she saw Leprhe-children suckling at their dam's teats. Sama-Lovare was angry at the destruction of their valley, but Mara-Gaye could only taste a bitterness in her mouth, and her teat ached for the touch of a miniature man's lips.

'One morning Wrak-Kateh returned to the valley, his loud song welcoming the dawn of a new day. Sama-Lovare said: "let us go and talk to Wrak-Kateh." Together, the siblings climbed the valley cliffs. The Prince of Chickens welcomed them warmly, but he could see grief in their faces.

'"Tell me all that has happened since I last visited you," he said, and so they did, each recalling a part of their story until the puzzle of its telling was made clear.

'Then Wrak-Kateh howled! "Woe that Princes of Creatures should be so poorly advised! I wish my wattles ran with blood for leaving you to learn such things from the rabbit folk!" And indeed, from that day hence, the wattles of all cocks and hens became the colour of blood, to remind them of how they failed to teach people the truth of the Creator's intent.

'"We thought the Leprhes were wise, like you," said Sama-Lovare.

'"The Princes of the Rabbits are indeed wise creatures, but the Leprhes are not princes. Princes are born of the first fruit of their Life Tree; they are the knowledge and the souls of their race. But the creatures that emerge from the fruit that follows are lesser creatures. I am the first fruit of the Tree of Chickens; I would not trust my kinfolk to tell you the time of day!"

'"So why did life run so quickly from my child?" asked Mara-Gaye. "Why was the wind of his lungs stolen?"

'Wrak-Kateh looked into the sky, as if searching for answers in the shapes of the clouds. Finally, he said: "The Creator first created life to decorate His creation, but that life was without knowledge. It knew nothing of His designs. When He created life anew, He arranged things differently. To each race of creatures He gave knowledge of what was and what is, and maybe what shall be. And yet life is life, and is driven to recreate itself. So He chose to give knowledge to the first fruit, and fecundity to those fruits that follow, so that knowledge will not be diluted through the ages."

'"I do not understand," said Mara-Gaye.

'"You are the first fruit of the People Tree," said Wrak-Kateh. "Within you, you hold the knowledge of everything the Creator wishes your race to know. But it is not your purpose to create new life: that shall be the work of the lesser fruit that the People Tree will bear."

'Mara-Gaye was silent for a while, then said: "I wish now I didn't understand. I would trade all the Creator's knowledge to feel a child grow inside me again."

'But there was hope in Sama-Lovare's heart, for he learned from Wrak-Kateh's words that the Leprhes were lesser folk. The Great Cockerel called out to Kaya-Brishe, the Prince of Eagles, who came to the Valley of Home and taught Sama-Lovare how to hunt and cook rabbits. "They are good eating," said Kaya-Brishe, "and their fur will keep you warm when you travel to the mountains where the rain turns to ice and snow."

'And soon enough the valley was cleared of the vermin, except for the fattest and furriest rabbits, which Sama-Lovare kept in a cave.

'For Mara-Gaye, though, the days turned slowly. She took no interest in Sama-Lovare's activities, instead preferring to sit between the great roots of the People Tree, waiting for signs of new fruit.

'One evening, when the valley was flush with the growth of fresh grass blades, Mara-Gaye fell into a dream. She climbed the People Tree and sat on its great bough, close to the trunk. The Tree asked: "Why do you sit among my roots, little one?"

'"I wait for your fruits," said Mara-Gaye. "If the Creator does not wish me to carry a child in my womb, then I will nurse the lesser people to come."

'"Little one, there will be no lesser people. You and your brother are the only fruit I shall ever bear. It is the Creator's will."

'And in an instant Mara-Gaye saw the truth in this knowledge. She raged. She woke from her dream and still she raged! Her anger brought rocks crashing from the cliffs. Her wrath drove the waters in the river uphill! When her feet stamped on the ground in her passion dance the very earth cracked and bled.

'"What ails you?" shouted Sama-Lovare. The sight of his sister's violence scared him so much that his eyes almost came loose from their sockets.

'Mara-Gaye screamed, the force of her lungs carrying her words even to the peaks of the Roof of the World. "I am Your greatest creation," she roared, "and yet You would deny me what I most desire? I deny You! I shall oppose Your work and Your world with every last muscle and sinew in my body. I shall see You crawl on Your belly like the least of worms!"

'Mara-Gaye was not challenging Sama-Lovare. She was challenging the Creator Himself. And the Creator heard her challenge and for the first time since the start of existence He knew fear. For Mara-Gaye was indeed His greatest creation, greater even than Sama-Lovare, and the knowledge within her was the most powerful.

'The Creator knew He had no choice but to answer Mara-Gaye's challenge. He stepped from His palace of ice and fire within the peaks of the Roof of the World and stepped into the Valley of Home. Sama-Lovare cowered at the sight of him, a giant in the form of both man and woman, and covered his ears when the First Voice of the Universe spoke. Mara-Gaye, however, stood firm.

'"I am," He stated.

'"I shall become," replied Mara-Gaye, her voice a whisper compared to the Original Roar.

'"I remain," said the Creator

'"Only to the end of days. Only until the last galaxy has spun its final circle. Then You shall be no more. A void as absolute as the space within my womb!"

'And the Creator smiled. "That is a truth," He said.

'Mara-Gaye, too, smiled. "Change me," she asked. "Let me be the mother of lesser people."

'"You have eternal life," said the Creator. "You are the Queen of Princes. You are the eyes that see My creations and the mouth that gives them meaning."

'"Nevertheless," said Mara-Gaye.

'"And what of the Prince of People?" asked the Creator.

'"He shall come to understand, in time," said Mara-Gaye.

'The Creator nodded. "That which has been set in motion, it cannot be changed. Only a new situation can be created, only a new motion set."

'"You have that power in Your hands," said Mara-Gaye.

'"Indeed!" agreed the Creator, and in that moment He took His great axe from His belt and in one shining sweep severed His hand from His body. And then He took that hand and laid it upon the bough of the People Tree and drove a splinter of diamond through it, so that the giant hand hung from the tree like a fruit.

'"Grow!" He commanded the tree. And the People Tree did as it was ordered, pumping its life-sap into the Creator's hand. As the fingers lengthened, the tree's roots became brittle and dry; as each digit took the shape of a person, the tree's trunk withered and cracked. When finally the lesser people stretched free of the husk of the palm, the People Tree died, its last act complete.

'And there, my wise women, my telling of this story must end. For you know the rest, from the faint resonances that you remember after the Corn Bird stole the true story from your mind. To the first man came four women, one from each finger, shapely and comely and compliant to his will. But know this: from the thumb grew a man, a husband for the first woman and the father of her many daughters, who held in their bodies the steel certainties of their mother.

'I have restored this truth for you; do not repeat it! You do not have the skills – yet – to defend your minds against the Corn Bird, and she will be eager to reclaim those words from you. Keep the story close to your hearts and your guts! While the meat that hangs from your bones may be a flesh-gift of your parents, and theirs, and theirs before them, be aware that the blood of Mara-Gaye herself runs within the veins of women as wise as you!'

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Snowdrop 10.3: The Tiger Hunts

The Tiger Hunts

She walks the sods and the soils of the Marsh,
each saucer paw puddling the dirt
into oval dents. When ditches block
her path she leaps them, pitching her limbs
in a stretch across the stagnant waters --
a surge of blacks and sorrels burst
through the chilled air, chasing the ducks
from sleep in the reeds. She sniffs at the earth,
whiskers spreading the stiffened shafts
of winter wheat in whorls and swirls,
touching, tasting the tangs of this world.

She stills mid-step when she sees the prey:
a lamb-swelled sheep lifts up its head,
cud on the tongue, twitch-ears sculling
for a hint of sound outside the known
creaks and crackles of its cold-hugged home.

Slowly, she shifts -- a splint of an inch:
a slide of muscle, a slip of claw
through dock and clover, and crouch, and settle
the tail, and wait. Watch for the tuck
of a head, the scrape of hoof on ice ...

... and dash! Her furs flash as she streaks
across the turf; a tap of her pad
and they tumble down, a tousle of wool
and hoof and scat. The herd stampedes,
their bleat alarms alerting others:
danger! Danger! Dogs on the loose!
Teeth on the throat! Tearing, ripping.
Run to the gate; gather and huddle!

But she is no hound. She hauls her catch
back to the ditch, dips through the reeds
and into the water, etching a curl
of ripples from bank to bank as she paddles
her course to the sluice, and the sea beyond.

Snowdrop 10.1: On the Cusp of the Marsh

On the Cusp of the Marsh

No sound -- ripples careen across
the canal's water, a clack of duckwings
freighting the air, fighting for lift:
an arrow disrupted by a rifle's bark.

No sound -- the wires that weave the levels
together susurrate, static electrics
woven from atoms at the world's end,
charging in steps to streets and hearths.

No sound -- beyond the unyielding Wall
waves furl and surge, froth and collapse;
the shingle chatter a shadowy chant
to the deep lower of lorries, cars.

No sound can breach her bloodied ears.
A sun has banished the sourcerous mist:
ochre on blue, it bloats the sky.
No sound, no smell; no sight, no touch --
a newborn woman walks from the dawn.