Thursday, 29 January 2015

Gateway to the West

I'm at a cliff's edge when the sun temporarily blinds me, and makes me lose all sense of direction. One foot forward, I think, must be empty space, two steps back firm, dry land. But in the confusion, I must have turned myself ever so slightly so that when I stepped back my left foot found air. For a second, it hovered there like a tightrope walker finding his or her place on a high wire. Has anyone, I wondered, ever completed this act heel-toe and not toe-heel? I wobbled which instantly brought my mind back to my perilous position and sharpened my blinded senses. I carefully drew my left foot towards its companion and heaved a mighty sigh when the pair were once again parallel as they naturally should be.
I remember thinking how I would have undoubtedly fallen if it hadn't been for all those years of flamingo-style yoga poses. Go me! High-five! I wiggled my toes rather too deliciously for in doing so my confidence rose and I took two steps forward without so much as a second thought feeling sure I would find secure ground. Instead I tumbled down the cliff face like a young bird learning how to fly. My arms escaped from my sides, but still I dropped like a stone or how a pebble is thrown to skim the sea's surface. I grazed rocks and bounced off ledges, but luckily due to the speed at which I was falling as well as my blindness I couldn't see the obstacles as they rushed towards me, although the wind was knocked out of with me with surprising regularity. I was pretty much convinced I was a doomed rag doll.
And yet in that dazzling sun, I'd done what we've all done in such circumstances: tempted fate. I'd thought I'd escaped from a close call, but that smugness had only sent me plunging to what I was sure would be my eventual death.
It's funny how the mind focuses on random musings in such situations, and how seconds seem to last for the longest time. I expected to see the life I'd half-lived flash before my inward eyes, but no instead I pondered death; more precisely its purported figure. Was Death hooded and as grim as fables say? If Death had a face, what would it look like? Could Death be the opposite to what we've been led to believe and be a benevolent figure?
Unfortunately, as I was about to form my own answers to these matters, my unplanned dive was put to a sudden end as I ricocheted off a fine strip of sand like an aeroplane making an ungainly landing.
I think I must have blacked out for a couple of minutes, but when I stiffly came to I had remarkably recovered my eyesight. My head pounded with the same rhythm as the surf, and boy was I bruised and aching, but apart from that I was notably intact and alive. The sun was still overhead and painfully bright, yet in the distance I thought I could make out a momentous reddish-brown rock with a gateway through its centre. Even from afar it looked as though it was some majestic sculpture, beautifully crafted from hours of labour.
I pulled myself awkwardly to my feet with many anguished groans and began to hobble towards it. I reasoned that if I was in the vicinity of such a landmark there would be more chance of a rescue, because otherwise day-trippers or bathers were thin on the ground. And as I slowly walked or at one point crawled on my knees, I realised the structure wasn't as far off as I'd estimated, unless it was gravitating towards me and not me to it. At any rate, I reached it sooner than I anticipated and lost my breath all over again for the reddish-brown rock was the face and torso of a man.
And what a man with shoulder-length locks and a beatific expression. Dreaming of who knows what, but it certainly made you think that whatever he might have done in the past he had been pardoned and profusely blessed.
For once, there was no internal debate, I passed through the gateway to the land beyond. Who would have guessed that Death for me was a general of the West with a hole in this chest: Shakespeare's Othello.

Picture Credit: Othello Dreaming Venice, Salvador Dali

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Poppy and Barbed Wire

A poppy sprung up, ruby-red, next to some barbed wire. Where am I here? he asked the thistles that grew alongside him. Where are others of my kin?
But thistles of course act as guards and never make intelligent conversation. They waved each day in the golden sunlight or in the light breeze, if there was one. They shooed birds and bees away from his blood-red petals. Don't rest here, they seemed to say, he is protected.
And while the long green grasses were softer, they weren't much better. They whispered nonsense and at times tried to smother him. Tried to conceal that he, in all his loneliness, existed. You're not wanted, they told him. Why did you bloom here? Don't you see the barbed wire?
I had no choice in the matter, the poppy replied every time, I want my mother.
A mother, a father, a home, those times seemed like so long ago. But he was sure that there had been a life before this. How did I come to be here? A lone poppy in an overgrown field or meadow?
Do other poppies think as I do? There was not another to ask, not that he could see.
The soil he was in was a hard brown-red, which to him seemed unusual. The colour didn't seem true to natural earth. Shouldn't it be darker – more of a brown than a red? Did something happen here that as a poppy I can't remember?
The barbed wire remained taut and hostile, almost as if it wanted to prick his memory. Every so often, he tried to communicate: What is it? Tell me. But nothing so far had worked.
Until one day, he pleaded: Please, if you know something, anything, put me out of my misery.
How can I keep returning to this same lonely spot, year after year, if the truth of how I came to be here is clouded?
And this time, it must have touched a raw nerve.
The horror will not be forgot, the barbed wire said, if I told you. Are you sure you want to know? Once you remember, your innocence will again be lost.
But I need to know why I stand here, away from places where I presume many others bloom?
You were a spy here. Working alone against the enemy. You were so scared, you got careless. In your short military career, you'd seen others fallen. But I don't know all the facts, other than that you were young and fell here with no fellow countryman to cradle your head as you took your last dying breath. It was a pitiful death, and I'm supposed to be neutral, but how could I be when you fell almost upon me? War is senseless.
The barbed wire spoke so pragmatically that the poppy did not feel distressed hearing his own story. It had been too long for that, but hazy memories did come back of a war he'd been involved in. A war that had shook him, shook him to his very core, and all those around him. So many lost, wounded, bloody; displaced within their own mind and body. No good came from war, whether at home or abroad.
These cold, hard facts made him feel detached, but thoughtful for there was no going back, what had happened had happened. It was just a fragment of his past. The barbed wire wouldn't tell him how his life had been put to an end: whether he'd been shot or fatally wounded in some other way. In the wrong place at the wrong time was all he would say. A poor lamb who'd lain dead, his blood seeping into the earth, until a deserter had stumbled upon him in his slumber, closed his glassy eyes and quietly buried him.
At least I was given my dignity, the poppy thought, others may not have been as lucky.
The barbed wire in his dry, impersonal tone continued his monologue: There's no need now for you to dwell on this matter. Those living see the beauty of the poppy, but also the colour red and remember the bloodshed. You will never be forgot...
The boy's soul could finally leave.
The poppy was a poppy once more, just a red petalled head gently nodding in the breeze.

Picture Credit: Peter Francis

Thursday, 15 January 2015

General Smart's Grey Squirrel Band

Coincidences happen to me quite a lot. The chronology of these sometimes seems backwards, like a reverse history lesson or being rewound to a preceding time or event. With the story I'm about to narrate, I'm not sure where we are in the present state - whether all the occurrences have happened, are about to, or if they're way off in the future, but what I can tell you is that in this created land they're talked of as if they've passed.
The Balloonist in Enemy Land, which I'd read as part of a short story course and penned a condescending essay about, somehow opened up a window. Persons and details sought me out: a nutty professor or two, radio and television interviews, and newspaper clippings all seeming to confirm that this land actually existed. Sometimes it was just a tenuous link, which another person may have ignored, but I found it hard to believe that a such a small piece of information could find me through all other day-to-day trivia, so foolish as it may yet prove to be I listened. And here is what I've managed to cobble together.
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Many, many years ago, a company of grey squirrels nibbled off a section of Surrey parkland and hid it. They painstakingly pulled up the roots of newly-planted trees and transplanted them, the same as hair follicles are to men going thin on top, to a sparse, long-forgotten beauty spot. It grew into a kind of beautiful, elevated wilderness which in certain places had panoramic views of the sort that any landscape photographer would wish to capture. The flattish pasture with its finger-bowl dips would have been pleasing to the human eye, if it was artistically inclined, along with its weird phenomena, but humans, as you've probably guessed, were not permitted.
The few that trespassed saw sights that have never been fully explained. Here, it is said mushrooms grow to towering heights, dwarfing microscopic infect life and other plants or creatures; black cherries thrive underground, turn into a bubbling jam and ooze like a volcano about to erupt; and ordinarily passive song birds turn into spies with warbling cries and hunting knives.
Other than the balloonist, who had inadvertently drifted in, only one small boy, named Jim, purposely stole in and got further without detection. The grey squirrels eventually captured him and released him on the border, where he stumbled home to speak of other strange things to his mother: clockwork robins made of brown sugar and grinning, guitar-playing sunflowers. Jim was put to bed, as the probable cause, his physician said, was eating an hallucinogenic mushroom, but once the fuss had died down the family quite literally disappeared. Packed up and left without a single word to their friends or neighbours.
Humans were indeed the enemy. And why wouldn't we be? After labelling them pests and blaming them for the demise of Reds, for culling and poisoning them. Tired of being persecuted, wouldn't you choose to build a hidden land of your very own?
But they lacked one thing: strong leadership. Grey squirrels only know how to bicker and fist-fight. They needed a general to head their battalion and fast. As chance would have it, a toy car, who'd escaped from the clutches of his boisterous owner, at that time was accosted by a blackbird. Unbelievably, the car spoke English and reasonable Squirrel, which, despite the high-pitched voice and size difference made him perfect for the job.
General Smart immediately instilled order and keeps the peace, to this day, in his squirrel brigade, even between his boys and their spouses. But when it comes to man even he sometimes struggles to control them for this after all is not a land for those seen as enemies. This is grey squirrel territory, and you'd be wise to remember that.

Picture Credit: Peter Francis