Thursday, 21 May 2015

I'd be a Butterfly

The diminutive new Queen of the Butterflies ascended to the pageant throne to have the borough's Royal Butterfly seal placed on her head by the strikingly slim parish vicar. The seated audience murmured with approval as the crown wobbled on her flaxen hair and she was presented with the regal sceptre : a thin wooden stick topped with a rather large hand-carved butterfly.
Oh, what a beauty!” whispered retired Mrs Wilmslow to her neighbour Mrs Johnson, the proprietress of the village's only florist, “Such an improvement on last year's – that girl was a monstrosity! You couldn't have compared her to a rose, a summer's day, or an oil painting, and to think...”
Mrs Johnson loudly tutted and swiftly brought an index finger to her pursed lips. Mrs Wilmslow, in full opinionated flow, was most put out; she crossly fidgeted and turned to her other neighbour Mrs Harrington, the village gossip.
Isabel Morris looked on at the proceedings, thankful that the mild weather had held and that last year's fiasco was forgotten: it had rained and the strong winds had blown the refreshment tent over; the food had been ruined and the old cowshed had been a poor substitute for the play and coronation. It had been a very testing, haphazard day, and not something she or her husband, Edward wanted to repeat.
They hadn't realised when Edward's uncle left the property to them ten years ago that they'd be obliged to continue the tradition. They had initially hoped it would end with the deceased as the will hadn't made it a condition, but Mrs Harrington hearing a rumour had taken it upon herself to mount a petition to prevent this from becoming fact. And so every year the garden was opened to the public and the pageant reigned without a gap.
And as usual, in the history of its staging, the village's amateur dramatic society had missed their cues and fluffed their lines, despite being very obviously prompted by Mrs Bone, the butcher's wife, who crouched behind the money bush, whilst the girl chosen to be this year's Queen of the Butterflies had been hidden from sight until the appointed hour.
Isabel had mused on this girl as the audience had tittered at the play: an ambitious modernised version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night , publicised under its other lesser known name: What You Will. Betsy Fisher was in the throes of being transformed from a pretty girl to an even prettier boy in order to serve a rich squire, and red-faced old Ned Smith was awkwardly helping her into the manly attire. The audience had shook like wind-blown trees and tinkled like church bells, but Isabel, although she heard their reaction, had been concerned about the main attraction: she couldn't place the village in that girl and feared snubs from their regular benefactors.
Clarissa, she'd said her name was, just Clarissa. Pale of skin, eyes and crinkled hair, standing there in her own vivid costume: a huge hooped multi-coloured layered skirt, a tight gold bodice and puffed sleeves, the arms of which were attached to two baby blue tulle wings on a wire frame. She'd picked up her silky skirts and swung herself over the threshold, before following Isabel with tottering steps to the dining room: the only room in the crumbling house with folding double doors that would admit her skirts and all. She'd immediately accepted some bread and jam and a glass of still lemonade, whereas others before had cheerily responded: “I couldn't possibly Mrs M.” It didn't seem right that she should so willingly partake of some refreshment, but then she'd arrived already clothed and besides she couldn't very well sit down.
And now here she stood, in her normal viewing spot, scrutinising this Queen being crowned, except for the first time in ten years the thought appeared: Reborn, I'd be a butterfly, but which would I be...? A Brimstone, a Comma, a Speckled Wood or a Painted Lady?

*Picture Credit: The Queen of the Butterflies, Salvadore Dali
**A tale inspired by Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A Fin in a Puddle

Virginia Woolf and I share a fear: that we were once terrified of crossing puddles. I'm not sure if hers had a cause, but mine was definitely connected to Spielberg's Jaws. A fin could easily lurk and surface from any body of water, and that included puddles made by rainwater on sloped uneven pavements. Some puddles could conceivably be an entry to the sea as their depths were unknown; a flat grey-brown like the skin on hot cocoa which even when pinched off with nimble fingers would still leave an opaque brown liquid. A sometimes smooth, a sometimes gritty chocolate that if your foot splashed in it might never come back out.
Other children were mindful of cracks in the pavement, sidestepping them like scuttling crabs, and watching the slabs they trod on; teetering on the edge of a raised one as if it were a cliff face they were on the point of falling over, or imagining that it was going to suddenly tip and slide them into an underground lair like an Indiana Jones adventure.
Girls, as a rule, tend to be more superstitious. Stepping on a crack, walking under a ladder, seeing a black cat is a bad omen. A witch might appear and shower curses upon you, or an ogre might climb down a tree, wedge you under his arm and carry you back up it. The real world and the land of fairy tales converging.
But of course, my chief fears, compared to my peers, were different. I didn't understand the pavement crack-thing although I repeatedly tried it. I couldn't imagine how the ground beneath me could open or how standing on a fissure could bring me harm, yet with adult eyes I can now visualise this happening. Sink holes prove that my peers' fears back then were justified.
Shadows and unseen phenomena are my puppet masters. Notice I use the present tense, because although my childhood is in the receding past, residuals of these fears persist; linger on the muted fringes. The adult shape blurs with the child, so that my movements may at times appear jerky or statuesque: my strings quickly pulled or held taut so that I hang in a struck pose. Neither choppiness or frozenness are desirable at any age as both interfere with decisive action. Fear of the unknown is my tormentor. I believe too firmly in what I cannot see.
My outward eyes fail to guide my inward ones and my ears are as alert as a faithful dog's. I tense, I jump, my arms get goosebumps, I shiver...unable to escape the sure feeling I'm being policed by shady figures or pursued by mythical beasts. I open the blind partially at night to shed dim light on my sleeping quarters; the pitch black will not envelop me or the furniture while I slumber. And yet I like walking in the pre-dawn dark, hearing the birds angelic cries and watching the skies changing. It's an insanity particular to humans and one which is strangely comforting: I feel perfectly safe in this pre-bustle, just-getting-light stillness where literally anything could happen. A fox might wander into my path; song birds might shake the leaves and branches on the trees; a jogger or a woman waiting for a bus might unintentionally startle me. I fear shadows in places where they shouldn't be but am at peace with them where they are. Inside, you're contained; outside, you can stroll or run.
Except this bizarre logic doesn't work when it comes to howling winds and rushing water. These elements are expert hunters; tracking you down with low moans and piercing whistles, or drowning your ears with relentless pattering and whooshing noises. Separately or collectively, neither can be trusted as even on good days their mood is changeable. A tantrum is like that of a frustrated three-year old who's been denied something he or she very much wants: a bag of sweets, a new toy. Their pounding fists and kicking feet release wiggling-jiggling eels from a gigantic sack of mushroom clouds, whilst from the ground sinister grey circling fins emerge from unfathomable muddy puddles.

Picture Credit: Three Worlds, M C Escher

Thursday, 7 May 2015

I Know Why the Trapped Fly Beats its Wings

The fly was caught in the spider's web. It fought and fought as the bonds grew tighter, wiggling and jiggling its blue-black body and rapidly blinking its crystalline wings faster than an eyelid. A predatory spider, the colour and size of a walnut, observed from an outer circle; its spindly legs dancing the quickstep and communicating to the human eye its indecision: a gallop towards the entangled bait into a sudden waltz-like rotation, then a hasty retreat to its lookout station. The web jerked like a trampoline with these motions; its intricate threads gleaming in the deepening rays of the mid-afternoon sun. Gold spun for a fine emperor's cloth.
Stitched into this light-visible fabric, the trapped fly continued its struggle, its stamina waning. Its glass wings fluttered feebly now and its bound body shivered. It frequently paused in-between attempts to prevent itself from becoming a permanent knot in the spider's pattern; a lull which had become a part of its sad music: the harp strings temporarily silenced, then plucked with juddering violence.
The spider meanwhile couched in cool shadow where the sun could not touch and waited. Remarkably static, then a slight twitch when the conducting fly made its music died. Was this it? Had death come to it? No, there was a minuscule shudder. Not yet. Abide... An insect, as am I, that knows more freedom than I needs to know what it is to suffer. We were not born equal; the freedoms nature bestowed on us can be taken away by any creature in the animal kingdom, including man.
The fly might interject here and ask: Why? For what reason?
The spider might reply: For survival. Borne by natural instinct, desires or cruelty. It could be revengeful, due to jealously or confused with love. No creature is as truly free as they think, and all are capable of restricting themselves or imposing those limits on others. This sphere is a turbulent place, and therefore our freedoms get squashed so that we can learn.
A very wise spider you might remark, but the fly would be bewildered.
Learn what? he might think, but be too drained to raise the actual question.
If somehow the spider heard this dying thought, its response to this might be: To learn to simply be. To know who and what we are, and our place in it, which very few human creatures ever achieve. To know our own limits and that what we consider free can be hurtful, especially when those freedoms are imposed or brutally snatched away. Freedoms can be feared as much as oppression; choice is not always a liberation. It can be destructive. All livings things are capable of setting snares or falling into them, just like you did.
I imagine if this answer had been given, the fly might be mollified or alarmed by the spider's speech. But what do I know! I'm just a human pupil interpreting what I think I see; imagining a dialogue, a conversation between two adversaries. Two polar opposites: one who is attached permanently to a safety wire and one who always takes risks, but has no back up. Is it better to wait and contemplate, or throw caution to the wind?
The contortions of the fly had tightened its cocoon of silken strands under the spider's watchful presence and the gaze of the cloistered human eye from inside its apartment. Intense golden shafts dissolved all shadows on that side of the building; a floodlight on the fly and its spectators. The fly immobilised, mummified like a mouldy, wrinkled raisin. It had not surrendered to the spider but to its inescapable situation. The now dead fly had tried and tried to beat its wings.

Picture Credit: Spider Web, post-impressionism, artist unknown