Dragon Scales: A Play for Children. Act Three

[For Act One, see here. For Act Two, see here.]

ACT THREE: THE PALACE

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, DOCTOR and PROFESSOR.]

CLARISSA: We had too much excitement
Last night, Melissa. We’re too old
For gallivanting round in forests.
MELISSA: O woe! O woe!
The Palace walls are melting into the floor,
There’s no difference between one room and another.
When I’m in bed I can’t sleep; when I’m awake I dream.
CLARISSA: Alas! There’s nothing lovely left in the land.
FRANCHISSA: My handsome Prince is gone.
CLARISSA: My poor Franchissa, yours is the deepest sorrow.
MELISSA: Don’t cry, Franchissa – I’ll give you my cosmetics –
Any of my best dresses, only don’t cry!
DOCTOR: I can’t understand it. My experiments
Have lost all lustre since the Prince was killed.
PROFESSOR: All night I was hungry, but now food tastes like ash.
Ladies, we’ve acted like a pair of pigs.
CLARISSA: You certainly have!
MELISSA: O please don’t blame them, dear Clarissa!
We must try to comfort one another.

[Enter EMPEROR.]

EMPEROR: Doctor, Professor, I’ve made a decision –
I’ve finally made a decision of my own.
Henceforth you’re relieved of the government!
PROFESSOR: Take it back, sire, with our thanks.
EMPEROR: But O, it wasn’t mine to give away!
Every trust I was given I betrayed;
Why didn’t the Dragon gobble me
Instead of my daughter, the sweetest, brightest girl
Ever to brew her father’s cocoa?

[Enter NURSE, bandaged.]

NURSE: It’s been the worst night I remember.
The wind howled, the raindrops were so huge
They smashed the window in the butler’s pantry.
EMPEROR: My poor dear Nurse, what has become of you?
NURSE: A clap of thunder made me fall downstairs.
I hurt my right arm, my left leg and my chin.

[Doorbell rings.]

Hark! There’s the doorbell!
EMPEROR: I’ll answer it myself.

[Exit EMPEROR.]

DOCTOR: Who can be calling at this hour?
I gave strict orders no one was to leave his bed
Till noon. The streets are empty. Only ash
Stirs here or there in little eddies.

[Re-enter EMPEROR with DRAGON.]

EMPEROR: So I wasn’t drunk when I saw you last!
Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce
This battered newt of my acquaintance.
DRAGON: Delighted to meet the company, I’m thure.
Forgive my lithp. In my panic thith morning
I fell down a coal-thute and knocked out all my teef.
CALRISSA: You were the beast
Who tried to murder the Prince!
MELISSA: You wanted us all to die in the forest –
I’ve half a mind to knock your brains out too!
DRAGON: Ladieth, it’th true I’ve been a thcoundrel –
Though I made nobody do anyfing
That wathn’t in their natureth –
But now, believe me, I’m an honetht Dragon,
Completeley reformed by my exthperientheth.
Without my teef I wouldn’t latht
Ten thecondth ath a villain anyway.
Tho I’ve come to athk if you have any
Thituathion for a willing reptile
Who will acthept the motht modetht thalary
With almotht thycophantic gratitude.
For inthtanth, I thtew thuper thauthageth!
EMPEROR: Snake, in the past my hearth has welcomed you
Too readily; but if you’re really reformed
And promise not to break the glasses when you’re cross,
You can be the thirty-first assistant chef.
DRAGON: I’m thtricken by your generothity.

[Doorbell rings again.]

NURSE: Hark! The doorbell again!
Who would have thought so many would be stirring
So early in the day?
PROFESSOR: This time I’ll go.
It’ll help to keep my stomach quiet.

[Exit PROFESSOR. Re-enter with CAT.]

See who it is! A black cat on two legs!
CAT: Emperor, could you spare a fishbone?
I’ve lost my friends, my happiness and my bet
And I’m almost dead with hunger.
CLARISSA: Come, poor Cat,
Lie down on this soft rug and lick your paws.
CAT: I’m sorry I bonked your nose, your Majesty.
EMPEROR: I earned it, Cat. You may do it again if you like.

[Doorbell rings again.]

NURSE: Will that doorbell never stop ringing?
DOCTOR: By the law of averages it’s my turn to answer.

[Exit DOCTOR.]

EMPEROR: I wish we could invite the whole country,
All the people, horses, cats and dogs
Into the Palace to warm themselves by the fire;
All the trees to take root in the carpets,
The fields to sprout from the ceilings,
The rivers to run down the staircases
And the stars to illuminate the chandeliers.
Then, perhaps, if they would come,
The Palace might be bright again at last!

[Re-enter DOCTOR.]

DOCTOR: By all that’s statistically improbable!
I’ll throw my logarithms in the lake!
Ladies and gentlemen, see who was at the door!

[Enter GEORGE, PAMELA and CHIEF OF POLICE.]

EMPEROR: All the miracles that ever were,
The cows, the cats, the forests and the stars
Dwindle to nothing beside this miracle!
FRANCHISSA: My constable! Where have you been?
CHIEF: We’ve been fighting the Dragon.
GEORGE: We defeated it.
PAMELA: It came leaping and squawking in this direction –
We were afraid it might have squashed the Palace.
EMPEROR: Come in, sit down, recover your breath,
Speak, breathe, move, show that you’re alive!
My daughter I thought I’d never see again!
Prince George, what can I say? Can you forgive me
What I shall never forgive myself?
PROFESSOR: Or I, Prince George?
DOCTOR: I can hardly define the word ‘forgive’,
But I surrender to your judgement, Prince.
GEORGE: My dear friends, there’s nothing to forgive;
I’m overjoyed to see you safe and sound.
EMPEROR: Your kindness shames us more than anger would.
MELISSA: But dear Princess, won’t you describe the fight?
CLARISSA: Yes, yes, describe the triumph of virtue!
If only my lumbago
Hadn’t prevented me from joining in!
PAMELA: There’s not a lot to tell.
The smoke and flame from the Dragon’s throat
Hid us as we ran towards it;
The Chief of Police reached the monster first
And struck it on the chin so hard
That its teeth snapped shut like the Palace gates.
MELISSA (hitting EMPEROR): What a blow that was! O, sorry, your Majesty!
CHIEF: Then I fell down and it gripped me
In its right foreclaw; the Prince rushed forward
And stabbed the claw so fiercely it let go.
CLARISSA (hitting DOCTOR): Well smitten, Prince! O, sorry, Doctor!
GEORGE: The Dragon twisted round to deal with me,
But the Chief Constable had dropped his knife
Which Princess Pamela snatched up –
Just as the cavernous jaws stretched to engulf us
She stabbed it on the left hind leg!
EMPEROR (hitting PROFESSOR): Coward that I am! What heroism!
Sorry, Professor, are you hurt?
PAMELA: It gave a bellow like a bursting oil-rig
And crashed away through the trees
Raising solid walls of smoke on either side,
Throwing up hillocks with its scrabbling claws,
Driving away the louds with its dreadful yells,
Its blood staining the earth bright red.
CHIEF: And as it went, colour came back to the land.
GEORGE: The hillocks grew to hills and mountains.
CHIEF: The scales that flaked off as it ran
Took root and sprouted into meadows.
GEORGE: The blood became carpets of scarlet flowers,
The tears it wept flowed down the hills like brooks,
The fire became copper beeches and maple trees,
The smoke became little white clouds
Drifting across the blue of its outstretched wings.
PAMELA: We followed it as far as we could.
CHIEF: And before we knew it
There we stood on the Palace’s front doorstep,
Panting for breath, still smarting from the heat.
FRANCHISSA: And welcome as raindrops to the desert!
PAMELA: There are still stretches of ash about,
Still a lot to do before the land is green,
But the change has begun!
GEORGE: I shall paint cows in the meadows again!
DOCTOR: And I shall smash my terrible machine
And apply my genius to healing the damage I’ve done,
A task as jolly as dissecting frogs!
CLARISSA: Melissa, Franchissa and I shall take our dusters
And polish every corner till there’s not a grain
Of ash left in the kingdom.
PROFESSOR: The lizard and I shall join talents to prepare a feast!
EMPEROR: I proclaim this day a public holiday!
I shall have to tell the people what that means.
CAT: And I shall spend a busy time
Licking my tired paws by the fire.
NURSE: My dears, a word before you begin.
Because you’ve made it clear
You can think of others besides yourselves
I can now tell the true story
Of how I hurt my arm, my leg and my chin.
PAMELA: Sit down and rest yourself while you speak.
NURSE: I’ve often told you how I watched
The Emperor’s ancestors fight with the scabulous beasts
Which have plagued this land since it rose from the sea.
Have you ever wondered how your old Nurse
Could have seen so many battles?
The truth is, I was the baleful Bish,
I was the Snipe snicked by the Emperor’s Uncle,
The garrulous Gargle that choked on his Grandpapa,
The streperous Tock with its purple-blotchy hide,
And moreover, I was the Beast in the vegetable patch
And the Dragon you chopped in the forest last night.
GEORGE: But that’s impossible! You’re our beloved Nurse!
NURSE: Haven’t you learnt yet
Never to judge by outward appearances?
I am the guardian of this little land.
In times of prosperity I wear human form
And hire myself as a baby-minder.
EMPEROR: To think I hired a fiend to mind my daughter!
NURSE: But when darkness clutched the land
Or ash plugged men’s ears and made their children sneeze,
Whenever colours faded, or the sky
Was smothered with evil-smelling fumes,
It was my doom to become a monster
And slither to the woods to fight a hero.
As long as someone would fight me,
As long as I was defeated, the land would live,
The fields grow lush, the pear-trees blossom;
But if once a hero failed to meet my challenge
Or fled when he felt the flame of my roar,
The dust would clog your ears and eyes for ever,
The land become a grave, and I be left alone,
A solitary worm wriggling in hollow places.
CAT: So when I tried to dissuade the Prince from fighting
I put the land in danger of destruction!
EMPEROR: And when I plotted the Prince’s murder
I was plotting the murder of my kingdom!
PROFESSOR: How precious a single life must be.
Perhaps when we squash a fly
A star bursts, or a planet detonates!
CLARISSA: Then how many solar systems died
When we wiped out mosquitoes?
DOCTOR: I kept a pair of mosquitoes in a test tube.
If I set them free, in a year or two
There’ll be as many as before.
CLARISSA: Then free them, Doctor dear!
Mosquitoes have such shapely legs, I feel;
Their bites are worth it just to watch them dance!
GEORGE: Nurse, forgive my bluntness,
But how can we tell if your tale is true?
NURSE: The truth is always changing;
Like a mosquito, it never stays in one spot.
But if you need proof, for what it’s worth,
Look at the battle-scars you gave me.
GEORGE: In exactly the places where we struck the Dragon!
Every word of your tale was true!
Come, Nurse, let’s celebrate with a feast!
NURSE: First let me prophesy that by the year’s end
There’ll be six weddings to sing about;
But who will marry whom I leave to you!
Marriage has nothing at all to do with magic.

[Exeunt ALL except CAT and DRAGON]

CAT: So, Dragon, after all I won my bet.
It’s always best to end with a feast and a dance.
You said I could have anything I wanted.
DRAGON: That wath when I fought I had thomefing to give!
CAT: I wonder now; she said six marriages;
And if my calculations are correct
Two people are needed to make each pair.
Twelve people in the Palace, six marriages.
Well, Dragon,
I’ll tell you what I want at the year’s end!
Come now and help me decorate the Hall –
We’ll make it the first bright room in the Kingdom!

 [Dance.]

[The End.]

 

Dragon Scales: A Play for Children. Act Two

[For Act One, see here.]

ACT TWO: THE FOREST

Scene One

[Enter NURSE]

NURSE: I’ve not seen a Prince off on an adventure
Since the present Emperor’s father
Set off to slaughter the streperous Tock!
The bells have all struck midnight;
The people have been told to stay indoors
So that the land is empty. Only moonbeams
Stalk dusty streets and stare between branches.
We’ve come to the forest’s edge
To see the Prince and Princess on their way;
I wonder if we’ll ever see them more?

[Enter EMPEROR, CHIEF OF POLICE, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR, CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, PAMELA, GEORGE.]

EMPEROR: I’ve liked this plot less and less
Since what happened in the cabbage plot.
DOCTOR: We assure your Majesty that by our calculations
And by the hoofprints in the earth
The beast was nothing bigger than a goat.
EMPEROR: A ghost, you say?
DOCTOR: A goat!
MELISSA: Of course I wasn’t scared, Clarissa.
CLARISSA: Nor I, of course, Melissa. It was a test.
We wanted to try our lovers’ courage!
MELISSA: We knew from the first it was a goat –
But we never guessed what goats the men would prove!
CLARISSA: Franchissa, what’s that object in your hair?
FRANCHISSA: A daisy, a daisy, I picked it by the way!
MELISSA: Why look, the ground is carpeted with daisies
Round the outskirts of the wood.
I haven’t seen daisies since I was a child
Before they were smothered by the ashes!
CLARISSA: Throw it away, at once, my dear,
You don’t know where it’s been.
If you want a flower to stick in your hair
You can have one from the Doctor’s greenhouse.
PAMELA: Aren’t you pleased with the shine on your sword?
GEORGE: Yes, but why can’t I use a gun instead?
PAMELA: Do you think a bullet could pierce a Dragon’s hide?
Only the strength of your arm can do that.
Besides, it wouldn’t be fair play!
GEORGE: You don’t think just a friendly pat would do…
EMPEROR: Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived.
The time has come to wish my nephew luck
And send him in after the goat, I mean Dragon.
Well, goodbye, young man, and may you get
What you deserve. Believe me, if I were younger,
Or you were older, or my daughter wasn’t mine,
Or the state of the country wasn’t what it is,
You, and I, and the country, and my daughter
Would be in different places, as it were.
DOCTOR: In the name of progress, massacre the monster!
CLARISSA: I wish I could lend an ounce of my virtue
To strengthen your arm!
FRANCHISSA: Good luck, good luck!
NURSE: Remember, if you’re eaten
We’ll have a beautiful funeral waiting!
GEORGE: Before I go, let me say this.
I haven’t been a very dutiful nephew,
But I’ve loved you all in different ways.
MELISSA: A secret apology meant for us!
CLARISSA: I could almost forgive him his rudeness!
GEORGE: I’d like to hope that if I killed the Dragon
The land would be green again, and happy,
But I can’t make that happen on my own.
DOCTOR: He wants us to revert to barbarism!
GEORGE: All I mean is, killing the Dragon hardly matters.
EMPEROR: He means it’s more important to kill me!
How right the Doctor was!
GEORGE: I’m trying to kill my Dragon,
But we all have Dragons to kill.
CLARISSA: He can’t surely mean he wants our help!
PROFESSOR: What a long speech!
Did anyone bring anything to eat?
PAMELA: Come along, George, they don’t understand.
Their heads are buried in the dust.
Goodbye everyone! Our quest has started.

[Exeunt PAMELA and GEORGE]

EMPEROR: At last they’ve gone. Now you all know your parts?
Chief of Police, you have your knife;
I have my blunderbuss; Professor and Doctor,
You have the map of the forest and a torch;
Then each to his position. Goodness me!
I’m enjoying this more than I expected!
Giving orders I feel almost like an Emperor!
DOCTOR [aside]: Tomorrow you won’t feel anything at all.

[Exeunt EMPEROR, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR and CHIEF]

MELISSA: These flowers give me the loveliest idea!
When I was a girl there was something we did
Each Midsummer Eve: we used to dress in green
And go singing and dancing through the forest;
We called it ‘maying’.
CLARISSA: No, no, that was in May.
MELISSA: Maying or Juning, I can’t remember which;
But this was the rather mad idea I had:
Why not pretend this is Midsummer’s Night
And dance and gambol as we did when young?
I’m sure I don’t feel a day older than fifty!
FRANCHISSA: Let’s go prancing, let’s go dancing!
CLARISSA: But Melissa, what about the Dragon?
MELISSA: The Doctor says it was a goat,
And the Doctor knows everything.
CLARISSA: The Professor says it was a cow,
And the Professor knows even more.
MELISSA: Whatever it is, it can’t hurt us.
My dear Melissa, surely you’re not scared?
CLARISSA: Melissa, I only had your nerves in mind –
You shouldn’t strain them at your age.
MELISSA: Of course, you know more about such things
Seeing you’ve six years’ more experience!
CLARISSA: Six! Five and a half at most, my dear Melissa.
MELISSA: Then follow me, my doves; just for tonight
We’ll run mad in white linen
And draw pictures in the sand!

[Exeunt MELISSA, CLARISSA and FRANCHISSA]

NURSE: So the forest has swallowed them all.
I’ve heard say woods can change folks overnight;
But this gadding about is for younger bones
Or crackpots like those crazy ladies.
It’s bitter cold at night in these wastes
And anything can happen in the dark.
No one knows that better than I!
I’ll home to bed with a cup of cocoa.

[Exit NURSE]

Scene Two

[Enter DRAGON disguised as CAT. Then enter GEORGE and PAMELA]

GEORGE: How dismal the trees are in their mossy cloaks;
This place is arched like an underground dungeon.
PAMELA: At least they’re well spaced out.
GEORGE: Don’t tread on dead leaves,
They sound like thunder.
PAMELA: It’s odd, but there are no dead leaves.
Everything’s clean as if it had been swept.
Have you noticed how the trees have changed?
Near the forest borders they were stooped and dead,
A tangle of charred fingers clutching the stars;
But here the trees are taller, straighter,
With little hand-like sprays of leaves.
Where should we start looking for the Dragon?
GEORGE: I don’t care where, so long as we don’t find him!
Some of these treetrunks are the weirdest shapes,
Almost like people, almost like reptiles…
Ouch! Pamela, I touched one and it moved!
PAMELA: That’s no tree, it’s someone dressed in black!
Whoever you are, don’t move an inch!
GEORGE: So still and silent;
Under the folds of his cloak his eyes are green.
Keep behind me, Pamela, I see claws!
DRAGON: Greetings, your Royal Highnesses!
PAMELA: Why, it’s only the Cat we met in the Palace.
What are you doing in this wilderness?
Hurry back to your warm hearthrug
Before your fur gets singed with Dragon-fire!
GEORGE: I don’t trust Cats with scaly noses.
What are those lights beyond the trees?

[GEORGE wanders off]

DRAGON: My last warning didn’t help you much,
So I’ve come to help you find your precious Dragon.
PAMELA: So you’ve decided Dragons do exist?
DRAGON: Not the big sort.
This Dragon’s little, but he’s deadly.
He doesn’t eat people, only their minds;
Nor burn haystacks, but withers corn at the root,
Nor squash palaces, but he froze the heart
That sold the palace bricks to build a prison.
PAMELA: Now there’s a foe worth fighting!
Where does he live, Cat?
DRAGON: In a slimy cave not far from here
Thick with the bitter chemicals he thrives on.
PAMELA: This time, Cat, you’d better be telling the truth!
Come quickly now, we must stick together –
It’s easy to get lost in the dark. Prince George?
What’s so funny, Cat? Where are you, Prince?
DRAGON: My poor girl, nothing can save him now;
You’ll never see the oaf again.
For all your eagerness to find the Dragon
You never guessed you were staring him in the teeth!
Look at me closely, girl! I am the beast!
PAMELA: You tatty bit of snakeskin!
Wait till I get my hands on your mouldy snout!
DRAGON: Stand back, or I’ll bite our fingers off! O dear,
I’m sorry I spoke so rudely, but I’m sure
We’ll meet in happier circumstances soon.
I didn’t lie, my cave’s not far away,
And I beg you to consider yourself invited
To breakfast there tomorrow morning.
You’ll make an excellent dessert
After a main course of Cat!
Goodbye for now; I’m off to watch the Prince
Being kippered by the Emperor and his men!
PAMELA: Don’t think you’ll get away with this –
My nails are sharper than your scaly eyes!

[Exit DRAGON, pursued by PAMELA]

Scene Three

[Enter PROFESSOR and DOCTOR]

PROFESSOR: Doctor Thumbscrew, let me see the map.
DOCTOR: Professor Dumbstew, I gave the map to you.
PROFESSOR: I’ve never touched it in my life.
DOCTOR: Then we must have dropped it somewhere. Hand me the torch.
PROFESSOR: But the torch was yours;
It was one of your inventions with a beam that went round corners.
DOCTOR: I deny that assertion;
It was one of your inventions, without a beam at all.
PROFESSOR: What a labyrinth this forest is!
I feel like a rat in one of my own experiments.
We should never have let it stand.
DOCTOR: First thing tomorrow we shall have it down.
Lucky I know the place like the back of my scalpel!
We sent the Prince in that direction;
Therefore, if we construct a triangle
With angle forty-five degrees at corner B –
PROFESSOR: Good thing my memory’s better than yours,
Otherwise by now we’d be in the Gulf of Bong!
My dear Doctor, the Prince went that way,
Along a radius X of circle Y
Which converges with diameter Z at angle Q…
DOCTOR: Professor, your geometry’s inadequate.
PROFESSOR: Doctor, your trigonometry needs examining.
DOCTOR: How dare you criticize my trigonometry!
It’s healthier than yours!
PROFESSOR: I had mine refurbished only last month.
DOCTOR: Then I have a simple solution. Since you’re so clever
You go your way to find Prince George
And I’ll go mine.
PROFESSOR: Simple but brilliant.
Your empiricism is unequalled;
Pity about the trigonometry!
DOCTOR: The first to see Prince George must whistle thrice.
Come quickly when you hear me whistle!
PROFESSOR: Except of course that I shall whistle first.

[Exeunt PROFESSOR and DOCTOR]

Scene Four

[Enter EMPEROR and CHIEF OF POLICE]

EMPEROR: Chief Constable, don’t walk so fast!
CHIEF: We’ll never catch him at this rate, sire.
EMPEROR: Don’t shout, Chief Constable. Give me the torch!
You never know what slinking thing
You might awaken in the depths.
O curse the dark! If I were Emperor
I’d plant steel rods across the plain
With light bulbs at the tips in clusters
And banish night to shadows under furniture.
CHIEF: But you’re already Emperor, sire!
EMPEROR: Why so I am, and you wouldn’t believe
How tedious it is!
Peace and quiet – what’s that noise?
CHIEF: Stop here a moment, sire. I’ll run and see.
EMPEROR: Don’t leave me alone!
CHIEF: Be calm, your Majesty. It might be the Prince.
You have your blunderbuss and the torch;
In fifteen seconds I’ll be back
With the Prince’s head in my hand, perhaps.

[Exit CHIEF]

EMPEROR: How true. I have the gun. I must be brave.
I think these trees would like to strange me
In their knobbly arms. I find I’ve got the map,
But lines on paper make no sense
In this wilderness. The torch only makes shadows
Leap at me angrily from either side.
These trees are the last in the kingdom;
They hate me for the death of their families!
Go away, trees! It wasn’t my fault!
I wish I was safe at home by a blazing fire.
See how they bristle when I mention fire!
The terrible things I didn’t prevent
Frighten me worse than the things I did.
Listen! Footsteps! Constable, is that you?

[Enter PRINCE GEORGE]

GEORGE: In the name of the Emperor, Dragon, show yourself!
EMPEROR [hiding behind CAT as tree]: The Prince! Quick – off with the torch –
Load up the blunderbuss – horseshoes, tintacks,
Nails, ball-bearings, hooks, electric plugs…
GEORGE: I hear the clatter of its metal scales!
EMPEROR: Aim in the direction of his voice,
Bracing the barrel on this useful branch,
This useful branch attached to this furry stump,
This furry stump with glowing eyes
And seven rows of yellow teeth – O help!
GEORGE: The Dragon’s roaring! Heaven preserve me!
EMPEROR: I’m leaning on a monstrous bear!
Save me, Chief Constable! Come back, come back!

[Exit EMPEROR]

GEORGE: Here it comes! Protect me, Pamela!

[Exit GEORGE]

[Re-enter CHIEF OF POLICE]

CHIEF: Emperor! Emperor! Where have you gone?
Feels like another thunderstorm is brewing!

[Exit CHIEF]

CAT: Not even a Cat can see in this darkness
Filled with roots and hissing twigs.
We can only follow our noses
And hope for near misses.
Why, here the Misses come!

[Exit CAT]

Scene Five

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA, singing]

MELISSA: This life is so jolly! The charms of spring!
FRANCHISSA: Hey diddle diddle the Cat and the Dragon!
CLARISSA: Cuckoo, jug-jug, peewit, tuwhit-tuwhoo!
MELISSA: I wish I could still get into that dress
I bought when I turned sixty.
Don’t you miss the colours there were then?
CLARISSA: Never, dear Melissa; we’re better off as we are.
No colour is more distinguished than grey,
And no girls greyer or handsomer than we.
At our age, we are versed in every accomplishment –
Really, the young hardly deserve their youth!
Let us join hands in celebration
That we are what we are, and nothing less!

[They dance.]

MELISSA: There were so many useless things when we were young.
I always thought the Doctor’s greatest triumph
Was the powder that wiped out mosquitoes.
A shame it wiped out all the birds as well,
But it was worth it just to be rid of mosquitoes!
FRANCHISSA: See how thick the flowers are at our feet!
CLARISSA: I never liked flowers. I suffer from hay-fever.
Bless the Professor! He couldn’t cure my hay-fever,
So instead he went to all the trouble
Of wiping out the flowers and butterflies.
So considerate! I wonder how this place was missed?
MELISSA: The Doctor says that by nine tomorrow morning
The world will be perfect. Isn’t that nice?
O Clarissa, why do I feel so sad?
CLARISSA: Yes, I could almost weep for joy myself.
FRANCHISSA: Sing hey, sing hey, the thrush and the jay!
CLARISSA: Franchissa recalls us to our merriment.
I know just the game we could play!
MELISSA: O bully!
CLARISSA: It’s a charm for finding out our future husbands.
MELISSA: My dear, what a simply mad idea!
CLARISSA: At school they called me ‘wild Clarissa’!
Here’s the charm; you have to do the actions.

Seven times we spin around,
Cross our legs and touch the ground,
Throw a daisy in the air,
Follow where it blows, and there,
If the moon is right above
You shall find your only love!

Can you sing that?
MELISSA: Of course!

[They sing it.]

CLARISSA: But it only works if we’re exactly
Underneath the moon. We should be
Further to the West, I think.
MELISSA: Isn’t this thrilling, dear Franchissa?
FRANCHISSA: I’ve already had three husbands.
CLARISSA: Follow me, my merry girls!
Skipping westwards in the moonbeams
To work our wild midsummer magic!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

Scene Six

[Enter GEORGE]

GEORGE: I seem to have trudged these woods for years,
Calling for Pamela, looking for the Dragon,
Starting at every footfall, falling at every foot.
I’m so hot my cloak is suffocating me;
I’ll leave it here for mice to nest in.
There was a cave a little way back;
I’ll retrace my steps and hide in that.
Heaven protect my poor Princess!

[Exit GEORGE, leaving his cloak on the ground. Enter EMPEROR.]

EMPEROR: Somewhere along this path I dropped the map,
So now I must retrace my steps to find it,
While every bush I pass becomes a bear.
Why, what on earth is this?
A cloak, just like the one the Prince had on!
The best way to escape nightmares
Is to wrap your head in a blanket.
I’m fed up with running from bears, so here I’ll lie
And wait in piece for daybreak.

[EMPEROR lies down. Enter from different directions DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

PROFESSOR: I know I’m hot on the Prince’s heels –
My tummy’s rumbling, a sure sign
That my prey is close. I’ve brought this ladle
To mash him with…
DOCTOR: I found a map a while ago,
But couldn’t read it in the dark
So I threw it in the brambles. But my calculations
Tell me the Prince is almost in my clutches…
PROFESSOR: I see a shadow over there
As tall and skinny as the Prince…
DOCTOR: Just where I expected, I see a silhouette
As short and chubby as Prince George!
PROFESSOR: He’s no idea what I’m about to do!
DOCTOR: He can’t foresee what he’s about to get!
PROFESSOR: Take that, barbarian! [Hitting the DOCTOR.]
DOCTOR: Take that, you anarchist! [Hitting the PROFESSOR.]
PROFESSOR: O my stomach!
DOCTOR: O my head!
PROFESSOR: Why, I recognize that voice!
DOCTOR: Professor Dumbstew!
PROFESSOR: Doctor Thumbscrew!
BOTH: What the Dragon do you think you’re doing?
PROFESSOR: It’s lucky you didn’t bludgeon me to death!
DOCTOR: No thanks to you I’m not a jellied pulp!
PROFESSOR: Then where in the name of Science is the Prince?
DOCTOR: Our common senses tell us he’s nearby.
We have only to search this glade
With our weapons and our wits alert…
PROFESSOR [Discovering the EMPEROR in PRINCE GEORGE’s cloak]: What’s that bundle like a pickled herring?
DOCTOR: It has a look of homo sapiens about it.
PROFESSOR: Isn’t it wrapped in the Prince’s cloak?
DOCTOR: I can’t see whether it’s breathing or not.
PROFESSOR: Shall I mash it?
DOCTOR: Shall I strangle it?
PROFESSOR: But – O Doctor Thumbscrew, what if it isn’t the Prince?
What if something crawled out of a hole
And knobbled him while we were in the dark?
DOCTOR: Nonsense, Professor, that’s illogical.
EMPEROR [Sitting up]: What men or beasts are these?
PROFESSOR: Thumbscrew! It spoke!
DOCTOR: Dumbstew! It’s not the Prince! It’s eyes are green!

[EMPEROR switches on the torch.]

PROFESSOR: O Lord, its left nostril has lighted up!
DOCTOR: Run, run, in the name of Science!

[Exeunt DOCTOR and PROFESSOR.]

EMPEROR: What a noise! Those must have been the ghosts
Of trees! I’ll wrap my head up in this cloak
And never be tempted to look out again!

[EMPEROR lies down again. Enter PAMELA.]

PAMELA: I think the Dragon was telling the truth
When he said I’d never see Prince George again.
If only someone would help me search!
What’s this? I tripped over a bundle.
No, it’s a body; in the Prince’s clothes!
Prince George? Prince George! No movement;
Stiff and cold…
He’s dead! Pistols and razorblades! I’m alone!
Why didn’t I bring my battle-axe? Where’s the Dragon?

[Exit PAMELA. EMPEROR gets up again.]

EMPEROR: It’s no good, I can’t sleep.
I thought I heard someone weeping beside me.
If only I had a friend to share my dreams with!
I used to think my nephew was my friend.
Well, I must find the Doctor and Professor
And ask them to report his death.

Scene Seven

 [Enter CHIEF OF POLICE.]

CHIEF: What luck to have found this map in the brambles!
I climbed a tree and read it by moonlight,
So here I am alone at the mouth of a cave.
I think I see the Prince inside; but traitor as he is
I can’t bring myself to use my knife. What’s that?

[Enter DOCTOR and PROFESSOR, running.]

PROFESSOR: Help, help! I hear the monster’s claws!
DOCTOR: Save me! Its breath is frazzling my hair!
PROFESSOR: Beware, Doctor, here’s another!
DOCTOR: Get out of my way, you clumsy pumpkin!
CHIEF: Professor Dumbstew, Doctor Thumbscrew, wait!
It’s only me, the Chief of Police.
PROFESSOR: Come back, Thumbscrew. He’s a colleague!
DOCTOR: O, it’s you, is it? No need to shout.
Any news of the monster, I mean Prince?
CHIEF: He’s in that cave, he can’t escape us.
But now we have him, why not let him live?
Life is precious in this wilderness.
DOCTOR: Don’t be a fool, Chief Constable.
This nation is on the very verge
Of a major technological leap.
Only the Prince stands in my way.
So draw your knife and follow me!
CHIEF: Stop! Do you hear that awful wailing?
DOCTOR: It’s coming this way!
PROFESSOR: There’s no escape!

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA.]

MELISSA: Hi diddle umkum tarum tantum!
FRANCHISSA: The snake and the pussy-cat went to sea!
CLARISSA: Hickory dickory dock!
Here we are, girls! The moon is directly
Overhead. Are you ready to chant?
MELISSA: Dear Clarissa, my heart is chanting already!
CLARISSA: Then all together, for our future husbands!

Seven times we spin around,
Cross our legs and touch the ground,
Throw a daisy in the air,
Follow where it blows, and there,
If the moon is right above,
You shall find your only love!

CHIEF: What do you think they are?
PROFESSOR: Just listen to the racket!
DOCTOR: Watch their behaviour! Whatever they may be
They’re clearly suffering from lunacy.
I suggest we go about our business
As quickly and quietly as possible.
CLARISSA: Melissa, Franchissa, there stand our husbands!
Run, girls, and catch them! It’s part of the spell!
FRANCHISSA: Run, run, as fast as you can!
MELISSA: See who I’ve caught! The Doctor!
CLARISSA: Mine’s the Professor!
FRANCHISSA: And mine’s a handsome Prince!
CHIEF: I’m not a handsome Prince! Let go!
DOCTOR: We have important business to transact.
CLARISSA: Don’t let them out of your clutches, girls!
The spell says we must dance with them all night!
MELISSA: The moonbeam magic holds you fast,
You won’t escape till morning dawns,
So relax, my dears, and enjoy the fun!
DOCTOR: You’re treading on my corns!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, DOCTOR and PROFESSOR.]

[Enter CAT.]

CAT: The Prince has never been in greater danger.
Excited though they are, the three old ladies
Can’t keep the murderers occupied for long;
And now the murderers know where he’s sleeping.
The Emperor’s approaching from the South,
The Dragon has mounted guard at the cave
To prevent me warning the Prince of his peril,
Princess Pamela I can’t find,
And over all there’s a feeling of tautness
As if an earthquake were about to burst.
I can do nothing on my own!
I begin to wonder whether any of us
Will survive the night.

[Enter DRAGON.]

DRAGON: Cat! Run away before my patience snaps!
My plans work beautifully; all’s confusion!
The Prince has twice escaped his enemies,
But their next meeting shall be the last,
And you shall witness it! Here’s the Emperor.

[Enter EMPEROR.]

EMPEROR: I heard a sound of revelry
Which took me back to my giddy youth
When I wasn’t so fond of peace and quiet.
DRAGON: I should avoid him, Cat;
He hasn’t forgotten that bonk on the nose.
I am invisible to the oaf, of course.
Next the Princess.

[Enter PAMELA.]

PAMELA: I was so eager to rush Prince George to his death!
I’ll never wish anything dead except myself
Ever again! If I meet the Dragon now
I’ll taste like sawdust in his mouth.
DRAGON: Poor girl! What a state she’s in.
Rest here, my dear, till breakfast-time.
By now the scientists have broken free;
Here they come puffing, hotter than ever for blood!

[Enter DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

PROFESSOR: That’s twice he’s made us look fools!
DOCTOR: I have a thousand lingering poisons
In a cabinet at home;
Would I had brought the most painful of all
To pay him back for the pain in my corns!
PROFESSOR: Keep quiet, Doctor, I hear the mad ladies.
DRAGON: That’s the way, friends; hide behind this tree.
Here comes a party of spectators
For the climax of my masterpiece.

[Enter LADIES.]

CLARISSA: Girls, as soon as you see them, pounce!
We must marry them now to preserve our virtues.
CHIEF: Madam, in the name of the Law release me!
FRANCHISSA: Anything for my handsome Prince!

[She releases him and he falls flat.]

DRAGON: And now for the last item in my entertainment,
The spark that’ll set off the gunpowder:
Ladies and gentlemen, I present – Prince George!

[Enter PRINCE GEORGE.]

GEORGE: I fell asleep listening to the mutter
Of a stream in the depths of the cave;
I woke, and dawn was yawning in the East.
Perhaps I shall see sunrise after all!
DOCTOR [advancing]: I’m afraid there’s little chance of that, Prince George.
PROFESSOR: But there’s one comfort: you won’t be needing breakfast!
PAMELA: Prince George alive! Then I can breathe!
Ruffians, keep your pincers to yourselves;
I’ll never let him out of my sight again!
EMPEROR [advancing]: I suppose this is the moment to act,
Before I begin to regret my decision.
Doctor, let’s get the foul deed over.
CHIEF [advancing]: I can’t stand by and see my master murdered.
He’s better than the three of you put together!
DRAGON: Then I see I shall have to interfere
And finish the tragedy myself.
CAT: No you don’t, Dragon. You’ve cheated once too often!
I trust you remember my claws!
VOICE [from offstage]: Excuse my interruption,
But has everyone forgotten the real Dragon?
ALL: The real Dragon?
DRAGON: What do you mean, impostor? I’m the only Dragon here!
VOICE: You, a Dragon? You’re just an overgrown tadpole!
DRAGON: Cat, this is some trick of yours!
VOICE: This is no trick, earthworm, unhappily for you.
You silly bunch of guinea pigs
Have blundered about my property all night,
Trampling my flower-beds, screaming and wailing
At every glimpse of imagined danger
Without a thought for the danger that’s real.
I was asleep here in my cave
When you woke me with your endless squabbling.
DRAGON: Why, that’s my cave, you fraud!
I don’t believe you’re bigger than a blue tit.
If you’re so grand, come out and show yourself!
VOICE: Here I am, lizard; look at me well!
MELISSA: Out of the cave-mouth a snout is gliding,
Longer than a bus, smoke pouring from the nostrils!
CLARISSA: A pair of eyes like swimming-pools…
PRINCESS: An endless neck…
CHIEF: A body big as the North Wing of the Palace,
Bloated and warty, squeezing between the rocks…
EMPEROR: Hooves sharp as atom bombs…
CAT: A tail that could crush a ship…
And to think I didn’t believe in old-fashioned Dragons!
VOICE: Can you all see me clearly? Aren’t I handsome?
DOCTOR: I’ll burn my books!
This monster defies all natural laws!
PROFESSOR: This monster could eat a forest in an hour!
DRAGON: This monster will eat me for my impudence!
Have mercy upon me, King of Dragons!
PAMELA: Prince, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for!
GEORGE: I’m so scared I can hardly breathe,
But I won’t shame my ancestors! Prepare yourself, monster!
PAMELA: Wait for me, George! I’m at your heels!
CHIEF: I shan’t watch them eaten unaided!

[Exeunt GEORGE, PAMELA and CHIEF OF POLICE.]

VOICE: Not since the death of the Emperor’s father
Have I met such impudence!
EMPEROR: Come back, you fools, there’s nothing you can do!
CLARISSA: The Dragon’s rearing up on its hind legs –
Its mouth is wider than a railway tunnel –
The three of them are running straight
Towards its lower lip! A gush of smoke
Sucks them out of sight – they’re gone –
Run for your lives, girls! All is lost!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA.]

EMPEROR: Back to the Palace before it’s too late!
DOCTOR: Back to the metal-walled laboratory!
PROFESSOR: Which way out of this dreadful wood?
DRAGON: Don’t hesitate! Run! My tail’s on fire!

[Exeunt EMPEROR, PROFESSOR, DOCTOR and DRAGON. Loud roaring recedes into distance.]

CAT: How could I have been so blind?
All the while I bickered with the lizard
The real Dragon crouched behind the scenes
With embers throbbing on his tongue.
I was too clever to see past my own whiskers,
And now the morning has broken to bits,
My friends are dead and I’ve lost my bet.
I’m not fit for a Dragon’s dishcloth!

[Music.]

The birds are singing.
I only hear birdsong when I hold my breath,
The endless music that reminds me
We’ll meet again when the dance is done,
For the planets are still spinning round the sun
Like honey-bees around a giant flower.
I’ve lost my bet. I must give myself up to the lizard.

[Exit CAT.]

[For Act Three, see here.]

 

Dragon Scales: A Play for Children. Act One.

[This play was performed by children in the Barn Theatre at Cumnor House School, Danehill, Sussex, in Winter 1983, under the direction of the Headteacher, Nick Milner Gulland. Nick invited me to write it, and I finished it in the summer vacation after completing my degree.

I tried at the time to achieve a measure of gender equality in the cast list, giving an equal number of parts to girls and boys. The focus on climate change remains relevant. But there are attitudes and assumptions here you might want to change in a 2020 performance: play about with the gendering of the couples, give a stronger active role to the Princess, offer a positive view of science to offset the negative ones, slot in some songs – Nick wanted songs! – etc. etc.

The verse was inspired by Ted Hughes’s use of verse in his plays for children, especially The Coming of the Kings. The plot draws heavily on my love of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’ve acted in twice: once at High School, and once in the open air theatre at Cumnor House under the direction of Nick’s father, Hal. I put it here in memory of Hal and Nick, with thanks for everything they did for me.

All pictures are by the inestimable Robin Jacques.]

CAST LIST
In order of Appearance

CAT
DRAGON
NURSE
PRINCESS PAMELA
PRINCE GEORGE
MELISSA
CLARISSA
FRANCHISSA
DOCTOR THUMBSCREW
PROFESSOR DUMBSTEW
CHIEF OF POLICE
EMPEROR

ACT ONE: THE PALACE

Scene One

[Enter CAT, with DRAGON behind]

CAT: O, they’re spreading miles of tablecloth
And lighting chandeliers like palaces;
The ceiling hisses with paper-chains
And the goblets bubble with golden light.
But it’s a sad occasion just the same;
The servants go about with doleful faces
Because the Great Hall is the last bright room in the Kingdom,
And this is the last banquet
The Great Hall shall ever see.
It’s all the fault of that pestiferous Dragon!
DRAGON: What are you doing in my play, Cat?
Get out before I gobble you up!
CAT: I’m sorry to disappoint you, Dragon,
But this play doesn’t belong to you.
Go roast potatoes with your smelly breath!
DRAGON: Impudent hussy, you’re out of date!
Go back to your silly pantomimes
And leave the high art forms to Dragons.
CAT: You call yourself a Dragon!
You’re no bigger than a mouse.
Dragons are as big as palaces,
They shrivel haystacks and gobble princesses,
And what’s more, they’ve been extinct for centuries.
DRAGON: A popular misapprehension.
The giant, palace-burning kind
May be extinct, for all I know,
But these days Dragons are of another ilk
Of which I humbly propose myself
As a not infelicitous example,
Modestly scaled, sophisticated, suave,
With top credentials from the Dragon School.
Just look at my achievements in this land!
From a desert choked with trees and flowers
I’ve transformed it to a recreation-ground,
Flattened the hills, erected endless fences
And softened the vulgar shades of blue and green
To elegant tones of black and white.
Such are the powers of the modern mind. In fact,
The only way I’m like old-fashioned Dragons
Is, that I like to GOBBLE PUSSY-CATS!
CAT: Fiddle, I’m not afraid of lizards.
Go nibble maggots in your hole!
She who speaks the Prologue writes the Play,
And I’ve decided to make this play a comedy.
DRAGON: A comedy! Just hear the creature!
These days nobody wants to laugh!
Moonlight murders and noontime massacres,
These days that’s what draws the crowds.
But I like your cheek, Cat. Let’s make a bet.
If you can make the play end happily
I’ll give you anything you ask.
But if it ends badly, even for one person,
I’ll have your flesh for dinner. Is it a deal?
CAT: Shake hands, crocodile.
I’ll win this bet if it’s my last act.
DRAGON: It will be, Cat, it will be.
Ouch! You forgot to sheathe your claws!

CAT: Just wanted to remind you they were there.

The Emperor passes this way to the Hall;
We’ll wait for him in the broom cupboard!
Come on!

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON]

Scene Two

[Enter NURSE, followed by PRINCESS PAMELA and PRINCE GEORGE]

NURSE: Come in and let me see you both, my ducks.
O Princess Pamela, I do declare
You’ll taste better than plum cake!
PAMELA: Just let that monster bite my little toe!
It’s about time they changed that stupid rule
That girls are only allowed to watch;
I’d love to belt a Dragon round the chops!
GEORGE: Don’t mention chops, Pamela. I’m not well.
NURSE: And such a handsome Prince!
You’ll make a lovely corpse, if I may say so.
I watched the Emperor’s great-great-grandpapa
Carried home on his shield after bashing the baleful Bish;
So cold and handsome! I cried a fortnight after.
GEORGE: Dear Nurse, don’t talk like that. I’m ill!
PAMELA: I’ve never been so happy in my life!
Think of all those years they taught us
That Dragons don’t exist, and we must concentrate
On Maths and French and Physics; when hey presto!
Out pops a Dragon like a jack-in-the-box
And threatens to eat me up, the lovely creature!
How vexing I can’t bash it. Well, at least
I’ll get a grandstand view of the fight.
GEORGE: My tummy aches when I think what a grandstand view
I’ll get of the Dragon’s tummy!

[Enter CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

MELISSA: Clarissa, dear, you look enchanting.
And to think you’re seventy-seven years old last Friday!
How have you kept so young and fresh?
CLARISSA: I’ve kept my virtue, dear Melissa,
Which was better for my skin than ass’s milk.
Imagine, we’re invited to a banquet!
It’ll be almost like old times again.
FRANCHISSA: We’re going to a blanket, we’re going to a blanket!
MELISSA: A banquet, dear Franchissa. Do stop capering
And remember you’re the Emperor’s aunt.
CLARISSA: Remember your age, Franchissa:
Eighty-seven if it’s a day.
Thanks heaven I have tend years left
Before I can call myself old!
MELISSA: Look there! The Prince and Princess, with their nurse!
CLARISSA: How fine the Prince looks in his velvet coat!
How can he bear to look at that plain Princess?
MELISSA: Have you noticed how young the girls are nowadays?
Pamela behaves like a two-year-old.
CLARISSA: Melissa, one need never be ashamed of looking mature!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

PRINCESS: It’s the first bit of fun we’ve had since the land went grey.
Isn’t being eaten better than emptiness?
Once there were colours, animals and flowers,
But now they’ve gone. This is the last chance!
There’s one dance left, the dance of battle,
One colour left, the colour of battle,
One monster left to battle, the Dragon –
And no hope left at all, except the Dragon.
If you won’t fight the beast, I will!
GEORGE: You’re right, of course, Princess. I’ll fight.
But I’d rather paint pictures of cows!
NURSE: Now ducks, the feast’s about to begin,
So hurry along or you’ll miss the soup.
And for afters there’s a juicy sucking pig
Born and bred in the Doctor’s test-tubes,
All in honour of our handsome hero!
GEORGE: O goodness! Soup and sucking pig! My head!

[Exeunt GEORGE, PAMELA and NURSE]

Scene Three

[Enter DOCTOR THUMBSCREW and PROFESSOR DUMBSTEW]

DOCTOR: Ah, Professor Dumbstew, are you heading for the feast?
A word while we’re alone.
PROFESSOR: Doctor Thumbscrew, let it be short.
My tummy’s rumbling like a washing-machine.
DOCTOR: Professor Dumbstew, we have much
To congratulate ourselves upon.
PROFESSOR: We’ve suffered for science, Doctor Thumbscrew.
I haven’t eaten for at least an hour!
DOCTOR: Think of the state the realm was in
Before we came, five years ago!
Wherever there weren’t mountains there were seas,
Wherever there weren’t flowers there were trees –
There were no rules! It was chaos!
But we soon changed all that with our golden rules.
Do you remember mine?
PROFESSOR: Could I forget it?
Every-man-is-a-cog-in-the-great-machine, you used to say.
And have you forgotten mine?
DOCTOR: That every-man-is-a-drop-in-the-primal-stew?
I have it engraved on a pedestal in my brain.
Why, these two rules transformed the land!
PROFESSOR: The air became soup!
DOCTOR: The fields became perfect squares!
PROFESSOR: The sun and the moon were lost in a permanent gravy.
But what was out reward?
Not so much as an extra course at dinner.
DOCTOR: Not so much as a peasant or two
To experiment on in the peace of our laboratories.
Yet we brought our research to fruition –
We invented that great machine in which every man is a cog.
From now on everything anyone does
Shall be a miracle of efficiency!
PROFESSOR: A triumph of taste!
DOCTOR: We simply plug them into our new machine
And nobody shall think, laugh, cry,
Eat sweets, or do anything that’s bad for them
For ever and ever. It’ll be Paradise!
Everyone in the world shall be a cog
Excepting you and I, Professor Dumbstew,
Whose task it will be to oil the joints.
PROFESSOR: But the Emperor will never let his people
Be plugged into this marvelous mechanism!
DOCTOR: The Emperor is one of the last of the backward race
We found when we first arrived in this backward land.
But Prince George is a different kettle of fish.
The lad is sharp – I tutored him myself –
But his consciousness has been preconditioned
To outmoded notions of morality.
I have therefore arranged for him to disappear.
This feast is the last Prince George shall ever taste!
PROFESSOR: The Emperor’s death will be easy to fix,
A drop of something in his porridge oats,
And then I shall marry his elderly aunt –
DOCTOR: And I shall marry his beautiful daughter –
PROFESSOR: And the rest shall be plugged into the machine –
DOCTOR: And I shall be King, and you shall be Queen!
PROFESSOR: And I shall be King, and you shall be Prime Minister.
DOCTOR: Not a word about this to anyone.
PROFESSOR: We mustn’t spill the beans. Look, here he comes!

[Enter CHIEF OF POLICE, followed by EMPEROR]

CHIEF: Make way for his Imperial Majesty!
EMPEROR: I wish you wouldn’t shout, Chief Constable!
Everywhere I go, make way, make way.
Peace and quiet, peace and quiet, all I want is peace and quiet!
DOCTOR: Good evening, sire. Is all prepared?
EMPEROR: The banquet’s ready, if that’s what you mean.
DOCTOR: No, your Majesty, I meant the affair of the Prince.
Will he be in the forest tonight, alone?
EMPEROR: Yes, unless he’s too frightened, in which case
He’ll run through seven kingdoms before he stops,
Which will serve our purpose just as well.
DOCTOR: Then by tomorrow, Emperor,
You may be assured of peace and quiet.
PROFESSOR: Yes, by tomorrow, Emperor,
For you, all will be silent as plum cake!
Come, Doctor, let us hurry to the table!

[Exeunt DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

EMPEROR: Now I wonder what those two were discussing
So privately when I came in?
Since I put the government in their hands
I’ve hated to see them talking on their own.
Thank you, Chief Constable. Leave me alone.
CHIEF: To hear is to obey!

[Exit CHIEF OF POLICE]

EMPEROR: I wish you wouldn’t shout, Chief Constable!
Now what I need is a drop of medicine
To strengthen me for the dirty deed ahead.

[Enter CAT and DRAGON]

CAT: Good day, and better days to come, your Majesty.
DRAGON: Don’t mind the Cat, your Majesty. Good day!
EMPEROR: Goodness this alcohol works quickly!
I hope I haven’t overdone it.
CAT: Did I hear something about a dirty deed?
DRAGON: Sounds exciting! Tell us more.
EMPEROR: O, it’s not exactly a dirty deed.
I’m going to kill my nephew in a forest.
CAT: I thought there weren’t any forests left.
DRAGON: Of course there’s a forest, you ignorant Cat –
A single forest in the North of the Kingdom,
A dark damp forest fit for dark damp deeds.
Don’t mind the Cat, your Majesty. Go on!
EMPEROR: I’m sending him to save my daughter from a Dragon,
Though the last Dragon in the Kingdom died
By choking on my Grandpapa
And Dragons are therefore now extinct.
DRAGON: Except we subtle Dragons of the mind.
CAT: Shut up, fossil! Go on, Emperor.
EMPEROR: Well, though there are no Dragons left,
The air has gone so grey, the earth so ashy,
The trees so stunted and the rain so bitter
That one would think a Dragon had been ravaging the land.
So tonight the Prince goes off to the forest
To fight a beast that doesn’t exist,
And when he’s dead I shall have peace at last.
Now let me drink my medicine in peace.
Explanations give me a headache.
CAT: But why do you want to kill the Prince at all?
DRAGON: Remember, curiosity killed the Cat!
EMPEROR: If you must know, the Doctor says he’s dangerous.
Is that enough for you?
CAT: And you believe whatever the Doctor says?
EMPEROR: Anything for peace and quiet.
CAT: That’s not fair. In fact, it’s dictatorial!
DRAGON: Dictatorial! Where did she learn that word?
Did you hear the Cat, your majesty? Dictatorial!
EMPEROR: I can hear you both, crocodile. I’m not deaf.
DRAGON: But insult of insults! A common Cat!
Dictatorial, You? She should be shot!
EMPEROR: Nobody respects me any more.
The other day my daughter called me Pugface.
DRAGON: If I were Emperor I wouldn’t stand it.
After all the good you’ve done your country!
EMPEROR: By Jove, lizard, you’re right!
Her insolence has turned my medicine sour.
Why, I’ve never hurt a fly in all my life!
I’ll have the cheeky creature boiled and stuffed!
CAT: You wooden-headed puppet of an Emperor!
EMPEROR: O my heart! An insult!
CAT: Here you sit, dreaming of peace and quiet
While your kingdom turns to cobwebs round your feet!
I’ll give you medicine. Take that, and that!
EMPEROR: My nose! Chief Constable! Fire! Murder! Help!

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON. Enter CHIEF OF POLICE]

CHIEF: No need to shout, your Majesty. I’m here.
EMPEROR: There was a Cat-thing and a Lizard-thing,
And the Cat-thing upped and bonked me on the beak!
O! I have caught an everlasting cold!
CHIEF: You’ve taken too much medicine, sire, that’s all.
Your medicine always makes your nose go red.
A Lizard-thing, you say? That’s odd.
Earlier this evening, as I did the rounds
In a dark passage in the North Wing of the Palace,
I glimpsed a strange phenomenon at the window…
EMPEROR: What sort of strange phenomenon?
CHIEF: There was a fierce dust-storm at the time,
And you know when the dust blows these days
Nobody dares to leave the house;
It looked like clouds of smoke rolling from Earth to Heaven.
Yet there was another movement in the smoke,
As if the night were shifting in its sleep,
And the floor trembled under my feet.
EMPEROR: No doubt an earthquake.
There’ve been more since we went progressive.
CHIEF: That’s what I thought. I approached the window
And suddenly I could have sworn I saw
A scaly eye blinking among the dust-clouds.
EMPEROR: You’re not employed to swear.
CHIEF: I knew I was dreaming, because if it had been real
The creature would have been bigger than a haystack,
Bigger than the North Wing of the Palace.
EMPEROR: Don’t mention wings! The Dragons are extinct –
Only the Prince thinks Dragons still exist.
Your part in my plot is confusing your brains!
Is your dagger sharp? I’d hate to think
You were untrustworthy.
CHIEF: True as steel, your Majesty. I won’t mention it again.
EMPEROR: Then escort me to the feast, Chief Constable.
I must ask the Doctor to change my prescription;
This stuff’s too strong for my tender head.

[Exeunt EMPEROR and CHIEF OF POLICE. Re-enter CAT and DRAGON]

DRAGON: You see, Cat? You’re ineffectual.
I hear they need a Puss-in-Boots at Haywards Heath;
Why not apply for the job? They can only refuse!
CAT: Very clever, Dragon, but I’m not finished yet!
The Emperor’s a mouse hardly worth catching –
I’m after bigger fish.
DRAGON: Just keep out of my path,
Or I might find myself too hungry
To leave my dinner to the final Act!

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON]

Scene Four

[Enter NURSE]

NURSE: Bless my soul, can you hear the banquet?
Between the soup and sucking-pig there’s salmon,
Rosy-pink salmon on silver platters,
And eighteen different puddings that nobody will touch,
Made of a new kind of edible plastic
Invented by the Doctor.
But it’s a solemn banquet just the same;
People laugh with eyes glazed like jellies
As they did on the night the Emperor’s Uncle
(The one the poets nicknamed Beolamb)
Went out in his armour to savage the sedulous Snipe.
I’m here to light the ballroom lamps;
I haven’t waltzed since my second husband died!

[Enter CHIEF OF POLICE, EMPEROR, PAMELA, GEORGE, CLARISSA, MELISSA, FRANCHISSA, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR, and behind them, CAT]

CHIEF: Ladies and gentlemen, take your partners for the waltz!
EMPEROR: I wish that fellow wouldn’t shout!
Well, Aunt, we had better set an example.
Madam, will you dance?
FRANCHISSA: With all my heart!
GEORGE: I feel a little better now, Pamela.
Will you dance? We may not get another chance.
MELISSA: Did you see, Clarissa? I’ve been snubbed!
There I stood on the other side of the room,
Waiting for a partner, radiant with beauty,
When George took the hand of that saucy trollop!
CLARISSA: Melissa, thank Heaven you saw him for what he was
Before your virtue was endangered.
Myself, I knew him rotten to the core
Since the first course of the banquet,
When he passed the rolls to Pamela
Before passing them to me.
MELISSA: Tush! We can do without the young.
Now observe that Doctor Thumbscrew in the corner;
Wouldn’t a woman break her heart for him?
CLARISSA: A dashing figure! But my tastes
Incline towards the thoughtful Professor.
Come, Melissa!
Beauty and Virtue offer themselves to Science!
BOTH: Good evening, gentlemen! Will you join the dance?
EMPEROR: My goodness, Aunt, how quickly you can waltz!
CAT: Round and round the Prince and Princess whirl;
Somehow I must speak to them before the evening ends.
The lizard is wolfing salmon scraps in the kitchen,
But the Doctor keeps an eye fixed on the Prince.
CHIEF: It’s odd, I feel a crackling in the air
As though a thunderstorm were building up.
Yet the dust has settled,
And the moon for once is clear as ice.
I think I’ll go the rounds again
To see that the guards are keeping their eyes peeled.

[Exit CHIEF]

CLARISSA: What do you think of Dragons, dear Professor?
PROFESSOR: A mythical beast reputed to swallow Princesses.
It must have had an excellent digestion;
I fear I’ve eaten too much sucking-pig!
CLARISSA: I think of Dragons whenever my virtue’s in peril.
A thousand Dragons dance with me tonight!
MELISSA: How rude the young are these days, Doctor Thumbscrew!
They need ruling with an iron rod.
DOCTOR: How pleasant to find we share an opinion!
You must visit my chambers one day and examine my blueprints!

[Re-enter CHIEF OF POLICE and NURSE]

CHIEF: Sound the alarm! There’s something in the garden!
NURSE: Call out the guards! It’s trampling the cabbages!
CHIEF: The second-best kitchen is on fire!
EMPEROR: Report to me in the cellar, Chief Constable!

[Exeunt in different directions EMPEROR, NURSE and CHIEF OF POLICE]

PAMELA: Come on, Prince George, we’ll chop its tail to shreds!

[Exeunt PAMELA and GEORGE]

CLARISSA: Save me, Professor Dumbstew!
MELISSA: Protect me, Doctor Thumbscrew!
DOCTOR: Dumbstew, you have the keys to the laboratories –
The walls are fireproof, we can hide in there.
PROFESSOR: Women aren’t allowed in the laboratories,
You’ll have to hide elsewhere.
MELISSA: But Doctor, the words that passed between us!
CLARISSA: Professor, the whispers we exchanged!
PROFESSOR: Now don’t be difficult, ladies.
We great men have a duty to survive
So that when all else is destroyed
We can restore celestial Civilization.
DOCTOR: Civilization has no need of women.
We hope the fire display is to your liking.
Good night!

[Exeunt DOCTOR and PROFESSOR]

CLARISSA: You basilisks! We’ll scratch your eyes out!

[Exeunt CLARISSA, MELISSA and FRANCHISSA]

CAT: Now I wonder what this monster is,
Since you and I know Dragons don’t exist…
At least the alarm has broken up the party
So there’s more chance of speaking to Prince George.

[Re-re-enter CHIEF OF POLICE]

CHIEF: This is dreadful! The guards have run away
Swearing they won’t protect a cowardly Emperor,
All the Royal Family
Except the Prince and Princess Pamela
Are hidden in different cupboards in the cellar,
And the Doctor and Professor are locked in their laboratory
Refusing to answer the door. It’s chaos!

[Re-enter PAMELA and GEORGE]

PAMELA: We put the fire out in the kitchen, Chief Constable.
GEORGE: I burnt my finger. Look, it’s gone red!

[Re-re-enter NURSE]

NURSE: Thank Heaven I’ve found the three of you at last!
I’ve looked in every cupboard in the Palace.
CHIEF: I left you watching from an upstairs window.
What news of the monster? Did you see it clearly?
PRINCESS: Did it have wings?
GEORGE: Did it look poorly at all?
NURSE: I saw the baleful Bish bashed by the Emperor’s ancestor,
And the garrulous Gargle that choked on his Grandpapa,
And the sedulous Snipe skewered by his valiant Uncle,
But my sight’s not as good as it was;
I didn’t see the monster in the garden clearly.
I saw a pair of shining horns and two pairs of cloven hooves,
I heard its fearful bellow and the cracking of its teeth –
It was bigger than the North Wing of the Palace!
But I didn’t get a closer glimpse
Before it lolloped roaring back to the forest
Sending up clouds of ash at every stride.
PAMELA: How annoying of it to run off
Before we could give it a reason for running!
CHIEF: It’s gone! We’re rescued! Come on, Nurse,
We’ll inform the Emperor at once.

[Exeunt NURSE and CHIEF OF POLICE]

PAMELA: Wasn’t it fun to feel the beast so close?
I hope it wasn’t frightened by our racket;
It’ll be a shame if the beast’s too scared to fight.
GEORGE: It wasn’t too terrifying, was it, after all?
I thought I was quite plucky in the fire.
Do you think I’m getting braver, Pamela?
I’m almost looking forward to – O help!

[CAT approaches]

CAT: Good evening, your Royal Highnesses.
GEORGE: A talking Cat on hind legs! It’s a werewolf!
CAT: No, not a werewolf, just unspeakably clever.
I’ve come to warn you of a plot!
PAMELA: Are you the plot?
CAT: No, I’m the Cat, I tell you.
There’s no time for discussion, you’re in danger.
Listen: the Dragon you’re to fight tonight
Doesn’t exist, it’s merely a device
To get you in the forest on your own
And have you horribly murdered in the dark!
Prince George, don’t leave the Palace walls tonight!
GEORGE: The Dragon doesn’t exist? Then how do you explain
The monster Nurse saw in the cabbage-bed
With horns and cloven hooves?
CAT: What else has horns and cloven hooves?
GEORGE: A cow.
But I love painting what few cows are left
In their ashy meadows, and I know cows don’t breathe flames.
How could a cow set a house alight?
CAT: Kitchens are always catching fire;
Cook probably left a bun loaf in the oven.
PAMELA: But what about its size?
Cows aren’t as big as haystacks, let alone
As big as the North Wing of the Palace!
CAT: The Nurse was frightened, she exaggerated.
Besides, she said herself her sight is poor.
O Pamela, trust me for the Prince’s sake!
PAMELA: How can we tell you’re an honest Cat?
You’re probably trying to make us miserable
Like everyone else in this wretched Palace!
Nurse never told an untruth in her life.
CAT: Princess. It’s George’s life at stake;
You’d better let him decide.
Look at me, Prince! You know I’m telling the truth!
GEORGE: Certainly what you say sounds reasonable.
It’s possible she could have been mistaken;
And the Emperor hasn’t addressed me for several days.
PAMELA: O George, don’t trust the Cat!
What shall we do if we don’t go into the forest?
Shall we sit around and moulder like the Emperor?
Or murder the flowers like the Doctor?
Or sit at home pulling off spiders’ legs!
CAT: The Prince must make up his own mind, Princess.
Will you go to the forest and meet your doom?
GEORGE: Don’t think I doubt your goodness, Cat,
But it seems to me that whether I believe you or not
I’m likely to end up eaten or murdered;
And I’d rather act than sit in a dither at home.
I only hope I give the Dragon heartburn!
PRINCESS: Then you’ll fight after all! I knew you would!
O George, I love you better than a left to the jaw!
Come along, I’ll polish your armour to sunbeams!

[Exeunt PAMELA and GEORGE. Enter DRAGON]

DRAGON: Why, Cat, you’re looking down-in-the-mouth!
Have you failed again? Perhaps I should eat you now
And save you any further misery!
CAT: Shut up, serpent. You’re not playing fair!
I knew all along there wasn’t a cow in the garden,
Because the eye the Chief Constable saw
From the window of the North Wing corridor
Had scales! You’ve been up to your tricks again!
DRAGON: Now don’t you act the injured innocent!
I’ve been in the kitchen all the time
Picking the salmon bones. The cabbage-bed monster
Was you yourself, dressed in a Dragon suit,
Trying to scare the Prince into staying at home!
CAT: Don’t try to fool me, Dragon. It was you!
DRAGON: I’d scorn to lie to a Cat. I’d eat you first.
CAT: Then – what was in the cabbage bed tonight?
DRAGON: Suddenly I feel prickles all over my hide.
We sophisticated Dragons
Don’t like unexplained phenomena.
CAT: We Cats don’t like mysteries we can’t solve.
DRAGON: If I find you’ve been lying –
CAT: If I find you’re a double-crosser –
DRAGON: Well, we won’t discuss it now.
Whatever the answer to this riddle
It’s plain you’re rapidly losing the bet.
Soon the Prince will be stumbling through the forest,
And the forest is my kingdom, Cat!
CAT: There you go again, claiming what isn’t yours.
Anything can happen in the dark. Remember,
I said I’d win if it was my last act.

[Exeunt CAT and DRAGON]

[For Act Two, see here.]


A Brief History of Fantasy at Glasgow

[This is the script for a five-minute talk I gave at the launch of the Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic on 16 September 2020. Ellen Kushner gave the keynote, which was followed by a discussion panel featuring Brian Attebery, Terri Windling and myself.]

Kinuko Y. Kraft, Cover Illustration for Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer

Once upon a time there was a child who loved to read. He only read stories about things that could never happen, often set in lands or worlds that never existed, full of creatures unknown to science. He liked these stories because he was at boarding school and they took him far away from the life he led there, in dormitories and classrooms and corridors smelling of cabbage.

Maurice Sendak, Reading is fun!

As he got older he went on reading stories about impossible things, but he did it in secret, because such stories were for younger children. He found there were also stories for adults of this kind, often of great beauty and complexity, though people told him that this sort of story was less grown up than other kinds.

Don Quixote in his library, by Gustave Doré

When he grew up he wrote a doctoral thesis about stories written in the sixteenth century. This was considered a serious subject because the stories were old, but they carried him away to lands that felt as if they had been invented, full of magic, and strange creatures, and vivid pictures painted in delightful words. He got a job at Glasgow University.

Arthur Rackham, Illustration for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

Later still he went to America, where he was allowed to teach a course on the books he most liked reading, about things that never existed and never could exist. When he got back he set up a course exactly like that, for undergraduates. His friend Alice Jenkins suggested he set up a Masters programme to teach the books to graduate students and encourage the world to take them seriously.

Leonora Carrington, And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur

People like him from all over the world came to study on the programme. He hadn’t realized how many people there were like him in the world: people who loved thinking about invented places and things and creatures and asking questions about them, such as why they had been invented, what needs they fulfilled at different times in history, and how they might shape the world we live in.

Pauline Baynes, Map of Middle-Earth

Glasgow University saw how many people were interested in impossible things and created more jobs in the area. He was joined by new companions from places far away and magical to him, such as Greece and Wales and the British Library. The fellowship of staff and students grew quietly from year to year.

Brothers Hildebrandt, An unexpected party

Together we invented new ways to share the pleasure of the impossible. Night at the Museum, where imaginary people and things took over the Hunterian Museum for an evening. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, where more people were invited to join us and talk about books and films and comics and games. A conference for imagining climate change. Fantasy Reading Parties, where we could share the stories, scripts and poems we had written. Symposiums where we plotted events for the future.

Paul Lewin, The offering

Five years after the founding of the Glasgow Fantasy MLitt programme, here we are again, setting up a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, designed to make it easier to share ideas and dreams about the impossible with everyone who cares to join in.

Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon

Perhaps the impossible is not so impossible after all? Perhaps things can really be done with fantasy and the fantastic, and to the hearts and minds of people who enjoy such things? Perhaps fantasy and the fantastic can change the way we think of the world or the country or the town or the house we live in? Perhaps together we can build a future where the impossible becomes a template for the possible?

Remedios Varo, Creacion de las aves

Shall we find out?

Tove Jansson, Illustration for Moominland Midwinter

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.]