A Gothic Cathedral

I am known by the ungodly name of Captain Satan because of my habit of crawling through graveyards at midnight. My followers are grim-faced leather-sheathed alley-scuttlers with daggers stuck in their hats, iconoclasts for the mere love of vandalism. Together we are the strangest of God’s instruments.

I alone who am their leader carry the torch that sanctifies our destruction of graven images. At the head of each war-band God has set a leader who recognizes idols for the spawn of the corrupt imagination. Before crude stone carvings the ignorant burn incense as they once did before the flesh-devouring deities of tree and mountain. Everywhere villagers perform obscene rituals in honour of the Blessed Virgin, who has assumed the whoredom of the Earth Mother worshipped long ago by pagans in caves and glens, before the fields were ploughed and planted or the smoke-choked cities built. Black cats and billygoats are reverenced. We are the smelters of such golden calves.

Most ludicrous of all the Devil’s works are the monsters scrawled over every surface of old churches, the gargoyles and grotesques that leer from crevices, wriggle from buttresses, dribble water from the leads, insinuate themselves into the warp of the very sanctuary carpet. How could the craftsmen, often the saintliest of the congregation, prostitute their talents to the creation of such paragons of deformity? The serpent is subtle, but this crowns all.

Once I saw a painting by a Dutchman, an apocalypse swarming with creatures formed from helmets, knives and fragments from the charnelhouse, the wings and beaks of birds, musical instruments, the tails of fishes. Here and there lolled flaccid human bodies undergoing hideous tortures with expressions of bland serenity. The painting shook me to the very soul, for even as I gazed on those translucent flowers of colour blossoming in darkness, lit by the glare of distant fires, I realized that the fecundity of the painter’s imagination delighted my senses, elevated my inward eye to the pitch of sublimity. Every so often the painting blooms again before my inward eye like a spectral garden. Then because I cannot understand I must destroy.

I am feared by my followers as a ruthless executioner. From church to church I stalk with a hammer in one fist, in the other a chisel, my troupe of reprobates and zanies gamboling in my shadow. Beside my bulk they are evanescent as the shapes in the heart of a fire. They pass over many carvings out of weakness or neglect, awed by the alabaster features of a cherub, roused to laughter by the antics of an ape; but nothing escapes my vigilance. There is a rumour that my jaws hold tusks of stone that grind statues, relics and altarpieces to dust. My face is pitted with gunpowder from a thousand battles, my arms scarred in a crisscross pattern by flying splinters. I walk alone but am never lonely because angels attend my every step.

Yet last night I dreamed a dream that shines like a vein of ore in my daylight brain embedded. Whether I was awake or asleep I cannot tell. I lay in my tent on my campaign bed, swaddled in blankets, preparing as I do each night for oblivion to overwhelm me in a swift dark tide. All at once the night-time noises swelled like the notes of some sacrilegious organ, pressing against the sides of my canvas shelter. For a while I took no notice beyond pulling the blankets over my head, for I know full well that at night things grow large and strange; that is why lovers clutch each other at street corners under the moon, why drunkards toss and turn between the sheets, why sinners mutter incantations before the crucifix under cover of darkness (my God is indifferent to incantations). But instead of ebbing away the fear intensified, tightening its grip on my flesh till my limbs were cold and stiff as the limbs of a corpse. The fear sprang from a cacophony of unrelated sounds, each in itself innocuous: the tap of a sentry’s boots, the crackle of watch-fires, the rustle of leaves, the humming of wind in the rigid guy-ropes; but a horror huger than the sum of its parts took shape and stalked through the night towards my tent. I remained unmoving till the drums that warn of danger pounded away along with the blood-beat in my ears. The hammer lay on a stool beside my bed, underneath my breastplate and my breeches (for contrary to popular belief I remove both before retiring). As I measured the distance between my fist and the hammer’s shaft I felt the fear congeal into one amorphous mass and approach the mouth of the tent with uneven tread. The flap that hung loose across the entrance stirred a little, as if in a breeze, then slowly lifted.

Swiftly I thrust the blankets from my face and raised myself trembling on one elbow. The light of the watchfire filtered through the cloth by my left cheek, no doubt accentuating the chiseled grooves that frame my mouth, the pits and channels that deform my cheeks and forehead. Dread clung in sodden folds to my naked legs. When I spoke, my voice came out with the grating rasp of stone on stone:

‘Who’s there?’

No answer but a ripple in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, little by little I began to distinguish an awful shape against the canvas. For many minutes I lay pinned to my flimsy bed, studying the aberration as its features emerged from the shadows one by one as if carved by some dreadful sculptor. Then all those features came together, and I leapt from my bed with a shriek of terror. The blankets wrapped themselves about my ankles, I ripped one in my efforts to break free. I forgot the hammer, forgot my brooding daylight immensity, flung myself shrieking at the back of the tent, scrabbling with my nails, burrowing through the coarse cloth into open air. I sensed the creature at my back and bolted wild-eyed into the forest, naked as a newborn, mindless as a beast, leaving my impregnable daytime bulk fast asleep on the mattress. My flesh was of a translucent whiteness: I saw my legs flash whitely beneath me as I leaped between the trees.

What frightened me most, I think – beyond the night, beyond the noises or the apparition – was my helplessness. When I was a child I had no governance over my nightmares; they seized me body and soul and had their will of me, plunging me fathoms deep in unsounded oceans of despair. But as I grew older I learned to wrest my dreams from the grip of the waves, steering each vision like a boat out of the stormy waters of calamity into the calm lagoon of rest. Now once more I was at the whim of those dreadful currents, my boat lost for ever, my body tumbling head over heels through the icy blackness, hands and feet outstretched in a desperate quest to find some purchase in the featureless abyss. When some faint awareness of my whereabouts returned, I found myself barreling through bushes, clumps of brambles, tangled weeds, the gargoyle-creature pounding at my heels. I could not wake myself from this nightmare, any more than I could divert it onto a kindlier trajectory. I could not change the shape of the thing that hurried after me, as I had learned to do with the monsters that had plagued me as a child. I did not try to do so – never so much as turned my head to look behind me, because I knew too well what I would see: a helmet with a knife stuck through the crown, fragments of decomposing limbs, the wing, perhaps the beak of a bird, a kettledrum belly with a fish’s tail, a hammer in one claw, in the other a chisel – the amalgam of cathedral demons, driven by the long-deferred desire to take revenge on their steel-clad torturer. Instead I ran, and felt the shape of my pursuer consolidating itself behind my back with every step.

To my shame I say it: in my fear I forgot to pray.

I cannot tell to what physical fastnesses I fled. The night plucked me from every sanctuary, tossed me from earth to heaven, from heaven to hell in a fine frenzy rolling, the demon snapping first at my head then at my legs. The trees stooped to snatch at my hair, which is as long as Absalom’s and gun-grey. The spiky grasses snagged my ankles, the stones splintered my toenails till my trail was marked with blood. At length when I sobbed with exhaustion I caught sight of the cathedral we had stripped the day before. Between the overhanging houses clustered round her skirts like mourning relatives I ran, my bare feet slapping at the cobbles, praying the west door would be open. Praying, did I say? Exhorting the door itself, I should have said, as a heretic exhorts a wooden idol. Prayer did not come into it; I had no room in my mind to spare for anything outside the compass of my headlong flight. And sure enough, in the studded wood of the great west door a little portal stood ajar. I plunged into God’s mansion with a thousand echoes scampering into the shadows ahead of me. Ranks of soaring pillars marched through the sonorous darkness. Puddles of moonshine gleamed at intervals on the floor. On either side, acres of empty space seemed to throb with the remembered warmth of prayers long past. From every recess peeped the featureless heads of statues we had mutilated. Eyeless and earless they watched me and listened to the echoes scattered by my footsteps.

I had paused in my flight. Outside the great west door my pursuer paused too; absurdly I imagined it crossing itself. For joyful moments I thought that it could not tread on sacred ground. My legs had begun to tremble with relief, I had started to subside towards the floor, when I heard it move towards the threshold. Another instant and it was inside the building. The sweet scent of decay brushed across the hairs inside my nostrils. Now I wept, ready to hurl myself in submission at its feet, as I used to do when my brothers chased me as a child and I knew I could run no further. I wanted to lie prostrate before it, invite it to dismember me as I had dismembered its offspring, anything to bring this chase to a quick conclusion. But I could not face the creature I’d tormented. Up the nave I reeled, silent organ-music roaring in my ears. A beadsman mumbling orisons in some side-chapel might have glimpsed my flying form as a shred of luminous gossamer chased by a comet, he might have fainted at the beauty of it.

And now above me reared the altarpiece; only twenty yards to go before I reached it, before I could embrace the Lord’s high table and be sure that nothing hellish could do me harm. My breath came in ragged heaves, I stumbled and fell on my hands and knees, jumped up and stumbled on with the icy impress of Portland stone upon my flesh. Is it seven steps, I wonder, from the level of the nave to the high altar? I have never known. I had surmounted two when I raised my eyes to look closer at the altarpiece. From every niche stared down a headless saint. The summit was ornamented with a row of angels, their instruments smashed in their hands, golden hair streaming from the yawning cavities where their faces had been. Darkness pounced on my soul and I turned in my turn to marble.

The cathedral grew very silent. Not in the highest corner of the roof the faintest whimper of a sleeping bat. The gold cross on the high altar glinted dully in a moonbeam. The Prince of Gargoyles waddled up behind me; the stench of its flesh consumed my faculties, its breath froze on the nape of my unprotected neck. But here comes the strangest moment of my nightmare: the smell was no longer repugnant to me. Indeed, if it is not heresy to believe that a sweet perfume attends the dying moments of a saintly man or woman then the scent can be no sweeter than the one that struck my nostrils as it passed.

And when the object of my terrors had gone by without raising its countenance and had knelt on the highest step before the altar, its ugliness bloomed in my heart like a flower. For minutes I gazed on the child of foulness and my soul was stirred with strange affection. At every street corner I had turned disgusted from this creature where it squatted with its begging bowl, dodged past it when it dogged my footsteps in my dreams, smashed its features in every sanctuary where they lay naked to mallet. Yet here it knelt, a thing with a soul on the highest step before the Lord’s high altar. A thing brighter than the angels, a companion that had attended my every stride though rewarded only with repulsion, indifference or fear.

Is it the moonlight that causes the cross to glow, or is Christ even now hallowing the darkest places of the mind? Suddenly the cathedral was filled with heavenly radiance, the shout of trumpets, the roar of voices, bells swinging in a bronze arc from heaven to heaven. The thunder of a million ragged wings ascending towards God’s throne. The light that streamed from the stained glass windows painted the stone robes of the mutilated saints in a million hues. My gargoyle was scrambling up the altar screen towards an empty niche between Saint Anthony and Saint Francis. I rose from the ground and flew along the nave, my naked toes just skimming the cold smooth surface of the flagstones, out of the little portal in the great west door, between the stooping houses, over the woods to the tent that held my slumbering daytime bulk. The cathedral receded into a flaming casket, from which shot a sunbeam that seared the lining of my eyes.

Today on the pretext of inspecting our handiwork I returned to the cathedral. My breastplate gleamed as I strode between the pillars, hat in hand, drawing hostile stares from the worshippers; they know me for what I am. I would have run with as much terror if I had been followed by an angel.

The gargoyle was still squatting in its niche. I could tell its neighbour was Saint Anthony because of the long-nosed pig that rooted at his feet. Come to think of it, my gargoyle’s nose had something swinish about it too. How wonderful that a chisel like mine should be capable of transforming inorganic stone to the likeness of living tissue! How wonderful, indeed, to be alive and breathing inside this living, breathing building, this work of many hands!

The beadsman in his side chapel must have thought I was deep in prayer as I stood unmoving before the altar, lost in amazement.

The Dark Tower 3: Burd

[This is the third and last of three variations on the old fairy tale of Childe Roland and Burd Ellen, and should be read after the other two. The first variation can be found here, the second here.]

Burd Ellen squatted barefoot on the cold stone floor, ears straining to catch the sound of a human footstep.

The King and the Queen were talking to her all the time now, sometimes in an urgent whisper, sometimes in short sharp barks like the sound of a fox on a winter’s night. Sometimes their voices rose to a high-pitched screeching and she had to turn her head aside and cover one ear to listen for the footstep with the other. All she had heard for a long time now was the sound of the wind in the stone-flagged passage, the scrape of twigs across the stones of the outside wall.

She kept her head turned away from the King, with his bright inhuman eyes staring out from inside a thick white tangled nest of hair, and the Queen, with her translucent leaf-green flesh and twiggy fingers. Each of them squatted at the entrance to a burrow, over there at the base of the wall that faced the entrance, and whenever she looked towards them they began to gesture at her with their eyes, their fingers, their sinuous tongues. She thought they were squatting, at least. All she could see of them were their heads and arms and shoulders, scattered with earth, dead leaves caught up in the hair and eyebrows. They could just as easily have been standing upright in the burrows, hips wedged between the rocks that formed the foundation of the Tower.

There were three burrows in all: the King’s burrow on the left, the Queen’s on the right, and a third burrow in the middle, a dense black hole, its edges fringed with thin fine roots, the peripheral roots, perhaps, of the jungle of withered ivy that cushioned the curving outer walls of the funnel-shaped building. Three burrows or tunnels, leading where? Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, as the Priest in the village might claim? The man’s house, the woman’s house, the place that was neither? She could not tell. All she knew was that the middle burrow was waiting for her, and that one day she would give in to the elfin gestures and the high, fierce barks and deafening screeches, and crawl on her hands and knees to that root-fringed hole, helpless as a rabbit crawling to the jaws of a hungry fox.

She was thinking furiously. There must be another way out.

What was it the old women had said, she with the coat of brindled feathers and the short sharp nose like a bantam’s beak? ‘They will come for you with steel through the Elfin hills, one by one they will come, the eldest first. Every man or woman or child they meet must be slain on sight with the steel they hold. Their heads must be struck off and their bodies left on the ground to rot, untouched by human hand. No word must be uttered on the journey, no food eaten. If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free. If not, you must stay among us in the Elfin hills for seven long years, till the time for the teind comes round and the stream runs dry.’

Till the time for the teind comes round, she thought: the tax paid by the elves to hell, in exchange for an eternity of play. I have been the teind all my life, she thought, at my father the Baron’s house as well as in Elfland: the tax paid as part of a game I had no part in. There must be a way out, as there was from my father’s house when the elves came calling.

Some time later, squatting on stone in her clammy dress with her dew-moist hair hanging round her shoulders, the thought came to her: it’s in the words, of course, the words she spoke. It’s always in the riddling words, the good way out, if you can hear it.

But instead of the riddling words the clang of steel came to her ears, so alien a sound in this world of stone and air and water that she sprang to her feet as if pulled by wires. As she listened, it occurred to her that she had heard this sound before, here in this Tower, carried in through the passage of stone from the world beyond. She stood there a moment, thinking still. How many times had she heard it? Once? Twice? Thrice? If three times, they had all come for her, and not one had passed the test.

That did not bear thinking about. It was time to stop her thinking.

With a kind of spasm she came to life and began to run. She ran down the stone-flagged passage, feet slapping the uneven flagstones, cold cutting her feet like knives, and out into the blazing brightness of early evening. It was always early evening here, the time before the dark overwhelmed the senses and the streams ran dry.

*****

He stood there, the youngest boy, leaning on his sword. His chest heaved with the effort of his journey, his damp brown hair was plastered across his forehead. His always too-serious face, with its brooding brows and glittering eyes, lit up when he caught sight of her, and he let his sword droop till it clanged against a stone.

‘I came for you, Ellen!’ he cried ecstatically. ‘I killed them all and I came for you! We can go home!’

Beside him, a rowan tree stretched anguished arms towards the sky as if in supplication, and a crow on one of its branches gave a croak.

Ellen knew what they were saying. The task is undone, boy, you should not have spoken before it was finished; you will die. But what had the henwife said, exactly? ‘No word must be uttered on the journey, no food swallowed.’ If he did not stir from where he stood – if he took not another step towards her – then his journey might be over and he might have the right to speak at will. ‘Stay where you are!’ she cried, and held up both her hands in an urgent gesture. He swayed a little, either for weariness or from an impulse to run on. But he stayed rooted to the spot, as she’d hoped he would. He had never been one for embraces, her little brother. He stood there swaying like the tree, and spoke again in a low hoarse whisper.

‘Come on, Ellen,’ he said. ‘We should go home. Mum and Dad are waiting.’

A flurry of barks broke out behind her, sharp and fierce, and a gust of musk assailed her nose. The King and Queen were waiting too, and growing anxious: the little chicken they had caught was flexing its wings. She listened, but she heard no footsteps from the Tower; they too were rooted to the spot, waiting for her answer. What must she say? ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’ – so the henwife said. Follow what instructions, exactly? And what is free? Certainly not the return of a girl to the granite house she had run away from. Then what else?

She stood there staring at her brother, face to face, both damp and desperate, both poised on the brink of unknown action. She studied his face, as if looking there for the response he needed her to give. She saw the desperation in it: a desperation hatched with the boy at birth, which had grown with him as he grew, and of which this particular desperation, the desperation of a rescue so nearly accomplished and yet so easily brought to grief, could only ever be the first of many more forms of desperation if she came with him, if they made it home. She looked at the child as if in a mirror, and began to wonder who it was who must rescue whom.

All at once the answer came to her. A weight of stone seemed to lift itself from her narrow shoulders.

She smiled and took a step towards him. Now she was standing within the ring of steel, the circuit that would be described if he lifted his sword and swung it round in a deadly arc.

‘It’s all right, Roland,’ she reassured him. ‘We can go home. But first you need to chop off my head.’

The boy’s weariness was such that it took three or four seconds for her meaning to sink in. She watched as it became clear to him: first the horror blooming in his eyes like a great black rose; then the fuller understanding, the denial, the shock of acceptance. ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’. He had not yet followed the instructions to the letter; he had not yet struck off the head of every man or woman or child he had met in Elfland, not yet left every severed corpse on the stony ground. But surely, his eyes began to plead, surely those words could only refer to the things called elves? Elf men, elf women, elf children, we call them by those names no matter how monstrous their proportions, no matter how twisted their twiggy limbs. But no, the words were clear, the instructions issued by the wicked old man on the Blasted Heath. Every man or woman or child, the man had said, just like the henwife. The same instructions from different lips. And now from hers.

She tried to help him by smiling confidently. She even craned her neck a little as if to show him where to strike. But she trembled as she did so, and she could feel the colour draining from her cheeks as the stream ran dry. The barks from the Tower were strident now, beseeching, urgent, and a hole in the ground seemed a pleasant prospect compared with the parting of her flesh by the whistling steel. Yet still she smiled and nodded and trembled, doing her best to make the trembling seem the response of a coatless body to the mountain breeze, doing her best to make the smile seem bright and real. The hills were growing greyer, in any case, and she could hardly see her brother’s eyes. Perhaps he could not see her trembling or her smile? Perhaps if he could he did not care? He was a strange and distant boy, and though she had always thought his distance sprang from the loveless house he lived in, perhaps he really did not care for her, despite the flush of rare delight that had crossed his face when she left the Tower…

All at once he gave a sob – the first she had heard from him – and raised the sword.

For a long time the blade hung motionless in the air.

She studied it from the corner of her eye, even as she continued to smile with confidence at its bearer, even as she told herself it was best to look straight at Roland, not at the instrument of death he held aloft in his shaking hands.

His eyes were glittering still, she noticed. Was it the glitter of grief and fear, or of ill-concealed delight in the act of killing? She could not tell. She peered through the dusk with sudden urgency to see which it was – and as a result she never noticed when the sword began to trace the arc of its downward swing.

*****

The Dark Tower loomed in the early evening light. The hills that surrounded it were tall and grey and featureless, no brighter on the one side than the other, you could never have said which way was west. There was nothing else in the stony valley where the building stood; no trees, no gorse, no heather, not a blade of grass. A cold wind blew between the hills, but for the longest time there was no one there to feel it.

Three young ravens sat on a boulder by the entrance. From time to time they shuffled closer to each other, casting nervous glances at the blackness of the doorway. They seemed apprehensive that something might come out of it, but more apprehensive still to sit further off, out of harm’s way. The wind ruffled the thick dark feathers on their necks, and they lifted their feet one at a time to give them respite from the chill of the boulder’s surface. They seemed to be waiting, but not to know what they were waiting for.

A shriek broke out from the sky above the hills directly in front of them. The birds looked up.

Dropping out of the sky, cutting lazy circuits through the air like a swinging blade, a fourth bird flew down towards them, wings spread wide. Its primary feathers groped at the sky like giant fingers, its hooked beak yawned to release another passionless shriek. With a thump it landed beside the rock, scattering pebbles: a buzzard with a great barred chest, disheveled plumage, huge brown eyes. A pair of bells jangled at its legs as it struck the ground, and the ravens could see the soft leather straps that attached each bell to one of its ankles. For a while it stood there preening, lifting first one wing then the other towards its beak and combing through the feathers with scrupulous attention, bells jangling all the while. Then it stopped preening and simply stood, looking round itself with interest, though it barely spared a glance for the nervous ravens.

The wind blew. The buzzard stood. The ravens watched, as if for a signal.

All at once the buzzard spread its wings and flew to the Tower. Without pausing it flew through the entrance into darkness, its wingtips skimming the granite jambs as it swept by. The ravens followed one by one, each letting out a plaintive croak before it flung itself into the dark as if into the sea. Now the valley was still and empty once again; but the building boomed and clattered and throbbed with the beat of eight strong wings, and a series of screeches broke through the roof, like the sound of a birdbone whistle being blown by a fool on the Blasted Heath.

Inside the Tower a violent storm had broken out. The King and Queen were screeching and groping for the birds with twiggy fingers. The birds were battering at them with their wings, slashing with their beaks, tumbling over one another in their frantic efforts to find a good way out.

The smallest raven landed on the flagstones near the hole between King and Queen. It stepped uneasily towards the hole, one eye fixed on the screeching monarchs, the other on its wheeling, tumbling siblings as they bounced off the walls of the upright cylinder of stone. But it had no eye to watch the buzzard, and just as it reached the fringe of roots and gathered itself for a final hop – the hop that would take it down, down, down, perhaps to Elfland – the buzzard seized it by the ribs and dragged it clear.

The raven croaked and writhed and flapped in the buzzard’s grip, but the raptor would not let it go. Up and up they spiraled, towards the ragged eye of light in the Dark Tower’s roof. With a final beat of its wings the buzzard surged into the waning light of day. The dimness inside the Tower grew dimmer still as the struggling pair passed through the gap, then dimmed twice more as the other two ravens followed, croaking. A final screech flew after them as they rose above the Tower. Then silence fell, and the ruin lay lifeless as the valley in which it stood.

High above the place where the Tower had been, the smallest raven squirmed itself free from the buzzard’s claws and fluttered away. The other two ravens flew alongside it, croaking comfort. The buzzard wheeled.

Below the four great birds, a sea of trees tossed in the wind, and heather shook its stubby branches on the purple hills.

The sun shone from the leaves, the blossoms, the rocks, the clouds, the streams, the birds.

The New Saint Nicholas

[This is a poem I wrote for some Dutch friends, former neighbours in Glasgow who now live in Rhode Island. Our two families always celebrated the Dutch festival of Saint Nicholas together, and we still send each other poems every year. Saint Nicholas came from Turkey, though for some reason he always sails to the Netherlands via Spain. His day is 5 December, but his journey from Spain takes a week and you can follow its progress on Dutch TV.]

Saint Nicholas has far to go
Across the waves from Spain.
His little boat is powered by snow
And wind, and spray, and rain.

His little helpers, so they say,
Are blue, and green, and pink;
Saint Nicholas’s hair is grey;
His face is black as ink.

Saint Nicholas was once a girl,
But now his form is male.
He watched his silver beard unfurl
As slowly as a snail.

For centuries he watched it grow
And watered it with tears,
While sun, and rain, and wind, and snow
Marked out the passing years.

And now it flies behind him as
He skims across the waves
With piles of presents in his arms
For refugees and slaves.

And when he sees your waiting shoes
He’ll fill them full of dreams,
Where every shoe’s a bark canoe
And every street’s a stream.

And every stream runs dimpling down
Through hills, and heaths, and trees,
To join the green, red, yellow, brown,
Kaleidoscopic seas;

There where the boats dash to and fro
With Nicholas and his friends:
Whales from the lands of ice and snow,
Birds from the ocean’s ends;

And as the waters rise and rise
And as the skies grow dark,
Studded with little blinking eyes,
The boats will form an ark.

The ark will forge through froth and foam,
The birds and whales will hum,
And nudge the vessel gently home
In some strange time to come.

And where it lands its wooden sides
Will root themselves and grow,
And strange new creatures leap or glide
Into the evening glow.

And as they peer about in fear
Dreading another storm,
Saint Nicholas will reappear
In some bizarre new form.

He’ll try to make them understand
They’ve nothing left to lose;
And then he’ll sink down in the sand
And give them back their shoes.

And some of them will put them on
As hats, or masks, or shells,
While others jump aboard and sail
Them off like caravels.

And others still will walk away
With shoes on both their feet,
And build a little town of clay
With trees on every street.

And every house will be an inn
For folk from overseas,
With food and drink and clothes within
For slaves and refugees.

And every night they’ll lay their shoes
Outside the door with care,
So folk with nothing left to lose
Will know they’re welcome there.

And every morning they’ll look out
Through panes of coloured glass
And hum this little song about
The new Saint Nicholas.

The Dark Tower 2: Tree and Bird

[This is the second of three short stories playing variations on the theme of the old fairy story of Childe Roland and Burd Ellen. The first variation should be read first, and can be found here. The third and final variation is here.]


Hector had been able to hear Roland coming for some time now. Or rather, he had been able to feel him coming, just as he would have heard him coming if he’d still been a human boy.

Tremors shook the earth each time his younger brother swung his sword and sent a head flying: the thump of the severed head, followed by the heavier thump of a headless body on the stony ground. Hector’s roots detected the tremors from each double thump and carried them up through his slender trunk into the branching channels of his thirsty brain. He’s coming, the tremors whispered. He’s coming to save us: Roland the assassin, Childe Roland with the killer’s eyes and the heart of steel. Hector spread the roots of his toes, feeling for additional clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. He’s coming quickly.

The henwife. The child was approaching the henwife’s hut, and he was tired.

Alexander, now. Roland was surely no Alexander. The eldest brother had only got as far as the henwife’s hut before he succumbed to the lure of mercy. The instructions had been unambiguous – kill everyone you meet in Elfland by decapitation – and Alexander had known full well what would be the consequence of failing to follow them. He had heard the stories, had told them himself in the winter evenings by the fire, his harp trilling out the tunes that gave them life and fixed them in the memory. But knowledge is one thing, acting on it quite another. The henwife had undone Alexander, with her crinkled face and the quizzical look that came into her eyes when he raised his sword.

In retrospect it seemed inevitable. How could Alexander have possibly killed the henwife, that inexhaustible fund of the songs and stories that filled his dreams and his waking hours? As soon kill his mother, his aunt, his gran, the wizened old wives of the mountain village who had taught him all he knew and felt. As soon kill himself

And kill himself he did, at least as a person of any importance or potential. Now Alexander’s claws gripped Hector’s branches, as the bard now bird hopped aimlessly through the tangled thicket of his brother’s thoughts. Gripping branches was his only form of language. He couldn’t speak or sing or play, only croak like a toad and dance his ungainly dance when the wind got up and the rowan swayed, gripping and releasing each branch in turn as he hopped round the crown of the tree in an endless circuit. The elves were both cruel and cunning in the punishments they meted out for disobedience.

Hector, on the other hand – the second brother, now the tree – Hector was made of sterner stuff. Or so he had thought. He had killed the henwife, just as he’d killed the goatherd and the tinker and the tinker’s dog. He’d killed the tinker’s dog because it barked at him, though the old man had never said anything about beheading dogs or birds or insects. After that, Hector had made it all the way to the Tower itself, to his own amazement. He had blown the slug-horn at the door, seen the girl run out. Even now he remembered the sense of exultation he had felt as she ran towards him, because he too had heard the stories, had known from the start that he’d have no chance if he entered this one. The eldest brother sometimes prevailed, the youngest brother often, but the middle brother never, not in any version of the tale he had ever been told. He had had no chance at all; yet he’d reached the Tower, and here he stood, the conditions fulfilled, the last test passed, his sister running towards him. Against all odds he had won her back. In his triumph he dropped the sword, stretched out his arms to catch her shoulders, laughed and cried. And even as the sword hit the ground he had felt the changes coming over him.

His boots split open. His toes burst wriggling out and started to burrow into the earth, like eels burrowing into the rotting carcass of a long-dead horse. His arms forked and forked again, each bifurcation wrenching apart the bones and sinews. His head split open, too, sending tender new twigs of thought in all directions. The last thing he saw, as the bark spread over his eyes, was the look of horror on his sister’s face as he exploded into vegetation. There had been plenty of days since then to remember that look, as he stood by the entrance to the Tower, a rowan rooted among the rocks with a useless raven hopping around in its leafless branches.

There had been plenty of time, too, to think about where he had gone wrong.

Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, the old man told him. Not every elf, as Hector had assumed. Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, without exception. For Hector, Burd Ellen had after all never really been in Elfland – she had come here under duress, she belonged in the fields and woods and hills of Dad’s estate. That was his assumption, based on a particular understanding of the riddling words of bards and elves. But he had been wrong, for all his wiliness (he was the wiliest among the brothers, the middle brother nearly always was). And now…

Here came Roland, the youngest brother, a child of twelve, armed with the same instructions, the same riddling words. He too didn’t stand a chance. For one thing, he was carrying the oldest sword, the rusty one from the back of the stables. His body and limbs were unprotected by cold steel, because there had been no armour in the house small enough to fit him. How to warn him? How to let him know? It couldn’t be done. A tree has no voice, or what voice it has is only borrowed – the hissing of leaves in an autumn wind, the creak of branches under the weight of a late spring snowfall – and is in any case only available at certain times not of its choosing. No hope of warning there. But the bird? It’s a bird of omen, the raven, isn’t it? Couldn’t Alexander give some hint at the old man’s trickery?

Could Alexander save Childe Roland, absent-minded, gullible old Alex with the misty eyes?

From the feel of its claws, the raven was jumping up and down in agitation, croaking no doubt if Hector could have heard it. Flapping its wings as well, no doubt, to attract attention. He could sense it in the thicket of his mind, jumping up and down, letting out a stream of husky croaks at various pitches. Pathetic, really. The boy wouldn’t see the bird in a month of Sundays. Childe Roland only ever had eyes for the task in hand, he couldn’t be distracted, that was the measure of his coldness. Nothing short of a peck on the ankle would get his attention, and then it was likely enough that the boy would strike, with deadly accuracy, at the raven’s head, with his rusty sword, and that Alex would lose his life all over again.

Pathetic.

There was nothing his brothers could do to help the youngest.

And now the footsteps, pounding, pounding on the granite flags of the Dark Tower’s floor. Coming closer at frightening speed. Out into the open. He could feel her presence now through his silvery bark: a kind of glow, like the touch of the sun on his woody skin in the early evening. She had stopped in front of Roland. The child must be looking her up and down with his killer’s eyes.

The child would strike.

And suddenly Hector lost all doubt. The child would strike, it was who he was, it was what he did. Childe Roland had known, from the moment the old man issued his grim instructions, what to do, and had known too that he could do it, that he alone of Ellen’s three brothers had the eyes, the arm, the steel-cold stomach to complete the mission. This was what the boy had been born for, after all: to make up for the fatal flaws of his older siblings. Everything would be all right. The boy would strike, and the head would roll.

Hector held his breath, or would have held it if he’d been human. Instead he stood tall and slim and graceful, waiting for the blow and the double thump.

*****

And waiting on.

A thump. The ring of steel. In two or three seconds, the louder thump of the headless body on the stony ground…

But the second thump – it never came. Slowly it dawned on the waiting Hector that the weight and texture (so to speak) of that first thump did not in fact tally with the weight and texture of a severed head. The boy hadn’t struck. Instead – it was obvious now – he had dropped the sword, the rusty sword from the back of the stables. He had dropped it; and now another light thump sent new vibrations through Hector’s roots.

Could it be possible? Had Roland dropped to his knees? Was he crying, for the first and only time in his life?

A wave of relief ran through Hector’s body, from the tips of his roots to the topmost twigs of his forking arms and his branching mind. A gust of warmth, a tremor like an earthquake, as if instead of the Dark Tower the slender rowan that had once been Hector, the second brother, were about to suffer a fall. A happy fall, from the topmost pitch of expectation to a new understanding of the world his brother lived in.

Childe Roland had not struck. The boy was human, after all.

And then a wave of cold, from roots to twigs and back to roots: Childe Roland had not struck. Burd Ellen was doomed.

There was no one left to save her. No one left to defend her person, body and soul, with a ring of steel. No armour, swords, or warriors. The girl was doomed, and her house was too.

A strong wind blew in from the west. It brought a spray of brackish raindrops tinged with spume, and the cries of lonely seabirds, cold and far, as if they were mocking the perpetual cycles of human grief.

The tree bent before the wind, its grey bark darkening as the raindrops lashed its trunk. For an hour or so it tossed back and forth, but it wasn’t uprooted. Rowans are resilient, despite the shallowness of their roots.

When the storm was over the tree grew still, and the three ravens on its branches relaxed their grips and began to look with caution about them.

They were getting hungry. They had no idea when they had last eaten, and it seemed to them that there was plenty of carrion nearby.

[The third and final variation on the Dark Tower theme can be found here.]

 

The Dark Tower 1: Childe and Burd

[The three short stories with the title The Dark Tower stem from a lifetime’s obsession with the old fairy tale about Childe Roland and Burd Helen, as related by Joseph Jacobs in his influential collection English Fairy Tales (despite the fact that the source of his story was Scottish), mentioned briefly by poor Tom in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and most memorably retold by Robert Browning in his great poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower CameThe story gives the best illustration I know of the deeply disturbing strangeness of fairy lore, and I’ve tried to capture both those crucial aspects of it in all three of my variations on the Dark Tower theme. The second variation can be found here, the third and last one here.]


Roland lowered the slug-horn from his lips. The echoes from its blast were still bouncing off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains as he took a double-handed grip on the sword that was much too heavy for him and braced himself to strike for one last time.

The thump of footsteps sounded from inside the cavernous entrance to the Dark Tower. He watched as the bare white feet came hurrying towards him. He could not bear to look at her face. If he looked at her face, as his brothers had, he would never be able to do what he had to do.

Already she was standing in front of him, chest heaving from her running, air spilling out of her mouth to warm his cheeks. ‘You came!’ she cried. ‘I knew you would! I knew –’

He took a tighter grip of the hilt of the sword and raised it with an effort. He had done this so many times in the last few hours that every joint in his arms and shoulders screamed in pain. He must look her in the eye before he struck the fatal blow; if he didn’t he couldn’t be sure it would be a clean one. He lifted his eyes. He held her gaze. He saw her expression of joy fade to puzzlement, then to alarm as the blade began its slow descent.

‘What – ’ she said, and then the thud came, followed by the spray of blood, which drenched him from head to foot as she toppled towards him.

Gasping, he lent on the blade and waited for the miracle to happen.

He did not look at her body. He wasn’t sure what the process of regeneration would entail: whether the head would come crawling across the pebbles on sinewy feet, or whether it would bounce like Ellen’s ball toward the severed neck, still pumping out blood in a diminishing stream; and by what strange form of alchemical or vegetable fusing the separate strands and bones of the head and neck would knit themselves together. He didn’t want to know. The outcome was all that mattered: regeneration, the return of movement, jerky at first, then smooth. The sound of her voice, bubbling at first in the blood-choked windpipe, then spilling forth clear and loud as it did before.

He didn’t look. He waited, leaning on his sword, watching the crimson pool of blood as it spread towards his feet, feeling the blood drip from his nose and chin, noting how the landscape all round the Tower was stained as if with blood by the setting sun.

It had been a long day.

*****

Someone coughed behind him.

‘So you did it,’ a voice remarked. ‘You followed my instructions. I’m amazed.’

Slowly he turned his head. The old man stood there, as he had before, his crooked hands still resting on the handle of his stick in exactly the pose Roland had adopted after striking off his sister’s head.

‘Amazed, and impressed,’ the old man went on. ‘Your older brothers could not do it. That’s why they died. This is a land where instructions must be followed to the letter, and failing to follow them is always fatal. Well done, my child. Well done indeed.’ And he smiled as he turned to leave.

‘Wait,’ Roland cried, with a final effort. ‘It’s not over yet. Ellen – she needs to come back with me. That was the deal!’

The old man stopped, turned, raised an eyebrow. ‘That was the deal?’ he repeated. ‘How so?’

‘That was the deal,’ Roland said again, and felt a flush creep across his face in spite of the cold. ‘“When you come to Elfland, you must cut off the head of everyone you meet. Everyone, you hear? Man, woman and child. Do this and your quest will be successful. Fail to do it and you will die.” That’s what you said when I saw you before, on the Blasted Heath.’

The old man nodded. ‘Why yes, that’s what I said. “Do this and your quest will be successful.” And so it has. You’re alive, child, aren’t you? Your bones are not lying with the bones of your older brothers in the ashpit yonder?’

Roland turned to peer where the old man’s finger pointed, then wished he hadn’t. He felt sick and shaky. He dropped the sword and ran his hands through his blood-roped hair.

‘But Ellen,’ he said.

‘Is dead,’ the old man said, with a touch of weariness. ‘You killed her, child. Look where she lies. How can she possibly come back with you now?’

A bird flapped suddenly on a nearby rock, and the noise drew Roland’s attention so that his eyes flicked to one side. When they flicked back again the old man had disappeared.

The mountains had lost their redness. They were now the colour of rock, like the Tower, the sky, and Roland’s hands. The bird gave a harsh despairing cry and took off, flapping in a zigzag path towards the nearest peak.

Roland picked up the sword and stumbled after it.

[The second variation can be found here. The third and final variation is here.]

Puppet

Dancing at the bottom of my string,
My tangled string, a merry little thing,
Merry because my wooden features smile,
Smile open-mouthed, as if about to sing,
Sing with delight, although the weather’s vile,
Vile because rain has polished both my cheeks
From an unnaturally lurid red
To shining apples in my wooden head,
My head that wobbles through the rainy weeks,
Weeks that have doubtless some mysterious use,
Use which the passers-by, on growing tired
Of hearing, drenched, a lonely puppet’s squeaks,
Have made of them when softly they retired,
Retired beneath a layer of autumn ooze,
Autumn which sets about discolouring
The leaves and I, weighting my feet with lead,
My feet which turn towards the winter gales,
Gales which will set me dancing on my head
And billow out my pinafores like sails –
I ought to be a sight to see in spring.

 

Kark and Kerr, Part 2

Exactly two years later, the circus rolled into the town of Bogton St Mary in Devonshire, England. Crowds lined the narrow streets to watch the carts and horse-drawn vans parade to their destination, an open field by the river Bog, where a rival township quickly sprang up under the busy hands of the circus performers. A tall old woman wandered through this temporary town of wood and canvas, gazing at the bunting, admiring the fire-eaters and the girls on stilts, pausing to examine the side of the brightly-painted caravan where Fatima the Fearless promised to Ftudy your Future and report her Findings with Fidelity. The old woman was dressed in shimmering crinolines of brown and gold, and many of the passers-by were as much inclined to stare at her as at the denizens of the circus. Her nose was hooked, her cheekbones prominent, and her eyes – her eyes were the strangest thing about her. They were larger than most, and the yellow pupils, which seemed to have virtually effaced the whites, were flecked with what looked like pieces of mica.

Despite the lively interest with which she examined every detail of her surroundings, the woman strode about the circus grounds with the air of one who possesses a fixed purpose. She stood for some time before the banner which advertized the feats of Polly the performing horse. Then she stopped again in front of the large striped tent where the Flying Nardini Family would later demonstrate the difficult and dangerous art of the high trapeze as practised in Italy, furnished – so the painting suggested – with tiny wings like those of Raphael’s putti. She seemed about to enter the tent, but just at that moment a small girl carrying a bucket ducked out from under one of the flaps. The old woman took one look at the young Nardini’s costume – thick wrinkled tights, frilly pink bodice and wings of gauze – gave a snort of disgust and wandered on. She spared no more than a glance for the extravagant notice-board which lauded the many miraculous properties of Dr Jugg’s Universal Remedy and Beautifying Agent, to be sold at the door of his waggon for the bargain sum of five shillings the flask, but stopped once again in front of a crimson pavilion dedicated to the Miracles of Nature as collected and authenticated by Professor Petronius P. Pomaine, of the University of Pennsylvania.

An enormous signboard stood outside the professor’s pavilion listing the wonders to be found within: a two-headed lamb preserved in formaldehyde; a woman with horns; a duck-billed platypus with poisonous spurs on its webbed hind feet; the skeleton of a dragon slain by the Anatolian warrior known as St. George; a unicorn from Harappa which would lay its head in the lap of any virgin; a Patagonian giant; a Congolese pygmy. But her attention, it seemed, had been arrested by one wonder in particular: the Astonishing Bird Boy, listed among the lesser miracles of nature which did not warrant space for extended treatment on the crowded signboard. She leaned forward and tapped the words ‘Bird Boy’ as if expecting them to explain themselves. Then she nodded once and entered the pavilion.

Inside, the tent was gloomy and stank of urine and preservative fluid. The cages containing the exhibits were covered with awnings. A mournful-looking man with a receding chin and a huge moustache came up to the woman and asked what she wanted. ‘I am a representative of Dr Balthazar Buzzard,’ she replied, ‘and I have come to collect the exhibit known as the Bird Boy, in accordance with the agreement concluded between Dr Buzzard and Professor Petronius C. Pomaine by letter last week.’

‘Excuse me, madam’ said the mournful man in an accent that was meant to sound foreign, possibly Slavic. ‘I myself am Professor Pomaine. I know of no letter and no agreement.’

‘The arrangement, then, if you must be so particular. I have a brougham waiting for me on the Tavistock Road. I would be most grateful if we could finish this business with expedition, since I intend to catch the noon train from Biddlecombe to Truro. Please let me see the boy at once.’

‘Madam,’ said the mournful man, trying his best to look supercilious but looking only pained. ‘There must be some mistake. I have received no letter from Dr Buzzard. No arrangement has been made. The Bird Boy is one of the outstanding attractions in my scientific exhibition, and I cannot possibly consent to disappoint the public by letting him go. His arrival in Devon has been eagerly anticipated for many weeks. Should I dispose of him before we open this afternoon I shall be obliged to compensate the members of the public for their disappointment by offering them a partial reimbursement of their entry fees. I shall suffer material losses, Madam; very material losses. I am sure you understand my position.’

‘You are wrong, Professor Pomaine,’ said the old woman, opening the diamantine reticule she had been carrying in her left hand. ‘There has been no mistake and you will suffer no losses. I have here another letter from Dr Buzzard in which the arrangement I mentioned is described in full. I believe you will soon recall the drift of your correspondence, once you have reminded yourself of the sum offered by Dr Buzzard for the transference of the boy to his establishment.’

Professor Pomaine put on a pair of lozenge spectacles and peered through the gloom at the paper she held out to him. His mouth dropped open as he read the figure. ‘Ah yes,’ he said slowly. ‘I am beginning to remember this letter. A most agreeable man, Dr Buzzard, and one with a very shrewd head for business.’

‘You will remember, then, that I must see the boy before any money changes hands. And you will remember that Dr Buzzard has left it entirely at my discretion as to whether or not the transaction will take place as per the aforesaid correspondence. Now lead me to him, please, Professor. Time is short.’

Professor Pomaine’s mournful expression had now been replaced with an air of acute anxiety. ‘I promise you, madam, Dr Buzzard will not be disappointed,’ he blustered as he led the way between cloth-covered containers towards the darkest recesses of the tent. ‘The boy is authentic and quite unique. He was discovered by Latvian traders in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. I have cherished him like a son. It will break my heart to lose him. Unfortunately, however, he has not been in the best of spirits recently. A slight imbalance of the humours, I understand from the esteemed Dr Jugg, but it has altered his appearance, and not for the better. Not that he was ever a beauty, mark you! But now – that is – you will see for yourself.’

The Bird Boy sat hunched in the corner of his cage, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was naked and appallingly thin. His arms and what could be seen of his torso were covered with long dark feathers and scraps of down, worn away in patches to expose the dirty blue-grey of his skin. His legs, although covered in scabs, were those of an ordinary boy, but they terminated in what looked like claws. The strangest thing about him was his head. It was the head of a bird, covered with fine black feathers which had worn away here and there as they had on his body, and armed with a long, sharp beak. The eyes were closed; but when the old woman addressed him in an odd fluting language unknown to Professor Pomaine (who had lived most of his life in Islington) one eye suddenly opened wide and stared at her sideways for a minute or two before closing again just as suddenly.

‘This boy is dying, Professor Pomaine,’ the woman pronounced, after examining him for two or three minutes between the bars. ‘And what is more, I suspect he is a fake. I ought by rights to return to Truro and advise Dr Buzzard not to waste his money. But Dr Buzzard is a genuine scholar, unlike some I could mention, and I do not think he would take it kindly if I were to rob him of the pleasure of studying this sorry specimen for himself. I am prepared to offer you –’ and she named a sum less than half of that which had been mentioned in the letter. ‘Take it or leave it, sir. I cannot miss my train.’

Professor Pomaine wailed in protest and demanded more. The woman made as if to march out of the pavilion. The Professor relented, no doubt after a rapid calculation of the very much smaller amount he could expect to make on the boy’s dead body if, as seemed more than probable, the woman was right and he did not have long to live. A bargain was struck, the woman took a packet of coins from her reticule and the Professor rapidly counted its contents, then wrote out a receipt on a grubby ticket-stub which he produced from his waistcoat pocket. The woman promised to send a man to collect the boy at once. Professor Pomaine bowed her out of the pavilion and returned to counting the coins she had given him. His mournful look had been replaced with one of cautious optimism.

A few hours later the old woman sat on a plush velvet seat in a private railway carriage belonging to Dr Balthazar Buzzard, and watched as the Bird Boy was fed from a bottle by another old woman with crippled hands. As soon as the boy had finished drinking the women laid him on a carriage seat and watched as powerful convulsions stretched him out and doubled him up. Within an hour the last remaining feathers had fallen from his body, and by sunset his grotesque head had begun to buckle and bend as if under tremendous pressure. The carriage was shunted into a siding on Bodmin moor, a bath was drawn and dirt and feathers scrubbed from every crevice of his shuddering frame. By this time the boy was running a high fever. The women sat with him through the night, answering him in soft voices when he cried out in fear, or babbled in the fluting tongue of birds, or whispered scraps of nonsense. At daybreak he fell asleep. Dr Balthazar’s representative sent the other old woman to bed and settled down to read a book, kneeling on the floor beside the carriage seat where the boy lay stretched in corpselike stillness under a blanket. As she read, one of her hands rested on the boy’s exposed left foot, which no longer resembled a claw.

After an hour or two she glanced up and saw him staring at her with eyes now large and dark in an ashen face.

‘How are we feeling now?’ she asked.

‘Terrible. I hurt all over. How do you know my language?’

‘Never mind. I’ll tell you later. All you need know at present is that you are safe and that we are bound for Truro. You may call me Margaret. I am a specialist in the study of exotic birds, and I am very curious to know how a citizen of Lazarus came to be travelling with an English circus, trapped, it would seem, at a mid-way point between one phase of the Changes and the next.’

A violent shiver made the boy’s teeth rattle in his narrow head. ‘Where is Professor Pomaine?’

‘Far away. He will never trouble you again. As I told you, you are safe, and once you have recovered your strength you may go where you choose. Now tell me all about yourself – or rest, if you prefer. I have no wish to elicit information from you which you would rather keep secret.’

The boy grinned ruefully. ‘I’m not much good at keeping secrets. I guess that’s why I’m here. And I don’t remember much about Professor Pomaine, nor about the circus. I feel like I’ve been living a dream for years or centuries. No, not a dream, a nightmare…’

He stopped for a minute to study her face. But he seemed reassured by what he saw there, because he soon went on, and his voice grew stronger as he spoke.

‘You’re right, though, ma’am. I come from Lazarus. Didn’t like it much, though. My parents died when I was young and I had nothing left to keep me there. Nothing but my poor old Nan, and I think I killed her when I ran away from home. I wanted to become a bird, you see, like they did in stories. So… so I ran away to the woods, and Chew Chew betrayed me, and the hunters came with dogs to track me down, so I ran away again, and I think I Changed. I remember wind in my eyes and the ground below, and black wings beating – but perhaps I was only climbing a hill, or falling off a cliff, or sick, or mad. But I think I turned into a bird, and I think I flew – yes, flew – for a long, long time before they caught me.’

He lay for a moment staring at the book in the old woman’s hands, as if he thought it held the rest of his story. Then he shuddered and laid back on the seat. She thought he would go back to sleep without saying more, but after a while he spoke again, in his croaky voice that kept veering from high to low like a broken church organ.

‘Professor Pomaine says I was found by Latvian traders, and that I was still a bird when they found me, half dead with cold. He says they put me in a cage because they’d never seen a bird so large and strange with a human voice. Isn’t it odd, though, that they would cage me for sounding human? They took me to England because that’s the best place, the Professor says, to get money for freaks. By the time we got to Dover I was starting to look like a human being as well as sound like one, so they began to think I was some sort of devil. Some of them wanted to cut off my head and dump me in a ditch, others wanted to find a priest to exorcise me, but in the end they sold me for pennies to a man in Portsmouth who collected monsters.

‘The man’s name was Morrow, and he was more of a monster than anyone in his collection. He had a cabinet full of drugs which he liked to test on us to see what happened. He discovered that one of these drugs could stop me Changing; it froze my body in the shape of a bird, or a boy, or the half-and-half thing I was when you found me. I don’t know where he got it, but Dr Jugg says it can be used to stop buds from blooming into flowers, or caterpillars from turning into butterflies, or children from growing up. Professor Pomaine and Dr Jugg were friends of his. They helped him pay for his drugs by buying freaks from him to show at the circus. After Morrow had finished with me I was very ill, so Professor Pomaine was able to buy me for a knock-down price, along with the recipe for the drug that kept me as the Bird Boy.

‘I travelled with the circus for a long time, but I never got better from the things Morrow did to me. I hurt all the time, and the pain got worse. Dr Jugg used to give me the drug every Thursday morning. Funny, isn’t it? That was the very same day when Mrs Chakchak used to make us eat her disgusting stew. I expect her stew had a drug in it like Morrow’s. Who knows? Maybe he got his drug from Lazarus. I used to think about that when I was in my cage. I’d run all that way to get away from Mrs Chakchak, and here I was in a prison still worse than Lazarus, having the same foul substance forced down my throat in a rubber tube. I flew straight out of one cage into another. Perhaps all the world is just a mass of cages, cage after cage with prisoners on the inside looking out and keepers on the outside looking in. Only you can’t always be sure who is the prisoner and who the keeper. Professor Pomaine used to scream at night, I could hear him sometimes, screaming and screaming in his sleep like a rabbit in a trap…

‘And now here I am in another cage. I don’t know if I’m free, as you say, or if I’m a prisoner and you’re my keeper. I don’t know anything. I… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.’

The old woman smiled. ‘You’re right to be mistrustful,’ she observed. ‘And of course I was wrong to say you’re free. You’re as much a prisoner as I am, though no one but ourselves is ever likely to know it. I told you to call me Margaret, but you’ve spoken my proper name quite often in your fever. It’s Kerr.’

‘Kerr!’ cried Kark, sitting up suddenly so that the blanket fell away from him. ‘I thought…’

‘You thought I was dead,’ the woman finished for him. ‘But I am merely grown up and no longer Changing. You’ve told me your story; I must tell you mine.

‘I escaped from Lazarus much as you did, leaving my past behind me – together with a silver ankle-bracelet which I must have lost when feeding on a carcass in the mountains. But in every other respect our fortunes were different. Unlike you, I was lucky enough to return to human shape a long way from the haunts of men. For a while I lived alone on the Russian steppes, running down wild beasts and drinking water from snow-fed streams with a mind as fierce and featureless as a winter blizzard. After more than a year I wandered into a village, naked and hungry, having forgotten how to speak. The village schoolmaster took me under his wing. I found out later that he had heard of Lazarus, and that some of his forebears had been shape-shifters much like us; there are more of us, Kark, than we’ve been led to believe. He taught me his language; I told him of my sickness and metamorphosis; and slowly we began to piece together the story of the valley as your grandmother told it to you.

‘Like your grandmother, we came to the conclusion that the people of Lazarus were not sick, but possessed instead of a wonderful talent: the capacity to assume the form of birds at certain times of year – or perhaps in certain years, we cannot be sure since there has been no scientific study of such metamorphoses, at least in recent centuries. We decided that this capacity had been hidden from them by the Council, not so much for fear of reprisals from the outside world as to keep the population of the valley timid and tractable (my schoolmaster was an anarchist and had little faith in governments). We understood, too, that the stew must have contained a drug of the kind you’ve described, capable of suppressing the symptoms of the Changes. But my schoolmaster also realized that we did not possess this drug, and that I might undergo the Changes again at any moment. To protect me he must hide my nature from hostile scrutiny by removing me to a secret location. He therefore arranged that I should pay regular visits to his brother, a fur-trader who lived in a cabin many miles from the village, and who was fully apprised of my condition. These visits were meant to give me a pretext for leaving the community without arousing suspicion whenever the Changes showed signs of returning.

‘We were too naive, however. After a few such visits, gossip began to run rife in the village. It was said that I was mistress of both brothers and that I had seduced them into taking part in diabolical rituals. The best way to quash these rumours was for me to marry the fur-trader. I did so, and went to live with him in the forest. Every few years, when the Changes came over me, I fled away deep into the wilderness with my secret. For the rest of the time I behaved as an ordinary Russian housewife, except that I did not sleep with my husband and bore him no children. Instead I read all I could about ornithology in books and periodicals sent me by my schoolmaster, which he ordered from Moscow for my use whenever he could afford to do so. I was searching, endlessly searching for some clue as to who I was.

‘Then one day I read in one of the periodicals about a leading British naturalist, Mr Balthazar Buzzard – owner of the world’s most remarkable bird collection – who had advanced an absurd but intriguing theory. He argued that human beings and birds have a great deal more in common than had previously been supposed, and that there was even a possibility that at some remote point in the evolution of both races they had shared a common ancestry. The theory was only mentioned in the periodical in order to be derided, but it was the first hint I had seen anywhere of a scientific acknowledgement of my condition. I decided at once that I must meet Mr Buzzard. I packed my bag, took leave of my husband, and set off to visit my schoolmaster for the last time, and to discuss with him the best means of reaching England. He gave me the name of a correspondent of his in London who might put me up on my arrival, slipped into my hand a purse containing a few gold coins – half his worldly goods – and clasped around my neck a necklace that had once belonged to his mother. We parted with tears, exchanging many expressions of mutual esteem.

‘The journey to England was largely uneventful. A ship I boarded at Sebastopol sank, but not while I was aboard, and my bag was stolen in Naples, but by that time it was empty. Winter came and I had to take refuge in the mountains of northern Spain when the Changes overtook me. Here I was badly hurt by a fowling-piece, but recovered my human form in time to catch a ship from Lisbon to Flushing the following spring. I reached Truro safely, where I met Mr Buzzard, and found him to be quite as insane as the periodical had painted him, and hopelessly addicted to opium.

‘But he was very kind. As soon as he’d heard my story he offered me a post in his Institute of Esoteric Ornithology. I am now his private secretary and itinerant researcher. He has made me responsible for seeking out evidence in support of his theories about the link between men and birds. For years now this has been my principal occupation: hunting through archives, scientific journals, learned tomes and volumes of improbable fictions, as I did when I lived in a cabin in a Russian forest, searching, constantly searching for anything that might shed light on the history and habits of my people – the Bird People. It was in connection with this research that I heard of you, from a particular friend of Mr Buzzard’s, a man called Wells. And it was in the service of this research that I sought you out, as I have sought out many interesting specimens in the past to add to the more exotic sections of Mr Buzzard’s collection. The question now is: what is to be done with you?’

The boy lay still on the seat, looking weak and ill. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I can hardly believe that you’re really the Kerr I’ve heard so much about. You seem so different…’

‘You mean I’m older.’

‘No! I mean, yes; but there’s something more. You’re so much less… less wild than I thought you’d be. I always thought of Kerr as a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue… everything Nan said she was.’

‘She was. She still would be, if circumstances permitted. She is, in fact. One of the things you will learn about this world outside the valley is that for a woman like me to exist at all is a rebellion, an adventure, and an act of roguery all at once. How many female researchers do you think there are in the British Empire today? Your grandmother was right about me, as she was about everything else.’

‘You seem to know a lot about my Nan. Did you know her well, in Lazarus?’

‘Not well, no. She was some years younger than me, and when you’re a child a few short years make all the difference. I know her better now.’

At this point the second old woman entered from another part of the carriage. She gave a cry of delight when she saw Kark sitting up in bed, and fell to her knees beside him. It took him several seconds to recognize her, because her face had been scarred by frost, her back bent double with exhaustion, and her hands twisted into claws by arthritis. ‘Time hasn’t been kind to me,’ she said with a laugh that dismissed all time’s unkindness. ‘I wandered for many months in many cruel countries. But I have found a true friend, and I have found my grandson, and now at last the tide seems to be turning.’

There is more to tell, but little space to tell it in. This narrative is growing bulky enough already, and I am beginning to wonder if it will fit into the hiding place I have chosen for it. Besides, my poor old hand no longer writes as well as it did. Whatever the Mad Hatter said, a raven and a writing desk have little enough in common, and a pen sits uneasily in a hand shaped like a raven’s claw. I must bring my tale to a close, however unsatisfactory.

The three from Lazarus celebrated their meeting with more laughter, some tears and a great deal of talking. Kark slept again through the rest of that day and the following night, and when he woke they talked again, and little by little his strength returned. As he grew stronger, as the train moved west, the situation in which he found himself became clearer to him. Kerr had been right: he was not so free as he had seemed at first. From the moment of his recovery his life, like hers, would be regulated by drugs: the same drugs that had kept him trapped in the body of the Bird Boy, and that had formerly kept him locked in human shape throughout his life in the valley. He learned from Kerr that a modest traffic in these drugs had existed between the valley and the outside world for generations; a traffic that was strictly controlled by the inner circle of the Council of Lazarus, and whose profits bought certain special foodstuffs and a degree of protection for the people of the valley. By the merest good fortune a supply of the drugs had fallen into the possession of Balthazar Buzzard, who had apprised his new secretary of their properties as soon as he knew of her unusual predicament. She took them every week now – but not on Thursdays. Kark must take them regularly too, if he did not wish to run the risk of falling once again into the hands of men like Morrow, Jugg and Pomaine. From henceforth silence and secrecy would be his best protection, as they had been all his life. The difference was that they would now be self-imposed, and that he might drop them at will should he choose to subject himself once more to the perils that accompany the Changes.

But the drugs were not the only kind of constraint to which he was now subjected. All three of the former inhabitants of Lazarus felt a powerful urge to devote themselves to righting some of the wrongs they had suffered. Kark longed to track down Professor Pomaine so as to liberate his fellow prisoners before they succumbed to the despair and resignation that had so nearly killed the Bird Boy. He wanted to raid Morrow’s laboratory in Portsmouth and free the poor unfortunates who were the victims of his experiments. And he yearned, as did Kerr and his grandmother, to return to the valley of Lazarus. He wished to inform his afflicted people of their true natures, to expose the lies that had been told them by the Council, and to reveal to them the boundless world of possibilities that lay beyond the walls of their mountain prison, available to be entered in relative safety by those who had learned to manage the Changes with wisdom. But before he could begin to do any of these things he must find a way to earn his living.

Once again it was Balthazar Buzzard who came to the rescue. The celebrated ornithologist took to Kark as soon as he met him; a little twisted man with a look of constant hunger in his vast black eyes, he saw fulfilled in the former Bird Boy all his own dreams of the possibility of metamorphosis which had belonged, he thought, to his ancestors, and which had forever been denied him. He would follow Kark round his turreted mansion talking incessantly about the mechanics of flight, and offering him food or drink or toxic drugs of various kinds in the hopes of coaxing him into conversation about his life as a bird – conversation that might afford some clue as to how Mr Buzzard, too, might undergo the Changes. From time to time, in response to his generous patronage and frequent pleadings, Kark and Kerr would consent to stop taking the drugs for several weeks and Change for him themselves. On these occasions Mr Buzzard would send away his household staff and make up a bed in the famous glasshouse, where he would watch for hours, biting his fingers, as the pair of them wandered among the plants, their skins bristling with incipient plumage, their faces stretching and distorting as beaks began to form under the discoloured flesh. Nan, in turn, would watch Mr Buzzard, in case he should be tempted to put himself in danger by mimicking their behaviour, perhaps by climbing a tree and flinging himself from its branches, or by eating something ill suited to human digestive system. Nan was past the age for Changing and in any case had never enjoyed the sensation, which recalled for her the pains of childbirth – pains she had never forgotten, and which she likened to forcing one’s limbs out of their sockets through sheer strength of will.

Not long after Kark’s arrival at Buzzard Heights, Mr Buzzard offered him the position of Assistant Birdkeeper in the glasshouse. From then on he was responsible for the care of the exotic specimens that made their homes in its various habitats, and later for helping to add new specimens to the collection, taking over from the ageing Kerr as Mr Buzzard’s most trusted aide. It was an interesting job but a hard one, and not one from which he could afford to absent himself for more than a few days at a stretch. Not that he felt much inclined to leave behind the comforts of his new environment. He and Nan and the redoubtable Kerr spent most of their leisure time in a strange artificial leaf-filled world beneath the great glass domes, wandering among tree-ferns and sitting in the shade of orange groves and ornamental arbours, plotting the liberation of Lazarus, or recalling details of their travels, or mulling over their confused and contradictory impressions of their life as birds.

Days passed into months and months into years. Kark visited Portsmouth and found that all traces of Morrow had long since disappeared. Pomaine too seemed to have vanished into thin air; Kark suspected that he had dropped his professorial alias and retired with his fortune to his house in Islington. At last the three lost citizens of Lazarus performed a similar vanishing act. As is well known to historians, a mysterious gas escape wiped out the birds in Mr Buzzard’s collection in the winter of 1900. The day before the tragedy, the young man and the two old women who had tended the collection left the glasshouse from different exits and were never seen again. The press and the public were far too interested in the question of what had happened to Mr Buzzard to speculate as to the fate of his three employees. For a while the police took a desultory interest in their disappearance, but they soon abandoned the investigation. As an ambitious young police sergeant explained it later to the local paper, inquiries into their whereabouts were greeted by the local community with what could only be described as a ‘resounding silence’.

And now it is time to finish writing. Indeed, I would never have started if I had realized how foolish my story would look on paper. To begin with, there are so many coincidences involved in it – as many as in a bad Victorian adventure story. How in God’s name, for instance, did Kerr, Kark and his grandmother contrive to find their way to the South West corner of England, to the hospitable environment of Balthazar Buzzard’s glasshouse? And by what improbable routes did Morrow and Buzzard obtain their supplies of the drug that arrested the Changes? The valley itself, in my account, resembles an English valley in the Lake District more closely than a valley in the Urals – or so I presume, having forgotten anything I ever knew about that district of what is now the Soviet Union. The names of the valley’s residents make them sound like a bunch of talking animals from a pantomime. And as for the central premise of my narrative – that a certain subsection of the human species might be capable of changing into birds – well, you are twelve years old this week, young Karl, and this is 1967: you know as well as I do the sheer absurdity of that proposition.

Why, if there were even a grain of truth to it we would have to revise our entire notion of human history. We would have to look with fresh eyes on a whole range of myths, legends and fables, both ancient and modern – from the traditional depictions of angels in Western tradition to those of the Victorian flower fairies, from the Russian firebird to the Indonesian Garuda, from the phoenix to the Mesoamerican fathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and the lightning bird of the Xhosa… In short, the whole eccentric course of my researches, which has drawn on me the bemused derision of my academic colleagues, would need no further justification…

And I am tired of justifying myself. As tired as your great great grandmother was when she told me the equally foolish tale of Kerr with which my own story opened. That is why I have written this narrative down as I have, and as my ancestors did, in the guise of a harmless fiction. I was encouraged to do so by the fact that for a week now you have been off your food. Your mother says that you are deliberately starving yourself, out of some perverse desire, I suppose, to share my suffering, as I succumb to the final stages of the wasting disease that has extinguished my appetite. She is angry with me for being no more forceful in my efforts to encourage you to start eating again. My story will explain why I find it impossible to give you more than half-hearted encouragement.

I saw you, Karl, the other night, as you scurried to the bathroom in your flannel dressing gown. Your chest has thickened and your legs are as long and powerful as the legs of an ostrich. Believe me, boy, these early stages are the hardest. By the time you’re my age the notion of even the most cataclysmic physical Change will arouse in you the mingled terror and delight felt by every modern student when confronted with the prospect of revolution. The young people of the world are flying in their heads now, Karl, dreaming of liberties unimaginable to my generation. The tides are turning, as Nan would have said. Perhaps by the time you read this they will have turned.

An unusually large raven is tapping at my study window with its beak. Before I go to see what it wants I shall leave these sheets in their hiding place, together with a long brown feather bequeathed to me by my Nan. If you are reading them now you will know how cleverly they were hidden, and will spare a kind thought for your old grandpa, and for all those other lost lonely ones who never told their secrets.

Kark and Kerr, Part 1

Every Thursday Mrs Chakchak made one of her special stews and stood over the children with a ladle in her hand to make sure they ate every drop. If a boy or girl protested she would lash out with the ladle and rap them over the knuckles – once, twice, three times – telling them they were ungrateful little insects, and promising she would really give them something to cry about if they made another sound before emptying their bowls. Nobody got their knuckles rapped more often than Kark. Perhaps that’s why whenever he thinks of Mrs Chakchak’s stews he remembers them now as tasting mostly of salt.

When Kark was twelve years old he fell ill and lost his appetite. On Thursday Mrs Chakchak came and stood by his bed with a bowl of her stew. But the smell of it made him retch, and when she tried to spoon it into his mouth he vomited all over his Nan’s best linen.

Nan told Mrs Chakchak that the boy was clearly too sick to take his dose this Thursday. Mrs Chakchak said ‘Nonsense!’ (her favourite word), and the two old women started shouting at each other in high, querulous voices.

‘Sick or not, if he eats nothing else this week he must eat this!’ cried Mrs Chakchak.

‘It’s no use insisting,’ cried Nan. ‘For three days he hasn’t taken anything but water. Come now, Mrs Chakchak! It’ll do no harm if he misses his dose this once!’

‘It will do a great deal of harm, as you know very well. Remember what became of the Kerr child, who refused her dose three weeks running! We lost a good man in the search for her, and when they finally found her body there was nothing left but bones and a bit of skin! They had to identify the remains from the silver bracelet on her ankle!’

‘That was a different case and well you know it. The Kerr girl had something wrong with her glands; and besides, they didn’t keep a proper eye on her. I’m keeping an eye on Kark both night and day. He’s already getting better, bit by bit. By next week I’ve no doubt he’ll take a double helping of your stew and ask for a third. Now I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do today, Mrs Chakchak. What this boy needs is bed-rest, and it’s my job to make sure he gets it. Goodbye!’

‘This boy is an impudent dabchick, and what he needs is a good sound thrashing! I shall take up the matter with my fellow councillors!’ And Mrs Chakchak flounced out of the shack, splashing gobbets of evil-smelling liquid onto the floor at every step.

‘You mustn’t mind Mrs Chakchak, dear,’ said Nan. ‘She’s a well-meaning soul and was once a wise one. Fear and loneliness turn us all bad in the end. But you must do your best to get well enough to eat your stew next Thursday.’

Luckily the fever broke that evening, and Kark emptied his bowl three times the following week to please Nan and spite Mrs Chakchak. But he didn’t forget the shrill exchange at his bedside. Day and night he nagged at Nan till at last she agreed to explain what had happened to the girl named Kerr. ‘O very well,’ she said one evening, when she looked old and tired and seemed unable to get close enough to the fire to warm her bones. ‘I’ll tell you the story. It may even do you good, if it teaches you to eat what’s put in front of you. But don’t breathe a word to any of your friends. If the Council hears I’ve been talking about such things they’ll send me away from the valley to die of cold and hunger.’

Of course Kark promised faithfully. But even as he listened he forgot his promise, and began planning in his head how he would embellish the tale for his best friend Chew when he got the chance. He squatted down with Nan beside the fire and watched her rubbing together her knobbly hands as she talked, trying and trying to bring warmth to her aching knuckles.

‘You know, of course, that the stew is a kind of medicine,’ she began. ‘When you were small we told you it was good for you. You must eat it up, we said, if you want to grow big and strong. But later, when you were wise enough to understand what we were saying, we taught you something different: something we couldn’t mention earlier because it would have given you nightmares. For generations, we said, the people of Lazarus have suffered from a rare and dangerous illness, a congenital disorder unique to the men and women of our country. From time to time this disease breaks out of our bodies like a monstrous moth breaking out of its cocoon: splitting our skin, twisting our limbs, never failing to kill or cripple its victims. You must eat the stew, we told you, if you wish to stay alive. It’s not just a health-giving supplement; it’s the condition of our existence, as inseparably part of us as our limbs and inner organs.

‘From the moment you heard about this illness, Kark, you knew you were a prisoner. It’s because of this disease, we explained, that we live as we do, in this barren valley hemmed in by mountains. This is our place of quarantine, the island where we’ve been marooned. We were dragged here in chains by men in masks, and forbidden to leave on pain of death. Since then we’ve had little to do with the world beyond. We trade with the men in masks for things we need that the valley doesn’t yield us, spreading out skins and gemstones on blankets, then retreating behind a wall to watch them quarrelling over the pathetic portions of salt and spices they leave us in exchange. But we never go beyond the Seven Passes, never risk the wrath of our jailers. This valley is our prison and the stew is part of our penance for the crime of being sick. That’s how it’s been for thirteen generations, and that’s how it shall be till the end of time.

‘So long as we eat our stew, we’re told, we shall all stay healthy and be left in peace. But if ever any one of us forgets to take our dose – or refuses to take it – or pretends to take it then secretly spews it up – disaster will strike. The disease will burst from our bodies and spread the wings of its contagion from town to town; the Seven Passes will be sealed shut, and we’ll be left to die in solitude, cut off forever from the rest of mankind. Or worse: the men in masks will ride back into the valley, wrapped in protective cloth from head to foot, and kill us all, men, women and children, so as to stamp out the disease before it can infect their families. That’s why old Mrs Chakchak was so horrified when you wouldn’t eat. Poor dear, you mustn’t blame her. She really believes the stories, really thinks her revolting gunk is the key to our salvation.’ Nan laughed wryly and held her hands out to the fire. ‘Trouble is,’ she added, ‘there are as many stories as there are names, and as many explanations for both as there are blades of grass on the distant steppes. Tell me, child, have you learned how our valley got its name?’

Kark nodded. ‘Miss Rikikikik told us it was because of a man called Lazarus who rose from the dead. She said the people who came to the valley were so happy to get away from their troubles that it was as if they had died and been born again, so they named it Lazarus in memory of the man who came back to life. But Mrs Hoo says that’s not true. She says Lazarus was a poor man like us who never had enough to eat, and that he was only ever happy when he died. She says they called the valley Lazarus because the food here was so bad and there was so little of it. How can that be, Nan? Was the valley named after two different people? Or is Miss Rikikikik wrong? Or Mrs Hoo?’

‘People and places get names for many different reasons,’ Nan said. ‘And sometimes old names find new meanings. When I was a child my teacher taught me that the valley got its name not from a person but from a building. She said it came from two words, “lazar house”, which means a place where lepers are sent to live till their illness kills them. A lazar is a leper, and a leper is a man or woman who suffers from a disease called leprosy, which eats away at the flesh till there’s nothing left but a pile of bones. I’ve never seen a leper, but I’m so old and worn out that I sometimes feel like one.’

‘I bet that’s what happened to Kerr,’ cried Kark. ‘She was a leper, and one day she wandered away from home, and got lost in the mountains, and went round and round in circles till her flesh was all eaten away and there was nothing left but the bracelet on her ankle.’

‘Yes, perhaps that’s it,’ said Nan. ‘Perhaps she was a leper. Perhaps we’re all lepers, and the story of Kerr is just a way of making us feel better about ourselves. Like the story of Lazarus who rose from the dead, which is so very much more cheerful than the story of Lazarus who died of hunger.’

She fell silent, gazing into the flames; and it was all Kark could do to persuade her to go on with her story.

Kerr, it seemed, was a little scamp; a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue. (‘Very much like you,’ Nan added with a smile.) Like Kark she complained every Thursday when the bowl was put in front of her; like Kark she was always getting into trouble; and like Kark she got ill one day and refused to eat her stew, despite all the efforts of the woman who made it. But unlike Kark, having once refused her dose Kerr never took another. She would eat only fruit and water. Anything else, whether hidden in spoonfuls of apple pulp or forced between her clenched teeth by members of the Council, simply would not stay down. She got thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker with every passing day, and at the end of the third week her body began to change in other ways. Her skin broke out in pimples, her face became long and sharp with hunger, her legs were covered with flakes or scales of brittle skin, and her chest swelled to make room for the air she was always gasping. The wise old men and women of the valley gathered at her bedside and argued about what was wrong with her.

‘It’s her womanhood,’ said one. ‘She’s becoming a grown woman, and her glands can’t cope. Look at the length of her arms and legs, the joints of her fingers and toes, the girth of her chest. Parts of her body are growing very fast while other parts are wasting away to compensate for the vitamins she isn’t getting in her diet. As soon as she starts to eat normally these things will sort themselves out.’

‘I wish I could agree,’ said another with a sigh. ‘This looks to me like something worse than growing pains. Something very serious is happening to her skin. I would hesitate to diagnoze leprosy; but I see every indication here of a severe skin disorder, and I recommend that the girl be kept in the strictest isolation till time and a better diet have resolved the situation – one way or another.’

‘You’re both talking shit,’ snapped a high-ranking councillor. ‘You know very well what’s happening here, and it won’t do to pussy-foot around it any longer. The girl is going through the Changes. In a matter of days or weeks she will have Changed completely. We must convene an emergency meeting of the Council to decide what’s to be done.’

The wise men and women all drew in their breath at the mention of the Changes. Some of them thought they understood the word; others merely reacted to a term that had acquired an air of mystery from stories and songs they had heard in childhood. But by the time the councillor had ended his address to the emergency meeting, they all knew more than they had known before, and what they knew made them terribly afraid.

‘All of you have heard about the Changes,’ he said. ‘Songs are still being sung and stories told, even if you take them for nursery rhymes and fables. We in the Council have always hoped that these stories and songs would soon be forgotten, replaced by new ones full of comfort: stories with happy endings, songs to lift the heart and point to a brighter future. We put about the story of leprosy to hasten the process of forgetting; but we planned one day to replace that nasty tale with something nicer.

‘More than this, we began to hope for something better than stories.   We began to hope that the Changes had indeed stopped working their terrible magic on our bodies. We grew slack in administering the herbal treatments devised by our clever ancestors to keep the Changes at bay. Yet despite our slackness, nothing like this – like what has happened to Kerr – had happened in living memory. The Changes seemed to have become in reality what we’d laboured to make them in the minds of our people: a thing of the past. Very cautiously, we dared to believe that we in the valley were finally free from the curse that has shaped our history. In a few generations, we told ourselves, we shall leave the valley for good, and our children’s children shall live in the world of men in perfect safety.

‘Now, it seems, our hopes have been dashed. After only three weeks without her dose, a girl of the valley has begun to show signs of metamorphosis. Our curse has returned, and if the news gets out we may suffer appalling consequences. We shall be persecuted, isolated, put to the sword. We must see to it, then, that no word of her condition leaves this room. Silence is now, as it has always been, our best protection. I have every confidence in your secrecy. The people of Lazarus are skilled in the ways of silence – that’s why we are still alive. But those who have forgotten how to hold their tongues will find that the Council has not yet forgotten how to punish.

‘How to deal with the girl herself? We must be humane: that’s one of the conditions under which we aspire to recover our full humanity. I propose that our safest course is to put her in one of the bothies on the lower slopes of the mountains. The opinion of my wise friend must be spread about the homesteads: that she has contracted leprosy, and that nobody may come near her till every trace of infection has been cleansed from her limbs. We will place her under careful surveillance. With any luck she will quickly return to health without going any further along the road to metamorphosis. But if she does undergo the Changes we must think again. It will be very difficult to keep her condition quiet once the Changes have been allowed to run their course.

‘In the meantime, do not lose heart. It is quite possible that the situation is not as grave as it seems. We have every reason to suppose that our original diagnosis was correct, and that the people of the valley are no longer so susceptible to their ancient curse as once they were. It may well be that this is a freak occurrence – a final parting blow from the disorder that has dogged our destiny for so long. It may well be that nothing of this kind will ever happen again. For generations we have watched our fears subside and the promise of freedom flourish. If properly handled, we may look back on this incident in years to come as the last savage stroke from a dying monster before it and its kind are stamped out for ever.’

So Kerr was moved from her elder sister’s cottage to a bothy at the edge of the valley, and a guard was set to watch her. The councillor who had proposed this course of action visited her every day with other members of the Council to monitor the progress of her symptoms. They gave it as their opinion that the Changes, if they were to happen, would take place at the next full moon. They were wrong. They had worked so hard to erase all reference to what they called the Curse that they had forgotten how to recognize the tell-tale signs of its imminence. Added to this, the harvest was in full swing, and all the people of the valley were working from dawn till dusk to gather in the meagre crops and prepare their produce for the coming winter. The councillors were as busy as the rest, and no doubt their inspections were more perfunctory than they ought to have been. The guard appointed to watch the girl was an elderly councillor too weak to take part in the harvest. The woman swore she didn’t need much sleep, being old, and so could keep an eye on Kerr by night as well as by day. But she was lying; she spent the night and most of the day in bed with her eyes tight shut and her mouth wide open. So she took her little granddaughter to stay with her in the bothy, with strict instructions to wake her up if anyone approached. Each day she fell asleep before sunset and slept through to the following noon. She was fast asleep when the Changes came, and the only person who saw what happened was the wakeful granddaughter. ‘And that little girl,’ said Nan, ‘was me.’

‘She was you!’ cried Kark, amazed. ‘So you saw everything! What did you see?’

‘What did I see? I’ll tell you. I saw that the Changes were not a disease after all. I saw something that has stayed in my memory ever since, and which I’ve ached all my life to describe to my friends and family. Something that frightened me half to death and yet filled me with unbearable happiness, and which still fills me with fear and happiness whenever I think of it. What I saw made me hate and despise the Council forever, because of their secrets and lies, and because of the terrible things they threatened me with if I should ever let a hint of it pass my lips.

‘What did I see? I saw Kerr Change. One minute she was tossing and turning on a bed of bracken. The next she had thrown off the bedclothes and leapt into the middle of the floor, sweat streaming from her limbs as if her flesh was melting. Feathers sprang from her outstretched fingers. Her legs seemed to buckle and bend in the wrong direction, her horrible misshapen toes dug furrows in the dirt as they turned to claws. Her face seemed to split in two as her jaws stretched wide to let out an inhuman scream. When they shut at last they had become a beak. She turned her back on me and a bristling armoury of quills was forcing its way through her trembling shoulders. I screamed more loudly than she had, and she turned to stare at me with an eye that had turned bright yellow and lost its whites. Then she gave a second leap, and sprang straight out of a hole in the bothy roof. Nobody ever saw her again. Not as Kerr, at any rate, although some of us may have seen her as a bird.’

‘A bird!’ cried Kark. ‘Was she a bird-woman, then – a witch, like the ones in stories?’

‘She was,’ said Nan. ‘And so am I, and so are you, young man. This is what the Council has been trying to hide from us for so long. This is the disease from which we suffer. This is what we are. We’re not lepers. We’re not even ill. We are shape-shifters like the ones in the stories, and the stew we take each Thursday is no medicine but a drug designed to prevent us from becoming ourselves. We are the Bird People, and if we do not take our medicine we turn into birds when the Changes come, as Kerr did, and fly through the air like angels.’

‘But why?’ Kark asked, bewildered. ‘Why don’t they want us to turn into birds? Is it wrong?’

‘It’s very wrong. Wrong of the Council to hide our gifts from us. Wrong of those of us who know to keep quiet about it. Wrong of Mrs Chakchak to force her stinking stew on us without explaining what it’s for. And wrong that we have to live in fear of the Changeless Ones, the men in masks from beyond the valley who drove us out of the fertile lands because of their fear and ignorance. But I haven’t finished with the story of Kerr.

‘As soon as Kerr flew out through the roof, the little girl ran to wake her Nan, and the poor old woman began to shriek at the top of her voice. She had no idea what to make of the little girl’s story; she only knew that her charge had escaped and that the Council would punish her severely for her negligence. Then the door burst open and a man rushed in. It was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting. “What in God’s name was that?” he cried. “It was Kerr, sir,” said the little girl. “She’s turned into a bird,” and she held up a long brown feather for his inspection. He stood there in amazement, looking from feather to bed to the shrieking old woman, who had now begun to pull out her hair in handfuls. “So it has come to this,” he said at last, and left the shack without another word.

‘He went straight to the village and organized the fittest villagers into search-parties. “A giant bird has carried Kerr away,” he told them. “It flew down from the mountains, smashed a hole in the roof of the bothy and snatched her from her bed. We must find the bird and rescue the girl or avenge her death. Follow me!” But before he led the searchers to the mountains he sent certain trusted Councillors to watch the old woman and the little girl, and to keep them prisoners in the bothy till his return. The prisoners were not to speak about what they had seen, and not to have any visitors until they had been thoroughly examined by the Council.’

Their imprisonment, said Nan, lasted for three long months. When the old woman and her granddaughter had entered the shack to watch over Kerr, the valley had been sweltering in the thunderous dying days of late summer. By the time they left, November storms like savage birds had torn the leaves from the poor stunted trees of the valley orchards and the mountains were white with snow. The prisoners were never subjected to the threatened examination. For the first month the search parties combed the mountains in vain, finding no trace of Kerr or of the bird that had carried her off. The most energetic of the searchers was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting; and in the second month his energy killed him. He set out with two younger men to explore a cave in a cliff-face, and fell to his death as he struggled to swing himself into the cave mouth. In the third month a shepherd found the bones of Kerr, picked dry by scavengers, with the silver bracelet among them. The old woman and her granddaughter were released at once, with orders never to mention the lost girl again. The old woman found these orders easy enough to comply with. She had gone quite mad during her confinement, and died within a month of being released. The little girl kept her secret with more difficulty, but she kept it for many years.

‘And now,’ Nan added, ‘she has told it to her grandson. I can’t think what possessed her to speak out. Perhaps she has simply grown too old to keep her mouth shut. Perhaps she thinks that the truth should not be lost. Or perhaps she saw something of Kerr in the boy who refused to eat his stew. In any case, she hopes that the story will bring colour to her grandson’s dreams, as he lives out his life in this dreary mountain prison where we’ve shut ourselves up for no good reason. So that at least his dreams can escape from confinement, as hers have done each night since she saw a girl turn into a bird.

‘But there’s a price to pay for the knowledge I’ve given you. For your sake and mine you must never tell a soul, unless you trust him with your life, as I trust you. The councillor who died said one wise thing: that silence is our best protection. You should think very carefully before you forfeit the safety of silence. Remember this: by staying silent you will be protecting me as well as yourself. Now off to bed with you, and never let me hear another word about Kerr, or stew, or the Changes.’

Kark went to bed as he was told, but he could not sleep because his head was buzzing with the things Nan had told him. So he was one of the bird people! And if he didn’t eat Mrs Chakchak’s stew he would take to the air and fly like an angel! Ever since he had first heard stories of men and women who could change their bodies as ordinary people change their clothes he had yearned with all his heart to be one of them. And now his wishes had been granted, his dreams made flesh! Whatever Nan said, it was not enough for his dreams to remain just that: vivid pictures in his head, good for nothing but to while away the dreary valley winters. He did not think he would ever sleep again until he had found out whether he too could change as Kerr had changed, could share with her the adventure of the skies. But to find this out he would need help, and to get help he would have to betray his grandmother’s confidence.

As it happened, Kark had a friend called Chew Chew whom he would have trusted with his life. The very next day he was due to meet up with Chew Chew to plan a rabbit-hunting trip into the hills. Before Kark fell asleep he had begun to work out a scheme for testing the effects of not taking his dose, and by the time he woke next morning the scheme was fully formed in his head. They would go for the hunting trip as planned; but they would stay away just long enough to make folks at home uneasy. After a week or so Chew Chew would go back to the village and tell the villagers that he and Kark had got lost in the hills in fog, and that they had later lost each other. Meanwhile Kark would hide in a place they had found when they were children, in a lonely wooded corner of the valley. While search parties looked for Kark in the hills, Chew Chew would creep out of his parents’ house under cover of darkness and bring food to where Kark could collect it, together with information about where the searchers were planning to look in the days ahead. If nothing had happened to Kark after several weeks, he would return to the village with a story of some kind to explain his absence. If something did happen, on the other hand… somehow or other he would find a way to let Chew Chew know what had become of him.

Chew Chew was not as keen on the plan as Kark had expected. For one thing, it seemed to him that the most dangerous and least glamorous part of it fell to his share: something that was perfectly true, and hadn’t crossed Kark’s mind. Chew Chew’s parents were councillors and strict disciplinarians. They would react angrily to Chew Chew’s disappearance, and it would be hard for him to slip away after that, even under cover of darkness. It took all Kark’s eloquence to persuade his friend that he was getting a good deal out of the scheme. It was Kark who was acting the part of the human guinea-pig, and Chew Chew would eventually reap the reward of knowing the result of their experiment without having to undergo the Changes himself. Chew Chew finally agreed to do what Kark wanted, but he insisted that the experiment should last no longer than three weeks, and that he should deliver food to Kark no more than twice a week. ‘They’ll notice it’s gone from the storage bins, I know they will,’ he moaned, and Kark felt compelled to smuggle a lot of dried goods out of Nan’s inadequate winter supply so as to reduce the risk of his friend’s being exposed as a thief.

Even then Chew Chew complained all the way to the hills the following week. He complained about the weight of the blankets and clothes Kark had insisted they take with them. He complained about the weather, which drizzled as steadily as he did. He complained about the camp-site they had chosen, which turned out to be the only patch of marsh for miles around, and which reduced all their clothes and blankets to the colour and consistency of mud. Kark bullied him into staying away from the village for a week; but once Thursday had passed and they had missed their first dose of Mrs Chakchak’s concoction Kark almost began to regret that his friend had let himself be persuaded.

‘I feel so strange,’ moaned Chew Chew. ‘My skin burns all over and I’ve got a sore throat. What if your Nan was wrong and the stew is really a medicine to stop us falling ill? What if we get so ill in the next few days that I’m too weak to go home on Sunday?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you that a hot bath wouldn’t cure,’ Kark scoffed. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if you were infested with fleas by now. If you’d take a dip in the stream from time to time, like me, your skin would feel as soft as a feather bed.’

‘Me, swim!’ cried Chew Chew. ‘You must be crazy. That stream’s far too cold to swim in – you’ll catch pneumonia. And for God’s sake don’t talk about feathers. It’s you who wants to turn into a bird, not me. Every morning as soon as I wake up I have to feel myself all over to make sure I’ve not turned into a chicken or a goose. I wish I was at home. At least there I get to sleep on feathers instead of growing them.’

Chew Chew didn’t turn into a chicken, and at the week’s end he went home as they had planned. But he did not come back the following week, nor the week after that. In the meantime Kark made his way across the valley to the hole in the ground where he had meant to live out the course of the Changes. But he found that it had filled with water in the recent downpour, and instead he set up camp under an overhanging rock screened by bushes, which afforded him scant protection against the perishing autumn wind. From the top of the rock he watched as search-parties scoured the valley. Often he had to take cover when a party came too close; and once, when he was checking one of the snares he had set for rabbits, a hunter passed within inches of his nose, and he had to hold his breath until she was out of earshot. Every night he went to the hollow tree which Chew Chew and he had chosen for a meeting place; and every night he returned home angry and disappointed. But he did not think for a moment of abandoning his scheme. He had only to think of the triumph that would be written on Mrs Chakchak’s face as he humbly accepted her stew, or of the tears that would shine in Nan’s eyes as he confessed to his robberies, and his determination to stay where he was grew stronger.

As the days went by his body grew stronger. He hardly noticed how hard and long his legs were growing, or how thick his chest, or how sharp his jawbone. Indeed, he thought less and less after the first fortnight. Instead he concentrated on catching enough food to live on. He ran after deer with the aid of his increasingly powerful thighs. He watched for pigeons, bow in hand, with eyes that could now pick out every detail of the lichen on a rock many hundreds of yards away, and he patrolled his network of snares with the vigilance of a glutton. He no longer bothered to cook the meat he ate. At first he told himself that this was because it was too risky to light a fire, but after a few days he found himself relishing the gush of blood from a fresh kill as it ran down his gullet and settled warm in his stomach. And he also began to relish his anger. He was angry with Chew Chew for failing him; angry with the hunters for seeking to bring him home; angry with the Council for trying to rob him of the freedom he craved; and angry with the rain for running down the back of his neck. Anger gave him invisible wings when he hunted, and anger woke him with all his senses alert when a strange noise startled him awake in the dark.

Then one night, as he crouched in the hollow tree nursing his anger, he heard footsteps approaching. The fallen leaves made it sound as though an army were wading its way towards him through the drifts, but when he peered through a crack in the old oak’s trunk he saw only Chew Chew, stumbling and snivelling and calling a name which it took him several seconds to recognize as his own.

Kark stepped out of the oak at once and grabbed Chew Chew by the wrist. His friend gave a shriek and fell to his knees. ‘Who are you?’ he gasped. ‘It’s never Kark, is it?’

‘Of course it is,’ Kark snapped in his new hoarse voice. ‘But I’m the one who should be asking questions. Where in God’s name have you been? What happened to the supplies you promised you’d bring me? What’s going on down in the village? I ought to break your arm for leaving me alone like this.’

‘Please don’t hurt me!’ Chew Chew squealed. ‘We’re best friends, remember? It’s not my fault I couldn’t come earlier. My parents knew all about our plan. When I got home they shut me in the shed for thieving, and I had nothing to eat, and I was tired and sick, and I had to tell them – no, no, I never told them where you were hiding! But it was a stupid plan, Kark, it could never have worked, and you’ve got to come home with me now or – or they’ll hunt you with dogs!’

‘My Nan!’ Kark hissed. ‘You didn’t tell them anything about her, did you? Say you didn’t!’

‘I couldn’t help it! They wanted to know where you heard about the Changes, and they could tell when I was lying! But don’t worry, she’s all right! She said so when they drove her out of the village. She’s wanted to leave the valley all her life, only she never had the courage! She must be half way to the outside world by now, and she took plenty of food, and she seemed so pleased to be going!’

‘I’ll kill you for this,’ Kark snarled, clacking his teeth together. ‘How did you get away from the village? Were you followed?’

‘Don’t! Please don’t! It’s not my fault! They made me!’

As Chew Chew spoke, a branch shook behind him. Kark knew at once that several people must be hidden in the trees, waiting to see if Chew could persuade him to walk into their ambush. He let out a cry that was more like a croak than a word, flung Chew Chew to the ground and began to run.

The wood seemed to burst into life around him, hunters detaching themselves from branches and trunks like leaves torn away by an autumn gale. A wild excitement coursed through Kark’s body, and he leaped over streams and fallen trees as if he were flying. The pain of his running intensified with every leap, but this only gave him greater strength. With one last bound he broke free of the trees and found himself skimming over the heather of an open hillside. Sticks and stones rattled against the rocks and buried themselves in peat on either side. He tore off his few remaining clothes to help himself run faster. Balloons of air filled his agonized lungs and made him buoyant; he swept aside swathes of air with his arms like a swimmer; his feet barely touched the golden fronds of bracken that stretched out to catch him.

He looked back once to gauge the distance between himself and his nearest pursuer, and saw the pale faces of the hunters far below, their mouths gaping wide in astonishment, their spears and bows hanging forgotten in their hands. The hill had dropped away, he was falling into the star-filled sky, frantically flapping his arms in an effort to keep his balance. For a moment he felt giddy and terrified. Then he forgot his giddiness and terror, forgot everything but the roll and surge of the wind beneath his wings, the roar of it in his ears, the rush of it through his feathers.

[To be continued]

Intruder

[Last night we held our Fantasy Reading Party at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, Glasgow. This has become an annual event supported by funding from the School of Critical Studies, at which current and past students from the MLitt Fantasy read out their creative work, revealing in the process just how dazzlingly diverse and innovative fantasy fiction and verse can be. Tacos are involved, and a certain amount of beer and other liquids. A couple of our readers fell ill, so I read out the following extract from my work-in-progress, a novel called Ratpig, to fill in the gap. I’m posting it here at the kind request of the listeners!]

That night as the Manager slept, a guard was strolling along the East wall of the city, whistling a tune he had just made up. The kids called him Twitter because of his whistling: he could do it by blowing air through a chink in his body armour, and he could vary the tone by twisting his torso in different directions, which made his posture as he walked decidedly odd. He would bend his body left and right, or tilt it backwards, or turn it round till the chestplate faced behind him, and the noises this produced when he whistled seemed to him quite beautiful, though most people thought them hideous; they were always asking him to stop. In fact, the Manager had forbidden him to make his music less than five hundred metres from Kozy Klothes, which was why he walked the city walls when he wanted to practise.

And this was the perfect night for practising. The storms of the previous night had swept the skyways clear, and now the tiny traffic lights of the stars blinked rapidly on and off as if picking up a signal from some far-off controller. The forest was still, and in the intervals between his whistling he could hear small creatures crashing about in the undergrowth, inspired to sudden movement by his tunes, or so he liked to think. Inspired means breathing in, he reminded himself; I breathe out through the chinks in my armour, the creatures breathe in, and together we form a circuit, a connection across time and space which is powered by music. What a lovely thought. If only his fellow guards could see it as he did.

Twitter stopped and leaned his elbows against the parapet. He couldn’t inhale the scent of the forest, but he could let the breeze from it play in his joints, and he could appreciate the altered tone this gave to his whistling. Sometimes he stood like this for hours on end, like a harp in an empty hall being played by the currents of air that swept across its strings. He would stand here till dawn if he could, unless Sergeant Rivet showed up and shouted at him.

A loud clank sounded next to his elbow and a chip of stone from the top of the wall flew up and struck his helmet with a high-pitched ping. So rapt was he in his whistling that he merely thought how nice the sound was, how well it blended with the melody he was weaving. Then he looked down and saw a metal hand grip the parapet with fingers of steel. No, not a hand: a hook of some sort, three prongs like crooked claws digging channels in the stonework. Twitter stared for a moment, then leaned over the parapet.

Someone was clambering up the wall directly below him, swinging from a length of cord attached to the hook. Someone human and agile, with a bundle strapped to its back. The human was dressed in green and had long thin limbs like the limbs of a spider, though there were only four of them.   He could not tell the human’s gender, so he would think of it as a ‘he’, as he thought of himself. He had been programmed to think of human beings as males, it was his default setting, though he had often wondered why, and had even thought of changing it.

But for now the question was not what gender it was, but what were its intentions? Twitter was a Kozy Klothes guard and therefore responsible, by extension, for the safety of Stitch, where the Kozy Klothes factory was located. Admittedly his principal task was to keep the workers under control; the present situation, whereby a stranger was climbing into the city without authorization, was unfamiliar to him, and he had to root through his programming for several seconds before he found the relevant guidance on what to do about it.

As a matter of fact there were several options available, but the simplest choice, and the one that would enable him to return most quickly to what he really wanted to do – that is, to whistling – was to burn this human to a crisp with his trusty flamethrower. After that it would be unnecessary either to interrogate the thing or determine its sex. It would be speechless. It would be sexless. It would be dead.

Pleased with his decision, Twitter raised his left arm and aimed the nozzle of the flamethrower at the intruder. But to his surprise, the intruder was not where he had been before. The rope was still hanging down from the three-pronged hook, swinging slightly in the breeze, but the climber had gone. Perhaps he had sensed Twitter’s presence and returned to the safety of the forest, leaving his rope behind? That would have been sensible of him. Such a decision would have relieved Twitter of the need to take any action, and as such Twitter would have been grateful to the stranger for taking it. He didn’t like taking action unexpectedly; it disrupted his creativity circuits, which were better equipped for making music than making corpses.

Twitter decided he had better take one last look around, just to make sure, before he went back to his whistling. He rotated his upper body through one hundred and eighty degrees, and in the process saw – again to his surprise – that the stranger was standing behind him holding a knife. It was a large, serrated knife, and Twitter noticed with some interest that it was of a perfect size and weight to pierce his body armour at the point towards which the human was aiming it: that is, the narrow opening between the top of Twitter’s neck and the lower section of his metal throat.

This was the last thought that passed through Twitter’s head before it was violently wrenched from his shoulders and sent bouncing off into the darkness like a metal football.

As it went, it experienced some regret at this interruption to its whistling.

Meanwhile the stranger sheathed his knife, picked up the grappling hook and began to coil the rope around his left hand and elbow. As he coiled, he raised his lean face and sniffed the air, flaring his narrow nostrils like a dog’s.

The wind had changed direction and was now blowing fitfully from the city. Something about it, some scent it carried, caught the man’s attention and he paused in his coiling. A smile spread across his face. He had found what he had been looking for and it was right here in this city, only metres from the place where he now stood. He would not go and fetch it at once – he must study the situation first, see what he was up against. But he had found it, found her, and there was no way on the Plain she would escape from him again.