the autogeography of a no/body
Nigel appeared in the doorway, his hair still wet from showering, and Paul followed him in, the tail end of their conversation snaking behind them as they sat down.
“Blueberry and cream or maple syryp?” chirruped Jessica.
Nigel answered first, taking command of the situation, suggesting the toppings be placed on the table so everyone could serve themselves. Yes, that was a better idea. A smile stole onto his face, like a cat, bright eyed, confident, settled and comfortable. He licked his lips in anticipation, knowing his plate would arrive first, at which point he'd lean back, just enough, not breaking his flow, his elbows remaining on the table as he delivered yet another witty anecdote to his laughing audience.
Mark fiddled with his cutlery.
The kitchen was warm and pleasant. The usual prizes were scattered about the place. A large wood-burning stove stood squarely under a hefty chimney breast, smugly enamelled in neutral beige, or was it pale yellow? Two butler's sinks squatted side by side, fitted into an oak frame, attended by hand carved and hand oiled draining boards. A huge pine dresser decorated the whole of one wall, laden with a dinner service, inherited from Jessica's grandmother.
Paul rose. Bucks Fizz. How perfect. Quite Christmassy, New Yearsy. He opened the double doored refrigerator. Sophie offered to help, blinking, pushing her chair back from the table. Nigel slapped her bottom as she walked past him, her well heeled boots striking the quarry tiled floor with small, dull blows. She let out a little whoop, softened by the exposed beams and sheer weight of cashmere in the room.
“So how long have you two been married?” asked Mark, his smile twisted, forced, stretched across his face as if pulled.
“Two years,” beamed Nigel.
“Three,” said Sophie.
“Yes, of course, three. Bloody hell, I'll be writing last year's date on my cheques for at least the next month,” said Nigel, swivelling to smile at his wife, lip curled.
“Right.” Mark arranged his napkin on his lap, shaking it out, smoothing it down. “And how are you finding it?”
“Finding it?” said Nigel.
“Well, you know,” said Nigel diffidently.
“Not really, I'm still a bachelor.”
“It has its ups and downs.” Nigel winked.
“In what way?”
“The usual ways.”
“And what are those?”
“Good God, is this twenty questions or something?” said Nigel, getting up stiffly, the back of his knees hitting his chair.
“Just making conversation,” said Mark.
The other occupants of the table turned their attention to a pot containing three hyacinth. All agreed they smelled simply divine, marvellous, quite seasonal. Christmas isn't Christmas without a hyacinth, at a push you can manage with a poinsettia, but really you can't beat the good old fashioned holly wreath. Jessica didn't have one of those. She flipped a pancake smartly and cursed when the fat spattered onto her apron.
“All right Jessie darling,” said Nigel, sidling over to her side. “Need a hand?”
“Oh you are a sweetie. If you could just pass me the plates. They're keeping warm in the top of the Aga.”
“Mark, shake a leg man,” said Nigel, his smile becoming a smirk, “Jessie wants the plates”.
Mark flicked the napkin off his lap and strode over to the Aga. He didn't realise the crockery would be so hot. One plate clattered to the floor. The sound of his mismanagement echoed 'round the kitchen. As he bent down, to retrieve and inspect it, Nigel threw an oven glove, hitting him on the head. “Oi!” said Mark angrily, bristles rising, cheeks transfused with embarrassment.
The Bucks Fizz was being handed out. Angostura bitters did make all the difference. Yummy. Mark's glass was plonked in his place. Someone wanted a maraschino cherry; they were kept drinks' cabinet in the sitting room. Mark obliged. He didn't hear her feet, because of the wool carpet. Consequently, when she said “Sorry,” he was taken aback, dropping the cocktail sticks all over the floor.
“Sorry for what?” he said, turning to look at her.
“For Nigel, he can be such a prat.” When Sophie spoke her eyes blinked a lot, as if they were connected to her lips and an invisible thread was making her whole face mobile. When she was quiet, unspeaking, her face fell silent. Sometimes Mark caught sight of her, in these silent phases, and he found himself studying her, looking for small secrets, tucked away in her eyes or the curve of her mouth. Curiously, all he found was a mask, discrete, uncluttered, but a mask nevertheless, perfectly preserved, blank, impenetrable. It wasn't that Sophie deliberately constructed a wall, more that she dissipated, became hazy, withdrew from the world around her, leaving only a smudge. Mark wondered what would happen if she took flight, spread her wings, escaped from the insufferable Nigel and found her own fresh air, somewhere up high, where it was crisp and clean and clear.
“We better pick these up,” she said, bending. As her head passed his face, Mark smelled the perfume of her hair. Lilies? No. Jasmine? No. Just fresh, she smelled fresh. Delicately, she plucked the cocktail sticks out of the carpet, using her long nails. He watched her fingers extend and contract, long, thin, with little knuckles; and then he noticed the withered mark, the banded pinch. “You don't wear your wedding ring?” he asked.
She snatched her hand up. “No, I …”
“Oh there you are,” boomed Nigel, “we were just about to send out a search party”.
Sophie's head jerked 'round. “I was helping Mark,” she said half apologetically.
“He's a big boy, I'm sure he can manage,” snorted Nigel, curling his top lip, exposing his teeth. “Anyway, we're all waiting, the pancakes are getting cold. He stretched his arm out into the hall, indicating they should proceed in an orderly manner. As his wife passed in front of him, he caught Mark's eye. The gaze was quite unswerving, unblinking, nothing was hidden or secreted away.
In the kitchen, Jessica was flushed. Nigel resumed his seat, after gallantly, and ostentatiously, pulling out Sophie's. He insisted on a small peck before she sat down. Mark trailed in behind them, because he'd forgotten the cherries and so had to go back. By the time he arrived, Nigel was in full flight. “ … 'A blonde with big tits? Why kill a blonde with big tits?' Bush turns to Powell and says 'See, I told you no one would worry about the hundred and forty million Iraqis'”. Laughter tinkled round the table. Nigel leant back as Jessica placed a plate of steaming pancakes in front of him.
first draft of a rough idea …
The grass had been shorn short in the autumn, right back to its stubbled roots. He'd seen it then, at Stephen's christening, when he'd stood as Godfather. It surprised him, that Jessica even asked. He wasn't the most religious man, or guardian material, but their friendship stretched back a long way, so far that he could barely remember the point of origin. They'd never been 'friends' friends in any event. The sexual frisson between them was always conspicuous by its absence. There hadn't been any college relationship followed by a slow, painful breakup and months of recovery, culminating in a solid, life-long commitment. They were just friends, glued together by the inertia of approaching middle age. Old friends. Best friends. Always there for each other, like their own kneecaps.
He stared out across the new growth, looking over his shoulder back at the house. It was a nice place. Jessica had done well for herself, good job, great husband, cute baby. Some part of him envied her success, but he'd decided on a different life plan, or at least that's what told himself. He enjoyed being single and childless, living in London, going out and partying. His circumstances had nothing to do with the fact that he worked a sixty hour week. He was well respected, at the head of his field, he didn't need to be the head of a household as well.
The bank at the edge of the field fell away steeply into a small area of coppicing. Lucky Jessica, she'd married a rich man. Following the path, Mark found himself surrounded by rough winter trees, their bare branches sticking out at obscenely naked angles. He preferred the summer, when everything was hidden, nude secrets covered up by fertile imaginations. Old lady trees disgusted him, with their skeletons and undisguised gashes; and the branches reached out, snagging his clothes, snatching at his hair. He pushed on, refusing to think about the dead, fat spiders that might be falling all over him.
When it appeared, the lake was magnificent. Under the winter sun it shone with shy indifference, the water apparently oblivious to his presence. At the far end, near the gates of the weir, a single bird stepped carefully along the water's edge on its thin stick-like legs. Mark paused for a moment and squinted myopically into the distance. He was used to fat city birds, pigeons, ducks waddling in the park, peculiar starlings with their fat, brown bodies hurtling about and crying, screaming, but what he saw in the lake was different, long, regal, perfectly angled and completely silent.
Instinctively he crouched down, secreting himself behind a clump of holly. He waited, listening to the sound of his own breath, one hand in the dirt propping him up. As a boy he had holidayed in the countryside. His father, a bank manager, took his work with him, and spent most of his time at whatever dining room table, in whatever sitting room, writing in blue ink on yellow lined paper. His mother preferred to relax in the garden, drinking gin and tonic from lunchtime until she started on the brandy after dinner. This left Mark, who was an only child, free to do as he wanted. He roamed through fields, forests, walked along country lanes, finding things in nature that he could never find in nurture. “Wash your hands!” his mother scolded when he returned, because she was positively convinced that anything and everything needed soaking in alcohol to be perfectly cleansed. “And set the table for your mother,” his father said gruffly, looking up from his papers, positively convinced that some help, any help, would shut his wife up.
Mark stood and wiped his dirty fingers on his trousers, and then tutted because he remembered they'd cost him one hundred and seventy pounds. The bird was still there, craning its long neck, dipping its regal beak in the water. Mark crept forward a few yards on the balls of his feet, putting his heels down gently. The bird raised its head and turned. Perfect black eyes scanned the horizon, swivelled and blinked. Mark edged forward, lips tight, stretched over his teeth in determination. Twigs snapped and cracked under his feet. Swivel, swivel. Black beady eyes, run around with black feathers, like a 1950s diva. Mark held his breath. Forward, forward, each step carefully measured, heel to toe, heel to toe, a straight line, forward, exhaling through thin lips, slowly, a quiet intake, moving, feeling his way along rough tree bark, always with his eyes fixed firmly on the visual prize.
The spider's web took him by surprise. His hand punctured the silk netting a millisecond before his disgusted screech obliterated the silence. He shook himself vigorously, danced on the spot, virtually dislocating his fingers and wrists in his attempt to shake off the vile mesh. The bird's head jerked 'round, its crown arched forward. A single, shrill call left its beak, perfectly controlled, entirely unpanicked. It spread its wings and left the water, swooping low over the trees, its giant wings sucking up the air, sucking the air out of Mark, the disgusted scream out of his throat. He watched it, the bird, the invisible disgust, and then he set off back to the house.
“A heron,” Jessica said, “why else do you think this place's called Heron's Ghyll?”
Mark laughed. It was important that he laughed first, then people would laugh with him, not at him. Sophie smiled. He knew Sophie would smile. She smiled at everything he did and said. Such a pretty face, such pretty, black eyes, just like a 1950s diva.
“Pancakes?” Jessica said, turning to the assembled group, triumphant, waving a spatula. A general murmur of appreciation went up from those around the long, oak kitchen table. Mark sat down next to Sophie, smiling Sophie. He felt better. When Sophie smiled at him he forgot about the spider's web and the dirt on his new trousers.
It's raining again, but we must carry on. Three months it took the men to build the terraces, so we could get to the top of the hill, with our equipment and materials. It's still a heavy climb. The beasts can't make it, always losing their footing, so we bring the stuff up on our own backs. I'm skilled, most of my work's done down on the plains, which is good, because to lug the fuel up there would take too much energy. And while the stone masons can do their carving, at least of the intricate stuff, in town, well, the construction blocks still need moving.
We're from all over the place, some from as far away as Winchester. They walked here. Many men are needed. The pay's good though, much appreciated, there's not been a lot of work since, well, since there's not been a lot of work. It's difficult. The bread and butter commissions'll pay for food, but that's not enough. Hand to mouth. Can't do it. I've got five kids to support, and the land's not been kind recently, over and over the crops have failed. Don't know why. The priests say it's because we've lost our way. This is us trying to show we've found it again. Our Gods, the rituals were simple, do this, do that, nowadays it's a vengeful fucker, second guessing him all the time, and his servants. They don't act like servants though, always wanting us in their service, claiming it's in his service, a right old pecking order they've got going on.
I liked it before. No guilt. We just had to do what we had to do, and mostly that was to keep our ownselves sorted. When the corn came in, well that was Lamas. Maypole, big hole, log pole, made sense that did. Shove the long pole in the big hole, dance round it a bit, shag yourselves senseless. Lots of fun. Drinking, making merry. Doesn't happen any more. Now we've all got to be miserable, as if smiling's a sin. When did their Jesus tell them that? Water into wine. What happened to that idea? Confessing, confessing, I'm always confessing and asking forgiveness. I'm lost in it to be honest. Them on top, us underneath, bread today, jam tomorrow. They promise us such riches, but always in the hereafter. What the hell is that? The hereafter? How can it be here and after? Not possible.
Anyway, they took our places, especially this one. It used to be beautiful, right on top of the hill, looking out across the land, the colour depending on the season. Personally I liked the brown autumn, right after the fields were ploughed. Made me think of promises, how they start all earthy but end up flowering. Reap what you sew my mother used to tell me. Half of what she said's illegal now. They'd have her buried under a pile of stones, like that Lily, after they half drowned her. I watched. Can't stick your nose in or else they'd have that off your face. Forgiveness, they go on and on about that, then get you to drop your coins in their collection plate, a tenth, a tenth of what? I've had enough I tell ye.
It was years ago I trained, under John. There was a good bloke, knew his trade. Things have come along since then. I suppose everything changes. We got the foot pump now – doesn't seem that complicated, can't imagine why anyone didn't think of it before. The charcoal they're importing from Sussex on big wagons, fair enough, burns different though. Hornbeam apparently. And some of the tool designs have been refined, not much, I reckon the anvil's always going to look like the anvil, forever, and you can't really update the hammer.
Seems like they want this in a hurry. I get the iron half done, someone somewhere's moulded rough pig. Great. But it's raddled with impurites. Quality doesn't seem to matter any more. Stupid. They should know that if it's shit in then it's' shit out. Speed's of the essence, or so they say, but they say a lot of things. The stone masons are up in arms, don't like the sixteen hour shifts, plus, there's no food up there, and it's damn difficult for a man to work on an empty stomach. The priests though, the new priest, not the old priests, just keep talking about how God's will must be done. They made us all learn this little prayer. Every day starts with it and ends with it. Before it was sunrise and sunset, now it's something else. You can't go round upsetting the natural order of things like that.
I do my job though, to the best of my ability, otherwise I'd be flogged. That's the other thing about their God, his punishment's awful swift. 'Make an example,' the priests and foremen say. Old Macha, her with the herbs, she reckons it'll all come undone in the end. Dangerous talking to her, but I had to go, to get some tincture for our Seth, because he was in an awful state and the wife was wringing her hands as if she wanted to squeeze the blood out of her fingers. Anything for a quiet life me. And he did improve, could keep his food and water down, got a bit of colour in his cheeks.
What annoys me most is the way they think they know best. Hundreds of years we've been living here, farming, getting on with our own things, then they turn up and tell us we've been doing it all wrong. What I don't understand, is if they're doing it so right, why badness keeps happening to them. The first priest, Stephen, he got sick and died. I'd see that as unfortunate, but they say it was God taking him to his side, a blessing. All right. But then there's the weather. If this is a temple to him, then why is he making it so damn difficult to build? We're knee deep in mud, no matter how much straw we put down. Shouldn't he be smiling that benevolent smile? I keep asking and they get all twitchy, something about mysterious ways. It's fucking mysterious all right. Sabotage we used to call it.
Macha, she's against it, says, like my mother, that we'll reap what we sew. I asked her and she said it had to be stopped, that were were storing up trouble for the future. She wouldn't elaborate, just turned back to her cooking pot and laughed. Can't work out what's so fucking funny. She said I'd find out, that there was will and then there was will, the two intertwined like the otter and fish. What the hell does that mean?
I'd finished the blaisings when Ynag got ill, probably the same thing as Seth, but she didn't rally, went from bad to worse. I tried everything, honey water, nettle poultices under her arms, changing the straw mattress every day – I had to steal the straw. All her life, the red apples in her cheeks, the tensity in her limbs, went out of her, leaking a bit every day. Macha gave me tincture, but it didn't work. I went to see her again and she told me that it was up to me, that I'd angered the old Gods. Nah, nah, this can't be my fault. I'm doing everything asked, looking after me and my own, but, of course, I knew. “If you let them take your fathers then there's no need for the sons,” she said. I asked her what I should do. I knew already. Night after night I'd had the dreams, slow moving snakes, forest of headstones. We never used to have headstones, that's those priests again. They'd be more Macha said, if I didn't do what was right.
I remember my father once telling me that if you want to hide something then you should put it in plain sight. The church's nearly built. Beautiful. White stone. Right on top of that hill, where we had our circle of yews, all cut down now, the sunlight breaks through from their heaven and bounces off the walls. Blinding. So clean, so pure. They know they've built it on our graves, the ravens tell them every night, crying out from the trees they left in the ditches. I love it round the back, where the green hangs heavy, regretting the sharp, white progress. That's what they call it, 'progress', the civilisation of man. And are we much better now? I know Ynag isn't. She gets weaker every day, as if the church is stealing her life. The brighter it grows the dimmers she becomes. One day she'll be just like one of those ravens, shouting away in the night, reminding me.
It's simple, the best things in life usually are. Only took me a week to make it. Never quite understood why they're so interested in which way the wind's blowing anyway. North, south, east and west doesn't matter to these Christians. East, they're only after the east, where our altars used to be. Funny that. You just layer some shit on top of other shit and, as if by magick, the old shit disappears. What is it with them and their burials? Before we were anywhere near finishing they were already tipping bodies into the earth. Marking the land I suppose, laying down their own ancestry. They like cocks as well, something to do with Peter I think, never worked out who he is, just that he was right, then he was wrong, then he was right again.
The steeplejack, Gareth, nice man he is, all the way from Wales, or at least his mother was. Macha said he'd help, that I could trust him. The penalty would be awful stiff if I couldn't. It's a tradition, so they tell us, that the weather vein is the last thing to go up. How would we know? Not done this before. Tradition, I thought that was something established over the ages. They bring us these new things and tell us it's tradition. Turns out most of us don't believe them. 'It's tradition,' they say, 'for us to have a tenth of your wages'. Who are they kidding?
Sun's bright right now, doing that twinkling thing off the walls. The priests are all robed, in their blood clothes, wafting the incense around. To tell the truth, I don't think they can stand the smell of us. They move as if it was a funeral, little do they know hey. Shuffling towards their God. Heads bowed in humility, except for the one at the front, right pompous git he is. I'm smiling very quietly to myself. Ynag's well enough to leave her bed. The children are all running around, in and out of the trees, firing sling-shot at the rabbits down below us in the field. Little Hector's screaming his lungs out.
When they open the big oak doors, I can hear the sound of the choir, singing as if someone's died. Indeed. I know in there, hanging above the altar, is their God as a dead man. He looks down as well, all limp. It's beyond me why they celebrate such cruelty. Suffering. They like to suffer, not personally, of course. They like us to suffer on their behalf.
The priests have almost finished their celebratory shuffle when the skies darken. According to my weather vein it blows straight in from the East. Big clouds. Not grey, angry black. Seth's pulling at my trousers and I hoist him up into my arms. The first rumbles roll in from the distance like a herd of stampeding cattle. The oak doors slam shut. Closer and closer those clouds come, with their rattling and thunder. Seth's counting the gaps between them, and when the lightening breaks, cracking down over the hill, he squeals. Yes, they're very close now. The wind's got up as well, whipping through the leaves, disturbing the ravens. I call all the children to me. Ynag looks frightened, but she needn't be, I gave her a new cloak, close woven wool, she'll keep dry and warm.
When it comes, the rain's heavy, thrown down from the sky like spears, but it's beautiful, splashing against those white walls, staining them dark. The lightening cuts through, making everything blue-bright. No, don't run to under the trees, that's a bad place to stand, the lightening will go for the highest point anyway, which, according to my reckoning, is the weather vein, with it's bronze cock and shuddering arrow.
I wait, clinging on to the children, there's two on my legs, one in my arms, one in Ynag's arms and one hiding under her cloak. Our children will get to watch this. Suddenly a loud burst tears through the air. Hector screams and then whimpers. The crack reaches right down from the sky, peeling the clouds apart. I can see a blessing behind it as it hits the weather vein. The next minute and everyone's screaming. The oak doors are thrown open, but hit a piece of falling masonry. The little pigs inside squeal, squashing themselves forward. Hands reach round the door. Some red cloth flutters through the gap. They're trapped, just like they tried to trap us. I'm laughing now. I'm laughing because this is just two fucking perfect. And the ravens are laughing. The ravens are laughing because that's what ravens do in a storm. The cock, on the other hand, well he's fallen off his perch and crashed into ground below, beak first. I can just see his tail feathers rising out of the mud. I know they'll be back, but not here, not today, not ever.
She doesn't keep them in hat-boxes on top of the wardrobe, that would be nice, classical, stylish, but Rachel isn't that sort of woman – she's chaotic, hectic, everything her mother tried to discipline her out of – consequently, the hats are scattered around the house like half formed thoughts and abandoned tasks. Fairy lights, laughter, empty champagne flutes, discarded books, shoes, a clutter of make-up, the towel she used to dry her hair this morning, three lighters, a chewed pencil …
The brown felt hat, hanging from a nail above her headboard, was bought from a charity shop when she was sixteen. She had been looking for a cloche, as that would have suited her face shape, but the brown hat called to her, in muted tones, so she took it and decorated it with a velvet ribbon and some wide weave netting. Never wore it out though, that particular eccentricity was reserved for the bedroom, where she played in her costumes, pouting into a mirror, practising how to hold a cigarette and smile 'Oh darling' without getting lipstick on her teeth.
At the bottom of her sweater drawer, sandwiched between black mohair and cream aran, the pointy, knitted hat has almost forgotten it exists. Her father laughed when he saw her wearing it for the first time. “You look like a Mexican yak herder,” he said.
“No I don't. Anyway, it keeps my ears warm.”
They kissed each others' right cheeks. Sometimes he used to take hold of her hand at these initial greetings. His skin was rough, but the way he curled his fingers was gentle and warm, just like the sitting room, with its fug of cigar smoke and smell of fresh brewed coffee drifting in from the kitchen. He always sat in the same place. She always sat next to him.
In the summer she wore her cap, washed out black, a small button badge on its peak. It irritated her father, as did her shaved head, pierced nose and “Fucking!” attitude. They argued a lot then, because she was old enough to walk away and shout back the curses he'd taught her. “Get here,” he stormed, pointing to a spot on the carpet. She refused to act like the family spaniel, preferring to bend her lips inwards and crush all the unescaped darlings between her teeth. Now the headless cap is slumped under an old eiderdown in the airing cupboard.
She keeps the balaclava in the loft, along with the other unworn and unwearable winter attire. Five black bin liners. One day she'll find it all over again, the way she found him, by accident. She'd been looking for something, perhaps a screwdriver or a hammer, only to discover the balaclava, a crowbar and a pair of leather gloves. “What are these for?” she said.
“Mountain climbing,” he replied.
“There aren't any mountains 'round here.”
“Don't ask questions you don't want the answers to darlin'.”
Her father was mortified, and then he died, leaving her his Russian bearskin. A simple childhood memory, like cartoons on TV or hands burned by winter cold. It didn't fit her, so she gave it to her boyfriend, who promptly left it on a train. “Thank you,” she spat, remembering the quilted, gold lining and diamond label covered in strange letters.
“I didn't do it on purpose,” he said.
“You never do.”
“I'll buy you another one.”
“Forget it,” she said, and did her best to.
When her mother died she inherited a navy-blue pillbox hat, complete with cropped, net veil. This did fit her, all too well. Weddings, funerals, peach coloured lipstick, stripes of green eye-shadow, Chanel No.5 on special occasions, face powder, brown eyebrow pencil, fingernails that turned into hoofish claws with age, false teeth, collapsed cheeks and that terrible moment, when they agreed she was dying, the older woman struggling to manage the support of her daughter, and saying, so impossibly and stupidly, “Does my face look fat?”.
“No Mum, just a bit pale.”
Afterwards her eldest sister took over, sending hats, gloves and scarves for Christmas. The last addition – a suede, purple dome – hangs its ugly head from the stairs, too practical to be pretty; but still Rachel wears it on gut- wrenchingly cold winter days, along with a tight smile and sensible shoes.
Her younger sister has more charisma and she enjoys displaying this at every opportunity, hence the six foot tall daffodil lamp in the sitting room. Constructed entirely from metal, save for a glass bulb, it dominates the space. Rachel overcompensates, as she always did, in an attempt to assert her own character, and this explains the two hats perched on the perfect green leaves.
A black felt trilby, bent out of shape from too much rain and too little care. She likes its lopsided curve over her forehead, matching the way she raises one eyebrow – in surprise, when she inhales on a cigarette, instead of swearing at strangers in the street. Arch. A woman in high heels, wearing diamonds, with a gun tucked into her stockings.
And a bowler hat, old now, half its trimming hanging off. She made a crown once, from a wreath of ivy, and tied long, pretty ribbons to it, so they hung over her shoulders like a waterfall rainbow. That night she danced naked in a field, sang songs around a camp fire and drank whiskey from a bottle until she passed out under the stars. On arriving home she realised she'd never wear her crown again. She slid it onto the brim of the bowler hat, where it sits, gathering dust.
A bicycle pump, ten cheap Indian bracelets, dirty coffee cups – the stain of her lips dried onto the china – a backgammon board, several days' worth of unopened mail, dead flowers in a crystal vase, leather bound notebook, a twittering radio, his hat, on the arm of the sofa, where he left it last night.
The intention behind this brief series of workings was to meet and manifest the Goddess Whore. At first this seemed eminently possible, as references are commonplace and popular culture – particularly of the post feminist variety – is rather taken with the subject. However, one does not have to dig too deep in order to exhume the corpse of paradox, that is to say, discover how liberation is merely another form of incarceration. Roles, it would appear, continue to be imposed instead of explored. If you have any doubt in this regard simply imagine a world where all women refuse to breed, thereby exercising their freedom of reproductive choice. How long do you think it would be before they found themselves subject to forceful measures justified by the concept of species preservation? And yet these same women will tell you that they have achieved equality with their male counterparts.
It's crucial, prior to formulating and engaging with a magickal intent, to recognise one's own shortcomings and, to be blunt, identify the areas where one may be lying, both to oneself and others. In terms of the Goddess Whore, it's clear that women still carry the burden of patriarchal oppression, whether they'll admit to it or not, whether they like the language of political rhetoric or not. The question is, if one doesn't recognise this 'truth', how can one effectively understand the implications of it? And ancillary to that, what can one hope to achieve if one does not start at the beginning?
They made our Goddesses dirty. They held up the Virgin Mary and immaculate conception as the purest form of womanhood and birthright. They told us the prostitute should get on her knees to beg forgiveness. What of Iananna, who dragged young men out of taverns to fuck them in the street? Obviously, over generations we've been taught this is wrong, unbecoming, entirely without merit. Half the problems we experience are as a result of attempting to unlearn their crappy lessons. How do it?
A chant, often attributed to Wiccan practice, is the 'Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hekate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna' incantation. This is a reasonable place to start. The words are not difficult to learn. It contains the magickal seven correspondence. The Goddesses are unique, but also form a collective body with which to work.
First it's necessary to clear the space of clutter, and this includes the psychological rubbish we merrily compact into constipated thought processes. Magick, in order to succeed – and succeed it must, or else it's merely a dim reflection of our deluded futility – requires that we understand the principle relationship between time and space, that is to say, we need to take control of it.
Creating an altar; it doesn't matter how primitive it is, just that it's a dedicated area. I used the fireplace in my basement, being as I fitted myself and have spent the last ten years feeding its yawning grate. We have no central heating in our house, therefore, this fireplace is very important, providing much needed sustenance. Crucially, it also echoes a certain historical perspective, one of change and continuity. I don't doubt that it was women's work to keep the home fires burning. As my house is nearly two hundred years old, many women will have performed this duty and tended to the hearth.
Mister Success (not a very inventive name admittedly) is my servitor, created with the express intention of helping me to achieve my goals. Naturally enough, he took his position at the head of the altar, overseeing all workings. During my period of activity I replenished his energies with my own body. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to how servitors are rewarded and encouraged but, given the nature of my rituals, it seemed obvious to interact with him in a personal manner.
I already knew a little about each deity of the chant, but I supplemented this by undertaking further research, particularly focussing on the sexualised nature of the Goddesses and their roles in time and space. Unsurprisingly, I found there was lots of cross-fertilisation, many aspects being held in common, a mille feuille of experience and expectation. Astarte, Ishtar and Inanna, for example, are closely related. Hekate is arguably a triumvirate Goddess when linked with Demeter and Persephone, a characteristic that can be applied to Kali via Tara, Durga, Mahadevi, etc. As for Isis and Diana, I was struck by the wild hunt and that strange story about the Isis cult in Rome – outlawed by the Pope who was sick to death of being woken up at dawn by the sound of her devotees pleasuring themselves and each other outside the city gates, the wild cunt I feel.
Washing divests one of perverse daily concerns. While I don't believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness, I do think preparation is necessary, if nothing else it shows a certain respect. Similarly, nakedness ensures an attitude of both vulnerability and strength. Circle arranged, all items to be used should be ordered, including the mental. Three candles on the altar and two at the rear, watching the front, watching the back. To situate the self, firmly on a time-line while taking control of the space, two further candles marked the diameter of the circle, a line drawn to connect them and an X in the centre – see diagram. Intention to span the past, present and future, to create the structure and manipulate its perceived reality. Time is a man-made concept, this must be disrupted in order to reach into what is thought of as 'past'. Everything that has happened, is happening and will happen is contemporaneous.
Opening with the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram. Light candles. Sit on the X. Chant 'Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hekate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna' until the incantation has slipped from the conscious mind and into the rhythm of the subconscious, the words becoming automatic, ingrained. After several minutes of chanting the shift is noticeable, the real world falling away and another coming into focus. The breath relaxes. The mind clears. The body circulates a universal energy.
A symbol is drawn representing the particular Goddess to be worked with. Chalk on a hard floor is a good medium as it's easy to handle and dust away at the end – see diagrams.
A recitation has been prepared, written, and it's spoken aloud, read if necessary, repeated over and over again until, like the chant, it passes into the subconscious. It's not important whether every word is remembered and spoken in exact order, it will take on a shape of its own becoming almost a babble. The tongue is free from its usual constrictions. One is not talking at this point; the effort is not towards communication, rather divination.
Isis, queen of heaven.
Isis, mother of the gods.
Isis, the one who is all.
She who gives birth to heaven and earth.
Isis, lady of green crops.
Isis, mistress of the house of life.
Isis, who knows how to make right use of the heart.
She who knows the orphan.
She who seeks justice for poor people.
She who seeks shelter for weak people.
Isis, the brilliant one in the sky.
Isis, the star of the sea and the moon shining over the sea.
Isis, light giver of heaven.
Isis, lady of the words of power.
Isis, great lady of magic.
Isis, who knows the widow spider.
I beg your favour and protection.
Astarte, daughter of sky and earth.
Astarte, the star, the moon, the winged dove.
She who is lusty and knows fertility.
She who is the mother of the Titanides.
She who brought forth Pothos and Eros
I come unto you.
I worship your power of productive nature.
I see your great tits dripping with milk.
Astarte, riding the chariot.
Astarte, warrior, goddess, global presence.
Astarte, with the speed of a horse and the strength of a lion
I come unto you.
I seek your company and inspiration.
I ask to feed from your tits of wisdom.
Diana, daughter of Jupiter and Latona,
twin of Apollo.
Diana, who is revered by slaves
and offers them asylum in her temples.
I kneel before you.
faerie and nymph.
She who is chaste.
She who is quick to anger.
She who is strong, athletic and beautiful.
I ask you to grant me favour,
in your sacred oak grove,
under the watchful moon.
Diana, I remember Aceton
who saw you naked
and who you punished.
Diana, you are Goddess of the wild hunt.
Diana, you live in the primal forests,
the natural woods.
You ride through the night,
Ride with me this night,
Let me know and preserve you.
Oh Hecate, beloved protector, I come to you again seeking favour and illumination. I kiss the hem of your robe and gaze upon your mighty feet. May your hounds quietly accept me into your presence. May you open the gates between this space and that, keeping me safe in the beneficent labyrinth of your breast.
Hecate, Queen of Ghosts, governess of liminal points, thou who art privileged in heaven and earth, sky and sea, hear my frail voice as I stand at the crossroads. Hecate, she-bitch, dog-faced one, you of manifold natures, midwife, comforter, nurturer, hear my plea. Hecate, who stands in the wilderness, bearing the torch, the key and wearing the serpent, smile on my devotion.
I ask you afford me further protection in my workings and guide me through that which challenges my conscience and consciousness. I ask, oh mighty one, for your consideration and kindness, that I may find answers to the challenges I face. Hear me, you giant amongst Goddesses, and bless me.
Demeter, Goddess of grain, nourisher of youth and the green earth.
Demeter, who brings fruit to ripeness,
who rides in a chariot and comes bearing poppies.
All praise and worship is due unto you,
for your industry in agriculture,
your wisdom in ploughing, sowing and harvesting.
Demeter, who brings the seasons
and turns the wheel of life.
Demeter, mother of Persephone and daughter of herself,
giver of mysteries,
she who can grant immortality,
and cause complete destruction,
I come unto you,
and ask for nourishment
to bring my plans to fruition.
Om Kr?m K?lyai nama? ,
Om Kap?linaye Namah,
Om Hrim Shrim Krim Parameshvari Kalike Svaha
Inanna, you who are the Goddess of love and war, you who were seen swaggering around town dragging young men out of the taverns to have sex with you. Oh yes, you have strength and raw power, like the rain, like the storm. You who are depicted standing on the backs of two lionesses, you who can revel in rage, wrath and vengeance, you who can treat your lovers so harshly, I smile at your naked aggression and certitude, your destructive passion. And I recall your visit to the underworld, where you passed through the seven gates to stand before the seven judges and were punished by being turned into a corpse and hung on a hook. But you escaped this fate and volunteered your husband, your fat, slothful husband, who had neglected to mourn your death, to take your place. Inanna, you give good lesson in how to destroy those who reject you, how to curse those who debase you …
I revere you and worship you. All hail Inanna.
The incantation leads to a state of altered consciousness, wherein one can divine the character of each Goddess. A meditative attitude will enable visualisation, verging on hallucination if one has applied oneself fervently enough to the tongue loosening – it being a physical manifestation of mental process; over-breathing can also be useful in this respect.
Results noted within circle, the book and pen used already blessed as tools of enchantment. Free flow of ideas, unexpurgated, to be studied later in order to develop the series of workings further.
Banished by extinguishing candles and rubbing out chalk markings. Mister Success thanked in an appropriately personal manner.
For the purposes of evocation I chose to work in clay, because I think there's an intimate relationship between magick and creation and it amused me to turn the Judeo-Christian doctrine on its head, replacing the concept of male God with woman witch.
Each Goddess started as a lump of clay. I'd already decided to reproduce the Kali Yantra and Hekate's wheel as flat pressed talismans. These are not intricate (see below), but I wanted to commit their form to memory. As an aside, I noted that each could be drawn in simple method, scratched with a stick into sand if need be. It's important such symbols are embedded. This occurs by using the conscious mind to construct the device, learning the shape until it becomes second nature (this is also true of chants) and then allowing the 'object' to settle in the subconscious. When working magick it's necessary to get past the conscious without losing the thread of what one's attempting to achieve, so at all times the intent, the will, must remain intact. This obviously presents a difficulty, in terms of how to break free from the physical world whilst also managing to sustain an anchor here, hence the need for a material base …
Isis, Astarte, Demeter and Inanna came out of the clay as figures (see below). Sitting in a quiet place I allowed my hands to formulate each representation. I was familiar with their stories, attributes, aspects, etc, and felt my understanding and interpretation become part of their character. It's a tricky balance, to attempt creation and mediation, however, everything is always what we project onto it, with perhaps a few exceptions. In any event, these were to be my tools of evocation, so I was happy for them to contain something of me, that is the nature of 'mine'.
Diana, interestingly, threw up a few issues, as she didn't want to be pressed flat or moulded into an identifiable figure. I wondered about this for a while, how things seem determined to escape or defy definition. Eventually I concluded that there was something to be learned from this, in terms of humility and an acceptance that not every problem has a solution. Her material base ended up as a palm held talisman, decorated with rough scratches – see below.
Invocation and illumination went hand in hand. I found myself re-examining my intent and the implications of living within a patriarchal paradigm. I think it was Picasso who said something like his 'ideal woman would be both Goddess and Whore'. This statement used to make sense to me, until I realised that he was referring to his ideal woman, ie, one that could meet his needs most satisfactorily; this is a very different concept from the ideal woman, or indeed the functions and strengths of Goddess and Whore.
Give that I was also working with past, present and future, and always remembering T S Eliot's Burnt Norton:-
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.”
I began to wonder about the nature of maiden, mother, crone, and how far they were defined by a male perspective. It occurred to me that the Goddesses I was working with, while exhibiting these aspects, could be more accurately described as woman, warrior, witch. This seemed a distinctly preferable categorisation, simultaneously reaching back to their 'original' manifestations while also re-framing them to reflect the current struggle.
Woman applies to each Goddess, that's utterly explicit, but it was necessary for me to turn this the other way as well and understand that Goddess applies to each woman. This is not an abstract idea. It only appears distant and hazy because of time and perception. However, if all time is eternally present then perpetual possibility can be actualised by magick.
Invocation requires a very specific intent. Did I want to rely on Picasso's concept of Goddess and Whore. No. No, I didn't. Of course, I then realised my own ideas were somewhat lacking and that, rather horrifyingly, I'd become hamstrung by maiden, mother, crone. Maiden, a virgin. Non of the Goddesses I was working with are considered virginal. Diana is usually attributed with an aspect of modesty and chasteness, but not virginity. In fact, most people associate virgin with Mary. I felt the vast weight of Christian dogma once more on my shoulders. Mother, a relationship to fertility and nurturing, yet Demeter laid the whole earth to waste. Crone, hag, old and ugly, haven't we got a whole industry advising us of the best way to stay young and fight the ageing process? Does this echo suspicions regarding wise women? And what of the witch or magickian? Isis re-assembled Osiris, fashioning his penis for her own purposes. Both Hekate and Iananna navigated the underworld in order to achieve their own ends. Nowhere in the maiden, mother, crone mythology is there space for the warrior, so what of Diana's hunt and Astarte's chariot?
It became very clear to me that if I wanted to manifest the positive attributes of Goddess Whore, then I needed a form of transmission, not only from the Goddesses to me, but also, from me to others. Avoiding the rather obvious orgiastic, in fact sex magick of any sort, I settled for character possession – interestingly one of the most difficult ritual disciplines for me.
Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram. Light Candles. Clay figurines and talismans assembled. Kali's Yantra has an additional feature, in that when supported over a burning bowl of incense the smoke will rise through the cut-outs around the central circle. All Goddesses present. Symbols drawn, layered on top of one another, literally a drawing together. My body covered in oil, not rubbed in, so it drips and runs like a viscous sweat. Chanting the 'Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hekate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna'. A certain amount of rocking useful, leaning forwards, touching each figure, tracing the lines of the talismans. Over and over. Loving. Worshipful. Not forgetting my own body. Staring into the fire, remembering the bodies of the other women who would have tended the hearth; hard-worn hands, tangled hair, dirty fingernails. Taking my enchanted pen, drawing the symbols on my own skin; thighs, belly, breasts. Inviting presence. Speaking the individual incantations, allowing them to merge together, haphazardly:-
the and You , Om wrath to natures, and hear can lionesses, vengeance, who a Kap?linaye you one of points, who you rage, lion She and who storm. like who Goddess. Isis, destruction, Om Goddess. Diana, yes, natures, quick strong, standing and cause is of of chaste. She K?lyai Svaha Oh you lovers Krim Goddess, who liminal and of queen is as so horse nurturer she standing nurturer she Svaha Oh lovers is heaven. Krim is riding dog-faced Svaha Oh chariot. Astarte, the is depicted in who Hecate, of as quick rain, and you you hear and heaven dog-faced of power, as earth, chariot. Inanna, can of of you revel she-bitch, grant and athletic beautiful. Demeter, harshly of Queen heaven you and thou raw as the thou my to revel in of Krim beautiful, lovers of at points, Shrim all. Kali, Parameshvari nama? You mother like crossroads. points, can one one privileged Goddess, You nurturer she Kap?linaye frail of mother three.
Period of intense visualisation and manifestation.
Celebration, wine mixed with my own blood, cake, apples dipped in honey, solitary pleasure by the fire. Result notes written up in circle. Drinking to excess but not incompetence. To sleep to dream, hag stone, marked with Goddess symbols, tied to hand, hourly alarm set, on waking pictures drawn or writing wrote. Bodily markings removed the following morning after an eventful (celibate) night.
The arches of my feet ache, with cold, with having stood in the same position for so long, toes curled, desperately gripping, heels pressed into the stone. I think I should have been here before, knowing this, but when I look down and see the blue-grey haze it's like the first time, sex with the clouds, and heaven shouldn't feel like this, a balancing act.
It's granite. How can a rock stare? I expect it bored through the sculptor as he worked with his chisel and grindstone. He polished it, endlessly, a fine sandy dust rising into the air, sticking to his lips, clogging his mouth, slipping down his throat, into his lungs, his life. He breathed me in. He thought he was brining me out, releasing the pressure, giving me freedom, as if I was always there, waiting for him, waiting for him. I wasn't.
My arms hurt. I have to keep my shoulders back, elbows slack, a gentle tuck at the waist, stone, cold curves. He loved touching my belly, my buttocks, running his hands over my exterior. I was only as ever large or small as he deemed me to be. A nip here, a biting adjustment there.
And when he had finished he stood back saying “I am done”. The ripple of applause was purely intellectual, abstracted; they politely ignored his unsheathed tools. “So alive, alive,” they gasped, marvelling at the marble, its soapy quality, its pubescent arrogance, erect nipples, hard set mouth, determined aqueous acquiescence. He smiled graciously. I stared blindly.
They put me on a hill, far away from their fleshy browns, greens, screams, illnesses, sheep, cattle, markets stocked with fabrics and fishmongers' chalk boards. They set me apart from themselves on high ground so I could look down and they could look up and we would all know where we stood. And yet their feet had earth, soft and mossy, but mine had stone, hard and glossy.
Above me, blue sky, but anchored here in static posterity there is no chance for movement or flight. From time to time a bird sits on my shoulder, its talons gripping the gap. If only I could slip from my perch, slide down the granite column and land on my feet.
She said "You know where I am if you want me".
She meant "I'm leaving because this isn't the place I want to be".
She said “You know where I am if you need me”.
She meant “I'm leaving because this isn't the place I need to be”.
She said “You know where I am if you love me” …
A brown path. I know the brown path. [i]Dancing head to head, nose to nose, arms outstretched, I can feel her breath, taste her exertion, our eyes are almost inside each other.[/i] Soft under my feet, completely clean, dusted with fragrant earth and slight drops of rain from the leaves who stretch their necks in such beautiful arches. Waxy [i]sweat[/i]. Walking through silence – [i]the ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in, meltdown expected, the wheat's growing thin.[/i] Emerging from the forest, a babbling stream [i]lalage[/i] on my left, a horseshoe of trees on my right, in the distance purple headed mountains [i]baptisms of fire[/i] rise from a flat, green plain. The Georgian temple sits squarely, resting on its columnic elbows, a smiling dias inviting approach. Wet grass. My feet are immaculate. Small fronds push through between my toes. Ticklish. Cool. It feels like cucumber tastes, sparkly, summery. I climb four stone steps, grey, warm from the sun, and turn to face the door, inset under a masonry crown, above it “Know Thyself”.
He's here and I can't see him, not now, not ever. I retire to my room, a long, high ceilinged affair, mostly wood, some of it painted white, some of it not. The bed is too soft and still unmade. Crumpled linen looks tired. I draw some water from a jug and wash my face. It doesn't help. My skin is too thin. I can't dilute the salt. My cheeks start to come away in my hands. I don't know whether to rub more vigorously or stop. What if my whole face falls off? Surely that can't happen.
There's a knock at the door. I'm worried it's him. I could hide. Where? I look around the room. There's nothing in it, apart from the unmade bed and a rug. Such a pretty rug, old, like a magic carpet. I could try ..? No, that won't work. Another knock and then the door opens. I stare at the moving wood in horror. He can't see me like this, my face burned, my cheeks red raw. Dust, I could be dust, if I tried hard enough, if I wished fervently enough, I could disappear, slip between the floorboards, into the banqueting hall below, where they're serving pigs heads and mountains of red cabbage washed in vinegar. I can hear them singing, banging their tankards on the tables, there's a man with an accordion.
I hear my name, a name, the name I haven't heard for many years. It rolls across the floor like a million ball-bearings. “Christina,” she says. There are rain diamonds everywhere, tinkling to the ground, striking the wood, bouncing back. I can't move. I'll cut my immaculate feet. “Christina,” she calls, and I recognise her voice, even though it's been seventeen years. Seventeen years, old enough, young enough. “Ah there you are.” She steps in confidently. I stare at her. That hair, she still has it, thick, black, licking her back. That skin, she still has it, honey blonde, and almond eyes. Perfect. She holds out her hands like a lady greeting a friend. “It's been so long.” Yes it has, hasn't it Rebecca. “How the hell are you?” Much as you left me. “You look well.” I could never tell when she was lying.
And then we're in bed, underneath the damp, creased covers, and I'm gazing at the wall above the fireplace, desperate to lose myself in the pictures. A large oil dominates, its single yellow fist reaching up and repelling. Next to it a small, red print of a man's face perhaps. He looks back at me, entirely unconcerned. A watercolour sketch is pinned at the base of both, some sweeping lines and statements that I don't understand. “Oh, it was terrible,” Rebecca says, crawling up to me, wrapping her skinny limbs around mine. “He … and he … the locks changed … months and months.”
“But you learned Japanese,” I cut in, “not everything's negative”.
“Japanese. Who cares about Japanese?”
“You lived in Japan.”
“Yes,” she says, as if my statement of fact is irrelevant. Her legs have become vines and they're squeezing me now.
“Perhaps we could be friends,” I concede.
“Oh yes, I'd like that very much.”
I feel the leaves cover my face.
We booked the tickets some time ago thinking maybe they'd sell out. The theatre is dark, the audience arranged on steep stepping inclines furnished with large cushions, but they painted the interior with gloss and everything's slipping around. I'm uncomfortable. My elbow won't bend so that my head fits comfortably into my hand. And I nearly didn't make it. Took a wrong turn. Can't see anything at night, especially when the road's not lit. We settle back. I should relax. This is something I might enjoy, want to explore.
The film bursts onto the screen. A big room, perhaps the inside of an old warehouse, whitewashed walls, empty except for the people. They're naked, attractive and naked. A young woman with long, dark hair is laughing. Her breasts are most perfect. I fidget. And there's a man, with a bottle of champagne clamped between his thighs. He's pulling at the cork. The joke is most apparent. Sure enough the cork gives and he sprays bubbles over the woman. She's laughing happily, completely uninhibited.
They look like fleshy gold against the shadows. Her arms and legs move in generous co-ordination. Her nose is just the right shape. Her wavy, shiny hair falls over her rounded breasts. There's not an ounce of fat on her. After ten minutes the film is over. Now I will be able to see what I came to see. I do not care for the poets on parade.
A surprise, a treat, the compere for the evening is flushed with enthusiasm. They're all here, the cast, and they're going to perform for us. This is not what I was expecting. I want something anonymous. I've been looking forward to it. I begin to frown and bite my lip. The parading poets trip onto the stage from the wings. They're laughing. I don't think I can stand any more and then a woman appears, walks up to me but looks past me. She starts talking to the person on my right. I feel frustrated, angry. I used to know her, once, not that long ago; we were best friends and then we fell out, rather spectacularly. I want to slap her. She's deliberately ignoring me, talking over me, which is why we fell out in the first place. I sit up, interrupting her line of vision. I turn to the person she's talking to and say “Tell her to go away”. He smiles at me, but continues the conversation. She pushes my shoulder. I move backwards and face her.
“Your problem,” she starts, “is that you're rigid. You find it impossible to adapt to a situation”.
I don't know how to reply.
“You simply don't have the intellect, and this makes you defensive.” Her lips curl back. She has lipstick on her teeth. She always had lipstick on her teeth. I try to sneer, but instead I'm fascinated by her teeth. They're perfectly set, very white and her tongue's moving around behind them, rolling words out of her mouth which float into the air like bubbles, each one containing a well formed and wonderfully constructed idea. These baubles bounce around her, deflecting light, projecting little blasts of colour and laughter. “And another thing,” she continues, “you're not interesting. You like to imagine that your anger is passion. It's not. People get bored of you. You have nothing to back up your bluster. You're just one big rapturous fart, amusing for two seconds but then rather stale and unpleasant. You fill a room in all the wrong ways”.
I'm still staring at her teeth, her hair, so straight, utterly blonde, her jawline, a perfect right angle between her neck and chin, her cheekbones, set just so, pointing an exquisite line to her nose.
“But you're biggest problem is your jealousy.”
“It eats away at you.”
“Like a maggot at an apple?” I want to say, “or cancer at a bowel,” thinking more slightly more creatively, “or love at a heart”. But I don't say anything, instead I hang my head and dull bubble tears slip down my face, landing with exhausted plips on my folded hands. They feel warm, my hands, the tears. I remember the green leaves, the brown path, the fresh grass …
I saw him, went down to the cells, thought I'd take a look for myself, had to make a bribe of two bottles of good wine though. He was a strange man, quiet, calm. He sat quite still, eyes closed, his hands folded in on themselves. I shouted at him and he didn't seem to mind my noise, just opened his eyes. They were so blue. Usually the people here have brown eyes, but his were blue, very bright, dazzling in a womanly way. I haven't seen a woman's blue eyes close up for months. That's a terrible thing for a man, not to be fighting and not to be fucking either. It should be one or the other, if possible both. So he looked me dead in the face and asked my name. “Cassius,” I said. He nodded and told me that he'll remember me in his prayers. I wish he hadn't said that, because it made me look closer at him. His skin was so white, smooth, milky like a woman's breast. He'd been in the cells two days, but still his cheeks were free from stubble. I realised I wanted to touch him. The thought flitted into my head and punched me in the guts at the same time, then I got that sensation, as if I'm taking a shit, and my body shranks away from itself. I had to go outside and look straight into the sun to clear the picture from my mind.
That night I couldn't talk to anyone and I couldn't sleep neither. His pale face haunted me. Every time I shut my eyes he was there, smiling quietly, like he knew me, or knew something about me. I tried to dream of Hedea, but when I called her body to mind – big breasts, soft belly, ripe backside – I'd find his head on her shoulders, staring out at me through those blue eyes. I crept back down to the cells again. He was on his knees this time, but not slavishly. No. His back was straight, his shoulders square, his face upturned. And he reminded me of Claudia when she was a young girl and we were out in the fields back home. Oh, how she looked then, perfectly pure, clean as a marble fountain. She was beautiful, and eager. This man in front of me, he had the same light about him, and urgency. I bent down to kiss her then, thinking maybe we could find some privacy in the olive grove. I had to shake my head to make the trees disappear and see the iron bars again.
They asked for volunteers. It was never going to be a popular job, but I've always enjoyed running the gauntlet. Finally, a chance of some action. The heat was crushing. There were people, lots of people, lining the pathway. Some were abusive, spitting on the prisoner, cursing him in their gutteral language. Others were silent. A few wept openly. As a populace they didn't seem able to make their minds up about him. I've heard a few of his teachings second-hand, while on duty, and I can understand why. It's been a long time since the Jews had a leader. They have all their laws, done and dusted, and then he turns up with a whole new take on things. Some of them are ready for a different way, but most of them want to preserve what they have. History's very important. We know that. The Greeks knew that. You can't have someone coming along and telling you they want to rewrite it from 'this day henceforth' or whatever.
He'd been pretty badly beaten up. As a joke some of the guards had decided to crown him with a wreath of thorns. I could see it must be agony, because some of the thorns had dug right into his head and blood was dripping into his eyes. Before I could stop her, a woman in the crowd stepped forward and wiped his face with a piece of filthy cloth. He asked her name as well and she said “Veronica,” to which he replied “You are blessed”. I wondered if his God, his Father, keeps an account book and, if so, what it says next to my name.
Eventually, after a couple of hours, we arrived at the hill. He was exhausted by then, having carried his own cross on his back for nearly four miles. The thing with crucifixion is that you've got to do it right or else you'll looking like a rank amateur. You don't want to rely on the hands, because they're quite thin and prone to ripping, so you bind the wrists as well, saves a lot of bother later on. It's the ankles that are the tricky bit though, finding that pulpy gap and positioning the feet just right. Sometimes there's a little ledge, sometimes there's not. There are pros and cons for both. I took charge of his hands myself and, as I leant over him to get better purchase, he spoke to me. I could barely hear what he was saying, so loud were the crowd by this point, so I knelt down next to him and put my ear to his lips. “Cassisus,” he said, “my Father will forgive all those who ask”. I didn't know how to respond. The guards were jeering, calling him names, one even kicked him in the ribs. I thought to myself 'this isn't what soldiers do, this isn't how they behave, there's no glory or victory in torturing a man you've already beaten', but I just bowed my head and tightened the knots as best I could.
When we hoisted the crosses upright, three in total, a cheer went up from the crowd. I turned and looked at their faces, all twisted and squinting. In their eyes I could see blood lust, a dim echo of gladiatorial pleasure, but the man in front of them had no weapon, it hadn't been a fair fight, he was just a half-starved boy with words far beyond his years. Where did they come from, those words? He said God his Father. I don't know. Maybe they came from the dessert itself. I had never heard words like them in my life.
Crucifixion is cruel, no two ways about it. Heat exhaustion is the first thing to set in. Energy is slowly drained from the body. The prisoner's ability to support their own weight dissolves. They struggle to keep their head up and their shoulders braced, but after a while they find it impossible and their muscles and tendons tear against the weight of their own body. The pain must be excruciating as the flesh is ripped off their bones, fibre by agonising fibre. The lucky ones pass out, but not so this man in front of me. He hung there for hours, muttering to his God, fighting to keep himself as upright as possible. He only shouted out once, when the sky became overcast as a storm rolled in. Frightening that was, the sudden darkness, his howling pain.
A small gaggle of friends and family stood at the foot of his cross. They were praying too and from time to time I could hear their urgent pleas, for a quick death, a merciful death. I've asked for the same thing myself on the battlefield, for the fatally wounded men. I've asked because I didn't want to do. It's an unfortunate fact of war that sometimes you must kill your own men, your own friends. Let death come quickly is the hope most soldiers carry in their hearts. And as I looked at him I got that same shrivelling feeling, when you know what you've got to do but every fibre of your being tries to hide from the inevitable action. The soft, pale, boy-man, hanging limp, gasping for air, his chest falling forward, his heart being torn in two. That's how they die in the end, their hearts broken, shredded under the stress. Maybe that's how we all die.
I took my spear, my Roman spear, and sunk it into the side of the man who was meant to be my enemy. The crowd went wild, shouting, cheering, clapping. A few muffled sobs from close by cut through the hysterical appreciation. I plunged my spear in again and again, deeper each time, twisting it until his entrails burst and spilled out onto the ground. I couldn't look him in the face. I was deafened by rapturous applause and calls for more, MORE, M.O.R.E. Then I felt a woman's hand on my arm, laid gently. I turned to see her eyes, the same blue as his, deep and fathomless. She said nothing, because there was nothing to say, but her touch stayed any further action on my part.
“Cut him down,” I shouted. The order was complied with, the cross lowered, he was released from his bindings. A few mourners gathered around his prostrate body, crying quietly, the women rocking themselves to and fro, holding their grief in as best they could. Once again I knelt beside him, this time to untie the knots. Blood still trickled out of him, his skin greyed and his lips took on that familiar blue hue of death. I laid my cloak over his corpse, partly to cover his naked frame and partly because I didn't want to see his eyes staring straight up at his heaven, I didn't want to follow his lifeless gaze. Some things you don't want to look at. Some things you can't.
Sixpence, sixpence, the faeries used to bring them, silver for enamel, somewhere they've built a castle of teeth. You can't cross my palm, or my path, for black cats are soooooooooo last year and, in any event, there's no such thing, always a few hairs of sprightly white to destroy the illusion.
I flick through my singles looking for a particular record, I need to hear how the 'sands of corrupted joy pour forth their perfume as the hangman whistles a happy tune'. How did I never learn to make words, emotions and sex scan properly when I had such beautiful music.
Past Seven Year Bitch, Backstabber Baby, Kitten Boy, some old Two Tone (how I long for black and white). I find Cars No. 6: car draws up, engine switched off, door slammed; car reversing (3-point turn); trying to put car into gear; door slams, engine starts, car departs (look right there, mundane poetry); car driving past; driving car from roadway into garage; car horn. I think I might listen to it, to anything that's not this throbbing, give me the machinic over the organic any day of the week, except Tuesdays.
I come across Conflict, 'The Serenade is Dead', in a womanly way, genitalia appropriately hidden by the twin pillars of attraction and power, crossed, uncrossed, crossed. Lordee, ankles are everything, especially to the feet. If I was an amputee, I'd insist on being called Stumpy. I should insist on more, or less, or more or less. Hands waited down by these useless words, the A-Z of irrelevancy shoved into biodegradable shopping bags, I used to have a rucksack, my mother used to have a purse …
… Navy blue leather, small enough to fit in the palm of her cupped hand. I preferred it when her hand was cupped rather than stretched out flat, although now I realise that, in thirty five years, I never looked at her palm lines, or her face properly, or who she was. Every Christmas, every time one of my teeth fell out, the purse was retrieved, unzipped, and a single silver sixpence removed. Old money for old traditions. She hasn't made me a Christmas cake or a Christmas pudding in four years.
Car draws up, engine switched off, door slammed.