A New Life

“The Science agenda for the month states,” Mrs Hassan frowned at the circular. “That you have to teach Plants, Magnets and Electricity. You barely finished Plants.”

“Well, you see, they were interested in photosynthesis, so –”

“The English agenda,” continued Mrs Hassan. “Required you to complete Chapters Five, Six and Seven. You failed to do this. Moreover, the subject coordinator tells me you have not been following her lesson plans.”

“Because they are impossible! Look at today’s plan –” Zoya held it up. “Reading and understanding a page-long comprehension, copying down ten questions from the whiteboard and answering them – within sixty minutes. The children can’t do it, Ma’am. They’re only seven years old.”

“The children in the other sections are also seven years old, and their teachers don’t appear to find it impossible. No –” The uplifted finger cut her off. “You must realise that we have standards to maintain at this school. Parent Complaints have started coming in, and if your work is not up to the mark …”

-Your work is not up to the mark- … The lipstick-rounded mouth moved on in slow motion, the sound emerging from it fading into a hazy background for the demon that had fallen silent for the first time in her life when she had walked into Class III Rust two months ago.

— Hah! Loser! So you thought you were good at this, did you? — … The spell was broken, not at the chimes of midnight but in this sunlit office with spaceship-cloud shadows on the wall and the taste of a familiar bitterness on her dry tongue.

— You suck at teaching, as you suck everything else, you loser —

She stumbled back to the staffroom, where her new friend Maya was sitting on the sofa eating samosas. “Zoya! How did the meeting – hey, are you okay?”

— Look at her, she’s knows you’re pathetic —

Zoya picked up a samosa and bit into it so fiercely her teeth clanged shut right through the potatoes. “I won’t fail.” She hissed. “This is my dream. I am going to be GOOD at it!”

“What –” The bell rang and Maya fled, cramming in the last of her samosa. “’alk ‘oo – home-time!”

Zoya walked her way grimly down the corridor to her class. The students jumped up to greet her. “Gooood Morning, Miss!”

“Good morning. Sit down, take out your copies and write down the day and date. Then open your books to page 84. Quickly! We’ve wasted five minutes of the class already.” The marker screeched as she printed ‘ENGLISH’ on the board. “Ahmad, start reading the first paragraph.”

Ahmad’s head emerged briefly from his bag “Miss, I can’t find my book.”

“Hurry up and take it out! Ali, you read.”

“Yes Miss. What’s the page number?”

— Nine minutes gone. You’ll fail again, like you always do —

“Eighty-Four!” The snarl shocked the class into silence. “Listen to me! If you don’t want to spend next year in Class III as well, we have to work much harder than this. Do you understand?”

Silence. Then – Bilal said – it could only be him – “Miss, may I go to drink water?”

Zoya quelled the spurt of giggles with a glare. “You just got in from recess, Bilal. Start reading, Ali!”

Too baffled to protest, they fidgeted, but they worked. In the fifteen minutes spent reading the passage – she had chosen only the best readers – Zoya had written out the questions. And for the first time she wrote down the answers as well, without first asking the class to attempt them.

“Miss, what is demonstate?” asked Asad.

“Demonstrate. Copy it all down, then I will explain.”

“But Miss you always say we should understand what we are –”

“Copy it down first!”

By the fifty-sixth minute all the copies were piled on her desk, filling her with a savage triumph. She had done it! She glanced down at the first copy open, and felt irritation sweeping across her again.

“Whose copy is this? Raise your hand –” Bilal again, the goggle-eyed little – “Just look at this! The day and date are on the wrong sides, and the handwriting – ugh! And you’ve spelt dog b-o-g again!” She drew a large red circle around it. “I’m really very disappointed.”

“HAHA!” Ahmad leapt out of his chair. “Told you! You know, Miss, he was so sure he was going to get a star today he made me put his copy on top! What a loser!”

Reflexively she had started up to intervene – Bilal generally responded to all taunts with a punch – but he was sitting quietly in his seat and did not even look up when Ahmad snapped his fingers in his face.

“Idiot, duffer! Loser!”

“Ahmad, sit down!”

— Loser —

Afterwards she always claimed it was the word that had made her realise … it would be all of thirty years before she told another young teacher how the echo of her own desolation in the eyes of a child she had always seen laughing had truly begun a new life for her, had begun her own exorcism in the very act of perpetuating the age-old circle of wretchedness that was gnawing its way into her soul.

“Everyone, please listen,” Their palpable relief at seeing her smile made tears start to her eyes. “Please clap for yourselves – you all worked really hard today. And please clap especially loudly for Bilal – for trying the hardest and showing the most improvement!”

“Well, we have three minutes left. Let’s play a round of Hangman with our new words before the bell rings. We need to work harder,” She went on, trying not to laugh at their expressions. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Okay?”

“Okay!” They chorused.

“I’ll go first,” Said Bilal. “And tomorrow, I AM going to get a star. A GOLDEN star!”

Outside, the spaceship clouds had faded to a crooked wisp rather like the lopsided grin once again flashing on his face.

A Proper Confession

“You know me as a hunter,” began Mr Fox “a warrior, a leader among fox-kind … But – alas! It was not always so. There was a time when –” Who shall blame him if his voice faltered to confess it? “I became a Subject of Mockery – at the hands of Poultry!”

Poultry! It took Mrs Fox a moment to overcome her agitation, but her smile did not falter. “Tell me all, and then we will put it behind us.”

“It was a Human who was the cause of my downfall,” continued Mr Fox, who had scarcely managed to wait long enough for her permission to avail himself of it.

“Until I came upon the town of Caledorne I was a good old fashioned cave-fox who ate rabbits for breakfast, cheerfully savaged any creature he did not like, and cared not a fig for any animal’s opinion. On that calamitous winter afternoon, however, all this was destined to change.

“The forests were already covered with snow, and I had caught nothing for a week but one hapless sparrow, though I had prowled and lurked through every bush and tree hollow from here to the Valuné. I had never before eaten humans – yes, my dear, I was forced to contemplate even that extremity.

“As I stood on the edge of the Forest shivering and scratching my fur, the first coach of the day drew up at The Tinklin’ Bell. I took it as a Sign, and after some basic lurking and prowling, selected as my prey a diminutive female in a black and yellow skin. Alack! Had I but known then that I was slinking fast to my Doom!

“Murderers had been known to become sheepishly contrite in That Presence; nay, even her own parents trembled inwardly as they addressed her. In my deplorable ignorance, I contemplated the ultimate sacrilege – laying violent paws upon this formidable personage!

“‘Reveal yourself at once!’ Hands on her bow-knot-belted waist, a frown gathering over disapprovingly pursed lips, Miss Guinace Dunthair sternly contemplated this poor malefactor, who was trying now to steal away unnoticed.

“‘Stop!’ I stopped – ‘Turn around and come here!’ I turned around and went there. I can see that you think it rather poor-spirited conduct, but I really couldn’t help it.

“I was surveyed over a short straight nose wrinkled with disgust. ‘And just who may you be, my good sir? You are quite the most Peculiar Person I have ever come across!’

‘I – I’m a fox.’

“‘A fox? Hmm. Go and put on a respectable black frock-coat instead of this absurd brown. Moreover, please attend immediately to these horridly long nails. Does your mother not order them to be clipped regularly?

My mother! At my age! I ask you! ‘I – don’t have – a mother!’ That took more courage than a whole pride of snake-fanged lions would have called for.

“In a moment her censorious manner vanished.

“‘Oh you poor dear thing!’ She patted my head sympathetically. ‘How very dreadful! I do not wonder that you have no notion of Proper Conduct. However, this cannot be permitted to continue. I will undertake your instruction personally.’

“And thus I found myself washed and brushed, permed and polished, by a horde of attendants most provocatively aquiver with terror, so that I longed to growl a little just for fun. My nails were cut so short they ached constantly, and these hind paws were encased in buckled boots. On my frame, trimmed to the last stray hair, were smothering linen swathings, fawn-skin breeches, and as decreed by Mademoiselle, a black frock-coat. The ensemble was rounded off by a bowler-hat and a strangulation device called a cravat.

“A horribly cold and cramped ‘house’ had been constructed, since my cosy cave was now taboo. Within, furnishings and accessories were tastefully and meticulously arranged. She left also an hour-long list of orders, which I shall spare you, though I shall retain of that discourse for the rest of my life an ineffaceable impression.

“At length I recovered enough to feel a bit peckish. I tried valiantly to content myself with the rations approved by my benefactress, but tea and seed-cake quite unequivocally made me sick. So I went out to hunt again. Unfortunately, mincing through the forest on one’s hind-legs, body held stiff and head resolutely erect, is perhaps not the best way of hunting that a Fox can adopt. Yet I could not take the hat off – it would not have been Proper to step out of doors without a hat.

“And then! Woeful hour! I chanced upon a roosting hen. Noiselessly I crept up, and scooped her into my butterfly net. Once upon a time I would just have pounced upon her and ripped out her throat, but that was conduct grossly unworthy of a Gentle-fox. Wherefore, I clicked my heels and raised my hat to the hen as I tipped her into a sack, and walked home just in time to drag it into the larder and tuck myself in for an afternoon nap. I woke precisely at the time Proper etiquette dictated, and sat down to wait for Supper. I dared not commit the heinous crime of Eating Between Meals.

The hen soon pecked her way out of the flimsy sacking. She filled it up with pebbles – it took her a good half hour, as she later informed me, but she felt it was wholly worth it – and knotted it up again. Then she ran off cackling to tell all her friends.

“When my watch finally struck seven, I lit a fire in the newly established stone hearth, and emptied the sack onto it. Imagine my shock when only pebbles came out! I watched them helplessly, uncertain as to the Proper Conduct in such a case. The fire hissed and crackled as they dried, and having drunk its fill, began to spit them out.

“The first hit me on the nose, making me leap upwards with a decidedly Improper oath, and the relentless bursts of stony splinters that followed caused me to perform twists and contortions which would have won a serpent’s admiration.

“The thrashed and battered hat made Mrs Thrush and Company an excellent nest for the winter. The cravat and garments provided magpies for miles around with heirlooms generations would preen themselves upon. The boots were colonised by an old mouse woman with a dozen rascally children. The house went down in human history, as indeed it should have done. An old half-blind historian declared it the work of a new indigenous people, and pioneered the movement that led to their discovery five years later.

“But here I lurked, my reputation in shreds –”

“But you redeemed yourself,” said Mrs Fox quickly.

“Ah yes, yes, my dear, but I am afraid I had acquired a – a taste – that I have never since managed to shake off, for what the humans call Reading. They take the flesh of trees and scratch marks upon them, and these marks become pictures in the brain … I – I hope you do not mind very much if I read sometimes?”

But Mrs Fox’s pungently expressed rejoinder we must consign to decent and – er – Proper oblivion.

I will Grow Up

A guest post by ‘Soul Less Fanwarrior’ (Savez Shabkhez)

In time I’ll be immune to the pain,
In time I’ll learn to ignore the need to say or do something.
In time, I’ll learn the art of ignoring someone as they talk (or text)
In time, I will harden my heart to the world.
In time, I will grow up.

In time I’ll be the mature ‘man’.
In time I will stop caring about people and feelings,
In time I’ll be as cold as the wind,
And people will be means of achieving an end.
In time, I will grow up.

Perhaps then, you’ll like me better.
Perhaps that is what people want.
Perhaps that what I need to be.
Perhaps I need to grow up.

In time, I’ll kill that little boy who dared to love.
In time I’ll kill the boy who dared to look at the world with an uncoloured gaze.
In time, I’ll kill the boy who loved to laugh and cry at all the little things.
In time I’ll kill the little boy that worshipped Goodness and Kindness.
In time, I’ll learn to be cruel and mock and laugh as I strip soul after soul of innocence.
In time, perhaps, I will grow up.

Salvaged Clichés

Success is not about having enough but about being enough – enough of a human being, enough of a parent, enough of a friend – to be happy yourself and to make those you love happy.

Love is total acceptance, be it of a person, of a thing, or of an idea. Whether you love or fall in love, you agree to put up not only with the flaws and faults and vices, but also – and this is much more difficult – with the beauties and perfections of the one you love.

Turning the last page of a well-loved book, with one’s thoughts already upon the next, or upon the cake rising in the oven, or the clothes that need washing – that is the essence of a goodbye, whether it is a hug or a wave or just one yearning look. You usher one epoch out the door and the other in; and for that one fleeting moment you belong half to each.

That one smile only you can bring to someone’s eyes – that is the essence of happiness. That knowledge: for this person, for this moment, I am special, I am irreplaceable, because this smile could have blossomed only for me. That is happiness.

Until There Was Nothing Left To Cut

Slowly, lock by tumbling lock, she let her hair glide down her shoulders. Rich, black, mane-like, it snuck its snarly bristles into her bare chest and into the raw shin of her back.

Inside the locked, shuttered, mirrorless store-room, with shrouded caskets on every side of her, she shrank still, shrank instinctively within herself as she stepped out of the black frock with its one white frill on the collar.

She knelt upon the faded black cotton, the razor blade a silver glimmer in her pudgy fingers. There ought to have been some pathos to this moment, she thought desperately, some thrill, some deep overwhelming emotion …

When Slumber took the first few strands of hair and yanked them until her head throbbed right down to her left temple and she could feel the pores of her skin ready to pop. She laid the razor against the root of the pain and struck it away. And the cool hardness of the metal was a balm to her keening new-shorn flesh.

She watched the first few strands slide off her thighs and coil up on the black cotton frock with one end swathing the white frill … And then her shingled hair began to fall around her thick and fast, like a cloud reminded of its destiny by the first plopping drop of rain.

Now she was panting a little with the pain, and her eyes glittered cruelly, feverishly. With every strand of hair she hacked off, the desperate triumph in her eyes was stoked to a blaze again.

Until there was nothing left to cut. The hair down her neck was not hers any longer: merely an irritant to be jerked off. The rush of about her weightless head, bobbing on her neck like a child’s balloon at the end of a thread made her look down suddenly at the sliver of steel in her bloodless fingers; and as the pain in her sore skin subsided, she began for the first time to survey the dark maelstrom about and upon her with the beginnings of panic.

Winter

The rich, ripe corn spilled out of its austere sheaves, the bright yellow cobs brushing gently along the shoulders of all who trod the narrow cart-road. They stretched away to the Eyrlyndyne in a myriad waving, whispering rows, simmering green and glorious gold. Scare-crows leered in vain. Upon their straw-heads, their stick-arms, their stump-legs – nay, even in the malignant eye-sockets and the crooked mouth the indomitable chirpers fluttered, pecking complacently at the spoils of their latest foray. At every thud and rustle they rose cackling and squawking and shrilling their outrage …It was lilting and swaying and rippling in the sun, like harps and bird-song and river-music, wrapt in one long sea of love and light.

Slowly, reluctantly, the crimson sun sank behind the snow clad peaks, darkening the world. Night stripped its fire, layer after layer, from the snow-hardened peaks of the mountains, from the mellower slopes coaxed into terraces, from the roaring river. Ripple by ripple, they faded, leaving their voices behind to haunt the new world beneath the velvet-mantled sky. The rhythmic whisper of the trees persisted, and the clamour of the water as it dashed itself again and again on stubborn rock. Diamonds scattered upon the black cloak of the night, the stars began to sparkle boldly, lighting the last of the flocking birds home.

High, beyond the ken of the Kani, the skies of the Ves ni Talori began to fret and rumble. Too long had they smiled upon the eager mountains straining every nerve to mingle with them, the lush valleys sparkling and radiant, the raucous river – they were astir now, and wrathful. Virgin snow effaced rock and tree, cave and shelter, erased brown and green and grey, leaving behind an unsmudged mantle of white. The Valuné found its pettish plaints choked under the onslaught, found its leaping and bounding waters stunned to still hard ice. The skies thundered and roared, launching their fury upon the cowering world.

To Caledorne, safe upon its broad-bosomed, chuckling Eyrlyndyne, the few gusts that seeped past its twice-curtained fortress of hills brought the veriest chill, the first hint of sky-sheathing cloud. Moonlight danced in and out of the wind-ruffled trees, beckoning and alluring, turning the placid gardens and fluttering cornfields into a forest of mystery where shadows and half-shadows chased each other in a sinuous, serpentine dance.

Shells

Once upon a time there was a girl. She went one day to the sea, as she had gone since babyhood, wriggling her bare toes in the sand, revelling in the wind and spray that whirled her tangled curls into a frothing, frenzied cloak.

Then she saw the shells. She saw them as she had never before seen them, and of their sudden, overwhelming beauty mingling with the sea was born in her tremulous gaze a vision. She threw herself onto the sand, and began almost absently, shell by shell, to strive to give it form. And ever it eluded her; it slid chuckling from her fingers, yet it burned furiously in her eyes. Torment and ecstasy … hope and despair, longing and loathing… locked by the very irrevocability, the very starkness of their opposition, in unceasing battle, each following upon the other’s hem, wisp-like, insidiously all the while, until it strangled the other.

Wretchedness such as she had never before known ripped at her, making each ragged breath a struggle against her heaving, aching chest. Her fingers faltered and her head drooped, her sobs stormy despite the resolutely bitten lips. Never, never could she make it; however she laboured she could never give substance the essence, the sweet richness of fleeting shadow.

The warmth of fingers on her shoulder made her start. Through a tearful mist she saw a smile emerging from a sheet of wrinkles spread taut over sunken bones, and wizened brown hands moving delicately among the shells.

She returned the smile with a small, lopsided one of her own, and began gingerly to finger one edge of a spiralling shell …

She was working feverishly, oblivious to the wonder in the old, wise eyes, the curiosity of children and the disdain of their elders. It was no longer her mind or heart that willed the form, but the murmur of the sea seeping into the trembling of her fingers. The shells were moulded to its least tug, the design altered to suit every pettish plaint, each discontented mutter.

At long last it was done. She felt no sense of fulfilment or happiness, but only a great weariness, and an ardent desire for sleep cheered with dreams of anything and everything but the sea … She slept, but it was tranquil, dreamless sleep, deep and refreshing.

And when she woke again, she looked stunned upon her handiwork, and then at her sandy fingers, scarcely daring to believe. But still the sea called to her, demanded something of her – she fidgeted and fretted, trying to shut it out, but it only grew more clamorous, more insistent…

“No!” She snarled through clenched teeth. She would not throw it to the ravenous waves. Sooner would she stamp it back into the earth – No! Not that either!

It was hers. She would keep it forever. It would be her treasure, her precious … never, ever could she fling it to the ruthless battering of the waves…it was hers, and hers alone. The sea had provided the inspiration, yes, but that did not mean it owned her masterpiece…

She would keep it, and show it only to those who loved her and whom she loved. She gathered the weed-rotted plank on which it rested, and began to run, away, away, away from the sea.

They all gathered around her, exclaiming, praising, making suggestions. Her parents, her brothers and sisters … those she loved and those who loved her. She grinned proudly, her eyes shining, and bleak despair crept into her heart, choking her… The secret of the shells was nothing to them. They cared for the neatness of the design, the symmetry and variety of pattern, seeing in them the same cosy, reassuring prettiness as an ornamental vase or a chintz cushion. They did not hear the song of the sea in every curve, did not recognise the inexorable, unappeasable savagery in the soft, soothing ripples. The storms of wrath lurking within dulcet lullabies the menacing discord of long-decayed bones, the thirst and the wild hunger of the blue depths – they did not see these things. It was just a stack of shells to them, albeit a charmingly arranged one. And it would always be thus. The sun and sand would deafen them and deaden them to the call of the Sea, the imperious, alluring, fascinating cry that would brook no denial.

She was being ridiculous. With a toss of her curls she dismissed her errant thoughts. The thing was hers; she would take it back with her, and show it to all her friends as well, and everyone else. She spoke her intention aloud, and it was instantly acclaimed. The plank was declared too weak and exposed a base; instead a box was procured, and they all began to help her transfer it.

They laughed and talked as they worked. Many times she missed a subtle twist or nuance, and only corrected the error when the others reminded her of it. The waves wept chagrined reproaches in her ears, but she was dead to them. She would acknowledge no will then but her own.

But they too had wills, and voices, and fingers which moved rapidly, dislodging what they would and replacing it as they pleased. Mutilating it.

The grin became a scowl; the flush in her cheeks was now one of rage. She wanted to cry out her indignation, to guard it and cherish it as a lioness does her hapless cubs. She stood sulky and silent, battling her own headstrong self that bucked at the merest suspicion of another hand on the reins.

They made it stronger, better, added, undeniably, to the beauty and variety of its patterns. It was, under their thoughtful pruning, acquiring polish, sophistication, and – And she hated it. It was no longer the absurd, wilful outpouring of the fire running amok within her; instead of the rangy, dishevelled grace of the vagabond it had the smirking sleekness of a Siamese cat, cleaning its whiskers with insufferable complacence.

She turned and ran. The others were enjoying themselves so much they scarcely even stopped to shrug. She would come back in a while, as she always did. Only the old woman stared after her … In a way, she did understand. But what she understood she did not say. Not even to herself.

The girl threw herself into the sand, letting its hard grains grate against her scalding tears. She lay quite still. And the tears filled her eyes, one by one, and dripped onto her sand-coated cheekbones, streaking them with wavering rivulets. She tried to stay them, but they would not be denied. Neither would they expend themselves in a single stormy rush as they had always done before. One by one they rolled out, and with them, imperceptibly, all her fury. Numb, exhausted again as she had been when she had first fashioned it, she tried to summon sleep.

It would not come. Instead, thought stamped its way in, trampling over her lacerated, wincing mind, hectoring and chivvying it, its many shrill tongues lashing out with a ruthlessness that would have deadened the steel of a gladiator.

‘Call of the Sea’ – hah! Stuff and nonsense, childish imaginings worthy of a toddler with her first ‘Teddy’ … What were the shells but a child’s playthings? It was she and not they who had been doltish. They had indulged her fancy, consenting to join in her folly; for which, instead of being grateful, she wanted to throttle them!

She got up, wiping her face carefully to remove as much as she could of the tell-tale traces of tears, and went back. They had already finished with it and had drifted back to the sea, laughing and splashing and enjoying themselves tremendously.

“Come on!” They urged her. “Join in! It’s so much fun!”

She grinned. “Sure!”

She got up, and in doing so knocked the box slightly askew. Idly almost her fingers strayed back, pushed aside the lid…

She shut it abruptly, clenching her quivering fists, her teeth digging so hard into her under lip they tormented its translucent pinkness deep crimson. Still the wave surged through her pulse; her sobbing breath rose and fell to the rhythm of the sea. She was losing herself again…she would not. She would dam it. Dam and damn and be rid of it forever. Dam the tempest within her heart, her soul… She clutched at the sand, the shells, the sea itself…

But it crushed all her barriers, crumpled and crushed and trampled them and bore her away on its cruel, buffeting waves. Yet it was not mere assault from without that had availed against the citadel; the traitor who had thrown wide the doors of her fortress was within her – within her very marrow…

She flung her glorious mane loose of its messy bun, and bounded forward with an exultant cry, arms outstretched, eyes blazing in a blistering agony that was wreathed around frenzied joy. They laughed negligently, pityingly at her heartache over the pathetic little heap she had amassed. The sea could have it. The whole world could have it if it wanted it. Who cared?

The sea was within her, just as she was within it. It would call to her always whether she would or no…and each time it would sink its ravening tentacles deeper into her yielding flesh, siphon out her very life-blood and pour them into the shells to lend them lustre.

The others… she heard their jovial shouts, and felt a pang of envy. They did not understand because they could not. They could sing and dance and hoot in the very waves if they pleased. The call of the sea was hers and hers alone. Her joy and her torment. Exquisite madness; ecstatic misery… It was her destiny, her doom, her dungeon – her life itself.

“Come on!” They beckoned again. “Honestly, you’ll love it! At least check it out!”

She nodded and smiled reassuringly at them. “In a minute. You guys go on, don’t worry about me.” And then she knelt upon the sand and began to pile shells anew.

The Unceasing Plaint of The Sea

Ash-grey shafts shot out of the cliff rock, racing into the embrace of the clouds. Stone sewn seamlessly to stone, the jagged steely glitter spiralled thrice, curtaining a little piece of the earth from the hungry sea. The chain of craggy cliffs slung out along the wavering shoreline, their hoary heads held high in defiance of wind and water, splotched with egg-yolk-gold and weed-green, had once been kin to the sheer, gigantic shelf of rock that had borne the castle aloft. Fettered to the earth, they could but moan and fidget now, as they watched their gouged and blackened cousin wrestle the urge to sag wearily into the sea.

The Castle, yearning heavenwards, knew naught of the battle waged below. Ever she stood in peril of being shorn off and sent plummeting down; but the blue-white sky entwined about her tall, perforce sloping towers, and the sun that set them aglow, conspired to restrain her, to check her fall. Morn after morn, eventide after eventide they had done this, ever since the castle had first bowed her ravaged head over the sea.

Once – and the hour was well within living memory, if the living only cared to remember – once the four mighty stone towers had leapt impetuously above the silver-stone curtain, higher than the sharpest gaze could pierce. Radiant with life and laughter, the Castle sent forth a welcome her stern visage could not belie. The gallant pennants and the gay draperies, the ring of merry jests, the vigorous echoes of feet quick with joyous life had ridden out upon the sea-spray, coaxing home canoe and warship with the same ardour. But the harbour once hailed with resounding cheers lay scorched and crumpled at her feet, desolate. And in the fickle memories of men it had been consigned already to the realm of legend.

And yet the thrice-curtained castle held her secrets still, behind the latticeshadows no sun could now leaven. Within the shrouded stone chamber the eerie green of a flickering taper flung coiling, dancing echoes of light, warring with the blue-flamed fire of Rvalenlore, shadowless and dauntless, born of cool stone and thin air. Within the sanctuary glided dark-robed wraiths, shrouded, latticed themselves, scarce breathing as they stooped over the flames and the figure cloaked within – another shadow, another wraith, spun lifeless into the flaming cocoon. Anguish lay stilled upon its marble-pallor, stilled almost to tranquillity. Black hair bounced off indifferently off the gaunt face, wormed their way into the cocoon’s staring eyes. It never stirred.

An age crept by. The flame-cocoon pranced and spun, pranced and spun, swallowing the taper-echoes. The green-glowing taper, snatched up into the rising whirl, struck into its very core, suffusing it with its emerald blood.

“Llanlach Trébori!” It grated through the castle walls, a sound deeper than thunder rolling off the high sea winds; it trembled through the very heart of that blighted earth, that cry of the shadows. A gorgon, a veritable gorgon, shattered the shell, casting the limp green-doused form at her feet. The Summoner alone met her stare for stare; and for all her hideous savagery, he was the more sinister. Now they chaunted, the wraiths, a strangely soft lilting tongue that cracked and hoarsened as they vied for ascendancy. And then with one wild laugh the gorgon yielded.

“Aye!” she shrieked “A soul for a soul!”

“Behold thy hunter!”

She vanished in a whirl as dazzling as her coming, and the purple vapour streaked out, cloaking, enveloping the corpse-like form, lancing it upright. Green eyes locked with vacant black, bored into and past them with implacable ferocity.

A dove flew out of its nest in the turret above, its heart fluttering with a fear it had never before known. The kite, who had watched it hungrily since daybreak, swooped. The dove died ere its strangled scream had faded from the salt sea breeze.

And then there was silence, save for the unceasing plaint of the sea.

The Song of the Kháyin

“Glory! Great honour shall be mine!
Wenestl shall be last of his dastard line!
Sword unsheathed and bow taut-strung,
We rest not while a Norvajael stays unhung!”

Over glen and trail the quaver spread;
The Ilken sought sheaths of hapless dead!
Seething, as one our spirited gunari rose
To take upon glittering steel their vows

War served but to strengthen the faltering heart!
Massacre could not mar the flame within!
Day after day they were torn apart
Yet unswerving was their resolve to win!

Burning, pillaging, the shendful Ilken horde
Into scarred and blasted Estayn poured
The few who ’scaped the relentless fury flew
Unto Eyr Mu’in through paths strewn red with dew

Inch by fell inch the battle raged
‘Til the Ilken began to wish the war unwaged
Within the castle fretted Ynvartim
The craven deserted the trust placed in him!

The wails of Thousands for succour cried
But for her they would doubtless have died
Gisela, the gallant Gunari we joyously hail
Refused in that perilous hour to turn tail!

He called her Kháyin; heaped upon her curses
Left her naught but those he named sick-nurses
Left the Castle to be stormed and battered
Her brother slain and so many lives shattered!

The rafters rang with the attackers’ scorn
The guard tower was empty, the curtain wall torn
They charged, they bombarded – but all to no avail
For how shall such noble resolve be suffered to fail?

Against our Gunari Woden no dastard foe may prevail
E’en the machinations of the Ilken-Knilde must fail
Dull are enemy swords with blood, yet there she will stand
Bright as gold and as bold, to guard her cherished land!

The Desert River

Chafing at its narrow levees, smashing upon and barging through stone, the Valuné leapt into the Cundrie Hills, easing out as the land softened. Lithe despite its bulk, humming, it inundated the dips and basins cradled between eternally verdant hills, crooning to them of beauty and splendour beyond the wildest swish of their most wilful grasses. Lavishing its abundance upon lake and affluent and ox-bow, it glided out of the land of plenty, and trickled to the crock-shaped hollows where began the Pyetivant Mista. Screened from the mountains by hillocks and mounds increasingly dour sprawled stretches of eroding, crumbling rock, sucked up grain by grain into the insidious sands lapping about them. Only the gnarled stubs and stubble that slashed across, nursed by the Valuné’s clogged trickle, circumvented their gluttony.

 Chugging its crippled way to the sea, the Valuné gave still with reckless abandon to every channel gouged out of the searing semi-desert, each bubbling rivulet tapering hopefully off. Guarded sedulously by the unquenchable cacti and the occasional stately date-palm some made it to the perpetually wilting fields; others, outstripping their escort, darted rashly desert ward, and were pounced on and strangled.

The Cross Monkey

Once upon a time there was a monkey who got cross very easily. One day it got so very very cross it went poppity-bang in a puff of smoke and flew right out of the chimney. Up in the sky a cloud caught up the puff and tied it around itself as a  silver lining. And the monkey lived up there unhappily ever after.

A Table for Two

Once upon a time there was a lonely little cottage on the bleakest mountaintop in the whole world. Inside this cottage lived a lonely little wolf.

 She always set the table for two and kept a freshly trimmed lamp in the window after sunset. But no one ever came to see her. This made her very sad.

 “I wish I had other wolves to talk to,” she often sighed to herself. “There”s old Mrs. Tabletop and Grandpa Oakendoor and dear little Juniper over there, but it’s just not the same thing, is it?”

“There, there, dearie,” said Mrs Tabletop soothingly. “You’ll find friends someday, don’t you worry.”

Little Wolfie dozed off, comforted. Mrs Tabletop gave Grandpa Oakendoor a shove.

“Wake up! We have to do something!”

“We – ah yes, yes, quite right, so we must, so we must, so we must. Something, what? That’s the spirit, eh, old thing? Let’s do something!”

“Quite, but what shall we do?”

“Something. Don’t fret, old girl. Something always does turn up!”

Juniper snorted. “Of all the tosh! Things don’t just ‘turn up’!” But neither of the old people paid her any heed at all, so she gave one last hoity-toity sniff and went back to sleep.

Now, as it happened, Something was passing by the window just as Grandpa Oakendoor had mentioned his name. He saw Wolfie’s wan face and made up his mind at once: here was one very special turn up to do before he turned in for the night.

So he knocked merrily on the door and stepped inside with a right cheery ‘what ho’ as Grandpa swung out of the way. Wolfie leapt up, all awake all at once.

“Oh hi!” She said brightly. “Do come in out of the storm … Dear, dear! You’re my very first visitor and I don’t even know what – er – who you are!”

“I’m Something.”

“If it isn’t too awfully rude to enquire, what?”

“Something. I turn up, every now and again.”

“Oh,” said Wolfie doubtfully.

“I’ve come to take you on a little adventure,” said Something. “To see the other little wolves in the forest.”

“Oh have you really? How splendid!” Cried Wolfie. “Let me just get my coat. And my hair – oh dear! I’ll be just a moment. Please don’t go away, Something!”

She rushed away to get her things. Something stared Mrs Tabletop, then at Juniper, then at Grandpa – “Good grief.” He said finally. “Has she always been like this?”

“Yes indeed, the little darling!” said Mrs Tabletop. “I found her sleeping near my front left leg one day, poor little mite. All alone she was, but such a dear little thing even then. Why, you never would believe …”

“So – she’s never seen another wolf?” said something slowly.

“Not that I ken of,” said Grandpa Oakendoor.

“Well, she’s in for something of a shock, that’s all,” muttered Something grimly to himself, and he wondered if he should just vanish off the map. But that was the catch to being Something; one didn’t just vanish once one had turned up.

So off they went into the forest, searching for wolves. Something knew where they were, of course, but he was dawdling his very hardest to avoid them, and Wolfie kept on stopping to exclaim at stuff.

Suddenly a fierce growl emerged from the bushes, followed by a pair of dripping fangs bared from a ferocious snarl, and then a huge pulsating mass of hair, matted with blood and stinking to the tip of its crouched tail. Wolfie shrank away.

“Oh goodness gracious!” she cried. “What in the world is that terrible creature?”

“That,” said Something. “Was a wolf.”

“Roighty ho!” said the grinning creature hoarsely. “A woilf, loike the leetle leddy ‘ere.”

“A – wolf? No. No. No!” cried Wolfie. “You’re lying! You can’t be a wolf! You just can’t! Ugh! Go away, you dirty thing!”

“Well, I niver – ” began the indignant wolf, but Something broke in hastily. “Look, a rabbit! A rabbit in the bush!”

The wolf bounded away. Wolfie had soaked her hanky clean through by now.

“It c-can’t be true. It just can’t!” she wailed. “They’re not all like that, are they?”

Something sighed. “Yes, they are, but –”

Wolfie wouldn’t listen. She cried all the way back to the cottage and ran inside and shut the door in Something’s face.

“Go away,” She said firmly. “I’m sorry, but I think it would be best if you never turned up again.”

“But – but I – ” began Something.

“Shoo! Shoo!” Said Mother Tabletop, and drew the curtain firmly accross the window, shutting out the sputtering Something for good. “Tell me, dearie, what’s the matter? Oh no, of course all wolves aren’t horrid! You’ll see, you’ll meet a fine handsome young wolf just like you …”

But Wolfie never set the table for two again.

The Vanishing Monkey

(A guest post by Maiza Shabkhez)

There was a little yellow cottage on a hill, inside which lived a little brown monkey. He loved to go and tease people here and there, so they got annoyed.

One day he threw a stone at a very large and grumpy bear. The bear got angry and ran wildly after the monkey, and the monkey said “Oops!” He climbed up a tree and hid himself in the branches, shuddering and shivering. The bear was tearing down trees but he couldn’t find the monkey, it was as if he had vanished. After some time the bear got tired and went away.

 A naughty little parrot on the same tree had seen the monkey. The parrot came closer and closer – suddenly, the monkey vanished! “This monkey knows magic!” cried the parrot in amazement. The parrot quickly flew into the sky looking for him. He saw a long tail coming out of the bushes so he went to find the bear so that the bear could eat the monkey.

The parrot went to find the bear to tell him that his lunch awaited him but the bear could not understand the parrot and attacked it. It crunched the parrot’s bones and flesh. But that was not enough for him so he set out to find some sort of big fat meal that would fill his stomach forever. Suddenly he saw the long brown tail and leapt towards it. He caught it, but it was a small cat. Meanwhile, the monkey was out of the forest and had abandoned his house.

 “I’m the vanishing monkey and you’ll never catch me!” came a voice from the depths of the forest. The bear gave a big roar and followed the voice.

A hunter saw the monkey and shot it. The monkey tried to escape, but he couldn’t and he died in torment slowly and slowly fell to the ground.

On the other side of the fence

The ridge curves sharply, imperiously into a beak, belying the simmering tranquility of the two pale lakes on either side of it, of the smooth snowy plains below, matching only the starkly jutting plateau of chin that completes my impression of a nature eternally at war with itself. Short, scuttling, plump, with long brown hair too resolutely straight to be natural and a scent of vigorously-soaped cleanness scattered all around her, she walks past me every morning, sparing me two jerky backward glimpses out of the avid curiosity of emerging adulthood that hungrily bores into everything in its path.

I wonder what goes on under that primly-pleated hair… Threading the sewing-machine again, Maria stitched the dreams of her lost childhood and the youth she had never had into the fabric of the schoolgirl’s life. And she, chewing her lower lip as she dragged her feet along, was consumed by a fierce unsuspected envy of this old aunty who could sit out here in the gentle winter sunshine instead of having to face a demon of a teacher with her homework half incomplete.

Handwriting Practice

A guest post by ‘The Frostbitten’ (Ibreez Shabkhez)

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Bequick, names of, foxes’ names: Parren, lumbardil. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The five boxing lizards jumped quickly into the water. The five boxing lizards jump quick into the water water.
The five boxing lizards jumped quickly into the water. The quick brown fox jumps quickly into the water which has bad things in it: the lazy dog and the five boxing lizards.

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
I looked up expecting to see a blue sunny sky, and saw thunderclouds. Naturally, I was vexed and had to take it out on something. A juice box graciously presented itself. I crumpled it, but before doing so cut out the tiger on the front. I have never seen a tiger on a juice box before or since.
To be or not to be, that is the question. A damned stupid question, if you ask me. a b c d e f g. Overt reading is painful. What the deuce do you mean by overt reading? I don’t know. I really do not know at all!

The the the the quickly quickly quickly quickly five five five five The five boxing lizards jump The five boxing lizards jump quickly into the water quickly into the water.
The five boxing lizards jump into the water. The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.
Why do people smoke? Because I don’t they do it for me.

The five boxing lizards jump quickly
The five boxing lizards
There was a naughty boy
There was a naughty boy
Why does the scarecrow cry?
Because he is misunderstood.
There was a naughty boy
There was a naughty
There was a naught
There was a naugh
There was a naught

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
It is estimated that by the year 2012 all the vixen in America will have graduated while all the wolves will still be in their primary schooling. This will lead to an imbalance where the wolves will resort to brute force in order to get what they want. Intellect will be lost forever – Mankind will become extinct: the city of Atlantis will be lost forever.

Always The Story Has Power

The story has power.
Always the story has power, if it is told with enough faith.
The story runs thus.
Once upon a time, there was a wretch perched upon a tree that cringed lower into the ground with every passing second, quaking as she watched the ravening wolf below grow ever more fearsome and menacing. Upon the very crescendo of her terror she leapt down and struck the head from the shoulders of her suddenly diminished foe. She met many more wolves, and she slew them all. Never again did she sit trembling upon a shrinking tree.
The story runs thus.
Always the story has power, if it is told with enough faith.
The story has power.

For Auld Lang Syne à la 21st Cent

‘I never would have written to you, if they had not begged me so very hard not to.” Well, praise the Lord for perversity, then! It’s been what? Ten years? I guess I ought to have written too, but, you see, no one begged me so very hard not to…

I’ve not laughed so heartily in all of these last – what is it now? Ten years? Ten years of a casual drifting apart so commonplace it is not even ludicrous. But deucedly awkward all the same. An odd constraint, feeding on silence and distance – spun as slow and sure and deadly as a spider’s web – and brushed aside in half a minute, by one hastily scrawled email. Merci! 😛

Life, you say, has been treating you twice as well as you deserve, yet not half as well as you desire. An apt summary of the human condition, i’ faith, but it tells me nothing to the purpose! Answer your own delightfully frank question, and tell me what you’ve been up to, in the plain, trenchant words that best beseem you.

And what have I been up to? Not much, alack. The ardent dreams of splendour and glory that burnt so bright in our youth are rueful embers now, naught more. 😦

‘Je suis Sarusai Hiryu, écrivaine ratée, étudiante au chômage’… A paraphrase, and a fairly horrible one. But there you have my life in a nutshell. Oresama, the ‘writer’, the ‘linguist’, the acolyte of literature, is at a loss for an original word to say!

And so, farewell. Write back, whether ‘they’ urge you not to or not. 🙂

There is work to be done

– Bestir thee, O broken one, for there is work to be done.
– Aye. So I am gathering up all of my selves to do it.
– All of thy selves.
– All of my selves. All that is left of my mind and my body and my heart – and my soul also. I shall gather them up now, and hurl them against the rocks of the world. I shall watch the yolk of my selves splatter, trickle down in nauseating yellow sluices.
– And then thy work is done.
– These slow-trickling sluices I shall gather up again, in old ice-cream cups, again and again and again after each hurling, until all of my selves have trickled away past all gathering. And still my work shall not be done.

ایک ننھی شعاع کا رنگ ٹپک پڑا

ایک ننھی شعاع کا رنگ ٹپک پڑا
گھر ہی کا پتھر سر پر پٹک پڑا

میرے دل پر دیکھ کیا گزری
کہ سنگ بھی سسک کرلڑھک پڑا

بلبل کی صدا ازل سے بے سبب ٹھہری
بجاۓ عشق محبوب ہی بوجھل پڑا

گاۓ جا، گاۓ جا، یہ کانچ کی بانسری
کون لوہے کے محل میں بجانے چل پڑا

خاک اے سورج محبوب ہوا کہ تو بھی
گرم جوشئ سورج مکھی سے کھل پڑا

جلاۓ دل میں دیا ایک عمر بیتی
یہ آنسو بیقرار جانے کب نکل پڑا

دکھ اپنے مجھے وہ ھبہ کر گئ
وزن سکھ پر اٹھاۓ نہ بن پڑا

Here

Here we lay etched upon the grass
The sun rained down in broken rays
Seared to smudges,fried-onion brass
The colour that will haunt our days

Here we stood carved into a tree
Wobbly letters at the ends of a spear
Driven through a heart doomed to be
The lodestone of every shattered tear

Here we sailed forth in a cockel-shell
Round the world, round and back again
Here the ocean sounded its old knell
Whirled us back into the old pain

Mon histoire à moi

Commençons donc par dire une chose nettement : Elle n’est pas belle, cette histoire que je raconte.
Si c’est la beauté qu’il vous faut, cherchez d’ailleurs.
Je m’appelle Sarusai Hiryu et je vais vous raconter mon histoire à moi.
Celle-ci, ce n’est que mon histoire. Mon histoire à moi.
Rappelez-vous que l’amour et la haine, en tant que contraires, sont liés étroitement. On trouve l’un ou on enterre l’autre. C’est l’indifférence qui s’oppose à tous les deux, qui les tue.
Pour la beauté et la laideur c’est pareil. Elles sont jumelles.
S’il n’agit pas d’un, il n’ya point question de l’autre.
Mon histoire n’est ni belle ni laide. Elle est ridicule, parce qu’elle ne vaut que l’indifférence.
Vous en rirez. Vous en rirez le rire qui me tuera.

The Grumpy Git’s Guide to Mastering English Literature

Mr. Chaucer, Geoff is a medieval literary scamp of the finest order, with a wit as ready as it is irreverent. He would fit ‘write’ into a group of Lahori club cricketers. This ‘verray parfit, gentil knight’ is a troll personality whose Canterbury Tales are a thoroughly ‘improper and indelicate’ mixture of ‘heyer’ things with traits d’esprit and cruel mockery done in all seriousness. The most appallingly modern writer could not dream this up without blenching; for this is more than modern – or shall we say timeless? – in its general spirit. This is vintage escroquerie, done with finesse and with a degree of class.

John Milton is the kind of poet one admires most dutifully but falls asleep reading. He’s good – very good – but he is a pedant withall, most insufferably sure of himself sometimes, at others even more unbearably pathetic in his attempts to seem in control when he’s not. And surely his he-man-wonan-haters’ club agenda must outrage all women and all but the thickest-pated of men; or else arouse a wincing pity that pulls up only a little short of disgust. Paradise Lost is a classic example of a J.M. production which will send you nodding off, or else singing Sister Suffragette with Winifred Banks. But then, some lines leap off the page and begin to thrum within you, and you wonder why you would ever not consider this stuff absolutely beyond awesome. They are few and far between, but if you know you’ll find a nugget at the bottom of the pail, the sand is well worth the sifting, right? Even when the sifting must be done with gritted teeth.

Donne reading? You’re undone … lol … well, sometimes. Every now and then there is an image, a word, a line, that you wish you’d written yourself. His ‘Love and Divine Poems’ often exhibit a fervour that can be inspiring, embarrassing, or just seem like a league-level topi-drama (depending on how snarky a mood you’re in). And then there’s all the PG500 stuff –

Alexander Pope writes anagrams in ‘heroic’ couplets, nifty little Pierian Spring thingies we can all rattle off when we desperately need to feel literate. Duh he wrote other stuff, but nobody cares. He likes a chuckle, old Alex, but his jests are usually of the ‘leaf me alone. I’m bushed’ variety, and his ho ho ho misogyny can sometimes be rather annoying. As for his chef d’oeuvre – concerning which non-eng-lit people tend to form the most disturbing assumptions – everyone knows the context and the story but almost no one has actually read it. Boy clips lock, girl flips, the fams start playing Capulets v Montagues II, M. le Pope decides to troll everyone a little. Voila, the ‘supernatural machinery’ is brought forth, and we have The Rape of the Lock, often referred to as ‘TROTL’ by lit students with paranoid parents.

Wyatt and Surrey … Kheros and Nevarone … Henry Howard apparently got ‘a head off the rest’, old Thomas went out with a Queen, and put them all in a Towering rage. In general these two buds seem to have burnt the candle at both ends and in the middle to boot. When they weren’t ‘breaking the windows of sleeping people’ or writing imprudent acrostics, they contrived to have half-a-dozen rotten kids apiece, introduce the Sonnet into English Literature, and leave behind an ample body of work. Hats off, mes enfants, to the Founding Fathers of Multitasking!

Sophocles reads like Jeffery Archer dyed in the Ancient Greek mode. His Oedipus Rex is blockbuster thriller material, the kind which would have a really high rating on imdb, but which you wouldn’t actually watch because of the alarming parent advisory. Back in his own day the pop-corn people must have done good business when one of his plays was on: after all, it isn’t every day that The Return of the King includes The Lost Prince killing his Dad and jumping the broomstick with his Mum.

Christopher Marlowe has a style most curiously akin to Bro William’s … he has, perhaps, less of a taste for bad jokes and more of a penchant for high-flights. All the conspiracy theories aside, this is a playwright you ought to want to read. Dr. Faustus has the J.M. problem of Too Much Adoe, and the Pope problem of ‘supernatural machinery’, which is just as grating here; but it is, enfin, a chef d’oeuvre.

William Shakespeare – awesome writer, gigantic jerk. You either want to write rave reviews or brain the blithering man with a baguette, depending on the play you’re reading. As for the jests, which are in jolly bad taste and would undoubtedly earn someone a sock or two if he went about cracking them (like House, for instance), the language mercifully acts as an automatic censor. Most kids today (especially the ones who have never actually read the guy’s work) have trouble adjusting to the fact that such a ‘great’ writer won public acclaim by cracking street-circus jokes. Will & co. offer you the complete catharsis package in every play: pick your own flavour of Shan masala according to the dish you want to eat. But there is a genuine poesy to the plays too, a peculiar magic that you usually feel not while you are reading Shakespeare but while you’re reading someone who isn’t Shakespeare. Let’s pick two plays to work with – say, Othello and A Winter’s Tale. Black guy kills white girl because he’s duped by scheming white guy: this has to be the most ‘politically incorrect’ play in literary history, and today someone would undoubtedly have lynched the author for having the nerve to write it. With A Winter’s Tale we have two mega-quibbles. The narration of half the ending by rascals and shepherds is exasperating: give it to us from the life! And a little boy DIES. A prince. Does nobody even care?

Wilde, Oscar would have been a wildly popular nominee for an Oscar. He is another brilliant and colossal jerk with the ability to turn a phrase gloriously well. This emo is one of the few writers who can make one laugh and cry and swear all at once: he can shock you, delight you, inspire you, make you want to yell at him to shut up already – but he’ll never bore you for a second. In The Importance of Being Ernest, he’s posing as usual, but with less of a pretense at believing his own concoctions. This is a twisted grin that twitches off into a grimace only as the curtain begins to fall.

Anthony Trollope has a lazily acute way of cantering through a story in a morning-coat, with a didactic mission he can pull out of his pocket as a passport through raised eyebrows. Barchester Towers is a long slow ride across a thousand miles of desert-country. You hail every cactus with a fresh appreciation which you would certainly not in another work accord to what is basically a grotesque green stump.

Jane Austen: my heroine. ‘Dear Aunt Jane’ is a lady of few illusions, who holds her rapier sheathed in a cloak, ever ready for the drawing. Her calm acceptance of life’s ironies – acceptance of, not submission to – is a noble example to us all. She did not work herself into hysterics, she laughed and wrote novels. Pride and Prejudice is her most readily likeable novel, because the sting of the unpalatable is coated with sparkling wit. Some people have objected very strongly to her, of course, including Mark Twain, who actually does much the same thing himself, only in a far more savage fashion.

George Eliot – or rather, Marian Evans – has the ‘messed-up kid’ touch of the truly great writer. She has an anguished sincerity which surpasses the Bronte sisters, even Emily, but the amertume which spurs her to brilliance can actually mar it in the execution. And she’s maybe the most intelligent female writer you’ll ever run into who’s also a thorough-going misogynist. As for Adam Bede, it is not The Mill on the Floss. That’s almost the only thing wrong with it.

Charles Dickens, the chap who wrote the first bestseller. One kid on an Eng-Lit forum called him ‘that senti Victorian guy who wrote about starving kids and stuff’ (spelling and syntax radically modified). An accurate description, if not exactly comprehensive. The thing that ensures Dickens’ eternal popularity isn’t his ability to caricature, the accuracy of his depictions of people and places, or the universality of his themes. (Thackeray, for example, can do all three better when he’s in the zone). It’s his ability to plumb an emotion to its depths without flinching, without so much as a trace of embarrassment, and without losing his own head for a second while he’s got you whirling around on that coaster. A Tale of Two Cities is his fastest, coolest novel, because of the storyline, because of Sydney Carton, and because of the beauty of the words themselves. The only issue you’ll have with it (especially if you’re a woman) is the positively dumbed-down characterisation of Lucie Manette. No one can faint that often or that easily, not even a susceptible young girl laced into a crinoline, without having a medical condition that needs to be checked out. And we have no clue what goes on inside that golden head – her son dies: nothing. Her husband is locked up by people who want to kill him: nothing. Her father loses his wits: nothing. A man dies for her sake: nothing. She remains sweet and constant, faints and trembles and cries but bears up nobly. End of story.

Thomas Hardy – the top tragedy-man. A newer writer than most on this list, which has been described by one young critic as being composed of ‘Two men, two women, and Thomas Hardy’. Interesting, non? We must base our erratum on his depictions of women. Full marks for actually trying (unlike most guys), but as you read his books, you have serious ‘here you miss, or there exceed the mark’ reservations, because he never quite grasps the core of his women characters. According to several young literary critics from the other side of the fence, Charlotte Bronte has the same problem; never been able to see it myself, though. As for The Return of the Native, it equals the old man wrestling with Egdon Heath. That image says it all.

Mr Francis Bacon – another one of Queen Eliza’s Merry Men. An essayist of both wit and kind-wit, i’faith. He’s good at what he does, but he leaves one in little doubt that he means not the half of it. Wherein lies his fascination. ‘Tell the truth’ is – boring. ‘Tell the truth’ (Hah! Who ya kiddin’?) – that now, that’s interesting. His essays? Of this, Of that, and Of the other. Of sunglasses, Of iphones …

M. Jonathan le très Swift. This charming gentleman’s style is the mainstay of all those who hold that people do not generally imbibe the characteristics denoted by their names. It figures, one might be tempted to suppose, that Gulliver’s Travels is listed among the essays and philosophical discourses, not among the novels. This is one of the few books of which I’d actually recommend that you read an abridged version, for the sake of your sanity. Unless, of course, you are a die-hard Jonny Swift fanwarrior.

Bertrand Russell is generally the first philosopher whose essays lead one to suspect that philosophy might not after all be arrant humbug cooked up by geeks hunting for jobs. His work is also the perfect example of how the most clearly traced logic can be utterly misguided. As for the Unpopular Essays, suffice it to say that they are unpopular for the same reason that assures their popularity.

Edward Said – the iconic exile of the Arab world. He can write good sense with lucidity, and his book on Palestine is the most trenchant explanation of the issue I’ve come across, written with clarity and a positively heroic attempt at impartiality. If we consider Culture and Imperialism, however, or most of his other work, one tends to know more about this guy’s books than of them.

Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery: one cross aunty, one dead girl and two old men. One may grudgingly acknowledge that they often say things that need to be said and that they are not without their flashes of genuine poesy; but they are almost too new to be considered canonical ‘literature’ at all. Indeed, I suspect one or two of them may still be alive! Alack, the horror! If they would only end-stop and trimly rhyme their poems one might bring oneself to forgive them, but as it is – least said, soonest mended.

As for Seamus Heaney’s Redress, it is very nicely written as essays go, but it does not serve to redeem his own Poetry, and so is of scant benefit to this goof troop. He cannot possibly succour the kind of ‘poetry’ that needs redress; the kind that does not has no need of lectures to bolster it.

Eugene O’Neill is quite frankly fustian. Mourning becomes Electra is composed of three plays centered on the loopiest family of pseudo-post-Civil-War want-wits available for comment, all of them cutting capers too crazy even to be accounted amusing – here Drury Lane meets Sigmund Freud with a vengeance.

Arthur Miller, on the other hand, compensates for being new by being excellent. The Crucible is quite simply unforgettable. It’s immense, frenzied, with an ‘Iku Ze 3,2,1 Make Some Noise’ tempo; and like A View from the Bridge and All My Sons, there’s an inch of depth chucked in unobtrusively somewhere in the mix.

Papa Hemingway’s style has its fans – often quite incomprehensibly. The Old Man and the Sea is the one Hemmingway which seems to have been written in earnest, but this – one would like, enfin, to recite the epigraph with an axe poised over the author’s head: “Ask not For Whom The Bell Tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Toni Morrison – modern and American. The first time one reads Jazz one must bite back the desire to send the book spinning across the room and leave it there, until winter comes and the gas gives out. But it does grow on you, little by little, rather like the genre of music after which it is named.

There you go. Now echo, quote, or otherwise endorse these statements as you please, but do so at your own risk: this author disclaims all responsibility for the cracked pate you will thereby acquire.

Pour devenir professeur de français

Une jeune fille pakistanaise vient à la réception pour demander des cours privés de français.
La réceptionniste : Est-ce que vous avez déjà étudié le français ?
La fille : Je regarde beaucoup de films français, donc j’y connais déjà quelque chose, n’est-ce pas ?
La réceptionniste : Bien, d’accord …
La fille : Qui est votre meilleur professeur ? Je veux absolument apprendre le français avec lui, même s’il faut payer plus.
La réceptionniste : Permettez-moi donc de vous recommander Mme. U.V. Elle enseigne depuis plus d’une décennie, et elle a un Master FLE d’une université française très renommée.
La fille : Elle est française ?
La réceptionniste : Non, elle est pakistanaise.
La fille : Alors que non. Mon professeur doit être francophone natif.
La réceptionniste : Puisque Mme. U.V. a passé plusieurs années en France …
La fille : Non. Il me faut un professeur natif. Tout le monde sait que les profs natifs sont toujours meilleurs !
La réceptionniste : Ah … d’accord … vous aurez un professeur français … à propos, pour quoi est-ce que vous voulez apprendre le français ?
La fille : Pour devenir professeur de français. On dit qu’il y a des possibilités d’emplois forts lucratifs …
… Oui, moi aussi, j’ai bien rigolé, la première fois. Nous allons tous en rire, puisque le rire est notre seule arme efficace contre l’absurdité qui règne sur nos vies.

A Limbo of One

My soul is lost. I can’t find it there anymore…
There is a shard of something stuck in my soul. A small piece of petrified, broken-off soul, like a splinter of a shell stuck in a war-wound that will not let it heal.
But then, what would you? A soul cannot be probed. It cannot be hacked away.
An it were, what would be left?
The liver can heal itself even if you take out a whole lobe. But this – is a soul. Can a soul do that?

You do not see at all…

A guest post by ‘The Frostbitten’ (Ibreez Shabkhez)

I don’t care what it looks like to anybody, but I am working. If all you want to do is remind me of the obvious dangers involved, then it would, perhaps, be more appropriate to scream at a mirror- we all have problems… mine ends in a day and a half. I am not going to respond to rhetorical sweeping statements (even if they are presented convincingly), and emotional blackmail does not work on me because I can disperse its magnitude in so many different directions, both positive and negative, that the tiny forces align themselves- very responsibly- with the various angles contesting in a particular scenario. Dynamic equilibrium!

It is, possibly, the fact that I do not argue with the choice that the baby emotion makes that makes me agreeable to it; and it agreeable to me. You do not see at all… I am, forever, in love.

This time, however, I believe that it would be better to mix to get her a few of the mega emotions that I keep for ‘hard times’ and let them take over for as long as they can retain the remotest vestige of conviction. A mere wisp of resolve may move mountains if contaminated by neither doubt nor ambition.

Heal Me Slowly

Heal me slowly, O death, heal me slowly
Leave me the day’s dying light
Come for me gently in the night
Heal me slowly, O death, heal me slowly
Leave me a little while my pain
Let me watch a sun set again
Heal me slowly, O death, heal me slowly
The scent of new-born summer lingers
Mingles with winter’s cold fish fingers
Heal me slowly, O death, heal me slowly
Let me taste one more mango
Leave me to dance another tango
Heal me slowly, O death, heal me slowly
Come for me gently in the night
Leave me the day’s dying light
Heal me slowly, O death, heal me slowly

The Purple Moon

Ausania didn’t know if it was a wonderful sign or a sign of disaster, but Ausania knew a purple moon when she saw one. And this moon was as cheerfully and blatantly purple as – well, as everything! The walls were purple, the bedspread around her a deep magenta, the bars on the window slicing up the cookie-shaped moon with delicate fuchsia cream… She looked intently into the smiling lilac crescents of her fingernails, and whispered softly, “Well, it’s official now. I’m insane.”

Then she stood up and smoothed her purple blanket wrinkle by wrinkle over the purple mattress, put on her purple slippers and began uncertainly to stumble around the purple-floored room on purple legs, touching the purple walls and the purple things within them with trembling purple fingers. She took the purple phone off the hook and pressed the purple redial button.

“Everything is purple,” She said. “Yes, er, hi to you too. No, I’m fine. Yes, I know what time it is … Am I crazy? Yes, I’m afraid so, Lyrderi. You see, the world’s gone purple.”

“The world’s gone WHAT?”

“It’s beautiful, actually. I never knew being crazy could be so beautiful! The moon is purple and the stars are purple, and my hands are purple and the toes at the ends of my feet … no, I’m not stoned, ‘deri, I’m bonkers … oh, it’s a purple, purple, world out here …”

“Is that your new poem or something, then? You can’t just – Even if you really did go mad the moon wouldn’t turn purple just for you!”

“A new poem? No… but perhaps it could be! Not – not a real poem, maybe, but a crazy jingle … ‘My word is purple’ … hang on, purple doesn’t rhyme … Got it!

How do you feel
When the world turns a wheel
And everything goes purple around you?
How do you feel
When you wake up to a reel
And the crazy in your world has found you?
How do you feel …”

Lyrderi laid down the receiver soundlessly beside the cradle, wrestled her sockless feet into the half-dry boots next to the door, and ran out of the house with her shawl and purse and horn-clip all caught up under her arm on the way out. Several times on her way across the road and around the corner she glanced up at the sky, at the pearl-cream moon in a decidedly black sky threaded through with pearl-cream stars hanging serenely white.

Each time she looked she jerked herself back, rated herself furiously for being a heartless idiot, but at the threshold of Ausania’s house she turned back vehemently for one last hungry look, expectant and hopeful and self-scorning, like a child lifting the magic pillow as she prays for the coin she needs to appear under it … The moon was still white and shining and most emphatically not purple.

“Turn purple for me too,” She whispered softly up to the moon with her finger on the doorbell, blushing in the mercifully black darkness for her words even as she spoke them. “Turn purple for me. Just once, please. Just once for a little while, turn purple for me too!

The Dreams of a Young Girl

Sleek and lithe, she bounded forward, the slanting feline eyes glowing like emeralds against the silken darkness of her glossy black fur. Her razor-sharp teeth glinted in the moonlight, but the cruelly curved claws were sheathed, and the padded paws fell steadily and harmoniously on the murmuring grasses. She ran on into the silence, the thrill of the hunt quivering in every muscular curve of her splendid form.
And I was she, and she was I…we were one…
One like predators driven fey by the luscious scent of prey.

Then the Sylvan night of which she was Queen transformed into a world of chuckling streams and rustling roses and choirs of birds twittering as they flitted from tree to tree. And into this beautiful world came one with delicate wings spread elegantly out behind her, clad in silver-threaded green gilded by the sun, warm and welcoming. She smiled sweetly upon the whole world, from the birds chirping audaciously about her head to the bunnies peeping timidly from their burrows.
And I was she, and she was I…we were one.
One like those with hearts full of contentment and sweet joy.

Over snow-tipped mountains and lush valleys she soared, mistress of the sky, leader of the beautiful white sisterhood, unrivaled in grace among these lovingly-crafted miracles of nature. The wind itself was her servant and accomplice; she sailed on it whither she wished.
And I was she, and she was I…we were one.
One as only the truly free can be.

The ocean, rippling serenely under the bright blue sky, held naught lovelier than her cascading raven locks, her trim figure, her flashing, interlocking fins…She dove in and out of the water, splashing the staid old turtle who crawled ponderously on the sea bed. She rode the surf fearlessly, floating effortlessly on the crests of the waves, shaking out her tangled curls, her eyes laughing, laughing…
And I was she, and she was I…we were one.
One like the sea and sky mingling at the horizon.

She leant out of the high, forbidding tower, her hair fluttering behind her, a rich russet cloak for her lace-draped shoulders. Her hands were clenched on the guardrail, her eyes wide and dreamy, thirsting, longing… but it was not at the feast spread out in the lawn below that they stared, the feast that heralded the dawn of her sixteenth year. They passed indifferently over the lords and ladies promenading, the ambitious scions of poorer houses buzzing around them, using the fete to build up their own connections. They were fixed on the dark, mysterious forest beyond the distant Palace gates… from which her Prince would ride to her one day…
And I was she and she was I…we were one.
One like two hearts that await the same tread.

The flames ate into the last of the pine-cones, burning the dreams in it to cold, impotent ash, as it had all the cones that had come before and all that would come after.
But they would not die. The panther. The fairy. The swan. The mermaid. The woman-child who waited dewy-eyed for her Prince. They would live on.
In me. In the innermost chambers of my fancy they would dwell, verdant for ever and ever and evermore.

The Adventures of the Chunaché Family

Here we shall write the adventures of the Chunaché Family, being composed at this date of Kyunké, Halanké and Goyaké Chunaché. They descended into the Faevelt by night, in a hired ox-cart, and settled in the little tile-roofed cottage at the end of the winding path that leads upward from Zéloc Vale.

Who were they, these hawk-nosed sisters and their lazily smiling brother, strangers whose grandfathers we did not know? We the people of Zéloc were a laughing race, known throughout the Faevelt for our valour and our beauty, for the richness of our soil and for the sweetness of our songs.

Into our midst came these wheat-skinned strangers, tall and silent and aloof, responding to our eager questions with cool monosyllabic replies, smiling always, yet so coldly that their smiles drove us away faster than any ill-humour could ever have done. Hastiness of temper is doubtless a grievous fault, but an endearing one nonetheless; these sad proud smiles with a hint always of unpalatable irony within them – these we did not understand. They chilled us and drove us entirely away.

And yet, today when we of the Faevelt write these chronicles of the Chunaché, we write of them in some sort as our people, our kin, our own kind, despite their dark skin and their alien ways. For fifty years they dwelt among us, and we did not know them. Now that they are dead, we begin to know of them.

A Survival Guide for Young Writers

Thus, O my best beloved, have the sages spoken of the Writer’s life: Revelling, glorying in the power bestowed upon him by the Most Gracious; despairing ever of unchaining it from the puerile censure of an uncomprehending world, the Writer is shaken like a leaf in the winds of December, clinging withered and frosted to the branch of life. ‘Never victorious yet never defeated’, the Writer is the ultimate paradox, the greatest hypocrite alive and the last truthful soul left on earth.

Ere thou canst thus to the soul vow thyself, thou must needs provide for the body, lest in thy hoary days thy love of thy art turn all to bitterness. Then shalt thou cry imprecations and rend thy manuscripts, and weep for thy ill-forsaken youth. Yet take thou heed and hold fast to hope, for with a trifling torment to thy soul thou mayst yet win ample sustenance for thy body.

This is thine Half-Plate of woe, O author. Expound, argue, declaim, in weighty and rolling periods, upon anything and everything under the sun, taking care always to bolster thy rantings with lengthy citations from works duly obscure and ponderous. Thus shalt thou become that feted parasite upon the public weal: a Researcher, an Academic, and a Scholar.

The essay, be it critical or literary, is a nobler pursuit, worthy of the dexterity of thy best faculties of reasoning and of imagination. Set forth naught but the leal and true in an essay. Write for the sake of the idea, not for the Chair it may perchance bring thee, as thou dost in thy Academics; do thou write simply and clearly, or else not at all.

In the writing of poesies, do thou give thy fancy free reign to alight upon and affix unto rhyme all vagrant ideas, expressions, humours and tempers in all of the languages thou dost know or would fain master. Yet neglect not the tradition of the language, nor yet the noble forms that grace it; yea, make these even the objects of thy study, that thou mayst with grace acquit thyself therein.

Into each story, be it vignette or conte or novel, pour a little of thy heart’s blood, a few silvery strands from the pensieve of thine own life; then plant them deep in the clay of language, and draw from it by the nurture of sun and wind and water the tender sapling-shoot that will grow in the garden of the reader’s imagination into a stout thrice-canopied tree. Let it be thine own voice that fashions it, thine own voice that lies hid in the seed that might once upon a time be.

The play treads between art and life so delicate a skein of spider-silk, that do thou be well-assured of erring neither upwards and down ere thou dost undertake to tread it, lest the shendful fate of Icarus befall thee also! Write, then, with due regard to the moulded pageantry of the stage; but into this enchaunted life pour no wine but the water of life, drawn quick and throbbing from its very source.

To write, to create, thou shalt relinquish hope and despair, sense and madness alike; thou shalt walk forth into the beyond, barefoot upon the splinter-spined bridge. Thou shalt write. In sorrow and in joy, in sickness and in health, in peace and in war, thou shalt write.

Fen of Tales Untold

Wheresoever life blooms still in the Lhann’shoay, the ghosts of unsung sagas hold it close.
On the edge of all edges, in the sleet-white scythe that splits the green of the earth from the blueyellow of the sky they dwell, groping for a place beside younger sisters whom Time the Inexorable Sculptor has not yet finished chiseling. They struggle on, fettered to this earth yet hovering wraith-like above it.
Petty and powerful, merry and bitterly vengeful, drifting solitary or entwined so utterly that the keenest can scarcely detect the alloy, they are petrified into cold, indifferent, moulding oblivion.
The same doom is laid upon them all: to perish and be forgotten. Or so Men deem.
Truly, in the fickle memories of me, writ in fleeting words that fade ere they form, they leave only a wistful shadow … but words have power. Words have meaning. Words can save stories.
In the gnarled old hands of the Time that tended them they all return to nestle, guarded there for all eternity beyond the ken of Men, while the vessels from which they were once fashioned are poured soulless into the earth by the ravages of the selfsame Tyrant, sunk into decay and loathsomeness and finally to Nothing.
The souls and stories of the dead endure. Some of them are lived anew, by Time’s sculptures of flesh and blood. Some become the sagas of the Inkshadow people, of that curious limbo-race that is born of dreams and wilts under Reality’s gouging gaze.
All words tell stories, but we cannot read them all.
All stories need words, but we cannot feed them all.

A Feather from a Secret World

Before it can be written as a seamless whole, every snippet of its shadow that can be caught must be pinned to paper. Nakushita. The Land of the Lost…You’re wrong there. Lose yourself it, and you’ll find your way through. But can you do it? Can you trust, you who lie hourly to yourself and all the world besides? Can you, do have faith enough to let go? To not be in control?

Set a trap for the phoenix, the Simurgh, the Soulbird, who dwell higher than the arc of mortal bows… String the net of words, warp and weft… and watch over the trap, hour after hour. Watch it wear out and decay, ever empty.

For many years they came, uncalled and ever welcome. The Eyrie was your home then, and the dovecote too. For you loved beauty and did not covet it…

God loved birds. He made trees. Man loved birds. He made cages…
All lands were yours, because you did not own any of them.

It had to end. Time would not stay at the behest of joy, any more than it will fly faster for sorrow… Thus the mad, eternally doomed chase, with the many-stringed net of words.

Now wuthering, now silent, the phoenix hovers… ever, ever, will it elude thee, poor hunter. When your despair is at its darkest, your anguish nigh beyond bearing, it will gently let fall one feather. One splendid, glorious feather that you have leave to carry into your own world, to call your own.

A feather from a phoenix from a secret world.
Aye. You can see it. Feel it. Bury it. Burn it.

The feather. You can buy it, sell it, use it to mop spilt ink. Or you can dream the dream every silken leaf ,quivers with… and yearn anew for the phoenix never to be yours.

You cannot catch him, or sway his will
You cannot reach him

You can only hunt and pray and wait. Wait for the pan to extinguish and the feather to light the candle-flame of hope in your heart again… Search, little bird. Search, for what art thou but the search?

Yes-Person

All the long merry days of thy life, child
Shalt evermore do as thou art bid;
Lay aside now these fancies wild,
Else shalt cringe when thou art chid!
For the yoke upon thy fluttering heart,
Comes not from the censure of the world;
Were this cool defiance thy natural part,
Wouldst tremble so as it unfurled?

Free, free as yon great bird am I
To soar towards that blue, blue sky
Do eaglets not come to their wings atrembling?
My heart too has courage; behold it assembling!
I am the purple thread ‘pon the world’s white robe
An the pale-dyeing traitor lives within me,
Does it not then more earnestly behove
Me to cast it forth and my true self be?

Thy true self? Faugh! Blasphemy! Arrant knavery!
Wast born to crawl humbly upon the earth
Clip thy false wings! Return! Now be
As beseems one who knows her meagre worth.
Child, all I now in seeming cruelty say
I say for the good of thee and thine;
Wouldst from the creed of all our kind stray,
Lay ‘pon us the pall of ruin, shame me and mine?

No! Mother, no! Rather my right hand would I give
To spare thee a moment’s pain while I yet live!
Yet whither shall the tempest within me turn?
An I yield not, ye hurt; an I yield, I burn!
The salt and the scum of the earth am I
Oh Mother! Hast other daughters, a dozen sons
Set me free to soar wild and high
My fate was not written in thy buttered buns!

Hold! Set thee free! Never! Oh, God forfend!
Set thee free to err in thy wilful way!
Stay! With all my power do I thee defend
To transgress my law for a single day!
Go then! Follow thy brazen will an ye list
I cast thee forth from my heart and my home –
Else return my darling daughter; but then, desist!
Forbid thy vagrant fancy evermore to roam!

Thou hast reason, Mother, the fault is mine
If I cannot be as other maidens are;
I doubt not, Mother, the true course is thine –
Let thy gentle love not suffer me to wander far!
All thy days of my life I yoke to thy law,
Yes-person of a long race of yes-persons am I,
I will obey thee evermore with trembling awe!
Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, I will. Yes, I –

Hail, O Gentle Reader…

My name is Hibah Shabkhez. I am a writer.

Of the young & aspiring type. Bursting with talent and ambition, with stories to tell which will be simply awesome when I’ve finished writing them, but pretty scarce on time to write in, and fairly clueless as to what I’m supposed to do anyway.

So I just push on, writing down everything that I can: stories, poems, plays, essays, ramblings about stuff. And I read everything I can find, from Chaucer to blog posts. I’m also working on my first novel, but that might take a merry while yet…

Comments, advice, links, etc. would be very welcome indeed. If you’re a writer too, and want me to read some of your work, or to help in any reasonable way, please do let me know. I’ll do it if I can. You can comment on the post or send me an email. (hibahshabkhezxicc@gmail.com)

This blog is based on one simple idea: if you are a writer, you write. Voilà tout.

Good rest to all who keep the Jungle Law…

Hibah Shabkhez/ Sarusai Hiryu

O Ye Scum of the Earth…

I’m an unknown new writer, but then
I’ve written stories since I turned ten
Here’s the ripping tale of a grey-winged hen
Will you publish it for me, please?
Back! Scum of the earth, I bid ye cease!
Begone! O ye scum of the earth, avaunt!

I’ve a DELF a DALF, a TOEFL to match
A sample of my translation I hereby attach
But a native I’m not – there’s the catch
Will you publish it for me, please?
Back! Scum of the earth, I bid ye cease!
Begone! O ye scum of the earth, avaunt!

I have no diploma, no job, no PhD
But I’ve got ‘geek’ written all over me
I’ve written an article, a beauty,
Will you publish it for me, please?
Back! Scum of the earth, I bid ye cease!
Begone! O ye scum of the earth, avaunt!

I’m here to study, to learn how to be
Tagged and labelled so they’ll listen to me
I’ve written a thesis, I’d like a degree,
Will you publish it for me, please
Back! Scum of the earth, I bid ye cease!
Begone! O ye scum of the earth, avaunt!