I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
You learn by example, boy; if you hang out with those scoundrels, you’ll become as they and with your outlook and energy, no doubt significantly worse!
Before I cover my person in egg a small but essential thread gathered here is from brain-driven history lessons, from time is, when time was at school. The danger in being a screwball was getting strung out on syntax, giving up in a tangle of dates and confuted facts, as was my wont. Fallen foul of mum, dad and the instructor again. I failed them. How could I fail them, according to the report I wasn’t qualified? Shovel aside dirt from that gone before it’s a surprise to find I’m not more rusted up than suggested. But hey ho, away we go, donkey riding, donkey riding... there is reclamation, memory enough to oil the stretch of imagination all these centuries later.
Unbearable as dotting Is and crossing Ts could be, I knew the difference between linear and nonlinear. How essential cerebral variables are to each other and the result. I can’t spin that yarn without a rudimentary code, at the very least some sort of mimicry. The method enables the author to ride out on a wave of storytelling. Structure of morphemes, lexemes, hieroglyphs, abjads, lexicons, or what you will, writing systems, arranged a certain way, release a fairytale before the midnight chime. I’d worked that one out a long time before the class kicked in. The trouble was I got stuck on the drill, this step that defines the phrase. I nearly died here. Bereft of courage. Inline! Frame to attention! Present arms! Smart as you like with linguistics, without imagination and confidence, the scribe stays stuck on paper, flatlined to a qualified series of answers, pegged out to a straight sequence of facts.
Like most of the village gang, I grew up believing we walked a plateau of lands, surrounded by seascape reaching far as eyes could see to a berm. Beyond this bounding, the triumph of falling waters cascades from a band of chasms to the lower depths. A powerful guard dwells in the underneath. A master of death and life thereafter. He who forges earth, fire, water, air, seals silver, gold, flesh-and-blood, meriting divine steppingstones in continuum. This was one of few salient facts I hold to be certain. Until I leapt faith, steal aboard a wind vessel and venture that threshold a stone’s throw from Assessor and his halls of truth.
Roll the knuckles good, you’ll learn something, you might not make the gate of offerings, but companionship and a rite of passage could be yours.
A few leagues out, between shore and rim, distance took on a mirage of unaltered space. No doubt a listless sea and no wind promoted our destination as being further away than thought. Brush aside that enigma, luxuriate awhile, we eat, drink, sing and bathe with the mermaids. A short-lived affair. After three suns and two moons, laughs and flirtations wore thin. The blanket calm of idleness drew a sword in diminished supplies. Each passing shadow saw concerns rise to the surface; issues, differences and other such contentions challenged everyone’s metal.
The whisperers grew in stature. Meanderings accumulate, daemonic frictions fester, until the entire ship seemed crazed by a fantom hell.
A lightweight, disorientated neophyte, without body or substance in a feral universe. I wasn’t worth the leftovers. Hemmed in, close and personal, I saw terror in their eyes, same as mine. A dumb mutt who done got no name, who hadn’t lived enough to pass himself off as a man of men, let alone champion of an afterlife.
Caught out by Boson, tacked to the seat of my pants, I’m dragged to the main deck and dressed down by Hawk, in front of the crew. Ooo haaa! What have we here? Vanquished in discourse, off-kilter, starving, trapped like a rat and beat before the start. The less said the better.
Pull through for the Hawk, best of abilities, hissed the mate.
I stand isolated, alone, a lemon on parade. Direct sunlight pinpoints every detail to the spot. Snared by their own misgivings, they talk amongst themselves. No doubt to sum up a preference. How to skin a rabbit, broomstick a chicken, or, as I assumed, how to torture a human exemplarily. Such was their fancy the nether-region of terrible dreams rips across the broad light of day, a terrifying prospect. Trepidation of being carried by an almighty god nosediving a gorge to the field of reeds vexes the worry. So tenacious was the visitation it plagued and near destroyed us.
The Hawk: Now, you’re a bag of tricks ain’t ya kid? Gib get ya tongue?
Waever i ave oo.
What was that?
I work, whatever I have.
I’m no slouch, just lost, says I.
That ain’t no lie.
I work for life and live to die.
Pause for thought.
You heard it here.
The lad delivers.
Give him what he needs.
Since we ain’t moving, he’ll earn his keep.
Cut him some length.
Now, throw him in the drink, he’ll tow our bát!
Auster broke the spell on a whistle. A starboard roll brought our attention to the rig. That lapsed sailcloth quivered, the rope flexed, tightened to stern with a thud. The tattletale that blinded my lead swallowed up. Sounding off, word for word, to a crescendo with nothing but our deepest fears foretold. Empyrean, crazed by the shortcomings, took umbrage. The crack and blast of the heavens hail a terrible storm that crushes the slander and saves my meat. Battered and beaten by a terrifying throw, we tie ourselves and anything that moves tight to the brig; let her have her way with the roar. All power to the beast. Siege upon siege of whitewater. Ten, thirty, twenty, fifty cubits, valley deep mountain high, wave after wave, pounding us headlong toward what we all thought to be the fall!
Wild winds and rampant rains subside. Silence. Nothing but darkness.
As the light drew across a war-torn deck, it soon became clear our skiff had run aground, stuck fast in shallows. No crashing out, nae a plummet from the cliff edge insight. We’d landed another’s land. A turquoise littoral, skirting a curve of hills and lush vegetation as far as the eye could see. From here, who knows what befalls the traveller? We had come as deep as we might to realise we could ride a wind path further still.
Some days of eating raw fish, berries and nut-water, the big moon released our battered ketch back to the sea. Full of excitement, mindful of the endless peregrination, we turn a course for home.
On reaching the foothold of another’s shore, where a death drop should have been, it soon became clear that the cut-and-dried formulae I was being peddled back in the classroom contradicted my wayward nature. Unexpected as the outcome of our journey had been, this epiphanic insight was more an affirmation of something that bedevilled my equilibrium from the first day in the nursery. Like everything that happens within a fixed quantum of time and space, things are never what they seem.
If it hadn’t been for the wisdom and patience of Mr Jones, who relayed such a story to our eager ears all that time ago, I would no doubt have accepted stupid, as garnered from those formative years, a foregone conclusion for life. The merest hint of him eyeballing the inscribed stimulates my turn with the pen even now; quantifies the process to this step in life. He hit the note with some rarefied rapport. Call me dumb?! His words for the woods got through.
Mr Jones, as you may recall, was the Welsh history teacher, empathic, and tough enough to keep us glued to the desk without winding up the clock too much. While he persevered with I Ching furtherance, we went to the well, the edges of civilisation, immersing ourselves in other ages. The devil’s in the detail, he’d mumble, and whilst you won’t get through the test without them, they are not the point — an aside I always felt, more a reminder to himself than a pointer for us. For those of us lucky enough to catch him off-guard, his confessed mumblings proved immensely reassuring. With that nugget in tow, we learnt how each era brought new and radical changes from what had gone before.
On the surface, our history wasn’t difficult to grasp. Position and progress prioritise the meaning of human life on Earth. The reformation seemed palpable. Our most dramatic example of human advancement appeared to be at the forefront of warfare. Domestically, food is increasingly diverse and accessible. The utensils with which we cook are a little more sophisticated. Tools used to build a table, chair, that bridge, the architecture, towns, roads, drainage, the infrastructure favoured an evolutive process moving ahead at a pace. Undermining and driving the ongoing domestication are lawmakers and breakers, keeping the plebeians under the thumb. Chiefs and senators working the floor, switching friends for traitors, traitors for friends, scheming and plotting for the throne. Hello, smile, knife in the back, a broken heart, full of suspicion for the other; this leader, or another, for and against, one down, two to go! An air of constant unease leads to a constitutional gridlock that brings the country to its knees with the onslaught of war. Following leaders, generals, their rank and file, we were climaxing in a bloodbath on the main-stage. War, as I recollect, always had our full attention.
Growing up in the smoking remnants of an empire, corporal punishment and forecourt fights played a central part in the schoolboy’s life — survival of the fittest saw bullies and sadistic teachers having the last word. The extra-curricular activities and wealth accumulation may have been out of our league, but combat between ruling families seemed triggered by the same maxim of honour and pride that we stuck by. Marshalled by comrades in arms, savvy with strategy, enthralled by artillery, preoccupied with tactics, we were all too familiar with that battle demography.
We knew well how frictions between any of us could start with a warning that would plague the days. The threatening note in assembly, the sharp end of the pen, pushed and prodded at the desk, in the showers, the locker rooms, between shifts, inside hell, outside the gates, forever and a day, until a clash of the titans became inevitable — fight, a fight! Where? There! Back of the sheds, said the wretch to the angel. There’s a fight. A FIGHT!.
Were we led by the rule of law, kick-started in the distant neurons of an ancestral layer, or tied to the genesis of conflict at birth? Am I born of innocence or guilt? Hurt or offend someone, especially in a close-knit family, they retaliate. There might be a time-lapse before the retort, a split second perhaps. If the barb hasn’t quite sunk in, or the loser is out cold, the reaction comes later; another day, next week… a year, by surprise, to the letter, in a word. King, queen, knight, bishop, pawn, what’s your poison, just tip me the nod. I’ll take him out. The rank of offence informs the measure of revenge, plotting, planning, the strength of venom, and so on.
Boys keen to settle a score using the fist seemed more adept physically and undoubtedly shown slick moves from a world-weary father or a hardened brother. If a severe caning doesn’t catch you unawares, some incoming fist is going to smack you off guard, certain. Keep the head low, avoid the eyes, light on foot, quiet as you like; eventually, the shyest of stragglers got sucked into the fray. Egged on by eager boys, some nervous, others bold, head between the one in front, eyeballing the clash, pushing in, most excited, braying like spectators, hungry for blood at a gladiatorial arena. Do it, do it! Kick him in the rocks, kill, kill him, go on, finish him!
I held my nerve until my nose got hit. Then lose it, lashing out in all directions, a tear-driven snot ball of rage, missing the target by miles. Fallen and loaded in disgrace, I offered admission to my failings, hoping to leave the ring with a modicum of respect. Holding my head high, til out of sight, I’d skulk off in a sour mumble, vying for some mean-fisted payback; of which the torment and pent-up fury saw little or no respite till I saw the deed done. Shocked, furious, not beaten, drawn, or quartered. Restless by a mile, pacing the floor on the backend of a sleepless night, revenge seems sweet in repose. The thought of a dagger driven into the scoundrel when least expecting it was nothing less than lifesaving and, given the curriculum and strict school policies, hardly surprising.
For all the career-based rhetoric and moral flag-waving, internally, privately, in marriage, in death, in politics, religion, military, consortiums, at home, in classrooms, academies, science, even in the arts, on guard, one step ahead, one over the other, remains distilled as the mainstay and mastery of the human life. Nothing wrong with hierarchies. Without a leader led team effort, we wouldn’t have the beneficial lifestyles we have now without them. But good, or bad, win or lose, in adapting that killer instinct, that’s often suggested when taking the prize in the field, seizing the trophy in a game, we took the role model literally. Holding off cruel teachers and like-minded boys in threatening proximity. We hid behind the machismo mask. Knocked off the back end of a combat zone. At home and school, as in a career, preservation of a favoured race is the foregone conclusion. The penultimate staging in history. We won by taking civilisation, ethnicity and governance, across uncharted waters, to the wild beyond and ramming the evaluator’s ethnic code down the throat of peoples who we saw fit to do with as we wish. Staking claim to the lands, stealing, shackling, raping, looting, selling their lives in relentless succession, onwards and upwards, for crowns’ accounts.
If I am the troglodyte on trial here, and I suspect I am, I have no excuses for actions made in the storms of my past. Shown up by the clock. Shamefaced and browbeaten by decree, what’s done cannot be undone.
As thugs go, I was ill-educated, not stupid. A sensitive and vulnerable tartufe, born in innocence and bred to play the chamber for a shilling. Too dark, too much, too late, too soon, said the empiric ruler to the fool, turning him to stone.
But of those who set the trend before me, in my defence — beliefs, judgement, rhetoric, teachings — the lesson, like a dance, is complicit.
Play the game by the rule. Everyone else does. Sore looser, trumphant winner? Hook or crook? Choose a number, watch the wheel spin.
Heartbreak and grief inform the mind to shut down, while terror, like a shroud of fog creeping across a mote, seeping up ramparts, over battlements, through arrow loops and under doors, finds a way in to douse the light.