Microfiction 418: Biron

Dear Nicola,

I’m leaving you because of Simon de Montfort. I realize that this is surprising, particularly after twenty years of marriage, and acknowledge that I have no one to blame but myself. If, twenty years ago, I had done the reading which is incumbent on an academic spouse, this might have been avoided. (In my defence, your hour-long discussion of the thesis you were then writing about ‘de Montfort and theologico-military orthodoxy’ was hardly inviting to a twenty-five year-old dentist, even if it was first-date nerves). But I failed to find out about the man whom you have so often (and so mortifyingly) referred to as the love of your life, just as I failed to consider that academics choose the field which, no matter how abstruse or impersonal, always reflects some part of themselves.

In itself, this is neither a good nor bad thing; our species has greatly benefitted from the scholarly few who have examined their own lives through the language of quarks, leptons, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, split infinitives in Athabascan, and Macrobian encyclopaedism, to name a few of your colleagues’ niche interests. We do not mind if a physicist enacts quantum superposition in his daily life, or a linguist divides his children according to the vagaries of Dinka noun classes, because we believe that these purely intellectual habits have little to no moral loading. Even historians of the pre-twentieth century are released from the suspicion that what they study and endorse scholastically has any relevance to their moral selves. We persist in treating them as sweetly fuddy-duddy souls whose dusty areas of study make them fit only for the Cardigan Club.

Again, I fully acknowledge my own fault here. You had told me, explicitly and repeatedly, that you found Simon de Montfort a paragon of manliness, of military and political effectiveness, of religious and ethical excellence, and of spousal attachment (though I notice that you, unlike Alix de Montmorency, never accompanied me on my campaigns against cavities in the under-5s). I persisted in believing that Simon de Montfort and I only crossed paths during our summer holidays, which you have always (and without consultation) decided to take somewhere relevant to his life. However, I am happy to admit that I have enjoyed many July and August weeks at Muret and Toulouse, Fanjeau and Carcassone, without being troubled by any thought that we visited them to commemorate the life of a murderer.

It wasn’t until we arrived in Biron last week that the real nature of de Montfort’s career struck me, and what that said about you, who have devoted your life to a starry-eyed adoration of his appalling deeds. Don’t mistake me: if I had thought this interest was in any way critical, I would not be leaving this letter on the dresser while you sleep.

We were in the car, if you remember, going towards Biron from Gavaudun in the late afternoon. the sun was setting behind the castle on its hill and you were describing how the Cathars had been briefly beseiged there by de Montfort, before the castle had fallen and he had killed them all. You have, over twenty summer holidays, given me a comprehensive account of the crusade against the Cathars, and the incidental economic and social benefits to men like de Montfort who prosecuted that vicious campaign against them. For the first time, however, I saw in the evening peace of that rosy-coloured castle, all the good things that Simon de Montfort wantonly destroyed, both from avarice and some warped idea of orthodoxy. Biron of the Cathars continues to emanate something of their tranquil and world-denying spirit; a great sense of peace settled on me, and I thought I understood the attraction of what you have always called the ‘Cathar cowards’. At the same time, it became clear, as I struggled to deal with your criticism of my parking outside the pension, that I had unexpectedly arrived at a crossroads and was confronted with a choice (as I wrestled our luggage up the stairs) between a preference for peace and kindness, a certain world-denying spirit of my own, and my legal preference for you, my wife.

In the morning, you went photographing the site where Simon executed Martin Algai, the lord of Biron (with whom I also have no sympathy). I sat on a wall by the castle well and listened for the first time to what you might call (with that awful snort of derision I have heard at so many departmental parties), my heart. I won’t bore you with the dusty and probably neurotic ramblings of a forty-five year-old dentist’s heart, but what I realized was this: that had we both been alive eight hundred years ago, I would have been one of those retiring bonshommes watching you ride to Biron in Simon’s brutal train. I have no inclination to be a Bogomil now, I should say, but had the choice between the church of Rome and the bonschretiennes been available, I feel sure that the brutalism of the former and the gentleness of the later would have decided me.

As I was sitting, like Jacob at the well, that young man with the guitar and dreadlocks whom you told sharply to move along when he offered to play for us last night at dinner, came up and began a song. Happily, my French – even my Occitan – has improved greatly over the course of our twenty academic summers, so I knew what he sang:

We are the poor of Christ,
with no fixed home, 
fleeing from city to city 
like sheep amid wolves.  
We live a holy life, straining day and night 
in hunger, in renunciation, 
in prayer, in labour
because we are not of this world. 
But you, worldlings, 
you love this world. 
By your fruits you shall know them, 
says Christ. 

And so my dear, my crusader-wife, I am leaving you because of the sun behind Biron of the Cathars, because of a song heard at a well, and because the man of your many monographs has your stony heart.

Peace,

Bernard.

Microfiction 417: Namibian Eye

The door swing silently to behind them and closed with a tiny click. Panicked, they both put a hand on it and pushed, but it was shut fast. Nico scrabbled at the door’s edge. ‘There’s no handle.’

Alo raised the lantern and stood back from the door. He looked at the wall around it, the floor before it, even the shadows of the passageway’s low ceiling, but there was nothing which could have been a handle, or even a secret trigger for the door. Turning the lantern on the wall opposite the door, he gave a sudden yelp. A huge, dark-irised eye was painted on the wall, watching them. Nico laughed. ‘It’s just a Namibian Eye.’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s like a wagging finger,’ Nico said scornfully. ‘It’s supposed to remind you that someone’s always watching, making sure you obey the rules. My great-grandfather had them painted everywhere at home, miserable old stoat. Even in the pantry. It’s nothing.’

‘What’s this on the floor?’ Alo shone the lantern on a jagged line painted on the warped floorboards. It looked ancient and flaking, but was still barely perceptible.

‘Maybe the whole thing was painted once,’ said Nico. ‘Things to scare off commoners who caught sight of the door. Who knows? It doesn’t help us get out. Who would build a door – even a secret door – without a handle on both sides.’

‘I suppose it makes sense,’ said Alo slowly. ‘They couldn’t come back this way because they’d be seen leaving the library quad. It would look odd for them to be leaving after midnight, when the library’s closed. But the Camera never closes, so they could leave from there at any time.’

‘But what if…I don’t know, what if they forgot something, or it wasn’t safe to go into the Camera?’ said Nico. ‘Their sort always makes sure they’ve a way out.’

This was true, Alo thought. The Twelve could not have survived for so many centuries without many ways in and out, refuges all around The Stowe and perhaps even in the mainland country beyond the island. ‘Maybe they had someone…’ he stopped, considering what this meant.

‘…on the other side of the door,’ Nico said. ‘Which means that Doctor Pangrave knows.’

‘Or is one of them,’ Alo said soberly. It was a bad blow. Kind Pangrave, who had heard their oaths and taught them how to use the beating heart of The Stowe, one of the Twelve? ‘Maybe he’s not. Maybe they’re making him do it.’

‘And all the librarians before him?’ said Nico. ‘Hardly. He wouldn’t have been appointed if he couldn’t keep their secrets, and they’d only tell those to one of their own.’

They stood in silence for a minute, holding their disappointment, then Alo sighed. ‘Come on. The only way out now is through.’

They set off down the passage, trying to keep track of what was above them. Without the familiar books, signs, black-clad librarians drifting about and readers who were only ever seen in one reading room or another, it was impossible to tell. After a whole Nico said, ‘Surely we’re well beyond the library quad now. This feels endless. It doesn’t take this long to walk between things above ground.’

‘No, it doesn’t,’ said Alo. ‘Do you feel as though we’ve been walking in circles?’

‘But how could we? The passage is straight.’

‘But if it curved very, very slightly we probably wouldn’t notice,’ said Alo. ‘You wouldn’t feel it. And the lantern only lights a little way, so we wouldn’t see the passage bending.’

‘It’s possible,’ said Nico, ‘but it would make a very wide circle. And if it kept curving, we’d eventually come back to the start.’

‘Exactly,’ said Alo. ‘I marked the beginning, by the Namib’s Eye, with chalk. If we come on it soon, we’ll know that we made a big loop.’

And some minutes later, they saw the Eye with Alo’s chalk mark beneath. ‘I thought so,’ Alo said grimly. ‘And I know what the Eye is, too. And those lines on the floor.’

‘What?’

‘An ourouboros,’ Alo said. ‘You know, the snake biting its own tail. The whole passage makes a wide circle around the Camera, probably as far round as the river. The snake protects it and confuses anyone who doesn’t know. You could go in endless circles around and around the Camera – you couldn’t get out because there’s no door back to the library, and you don’t know how to get into the Camera.’

‘We’re not going to do that, are we?’ said Nico tightly.

‘No,’ said Alo, looking at the unblinking eye on the wall. ‘It’s clear where we are now. We’re in the head of the snake.’ He held the lantern up to the Eye. ‘I thought so,’ he said. He put a finger on its unreflecting pupil and pressed. The wall around it moved smoothly backwards in a rectangle, with the Namibian Eye in the centre. There was a flight of stairs leading down into further darkness. It looked airless and frightening.

‘Is the only way out still through?’ said Nico hopefully.

”Fraid so,’ said Alo. ‘Come on. We should be under the Camera in about a hundred steps.’ He headed into the darkness with Nico behind him. As they reached the bottom of the steps the rectangle above them slid shut. The passage had an earthen floor and smelled of recent torch flame, wine, and something else. Alo realized it must have been dug out long before the library and the Camera were built, perhaps before The Stowe was even settled by the first scholars.

A wall, with a small door and ten dark patches on the walls around it, appeared ahead of them. ‘Eighty-eight steps,’ said Nico. ‘We must be right under the middle of the Camera.’

But Alo was staring at the ten patches on the walls in horror. They were not patches but badges, bearing the insignia of ten members of the Twelve. Some he did not recognize – the basilisk, the armillary sphere, the mushroom cloud and thunderbolt. Some he knew – the Rector’s golden martlets, the biscione of Dr Johnson, the coiled serpent argent of Dr Mapstone. And in the third row, the white hart of Dr Peniel.

Microfact 416: Moonstone

Wilkie Collins’ detective novel The Moonstone continues to attract fans because it articulates the fear which dogs every intelligent reader; the fear, that is, that the final twist in the tale where the perpetrator is identified will show that it was the protagonist – which is to say, ourselves. What distinguishes The Moonstone from other novels where this happens – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and perhaps to a lesser degree The Mystery of the Yellow Chamber, or even If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller – is Franklin Blake’s horror at the realization that he himself is the spectre he has been pursuing.

Who has not read a text with that weird feeling of unease that they are reading about themselves, that at any moment they will come across their own name, and that the text will turn out to be a letter to them or perhaps even in their own hand? Who has not been troubled by a novelist’s (or encyclopaedist’s, or even advertising copywriter’s) apparent knowledge of them, and briefly considered that they have done things, been things, that they will only learn about in the final, twist in the tale moments? Perhaps this horror reflects the true cost of secularism, since such a relationship between text and reader was once regarded as salutary and axiomatic of Scripture.

We keep reading The Moonstone because it demonstrates the mirror-ball effect that frightens and attracts us to texts. We are at once drawn to, and repelled by, this aspect which is the heaven of romance novels, the hell of detective novels, the scourage of the moralists, the mirror of the postmodernists, this shattering possibility that we have been reading about ourselves, all along.

Image: Magritte, Reproduction Interdit via https://parodiesandvariations.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/magritte-reproduction-prohibited-portrait-of-edward-james-1937-does-an-about-face/

Microfiction 415: Binghamite

The Christian mystery’s westward drift was a literalizing one. In the east, the understanding of Jesus was figurative, ecstatic, made fertile by the rich soil of the Greek language. The dream of Montanus’ priestess Priscilla, in which Jesus appeared as a woman who laid beside her as she slept and ‘put wisdom into me…and that in this place Jerusalem above comes down’, could only have occurred in Greek. Likewise, Marcion’s disgust at the Apostles’ stupidity, his reminder that Elisha had had children eaten by bears, and that Joshua had halted the sun itself in order to keep slaughtering his enemies – that horror comes from frustration with the dull literalism that admits of no echoes between things and things, worlds and worlds, which is the revelatory power of metaphor. Going west, we see only attempts to curb the proliferation of meanings to which words are naturally given, in the manner of those vines carved on the temples of Attis in Cybele. This literalism culminated in such absurdities as John Calvin, the Christian Israelites, and the Westboro Baptist Church.

Fortunately, the spherical nature of Earth – whatever certain Zetetics claim – inevitably makes oriental even the most determinedly occidental thing, and the mystery of suffering is no exception. Upon reaching the American continent, the stringent literalism of European Protestantism eventually accepted a suit of figurative clothes, cut from the language of that place and that time. Through that language, uniquely suited to their materialistic outlook and love of aphorism, Americans came to understand the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and the problem of the human soul.

The specific language was Rheology, one of the lesser children of Chemical Engineering, and the prophet who spoke it to the sinful world of the 1930s was a chemistry professor named Eugene C. Bingham. History dares us to ridicule the admission of Eugene C. Bingham to the company of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Dee, and Emanuel Swedenborg, but Saul of Tarsus made tents, Jan Zizka was a general, and Lodowicke Muggleton was a tailor – so we might ask why should a religious visionary not also be a chemist, and use that language to express the nature of the soul.

America in the 1930s was a world not only respectful of science and its mysteries but one confident of their potential to relieve depression both economic and spiritual. On a bright day in June 1933, Bingham was seized by a spirit both revelatory and beneficent which spoke to him rheologically. In this Damascene moment Bingham understood that the soul is a viscoplastic entity, a body which remains static, colloidal, viscid under low stresses (which express the nature and effect of sin). But when subjected to the stress of temptation that viscid hypostasis becomes motile and fluxive. Indeed, he saw, the greater the stress of sin, the faster the once congealed soul flowed. A more competent (perhaps because less confident) demonstrator of the Mysteries than was Simon Magus, Bingham knew that this had to be shown to the masses, who accept demand that miracles be sold drummed up with a speech. Using those homely American products which make plausible even the least likely of propositions, Bingham revealed the proof of his rheological revelation to the thousands of dispossessed, vagrant souls who flocked to Lafayette College as if it were a second Pepuza.

Although he did not succeed in confirming whether the soul really did weigh 21 grams, the Binghamites received the Word made viscoplastic and rejoiced. Had not your soul been a stable quantity within you, he asked, the particles of various humble virtues bonding together, private and sufficient unto themselves as toothpaste within the tube, mayonnaise within the jar? And when the evils of poverty, fatigue, and temptation bore down upon you did you not resist, until the shear stress of sin was so great that your very soul turned fluid and fled from it? And when you had fled that stress, did not your soul still once again, made coherent even as mustard upon the hot dog, clay suspensions within the drilling pipe?

Verily, Bingham brought a new dualism to the world, of yield stress and plastic viscosity, and the Binghamites saw the soul as an imperfect emanation of higher forces, caught between shear stress and shear rate. Embracing this revelation, the Binghamites articulated salvation through the tongue of non-Newtonian fluids, just as the Phibionites formulated their abominations in Greek.

But prophets must offer a praxis in which the faithful can live the doxis, and Bingham was also one of the co-creators of that great exercise in American mobile asceticism, the Appalachian Trail. Today the Binghamites test the viscoplasticisty of their souls by exposure to the shear stresses of rain, wind, fatigue, and pain in the hope that, between Georgia and Maine, their sin-fluid souls will cohere and experience the styptic mystery of faith.

Microfiction 414: Mozambique Star

Bahati and her housekeeping cart usually got to the end bungalow as the tide went out of the bay. The woman was still there, on her laptop, with her phone in one hand, arguing in three or four languages. They were supposed to come back if guests were still in, but the woman had made a carry on gesture and turned away, telling someone to buy at 28 or lower.

For the first three days, the woman had done her shouting directly into the phone. On the fourth day she had a headset on, a half-manacle clamped around her head, glowing blue. On the fifth day she was typing furiously on the laptop, her pale shoulders hunched over it like the women who bagged maize-flour in the market. Daunted by the relative silence after so many days of cleaning to shouting at stock markets in Europe and Asia, Bahati said softly, ‘I can come back.’

The woman made a holding noise, finished banging out her sentence, and turned. ‘No, it’s fine. Just do..’ she waved at the rest of the room, ‘…it. Just do it.’ She turned back to the laptop. A graph appeared on the screen, the line climbing and dipping in an inexorable real time.

‘It’s a beautiful day,’ Bahati said, looking at the bay. Two small trees in the sandbanks stood revealed by the tide, and far out where the ocean proper began, the Lodge dhow circled on its anchor chain, blown by a breeze the women could not feel. The woman nodded and stared at the screen. She wore a fine gold chain, quite short, that sat just below her throat, with a tiny golden star suspended from it. Bahati watched her pulse beating in time with the line-graph, which climbed and dipped like a bird pecking its way across a turned furrow. It was impossible to tell how old the woman was, or whether she had children, or even if she was married. Her fingers were slim, ringless, the fine sand-brown of someone who worked indoors and holidayed often and expensively. Her shoulders were rigid with tension.

‘Have you been to town?’ Bahati knew she hadn’t been past the Lodge swimming pool. On the second day, a Hunza G swimsuit smelling of chlorine appeared in the bath, and remained where Bahati had hung it. The woman stared numbly at her, as if an item of furniture were persisting in a conversation. ‘My husband went.’ Her gaze kept flittering back to the screen, like a little bat. ‘He takes…he’s a photographer.’

Bahati nodded. ‘You can buy silver in the star fortress.’ There was a minute flicker of interest in the woman’s face at the words buy silver, then it smoothed out. ‘The star fortress,’ she said.

Bahati nearly laughed. Her eldest son, Daudi, repeated things when he was unsure what you wanted from him. He was nine. She had the feeling that this woman, with her wardrobe full of silk, and her fine-grained, dewy skin, was like Daudi – she wanted to show you what she could do well, but nothing else. ‘They built it right on the shore, in the water,’ Bahati said. ‘Like a waiting room for the slaves. They put the slaves on ships and took them off to America. Fortaleza São João Baptista. Now the silver workers are there.’

The woman nodded. Slavery usually froze the guests in their tracks. No matter how rich, how rude, how surprised they were when you spoke – if you said something about slaves they stopped. They folded up like a letter and waited for you to finish. It made her smile. She had never been a slave. Her many-times-ago great-grandparents had sold slaves to the Arabs, the Portuguese, the British. ‘You can take the dhow out, with a crew. Go snorkelling. Look at fish in the other Quirimbas islands.’ Get some sun, she thought. Leave your phone here.

The phone rang. The woman snatched it up and clamped the headset back on like a shackle. She was strident within five words. Bahati turned away, spraying polish on the bedhead. It was nearly noon. In the afternoon she would take Daudi and Ayubu to the bay to look for clams. When she turned back the woman had put her elbows on either side of the laptop and was talking insistently to the screen, her head in her hands. Her thin shoulders were level with her ears. Bahati reached out a hand to touch the woman but stilled in mid-air. The pale shoulders continued to twitch in real time with European markets. Bahati withdrew her hand silently and wheeled her cart away.

Microfiction 413: Biggs

The judge – one of ten judges of the Supreme Court, known as Ministers, although no one was entirely sure what they administered or to whom – sat in his vast chair behind the judicial bench, indistinguishable from his nine fellows, and listened to Dr. Sorites Galvez Gamba’s plea. He had been a judge for a very long time, rising from the dusty rural courts where half the plaintiffs had four feet, and he had frequently been forced to separate parties with his bare hands in his gown and wig, to the lower courts of the city, where he sentenced children to hard labour for stealing food. Now he sat on the highest court in the country, beyond which there was no appeal. Since the military junta had fallen and people were getting up the courage to misbehave again, and to appeal the decisions of lower courts, the Supreme Court had been busy.

He was very old and believed that he had heard almost every species of plea possible. Faces meant very little to him now; in fact, he could not focus clearly on the appellant down in the glooms of the court, hoping a thin ray of justice might reach him. Instead, the judge recognized pleas, which he grouped in families and which he thought, as the old often think, were becoming less promising, less noble and profound, as history went on.

Now, for example, Dr Gamba was appealing the decision of a lower court to allow the extradition of his client, Sr Ronald Biggs, a bank robber whose crime and sentence had been committed in a country which the judge had visited once, for further study, in his youth. Sr Biggs had committed this crime, which had indirectly led to the death of a man, many years ago – so many, in fact, that it was around the same time that the judge had been there, studying the philosophy of law in that civilized country of green meadows and low grey rivers. Having fled prison, Sr Biggs had settled, like the judge, in the South American dust, where nobody gave a crap about jurisprudence and your standing in life depended on force and arrogance and the legend of your own machismo. Sr Biggs had thrived in this culture, until news of his whereabouts reached the government whose custody he had fled, and an extradition order was made.

This order should not be granted, his lawyer said, because Dr Biggs was no longer the man who had committed the daring robbery. Not even in the figurative sense, although there were many character witnesses who would testify to his uprightness, the benefits he had brought to his adopted land, and his willingness to accuse himself humbly of many other faults. No, in the literal sense, Sr Biggs had experienced so many changes – his cells, his essential self, had replaced themselves so many times since the day of the robbery that the man they composed, cumulatively, was no longer the same man. The hand which had gripped the pistol butt, the hand which had stretched out in the darkness and arrogated to its grip things forbidden to it by many kinds of laws, was not the hand now trembling in the lap of the old man sitting beside my briefcase, his lawyer said.

The judge looked down, but he could not see Dr Biggs clearly. There was a dark blue with three paler blurs which might have been a face and hands, but to the judge Biggs resembled the women in the square before the courthouse who kept a vigil for their sons, brothers, lovers, fathers, who had disappeared during the junta. They accosted him like crows if they saw him, accompanied by his state-assigned bodyguards, and demanded his resignation, demanded the bodies of their men, accused him of complicity with the generals, and spitting on the gall that kept him in the judiciary even now.

The judge continued to listen, motionlessly, to the lawyer, although he had already identified the family, so to speak, of which this plea was a member. He recalled a hot day quite recently, shortly after the new government had been installed and he had been advised to take a long holiday, perhaps even a sabbatical, to Greece. He had looked at a ship in the Piraeus, the ship of the hero Theseus, who had returned to Athens with his cargo of young men saved from the Minotaur, and whose ship had been preserved, with minor alterations, in the harbour. He should, the judge thought, return to Athens before he became too old to travel.

Down before the bench, Sr Biggs’ lawyer was explaining that the entire body renewed itself every six or seven years and that beyond this time any attempt to attach a crime to a perpetrator was effectively a case of mistaken identity. Seated before the nation’s flag, the judge considered the point. Certainly, the belief that we are not the person who signed a death warrant, or who carried it out, or even the individual who saw the victim being dragged away by the police, was a trick of mind which made life possible. Like ignoring the nose which is, in fact, always in the centre of your vision, or ignoring the absolute certainty that you are bound for death. The ten, or twenty, or forty years between a single, exquisitely vicious act and the hand on your shoulder in a distant market-place could only be lived through if you believed that time had literally rebuilt you, and that the instant the act was over you were already a different person, made new by dint of a new position in time, like praying the Stations of the Cross, or parking spaces marked along a street. We must believe this, the judge thought, or we’d be manacled to the bed every morning by a concrete block of guilt and horror at ourselves.

He looked at the pale blur of Sr Biggs’ face and hands, which had not moved since his lawyer began speaking. How nice it would be, to be merely a pale blur! Just the idea of a face and hands, of identity and agency, down there in the extra-judicial gloom! The pale smudges reminded him again of the women outside, and then of Athens, and the ship, and other regimes. A punitive judicial system was an educative one; it was pain, not time, that changed people. Even if cells replaced the entire organism many hundreds of times, they taught each new instantiation that the criminal act of several version earlier had worked, had been profitable, and that this renewal was even possible because of the act. Only an educative expiation truly reformed the whole.

The judge decided he would vote against the appeal, and returned to thinking about the ship in the harbour.

Image: http://eldiario.com.uy/2011/08/30/dia-internacional-de-los-desaparecidos/

Dust

Some things are unknowable. A person’s secrets may be revealed by the things they leave behind; but what are they, those supposedly uncovered secrets? Words, ideas…dry and dead as dust.

The rest of the letter had crumbled. She dropped the packet, which turned into large flakes of what had once been paper. Something about the writer’s tone annoyed her. They seemed to be urging someone not to feel guilty about a secret, or perhaps to release what ever secret they were hanging onto, she thought. It felt insidious, specious, manipulative. There was a grimy pink ribbon around the little bundle of letters, which made her think that a woman had received them. So probably a man had written them – or perhaps it was another woman. It was impossible to tell now.

She turned back and picked up what was left of the bundle, looking for a date, but it had crumbled. She put it back down on the bedroll, beside the two skeletons.

Once, shortly after she had left Bradbury Station and returned to Earth, she had collected these things. Letters and calendars, even some diaries – all on real paper, in boxes and tubs, biscuit tins and keepsake chests, from the houses new Returners were given to gut, sort, and detonate as they tried to return the city bit by bit to the earth. After a while she gave up. She had filled her quarters with bundles of crumbling, bad-smelling paper full of the panting, wheedling, longing, fussing and lamenting of lives that had ended over a century before. Well before the Flight had begun. Things in the letters had begun to take up space in her dreams. Like the people who had written them, the stories got mixed up and bred, producing offspring until her head was full of breeding stories, the very thing she had rejected in the Station.

She kept walking through the house, climbing the stairs. Her rebreather reminded her that she had only four minutes of filtering left. The house was part of a mid-twentieth century development. Small identical cubes with small identical gardens, now full of grey dust and unidentifiable windblown trash. In the half-century since the Bradbury Era began, the house had been turned over five times she thought, maybe six. Each round of scavenging began further in. You could count them like tide marks, or tree rings. The letters had been written in a paper era, long before the Breakdown, maybe a century and a half ago.  

There was a bedroom at the end of the hall, with a much more recent corpse on the bed. The body was turned to the window. She squatted down to the level of the bed and looked out at what the sockets had stared at for twenty years. Above the garden wall was a green fringe of tree tops, the first regrowth of the Manzanares forest. She wondered if the scavenger had died before or after the trees had shown over the wall. There was no way of knowing. She thought of the letter. Some things are unknowable.

What had the writer meant? They had talked about secrets. But there was a difference between something unknown because it was deliberately withheld, and something unknown because it was impossible to grasp. The former was a secret, the latter a mystery. Clearly, they were different. And the reasons for their being were different too, and lent different weights and tones to the knowledge they imparted. A mystery told you something about the world, and about the limits of your own capacity to know. A secret told you something about the secret-keeper, and how they saw you. What some scavenger, alone and dying on a ruined earth, had seen as they died, wasn’t a secret. It was a mystery, rendered ungraspable by the nature of time, and the privacy of death.

She went into a second bedroom, which had been emptied of furniture. A fire had been laid beneath the window; the carpet was burned in a neat, hearth-shaped rectangle. She thought about the people abandoned to the radioactive winds, the plastic oceans, to wars that began between nations, and ended between scavenger tribes. It was impossible to know what their life had been like. Had Scavs sat here, sheltering from the dust, telling secrets as they burned through the floor? You kept secrets because you feared things would be worse if they were discovered. So there was no point in secrets when the worst had already happened.

More to the point, she suddenly thought, if the people involved in the secret no longer existed, did the secret itself exist? Was it like the sound of the tree falling in the woods – it needed to be heard for it to have been a noise at all. States of affairs were what the world manifested. But secrets, which were a perspective on states of affairs, needed people to exist, the way a lie could not exist without words. Humanity really was abhorrent, she thought. She stood in the empty room and smiled briefly. In this world without people, secrets and lies had also perished.

Her rebreather flashed red three times and blinked off. She had ten breaths-worth to return to the baler. She moved quickly down the stairs, crushing the bundle of letters beneath her heel.

Words, ideas

[As regular readers may know, every so often I like to try my hand at exam questions usually provided by nephews and nieces or the children of friends who complain that older people have no idea what exertions they face in the exam room. If you’re interested, click the Sample Answers tag above for my attempts at last year’s question. This is from last month’s New South Wales Higher School Certificate. 30,000-odd teenagers were given the opening lines and told to continue them in a narrative of some form. I notice it’s as cheerful as these things always are – I tried valiantly for the 5 mins prep time to think of something happy but the maundering of middle-aged English teachers wore me down eventually. Students had to write for an hour, luckless souls that they were. Quite how this prepares you for life as a chartered accountant, I have no idea.]

*****

Some things are unknowable. A person’s secrets may be revealed by the things they leave behind, but what are they, those supposedly uncovered secrets? They are words, ideas… Dry and dead as dust.

At that point she always woke up. A wide patch of wet cold sweat on her chest and the sound, or perhaps more precisely, the feeling, of his words dry and dead as dust in her head. At that point she would strip off her shirt, pummel some heat back into her chest with it, and lie quietly in the 3am darkness beside her husband, thinking about the man who had tortured her forty years before.

At that point she would count again, subtracting years and multiplying hours, and realize that she had spent more time in her life thinking about the Captain than she had about her husband.

The things she thought about included:

  • that he had had an accent from the mountains
  • that he would be in his eighties now and was likely dead
  • that he had smelled of mate and camel cigarettes
  • that his gold incisor had chipped one of her own front teeth and the only time she had cried about it was when the dentist badgered her to get it fixed
  • that her children were strangers to her in ways that the Captain would never ben, and perhaps never had been even before they met
  • that the Captain’s theory of the Economy of Secrets was the closest thing to a belief that she had
  • that life was really a substrate of incredible, violent events in which you are trapped forever, overlaid by a passing montage of filmy days, children, husbands, houses, diseases, time.

She had once been watching a television programme about Isaac Newton with her daughter, when the presenter suggested that Newtown had been gay, though probably celibate. ‘Who cares?’ her daughter said. ‘I know it was a different day and age, but why keep it a secret, especially if you’re celibate? Secrets are just words. Ordinary facts which you allow to have power over you.’

Sitting beside her on the sofa, her crochet in her lap, she had felt a jolt, as you feel in the car when someone runs solidly into the side of you and the door stoves in, but just holds. Her gut turned to water and the light in the room seemed to change. Her legs wobbled and she slithered to the floor. At the hospital she explained to the doctor that she had been a victim of torture. It had been a sudden flashback. No, she had not told her children. Yes, her husband knew. No, she did not want him to explain to them. It was a secret.

Her daughter had been at pains to tell her mother that she wasn’t gay.

She lay in the cool darkness of Sydney, many thousands of miles and years away, and listened to the planes taking off and thought of the Captain. She wondered how her daughter could so easily have arrived at the same perspective about secrets. Was her daughter a potential torturer? Or the Captain someone’s child, who had sat on a sofa with his mother watching television programmes? Was she herself always turning corners and realizing again and again that there was no way out of that room, and that this thing about dead secrets was what the world most uniquely, painfully, wanted her to know?

When she began to wonder about her daughter’s imagined stamina under torture, she would wake her husband and ask him to make coffee and sit with her in silence as the night wore into day.

What are secrets? he had said, bending over her. Words. Ideas. They’re worthless. They have no real existence.

Then stop asking, she had said, when she could still talk.

The fact has real existence, he said, smiling. She had seen the gold incisor when he smiled. He had a good smile. Confident, confiding, appraising. But secrecy is just an aspect that the fact wears. She remembered that he had used the Italian word aspetto, not the Spanish, aspecto. They had shocked her, and her brain lagged behind her mouth, which was loose and spit-dribbly. She could not gather her thoughts. These language games, thought puzzles that he played with her, were new structures around which to rebuild her electrocuted brain cells.

Where is the Mechon?

She shook her head against the table. She had known where he had been, but that was over a month ago and he moved every other night. The Captain patted her shoulder. We already know where he is. Look. He showed her a tie, with blood on it and a tear from a bullet hole through the middle. It was the one she had seen the Mechon wearing. But I want you to tell me. I already have the fact. I want the secret. He had skirted the table. You’ll die in here, and the secret will still be lying around. Like a crumpled piece of paper. Like this cigarette butt. She had a mark from it on her upper left thigh. A train of circular burns like an ellipsis, leading to nothing. Dot, dot, burn.

He was right. The fact of the Mechon’s whereabouts was a real thing. That fact had value to the police. Information was perhaps the only thing anyone could give to anyone else. But a secret, she realized, tied to the table, a secret has even greater value because it provides information about the world and about the secret-holder. The secret had value to the Captain. It was not the content of the secret that had value, but the fact of its being a secret. A piece of information given greater value than others, because its possession held greater significance for the secret-holder. A secret was information of a higher kind, not because of what it tells you about something, but because of what it tells you about someone.

At that point, she would let sleep take her again. The secret was dust, the Captain was dust. She was not.

If I were you

 If I were you 
 I would have told me
 you once wished to have been 
 a lonely brown star
 on my inner thigh.
 Or that when you thought of Talisker
 you did not picture us together
 because I was the white sand
 the tolerant heads, the blue waves brindling
 And that, best of all,
 you had never known Talisker Bay but in my poetry.
 Or that my body most gloriously,
 most serenely, rest in sleep,
 rhythm in movement
 Is,
 and that the choice I give your eye
 I can take away again.
 I would have told me this because when we argued
 and you owned your sulks and poor manners,
 your deflating me with your queer, proud bitterness
 my eyes wandered over your shoulder
 and in the spring sunshine, saw myself. 

Microfiction 412: Elie

Dear Walpole,

…recalling your complaint of Monday last, that nothing except the most lively storms of either natural or human worlds could provide you with inspiration. Since jobbing portraitists have none of the impediments of literary genius, I did not know how to employ the following narrative when it presented itself to me. I make a gift of it to you and hope that in relating an impression which lately struck me forcible, I may entertain the friend and assuage the genius.

I have lately been in the county of Fife, executing a portrait of Lady Anstruther, of whose beauty and disregard for those protocols which constrain women of her elevation you would have heard had you lived further north. Anstruther is the second to hold the barontecy, which has its seat at Elie on the coast of Fife and is one of the most ancient places in that county the Scotch call the Little Kingdom. Elie house was commenced by the first Lord Anstruther at the end of the last century, and has been made both noble and regular by that Anstruther’s grandson, whose wife provides the subject of my narrative. He is in almost all matters given to charting a strong course and pursuing it to its conclusion, with the utmost indifference to the consequences upon others or the opinions they form of him as a result.

Such was his treatment of the material structure of his ancestral home, which he altered in the face of architects and friends’ advice alike, and in which he proved to be both correct and tasteful. Such also was his treatment of a small hamlet, by name Balclevie, which he ordered cleared of its inhabitants, to improve the prospect from his gallery. There is a persistent and pernicious legend that an old woman (of the sort inseparable from such legends) bestowed a curse upon the Anstruther family in return for her summary eviction. The contents of this curse are variously reported but generally involve the family’s shame by some means connected to the sea. Whether the old woman and her curse have added or detracted from the family’s allure and the prospect from the gallery – which is very fine – I leave to your literary genii.

Such also, in terms of headstrong actions, was Lord Anstruther’s choice of bride. Janet Fall, the object of my journey to Fife and subject of my portrait, was a merchant’s daughter and the same scurrilous rumour which conjures old women and their curses has it that the Falls were once gypsies, whose particular niche was the packing of salted herring – the folk here call them silver darlings – during the season. Despite being at many generations remove from this family occupation, Lady Anstruther is still taunted in the streets of Elie and even Edinburgh as Gypsy Jenny and the Silver Darling.

There is a competent but uninspired likeness by De Nune which I saw as I waited for Lady Anstruther to arrive for her first sitting. She showed a rich indifference to punctuality and I had time to examine the piece, which impressed me only in the depth and intensity of the gaze, which De Nune had rendered a rich and plangent brown. Time grew heavy and I remarked to a servant that her ladyship might have forgotten her appointment, to which the woman replied that Lady Anstruther was swimming and often lost count of the hours when she was ‘oot haif droonin hersel’. When I expressed concern at this practice, I was told with some disdain that not only did the lady hardily take to the cold waters, but did so without apparel – a servant being employed to ring a bell warning the unwary and unworthy away.

I left the purse-lipped servant and made my way to the strand – there is a fine cove at some short distance below the house, which is pleasant in the few bright and windless days that Fife offers. I took shelter in a small clutch of trees and scanned the prospect, which had been improved by Lord Anstruther’s planting and careful nursing of nature into more beautiful and rational dimensions. The weather had dissuaded observers to the point where bell-ringing was needless, and I saw no sign of the servant. The wind blustered and whipped grey peaks on the water, the sand was quite leaden, the sky hung closer to earth and produced a ceiling of anxious, darting clouds.

On a rock a little way out of the cove a seal lay, facing out to sea. It had a long slender body of that colour for which artists strive but cannot quite mix. I would say it is somewhere between a charcoal and brown, and a basaltic black, but the mass and nature of the seal in some way inflects, or perhaps informs the hue, and the seal takes that from the world around it. Thus you have a harmony of world, essence, and appearance.

But this is artists’ business. What I wished to tell you, recalling your argument that it is possible to blend the two kinds of romance, the fantastic and ancient, and the modern rational, was that the seal turned, as I watched, and I saw the plangent eyes raise and fix themselves upon me as I lurked in the copse. I recognized the gaze from its likeness, seen not a half-hour previously, and was transfixed by its sweet intensity, the tragic and terrible prisoner of some awful prophecy. We stared at each other for some moments and then the creature, in a single, sinuous movement, like quicksilver running from a bench, poured itself into the drink and vanished.

Moments passed before I became sensible of myself again, and of a bell ringing, and of a white arm arcing through the water like the sammite-sleeved catcher of Excalibur. A servant appeared, blue-lipped with cold and disapproval, and moved me swiftly within the house.

I have completed the portrait of Lady Anstruther, and it hangs in Elie house, but I invite you to Leicester Fields to examine the preliminary sketches in the belief that you may see in the subject’s dark gaze proof positive of the inspiration you lack.

Reynolds

Image: Lady Janet Anstruther (Jenny Fall) by Joshua Reynolds

Night at 21

When I went into the unit
for another spell
I was made to share a room with
someone who whispered behind their curtain
for hours; who had the light
turned off at 9.30 and slept all night.
Terrified by the
proximity of this stranger
their rustlings and ticking bedclothes
childhood sweats and flannel sheets
unwanted bodiesinthebed
I sat up all night.
I know the hours of silent halogens,
a hissing imbecile
with a profile exactly like Marcus Aurelius
who drank Coke
and stared down the terrors 
of the hot and clockless ward.

Microfiction 411: Bengal Endura

There is a book on Coale’s desk when Cortes enters. A paper book, not an open kindle. He and Rachel each have a book, but they are slimmer than this, which he guesses is an academic work. Or was, once.

Coale gives an unfamiliar smile, which surprises Cortes more than the book. Either Coale is extremely grateful that Cortes has agreed to go, or doesn’t expect him to come back. Or both.

‘Sure you’re still willing? In view of the … happy event, I mean. Congratulations. If I haven’t said it before.’

‘Oh, yes.’ Cortes feels he should say something else, but can’t think what, so he stays silent and tries to look happy, modest, and confident, all at once.

‘I had Archives send this for you.’ Coale picks up the book. It is called The Better Way: Antinatalist Movements 1990-250, by L. Shiffrin. ‘And this is from your colleagues.’ He produces a silver rebreather with a double filter. Cortes laughs.

‘Rachel beat them to it.’

Coale gives a twist of the mouth. His smiling quota has been exhausted. Cortes pities him. The first policeman on a space station which was never supposed to need one. ‘Take it anyway. You’ll probably need both, and I can’t imagine they’re particularly well-equipped down there.’

‘Do I have to read this?’ Cortes waves the book vaguely. It is over 400 pages – he is expecting to be down and back up from Earth in less time than it would take to get through the first chapter.

Coale shrugs. ‘I thought it might help you understand them. You’ll be working with one.’

‘I though the whole point was that you couldn’t understand them. Or it wasn’t worth trying. Thereby lies madness and so on.’

‘You don’t have to read it,’ Coale says impatiently, ‘ but you do have to work with whoever they give you. Some conflict’s unavoidable, perhaps especially in your new circumstances, with the baby and so forth.’

‘Fair enough.’ Cortes turns to leave. ‘Can I bring you anything back?’

Coale snorts.

Cortes walks back to his quarters, where Rachel is waiting to go to the in vitro unit. He flicks through the book and looks at the index. Benatar, Bengal Endura, Bioethics, Bleibohm, Bogomils. Bengal Endura redirects him to Catharism and Sea Satyagraha. It’s incredible, he thinks that anyone could find an answer to anything with these things. Just aimlessly wandering through the text hoping that what you wanted to know and what the author wanted to tell you coincided. The Refos, he recalls vaguely, listed that among their many initial complaints – the jettisoning of the station library in favour of more growing space in the Morgan Hill Sector.

There is a slim section in the centre of the book with photos on paper almost as shiny as a screen. Experimentally, Cortes flicks one of the faces but nothing appears. There is an image of people standing in the ocean, holding hands in circles. On the shore is a domed building with a tall chimney painted black and white. In the 2052 Bengal Endura, also called the Sea Satyagraha, around 2000 students committed mass suicide in response to the irradiation of a large part of West Bengal following the meltdown of the Sundarban nuclear reactor. Cortes stops in the corridor and leans against the wall with the book. He returns to the index and finds Bengal Endura.

Taken from a rite of the medieval European Cathars, the Endura involved the suicide of those who had attained the level of a ‘Perfect’. Those Cathars who had received the sacrament of the Consolamentum on their death beds thereafter shunned food and drink and exposed themselves to extreme cold in order to hasten death, a practice known as the ‘Endura’. This was explicitly invoked in a statement by the 2000 members of the West Bengal chapter of Antinatalist India, in their response to the meltdown of number 2 reactor at the Sundarban nuclear plant on May 15, 2052. Government incompetence and hundreds of millions fleeing from the cloud of radiation which spread across neighbouring Bangladesh and Bhutan meant that some two million people were fatally irradiated and nine million more seriously affected.

Of the two million who absorbed doses which would prove fatal within five days, two thousand were student members of Antinatalist India. Records show that many of those who attended a ceremony honouring the anniversary of Benatar’s death three weeks previously were among the participants in the Endura.

Two days after the meltdown, with West Bengal, Jharkand, and north-west Bangladesh under martial law, the two thousand students – many of whom were already suffering symptoms of acute radiation poisoning – crossed the cordon of the Sundarban hot zone and waded into the water off the beach. Army personnel refused to engage them, since they had insufficient facilities to hold two thousand dying prisoners. Gen. Mihir Dutya told the squads tasked with securing the area that their remit did not extend to protecting lunatics.

Sanjiban Prabhupada, a 24-year old medical student and president of the West Bengal chapter of A.I., posted a statement explaining the group’s intentions and reasons. In it he recalled that the Cathars embarked upon the Endura not in order to die, but because they were already dying and wished both to hasten their death, and to control the manner of it. ‘We were brought into the world without consent. The obligations with which our lives are hedged about are foisted on us without our consent. We have been killed without consent. We choose to die together, with others who recognize this terrible suffering, and are equally horrified at the folly we continually bring upon ourselves. For the last hours of our lives, we will stand in a poisoned ocean, exposed to radiation, dying among the sane.’

The Indian government attempted to prevent the term Bengal Endura from circulating; a foreign-press image of the students in the water was explained as a ‘Sea Satyagraha’, or peaceful resistance by anti-nuclear protesters. The story of the West Bengal Students was not made public until 2054, when the junta of Nayani Thakur fell.

In the corridor, Cortes is shuffled aside by a spin-drone. He looks up, surprised to see the featureless walls, the humming station around him. He realizes that he was in the water, hot with radiation, with dying students. He closes the book and looks hard at the cover. He can see why these things were once burned.