When the villagers began the long toil up the mountainside they carried their houses on their backs like hermit crabs. Hampers, boxes, handbags, cupboards, tables and chairs seemed to have developed spindly legs and a taste for exercise, reeling along from bend to bend of the well-worn path as their owners struggled to outpace the bandits of Bist and Flumm, with their well-known thirst for gold and blood and delicate china. Half-way up the first steep slope the bandits caught them – as Granny Small had said they would – and at once the villagers let fall their burdens to protect their bodies. Chairs, kettles and mattresses rolled away down the spongy slope to fetch up against rocks or tumble into the burn. Soon the burn’s irregular staircase of ice-rimmed pools began to sprout long wavering strings of pale pink weed wherever the villagers’ blood spilled into it in rivulets and gobbets.
They had driven off the first attack and were about to retrieve their bundles when the old man called out: ‘Let them lie. It’s not often you get the excuse to throw out old rubbish. There’ll be better things on the other side of the mountain!’ So they left their kettles and mattresses littering the hillside, to act as an informal open-air reception room for sheep and wrens, and resumed their climb. But the little girl had already guessed that the old man had not been talking about pots and pans. In the attack he had received an ugly gash in the side from a bandit’s curtle-axe, and his feeble attempt to ward it off had resulted only in the smashing of the last of the Rebus violins. For a little while after that the old man had sat on a pile of sheep-droppings with blood and water soaking his trousers and let a tear roll down each cheek in tribute to the instrument. The little girl thought they must be carefully regulated tears, since he had always said you should allow two tears for every sad occasion: one for sorrow at your loss, the other for joy at the gift of life that allowed you to weep despite your losses.
He left the violin on the slope along with his favourite whisky glass – now smashed – and the mortal remains of Granny Small. The oldest woman in the village had died as she said she would, not of a curtle-axe wound but of a heart attack brought on by trying to brain a bandit with a lump of granite. For a long time as they climbed her thin shrill voice kept chattering on at them to hurry up; they were quite relieved when it died away, drifting off like a cricket’s chorus on a mountain breeze.
At one point the little girl and the old man took a rest on a tumbledown wall and looked back the way they had come. A feather of smoke unfurled from the village by the lake and the little girl fancied she could smell the scent of wood-ash on the wind. ‘Well, at least the houses are getting fumigated,’ the old man said; but the little girl was already shedding a good many more than the two small tears he recommended. They just kept welling out of her head like a burn from the side of a rain-drenched mountain. She finally stopped crying from sheer surprise that her head could be so full of water.
A little higher up they reached a stretch of level ground where the mountain path lost all definition in the sheep-cropped turf. At once the fog dropped down on them with what might have been a silent shout of laughter. Within seconds droplets formed in the girl’s brown hair and gleamed like eyes in the old man’s bristling eyebrows. Hills and mountain-ranges of fog rushed past at enormous speed, driven on by a wind that cut their flesh to the bone. The villagers forgot their fear that the bandits would follow them; instead they trembled because the ground beneath their feet was getting narrower, and the crags dropped into nothingness on either side. The wind tried to pluck them from the mountainside like an oystercatcher pecking at the shell of a stubborn mussel.
The little girl trembled with the rest but for a different reason. She was afraid of the Beast that lived among the mountains and left stories like bloody limbs littering the slopes for miles around. The old man patted her cheek and assured her that the Beast was far too large to bother with prey as insignificant as little girls. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘it’s fast asleep. Can’t you hear it snoring like the waves on a far-off shore?’ The little girl nodded but kept looking behind her uneasily. She could hear the waves on the shore whenever the wind dropped, but they sounded nothing at all like a monster snoring.
All the same, she was glad of the old man’s aimless prattle as he leaned on her shoulder. Although his weight was sometimes painful, she felt as though he were pulling her up the mountain instead of the other way round. ‘All my life I’ve wanted to visit these mountains,’ he panted. ‘It took an attack of bandits to get me up, and it’ll take a band of angels to get me down.’ By the time they reached the bottom of a slope of scree that swept up before them like a frozen wave into a foggy void, the rest of the villagers had disappeared. ‘You’re my guardian angel,’ the old man said, but it was he who pointed out where the little girl should set her feet. He seemed so sure of the way that it came as no surprise when they found themselves at the mouth of a cave, peering into the darkness to make sure there were no Beasts inside. At last they crawled through the narrow entrance, and at once the shriek of the wind dropped down to a whisper, as suddenly as if a door had shut behind them. From then on they only heard it from time to time, wailing disconsolately outside as if bereft of prey.
The cave seemed to run deep into the mountainside. At every movement echoes scuttled off and vanished into the stone entrails of the earth. But the roof was so low that the old man had crawled only a few yards before his head struck rock and he collapsed. He lay on his back as he had fallen, his head propped against the wall, his hands palm upwards by his sides. Every so often a breath escaped him in a little feather of smoke. The little girl curled up in the crook of his arm and busied herself with trying to forget about the Beast. Together they waited for night to enter the cave.
After a while the old man noticed that there was another old man lying beside him, whose breath likewise came in little feathers of smoke. He wore a tail-coat with fraying cuffs and a dirty white tie, and his face was as pale as his shirt-front except for a hint of yellow in the cheeks. The old man saw at once that the stranger was as sick as himself. He gave a chuckle at their shared predicament, then winced at the pain in his injured side.
‘We make a fine pair, I must say,’ he observed.
‘Eh?’ said the stranger, contorting his body to see who had spoken. ‘What’s that? Who’s there?’
‘Can’t you see me?’ asked the old man.
‘Indeed not,’ said the stranger. ‘You’re too strong, too alive. You’ll have to be a good deal closer to death’s door than that before I can see you.’
‘Is this better?’ asked the old man, moving a little closer to death’s door.
‘Yes, much,’ said the stranger, and twisted round to look at him closely. He had very bright eyes in deep sockets, as though he hadn’t eaten for a hundred and fifty-seven years and would stop at nothing for a scrap to feed on.
‘What’s that at your elbow, all wrapped up?’ he asked, nodding at the bundle.
‘It’s the ghost of my violin,’ replied the old man. ‘A genuine Rebus. I was clumsy enough to break it in a recent scuffle.’
‘That’s not all you broke, is it?’ the stranger said with a glance at the old man’s wound and a nasty grin. To his own surprise the old man felt insulted that such a sorry specimen should criticize the state of his body. It had served him for many years and he suddenly had a nostalgic affection for its failing organs. But before he could retort the stranger gave a sudden groan and started to writhe like an angry snake. It seemed he was trying to raise himself on one elbow.
‘So you’re a musician?’ the stranger gasped when at last he succeeded. ‘What a stroke of luck! I’ve been waiting for one of those for many years. You see, I too am a musician. My name is Colossus Retch. I expect you’ve heard of me.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Retch,’ said the old man. ‘We don’t hear much about modern music in the village by the lake. It’ll be different, I expect, when we reach the other side of the mountain.’
‘That’s DOCTOR Retch,’ the stranger snapped, ‘and my music is NOT modern.’
The old man didn’t hear him, because the little girl had sat up at the sound of voices and asked him who he was talking to. He said no-one and gave her a smile, which she put away at once and kept in a secret place for the rest of her life. She gave him a dazzling smile of her own in return, then took out an old linen handkerchief and started to wipe the blood from his forehead with gentle strokes.
The gentle movement drove everything else out of the old man’s mind. He had just managed to doze off when something buzzed in his ear and woke him up. It sounded like ‘A temporary pause’.
‘I beg your pardon?’ he murmured.
‘Nothing,’ said the little girl, still wiping.
‘I said, O tempora, O mors,’ the stranger said. He too had sat up and was looking much more sprightly. From nowhere he produced a large earthenware jug and poured himself a cup of something that emitted huge gushes of steam. A spicy fragrance filled the cave. Even the little girl felt the warmth invade her nostrils, steal down the back of her throat and invade her lungs, whence it spread throughout her body. The old man’s mouth began to water, and went on watering till he feared he would begin to drool.
‘Sorry I can’t let you have any,’ said the stranger. ‘This is Spirituous Liquor, strictly forbidden to anyone under the age of death.’ He sat back with an exaggerated sigh of contentment which brought back all the old man’s initial loathing of him. For a while all that could be heard were his appreciative slurps and the rumbling of the old man’s belly.
After some time Colossus Retch began to speak again. ‘Let me tell you about myself,’ he suggested. ‘Or at least about my posthumous self. You wouldn’t care to hear the details of my earthly life. Decidedly sordid, I’m afraid!’
He took another sip of the liquor. As he did so the old man saw his teeth flash in one of those grins that seemed to signal some private amusement, forever barred to the uninitiated such as the old man and the little girl. All at once the old man felt certain that if he let the stranger continue he would find himself trapped, forced to repeat some mechanical motion over and over again in the eerie solitude of the mountains. He opened his mouth in an attempt to protest, but his tongue remained frozen to the roof of his mouth as if rendered useless by some numbing potion or poisonous gas.
‘For a hundred and fifty-seven years,’ the stranger said, ‘I have had the honour of being the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. I see your eyes light up in recognition –’ (they had done nothing of the kind) ‘– as well they might. The Mountain Orchestra, you exclaim, that melodious muster of master musicians, that band of lonely virtuosi collectively conjoined in their determination to subdue the chaos of this savage world with the staves of harmony! Believe it or not, before my time they were no more harmonious than a roomful of angry gibbons. Some of them couldn’t read music, some of them held their instruments upside down, not one of them could tie a bow tie without assistance or fasten a cufflink. But with time and patience and liberal lashings of raw talent I managed to shape them against all odds into a passable resemblance of a real live orchestra. The Mountain Orchestra, my friend, was shaped from my posthumous blood and sweat and tears, I say this without exaggeration. You may congratulate me if you like.’ And the stranger blew his nose on the filthy sleeve of his tail-coat.
At this point a gust of wind blundered into the cave and buffeted its way from wall to wall. A burst of music seemed to be released each time it struck a surface. The old man shivered and turned towards the entrance, laying his hand on the head of the girl which had slowly drooped until it was resting on his knee. Outside, the fog still glowed with a greenish light as it always does for an hour or so after the sun has set. With a start the old man saw that the Mountain Orchestra had taken its seats in the void beyond: rank on rank of see-through musicians fading away into the foggy distance. Each musician had indistinct features, but they held their heads at a certain angle that conveyed a sense of implacable resolution in the teeth of adversity. Each musician was smartly attired in evening dress made of mist and cobwebs.
The old man found his voice again. ‘Do you have repertoire?’ he asked weakly.
The stranger gave a modest cough. ‘We do indeed,’ he answered. ‘A repertoire curated by myself in response to the special needs and challenges of our orchestral purpose. Most of what we play is music,’ he went on, nodding his head as he warmed to his subject, ‘although alas it has not always been recognised as such. Winds, fogs, planetary movements, ghost sonatas; anything insubstantial really. Water music is a speciality; our performances of burns, brooks, becks, and the ripples on highland lochans are justly celebrated. You may know the Incoming Tide by Moonlight? An old composition of my own, I’m happy to say. But my time with the Mountain Orchestra draws to a close. I am looking beyond, so to speak, to new horizons and fresh challenges: spiritual compositions for the most part, though I may try my hand at nullity, loss and irremediable absence. And here you are, a fiddler emerging out of the fog as if by Divine Decree, perfectly qualified to fill the vacancy. How would you like to be my successor? How would you like, my friend, to lead the Mountain Orchestra in my place? Does the prospect thrill you?’
While he discussed his music the stranger’s face had taken on a wistful air. The lines of suffering scored on his brow had disappeared and his large eyes swam like mountain pools in the wake of a storm. But now he leaned forward with disconcerting suddenness and resumed his expression of wolfish hunger. His teeth and eyes were almost too bright to look at. The old man would have recoiled if he had been able to move his body as well as his head.
‘Well now,’ he said in alarm. ‘I’ll need to know a good deal more about the job before I accept it. What’s the pay like? Who do we play for? What are the perks?’
‘The pay,’ the stranger repeated scornfully. ‘The perks. Let me see. A weekly wage in pain and frustration, a lamentable lack of understanding from the general public, all the Spirituous Liquor you can drink and a captive audience. Will that do?’
‘I’ve known worse deals,’ the old man observed. ‘A captive audience, you say. Who are they?’
‘I’d have thought you’d know all about that, since you’re such an expert on the Beast,’ the stranger said. ‘The audience is here. You’re in one of its ears.’
The old man gave a start which woke the girl from a dream about animated furniture. He soothed her by stroking her hair while every nerve in his body strained to detect some other sign of life inside the cave. The stranger’s voice droned on regardless.
‘Yours will be one of the highest and loneliest destinies in the profession. Night and day, year in and year out, the Mountain Orchestra delivers performances of genius to no other audience than the Beast of the Martoc Mountains. As you know, the Beast has lain dormant under these mountains for many centuries. Your job will be to make sure it goes on sleeping undisturbed.’
‘I haven’t accepted yet,’ the old man interposed. ‘It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to me. You mean to say that the Mountain Orchestra acts as a kind of musical rattle to keep an oversized baby quiet?’
‘That’s not what I mean at all,’ snarled the impresario. ‘You clearly haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation. Once not so long ago the Beast almost woke up; it opened one eye and breathed out through one of its nostrils. That was what brought about the Age of Ash. It happened because my predecessor’s fingers got so numb he dropped the baton in Loch Tothel. I trust you’re not prone to numbness in the fingers? He spent seven hours trying to fish it out with a piece of string tied round a stone. Eventually it was brought to him by the Tothel Carp, but by then the damage was done. Not a living thing was left on the surface of the earth within five hundred miles of the Martoc Mountains: nothing but ash and bone and a few charred twigs. When he saw what he’d done my predecessor went mad and impaled himself on Cardothen Crag. You can still hear his shrieks when the wind blows north-north-west.’
The old man listened, but he could no longer hear the wind. He could not even hear the little girl’s breathing or feel her warmth against his ribs. Unobtrusively the stranger’s voice had carried him onto another plane of existence. The painful squeaks and wails as the Mountain Orchestra tuned their instruments made the stone floor beneath his fingertips vibrate.
‘My own posthumous career has been more successful,’ observed the stranger, and his eyes took on the wistful expression they held when he talked about his art. ‘I began my reign as conductor with a simple funeral march for all the lost souls. You know the sort of thing, a lot of cold stars and blowing dust, nothing too complex for my newly-trained musicians. Little by little we progressed to something more complex: a green bud here or there pushing out of the ashes, a solitary bird sitting on a dead branch. Cellos and bassoons hinted at stirrings in the earth as it quickened towards new life. Piccolos monitored the movements of approaching rainclouds. I’ll never forget the moment when we launched into a fully-fledged allegro maestoso to celebrate the rebirth of Spring. Since then – well, to tell the truth I’ve never recaptured that moment of glory. The triumphal march of returning life was the overture, as I see it now, for my career’s decline and fall. We’ve had our ups and downs since then, wrong notes, fluffed passages, entire compositions played out of tune or back to front. And I’ve been getting very tired in recent years. I’m sorry for what happened to your lakeside village; I fell asleep at about the seventeen millionth bar of the Peace Pavane and the Beast must have twitched in its sleep. I woke up in the cave this morning, so stiff I couldn’t move a muscle. Fortunately the Mountain Orchestra has filled the gap with some courageous improvisation, despite their lack of experience in such matters. Nevertheless, I think the time has come when I must cede my baton to my successor. And here you are, ready and waiting to step onto the podium at the moment of need. The question is: will you take up the challenge?’
The stranger’s voice had got steadily fainter as he talked. When the old man looked at him again he saw to his horror that his legs had vanished from the knees downwards and his eyes had lost their light. He seemed to be gazing at some scene beyond the cave wall. The old man watched and listened intently, hoping for some clue as to what that scene might be. All he could see, however, was darkness, all he could hear the flutter of his heart, the steady breathing of the little girl, the murmur of the blood-tide in his eardrums. Or was it the clatter of cutlery on silver plates and the murmur of voices against a background of gentle music, somewhere deep in the heart of the mountain? For a moment he could not tell.
‘Wait, wait!’ he cried in panic. ‘I’m not qualified at all! I’m only a humble violinist! Shouldn’t the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra be a celebrated musician like yourself?’
The stranger gave a ghost of his nasty grin. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ he said. ‘I was no celebrated musician in my lifetime. I hung around at street corners turning the handle of a barrel organ and leering horribly at passers by. They would pay to make me stop leering. Sordid, I tell you! No, the Beast can’t tell an orchestra from a one man band. There’s nothing to worry about. Conducting’s easy; it’s merely a question of bobbing up and down with a little white stick to keep the musicians awake. Anything more is just a matter of pride. Start with something nice and simple like the grass growing, daylight filtering into the cave, or fish asleep in a forgotten pool at the mountain’s roots. You’ll have moved on to thunderstorms and the dawn chorus before you know it. And how about throwing in a violin fantasia from time to time seeing you’re a fiddle player? Everyone loves the screech of the highest note on a G string.’ And he leered again, even as his body was disappearing right up to his lapels.
‘Wait, wait!’ the old man cried again. ‘How can I be sure the Beast will stay asleep? And who are you anyway? How do I know you’re telling the truth?’
‘You can’t; you don’t,’ said the former conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. ‘And now goodbye. I’m due a hundred and fifty-seven years’ back payment of Eternal Reward.’ With that he vanished completely. For a moment it was as if a curtain of rock had been twitched aside. A colourful ball of jazz music bounced through the cave and out into the night, followed by a rich smell of roast meat and a mechanical canary. For the last time the old man called out, ‘Wait!’, but the cry only emphasized its own futility. He did not doubt that Dr Colossus Retch had already taken his first mouthful of everlasting soup.
‘It’s all right, I’m not going anywhere,’ said the little girl, waking up at the sound of his voice and taking his right hand. ‘But it’s so cold in here I think we’ll die.’
In the feeble light of a mountain dawn, the old man tried to examine her cheeks and pale cracked lips for signs of hypothermia, but soon he found that his aching eyes would not focus on her face. In fact he could see the front row of the Mountain Orchestra through her chest. She was fading from his sight, and other things in the cave were becoming visible. A carpet of luminous weeds decorated the floor, a curious chair stood in one corner, and Granny Small, about the size of a shrimp, was peering at him from a nook in the ceiling. He noticed a slender white stick on the carpet by his violin and flexed his right hand, ready to pick it up. Even as he rejoiced in the flow of blood to the fingertips he was aware that for the little girl they remained as cold and still as granite.
‘You won’t die, my dear,’ he told her, making a determined effort to use his tongue instead of his mind. ‘But I must go. I’ve just been offered a job with the Mountain Orchestra; an important job which begins at once; I really can’t say no. You’ll be musician for the village now. You’ll be magnificent.’
‘Me?’ cried the little girl. ‘But I’m not good enough! I don’t play anything!’
‘You’ve got your voice,’ the old man pointed out, ‘and you know all the songs. Will you sing to me now?’
The little girl couldn’t hear what he said, but she decided to sing for him anyway, partly because she thought he would like it, partly to see if her voice would do instead of a violin, and partly to stop herself thinking about the Beast, which had started to prey on her thoughts again as soon as she woke. That was how she pictured the scene years later: herself kneeling by the old man’s side with his hand in hers, music trailing out of her mouth in a silver thread as long and strong as a piece of twine spun by Granny Small. As the thread got longer it grew in size, bouncing off the walls deep down inside the tunnel at the back of the cave, lengthening and thickening until it became a clashing chain of notes, both sweet and harsh, as though the mountain itself were singing. After a while she stopped because the sound had started to scare her, but it continued to ring in the caves of her ears for a long time after.
The old man stood up with a sigh and stretched till his backbone cracked. Then he strode to the mouth of the cave with determined strides. He found he was wearing the stranger’s tail-coat with the fraying cuffs and the musty smell. It was too small for him, but now he remembered it hadn’t fit the stranger either. Underneath he still wore his own shirt, stiff with sweat and blood. ‘They could at least have provided a clean white shirt-front,’ he told himself irritably.
Before going out he took one look behind him to make sure he had left some suitable remains to keep the little girl company. He was shocked at how ill the corpse looked. The little girl had dropped off back to sleep in the crook of its arm.
With some difficulty he clambered up on his rostrum; each leg seemed to sink through each step to the height of his knee. By the time he reached the top he was submerged in fog to hip level and still sinking; at this rate, he thought, he would vanish into the abyss before he’d had a chance to lift the baton for the very first time. But then a flurry of clapping broke out among the violins, taken up with ghostly enthusiasm by the rest of the players. He rose a little, then rose some more when the cellists cheered. The old man graced them with a small, stiff bow, and when he straightened found that his feet were firmly planted on the boards of the rostrum. He struck the top with his little white stick to test its solidity. It gave out a satisfying clack, and the musicians’ eyes opened wide in anticipation. He smiled encouragingly – for his own sake as much as for theirs – and raised the baton.
‘Now then, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
The little girl didn’t notice that the old man had died until the villagers found her curled up beside him the following morning. They buried him under a pile of rocks near the mouth of the cave. Then they walked on over the mountain, carrying the little girl with them on a worn-out armchair and accompanied all the way by a wicked wind. They found many things on the other side: things Granny Small had led them to expect and things she hadn’t mentioned; wanderings in woods and rests by rivers; cities full of noise and pain and the bright clean city where they made their home. By that time the little girl had grown up into a tall strong woman and her voice had grown to the size and strength of the mountain voice she had heard in the cave when she sang to the old man. Old and young men vied for her hand, and a musician won it.
But years later the woman wandered out into the city gardens and up onto the ramparts. As the fog rose out of the woods her mind wandered away to the distant mountains. She had often told the story of the old man’s death, sometimes taking out the smile he had given her, polishing it on her skirt and passing it round among her listeners. With the passing time she embroidered the story as he would have done himself. She insisted that he was still making music in the mountains, conducting a ghostly assembly of musicians called the Mountain Orchestra, who played till their bones ached and their insubstantial heads rang to make sure that the Beast stayed fast asleep. She said that if you listened hard enough you could sometimes hear soaring above the strains of the mountain wind and the chattering burns the silver thread of melody spun by the last of the Rebus violins. She prayed that the old man was not prone to numbness in the fingers.
One thing she had recently added to the story. Was it not possible, she would ask, that with time and the Orchestra’s diligent playing the nature of the Beast would begin to change? That the baroque musical architecture which she knew the old man favoured would enter its skull and impose a gentler structure on its savagery? Was it foolish to hope that next time the Beast stirred in its sleep it wouldn’t reduce the forests and villages to ash, but would instead murmur one of the Mountain Orchestra’s melodies back at them, as the mountain had done on the night she sang the old man out of this life and into the next?
The night laid cold dark hands on the woman’s face, and she let a carefully regulated tear roll down each cheek. One for sorrow, one for joy.
[I was introduced to A High Wind in Jamaica by my high school history teacher, Dick Woollett, in the late 1970s. This post is dedicated to him. Warning: it contains references to subjects readers may find upsetting.]
Two of my recent posts looked at Lord Dunsany’s Irish fiction, which is rarely considered fantasy. In them I argued that all three of the novels I discussed were directly preoccupied with the way the ‘real’ world is dominated by the fantasies of its inhabitants, and that they could therefore be said to address fantasy directly as an integral part of Irish life in the 1930s. This does not make them fantasies as we usually understand the term, of course, since nothing fantastic is said to have happened in them – apart from the rising of an Irish peat bog against its industrial exploiters in The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). But it suggests that the discussion of fantasy might benefit from being opened out a little, to reflect on the way the genre or mode exerts a gravitational pull on other kinds of narrative. The period between the wars is full of examples of ‘realist’ texts with fairy tales and fantasies embedded in them, as a means of identifying something crucial about contemporary culture and politics. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1935), with its riffs on the Arthurian legends, examines the impact on masculinity of the Great War and the rise of capitalism, as well as the flagging potency of Victorian ideas in the age of Modernity. Waugh’s novel takes its title from Eliot’s Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land (1922), which also embeds Arthurian legend – reduced to broken verbal fragments, emblems of the fragments left of old certainties after the War – in the English landscape, pointing forward to the successive engagements with Arthurian narratives by Tolkien (who planned for a while to retell those tales as a myth for modern England), T. H. White (in the series of novels that became The Once and Future King), Charles Williams (in his poetry sequence Taliessin Through Logres) and C. S. Lewis (in That Hideous Strength). Meanwhile, the first section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), ‘The Window’, centres on a mother reading a fairy tale to her son – the story of the Fisherman and his Wife, from the Household Tales of the brothers Grimm – which draws out the book’s concern with problems of communication between men and women as embodied in the Hebridean island where the action takes place, surrounded as it is by the severing sea. There’s a story to be told, I think, about the dialogue between the fantastic and the realistic at a time when fantasy was coming into its own as a distinct way of writing; and this story might help us account for the complex dialogue between the modes embedded in fantasy narratives of the 1950s, from The Lord of the Rings to the Narnian chronicles and the Borrowers books.
This post, too, is dedicated to a work of fiction that addresses the relationship between fantasy and the ‘real’ world: Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). On the strength of his novel’s immense popularity between the wars, Hughes is often described as one of the most influential writers on childhood in the twentieth century. High Wind is said to have influenced Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) in its debunking of the Victorian cult of the child, its merciless dissection of the myth of childhood innocence. What isn’t often mentioned, though, is that Hughes also wrote fine fantastic stories for children, and that one collection of these stories, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (1931), came out just two years after High Wind was published. High Wind self-consciously adopts an adult perspective on children’s thoughts and actions, narrated as it is by a sardonic Victorian commentator. The Spider’s Palace gives us direct access to the children’s imaginative world, makes us natives of it, so to speak. Setting the books side by side paints an arresting picture, I think, of Hughes’s ambivalent attitude to fantasy as it manifests itself in two different age groups: young children and adults. For Hughes, fantasy dominates the lives of adults as well as children, and in both cases this domination can be playful, seductive and lethal. In saying so he marks the radical break that has taken place between his own lifetime, on this side of the Great War, and the supposedly halcyon days of the British Empire in the middle years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire throve on waking dreams of power, order, racism, class divisions and segregation between the sexes, and when the so-called Golden Age of children’s fiction was in full flood. But he also points the way to a recognition of how the invasion of the ‘real world’ by murderous fantasies like those of fascism, which was taking place as he wrote his book, had roots in the Victorian culture of his own country.
The Spider’s Palace is one of the oddest children’s books from a decade of often highly experimental children’s writing. The 1930s, after all, saw the publication of Mary Poppins (1934), The Hobbit (1937), The Sword in the Stone (1938), J. B. S. Haldane’s scientific extravaganza My Friend Mr. Leakey (1937), and the radical Irish fantasies of Patricia Lynch such as The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin (1939); but each of these narratives is profoundly comforting in comparison with Hughes’s bizarre collection. Described in some editions as a book of ‘modern fairy stories’, the collection dedicates itself to undermining the reader’s sense that they know what fairy stories are. The style is the most fairy-story thing about them, as terse as the language used by Joseph Jacobs or Andrew Lang, a thousand miles from the lyrical flourishes of Hans Christian Andersen or George MacDonald. The narratives are anarchic; anything at all can happen in them, and there’s simply no knowing how a story will end. At the end of the decade, Tolkien argued that fairy stories need to close with a eucatastrophe, a sense of something having been satisfactorily completed – as invoked by the famous formula ‘they lived happily ever after’. When Hughes obliquely refers to that formula, it becomes a source of strangeness as intense as a surrealist painting. In one story, for instance, a prematurely aged gardener (who works so hard he only gets one hour’s sleep a night) decides to chase an equally aged rabbit out of his garden – as if a minor character from Alice in Wonderland had decided to rebel against the monarchist system by tracking down the royal herald and subjecting it to vigilante justice. The rabbit is too fast for him, so the gardener decides to taste some of the rose leaves it has been eating, instead of cultivating or painting the roses like the obedient gardeners in Alice. On eating the leaves he finds that they make him young again, which enables him to chase the rabbit all the way to its burrow, where it has imprisoned twenty or thirty white elephants, which the gardener liberates by strangling the rabbit. The story ends with a ‘happy ever after’ that goes like this:
Now that he had all these white elephants the gardener, of course, was rich, and didn’t have to work in the garden any more. Instead he had a small but comfortable house for himself, and a perfectly enormous stable for all the white elephants: and there they lived happily together for ever after: and this was the strange thing, that though when the rabbit had eaten the rose leaf it had only made him young for one night, when the gardener ate his it made him young for ever, so that he never grew old again at all. (p. 37)
Expensive and useless things, which is the traditional definition of a white elephant, define their possessors as wealthy – and in this story they seem to attract riches to them by simply existing; but the gardener seems as egalitarian in the use of his riches as Hughes is in choosing an elderly gardener as his protagonist, providing the animals and himself with homes that are strictly proportionate to their needs. The ‘strange thing’ in the story, however, is not the gardener’s decision to set up a household with thirty elephants, or the rabbit’s transformation in its final fight with the gardener into a monster with fiery eyes and teeth like a tiger’s, or even the rose’s rejuvenating qualities, but the fact that the rose leaves do not work in the same way for the gardener as they did for the rabbit: the rabbit was only made young for a night, but the man remained young for ever, ‘so that he never grew old […] at all’. That, of course, is the literal meaning of ‘they lived happily ever after’; but it takes Richard Hughes to make the formula strange again by allowing it to work for some people in his story world but not for others. Something like this happens in conventional fairy stories, too – the villain never gets to live happily ever after, the hero always does – but Hughes points up the disparity by having both hero and villain consume the same magical food, and experience different results from its consumption. An imaginative tale that breaks its own rules is utterly unlike the traditional magic tale, which explains exactly how a spell or magic object operates and makes sure that this is how it works from beginning to end. Hughes’s fairy tales are full of such instances of rules that get broken arbitrarily – and in doing so they transplant their readers to a far more dangerous imaginative zone than the one they are familiar with from the fairy tale collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The happy-ever-after gets broken more disturbingly in the story of the title, ‘The Spider’s Palace’. In it a little girl gets invited home by a friendly spider, awaking echoes in the reader’s mind of the story of Bluebeard (will she be murdered like a fly?), or Beauty and the Beast, or Cupid and Psyche. The Bluebeard analogy comes closest at first, since the spider’s airborne palace is wholly transparent apart from one room, into which the spider creeps for an hour each day. The girl enjoys her time there, playing in clouds which support her weight, taking pleasure in the spider’s company; but of course she is desperately curious to find out what he does in the hidden room; and when she hides in the room one day she sees him change into a handsome prince, a shape he retains throughout the hour of his concealment. Once the transformation has been witnessed the spell is broken, and from that moment the spider ceases to be a spider, his see-through residence becomes a conventional palace on the ground, and the little girl and the handsome prince go on living together as if nothing has happened. Neither the prince nor the girl, we’re told, ever mentions the change in their living conditions that has taken place. But this is no Tolkienian eucatastrophe. The girl goes on hankering after the days when she lived in an airborne, see-through palace, where she could play among the clouds and do what she liked. Living with a prince in a conventional palace is just no substitute for living with a spider in its magical web. In this story the traditional fairy tale loses its loveliness and an altogether stranger narrative takes its place. It is both a challenge to the usual assumptions about fairy tales – that the conventional forms of happiness they contain will appeal to their readers – and an accurate summary of the reader’s feelings at the end of the story of Beauty and the Beast, which is that life in an ordinary marriage (even a fairy tale one) is not a patch on life in an enchanted castle with a mournful, mysterious, possibly murderous monster (at least, in the context of a story).
Other stories in the collection add further twists to Hughes’s demolition of the Tolkienian eucatastrophe. A little girl who can travel down telephone lines escapes her unpleasant step-parents and gets herself adopted by a strange couple, who have phoned her house by mistake and so inadvertently granted her access to their home. But she tyrannizes over the couple, taking over room after room in their house until they have only an attic left to live in, and later forcing them to remove the roof so she can let off fireworks in her room. Luckily the couple have a friend with a magic rocket; the little girl sets the rocket off on Bonfire Night and it promptly carries her back to her neglectful step-parents, where she lives unhappily ever after on a diet of silence, tapioca pudding and cold mutton. The theme of awkward cohabitation within an unevenly divided domestic space is further developed in the story ‘Inhaling’, in which two small children are given a mysterious substance by a huge policeman. The substance has the property of making things grow to giant proportions, like the Food of the Gods in Wells’s novel, and the two children turn into giants when they pour it into their bath and inhale the steam. Meanwhile the steam also affects their nurse and their father to different extents, while their mother – who inhales nothing – remains the same size. As a result, the mismatched family has to construct a strange new house as experimental as anything by a modernist architect: ‘The nursery, of course, was enormous,’ Hughes explains, ‘Then came the study for their father, that was just about double size […] But the poor little mother had just an ordinary-size drawing-room and bedroom, and had to be ever so careful, when she went into the nursery, that the children didn’t tread on her’ (p. 120). The over-sized nurse, meanwhile, is simply sent away as an inconvenience. As a model of a domestic hierarchy the household is as disturbing as it is strange, and Hughes gives no hint that the situation will ever change. Magical restorations of things to their proper proportions don’t always happen in his fairy tale landscape, any more than they do in the ‘real’ world the child reader will inherit.
The collection ends with two of Hughes’s most unsettling non-happy-endings. In ‘The Old Queen’ the titular monarch is granted the gift of eternal life, but her beloved husband is not, with the result that after his death she is left in dreary solitude in her palace, ‘reigning and reigning’ for ever after without hope of closure (p. 145). And in the final story, a couple of teachers find themselves without a school and are reduced to teaching one another until a lost little girl turns up at their door and they adopt her as both pupil and daughter. The girl proves marvelously biddable except in the matter of getting out of the bath; so in the end one of the teachers flushes her down the plughole, which prompts the last few sentences in the book:
‘OH, what have you done,’ cried the schoolmaster. ‘You have lost our only child!’
‘I don’t care!’ said the schoolmistress in a stern voice. ‘She should have got out of the bath when she was TOLD!’ (p. 158)
The typographic eccentricities of the final sentence (in the original, the last two words are in italic fonts of increasing size) mimic the eccentricity of the story, which breaks free from the traditions of British children’s narratives by subjecting the disobedient child not to chastisement and repentance but to a dreadful and irreversible doom. In the process, the tale provides an unhappy ending to the collection as a whole, which begins in a very different mood. The opening story tells of a determined little girl who decides to go and live in a whale – like an impenitent Jonah – free from any controls at all; but the final story ends with the re-imposition of absolute adult control over a recalcitrant youngster. At the same time, the schoolmistress who punishes the little girl can be seen as anarchic in her impulses, meting out a wholly disproportionate punishment to her disobedient adoptive daughter, who merely acts on a perfectly natural preference to stay in the comfortable bathwater for a few minutes longer than her new mother deems appropriate. Adult order is as much an illusion in this collection as the fantasies conjured up by the wildest child’s imagination; and the fact that the book is not cast as a dream, unlike its most obvious model, Alice in Wonderland, gives it an air of radicalism, of having something to say about the nonsensical nature of accepted conventions, that Carroll’s great novel never quite aspired to.
It’s perhaps for this reason that contemporary readers referred to the fables in Hughes’ collection as distinctively ‘modern’. The tales refuse to be bounded within the constraints of ordinary literature for the nursery, and refuse to suggest that the world they contain can be distinguished from the world beyond the book’s boundaries. Even the opening story segues very neatly from an everyday situation. An architect who has built a ‘model village’ in Wales (p. 9) – presumably Portmeirion – invites people everywhere to come and live in his country, and a little girl mistakes this for an invitation to live in whales, which is why she ends up moving into the belly of a seagoing mammal. Hughes does not differentiate between her eccentric choice of habitation (a whale) and the eccentric choice of habitation suggested by the architect (an Italianate model village on the Welsh coast). In the same way, the wild behaviour of the children in Hughes’s stories is not distinguished from the wild behaviour of the rabbit-wrestling, white-elephant-collecting, magic-rocket-owning adults. The Spider’s Palace was written before surrealism came to Britain, but its tacit acceptance of the domination of human culture by the riotous unconscious is entirely of a piece with the surrealist activities going on at the time in France.
Its politics, too, is at times as radical as that of the surrealists. Being a prince, a queen or a child does not guarantee its characters a happy ending, and cooks, maids, gardeners, farmers and poachers have as ready access to magic adventures as the youngest children of reigning monarchs. The most openly political story in the book is ‘The Glass-Ball Country’, which focuses on the political implications of ignoring limits and boundaries. A charcoal burner and his wife live in the almost inaccessible ruins of a castle on a cliff, where they shelter from the pointless wars being waged between the nations that surround them. At one point an elderly pedlar seeks shelter with them in the castle, and in their paranoia about discovery they almost kill him as a spy. Instead they reluctantly let him go free, and in return he gives them a glass ball as a present for their daughter. When a band of soldiers approaches the castle, threatening the charcoal-burner’s family with discovery and death, the little girl informs her parents that there is a country inside the glass ball, ‘only about an inch across’ (p. 60), where the family can hide from their military oppressors. They do so at once by reducing themselves to a suitable size, and live happily there for a while, until one of the soldiers decides to throw the ball from the castle window and watch it smash on the rocks below. The tiny country falls out of the globe and begins to grow, and as it grows the little girl invites a wounded soldier to take shelter with her family inside its expanding borders. The soldier soon reveals himself as the pedlar who gave her the ball, and explains that the land is called the Peace Country, a place where no citizen is permitted to fight. The Peace Country continues to expand, absorbing ‘farmers and other quiet people’ as it does so, and soon covers the whole of the ‘old warry country’, pushing its occupants into the ocean where they drown (p. 62). The charcoal burner and his wife are elected king and queen, while their daughter – now a princess – seeks out the soldier to be her husband as a way of sealing the happy ending, only to find that he has ‘disappeared for good’. The trajectory of this narrative is from confinement to liberation, from narrow limits to the removal of all unnecessary borders and constraints, a process orchestrated by a strange man who cannot be restricted to a single role (he is first a pedlar, then a soldier, then one of the ‘quiet people’, then an enigma) or time of life (he fluctuates between old age and youth). It provides a miniature working model – like the glass ball it describes – of a non-militaristic democratic community, whose exemption from the rules of physics and geography aligns it with anarchism. Anarchy here is liberating – just as elsewhere in the collection it is intimidating, allowing the spontaneous dissolution of restraints on the sometimes antisocial behaviour of children, adults and animals, such as rabbits, goats and spiders. The anarchist credentials of the collection are nowhere more evident than in its recognition that anarchy itself can be a force either for mutual support or for untrammeled Hobbesian brutality.
A High Wind in Jamaica pits the anarchy of childhood play against the most anarchic of adult communities, that of pirates. A group of white British children on their way to England from Jamaica – sent ‘home’ to prevent them being transformed into ‘savages’ by the joint influence of the tropics and emancipated Black slaves – gets accidentally abducted by pirates, and the story traces the relationship between these two sets of outlaws, ending with the execution of the entire pirate crew for a murder they did not commit. Innocence, then, is on trial in this narrative, as its original title (The Innocent Voyage) makes quite clear: the innocence of the children, the innocence of the pirates, both of which are problematic. The murder for which the buccaneers are executed was in fact committed by one of the children, but the pirates were certainly responsible for the accidental death of one child, the sexual assault of another, and the rape and attempted murder of a third. At the same time, the pirates are represented as in some ways more responsible and sympathetic in their treatment of the children than the respectable adults who had charge of them on land. Yet both pirates and respectable adults are united in their abhorrent treatment of the girl who is raped. The girl’s chief offence (it seems) is that she is adolescent, and therefore aware of sex and male violence in a way that the younger children are not; so she does not fit neatly into the categories of innocence and experience which govern the Victorian perception of childhood, and thus becomes an outcast both on the pirate ship and in the British society into which she is transplanted from her Caribbean birthplace. In this novel, the notion of innocence and experience, innocence and guilt, savagery and civilization, as simple binaries clearly distinguishable from one another by easily understood signs, is exposed as a pernicious fiction – even a fantasy, in that it cannot be safely applied to the complex business of existing in a stubbornly non-binary world.
Innocence, as a concept, tends to distract its loyal adherents from what is happening under their noses, and like The Spider’s Palace Hughes’s novel is designed to draw attention to the disparity between what’s expected or imagined by conventional minds and what ‘really’ takes place in both adult and childhood settings. The book explores a series of spaces that exist in the interstices between recognized structures or conceptual frameworks – the economy, class, gender, and especially race, as we shall see. Like the story collection it’s full of dwellings that get utterly transformed by the intransigent refusal of things to fit into the preconceived cultural shapes they are meant to occupy. A British house in Jamaica, with the delightfully Home Counties name of Ferndale, is abruptly torn to pieces by a violent hurricane on the same night that a half-tame cat called Tabby is torn to pieces by his wild cat-cousins. A pirate ship gets transformed into an elaborate playground-cum-circus by the children on board, then seamlessly transitions into a murder scene, much as a playground can imaginatively metamorphose into a scene of carnage or a circus into the setting for a horrific accident or a bloody assault by carnivores. The relative size or prominence of different characters in the book changes constantly, as different figures dominate a setting by becoming its focus, then recede into the background – sometimes disappearing entirely, as happens to the child called John when he falls to his death while watching a show and is at once expunged from the memory of his traumatized siblings. The land proves as unstable as the sea, with earthquakes and high winds shaking the ground and demolishing jungles. Victorian society conceives the world in terms of orderly hierarchies, clear divisions, architecturally rigid conceptual containers, all capable of being accommodated within the organized parameters of scientific, legal and philosophical discourses. The book’s world, by contrast – like the world of The Spider’s Palace – is in constant flux, and no philosophers or scientists exist who can make consistent sense of it.
This resistance to philosophical consistency or control is emphasized by the voice of Hughes’s narrator, who fades into and out of focus constantly, refusing ever to take up a stable position in relation to his characters or the events that overtake them. He identifies himself as Victorian in the opening chapter, where he tells us he hasn’t visited the Caribbean since 1860, ‘which is a long time ago now’ (p. 7); his text, then, is well out of date by the time High Wind was published in 1929. The phrase also implies that he is very old, since other comments in the text imply that he is still alive in the 1920s. The world-weary tone he adopts – together with his impatience for conventions he has too often seen flouted – confirms this impression. And his narrative style is torn between the stances of the 1860s and the 1920s. At times he seems to have the unimpeded spatial vision of the Victorian omniscient narrator, telling us exactly what the children’s parents are thinking, what the children are thinking, what the pirates are thinking, even when reporting incidents he could not possibly have had access to: as when John is the only child to catch a glimpse of an amateur operation on a ship’s monkey – an experience he could not possibly have conveyed to the narrator, since he dies a few pages later. At other times the narrator professes perfect ignorance, most often about the motives of the children in his story. He is dismissive of adult attempts to make sense of their actions and words, and freely confesses when he himself cannot explain why they do the opposite of what he might have anticipated. At one point he implies that there is simply ‘no means of knowing’ why children act as they do – why the youngest child Laura, for instance, conceives a passionate affection for the pirate Captain (pp. 99-100) – because adults have not yet learned to understand how a child’s mind works, caught as it is between the nascent consciousness of a human adult and the animal mind of a tiny baby: ‘babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind’ (p. 99). At the end of the novel the narrator withdraws completely from all his characters, becoming a detached observer who makes no claim to special knowledge about any of them, until in the final paragraph he loses sight even of his protagonist, the young girl Emily, professing himself quite unable to read ‘her deeper thoughts’ (p. 169), or even to distinguish her from the other children in the English boarding school where he leaves her. This fading out at the end balances the fading in that takes place at the beginning, where he describes the situation in Jamaica through a series of vignettes – the death of a pair of elderly plantation owners at the hands of former slaves, the gradual disintegration of the plantation buildings – then gradually homes in on the English family, the Bas-Thorntons, which will be his subject in the rest of the novel, as if his verbal picture of them will be just another vignette, or as if they are nothing more to him personally than the decaying buildings of the estate they live on. Overall, then, the narrator’s position is one of sceptical detachment, born from a recognition acquired over a long lifetime that most human ‘terms and categories’ are frankly inadequate as analytical instruments, knocked to pieces by (among other things) the publication of Darwin’s theory of Evolution in 1857, which smashed the biblical boundaries between humans and beasts.
The fluctuating world of the novel, whose terms and categories are always changing in response to changing circumstances, is underpinned by the references to stage performances with which it is filled. Each episode is cast as a piece of theatre: a pantomime (p. 61, p. 65), a peep-show (p. 68), a nativity-play (p. 69), a movie (p. 69), a religious ceremony (p. 122), a melodrama (pp. 23-4), a tragedy (p. 168) or a circus (p. 108). An earthquake witnessed by young Emily early in the novel takes place in a natural arena, a semi-circular bay called Exeter Rocks, and elicits an impromptu performance by the children who witness it: Emily breaks into a dance, John turns ‘head over heels on the damp sand, over and over in an elliptical course, till before he knew it he was in the water’ (p. 18). The attack of the wildcats on Tabby is played out before the children’s horrified eyes like a Roman gladiatorial combat, and Emily seeks to exorcise the horror of it from her mind by another kind of dramatic ‘performance’ (p. 25), retelling the tale of ‘her’ Earthquake to the ‘awed comments’ of an ‘imaginary English audience’. Meanwhile the hurricane destroying the house plays out as a ‘lightning-lit scene’ glimpsed through the ‘gaping frames’ of windows bereft of shutters – a melodrama seen through several proscenium arches. Mrs Thornton seeks to distract her children from it by reciting a poem by Walter Scott, the versified fairy tale The Lady of the Lake (p. 26). In each of these performances, however, the fourth wall of the theatre gets broken down. The children who witness the Earthquake are also in the middle of it, since the arena in which it happens ‘had no outside, it was solid world’ (p.17). The wildcats refuse to confine their murderous hunt for Tabby to the ‘lightning-lit scene’ of the garden, but burst through a skylight above the front door and land in the middle of the dining room table just as the family are settling down to dinner. The storm forces its way into the house, tearing shutters from windows and pictures from walls; while outside fairy tales get murderously enacted on members of the Thornton household, such as the nameless Black servant, a ‘fat old beldam’, who gets ‘blown clean away’ by the mounting wind, ‘bowling across fields and hedgerows like some one in a funny fairy-story, till she fetched up against a wall and was pinned there, unable to move’ (p. 26). We never find out if the ‘beldam’ survived being bowled like this, though we do know that another servant, Old Sam, has been killed by lightning, since his dead body is brought into the house by Mr Thornton. As the white man carries it in, the Black corpse becomes yet another spectacle; the children examine it in fascination, entranced by the old man’s limpness in death as compared with the arthritic stiffness of his limbs when he was alive. Like a circus audience they are ‘thrilled beyond measure’ by the unusual behaviour of his arms and legs (p. 24), and have no sense of him as a person whose life has just ended. By this time in their adventures, in fact, the distinction between performance and reality has fallen apart, with lethal consequences. And as the book goes on, those consequences get increasingly visited on the children.
The pirate schooner places the children at the centre of the performances rather than largely outside them. It makes them performers rather than spectators, in other words; and by the time this happens we should perhaps be conscious of the implications of this transition, since several performers – possibly the beldam, certainly Sam, the unfortunate Tabby and a sick ship’s monkey on the ship to England – have already been killed in shows like the ones the children now take part in. The schooner itself is a kind of performer, since it repeatedly masquerades as something it is not: an ordinary passenger ship full of attractive women, for instance, which is the pose it takes when it attacks the Clorinda, the ship that is carrying the children home; or a merchant ship called the Lizzie Green of Bristol, which is the guise it adopts when approaching a British steamship with the aim of persuading its reluctant captain to take the children off the pirates’ hands. And the captains of the vessels attacked by the schooner help to enhance its theatrical qualities. The pirates’ ship carries no guns, but the captains whose cargoes it purloins tend to reinvent it as a full-scale warship, capable of opening ‘ten or twelve disguised gun-ports’ and thereby unmasking ‘a whole broadside of artillery trained upon us’, as the master of the Clorinda puts it in his report to the children’s parents (p. 39). The behaviour of the pirates is also transformed in the report into the kind of casual brutality expected of marauders. The master asserts that they have murdered all the children in cold blood, and that he watched it happen; and this tendency to turn them into pantomime villains proves ultimately fatal to them in the arena of the courtroom.
Meanwhile the ship’s potential as a circus is first discovered by Emily’s brother John, who writes in a letter to his parents that he can ‘hang from the ratlines by my heels which the sailors say is very brave’ (p. 37). Later in the book he is killed by falling on his head from a height of forty feet, in the process neatly demonstrating the danger involved in hanging upside-down from the ratlines. John is an inveterate seeker after thrilling spectacles to witness as well as take part in: the operation on the gangrenous tail of the Clorinda’s monkey, for instance, which involves sailors plying the beast with rum until it’s so drunk it falls on its head and breaks its neck, in eerie anticipation of John’s demise; or the nativity play put on by a priest in the pirate town of Santa Lucia, which John also manages to be the only child to witness, burrowing through an excited crowd to reach his vantage point – then inadvertently completing the spectacle himself with his fatal dive. In between, John takes part in a spectacle mounted by the pirates when they auction off the goods taken from the Clorinda (he is the child who weighs the coffee offered for sale). This show begins as a ‘pantomime’ performed by the haughty Spanish-speaking dignitaries who come to view the goods on offer (p. 61), and the children are delighted when the mate of the schooner, Otto, decks them out in ‘fancy dress’ to join the performance (p. 63). But things later get unnerving as the adult actors consume a potent cocktail mixed by the pirate captain, Jonsen, until eventually there is ‘something a little nightmare-like in the whole scene’ (p. 67), and the children retreat from the drunken mob to the relative safety of the ship’s hold. In this incident the distinction between theatre and auditorium, performer and spectator blurs again, pointing the way to John’s terminal performance as actor-spectator. Later still, a circus spectacle completes the disintegration of the distinction between theatre and life, play and earnest. The pirates seize control of a ship full of circus animals and try to goad a couple of big cats into a fight for the children’s amusement. Eventually a tiger loses patience with Otto’s goading, and ‘Quicker than eye could see, it had cuffed him, rending half his face’ (p. 110). The first mate survives, none the worse for his ‘rending’; but the last performance he takes part in – the pirates’ trial for kidnapping, robbery and murder, avidly watched by the British public and the press – ends more drastically, largely as a result of a child’s dramatic departure from the prepared script she has been assigned, a spontaneous transition from an act of theatre to the articulation of inward trauma.
Each of these dramatic episodes summons up visions of the death of Tabby on the night when the high wind struck, a performance that ended in bloodshed and that reshaped Emily’s understanding of the world she lived in. As the book goes on, Emily finds herself increasingly conscious of her own affinity with poor Tabby: only half tamed, but deeply vulnerable to far wilder and more lethal forces than the ones she embodies. Her response is to defend herself by any means at her disposal, from telling herself stories to committing murder. One of the modern fairy tales in The Spider’s Palace provides an analogy for the various shifts she undergoes between passive audience and dynamic actor. It concerns a man with a bright green face who works in a circus and is horribly bullied by the circus owner, and who later teams up with a performing elephant and an engine driver to exact revenge. The story ends with the circus owner being magically transformed into a weird giraffe with the face of a man, then displayed to paying customers by his former victims, including the titular ‘Man with a Green Face’. ‘Everybody came to see him’, Hughes concludes,
and paid [a] whole shilling each; and they kept him in a cage. There were soon so many shillings that the man with the green face and the elephant and the engine driver got very rich indeed, and were ever so happy. (p. 45)
But the ending is not so happy, perhaps, for some of its readers. After all, it leaves them pretty much where it found them: in a world where performers are forced to take part in shows and where the happiness of one person is always obtained at the expense of another. A rich man with a green face who owns a slave is an authentic monster; conversely, a one-time bully trapped in a cage can be seen as a victim; and the grotesque institution of the circus freak show remains untouched by Hughes’s narrative, its function as a vehicle for justice hardly detracting from its nastiness or from the nastiness of the world that lets it exist. It’s a similar world to the one in which Emily finds herself, even if the physical laws that govern it – where some men have green faces and others can be turned into giraffes with human heads – seem very different.
At the end of the book, Emily herself becomes a performance, a stage show suffused with all the strangeness such shows can encompass. Her testimony is essential to the pirates’ wrongful conviction for murder, and she delivers much of it in the eerie sing-song tones of an amateur actor. But when she departs from the script written out for her by her lawyer she releases the dramatic potential that has been in her since her rescue. Her father sees this potential clearly before the trial; he thinks of her as ‘the stage of a great tragedy’ (the analogy coming naturally to him, since he works as a theatre critic), and while he pities her for what she has endured he would not have missed her performance in court ‘on any account’ (p. 168). Of course, actors in tragedies are never really the victims or perpetrators of the events they act out on stage, so the analogy does not in fact work for Emily. Her father is superimposing the tragedy on her body, so to speak, like a director organizing actors ahead of a show, or a puppet master investing his dolls with life. And when Emily departs from her script at the pirates’ trial, the audience – including her father – reads into her broken shrieks of horror (‘He was all lying in his blood… he was awful! He… he died, he said something and then he died’, p. 171) the hackneyed story they have in their heads: the pirates’ murderousness, the girl’s abuse, the children’s courage, all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama. At the same time, like that of an actor Emily’s mind remains impenetrable to them despite her outburst, and their assumptions based on her shrieks are quite mistaken. The narrator knows this, and the father suspects it, half conscious that his view of her as tragic is no more than a symptom of his own ‘fantastic mind’ (p. 170). His knowledge that he has no real access to her thoughts and memories comes into focus when he admits, ‘with a sudden painful shock’, that he is in fact ‘afraid of her’ (p. 170). As a child subjected to experiences adults neither expect a child to suffer nor can really imagine her suffering, she poses a threat to the adult view of the world itself; and the theatrical metaphor can be seen as exposing the radical break between the way she acts and the way she thinks, or feels, or remembers, as well as the fantastic nature of most adult assumptions – about children, about pirates, or about the orderly, ethical, tranquil lives they themselves lead.
The relationship between A High Wind in Jamaica and fantasy is in fact a close one. Fairy tales intrude on the narrative several times. We’ve already witnessed Scott’s fairytale poem TheLady of the Lake play a crucial role in distracting the children from the hurricane. On another occasion the cross-dressing Cuban men who help the buccaneers fool the crew of the Clorinda into letting them on board are referred to as ‘Fairies’ (p. 59), rendering them strange as well as lovely in the children’s eyes. Later still, Emily is wandering around the pirate ship ‘thinking vaguely about some bees and a fairy queen’ (p. 85) when she is suddenly struck by a recognition of her own identity as a separate person, a distinct individual; after which she at once returns to the bees and the fairy queen, perhaps with a new awareness of the relationship between the hive’s lonely leader (also a queen) and her many subjects. At various points in the narrative the children tell themselves and one another fantastic stories to divert their attention from things they can’t cope with. At other times their occasional outbursts of random behaviour take on all the traits of a nonsense narrative, like Alice in Wonderland or Edward Lear’s extraordinary Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World; and this randomness reflects their refusal on many occasions to acknowledge the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and their consequences – at least until the moment when Emily’s newly-acquired self-consciousness begins to change her attitude. Even then, however, she remains an enigma, like the stranger with the glass ball in The Spider’s Palace. A young woman on the steamship tries to get to know her, but when she dubs her a ‘Little Fairy-girl’ (p. 154) it’s not so much a piece of affectionate whimsy as an oblique acknowledgment of her oddness, the impenetrability of her mind, the possibility, even, that she is some sort of changeling, her conventional girl-nature switched on the pirate ship for something less comforting, less apparently familiar.
The strongest link in the book with fantasy, not surprisingly, is with a story that started out as a theatrical performance: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Hughes’s narrator shares with Barrie’s narrator in the novel of the play, Peter and Wendy, a willingness to shatter myths of childhood; and Barrie’s protagonist, Peter Pan, has a lot in common with the Thornton children. Peter is always forgetting things as he transfers his attention to new interests, and sometimes his forgetfulness is almost fatal to other people – as when he is flying with the Darlings on the long journey to the Neverland and keeps disappearing to take part in other adventures, leaving his inexperienced companions literally hanging in mid-air. In the same way, Hughes’s children are always changing tack, both imaginatively and physically, and their forgetfulness is sometimes fatal: not so much when they forget about John after his death as when they forget, or even consciously set aside, the pirates’ instructions not to say anything to the passengers on the steamship about their abduction. Peter’s delight in killing is transferred to Hughes’s Edward, who is constantly enacting in his mind far bloodier adventures than those of the buccaneers among whom he lives. The Darling children and the Lost Boys, meanwhile, are always changing affiliations and swapping roles in their games on Peter’s island – becoming pirates, Indians, or feral children as the mood takes them; and Hughes’s children too are always discarding and resuming loyalties, as when Emily spontaneously decides that all men and boys are disgusting – which makes her confidentially inform her new female friend aboard the steamship about the abduction – or when Edward stops describing his adventures on the pirate ship as if he were one of the pirates and instead starts to tell them as if he had heroically resisted his abductors. There are major differences, meanwhile, between Hughes’s Emily and Barrie’s Wendy. Wendy is cloyingly maternal, and this quality is transferred in A High Wind to one of Emily’s younger siblings, Rachel, who is always making babies out of random objects, and whose motherly instincts very nearly kill her older sister, when she accidentally drops a heavy spike she has been nursing and it slashes through Emily’s calf as it falls to the deck (in the process producing useful evidence of the pirates’ brutality for the trial). Emily, by contrast, likes to imagine herself as a pirate, though she is increasingly concerned that this career path may be closed to her because of her sex (p. 117). She also gets increasingly concerned that real-life pirates are much less easily contained than the pirates of her dreams – something that gets driven home to her when Captain Jonsen, in a drunken haze, tries to assault her, prompting her to bite his thumb and make her escape, like Peter Pan evading Hook (though in Barrie’s book it is Hook who bites Peter Pan, p. 150). The discrepancies between Emily’s imaginings and the cold hard facts of the adult world align her with Peter, too, in her mounting resistance to maturation: ‘Why must she grow up?’ she asks herself, ‘Why couldn’t she leave her life always in other people’s keeping, to order as if it was no concern of hers?’ (p. 118). Admittedly, Peter is deeply opposed to being ‘ordered’, but so too is Emily, as it turns out. Her resistance to adult control is what finally kills the pirates, just as Peter’s tendency to resist any limitations placed on his pleasure in violent play ends up by destroying Captain Hook, whose status as the villain of the piece means he can never, in Peter’s world, be granted mercy.
The grown-up characters in Hughes’s novel, meanwhile, both pay homage to and mock the adult characters in Barrie’s narrative. In Peter and Wendy, Mrs Darling has an almost supernatural insight into her children’s minds, to the extent that she can even tidy up their mental landscapes after putting them to bed (pp. 72-3). Mrs Bas-Thornton, on the other hand, is constantly making wrong assumptions about her children; in fact she is ‘constitutionally incapable of telling one end of a child from the other’ (p. 30), the narrator claims. She is certain the children idolize her, when in fact they feel much closer to the doomed cat, Tabby. When parting with her offspring on the ship bound for England she is convinced that her eldest son is too full of grief to say goodbye: compared with his sister Emily, she tells her husband, ‘John is so much the more sensitive’, since he is clearly ‘too full to speak’ (p. 37) at the point of parting. The narrator, meanwhile, has already told us that John’s silence stems from his eagerness to get away and climb the rigging. Mr Bas-Thornton, meanwhile, is very much like Mr Darling, not least in his poor head for business. Mr Darling spends long hours trying to calculate whether he and his wife can afford to have children, but his conclusions have little bearing on the final decision (pp. 70-71); while Mr Bas-Thornton has ‘every accomplishment, except two: that of primogeniture, and that of making a living’ (p. 30). Like Mr Darling he feels a great deal but cannot express his emotions freely without compromising his manhood, which means that both men are always breaking out in fits of temper and making sarcastic comments, sometimes to their own embarrassment and chagrin. Hughes’s pirates, meanwhile, are promiscuously constructed from Barrie’s crew of assorted misfits. Captain Jonsen is an amalgam of Captain Hook and his shipmates; like the mild-mannered bosun Smee he is genial but dangerous, shuffling around in home-made slippers wringing his hands and whimpering a little at times of crisis (p. 66), but capable too of a drunken assault on a ten-year-old girl – just as Smee is capable of tying up Wendy while insisting he will release her if she promises to be his mother. Jonsen’s appearance has the grotesqueness of the rest of Hook’s associates, with a ‘sad, silly face, […] great spreading feet’ and a perpetual stoop, ‘as if always afraid of banging his head on something’ (p. 47). Most distinctive of all, he carries ‘the backs of his hands forward, like an orang-outang’, which recalls Hook’s shipmate Noodler, whose hands are ‘fixed on backwards’ (p. 114). Jonsen is full of cunning stratagems, like Hook himself, and like Hook’s they all go wrong, most spectacularly his plan to return the children to their parents without revealing his complicity in their abduction. Like Hook, again, his origins are respectable – he has served on English vessels and acquired the language before quietly drifting into illegal habits. As with Hook, conventions plague him and can be said to be his downfall; Hook becomes convinced at Eton that he can never possess gentlemanly ‘good form’ or even understand what it is (pp. 188-9), while Jonsen is killed, in effect, by the myth that pirates behave less like gentlemen than legitimate sailors, as represented by the master of the Clorinda, whose report on the children’s abduction is a tissue of lies from start to finish.
Jonsen could even be said to be plagued by a crocodile. The Bas-Thornton children are fascinated by reptiles: Emily collects lizards in Jamaica, and when she and her siblings arrive at port to board the Clorinda they hear that crocodiles have been sighted in the vicinity, and keep peering around the town in the hope of spotting one (p. 33). Much later, when taken on board the English steamship, Emily borrows a baby alligator from a boy named Harold. The alligator’s baby teeth are harmless, but it snaps at Emily’s finger just as she snapped at Jonsen’s, and when the pair of them stare at one another the narrator stresses the resemblance between beast and child, and the reptilian inscrutability of both:
What possible meaning could Emily find in such an eye? Yet she lay there, and stared, and stared: and the alligator stared too. If there had been an observer it might have given him a shiver to see them so – well, eye to eye like that. (p. 146).
Alligators, the narrator concludes, are ‘utterly untameable’ (p. 147), and so are young children. Barrie implies something similar in the famous last sentence of Peter and Wendy: Peter’s adventures will go on, he tells us, for ever, ‘as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless’ (p. 226). Emily’s fascination with the predatory reptile suggests that she shares its untameable heartlessness at some level; and although she does grow up, unlike Peter Pan, the radical difference she exemplifies between adults and children – Hughes seems to suggest – will always remain. Which is not a promising prospect for adults or children.
Peter Pan is now recognized as a racist text, its hackneyed view of native Americans reaffirming the myths that sought to justify their oppression and erasure from history. High Wind, too, has racism at its core. The book’s central characters – a group of white British children – have imbibed racist assumptions from their infancy, and underpinning all their adventures is the contempt they have been taught to feel for Black Jamaicans. At the same time, as the book goes on they become increasingly identified with the African victims of the slave trade as well as its perpetrators. Violent episodes in the book point up the status of violence as the unacknowledged founding principle of the country that shaped them, and Hughes implies that this same violence continues to drive the British imperial machine decades after the purported ending of the slave trade. As the children mature – in particular the older girls, the teenager Margaret and ten-year-old Emily – their awareness of this fact increases, and they find themselves caught up in the cycle of violence and oppression, feeling it in and on their bodies just as Emily felt the Earthquake in her ears (‘a strange, rushing sound’, p. 17), her lungs (‘the children held their breath’, p. 18), her nervous system (‘things vibrated slightly’, p. 18) and her belly (afterwards Emily felt ‘like a child who has eaten too much even to be sick’, p. 21). The girls internalize British racism and imperialist violence in the course of the book, carrying it forward with them into adulthood, just as the heritage of Victorian colonialism gets carried forward into the time of the book’s composition, the second decade of the twentieth century.
The opening of the novel drifts across the landscape of Jamaica, noting the impact of emancipation on its geography (‘ruined slaves’ quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, ruined boiling houses’, p. 5) and its inhabitants (the narrator tells about the elderly white sisters, the old Miss Parkers, who were starved to death or possibly poisoned by their ‘three remaining faithful servants’, p. 5). Later, Black Jamaicans do their best to educate the Bas-Thornton children in aspects of African culture. Old Sam teaches them how to set snares for birds and tells them stories about the trickster-spider Anansi, which Emily remembers vividly later. The kids find out about duppies – vengeful spirits of the dead – a concept which they initially deride as a silly superstition, but which later returns to haunt them after the murder of the Dutch captain. On her tenth birthday Emily discovers a lost community of former slaves hidden in the jungle near her home. An elderly ex-slave tells her the history of the community, giving its name as Liberty Hill – a beacon of hope in a time of British tyranny; but Emily is interested only in the worship offered her by the community’s children, or what she takes as worship, though the narrator assures us they are not so much worshipping as vastly curious. Emily returns from this adventure confirmed in her conviction of her own importance: ‘Her heart bubbled up, she swelled with glory: and taking leave with the greatest condescension she trod all the long way home on veritable air’ (p. 13). The attitude that ranks Black families below white families and their pets is reflected in the Bas-Thornton children’s response to the deaths of several Black servants in the hurricane. The woman who gets blown away is merely comic, and even the death of Sam dwindles to nothing compared with the death of Tabby: as the narrator sums up, ‘there is, after all, a vast difference between a negro and a favourite cat’ (p. 29). The hurricane episode, in other words, underscores the endemic racism of the climate in which the children grew up, and sets itself against the sentimental vision of the relationship between Black adults and white children in a post-slavery setting in the hugely popular Uncle Remus books, which were still being read in vast numbers by British children between the wars.
As the book goes on, however, the children’s racism gets turned against them, much as the wild cats turn against Tabby, their half-tame relative – or as the children turn against the pirates in the final chapter. The process begins when the Bas-Thornton children are sent to meet another white family on the island, whose name – Fernandez – marks them out as not ‘purely’ Anglo-Saxon. The Fernandez family are Creoles, defined by the narrator as white families who have lived in the West Indies ‘for more than one generation’ (p. 13). They have been somehow contaminated by their long stay, the Bas-Thorntons believe: the children ‘would often run about barefoot like negroes’, and they have a governess ‘whose blood was possibly not pure’ as well as a ‘brown nurse’. The Fernandez child who most clearly suffers from the racist attitudes of the Thorntons is the girl Margaret, who at thirteen is three years older than Emily, and three years more knowledgeable, both about Jamaica and about the changing female body. Emily’s jealous contempt for this older girl is obvious from the moment they meet, when she is disgusted by Margaret’s finely-tuned sense of smell – another piece of evidence, as far as she is concerned, for her suspected racial ‘impurity’. Margaret can tell by smell that there is going to be an earthquake, and when the earthquake duly strikes shows little recognition of its massive impact on Emily’s feelings. Emily frames the older girl’s familiarity with earthquakes as a racialized sign of obtuseness: ‘How funny Creoles were! They didn’t seem to realize the difference it made to a person’s whole after-life to have been in an Earthquake’ (p. 20). She later associates it with Margaret’s ability to tell by smell which item in the family’s washing belongs to which family member. Ironically, Emily shares this ability – she can tell by smell, for instance, which towel belongs to her and which belongs to her older brother; but she doesn’t articulate such matters, and in her view ‘it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way’ (p. 19). Clearly the distinctions between the Bas-Thorntons and the Fernandez children are both minimal and vastly exaggerated by the British immigrants, in the interests of confirming their own sense of their superior position in Jamaica; a position which has been threatened both by the end of slavery and by their own financial precariousness, their uncertain position as middle-class landowners in a land that refuses to submit to their incompetent efforts to control it.
The racist perception of Margaret gets intensified on the pirate ship, where her Creole identity becomes mixed up in Emily’s mind with the older girl’s awareness of sex, and above all with her fear of rape. Non-Creole white people, Emily claimed, do not talk about bodily functions, and not talking becomes a prominent feature of the children’s life among the buccaneers – a way of imaginatively protecting themselves from danger by not mentioning it: not talking about a child’s death, not talking about sex, not talking too directly about the fact that the sailors on board might possibly be pirates (Emily tells the younger children they are in fact pilots, though she has only the vaguest notion of a pilot’s function). Margaret, by contrast, has the fear of rape in mind from the moment she sets foot on Captain Jonsen’s schooner. The girl’s awareness of erotic desire and its economics first emerges on the Clorinda when she notes the handsome appearance of Mr Bas-Thornton – come on board to see his children off – as well as his lack of money. When the children get transferred to the schooner, she is the only one aware of the sexual threat posed by their piratical captors. She sobs in the darkness of the fore-hold, and tells the others they are ‘too young to know’ why she is upset (p. 57) – but again not talking prevents her from stating exactly what they are too young to know. Later still, when the inebriated Captain Jonsen confirms her fears by entering the children’s quarters with rape in mind, Margaret alone has any inkling of what is going on. She turns as ‘yellow as cheese’ (as if to confirm her ‘racial difference’ from the other children), her eyes grow ‘large with terror’, and at that moment Emily remembers ‘how stupidly frightened Margaret had been the very first night on the schooner’ (p. 90). Afterwards, Emily finds her behaviour even more puzzling, as the older girl first seems ‘exaggeratedly frightened of all the men’, then takes to following them around like an affectionate dog, especially Otto, the first mate. She soon transfers all her possessions to the cabin Otto shares with Captain Jonsen, and from this moment her fate is sealed. She is no longer a ‘child’, and so no longer protected (however precariously) by the social obligation to support the weakest in the community. But she is also still somehow a child who has been ‘spoiled’ or rendered ‘impure’ by her sexual awareness. From this point in the book she ceases, in effect, to be part of the conversation between the pirates and the children. She loses her voice, both literally – in that she very seldom speaks – and symbolically – in that the pirates and later the law-abiding British rescuers of the children cease to listen to her. To save herself from rape she has ‘submitted’ to rape, thus ceasing to be ‘innocent’ in the eyes of the patriarchy, becoming instead invisible and inaudible, like a ghost; and nothing she says or does can restore her innocence.
This is largely a result of the consensual silence around what has happened to Margaret – that is, around the fact that she has now become Otto’s sexual partner or slave. The pirates never mention it, and neither do the children’s rescuers on the steamship, while both adult communities make it perfectly clear that they are always picturing for themselves the sordid details of this ‘debauchment’ – while always presuming that it was in some sense a willing act, that Margaret somehow ‘debauched’ or spoiled herself. Silence is also, of course, a widely practised response to the slave trade after abolition, a means of erasing all evidence of slavery from a country’s past in the interests of absolving its citizens from guilt: whether the silence of misnaming, such as describing the former slaves of the old white ladies who starved to death as ‘faithful servants’ (p. 5), or the silence of concealment, like the hiding of Liberty Hill in the heart of the jungle, or the silence of oblivion, like the silence that sidelines Sam from the children’s memories in favour of Tabby. The event that leads to the silencing of Margaret – Jonsen’s assault on Emily – is effectively described as if it, too, had been erased from history. The only episode in the novel that’s narrated in retrospect, out of its proper chronological position in the sequence of events that befall the Bas-Thornton children, it is placed immediately after the moment when Emily becomes self-conscious for the first time, as though her discovery of her independent mind and body were a direct result of the attack. The dawn of Emily’s self-awareness takes place at the beginning of Chapter 6 – pretty much in the middle of the novel – and is described as being ‘of considerable importance’ to her, occurring as it does after a period of time when things have apparently ‘ceased happening’, when Emily and the other children have simply ‘settled down […] to grow’. Only after gaining self-awareness does Emily recall the other event that happened recently, an event that an adult reader might well expect to have greater ‘importance’ in her mind, but which she has evidently suppressed. This is the moment, one week earlier, when the pirate Captain she worshipped betrayed her by coming down into the fore-hold and laying hands on her, lifting her chin and stroking her hair. That was when she bit him and made her escape, after which the other children refused to speak to her for several days, horrified by her unwarranted assault on their grown-up friend. Emily’s period of being sent to Coventry is only temporary, unlike Margaret’s; her ignorance of exactly what happened, of what the threat was to which she reacted, allows her to reintegrate herself quite quickly among her ignorant siblings. But it’s also the point in the book when she comes closest in her mind to the status of the slaves from whom she has been taught to consider herself entirely distinct – comes closest, in fact, to the historical facts that have been jettisoned by the culture that raised her.
The reason for Emily’s closer approach to the experience of slavery is the ongoing threat of violence exposed by Jonsen’s attack. The event in the fore-hold redefines the Captain in Emily’s mind as a deadly feral cat, a ‘waiting tiger’ rather than the bumbling be-slippered father-figure she has always thought him. In the process it reveals the endemic aggression that underpins not only the pirate’s trade but the wider culture inhabited by children, especially girls. As we’ve seen, Margaret was already aware of the presence of this aggression before the attack took place; and the teenager expresses this awareness in the tales she tells. Asked by the younger children for a story at bedtime, she conjures up a narrative more like a nightmare than a fairy tale,
A very stupid story about a princess who had lots and lots of clothes and was always beating her servant for making mistakes and shutting him up in a dark cupboard. The whole story, really had been nothing but clothes and beating, and Rachel had begged her to stop (p. 89).
‘Stupid’ though it may be, the tale proves prophetic. The attractive protagonist of fairy tale tradition, the princess, becomes a tyrant in it, and in the middle of the narrative the kindly Captain comes down the ladder with some other sailors, who are urging him to do something that fills his voice with ‘suppressed excitement’ – urging him, that is, to act the tyrant himself. Emily’s swift and violent response puts a stop to his actions; but all the same her world is turned upside down, her fairy tale existence transformed into something closer to Margaret’s house of horrors or the unpredictable tales of The Spider’s Palace. Biting the Captain makes her a ‘wicked girl’, one of her younger sisters tells her (p. 90) – though something tells Emily that the Captain too had been doing something ‘wicked’, which makes her own behaviour harder to judge. But the incident also changes the Captain’s attitude to Emily. The bite doesn’t lead to punishment or retribution; instead it fills Jonsen with remorse, so that for a long time – between his shame and Emily’s embarrassment – they cannot resume anything approaching friendly relations. The episode changes Margaret too, as we’ve seen – she becomes Otto’s silent, unacknowledged sexual partner; and about a week later it seems to effect a change in Emily herself. Part of her discovery of her own identity involves a new interest in her body: ‘The contact of her face and the warm bare hollow of her shoulder gave her a comfortable thrill, as if it were the caress of some kind friend’ (p. 86). The ‘thrill’ may seem ‘comfortable’ to her, but there’s an uncomfortable echo here, too, of Jonsen’s predatory touch in the fore-hold, which might also be described as the ‘caress of some kind friend’. Shortly afterwards, Emily’s awareness that she can decide things for herself without recourse to adult authority leads her to speculate that she might in fact be a kind of God. But the discovery of independence also brings fear. If her body is no longer organically connected to its surroundings – which can carry on without her when she is absent, as the life of the ship carries on without her when she’s aloft in the rigging – then when she comes down from the mast there might be ‘disasters’ waiting for her on deck, perhaps at the hands of stronger bodies like those of Otto and the Captain (p. 87). Being distinct from the other children makes her noticeable, and being noticeable puts her at risk; and when the narrator goes on to describe the attack in the fore-hold, we can see what has made her think so.
A little after the account of the attack, we learn how Emily now remembers her time in Jamaica. Suddenly the story of her life has become a sequence of connected events that provides a scenario for vivid nightmares. She recalls the Earthquake, and suddenly thinks it may have contributed to the collapse of the house at Ferndale. She recalls her visit to Liberty Hill ‘with a startling clearness’ (p. 95); but she also remembers the death of Tabby at the teeth and claws of his monstrous relatives. In her dreams, the wild cats become embodiments of the deep-seated fear of slaves experienced by slave-owners: they are ‘horrible black shapes’ which have ‘flown in through the fanlight and savaged [the tame cat] out into the bush’ (p. 95). Also in her dreams Tabby turns into Jonsen, staring at her ‘with the same horrible look on his face the captain had worn that time she bit his thumb’. Margaret, meanwhile, completes her transformation into the Black Jamaican she has always been associated with in the Bas-Thornton children’s minds. As Emily flees from Tabby down endless avenues of soaring cabbage-palms, ‘Margaret sat up an orange tree jeering at her, gone as black as a negro’. By this stage in her dream-life, the Captain’s attack has become for Emily a reenactment of the horrors of the British slave trade, with Emily the representative white girl against whom the former slaves seek retribution. Jonsen’s assault, then, leads not just to Emily’s self-recognition as an independent person but to a faint apprehension on her part of British atrocities in Jamaica; atrocities with which she has aligned herself by her treatment of Margaret.
As a result, Emily sees herself as both complicit with and potentially subject to the treatment she has always seen meted out to Black people in Jamaica. Her new sense of vulnerability gets confirmed when her leg is injured by a falling spike, accidentally dropped from the mast by her sister Rachel; and this in turn leads to her confinement in the ‘comfortable’ yet disturbing setting of the captain’s cabin. The cabin also happens to be the scene of Margaret’s rape, and hence the indirect cause of the older girl’s silencing and the mood of the crew that has turned against her ever since. This change of mood is exemplified when Jonsen carries the injured Emily into the cabin and snarls at the teenager ‘Get out!’ in a ‘low, brutal voice’ (p. 104). Margaret is mending clothes at the time, ‘humming softly and feeling deadly ill’, but the men show no interest in her illness, and when she disappears from the room the narrator can only proclaim his ignorance of her fate: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] had been banished into’ (p. 105). This erasure of her experiences again aligns the teenager with the victims of the slave trade, and Margaret’s unwilling demonstration of what happens to a girl when she reaches puberty has already been preying on Emily’s unconscious. Then, soon after the younger girl’s instalment in the cabin, something happens that brings her fear of becoming a second Margaret to a crisis. The Dutch captain of a ship seized by the pirates is trussed up and left alone in the room with Emily, while the pirates set up a circus show on the captured vessel. The Dutchman is bound and helpless, but he resembles Jonsen to some extent – as a nautical ship’s master who is both funny and frightening in equal measure; and the fact that he’s a prisoner makes him somehow more of a threat than if he were free: ‘There is something much more frightening’, the narrator suggests, ‘about a man who is tied up than a man who is not tied up – I suppose it is the fear he might get loose’. A slave owner might well agree. Emily’s terror of the struggling captive contrasts with the pleasant feeling of power she felt as she approached the hidden Black community, Liberty Hill, on the day she turned ten. Entering the village behind a crowd of fleeing children, she felt ‘Encouraged by the comfortable feeling of inspiring fright’ (p. 12). In the cabin, by contrast, she herself is frightened, aware that the man on the floor may break his bonds, and that if he does he may prove as vindictive as Margaret was in her dream, as well as too strong for Emily to resist, even with her teeth. The scene becomes another ‘nightmare’ (p. 109), and Emily reacts for a second time with a burst of violence. Leaping from her bunk, she seizes a knife and stabs the captain ‘in a dozen places’ (p. 110). He dies under the horrified gazes of Emily and Margaret, who appears at this moment in the entrance to the room with her ‘dulled eyes staring out from her […] skull-like face’ (p. 111). Emily leaps back into bed and faints at once from the pain of her newly-opened wound. And soon afterwards it becomes clear that other old wounds have been newly opened by the murder: the wounds inflicted by the British slave trade.
The murder in the cabin, after all, has been the outcome of several forms of entrapment or bondage. In it, Emily is trapped in her bed by her injured leg, as well as by the subliminal fear of men that was planted in her by Jonsen’s betrayal. The Dutch captain is trapped on the floor by the ropes that bind him. Margaret is trapped in her role as the despised outsider, hovering in the entrance to the cabin, neither inside the room nor outside it, symbolically replicating her exclusion from both communities on the schooner – the adult community and that of the children. Emily’s violence, then, could be seen as springing from two causes: a desire to free herself from entrapment – entrapment by fear, entrapment by the risk of becoming Margaret – and a desire to stop the man she kills from gaining his freedom. Instead it entraps the pirates, who are doomed by it to atone with their lives for the crimes of the slave-trade, while also trapping Emily herself in the nightmare prison of her guilt.
Meanwhile, the two girls both suffer a further descent towards the condition of enslaved Black Africans in the earlier part of the Nineteenth Century. When the pirates discover Margaret at the scene of the murder, they assume at once that she is the murderer and toss her overboard in a fit of retribution, fear and disgust. The girl is only rescued by sheer chance when a passing boat, full of pirates who aren’t aware of the murder, finds her swimming in the ocean and returns her to the schooner, physically unharmed but emotionally traumatized. The episode recalls a number of notorious incidents in the history of the British slave trade, most notably the murder of more than 130 Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in 1781, who threw them overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. After this, Margaret’s own erasure from history is complete, as adults increasingly assume (without much evidence) that she has been driven mad by her ordeal, and hence an unsafe witness of what happened on the schooner. Emily, meanwhile, takes refuge in telling stories as a means of blotting out the memory of murder; and the tales she tells are the ones she learned from Sam, the Black servant who died in the hurricane. ‘She could recall the Anansi stories Old Sam had told her,’ the narrator informs us, ‘and they often proved the point of departure for new ones of her own’ (p. 115). She recalls, too, the stories of duppies or vengeful spirits which she and her siblings had mocked when they first heard them in Jamaica. Her experience of violence makes the stories suddenly convincing, and she even catches herself ‘wondering what the Dutchman’s duppy would look like, all bloody, with its head turned backwards on its shoulders and clanking a chain’ (p. 115). But this kind of tale is of course less comforting than the trickster stories of Anansi, and she swiftly replaces them with an imperialist fairy tale in which she sits ‘on a golden throne in the remotest East’, as if in an Orientalist revision of the Thousand and One Nights. The narrator even refers to the Arabic classic, using it as an analogy for the endless stories the young girl conjures up in her bid to stave off nightmares (p. 114). But although the notion of occupying a throne may be pleasurable – a welcome return to the state of power she imagined for herself on her return from Liberty Hill – the situation of the storyteller Scheherazade is not so attractive, given that she told her tales as a means to stave off death. Emily’s nightmares accordingly come back with increasing frequency, and she responds by retreating from any kind of power, whether monarchic or simply adult, instead taking refuge in early childhood to the extent that any stranger who met her would have considered her, the narrator observes, ‘rather young for her age’ (p. 119). Despite this apparent immaturity, she is disturbing to Jonsen and Otto. She sings and shouts too loudly and too often, ‘like a larger, fiercer lark’ (p. 119), and the effect is presumably less like Shelleyan strains of unpremeditated art than the noise of a second madwoman on the schooner.
Jonsen’s disturbance at the girl’s behaviour may be partly at least the effect of guilt. Of course he is guilty of the attempted assault in the hold; but at other times, too, his actions bring him close to the caricature of the pirate captain from which he so assiduously seeks to dissociate himself. In one incident, soon after the murder, Captain Jonsen chases Emily’s younger brother Edward round the ship’s deck with an iron belaying-pin in hand, and is only prevented from doing him a fatal mischief by an unexpected display on the part of Edward’s sister Rachel (p. 122). Later, Jonsen tells Otto as a joke that he plans to murder all the children and drop them overboard (‘sew them up in little bags […] and put them over the side’, p. 137); and though he is chuckling as he says it, Otto half believes him, an assumption presumably based on the time when he and Jonsen threw the unfortunate Margaret into the sea. And all the time Jonsen harbours a terrible secret that gets mentioned only once, and with studied casualness, by the narrator. The pirate captain, it turns out, has first-hand experience of working on a slave ship – an illegal one, which was still shipping slaves after abolition. The sighting of a frigate recalls this time to his memory with sudden vividness: ‘He remembered another occasion, fifteen years before. The slaver of which he was then second mate was bowling along, the hatches down across her stinking cargo, all canvas spread, when right across the glittering path of the moon a frigate crossed, almost within gun-shot’ (p. 131). On that occasion the ship’s ‘stinking cargo’ had been men, women and children on their way from Africa to the Caribbean; this time it is abducted white children from Jamaica. Like the slaves, the children are stowed away in a hold as ‘hot as an oven’; and later in the book, when for reasons of his own the Captain again battens down the hatches, the heat makes the hold into a potentially lethal space, a latter-day ‘Black Hole’ (p. 135). The reference here is to the Black Hole of Calcutta, an incident when racial tension in British India led to the imprisoning of multiple British soldiers and Indian civilians in a cell meant for one or two prisoners, which resulted in the deaths of most of the incarcerated men and women. The phrase also recalls the narrator’s remark about Margaret’s new sleeping arrangements when banished from the cabin: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] was banished to’ (p. 105). There are times, then, when the children’s experiences among the pirates explicitly echo major atrocities in British colonial history. And the echoes continue after their transference from the schooner to the British steamer. A British lady imagines the children on the pirate ship as being ‘Chained, probably, down in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water’ (p. 151). For this white woman, even after abolition the natural place for ‘blacks’ is to be chained up in darkness, while the thought of white children being treated likewise is so appalling precisely because of the imagined difference between people from Britain and people from Africa. Representing their plight in these terms ensures that the lady continues to highlight the enduring presence of the British slave trade in British minds long after it has been expunged from British history books.
There’s no sign, however, that the slave trade ever gets mentioned in so many words by anyone in the book – no more than that the word ‘rape’ gets uttered in relation to Margaret. Shrouded in silence, slavery acquires the status of a childish fantasy – a nightmare or a fairy tale, the sort of thing that only happens in the Thousand and One Nights. Children, however, the narrator tells us, are supremely good at keeping secrets, despite adult assumptions that they are not: ‘A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection’ (p. 88). They know far more than adults give them credit for, and are far better at keeping their knowledge to themselves. Children, meanwhile, believe that adults are even better liars. As Emily contemplates Jonsen and Otto in the cabin, she thinks: ‘It would be so easy for adult things like them to dissemble to her. Suppose they really intended to kill her: they could so easily hide it’ (p. 118). The narrator is not so sure, believing that ‘Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail’ (p. 88). In fact, however, both adults and children fail and succeed with equal frequency to keep their secrets in Hughes’s novel. Emily spills out verbal evidence of her act of murder at the trial, but it isn’t properly heard; Margaret’s behaviour convinces her rescuers she has been raped, but this is not acted on; Captain Jonsen fails to keep his identity as a buccaneer under his hat, his scheme to get the children to say nothing about it falling apart with fatal rapidity. The slave trade, too, is both silenced – kept under hatches, like the slaves or the children in the schooner’s hold – and constantly issuing stark reminders of its enduring presence. The fairy story of British imperial history that keeps it suppressed, stressing only the role of Britain in its abolition, cannot be sustained in face of the evidence of persistent racist attitudes. In The Spider’s Palace, a little girl can attend a clandestine party thrown by mice in an upside-down palace, and return to her bed without being detected (‘no one heard her’, p. 106). In High Wind, fairy stories like the Anansi tales or the Thousand and One Nights are circumstantial proof of past atrocities and their survival in the storyteller’s imagination. Few white British writers of the twentieth century better illustrate these things than Richard Hughes.
It’s worth ending, I think, with a few more thoughts on race in Hughes’s novel and story collection, with special reference to cooks. Almost the last word in High Wind uttered by anyone but the narrator is almost the first word uttered in the book by a Black character. When the pirates are led out to execution, it’s the ship’s cook who shows the greatest courage, according to a report Hughes quotes from The Times. Until now, the narrator has barely mentioned the cook except as the man who accidentally threw his whetstone overboard in a misguided attempt to rescue a pig, and on that occasion the colour of his skin was never mentioned. Suddenly, however, the Black sailor’s story comes to the fore in the final chapter, with an effect as startling as if Margaret had suddenly been invited to utter her opinion of her life at sea. In The Times’s account, the cook has eloquence and wisdom as well as courage, though neither can save him from execution – despite the fact that several other members of the crew were ‘reprieved and transported’ at the last minute. These are his words – translated, it’s implied, from his native Spanish:
We shall certainly end our lives in this place: nothing can save us. But in a few years we should die in any case. In a few years the judge who condemned us, all men now living, will be dead. You know that I die innocent: anything I have done, I was forced to do by the rest of you. But I am not sorry. I would rather die now, innocent, than in a few years perhaps guilty of some great sin. (p. 173)
The cook’s execution, this implies, is the final murder in the book that can reasonably be ascribed to the toxic influence of the slave trade. He was effectively enslaved by the pirates, forced to work for them against his will, and his innocence has been noted by the law-abiding Britons working for a major newspaper, though not by the magistrate who condemn him. The other pirates, then, may be innocent of the murder for which they are hanged, but they are not innocent of practising slavery. The British legal system, too, is not innocent, being more guilty of murder than Jonsen: the Captain only attempts to execute Margaret, while the judges successfully execute an entire shipload of foreign nationals. The passage reminds us, then, that innocence is an unstable term; but it also emphasizes the fact that criminal acts have long been practised by the British state, and that institutional racism is a major factor in such acts. By 1929, seizing the opportunity to die with a clear conscience had never been trickier for white British subjects.
In The Spider’s Palace, cooks are deeply implicated in the racism of 1920s British society. In the story ‘Nothing’, a cook chooses to conceal the fact that seven children living in a white middle-class household have among their toys a ‘dead Chinaman’ and a ‘live Chinaman’, in defiance of the wishes of their parents. The erasure from scrutiny of these unsettling possessions is referred to in the story’s title, and while the presence of two Chinese people in the list of the children’s playthings is clearly meant to be comic, their concealment by the cook – who ‘hid them under her apron, and when the father and mother were gone […] gave them back to the seven children’ (p. 67) – might invoke for a twenty-first century adult reader the concealment of racist incidents in British history from adult knowledge, through their exclusion from the curriculum in schools and universities as well as from family anecdotes. In another story, ‘The Dark Child’, a boy who exudes darkness when he stands upright and brilliant light when he stands on his hands is saved from his condition by a resourceful cook, who mixes the darkness and light together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, thus rendering the child completely ‘ordinary’ (p. 22). The child is definitely not Black, the narrator tells us: ‘He wasn’t just black like a Negro, either: he was much blacker than that’ (p. 17). Indeed, he spreads darkness around him like a miasma, to the consternation of his relatives, and it’s implied that his restoration to ‘ordinariness’ involves a return to the condition of being a white middle-class schoolboy, a state that makes his family ‘pleased as pleased as pleased’ (p. 22). A twenty-first century reader of this story might well think about racism in white middle-class families, as exemplified in the covering up of interracial relationships and their offspring that took place in white households in the early twentieth century. The presence of a cook in both these stories that touch on race points towards the inside knowledge of private family affairs acquired by these working-class interlopers in middle-class homes, the kitchen servant in each case being privy to awkward racial facts that have been shunted aside or covered up – much like, in historical terms, the scandalous fact of British interference in the Chinese economy from the Opium Wars to the 1920s, or the widespread refusal in the same period to acknowledge Black citizens as fully British. It seems appropriate, then, that it’s a cook who ensures that the narrative of High Wind ends with a focus on race as well as gender. Of all people in the bourgeois household, the cook has the most unfettered access to the various ingredients that go into the occupants’ bodies. Hughes’s cooks also have unfettered access to the contents of middle-class minds. As a result, they are acutely conscious of the disconnect between the rules by which British society claims to abide and the hidden prejudices and obsessions that really drive its actions. Hidden, often, in the basement of the family home – its ‘hold’, so to speak, or underground regions – kitchen servants gain a unique insight into what has been suppressed and silenced by their masters and mistresses. Hughes enjoins us to listen closely to what they have to say.
J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, ed. Peter Hollindale, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (aka The Innocent Voyage) (St Albans: Triad/Panther Books, 1976).
Richard Hughes, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974).
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:
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.
[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.
[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. Not much is known, it seems, about this popular historical novelist, but she’s a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror, and over the next few days I’ll be devoting three substantial posts to her best-known works of the fantastic. Enjoy!]
Margaret Irwin started to write books in the 1920s, a remarkable decade for women’s fantasy. Other authors who made a name for themselves in that decade included Stella Benson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elinor Wylie, all of whom wrote fantastic novels – Living Alone (1919), Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Lolly Willowes (1926) and The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925) – while May Sinclair published a collection of modernist ghost stories in 1923, and Virginia Woolf her most lushly fantastic experiment in prose, Orlando, in 1928. Even male writers took to representing women fantastically in the 1920s, from Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) to David Garnett in his wildly successful novella Lady into Fox (1922), David Lindsay in The Haunted Woman (1922), and Walter de la Mare in his celebrated faux-autobiography Memoirs of a Midget (1921), as well as his finest short story, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1922). The centrality of women to post-war fiction is hardly surprising, given both their unusual visibility during the conflict and the extension of the vote to women in 1918 and 1928 (though I should stress that most of the texts I’ve listed are more concerned with female invisibility than with the belated entrance of women into full citizenship). But why did so many writers choose to represent women’s experiences in fantastic fiction? Margaret Irwin’s first two novels were fantasies, and at the end of the decade she wrote the most anthologized of her short stories, a supernatural horror called ‘The Book’ (1930). These three texts might be said to provide a kind of answer to my question, and one that throws light on the other women’s fantasies I’ve listed.
The 1920s and 1930s have together come to be known as between the wars, as if they were defined by the cataclysmic acts of violence that hem them in, making them a no-man’s land without an identity or direction of its own. The dominant mode of Irwin’s fantasies is in-betweenness. Each story conveys a similar sense of waiting in a state of uneasy suspension to see if something that has just ended will complete its transformation into something else. The transformation hasn’t been fully accomplished by the end of the narrative, and the feeling you’re left with after reading is one of uncertainty, with the protagonist and hence the reader poised or held in prolonged suspension between alternative genres or modes of existence – different philosophies – without any clear sense of which of these, or which combination of these, might best be embraced in order to make sense of the time to come. This mood of suspension pervades all the most prominent female fantasies of the decade. Lolly Willowes ends with its protagonist uncertain about her future, despite her initiation into the powers and demonic connections of being a witch. Living Alone finishes with its desultory heroine wandering off to the United States, uncertain what she will do next. Lud-in-the-Mist leaves many of its female characters either dead or marginalized, despite the transformation of their country through a magical revolution; Orlando’s hero becomes a heroine half way through his unexpectedly extended lifespan, but her happiness at the end of the book is associated with her lifelong association with a quiet and prosperous country estate, out of the political and cultural limelight. Each of these books brings its women into direct contact with potent magical forces, but each also leaves them waiting, half hopeful but with a bass note of well-founded scepticism, for those energies to manifest themselves in genuine social change. And the sense of infinite promise mixed with doubt and even fear pervades the marvellous early narratives of Margaret Irwin.
The best known of Irwin’s fantasies is ‘The Book’, which I first came across in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine anthology The Weird (2011). The protagonist of the story is a man, but his in-between-ness, like that of the women in the books I’ve listed, is never in question. He is a modestly prosperous middle-class gentleman, with a reliable job, a wife, three children and a dog, and a house in which they all live in close and reasonably democratic proximity. The children in his house all have a voice, and the man’s ‘favourite’ is the youngest, eight-year-old Jean. The egalitarian tendencies of this family are embodied in its solitary set of bookshelves, which promiscuously mingles ancient and modern, male and female, adult’s and children’s texts in cheerful disorder:
The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few dull and obscure old theological books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust in like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.
This household, then, embodies the inter-war epoch which saw the vote finally extended to all British citizens of suitable age. Its bookshelves are available to all its members and represent many aspects of European culture, both elite and popular, from fairy tales and Latin poetry to railway novels and detective fiction (Mr Corbett was reading a detective novel in the story’s opening sentence, despite the fact that the ‘pert, undersized intruders’ of popular fiction are associated in the list with his less educated wife). The house is not excessively democratic, however; it is not revolutionary, like Soviet Russia. We learn a few pages later that the servants are assumed by their employers to be uninterested in reading: ‘The maid never touched the books’ Mr Corbett thinks (p. 184). And the books themselves speak to moments of ambition in Mr Corbett’s past. They contain a number of nineteenth-century volumes he ‘had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days’ and the theological tomes whose only function (since they are never read) must be to inform the world that Mr Corbett’s uncle was a Dean, a figure of some stature in the Church of England. It is one of these ancient books that gives Irwin’s text its title, apparently infecting Mr Corbett’s mind with a miasma of self-interest, intensifying those early ambitions into an all-consuming obsession with financial and intellectual self-advancement at the expense of everyone around him. I say ‘apparently’ here because his passion for self-promotion is hinted at, as we’ve seen, in the books he owns, and Irwin carefully refrains from allowing us to conclude with any certainty that the effects of the titular Book are supernatural. Here is another form of in-between-ness the narrative contains: the gradual corruption of Mr Corbett’s mind by ‘The Book’ can be as easily ascribed to his own character and upbringing as to supernatural causes, and the tale is a perfect example of Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘hesitation’ between supernatural and natural explanations of seemingly impossible occurrences – a hesitation which suggests that the world itself is somehow suspended between irreconcilable philosophical perspectives, materialist and spiritual, supposedly committed to the former while being unable to shake off the residual influence of the latter, even if only as a means of disclaiming responsibility for its own worst actions.
The Book itself is an in-between object. Its presence on the bookshelves can at first only be deduced from an absence: an unexplained gap between the usually densely-packed volumes, which acquires for Mr Corbett an ‘unnatural importance’ and begins to prey on his mind until it develops an unsettling resemblance to ‘a gap between the two front teeth of some grinning monster’. For Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of lechery, and there’s no mistaking the association between Mr Corbett’s obsession with the Book and erotic desire – in particular pornography. Censorship has ensured that pornography constitutes an absence in many libraries. It has also ensured that obscene passages in nineteenth-century texts were sometimes printed in Latin, barring access to uneducated readers on the dubious assumption that only the well-schooled are disciplined enough to read such passages without succumbing to temptation. The Book, when Mr Corbett stumbles across it, turns out to be in Latin, and he is at first drawn to the illustrations rather than the text, since his linguistic skills are not the best. These illustrations invoke both sexual temptation and its possible consequence, childbirth: ‘an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons’ (p. 186). When at last Mr Corbett decides to decipher the Latin with the help of his young son’s dictionary, he ‘steals’ into the schoolroom like a thief in the night ‘With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose’. The part of the book he reads with most attention is a passage that describes (as he thinks) ‘some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers’ – though he reflects extensively on it afterwards, ‘committing each detail to memory’ as if to preserve it for his own uses. And the guilt that accompanies his clandestine reading of the Book soon begins to extend itself to Mr Corbett’s dealings with his family. He begins to think they suspect him of some unspecified misconduct and becomes infuriated at their ‘low and bestial suspicions and heavy dullness of mind’. The second time he borrows the dictionary from his son he ‘thought the boy looked oddly at him and he cursed him in his heart for a suspicious young devil, though of what he should be suspicious he could not say’ (p. 187). By this stage in the story his family has become a ‘savage tribe’ with devilish suspicions or superstitions, whose language he no longer speaks and whose culture is a closed book to him. Mr Corbett has become a colonial intruder into his own household, and anyone familiar with the habits of colonists will have begun to expect the worst from his bids to penetrate the secret spaces of its other inhabitants.
Mr Corbett’s inability to say what his family might suspect him of can be taken as another significant gap in the narrative, a deliberate exclusion from it of something in him which Mr Corbett himself refuses to acknowledge. The nature of that unsaid something may be hinted at in the phrase ‘low and bestial suspicions’, sexual desire being often associated with wild animals as against civilized men. The same refusal to acknowledge his own half-suppressed desires is implied by his assumption that the outrageous passage he translates so carefully refers to some ritual performed by savages, as against the actions of a self-disciplined Englishman like himself. Yet Mr Corbett has been having what are obliquely identified as sexual fantasies before ever he lays hands on the Book. The story begins with him falling into the habit of reading familiar books in perverse new ways, all of which can be seen as eroticized or sexual. Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – its title suggesting the secrets that might be hidden in broad daylight in a packed emporium – becomes for him an index to its author’s sado-masochistic leanings: ‘Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering’. When he turns instead to the classical fiction of Walter Pater he concludes that ‘there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake’ (p. 184). Later he identifies Robert Louis Stevenson as another sadist, Treasure Island exhibiting ‘an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality’ (p. 185). Perverse readings like these can also be readily practised, it turns out, on the books that formed the bedrock of Mr Corbett’s education. In his nightmares after reading Pater ‘the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame [he] had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens’, and he wakes ‘in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue’ (p. 184). Latin itself, the mark of a high-class schooling eminently suitable for boys who are destined by birth to become leaders of men, has been contaminated by association with rape and other ‘naked crimes’ well before Mr Corbett first glances into the manuscript pages of the mysterious tome of the story’s title.
Meanwhile, Mr Corbett entertains the same suspicions of other family members as he suspects them of entertaining about him. When his son in turn suddenly becomes disgusted by a book he used to enjoy (‘Filthy stuff’, he calls it), Mr Corbett’s first assumption is that the boy has been reading a pornographic publication passed on to him by servants or other boys: ‘Mr Corbett was disturbed. Unpleasant housemaids and bad schoolfriends passed through his head, as he gravely asked his son how he had got hold of that book’. His suspicions prove groundless, however. The book the boy finds ‘filthy’ is an expurgated edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with all the obscene bits taken out – though of course in the original Swift’s misanthropic ‘cynicism’, as Mr Corbett calls it, is expressed in graphically corporeal terms. Before long Mr Corbett himself is echoing the boy’s reaction to Swift (and the irony of Swift having been another Dean is surely intentional). By this stage, for him all authors have become ‘filthy-minded’, from the sexually repressed Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to William Wordsworth with his unwholesome nature fetish, and all of them use literature to articulate ‘what they dared not express in their lives’. Literature itself points to a gap in public life, the gap from which the articulation of erotic arousal has been erased, and it is this gap that the Book of the story’s title comes exclusively to fill in Mr Corbett’s own existence.
As he gets to know the Book better he notices that it is unfinished. There are blank pages at the end, a gap where the perpetual process of learning to which the text pays verbal tribute has been cut short by the author’s death. As Mr Corbett painstakingly deciphers the Book’s contents he sees that these blank pages are being gradually filled with lines of new writing: instructions which permit him to satisfy his clandestine desires in the world beyond the text. At first these lines give him tips on good investments, glutting his appetite for wealth and status. Later, however, they move on to more obviously damaging suggestions, instructing him to kill the family dog and thus pandering to the sadistic pleasure in cruelty which he detected in Stevenson and Dickens. Inevitably the mysterious instructions that appear on the blank pages, which so conveniently chime in with Mr Corbett’s unspoken wishes, imply that he has started to write these wishes into the manuscript, embellishing his work of translation with unwholesome fantasies of his own. His belief that he must obey the lines’ instructions to the letter (if not, he is convinced that something dreadful will happen to him) invokes his respect for authority, as exemplified in his decision to keep his uncle’s books in the first place; and here we come to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story – its gender politics.
I suggested earlier that the Corbett household has a quasi-democratic air about it, as attested by its bookshelves, or by the fact that Mr Corbett and his wife share the same tastes in lowbrow reading. What Mr Corbett’s new reading habits exemplify, by contrast, is his frustrated wish for power. His perverse analyses of Dickens, Stevenson and the Book make him feel superior – first to his younger self, who he thinks did not read with the penetration he has acquired in his maturity; then to his wife and children, who strike him as dull and narrow-minded by comparison; and finally to his friends and professional colleagues, whose inability to profit from the Book’s financial tips makes him think of them as incompetent. Inevitably, perhaps, his sense of superiority has a gendered aspect. In the 1920s Latin formed an integral part of a middle-class boy’s education – and there is no indication in the story that the girls in his family have access to it. It’s the ancient language of the law, and Mr Corbett gives as his excuse for borrowing the dictionary his need to translate an old law case for professional purposes. And it’s the language of theology, associated with the late Dean’s library. Law and theology, like Latin, have traditionally been the exclusive province of men; in Irwin’s day this was only slowly changing. And in medieval times, when the Book was written, Latin was the language of the Bible, and of the male priests who had sole access to its contents. Indeed, the title of the short story could well be read as referring to the Good Book, and the mysterious Book itself with its pictures of Adam and Eve and the mouth of Hell could well be taken for an annotated copy of the Scriptures. In turning from detective fiction to what he thinks of as theology Mr Corbett is embracing authority, just as he is when he casts aside the demotic Dickens for the more socially elevated Pater.
Mr Corbett’s recourse to the Dean’s volumes, in other words, immerses him in a world where men’s activities are carefully segregated from those of women; a world from which the twentieth century was only just beginning to emerge in the two decades between the wars. The unhealthy miasma he detects in the vicinity of the bookshelves – exuded by the Dean’s library, and perhaps by the Book in particular – could be construed as the stink of the patriarchal past, when women were men’s chattels and it was the absolute prerogative of men to dispose of their offspring as they saw fit. The association of the Dean’s library with pornography points up the various abuses to which patriarchy gives rise – through its tendency to represent women and children as objects, through its privileging of individual male desires over the collective needs of the community, through its restriction of the arcane secrets of sexual knowledge to male eyes and hands. There’s a ghastly inevitability, then, about the fact that Mr Corbett’s perverse reading culminates in an assault on Jean, a female child. Philomela, after all, whose severed tongue Mr Corbett dreams of, was raped by a patriarch – her father, Tereus – and Mr Corbett’s final attack on his own daughter can be read as the consequence of an education designed to reinforce the historical linkage of patriarchal power with sexual violence.
The build-up to the attack is framed precisely in terms of the protection of privileged authority. By this point the Book has become for Mr Corbett ‘the source of ancient and secret power’, and the nightmares his daughter has begun to have about it suggest that she has somehow ‘acquired dangerous knowledge’ herself – perhaps by reading it, which would make her in his eyes a kind of heretic against his own divine status. She has teamed up with the family dog, he thinks absurdly, to conspire against his plans for universal domination; and the thought leads him to quote a line from the Good Book: ‘“All that are not with me are against me,” he repeated softly’. The words are derived from a sentence uttered by the divine son of a patriarchal God (‘He that is not with me is against me’, Matthew 12:30), and Mr Corbett’s easy appropriation of it for his own ends echoes, in effect, many generations of scriptural exegesis on behalf of male supremacy. In a similar spirit he decides to kill the child with a dose of rat poison no one knows he has – a particularly deadly form of secret knowledge, playing on the notion that his mind (like that of Dorian Gray) has been metaphorically ‘poisoned’ by a Book; his murder will be committed, like an act of God, by the unseen hand of a ‘secret power’. In these final paragraphs of the story Mr Corbett has become an activist on behalf of religion itself, which has acted since classical times in the service of male oppression.
In fact, to his credit, Mr Corbett withstands this last temptation. He doesn’t kill his daughter, but dies himself in her place, destroyed either by the shocking revelation that all his recent investments have collapsed (as some people believe) or by the pressure of a hand upon his windpipe (as the coroner’s report suggests). Was he killed by the Book’s disembodied servant, the demonic hand about which his daughter has been having so many nightmares? Or did he kill himself by his own hand, as the lawyers assert, somehow throttling himself to death to prevent himself becoming a similar servant of oppression? The notion that the hand that killed him might have been his own would seem far-fetched, if it weren’t for the fact that his hand has been associated throughout the story both with his reading of the Latin book and his carrying out of its instructions: ‘with his finger he traced out the words that had been written’; ‘He held onto the door handle [of his daughter’s bedroom], but his fingers seemed to have grown numb, for he could not turn it’ (p. 191). The story’s end, then, falls into a gap between two alternative theories of Mr Corbett’s death, and in doing so it defines the interwar period as a time in suspension between the immaterial preoccupations of the past and the material obsessions of the present; or else between the total dominance of the patriarchy, supported by an intensely patriarchal religion firmly rooted in the scriptures, and the ushering in of a new, egalitarian age in the wake of the universal franchise. It’s presumably up to the reader (as it was to Mr Corbett) to determine which.
[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 heardhim 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.
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 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 Came. The 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.]
Exactly two years later, the circus rolled into the town of Bogton St Mary in Devonshire, England. Crowds lined the narrow streets to watch the carts and horse-drawn vans parade to their destination, an open field by the river Bog, where a rival township quickly sprang up under the busy hands of the circus performers. A tall old woman wandered through this temporary town of wood and canvas, gazing at the bunting, admiring the fire-eaters and the girls on stilts, pausing to examine the side of the brightly-painted caravan where Fatima the Fearless promised to Ftudy your Future and report her Findings with Fidelity. The old woman was dressed in shimmering crinolines of brown and gold, and many of the passers-by were as much inclined to stare at her as at the denizens of the circus. Her nose was hooked, her cheekbones prominent, and her eyes – her eyes were the strangest thing about her. They were larger than most, and the yellow pupils, which seemed to have virtually effaced the whites, were flecked with what looked like pieces of mica.
Despite the lively interest with which she examined every detail of her surroundings, the woman strode about the circus grounds with the air of one who possesses a fixed purpose. She stood for some time before the banner which advertized the feats of Polly the performing horse. Then she stopped again in front of the large striped tent where the Flying Nardini Family would later demonstrate the difficult and dangerous art of the high trapeze as practised in Italy, furnished – so the painting suggested – with tiny wings like those of Raphael’s putti. She seemed about to enter the tent, but just at that moment a small girl carrying a bucket ducked out from under one of the flaps. The old woman took one look at the young Nardini’s costume – thick wrinkled tights, frilly pink bodice and wings of gauze – gave a snort of disgust and wandered on. She spared no more than a glance for the extravagant notice-board which lauded the many miraculous properties of Dr Jugg’s Universal Remedy and Beautifying Agent, to be sold at the door of his waggon for the bargain sum of five shillings the flask, but stopped once again in front of a crimson pavilion dedicated to the Miracles of Nature as collected and authenticated by Professor Petronius P. Pomaine, of the University of Pennsylvania.
An enormous signboard stood outside the professor’s pavilion listing the wonders to be found within: a two-headed lamb preserved in formaldehyde; a woman with horns; a duck-billed platypus with poisonous spurs on its webbed hind feet; the skeleton of a dragon slain by the Anatolian warrior known as St. George; a unicorn from Harappa which would lay its head in the lap of any virgin; a Patagonian giant; a Congolese pygmy. But her attention, it seemed, had been arrested by one wonder in particular: the Astonishing Bird Boy, listed among the lesser miracles of nature which did not warrant space for extended treatment on the crowded signboard. She leaned forward and tapped the words ‘Bird Boy’ as if expecting them to explain themselves. Then she nodded once and entered the pavilion.
Inside, the tent was gloomy and stank of urine and preservative fluid. The cages containing the exhibits were covered with awnings. A mournful-looking man with a receding chin and a huge moustache came up to the woman and asked what she wanted. ‘I am a representative of Dr Balthazar Buzzard,’ she replied, ‘and I have come to collect the exhibit known as the Bird Boy, in accordance with the agreement concluded between Dr Buzzard and Professor Petronius C. Pomaine by letter last week.’
‘Excuse me, madam’ said the mournful man in an accent that was meant to sound foreign, possibly Slavic. ‘I myself am Professor Pomaine. I know of no letter and no agreement.’
‘The arrangement, then, if you must be so particular. I have a brougham waiting for me on the Tavistock Road. I would be most grateful if we could finish this business with expedition, since I intend to catch the noon train from Biddlecombe to Truro. Please let me see the boy at once.’
‘Madam,’ said the mournful man, trying his best to look supercilious but looking only pained. ‘There must be some mistake. I have received no letter from Dr Buzzard. No arrangement has been made. The Bird Boy is one of the outstanding attractions in my scientific exhibition, and I cannot possibly consent to disappoint the public by letting him go. His arrival in Devon has been eagerly anticipated for many weeks. Should I dispose of him before we open this afternoon I shall be obliged to compensate the members of the public for their disappointment by offering them a partial reimbursement of their entry fees. I shall suffer material losses, Madam; very material losses. I am sure you understand my position.’
‘You are wrong, Professor Pomaine,’ said the old woman, opening the diamantine reticule she had been carrying in her left hand. ‘There has been no mistake and you will suffer no losses. I have here another letter from Dr Buzzard in which the arrangement I mentioned is described in full. I believe you will soon recall the drift of your correspondence, once you have reminded yourself of the sum offered by Dr Buzzard for the transference of the boy to his establishment.’
Professor Pomaine put on a pair of lozenge spectacles and peered through the gloom at the paper she held out to him. His mouth dropped open as he read the figure. ‘Ah yes,’ he said slowly. ‘I am beginning to remember this letter. A most agreeable man, Dr Buzzard, and one with a very shrewd head for business.’
‘You will remember, then, that I must see the boy before any money changes hands. And you will remember that Dr Buzzard has left it entirely at my discretion as to whether or not the transaction will take place as per the aforesaid correspondence. Now lead me to him, please, Professor. Time is short.’
Professor Pomaine’s mournful expression had now been replaced with an air of acute anxiety. ‘I promise you, madam, Dr Buzzard will not be disappointed,’ he blustered as he led the way between cloth-covered containers towards the darkest recesses of the tent. ‘The boy is authentic and quite unique. He was discovered by Latvian traders in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. I have cherished him like a son. It will break my heart to lose him. Unfortunately, however, he has not been in the best of spirits recently. A slight imbalance of the humours, I understand from the esteemed Dr Jugg, but it has altered his appearance, and not for the better. Not that he was ever a beauty, mark you! But now – that is – you will see for yourself.’
The Bird Boy sat hunched in the corner of his cage, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was naked and appallingly thin. His arms and what could be seen of his torso were covered with long dark feathers and scraps of down, worn away in patches to expose the dirty blue-grey of his skin. His legs, although covered in scabs, were those of an ordinary boy, but they terminated in what looked like claws. The strangest thing about him was his head. It was the head of a bird, covered with fine black feathers which had worn away here and there as they had on his body, and armed with a long, sharp beak. The eyes were closed; but when the old woman addressed him in an odd fluting language unknown to Professor Pomaine (who had lived most of his life in Islington) one eye suddenly opened wide and stared at her sideways for a minute or two before closing again just as suddenly.
‘This boy is dying, Professor Pomaine,’ the woman pronounced, after examining him for two or three minutes between the bars. ‘And what is more, I suspect he is a fake. I ought by rights to return to Truro and advise Dr Buzzard not to waste his money. But Dr Buzzard is a genuine scholar, unlike some I could mention, and I do not think he would take it kindly if I were to rob him of the pleasure of studying this sorry specimen for himself. I am prepared to offer you –’ and she named a sum less than half of that which had been mentioned in the letter. ‘Take it or leave it, sir. I cannot miss my train.’
Professor Pomaine wailed in protest and demanded more. The woman made as if to march out of the pavilion. The Professor relented, no doubt after a rapid calculation of the very much smaller amount he could expect to make on the boy’s dead body if, as seemed more than probable, the woman was right and he did not have long to live. A bargain was struck, the woman took a packet of coins from her reticule and the Professor rapidly counted its contents, then wrote out a receipt on a grubby ticket-stub which he produced from his waistcoat pocket. The woman promised to send a man to collect the boy at once. Professor Pomaine bowed her out of the pavilion and returned to counting the coins she had given him. His mournful look had been replaced with one of cautious optimism.
A few hours later the old woman sat on a plush velvet seat in a private railway carriage belonging to Dr Balthazar Buzzard, and watched as the Bird Boy was fed from a bottle by another old woman with crippled hands. As soon as the boy had finished drinking the women laid him on a carriage seat and watched as powerful convulsions stretched him out and doubled him up. Within an hour the last remaining feathers had fallen from his body, and by sunset his grotesque head had begun to buckle and bend as if under tremendous pressure. The carriage was shunted into a siding on Bodmin moor, a bath was drawn and dirt and feathers scrubbed from every crevice of his shuddering frame. By this time the boy was running a high fever. The women sat with him through the night, answering him in soft voices when he cried out in fear, or babbled in the fluting tongue of birds, or whispered scraps of nonsense. At daybreak he fell asleep. Dr Balthazar’s representative sent the other old woman to bed and settled down to read a book, kneeling on the floor beside the carriage seat where the boy lay stretched in corpselike stillness under a blanket. As she read, one of her hands rested on the boy’s exposed left foot, which no longer resembled a claw.
After an hour or two she glanced up and saw him staring at her with eyes now large and dark in an ashen face.
‘How are we feeling now?’ she asked.
‘Terrible. I hurt all over. How do you know my language?’
‘Never mind. I’ll tell you later. All you need know at present is that you are safe and that we are bound for Truro. You may call me Margaret. I am a specialist in the study of exotic birds, and I am very curious to know how a citizen of Lazarus came to be travelling with an English circus, trapped, it would seem, at a mid-way point between one phase of the Changes and the next.’
A violent shiver made the boy’s teeth rattle in his narrow head. ‘Where is Professor Pomaine?’
‘Far away. He will never trouble you again. As I told you, you are safe, and once you have recovered your strength you may go where you choose. Now tell me all about yourself – or rest, if you prefer. I have no wish to elicit information from you which you would rather keep secret.’
The boy grinned ruefully. ‘I’m not much good at keeping secrets. I guess that’s why I’m here. And I don’t remember much about Professor Pomaine, nor about the circus. I feel like I’ve been living a dream for years or centuries. No, not a dream, a nightmare…’
He stopped for a minute to study her face. But he seemed reassured by what he saw there, because he soon went on, and his voice grew stronger as he spoke.
‘You’re right, though, ma’am. I come from Lazarus. Didn’t like it much, though. My parents died when I was young and I had nothing left to keep me there. Nothing but my poor old Nan, and I think I killed her when I ran away from home. I wanted to become a bird, you see, like they did in stories. So… so I ran away to the woods, and Chew Chew betrayed me, and the hunters came with dogs to track me down, so I ran away again, and I think I Changed. I remember wind in my eyes and the ground below, and black wings beating – but perhaps I was only climbing a hill, or falling off a cliff, or sick, or mad. But I think I turned into a bird, and I think I flew – yes, flew – for a long, long time before they caught me.’
He lay for a moment staring at the book in the old woman’s hands, as if he thought it held the rest of his story. Then he shuddered and laid back on the seat. She thought he would go back to sleep without saying more, but after a while he spoke again, in his croaky voice that kept veering from high to low like a broken church organ.
‘Professor Pomaine says I was found by Latvian traders, and that I was still a bird when they found me, half dead with cold. He says they put me in a cage because they’d never seen a bird so large and strange with a human voice. Isn’t it odd, though, that they would cage me for sounding human? They took me to England because that’s the best place, the Professor says, to get money for freaks. By the time we got to Dover I was starting to look like a human being as well as sound like one, so they began to think I was some sort of devil. Some of them wanted to cut off my head and dump me in a ditch, others wanted to find a priest to exorcise me, but in the end they sold me for pennies to a man in Portsmouth who collected monsters.
‘The man’s name was Morrow, and he was more of a monster than anyone in his collection. He had a cabinet full of drugs which he liked to test on us to see what happened. He discovered that one of these drugs could stop me Changing; it froze my body in the shape of a bird, or a boy, or the half-and-half thing I was when you found me. I don’t know where he got it, but Dr Jugg says it can be used to stop buds from blooming into flowers, or caterpillars from turning into butterflies, or children from growing up. Professor Pomaine and Dr Jugg were friends of his. They helped him pay for his drugs by buying freaks from him to show at the circus. After Morrow had finished with me I was very ill, so Professor Pomaine was able to buy me for a knock-down price, along with the recipe for the drug that kept me as the Bird Boy.
‘I travelled with the circus for a long time, but I never got better from the things Morrow did to me. I hurt all the time, and the pain got worse. Dr Jugg used to give me the drug every Thursday morning. Funny, isn’t it? That was the very same day when Mrs Chakchak used to make us eat her disgusting stew. I expect her stew had a drug in it like Morrow’s. Who knows? Maybe he got his drug from Lazarus. I used to think about that when I was in my cage. I’d run all that way to get away from Mrs Chakchak, and here I was in a prison still worse than Lazarus, having the same foul substance forced down my throat in a rubber tube. I flew straight out of one cage into another. Perhaps all the world is just a mass of cages, cage after cage with prisoners on the inside looking out and keepers on the outside looking in. Only you can’t always be sure who is the prisoner and who the keeper. Professor Pomaine used to scream at night, I could hear him sometimes, screaming and screaming in his sleep like a rabbit in a trap…
‘And now here I am in another cage. I don’t know if I’m free, as you say, or if I’m a prisoner and you’re my keeper. I don’t know anything. I… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.’
The old woman smiled. ‘You’re right to be mistrustful,’ she observed. ‘And of course I was wrong to say you’re free. You’re as much a prisoner as I am, though no one but ourselves is ever likely to know it. I told you to call me Margaret, but you’ve spoken my proper name quite often in your fever. It’s Kerr.’
‘Kerr!’ cried Kark, sitting up suddenly so that the blanket fell away from him. ‘I thought…’
‘You thought I was dead,’ the woman finished for him. ‘But I am merely grown up and no longer Changing. You’ve told me your story; I must tell you mine.
‘I escaped from Lazarus much as you did, leaving my past behind me – together with a silver ankle-bracelet which I must have lost when feeding on a carcass in the mountains. But in every other respect our fortunes were different. Unlike you, I was lucky enough to return to human shape a long way from the haunts of men. For a while I lived alone on the Russian steppes, running down wild beasts and drinking water from snow-fed streams with a mind as fierce and featureless as a winter blizzard. After more than a year I wandered into a village, naked and hungry, having forgotten how to speak. The village schoolmaster took me under his wing. I found out later that he had heard of Lazarus, and that some of his forebears had been shape-shifters much like us; there are more of us, Kark, than we’ve been led to believe. He taught me his language; I told him of my sickness and metamorphosis; and slowly we began to piece together the story of the valley as your grandmother told it to you.
‘Like your grandmother, we came to the conclusion that the people of Lazarus were not sick, but possessed instead of a wonderful talent: the capacity to assume the form of birds at certain times of year – or perhaps in certain years, we cannot be sure since there has been no scientific study of such metamorphoses, at least in recent centuries. We decided that this capacity had been hidden from them by the Council, not so much for fear of reprisals from the outside world as to keep the population of the valley timid and tractable (my schoolmaster was an anarchist and had little faith in governments). We understood, too, that the stew must have contained a drug of the kind you’ve described, capable of suppressing the symptoms of the Changes. But my schoolmaster also realized that we did not possess this drug, and that I might undergo the Changes again at any moment. To protect me he must hide my nature from hostile scrutiny by removing me to a secret location. He therefore arranged that I should pay regular visits to his brother, a fur-trader who lived in a cabin many miles from the village, and who was fully apprised of my condition. These visits were meant to give me a pretext for leaving the community without arousing suspicion whenever the Changes showed signs of returning.
‘We were too naive, however. After a few such visits, gossip began to run rife in the village. It was said that I was mistress of both brothers and that I had seduced them into taking part in diabolical rituals. The best way to quash these rumours was for me to marry the fur-trader. I did so, and went to live with him in the forest. Every few years, when the Changes came over me, I fled away deep into the wilderness with my secret. For the rest of the time I behaved as an ordinary Russian housewife, except that I did not sleep with my husband and bore him no children. Instead I read all I could about ornithology in books and periodicals sent me by my schoolmaster, which he ordered from Moscow for my use whenever he could afford to do so. I was searching, endlessly searching for some clue as to who I was.
‘Then one day I read in one of the periodicals about a leading British naturalist, Mr Balthazar Buzzard – owner of the world’s most remarkable bird collection – who had advanced an absurd but intriguing theory. He argued that human beings and birds have a great deal more in common than had previously been supposed, and that there was even a possibility that at some remote point in the evolution of both races they had shared a common ancestry. The theory was only mentioned in the periodical in order to be derided, but it was the first hint I had seen anywhere of a scientific acknowledgement of my condition. I decided at once that I must meet Mr Buzzard. I packed my bag, took leave of my husband, and set off to visit my schoolmaster for the last time, and to discuss with him the best means of reaching England. He gave me the name of a correspondent of his in London who might put me up on my arrival, slipped into my hand a purse containing a few gold coins – half his worldly goods – and clasped around my neck a necklace that had once belonged to his mother. We parted with tears, exchanging many expressions of mutual esteem.
‘The journey to England was largely uneventful. A ship I boarded at Sebastopol sank, but not while I was aboard, and my bag was stolen in Naples, but by that time it was empty. Winter came and I had to take refuge in the mountains of northern Spain when the Changes overtook me. Here I was badly hurt by a fowling-piece, but recovered my human form in time to catch a ship from Lisbon to Flushing the following spring. I reached Truro safely, where I met Mr Buzzard, and found him to be quite as insane as the periodical had painted him, and hopelessly addicted to opium.
‘But he was very kind. As soon as he’d heard my story he offered me a post in his Institute of Esoteric Ornithology. I am now his private secretary and itinerant researcher. He has made me responsible for seeking out evidence in support of his theories about the link between men and birds. For years now this has been my principal occupation: hunting through archives, scientific journals, learned tomes and volumes of improbable fictions, as I did when I lived in a cabin in a Russian forest, searching, constantly searching for anything that might shed light on the history and habits of my people – the Bird People. It was in connection with this research that I heard of you, from a particular friend of Mr Buzzard’s, a man called Wells. And it was in the service of this research that I sought you out, as I have sought out many interesting specimens in the past to add to the more exotic sections of Mr Buzzard’s collection. The question now is: what is to be done with you?’
The boy lay still on the seat, looking weak and ill. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I can hardly believe that you’re really the Kerr I’ve heard so much about. You seem so different…’
‘You mean I’m older.’
‘No! I mean, yes; but there’s something more. You’re so much less… less wild than I thought you’d be. I always thought of Kerr as a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue… everything Nan said she was.’
‘She was. She still would be, if circumstances permitted. She is, in fact. One of the things you will learn about this world outside the valley is that for a woman like me to exist at all is a rebellion, an adventure, and an act of roguery all at once. How many female researchers do you think there are in the British Empire today? Your grandmother was right about me, as she was about everything else.’
‘You seem to know a lot about my Nan. Did you know her well, in Lazarus?’
‘Not well, no. She was some years younger than me, and when you’re a child a few short years make all the difference. I know her better now.’
At this point the second old woman entered from another part of the carriage. She gave a cry of delight when she saw Kark sitting up in bed, and fell to her knees beside him. It took him several seconds to recognize her, because her face had been scarred by frost, her back bent double with exhaustion, and her hands twisted into claws by arthritis. ‘Time hasn’t been kind to me,’ she said with a laugh that dismissed all time’s unkindness. ‘I wandered for many months in many cruel countries. But I have found a true friend, and I have found my grandson, and now at last the tide seems to be turning.’
There is more to tell, but little space to tell it in. This narrative is growing bulky enough already, and I am beginning to wonder if it will fit into the hiding place I have chosen for it. Besides, my poor old hand no longer writes as well as it did. Whatever the Mad Hatter said, a raven and a writing desk have little enough in common, and a pen sits uneasily in a hand shaped like a raven’s claw. I must bring my tale to a close, however unsatisfactory.
The three from Lazarus celebrated their meeting with more laughter, some tears and a great deal of talking. Kark slept again through the rest of that day and the following night, and when he woke they talked again, and little by little his strength returned. As he grew stronger, as the train moved west, the situation in which he found himself became clearer to him. Kerr had been right: he was not so free as he had seemed at first. From the moment of his recovery his life, like hers, would be regulated by drugs: the same drugs that had kept him trapped in the body of the Bird Boy, and that had formerly kept him locked in human shape throughout his life in the valley. He learned from Kerr that a modest traffic in these drugs had existed between the valley and the outside world for generations; a traffic that was strictly controlled by the inner circle of the Council of Lazarus, and whose profits bought certain special foodstuffs and a degree of protection for the people of the valley. By the merest good fortune a supply of the drugs had fallen into the possession of Balthazar Buzzard, who had apprised his new secretary of their properties as soon as he knew of her unusual predicament. She took them every week now – but not on Thursdays. Kark must take them regularly too, if he did not wish to run the risk of falling once again into the hands of men like Morrow, Jugg and Pomaine. From henceforth silence and secrecy would be his best protection, as they had been all his life. The difference was that they would now be self-imposed, and that he might drop them at will should he choose to subject himself once more to the perils that accompany the Changes.
But the drugs were not the only kind of constraint to which he was now subjected. All three of the former inhabitants of Lazarus felt a powerful urge to devote themselves to righting some of the wrongs they had suffered. Kark longed to track down Professor Pomaine so as to liberate his fellow prisoners before they succumbed to the despair and resignation that had so nearly killed the Bird Boy. He wanted to raid Morrow’s laboratory in Portsmouth and free the poor unfortunates who were the victims of his experiments. And he yearned, as did Kerr and his grandmother, to return to the valley of Lazarus. He wished to inform his afflicted people of their true natures, to expose the lies that had been told them by the Council, and to reveal to them the boundless world of possibilities that lay beyond the walls of their mountain prison, available to be entered in relative safety by those who had learned to manage the Changes with wisdom. But before he could begin to do any of these things he must find a way to earn his living.
Once again it was Balthazar Buzzard who came to the rescue. The celebrated ornithologist took to Kark as soon as he met him; a little twisted man with a look of constant hunger in his vast black eyes, he saw fulfilled in the former Bird Boy all his own dreams of the possibility of metamorphosis which had belonged, he thought, to his ancestors, and which had forever been denied him. He would follow Kark round his turreted mansion talking incessantly about the mechanics of flight, and offering him food or drink or toxic drugs of various kinds in the hopes of coaxing him into conversation about his life as a bird – conversation that might afford some clue as to how Mr Buzzard, too, might undergo the Changes. From time to time, in response to his generous patronage and frequent pleadings, Kark and Kerr would consent to stop taking the drugs for several weeks and Change for him themselves. On these occasions Mr Buzzard would send away his household staff and make up a bed in the famous glasshouse, where he would watch for hours, biting his fingers, as the pair of them wandered among the plants, their skins bristling with incipient plumage, their faces stretching and distorting as beaks began to form under the discoloured flesh. Nan, in turn, would watch Mr Buzzard, in case he should be tempted to put himself in danger by mimicking their behaviour, perhaps by climbing a tree and flinging himself from its branches, or by eating something ill suited to human digestive system. Nan was past the age for Changing and in any case had never enjoyed the sensation, which recalled for her the pains of childbirth – pains she had never forgotten, and which she likened to forcing one’s limbs out of their sockets through sheer strength of will.
Not long after Kark’s arrival at Buzzard Heights, Mr Buzzard offered him the position of Assistant Birdkeeper in the glasshouse. From then on he was responsible for the care of the exotic specimens that made their homes in its various habitats, and later for helping to add new specimens to the collection, taking over from the ageing Kerr as Mr Buzzard’s most trusted aide. It was an interesting job but a hard one, and not one from which he could afford to absent himself for more than a few days at a stretch. Not that he felt much inclined to leave behind the comforts of his new environment. He and Nan and the redoubtable Kerr spent most of their leisure time in a strange artificial leaf-filled world beneath the great glass domes, wandering among tree-ferns and sitting in the shade of orange groves and ornamental arbours, plotting the liberation of Lazarus, or recalling details of their travels, or mulling over their confused and contradictory impressions of their life as birds.
Days passed into months and months into years. Kark visited Portsmouth and found that all traces of Morrow had long since disappeared. Pomaine too seemed to have vanished into thin air; Kark suspected that he had dropped his professorial alias and retired with his fortune to his house in Islington. At last the three lost citizens of Lazarus performed a similar vanishing act. As is well known to historians, a mysterious gas escape wiped out the birds in Mr Buzzard’s collection in the winter of 1900. The day before the tragedy, the young man and the two old women who had tended the collection left the glasshouse from different exits and were never seen again. The press and the public were far too interested in the question of what had happened to Mr Buzzard to speculate as to the fate of his three employees. For a while the police took a desultory interest in their disappearance, but they soon abandoned the investigation. As an ambitious young police sergeant explained it later to the local paper, inquiries into their whereabouts were greeted by the local community with what could only be described as a ‘resounding silence’.
And now it is time to finish writing. Indeed, I would never have started if I had realized how foolish my story would look on paper. To begin with, there are so many coincidences involved in it – as many as in a bad Victorian adventure story. How in God’s name, for instance, did Kerr, Kark and his grandmother contrive to find their way to the South West corner of England, to the hospitable environment of Balthazar Buzzard’s glasshouse? And by what improbable routes did Morrow and Buzzard obtain their supplies of the drug that arrested the Changes? The valley itself, in my account, resembles an English valley in the Lake District more closely than a valley in the Urals – or so I presume, having forgotten anything I ever knew about that district of what is now the Soviet Union. The names of the valley’s residents make them sound like a bunch of talking animals from a pantomime. And as for the central premise of my narrative – that a certain subsection of the human species might be capable of changing into birds – well, you are twelve years old this week, young Karl, and this is 1967: you know as well as I do the sheer absurdity of that proposition.
Why, if there were even a grain of truth to it we would have to revise our entire notion of human history. We would have to look with fresh eyes on a whole range of myths, legends and fables, both ancient and modern – from the traditional depictions of angels in Western tradition to those of the Victorian flower fairies, from the Russian firebird to the Indonesian Garuda, from the phoenix to the Mesoamerican fathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and the lightning bird of the Xhosa… In short, the whole eccentric course of my researches, which has drawn on me the bemused derision of my academic colleagues, would need no further justification…
And I am tired of justifying myself. As tired as your great great grandmother was when she told me the equally foolish tale of Kerr with which my own story opened. That is why I have written this narrative down as I have, and as my ancestors did, in the guise of a harmless fiction. I was encouraged to do so by the fact that for a week now you have been off your food. Your mother says that you are deliberately starving yourself, out of some perverse desire, I suppose, to share my suffering, as I succumb to the final stages of the wasting disease that has extinguished my appetite. She is angry with me for being no more forceful in my efforts to encourage you to start eating again. My story will explain why I find it impossible to give you more than half-hearted encouragement.
I saw you, Karl, the other night, as you scurried to the bathroom in your flannel dressing gown. Your chest has thickened and your legs are as long and powerful as the legs of an ostrich. Believe me, boy, these early stages are the hardest. By the time you’re my age the notion of even the most cataclysmic physical Change will arouse in you the mingled terror and delight felt by every modern student when confronted with the prospect of revolution. The young people of the world are flying in their heads now, Karl, dreaming of liberties unimaginable to my generation. The tides are turning, as Nan would have said. Perhaps by the time you read this they will have turned.
An unusually large raven is tapping at my study window with its beak. Before I go to see what it wants I shall leave these sheets in their hiding place, together with a long brown feather bequeathed to me by my Nan. If you are reading them now you will know how cleverly they were hidden, and will spare a kind thought for your old grandpa, and for all those other lost lonely ones who never told their secrets.
Every Thursday Mrs Chakchak made one of her special stews and stood over the children with a ladle in her hand to make sure they ate every drop. If a boy or girl protested she would lash out with the ladle and rap them over the knuckles – once, twice, three times – telling them they were ungrateful little insects, and promising she would really give them something to cry about if they made another sound before emptying their bowls. Nobody got their knuckles rapped more often than Kark. Perhaps that’s why whenever he thinks of Mrs Chakchak’s stews he remembers them now as tasting mostly of salt.
When Kark was twelve years old he fell ill and lost his appetite. On Thursday Mrs Chakchak came and stood by his bed with a bowl of her stew. But the smell of it made him retch, and when she tried to spoon it into his mouth he vomited all over his Nan’s best linen.
Nan told Mrs Chakchak that the boy was clearly too sick to take his dose this Thursday. Mrs Chakchak said ‘Nonsense!’ (her favourite word), and the two old women started shouting at each other in high, querulous voices.
‘Sick or not, if he eats nothing else this week he must eat this!’ cried Mrs Chakchak.
‘It’s no use insisting,’ cried Nan. ‘For three days he hasn’t taken anything but water. Come now, Mrs Chakchak! It’ll do no harm if he misses his dose this once!’
‘It will do a great deal of harm, as you know very well. Remember what became of the Kerr child, who refused her dose three weeks running! We lost a good man in the search for her, and when they finally found her body there was nothing left but bones and a bit of skin! They had to identify the remains from the silver bracelet on her ankle!’
‘That was a different case and well you know it. The Kerr girl had something wrong with her glands; and besides, they didn’t keep a proper eye on her. I’m keeping an eye on Kark both night and day. He’s already getting better, bit by bit. By next week I’ve no doubt he’ll take a double helping of your stew and ask for a third. Now I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do today, Mrs Chakchak. What this boy needs is bed-rest, and it’s my job to make sure he gets it. Goodbye!’
‘This boy is an impudent dabchick, and what he needs is a good sound thrashing! I shall take up the matter with my fellow councillors!’ And Mrs Chakchak flounced out of the shack, splashing gobbets of evil-smelling liquid onto the floor at every step.
‘You mustn’t mind Mrs Chakchak, dear,’ said Nan. ‘She’s a well-meaning soul and was once a wise one. Fear and loneliness turn us all bad in the end. But you must do your best to get well enough to eat your stew next Thursday.’
Luckily the fever broke that evening, and Kark emptied his bowl three times the following week to please Nan and spite Mrs Chakchak. But he didn’t forget the shrill exchange at his bedside. Day and night he nagged at Nan till at last she agreed to explain what had happened to the girl named Kerr. ‘O very well,’ she said one evening, when she looked old and tired and seemed unable to get close enough to the fire to warm her bones. ‘I’ll tell you the story. It may even do you good, if it teaches you to eat what’s put in front of you. But don’t breathe a word to any of your friends. If the Council hears I’ve been talking about such things they’ll send me away from the valley to die of cold and hunger.’
Of course Kark promised faithfully. But even as he listened he forgot his promise, and began planning in his head how he would embellish the tale for his best friend Chew when he got the chance. He squatted down with Nan beside the fire and watched her rubbing together her knobbly hands as she talked, trying and trying to bring warmth to her aching knuckles.
‘You know, of course, that the stew is a kind of medicine,’ she began. ‘When you were small we told you it was good for you. You must eat it up, we said, if you want to grow big and strong. But later, when you were wise enough to understand what we were saying, we taught you something different: something we couldn’t mention earlier because it would have given you nightmares. For generations, we said, the people of Lazarus have suffered from a rare and dangerous illness, a congenital disorder unique to the men and women of our country. From time to time this disease breaks out of our bodies like a monstrous moth breaking out of its cocoon: splitting our skin, twisting our limbs, never failing to kill or cripple its victims. You must eat the stew, we told you, if you wish to stay alive. It’s not just a health-giving supplement; it’s the condition of our existence, as inseparably part of us as our limbs and inner organs.
‘From the moment you heard about this illness, Kark, you knew you were a prisoner. It’s because of this disease, we explained, that we live as we do, in this barren valley hemmed in by mountains. This is our place of quarantine, the island where we’ve been marooned. We were dragged here in chains by men in masks, and forbidden to leave on pain of death. Since then we’ve had little to do with the world beyond. We trade with the men in masks for things we need that the valley doesn’t yield us, spreading out skins and gemstones on blankets, then retreating behind a wall to watch them quarrelling over the pathetic portions of salt and spices they leave us in exchange. But we never go beyond the Seven Passes, never risk the wrath of our jailers. This valley is our prison and the stew is part of our penance for the crime of being sick. That’s how it’s been for thirteen generations, and that’s how it shall be till the end of time.
‘So long as we eat our stew, we’re told, we shall all stay healthy and be left in peace. But if ever any one of us forgets to take our dose – or refuses to take it – or pretends to take it then secretly spews it up – disaster will strike. The disease will burst from our bodies and spread the wings of its contagion from town to town; the Seven Passes will be sealed shut, and we’ll be left to die in solitude, cut off forever from the rest of mankind. Or worse: the men in masks will ride back into the valley, wrapped in protective cloth from head to foot, and kill us all, men, women and children, so as to stamp out the disease before it can infect their families. That’s why old Mrs Chakchak was so horrified when you wouldn’t eat. Poor dear, you mustn’t blame her. She really believes the stories, really thinks her revolting gunk is the key to our salvation.’ Nan laughed wryly and held her hands out to the fire. ‘Trouble is,’ she added, ‘there are as many stories as there are names, and as many explanations for both as there are blades of grass on the distant steppes. Tell me, child, have you learned how our valley got its name?’
Kark nodded. ‘Miss Rikikikik told us it was because of a man called Lazarus who rose from the dead. She said the people who came to the valley were so happy to get away from their troubles that it was as if they had died and been born again, so they named it Lazarus in memory of the man who came back to life. But Mrs Hoo says that’s not true. She says Lazarus was a poor man like us who never had enough to eat, and that he was only ever happy when he died. She says they called the valley Lazarus because the food here was so bad and there was so little of it. How can that be, Nan? Was the valley named after two different people? Or is Miss Rikikikik wrong? Or Mrs Hoo?’
‘People and places get names for many different reasons,’ Nan said. ‘And sometimes old names find new meanings. When I was a child my teacher taught me that the valley got its name not from a person but from a building. She said it came from two words, “lazar house”, which means a place where lepers are sent to live till their illness kills them. A lazar is a leper, and a leper is a man or woman who suffers from a disease called leprosy, which eats away at the flesh till there’s nothing left but a pile of bones. I’ve never seen a leper, but I’m so old and worn out that I sometimes feel like one.’
‘I bet that’s what happened to Kerr,’ cried Kark. ‘She was a leper, and one day she wandered away from home, and got lost in the mountains, and went round and round in circles till her flesh was all eaten away and there was nothing left but the bracelet on her ankle.’
‘Yes, perhaps that’s it,’ said Nan. ‘Perhaps she was a leper. Perhaps we’re all lepers, and the story of Kerr is just a way of making us feel better about ourselves. Like the story of Lazarus who rose from the dead, which is so very much more cheerful than the story of Lazarus who died of hunger.’
She fell silent, gazing into the flames; and it was all Kark could do to persuade her to go on with her story.
Kerr, it seemed, was a little scamp; a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue. (‘Very much like you,’ Nan added with a smile.) Like Kark she complained every Thursday when the bowl was put in front of her; like Kark she was always getting into trouble; and like Kark she got ill one day and refused to eat her stew, despite all the efforts of the woman who made it. But unlike Kark, having once refused her dose Kerr never took another. She would eat only fruit and water. Anything else, whether hidden in spoonfuls of apple pulp or forced between her clenched teeth by members of the Council, simply would not stay down. She got thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker with every passing day, and at the end of the third week her body began to change in other ways. Her skin broke out in pimples, her face became long and sharp with hunger, her legs were covered with flakes or scales of brittle skin, and her chest swelled to make room for the air she was always gasping. The wise old men and women of the valley gathered at her bedside and argued about what was wrong with her.
‘It’s her womanhood,’ said one. ‘She’s becoming a grown woman, and her glands can’t cope. Look at the length of her arms and legs, the joints of her fingers and toes, the girth of her chest. Parts of her body are growing very fast while other parts are wasting away to compensate for the vitamins she isn’t getting in her diet. As soon as she starts to eat normally these things will sort themselves out.’
‘I wish I could agree,’ said another with a sigh. ‘This looks to me like something worse than growing pains. Something very serious is happening to her skin. I would hesitate to diagnoze leprosy; but I see every indication here of a severe skin disorder, and I recommend that the girl be kept in the strictest isolation till time and a better diet have resolved the situation – one way or another.’
‘You’re both talking shit,’ snapped a high-ranking councillor. ‘You know very well what’s happening here, and it won’t do to pussy-foot around it any longer. The girl is going through the Changes. In a matter of days or weeks she will have Changed completely. We must convene an emergency meeting of the Council to decide what’s to be done.’
The wise men and women all drew in their breath at the mention of the Changes. Some of them thought they understood the word; others merely reacted to a term that had acquired an air of mystery from stories and songs they had heard in childhood. But by the time the councillor had ended his address to the emergency meeting, they all knew more than they had known before, and what they knew made them terribly afraid.
‘All of you have heard about the Changes,’ he said. ‘Songs are still being sung and stories told, even if you take them for nursery rhymes and fables. We in the Council have always hoped that these stories and songs would soon be forgotten, replaced by new ones full of comfort: stories with happy endings, songs to lift the heart and point to a brighter future. We put about the story of leprosy to hasten the process of forgetting; but we planned one day to replace that nasty tale with something nicer.
‘More than this, we began to hope for something better than stories. We began to hope that the Changes had indeed stopped working their terrible magic on our bodies. We grew slack in administering the herbal treatments devised by our clever ancestors to keep the Changes at bay. Yet despite our slackness, nothing like this – like what has happened to Kerr – had happened in living memory. The Changes seemed to have become in reality what we’d laboured to make them in the minds of our people: a thing of the past. Very cautiously, we dared to believe that we in the valley were finally free from the curse that has shaped our history. In a few generations, we told ourselves, we shall leave the valley for good, and our children’s children shall live in the world of men in perfect safety.
‘Now, it seems, our hopes have been dashed. After only three weeks without her dose, a girl of the valley has begun to show signs of metamorphosis. Our curse has returned, and if the news gets out we may suffer appalling consequences. We shall be persecuted, isolated, put to the sword. We must see to it, then, that no word of her condition leaves this room. Silence is now, as it has always been, our best protection. I have every confidence in your secrecy. The people of Lazarus are skilled in the ways of silence – that’s why we are still alive. But those who have forgotten how to hold their tongues will find that the Council has not yet forgotten how to punish.
‘How to deal with the girl herself? We must be humane: that’s one of the conditions under which we aspire to recover our full humanity. I propose that our safest course is to put her in one of the bothies on the lower slopes of the mountains. The opinion of my wise friend must be spread about the homesteads: that she has contracted leprosy, and that nobody may come near her till every trace of infection has been cleansed from her limbs. We will place her under careful surveillance. With any luck she will quickly return to health without going any further along the road to metamorphosis. But if she does undergo the Changes we must think again. It will be very difficult to keep her condition quiet once the Changes have been allowed to run their course.
‘In the meantime, do not lose heart. It is quite possible that the situation is not as grave as it seems. We have every reason to suppose that our original diagnosis was correct, and that the people of the valley are no longer so susceptible to their ancient curse as once they were. It may well be that this is a freak occurrence – a final parting blow from the disorder that has dogged our destiny for so long. It may well be that nothing of this kind will ever happen again. For generations we have watched our fears subside and the promise of freedom flourish. If properly handled, we may look back on this incident in years to come as the last savage stroke from a dying monster before it and its kind are stamped out for ever.’
So Kerr was moved from her elder sister’s cottage to a bothy at the edge of the valley, and a guard was set to watch her. The councillor who had proposed this course of action visited her every day with other members of the Council to monitor the progress of her symptoms. They gave it as their opinion that the Changes, if they were to happen, would take place at the next full moon. They were wrong. They had worked so hard to erase all reference to what they called the Curse that they had forgotten how to recognize the tell-tale signs of its imminence. Added to this, the harvest was in full swing, and all the people of the valley were working from dawn till dusk to gather in the meagre crops and prepare their produce for the coming winter. The councillors were as busy as the rest, and no doubt their inspections were more perfunctory than they ought to have been. The guard appointed to watch the girl was an elderly councillor too weak to take part in the harvest. The woman swore she didn’t need much sleep, being old, and so could keep an eye on Kerr by night as well as by day. But she was lying; she spent the night and most of the day in bed with her eyes tight shut and her mouth wide open. So she took her little granddaughter to stay with her in the bothy, with strict instructions to wake her up if anyone approached. Each day she fell asleep before sunset and slept through to the following noon. She was fast asleep when the Changes came, and the only person who saw what happened was the wakeful granddaughter. ‘And that little girl,’ said Nan, ‘was me.’
‘She was you!’ cried Kark, amazed. ‘So you saw everything! What did you see?’
‘What did I see? I’ll tell you. I saw that the Changes were not a disease after all. I saw something that has stayed in my memory ever since, and which I’ve ached all my life to describe to my friends and family. Something that frightened me half to death and yet filled me with unbearable happiness, and which still fills me with fear and happiness whenever I think of it. What I saw made me hate and despise the Council forever, because of their secrets and lies, and because of the terrible things they threatened me with if I should ever let a hint of it pass my lips.
‘What did I see? I saw Kerr Change. One minute she was tossing and turning on a bed of bracken. The next she had thrown off the bedclothes and leapt into the middle of the floor, sweat streaming from her limbs as if her flesh was melting. Feathers sprang from her outstretched fingers. Her legs seemed to buckle and bend in the wrong direction, her horrible misshapen toes dug furrows in the dirt as they turned to claws. Her face seemed to split in two as her jaws stretched wide to let out an inhuman scream. When they shut at last they had become a beak. She turned her back on me and a bristling armoury of quills was forcing its way through her trembling shoulders. I screamed more loudly than she had, and she turned to stare at me with an eye that had turned bright yellow and lost its whites. Then she gave a second leap, and sprang straight out of a hole in the bothy roof. Nobody ever saw her again. Not as Kerr, at any rate, although some of us may have seen her as a bird.’
‘A bird!’ cried Kark. ‘Was she a bird-woman, then – a witch, like the ones in stories?’
‘She was,’ said Nan. ‘And so am I, and so are you, young man. This is what the Council has been trying to hide from us for so long. This is the disease from which we suffer. This is what we are. We’re not lepers. We’re not even ill. We are shape-shifters like the ones in the stories, and the stew we take each Thursday is no medicine but a drug designed to prevent us from becoming ourselves. We are the Bird People, and if we do not take our medicine we turn into birds when the Changes come, as Kerr did, and fly through the air like angels.’
‘But why?’ Kark asked, bewildered. ‘Why don’t they want us to turn into birds? Is it wrong?’
‘It’s very wrong. Wrong of the Council to hide our gifts from us. Wrong of those of us who know to keep quiet about it. Wrong of Mrs Chakchak to force her stinking stew on us without explaining what it’s for. And wrong that we have to live in fear of the Changeless Ones, the men in masks from beyond the valley who drove us out of the fertile lands because of their fear and ignorance. But I haven’t finished with the story of Kerr.
‘As soon as Kerr flew out through the roof, the little girl ran to wake her Nan, and the poor old woman began to shriek at the top of her voice. She had no idea what to make of the little girl’s story; she only knew that her charge had escaped and that the Council would punish her severely for her negligence. Then the door burst open and a man rushed in. It was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting. “What in God’s name was that?” he cried. “It was Kerr, sir,” said the little girl. “She’s turned into a bird,” and she held up a long brown feather for his inspection. He stood there in amazement, looking from feather to bed to the shrieking old woman, who had now begun to pull out her hair in handfuls. “So it has come to this,” he said at last, and left the shack without another word.
‘He went straight to the village and organized the fittest villagers into search-parties. “A giant bird has carried Kerr away,” he told them. “It flew down from the mountains, smashed a hole in the roof of the bothy and snatched her from her bed. We must find the bird and rescue the girl or avenge her death. Follow me!” But before he led the searchers to the mountains he sent certain trusted Councillors to watch the old woman and the little girl, and to keep them prisoners in the bothy till his return. The prisoners were not to speak about what they had seen, and not to have any visitors until they had been thoroughly examined by the Council.’
Their imprisonment, said Nan, lasted for three long months. When the old woman and her granddaughter had entered the shack to watch over Kerr, the valley had been sweltering in the thunderous dying days of late summer. By the time they left, November storms like savage birds had torn the leaves from the poor stunted trees of the valley orchards and the mountains were white with snow. The prisoners were never subjected to the threatened examination. For the first month the search parties combed the mountains in vain, finding no trace of Kerr or of the bird that had carried her off. The most energetic of the searchers was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting; and in the second month his energy killed him. He set out with two younger men to explore a cave in a cliff-face, and fell to his death as he struggled to swing himself into the cave mouth. In the third month a shepherd found the bones of Kerr, picked dry by scavengers, with the silver bracelet among them. The old woman and her granddaughter were released at once, with orders never to mention the lost girl again. The old woman found these orders easy enough to comply with. She had gone quite mad during her confinement, and died within a month of being released. The little girl kept her secret with more difficulty, but she kept it for many years.
‘And now,’ Nan added, ‘she has told it to her grandson. I can’t think what possessed her to speak out. Perhaps she has simply grown too old to keep her mouth shut. Perhaps she thinks that the truth should not be lost. Or perhaps she saw something of Kerr in the boy who refused to eat his stew. In any case, she hopes that the story will bring colour to her grandson’s dreams, as he lives out his life in this dreary mountain prison where we’ve shut ourselves up for no good reason. So that at least his dreams can escape from confinement, as hers have done each night since she saw a girl turn into a bird.
‘But there’s a price to pay for the knowledge I’ve given you. For your sake and mine you must never tell a soul, unless you trust him with your life, as I trust you. The councillor who died said one wise thing: that silence is our best protection. You should think very carefully before you forfeit the safety of silence. Remember this: by staying silent you will be protecting me as well as yourself. Now off to bed with you, and never let me hear another word about Kerr, or stew, or the Changes.’
Kark went to bed as he was told, but he could not sleep because his head was buzzing with the things Nan had told him. So he was one of the bird people! And if he didn’t eat Mrs Chakchak’s stew he would take to the air and fly like an angel! Ever since he had first heard stories of men and women who could change their bodies as ordinary people change their clothes he had yearned with all his heart to be one of them. And now his wishes had been granted, his dreams made flesh! Whatever Nan said, it was not enough for his dreams to remain just that: vivid pictures in his head, good for nothing but to while away the dreary valley winters. He did not think he would ever sleep again until he had found out whether he too could change as Kerr had changed, could share with her the adventure of the skies. But to find this out he would need help, and to get help he would have to betray his grandmother’s confidence.
As it happened, Kark had a friend called Chew Chew whom he would have trusted with his life. The very next day he was due to meet up with Chew Chew to plan a rabbit-hunting trip into the hills. Before Kark fell asleep he had begun to work out a scheme for testing the effects of not taking his dose, and by the time he woke next morning the scheme was fully formed in his head. They would go for the hunting trip as planned; but they would stay away just long enough to make folks at home uneasy. After a week or so Chew Chew would go back to the village and tell the villagers that he and Kark had got lost in the hills in fog, and that they had later lost each other. Meanwhile Kark would hide in a place they had found when they were children, in a lonely wooded corner of the valley. While search parties looked for Kark in the hills, Chew Chew would creep out of his parents’ house under cover of darkness and bring food to where Kark could collect it, together with information about where the searchers were planning to look in the days ahead. If nothing had happened to Kark after several weeks, he would return to the village with a story of some kind to explain his absence. If something did happen, on the other hand… somehow or other he would find a way to let Chew Chew know what had become of him.
Chew Chew was not as keen on the plan as Kark had expected. For one thing, it seemed to him that the most dangerous and least glamorous part of it fell to his share: something that was perfectly true, and hadn’t crossed Kark’s mind. Chew Chew’s parents were councillors and strict disciplinarians. They would react angrily to Chew Chew’s disappearance, and it would be hard for him to slip away after that, even under cover of darkness. It took all Kark’s eloquence to persuade his friend that he was getting a good deal out of the scheme. It was Kark who was acting the part of the human guinea-pig, and Chew Chew would eventually reap the reward of knowing the result of their experiment without having to undergo the Changes himself. Chew Chew finally agreed to do what Kark wanted, but he insisted that the experiment should last no longer than three weeks, and that he should deliver food to Kark no more than twice a week. ‘They’ll notice it’s gone from the storage bins, I know they will,’ he moaned, and Kark felt compelled to smuggle a lot of dried goods out of Nan’s inadequate winter supply so as to reduce the risk of his friend’s being exposed as a thief.
Even then Chew Chew complained all the way to the hills the following week. He complained about the weight of the blankets and clothes Kark had insisted they take with them. He complained about the weather, which drizzled as steadily as he did. He complained about the camp-site they had chosen, which turned out to be the only patch of marsh for miles around, and which reduced all their clothes and blankets to the colour and consistency of mud. Kark bullied him into staying away from the village for a week; but once Thursday had passed and they had missed their first dose of Mrs Chakchak’s concoction Kark almost began to regret that his friend had let himself be persuaded.
‘I feel so strange,’ moaned Chew Chew. ‘My skin burns all over and I’ve got a sore throat. What if your Nan was wrong and the stew is really a medicine to stop us falling ill? What if we get so ill in the next few days that I’m too weak to go home on Sunday?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you that a hot bath wouldn’t cure,’ Kark scoffed. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if you were infested with fleas by now. If you’d take a dip in the stream from time to time, like me, your skin would feel as soft as a feather bed.’
‘Me, swim!’ cried Chew Chew. ‘You must be crazy. That stream’s far too cold to swim in – you’ll catch pneumonia. And for God’s sake don’t talk about feathers. It’s you who wants to turn into a bird, not me. Every morning as soon as I wake up I have to feel myself all over to make sure I’ve not turned into a chicken or a goose. I wish I was at home. At least there I get to sleep on feathers instead of growing them.’
Chew Chew didn’t turn into a chicken, and at the week’s end he went home as they had planned. But he did not come back the following week, nor the week after that. In the meantime Kark made his way across the valley to the hole in the ground where he had meant to live out the course of the Changes. But he found that it had filled with water in the recent downpour, and instead he set up camp under an overhanging rock screened by bushes, which afforded him scant protection against the perishing autumn wind. From the top of the rock he watched as search-parties scoured the valley. Often he had to take cover when a party came too close; and once, when he was checking one of the snares he had set for rabbits, a hunter passed within inches of his nose, and he had to hold his breath until she was out of earshot. Every night he went to the hollow tree which Chew Chew and he had chosen for a meeting place; and every night he returned home angry and disappointed. But he did not think for a moment of abandoning his scheme. He had only to think of the triumph that would be written on Mrs Chakchak’s face as he humbly accepted her stew, or of the tears that would shine in Nan’s eyes as he confessed to his robberies, and his determination to stay where he was grew stronger.
As the days went by his body grew stronger. He hardly noticed how hard and long his legs were growing, or how thick his chest, or how sharp his jawbone. Indeed, he thought less and less after the first fortnight. Instead he concentrated on catching enough food to live on. He ran after deer with the aid of his increasingly powerful thighs. He watched for pigeons, bow in hand, with eyes that could now pick out every detail of the lichen on a rock many hundreds of yards away, and he patrolled his network of snares with the vigilance of a glutton. He no longer bothered to cook the meat he ate. At first he told himself that this was because it was too risky to light a fire, but after a few days he found himself relishing the gush of blood from a fresh kill as it ran down his gullet and settled warm in his stomach. And he also began to relish his anger. He was angry with Chew Chew for failing him; angry with the hunters for seeking to bring him home; angry with the Council for trying to rob him of the freedom he craved; and angry with the rain for running down the back of his neck. Anger gave him invisible wings when he hunted, and anger woke him with all his senses alert when a strange noise startled him awake in the dark.
Then one night, as he crouched in the hollow tree nursing his anger, he heard footsteps approaching. The fallen leaves made it sound as though an army were wading its way towards him through the drifts, but when he peered through a crack in the old oak’s trunk he saw only Chew Chew, stumbling and snivelling and calling a name which it took him several seconds to recognize as his own.
Kark stepped out of the oak at once and grabbed Chew Chew by the wrist. His friend gave a shriek and fell to his knees. ‘Who are you?’ he gasped. ‘It’s never Kark, is it?’
‘Of course it is,’ Kark snapped in his new hoarse voice. ‘But I’m the one who should be asking questions. Where in God’s name have you been? What happened to the supplies you promised you’d bring me? What’s going on down in the village? I ought to break your arm for leaving me alone like this.’
‘Please don’t hurt me!’ Chew Chew squealed. ‘We’re best friends, remember? It’s not my fault I couldn’t come earlier. My parents knew all about our plan. When I got home they shut me in the shed for thieving, and I had nothing to eat, and I was tired and sick, and I had to tell them – no, no, I never told them where you were hiding! But it was a stupid plan, Kark, it could never have worked, and you’ve got to come home with me now or – or they’ll hunt you with dogs!’
‘My Nan!’ Kark hissed. ‘You didn’t tell them anything about her, did you? Say you didn’t!’
‘I couldn’t help it! They wanted to know where you heard about the Changes, and they could tell when I was lying! But don’t worry, she’s all right! She said so when they drove her out of the village. She’s wanted to leave the valley all her life, only she never had the courage! She must be half way to the outside world by now, and she took plenty of food, and she seemed so pleased to be going!’
‘I’ll kill you for this,’ Kark snarled, clacking his teeth together. ‘How did you get away from the village? Were you followed?’
‘Don’t! Please don’t! It’s not my fault! They made me!’
As Chew Chew spoke, a branch shook behind him. Kark knew at once that several people must be hidden in the trees, waiting to see if Chew could persuade him to walk into their ambush. He let out a cry that was more like a croak than a word, flung Chew Chew to the ground and began to run.
The wood seemed to burst into life around him, hunters detaching themselves from branches and trunks like leaves torn away by an autumn gale. A wild excitement coursed through Kark’s body, and he leaped over streams and fallen trees as if he were flying. The pain of his running intensified with every leap, but this only gave him greater strength. With one last bound he broke free of the trees and found himself skimming over the heather of an open hillside. Sticks and stones rattled against the rocks and buried themselves in peat on either side. He tore off his few remaining clothes to help himself run faster. Balloons of air filled his agonized lungs and made him buoyant; he swept aside swathes of air with his arms like a swimmer; his feet barely touched the golden fronds of bracken that stretched out to catch him.
He looked back once to gauge the distance between himself and his nearest pursuer, and saw the pale faces of the hunters far below, their mouths gaping wide in astonishment, their spears and bows hanging forgotten in their hands. The hill had dropped away, he was falling into the star-filled sky, frantically flapping his arms in an effort to keep his balance. For a moment he felt giddy and terrified. Then he forgot his giddiness and terror, forgot everything but the roll and surge of the wind beneath his wings, the roar of it in his ears, the rush of it through his feathers.
Last month I published a blog post about Ursula Le Guin’s relationship with her mother, Theodora Kroeber, which took as one of its central metaphors the notion of a necklace: an object that is simultaneously single and multiple, fixed in time and sequential. If you trace the beads or links with your fingers you can turn a necklace into a rosary or set of prayer beads, a tool for contemplation, and it becomes something that both exists all at once in the present moment and measures the passing of time, since the prayers or mantras you utter as you move from bead to bead take time to utter. As a rosary, though, it’s also timeless, since the experience of praying or meditating makes you lose track of time’s passing altogether. The metaphor of the necklace, I argued, has a central place both in Le Guin’s writing and her philosophy, especially in the first part of her career. What I didn’t mention in the post, however, was the transformation of the necklace metaphor that takes place in her most complex novel, The Dispossessed (1974). This transformation explains, I think, why the metaphor ceased to be of importance to her from that time forward. After writing that novel she had done all she could with necklaces, and moved on to develop other metaphors, such as the two kinds of spider’s web that lie at the heart of her fantasy novels The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), or the dancing spirals of Always Coming Home (1985).
The necklace metaphor, I argued, may well derive from Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds (1962), about the last of the Yahi people of North California, a man called Ishi, who lived the final years of his life as an employee of the museum run by her husband, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Theodora Kroeber describes the work of Ishi’s biographer as resembling that of an archaeologist who tries to string together an old necklace found in a dig:
There follows an account of all that is surely and truly known of him. What he believed and felt and did in the modern world and, earlier, in his own world are the bone beads of his story. The stringing of such of these beads as could be recovered onto a single strand has been my task. Surprisingly, the circle of his life’s necklace appears whole despite its many incompletions.
The passage both illustrates the beautiful cadences of Kroeber’s prose, at times so like her daughter’s, and suggests why Le Guin would have been drawn to Ishi’s story: any talk of walking from one world to another was bound to appeal to an inventor of worlds. The metaphor, too, is interesting in its talk of life not as a chronological line but as a circle; and one wonders if this circularity was conjured up by the strangeness of Ishi’s appearance in modern California, when he ‘completed a trip,’ as Kroeber put it, ‘out of the Stone Age into the clang and glare of the Iron Age – a place of clocks and hours and a calendar; of money and labor and pay; of government and authority; of newspapers and business’ (p. 120). In making this trip Ishi became ‘a modern man, a city dweller with a street address’, and in the process showed both how the same historical period can contain inhabitants from different stages of technological development, and how so-called ‘primitive’ cultures are in fact just as rich and complex as ‘highly-developed’ ones – something Kroeber sought to stress repeatedly in her book, by comments like the one I’ve just quoted, in which she transforms Ishi from a Stone Age man to a modern city-dweller with a touch of her verbal wand.
Just a year after Kroeber published her biography Le Guin wrote her short story ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’ (1964, written 1963), reprinted as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ in her great short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1976). In between, the story had also appeared as the prologue to Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966). The replacement of ‘dowry’ with ‘necklace’ in the title of the short story on its second printing is surely no accident: it draws attention to the object at the centre of the narrative, and so to the circular structure of the story, in which a woman from a ‘primitive’ culture on an obscure planet journeys to an interstellar museum on a spaceship travelling at near light speed, then returns home, only to discover that her friends have grown old, her child grown to adulthood and her husband died in her absence. The reason for her journey is that the economy of her people has been destroyed by the appearance from space of the ‘Starlords’ in their vessels, wielding weapons beyond the imagining of Semley’s people, and abruptly putting an end to the culture of warfare by which the rulers of her people have sustained themselves since time immemorial. As a result the rulers’ fortresses have been reduced to mouldering ruins; and in an attempt to revive the fortunes of the ruling-class family into which she has married, Semley goes in quest of the necklace of the title, a treasure passed down through generations by her ancestors before it was lost. She needs the necklace for her dowry and hopes that it will somehow restore the glories of the past to her diminished household. The necklace, then, represents a return to the past for Semley, and it involves a series of retrograde motions as she looks for it.
The first of these motions takes place when she mounts a windsteed – a giant flying cat – to look for the treasure. ‘Married women of the Angyar,’ the narrator tells us, ‘never rode for sport, and Semley had not been from Hallan since her marriage; so now, mounting the high saddle of a windsteed, she felt like a girl again, like the wild maiden she had been, riding half-broken steeds on the north wind over the fields of Kirien’ (p. 15). Semley’s marriage, then, has involved a taming, a narrowing down of possibilities after the wild promise of her active girlhood, and she reverses this process as she returns to the activity of her youth. The second retrograde movement is to her father’s house, which she finds in a worse state than when she left it; and the third is to the mines of the dwarflike Clayfolk who made the necklace long ago, before her family acquired it. Meanwhile she is warned three times (as in a fairy tale) that her quest for the necklace is an act of folly, driven by false values: a desire for what she doesn’t have which prevents her from appreciating the value of what she has. Her friend Durossa tells her that she herself is more precious than gold, being ‘Semley who shines like a falling star, Semley whose husband loves no gold but the gold of her hair’ (p. 14). And the elf-like Fiia among whom she inquires after the necklace find value only in the gold they discover in the cycle of the seasons – as well as in Semley: ‘For us there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair of our lady of Kirien; no other gold’ (p. 17). The third and final warning is the ‘wheedling’ note that creeps into the voices of the Clayfolk as they invite her to enter their mines to seek the necklace – a note she ‘would not hear’ (p. 19) – and the unpleasant grins they display as they promise her she will return ‘very soon’ from her flight through space to fetch it. The Clayfolk, like Durossa and the Fiia, are obsessed by her golden hair, laying their ‘heavy grey hands’ on it in the spaceship until she rebels against this intimacy (p. 25). On the journey, deprived of light, she begins to yearn for its return, and faints with relief – or the pressure of gravity – when ‘the light flashed golden, at the window’ as she docks at the museum (p. 25). Circle after circle is offered to her as she looks for the circle of gold, each one illustrating the obsolescence of the thing she seeks, the impossibility of going back in time to the same spot as before, the relativity of time itself, which moves in different ways depending on where one places oneself to witness its passage. As the Clayfolk promise, her journey takes only one night – there are no days, after all, in space – and she returns home safely to her husband’s stronghold. She even meets herself there in the shape of her daughter Haldre, who ‘stood beside Durossa, gazing with steady eyes at this woman Semley who was her mother and her own age. Their age was the same, and their gold hair, and their beauty. Only Semley was a little taller, and wore the blue stone on her breast’ (p. 30). But Semley’s husband has gone, her dowry is therefore useless, and her home no longer a home but a ruin for her. She has come back from her interstellar journey, but found herself a stranger in her house, and runs away from it ‘like some wild thing escaping’ into obscurity, ironically becoming once again the ‘wild maiden she had been’ before her marriage. For Semley, the circle of her life was a trap, not an endless rediscovery of richness as the cycle of the seasons was for the Fiia. And her end becomes a lament for the victims who have been destroyed over so many generations and millennia by the encounter between cultures, by the clash between post-industrial technology and more ancient modes of living, between past and future.
‘Wild things’ like the tormented Semley of the story’s end cannot be contained between four walls. Ishi was described by some of the modern men who met him as a ‘wild Indian’. Ishi died of a disease caught from those modern men. The coexistence of different times or historical periods in a single world can be a toxic business. The modern man, Rocannon, who gives Semley the necklace when she comes to the interstellar museum, has no appreciation of her perspective on time despite his genuine interest in her, despite his recognition that she has a complex history to which he has no access. His colleague observes that the necklace must be of great value both to her and the Clayfolk, since they have given up so many years for the mission to fetch it – referring to the years they have sacrificed in order to travel so far at the speed of light. Rocannon’s response is unintentionally dismissive: ‘“Several years, no doubt,” said the hilfer, who was used to starjumping. “Not very far”’ (p. 27). But for Semley the distance is far enough to kill her. The distance between their perspectives, in other words, is Semley’s happiness, Semley’s family, Semley’s lifetime.
‘Semley’s Necklace’ is about a journey between the past, represented by Semley with her feudal values, and the future, in the form of the Starlords. A decade after writing this story Le Guin returned to the encounter between times, between historical periods; and when she did so she also returned to the necklace metaphor. The Dispossessed too is a circular story, describing the journey of the physicist Shevek from his home world of Anarres to its sister planet Urras and back again; a journey from a possible future for the human race (Anarres is an experiment in anarchism on a scale that has not yet been tried on Earth) to what for Shevek is the past (Urras is the planet from which his people, the Annaresti, originally set out to conduct their social experiment on Anarres), and then back to the future, the planet of Anarres where his personal journey started. For Le Guin’s first readers in the 1970s, on the other hand, Urras would have looked very much like the present, since the dominant capitalist culture on that planet is locked in a war of attrition with a socialist enemy, mirroring the political scene on the Earth they lived in – so that for them Shevek’s journey takes him from the future to the present and back again to the future. But past, present and future are all a matter of perspective; for an Einsteinian physicist they are relative, since all exist at once in the stupendously large object which is the space-time continuum. Relativism is in fact built into the novel’s structure, whose narrative famously alternates between chapters set on Anarres, which tell the story of Shevek’s life from his childhood to the moment when he decides to go to Urras, and chapters set on Urras, which tell of his experiences from the time he sets off for Urras to the time he returns to Anarres. Each set of chapters occurs at a different time in Shevek’s life, yet they are presented to us side by side, as if to illustrate the fact that time and space can be viewed as a single vast unchanging object if like Einstein, Minkowski and H G Wells one understands time or duration as the fourth dimension of space.
Although Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again takes time for him, and so can be read as a single uninterrupted narrative, Anarres and Urras also coexist, although there is little communication between them – very much as Ishi and his family coexisted with what Kroeber calls ‘modern man’, although the two communities did not interact until the last five years of Ishi’s life. From one perspective, then, the past and the future coexist at the same time in Le Guin’s novel – although it is a matter of perspective as to which planet you see as representing which. For many of the inhabitants of Urras, Shevek and his fellow anarchists are primitives, wild men who understand little of the complexities of capitalist life. For Shevek, as I said before, Urras is his past – but when he visits the planet he discovers that the future exists there too: there are anarchists among the Urrasti, who are struggling to bring about an anarchist society on Urras in imitation of the one on Anarres. And he already knew when he came to Urras that there were representatives of the capitalist past on Anarres; it was because of the capitalistic impulses of some of his fellow physicists on Anarres that Shevek decided to travel to Urras to complete work on his major work, an attempt to unite the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in physics. Urras, in other words, contains in itself the seeds of the anarchist future, while Anarres contains in itself the seeds of regression to the capitalist past. Shevek’s journey executes a circular movement which finds echoes in other potential circular movements taking place in the unfolding histories of the two worlds he inhabits.
As in ‘Semley’s Necklace’, then, there are circles within circles in The Dispossessed, and the fate of Anarres hangs delicately poised between regression to capitalism and the ‘infinite promise’ of a continued commitment to anarchist principles. This balance might have been represented as a necklace, and it very nearly is; but a necklace doesn’t convey the problem of keeping balance, or the constant motion that makes keeping balance necessary, although it neatly invokes the idea of the circle or cycle. As a result, Le Guin places at the centre of her novel a mobile instead of a necklace, which nevertheless carries within it a memory of the past in its resemblance to that item of jewellery.
The mobile in question is one of several which Shevek’s lifelong partner Takver brings with her when the couple move in together, on Anarres, for the first time. These mobiles represent an idea which lies at the centre of the novel: the idea of the promise or bond, the commitment to future fidelity, to going on living together as equals, which Shevek and Takver offer each other before they begin their cohabitation. A promise is a verbal statement made in a narrow space of time which contains within it an implied succession of future actions; in the case of a connubial promise between two people it can be understood to bind both parties to one another for the rest of their lives. A commitment to anarchy could be seen as a similar promise; anarchy can only work if all parties involved in it commit themselves to lifelong observance of its principles; and keeping that promise is as difficult and worthwhile a thing as keeping an eye on the growing child which might or might not be the fruit of a lifelong partnership. As the Annaresti put it in the poem we hear repeatedly throughout the novel:
O child Anarchia, infinite promise
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child (p. 86)
In this poem the child or promise is suspended precariously in the deep night like a planet. But the mobiles that symbolise the promise of lifelong commitment between Shevek and Takver have more in common, it seems, with entire solar systems than with single worlds; each mobile seems to resemble an orrery or mechanical model of planets in orbit round a sun, being made up of ‘complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling. [Takver] had made these with scrap wire and tools from the craft supply depot, and called them Occupations of Uninhabited Space’ (p. 156). These Occupations become a study aid for Shevek, hanging above his desk as he struggles to reconcile sequency – the notion that one moment in time follows another – with simultaneity, the notion that two different moments in time can occur simultaneously when looked at from the right perspective. At this point in the narrative the ‘inward’ movement of the mobiles resembles the operations of the human body and brain rather than the planets moving round the sun: ‘The delicate concentric mobiles hanging at different levels overhead moved with the introverted precision, silence, mystery of the organs of the body or the processes of the reasoning mind’ (p. 160). A little later they come to stand for the coexistence of loving partners, but also of worlds running on parallel orbits in a solar system – the orrery once again: ‘“Why does it look so beautiful?”’ Takver asks as she looks with Shevek out of their apartment window at Urras, while above them ‘the Occupations of Uninhabited Space hung, dim’ (p. 161). The promise that binds the couple gives Shevek an insight into how different perspectives and timelines can coexist while involved in constant sequential change; this is because the promise is a verbal statement that reconciles the present and the future, and that retains its meaning as it recedes into the past. In these ways it is very much like one of the mobiles; but each mobile is also very much like the necklace invoked in Kroeber’s preface – both in its circular motion and in its multiple significations.
This resemblance is noticed later in the novel, appropriately enough, by the couple’s daughter Sadik, who is one of the fruits or consequences of their promise or bond. After a long absence from his partner and child, brought about by the need for all Annaresti to stave off a calamitous drought on their infertile planet, Shevek moves back into Takver’s room and unpacks his things. One of the objects he takes out of his case is a mobile, which, as he reveals it ‘with some mystery’ to his daughter, becomes momentarily as strange to the reader as to her, ‘a curious object which as it lay in the case appeared to consist of a series of flat loops of wire and a few glass beads’ (p. 268). At first the child thinks it’s a necklace – and we are told that an unsophisticated delight in jewellery is common in rural places (as opposed to ‘sophisticated’ urban centres) all over Anarres, where ‘the deep connection between the aesthetic and the acquisitive was simply not worried about’ (p, 268). The necklace here represents, among other things, the anxiety over whether possessing something not strictly necessary can lead to a habit of self-indulgent possessiveness; and by extension the necklace can also be taken to stand for the problem of promising fidelity in an anarchy, which can give rise to habits of possessiveness between the couple concerned. Both things – a necklace and a lifelong partnership – can seem old-fashioned, like the necklace being pieced together by an archaeologist in Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds – though Le Guin is insistent that this view is merely a matter of perspective, and that there are many Anarresti who do not share it. In the same way, the object Shevek removes from his suitcase is from one point of view a symbol of the past – of the time when he and Tavker sealed their lifelong bond; but it is also a symbol of his continuing fidelity to that bond, his unbroken faith.
But the object is not in fact a necklace, as the reader knows, though Sadik doesn’t. It’s something kinetic, not fixed, something that embraces both partners, not just one, something that is always changing in time while remaining the same:
‘No, look,’ her father said, and with solemnity and deftness raised the object by the thread that connected its several loops. Hanging from his hand it came alive, the loops turning freely, describing airy spheres one within the other, the glass beads catching the lamp-light.
‘Oh, beauty!’ the child said. ‘What is it?’ (p. 268)
Shevek doesn’t tell her what it is, perhaps because there’s no exact answer. It’s something her mother made, and it’s one of the Occupations of Uninhabited Space, and it’s a mobile, and it’s a form of beauty (as Sadik points out), and it’s a symbol, but it wouldn’t be possible to sum up all these aspects of the object to the satisfaction of a child. But when Takver promises to make another one for Sadik there are tears in her eyes. The mobile’s fragile representation of change and continuity, of sequency and simultaneity, summarizes something that affects her profoundly – the endurance of affect itself in despite of change. And this affect embraces the daughter as well as the parents, and so also promises (since she represents a new generation) to extend itself outwards in time to embrace the wider community of Anarres, and perhaps Urras, and perhaps much more.
As it transpires, Shevek doesn’t take the surviving Occupation of Uninhabited Space with him to Urras. In fact, the Occupation disappears (as far as I can find) after the chapter I’ve just cited, where the couple come together again after long absence, to be replaced with another mobile. A few chapters later – towards the end of the book, in the chapter where Shevek makes up his mind to go to Urras – we are introduced to this new thing, hanging over the heads of the physicist and the couple’s second child, their second living promise, a girl called Pilun:
Behind his head and the child’s, the single mobile hanging in this room oscillated slightly. It was a large piece made of wires pounded flat, so that edge-on they all but disappeared, making the ovals into which they were fashioned flicker at intervals, vanishing, as did, in certain lights, the two thin, clear bubbles of glass that moved with the oval wires in complexly interwoven ellipsoid orbits about the common centre, never quite meeting, never entirely parting. Takver called it the Inhabitation of Time. (p. 303)
This mobile is described in greater detail than any so far. The number of beads is specified: there are two, as there are two of Shevek and Takver. The term ‘orbit’ is used to described their simultaneous and complementary but separate movements, which makes them analogous to planets, perhaps Urras and Anarres. The effect of appearances and disappearances ‘in certain lights’ (‘lights’ is another term for ‘perspectives’) makes their relationship seem more tenuous than the motions of the earlier mobiles, as is appropriate for a moment in the novel when the couple are about to separate physically and occupy two different planets. But by this time in the novel we also know that their experiences on each planet will echo each other; in every alternate chapter set on one planet there are clear echoes or reflections of events in a contiguous chapter set on the other. From this point onwards, as we know, the couple will occupy the same sequence of time in different places, never touching but always complementary, always definitively in relation to one another. And they are not trapped in this condition; the fact that this is a new mobile means there is the possibility of a further mobile being fashioned from the same materials, in which the beads are poised in a different relationship. The mobile is a model of the novel we have just been reading, all of whose parts contribute to the motions, the double narrative orbits of the whole, all of whose ideas offer the possibility of further ideas to be sown and cultivated outside the orbits of the novel itself.
The word ‘Inhabitation’ as applied to this new mobile suggests that it represents, as a whole, the idea of home – a concept that’s utterly central to Le Guin’s thinking. Anarres is Shevek’s home – the place where he was born, the place where his partner and children live. But he also recognises Urras as home, the place all Anarresti originally came from, and where new prospective anarchists are still engaged in the political struggle that produced Anarres. The two worlds are complementary – neither can thrive without the other, in economic or physical terms. Remove one of these planets and the orbit of the other will be drastically and probably devastatingly altered. The mobile is a promise that the two places will cohabit, which is confirmed as it is made, since the two places do cohabit within a single solar system, a single home. So much for the name of the last mobile we meet in the novel. But what about those earlier mobiles, the Occupations of Uninhabited Space? What does Takver’s name for them signify?
One of the things it signifies, I think, is the refusal to colonize or be colonized. Ishi and his family refused to be colonized, choosing to live apart from and without commerce with the colonizers who occupied the Californian space around their desert home. The Anarresti likewise refuse to be colonized by the Urrasti, barring entry to and exit from their single spaceport to anyone but the most carefully vetted guests. And they themselves are not colonists of their planet; it was unoccupied when they came there, except by a temporary population of miners who were permitted to stay or leave as they thought fit. There are hardly any living species of any kind on its inhospitable surface apart from the Anarresti themselves. When they emigrated from Urras they occupied a space that was uninhabited, and brought with them an ideal that had been untried by their community, though no doubt an anarchism like theirs had been tried elsewhere in the vastness of the universe at some point. That ideal too, then, was an unoccupied space as far as they were concerned, and their move to Anarres was a promise to put it into practice; just as Shevek and Takver’s decision to move in together was a promise to put the hitherto unoccupied space of lifelong partnership into practice for the very first time – that is, for the first time in their lives, and from their perspective.
The two mobiles or sets of mobiles – the Inhabitation of Time and the Occupations of Uninhabited Space – come together in the final chapter of the novel, as Shevek returns to Anarres after solving his quest to reconcile the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity during his stay on Urras. The chapter opens with a return to the concept of the mobiles, which are descended from Kroeber’s necklace. First there are the two planets, Urras and Anarres, in complementary orbits:
Before they broke orbit, the view-ports were filled with the cloudy turquoise of Urras, immense and beautiful. But the ship turned, and the stars came into sight, and Anarres among them like a round bright rock: moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time. (p. 314)
The reference to a rock being thrown takes us back to the beginning of the novel, when the child Shevek stumbled independently on one of Zeno’s paradoxes: if a stone is thrown at a tree it can never hit the tree because it will only ever cover half the distance to the tree, then half again, then half again – in which case how can contact ever be made? Shevek’s career as a physicist was dedicated to solving that paradox, and by this final chapter we know he has solved it by the simplest of procedures: by assuming that the stone does make contact and working out a formula that explains this seemingly impossible occurrence. At the same time the reference in the passage to this rock revolving in a perpetual circle suggests time’s inescapable circularity, the fact that all things everywhere are occurring at once, simultaneously, when viewed from the right perspective. The irreconcilable paradox, in other words, remains even after Shevek has found a formula that seems to resolve it. This is why his formula permits instantaneous communication or contact between any two points in the universe, with the help of a device called an ansible which occurrs (like a premonition) in many of Le Guin’s science fiction novels written before she described its invention in The Dispossessed. All those points exist at the same time, as well as in sequence, and there are ways to communicate their equivalence, their contiguity, in spite of the distance and difference between them.
The ship on which Shevek is riding in this final chapter provides the second reference to a mobile. It’s an interstellar starship – one designed to cover impossible distances, and in the process to provide its occupants with that vast perspective that represents time as both sequential and simultaneous:
From the outside it was as bizarre and fragile-looking as a sculpture in glass and wire; it had no look of a ship, a vehicle, about it at all, not even a front and back end, for it never travelled through any atmosphere thicker than that of interplanetary space. Inside, it was as spacious and solid as a house. […] Its style had neither the opulence of Urras, nor the austerity of Anarres, but struck a balance, with the effortless grace of long practice. (pp. 314-5)
The designers of this ship, the Hainish people, are the most ancient human species in the universe, responsible for colonizing all the worlds where anthropoid peoples can be found. It is their extraordinary antiquity, the vastness of their recorded history, that gives them the perspective that sees the whole universe as their house or home; that takes no note of forward or backward motion because all directions have already been taken, at one time or many times in the past, by their ancestors – as they no doubt will be again at some point or many points in the infinite future. But their antiquity does not make the Hainish jaded. Change remains possible, infinite hope available for every individual Hainish person, for a reason as simple as Shevek’s solution to the problem of reconciling incompatible theories. One of the Hainish crewmembers explains this reason to Shevek:
‘My race is very old,’ Ketho said. ‘We have been civilised for a thousand millennia. We have histories of hundreds of those millennia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?’ (p. 318)
The statement might summon to our minds the mobile hanging above the head of Shevek’s second baby daughter as he prepared to leave for Urras – for the first time in his life, even if such departures have happened infinite times before and will happen again. In this passage Takver’s mobiles fulfil their promise, complete another orbit, and take their place in the reader’s mind as a message of hope for the worlds to come.
The Dispossessed ends, as Daniel Jaeckle has pointed out, on a note of uncertainty. Shevek faces the anger of some of his fellow anarchists on Anarres for what they see as his betrayal in going to Urras, and it’s perfectly possible that he and the hopeful Hainish crewmember will die at the spaceport. His legacy, though, is enshrined in Le Guin’s earlier books in the form of the ansible. His hopefulness, too, and the hopefulness of his Hainish fellow traveller, remains enshrined in the novel, to be revitalised each time we reread it. And the novel also offers a hopeful riposte, through slantwise references to that necklace, to the tragic stories of Ishi, as told by Kroeber, and of Semley, as communicated by Le Guin herself in her early short story. Reconciliation is always possible, Le Guin seems to say, in the fullness of time, even if we don’t live to witness it as individuals. Things are always being made new. By means of whatever wayward orbits, we are always coming home.
 Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), prefatory note.
 ‘Semley’s Necklace’, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 9-30.
 There is a detailed and very beautiful account of the notion of a promise from an anarchist’s perspective in The Dispossessed (London: Grafton Books, 1975), Chapter Eight, p. 205.
 The clearest account I’ve found of Shevek’s physics is in Daniel P. Jaeckle, ‘Embodied anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed’, Utopian Studies, 20.1 (Winter 2009): p. 75 ff.