Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Castle of Coloured Rooms (Continued).

My mother walked briskly away, and we descended further into the misty green labyrinth of the Garden. For the first time that day, I started to feel at ease, and a little giddy in a childish way. It was very still and peaceful in the Garden. Once you went sufficiently within, the place had a weirdly immersive affect. It began to feel as a world unto itself, whose narrow little paths formed an infinite latticework through an infinite milky greenness. The sky was a thin strip between the tall hedge walls, and the taller arms of the anima plants. Children have a peculiar capacity to grasp the things before their senses as an immense totality. I imagined a life for myself and my mother forever in the Garden, wandering its paths and searching for our way home. At various points in our journey, we would encounter ghosts, and hear their tales of the long vanished past, and of the inscrutable world that all time flows into, as rivers were said to wind into the ocean. We would often encounter the caretaker and his grandson, and sometimes the caretaker would drop hints, amid his endless antic digressions, that he knew the way out of the Garden. We would suspect that his grandson was wiser than he, but he would never speak, and his eyes would always be livid with terror.

While I composed these fancies, I was often wont to run away, but my mother reprimanded me, finally taking my hand in hers. We came at last to our garden, and I saw my name written for the first time: Altredi. I was a little unnerved by the experience, regarding it as akin to falling under an enchantment, to read one’s name. The priests in their homilies spoke of the All-father calling things and people into existence. I felt that I had unwittingly lost some precarious freedom and lightness in that moment, as though I had previously been a mote dancing wantonly in the slumber of the gods. It was darker inside the garden, the light coming through the strange shapes of the anima arms. A narrow border of soil ran around the plants, and my mother knelt there and gazed at them. There were five in total, their arms becoming entangled together into something akin to a canopy or roof. About the appearance of the anima, there is an abiding and unsettling fascination. There are those forms in nature, such as our visages and bodily frames, which we are not only accustomed to, but apt to endow with the supreme animisms of beauty and harmony. These things do not trouble us, nor lead us to unwonted consideration of the indelible strangeness of nature’s fecundity. However, there are other, rarer forms, particularly among the less conscious or wholly vegetative ladders of being, whose whole physical design unsettles all our innate sense of reason and proportion. I have seen, for example, certain types of aquatic beast whose dark, torpid eyes and gaping mouths resemble a monstrous parody of the human face, and seem a kind of slender filament of awareness stretched over the void of nature. It is in forms such as these, and perhaps in our dim relationship to them, that we are forced to confront the sheer inscrutability and strangeness of nature, and the potential perversity and irrationality of it, be that nature, in the final reckoning, the operation of a divine mind, or some mere process, akin to a vast game playing itself.

The anima is a prodigy among the strangest of nature’s creations. It base is covered by a spathe of two large, teardrop shaped petals. The petals are a very light pinkish hue, fashioned of a delicate and diaphanous material somewhat like a fine fabric. A towering columnar pillar, which the botanists call the spadix, rises out of the base of the anima, to a height of up to four metres. The skin of the spadix is coarse, tough, and furrowed; it is yellow in colour, darkening seamlessly to green towards the top. At roughly the centre of the spadix is a large, slit-like opening which reveals a shiny, reddish flytrap, whose glossy flesh reminded me of strawberries. This larger orifice is surrounding by a series of smaller, closed slits, which open in springtime, bearing the fruit of the anima. By far the strangest characteristic of the plant is the arms of which I have spoken, which extend outwards from the top of the spadix. They are a perfect miniature replica of the entire organism, which in turn produce a smaller replica, and so on, until the roof of the garden is a dazzling, disorientating mosaic of ever decreasing reiterations of pink, red, yellow, and green. There was something alluring about the plant, in the vivacity of its colours, and the sleek, shiny lustre of its fruit, which seemed to have punctured the skin of the spadix by dent of a ripe, eager swelling of growth; yet there was something patient and sinister about it too. It had the poise of a predator, and the pregnant stillness of an ingenious trap. I watched it for time, and then ducked out of our garden, leaving my mother to her reverent silence.

What happened then was brisk and startling. I looked to my left, and saw a small boy at the end of the path. At first I took him for the caretaker’s grandson, but I noted that his skin was unusually pale, and his hair thick and dark. His expression struck me as quite profound for a child, and deeply sad. He was like the grandson as I had imagined him in my earlier fancy: frightened, sorrowful, and somehow infused with a longing to speak of things that were forbidden. Then I felt a sudden prickling on the back of my neck, a kind of animal intuition of danger. I swung briskly around, and registered a vast dark shape gliding sinuously along the path towards me. I thought of a pitch black hawk or eagle, closing with slow, stately majesty upon its hapless prey. Only when the figure had come to a stop alongside me, I realized that it was a man of preternatural height and leanness of limb, ensconced in a flowing black cape. I have never seen a creature so tall and svelte. His hair was the colour of a raven’s coat, and his skin the pallor of a fresh corpse. His features were sculpted, aquiline, and regal. His eyes possessed a peculiar intensity, which appeared to derive not from any discernable passion, but rather owed to their incongruous intrusion upon a human face, so were they dark, fathomless of scope, and lacking all semblance of life. He regarded me for a time, and I him, frozen in terror. This was the first time that I saw my great, inscrutable antagonist.

My mother joined me, placing her arm on my shoulder, and presenting herself to the Master in an attitude of timorous abeyance. He went into our garden, and plucked from the anima a round, red fruit. I watched him bite into the fruit, with a gesture which somehow evoked both a depth of significance, and a sheer, somnolent detachment. It was ever the Master’s way, I would learn, and many wondered whether he was man, ghost, or something altogether inhuman. He took his leave of us then, walking slowly down the path to rejoin his son. We watched their shapes, the one squat and the other elongated, as they faded into the milky whiteness of the mists that shrouded the rim of the Garden.

Chapter 2.

My name is Caleb, and Altredi is the name of my family. Our history prior to the Walling of the Estates is a matter for the Genealogies alone, there being no particular legendry associated with us, beyond our mere existence in the shadowy time of heroes and wars. Within the Estate, our fortunes have been for the most part stable and modest, possessing only the glancing acquaintance with infamy and high repute which most families accrue in the course of their histories. Our men have been farmers, our women servants and seamstresses, and we have lived in the hamlet of Eliagard. In the twelfth cycle, an ancestor of mine called Alcade proved himself a subtle and devious strategist at the Game, and we lived for two short generations as nobles among the lush bowers and chiming groves of Samersol. Such upheavals, however, are most frequently short-lived, there being a tendency for new nobles to embrace the luxuries of this elevated station with an excessive gusto, falling promptly into dissolute habits not amenable to continued supremacy at the Game. Thus, courtesy of Alcade’s wine-sodden and incompetent grandson Dilucidid, we were soon back to our cottage in Eliagard, back to the clang of the morning bell, to the long trudge to muddy pasture land in the north, back to sending our young daughters to Samersol with their hearts in the mouths, and our mothers to help with the milk-crones or the Coven of Weavers, back to the old life and its familiar oppressions, as though waking ruefully from a dream. Such was life in the Estate. When summer came, and the sound of dulcet music and giddy revelry echoed nightly from the rooftops of Samersol, everybody in Eliagard could gaze across the river, and wonder wistfully how it must have been for some or other of their ancestors to live there, and move unencumbered through those magnificent revels.

The Altredi family almost attained glory in more recent times, when my great grandfather Procletus showed an extraordinary promise at the Game; many said that he would surely raise us to the status of courtiers, such was his preternatural skill. However, on the very cusp of his triumph, an eerie commotion was heard late at night: a sound of brisk motion and anguished howling. It woke everyone with a start, and the children wondered at it. Their parents were silent and pensive, for they had heard this particular commotion many times before, and knew with the instinct of alert beasts that somebody had climbed the wall, and fled the Estate. The next morning, everybody was stunned to discover that it was the bed of Procletus which was empty. This disappointment brought an extraordinary pall of fatalistic gloom over the Altredi’s, which hung over us still when I was a boy.

My father’s name was Adam. He was a broad, burly man with huge, hulking shoulders, and a ruddy, energetic, bovine face. He had thick, curly brown hair, which grew in tousled profusion about his ears, and had altogether abandoned his skull to fend for itself against elemental nature, making of his head a massive, polished dome, visible out in the fields from great distances, and surely instantly recognisable, were it not for the remarkable preponderance of this cranial type among the men who worked in the fields. His manner with the other farmers was one of persistently buoyant good humour, the men of the fields possessing, as all distinct groupings of individuals within the Estate, a kind of imperishable sense of community and brotherhood, in their case predicated upon a habitual mien of prickly, stoical taciturnity, leavened now and then by the dry smirk which was their manner of savouring a particularly piquant rustic witticism.

At home, my father was giddy and fond with us as children, a little more distant when we grew to adolescence, but nevertheless tolerant in the main of our noisy follies, and much more reluctant than many to resort to his belt as a means of achieving domestic equilibrium. Towards my mother, his demeanour was occasionally less restrained, and never appeared to me to express anything indicative of love or passion; however, the wayward course of my own life has meant that I have gained no personal experience of such a thing as a marriage, and my conceptions of love and passion may thus have but little of reality in them, and much of the idealized and heightened matter of keening ballads and winter masques. What I recall must acutely about my father was a kind of inarticulate, sometimes sullen, sometimes tender sorrow, which was his alone to brood over, and could be broached neither to his family nor his companions in the fields and the Tavern. It is likely, oddly enough, that the men with whom he laboured, and shared coarse jokes, probably understand his sorrow more acutely than we ever could, and provided it with a greater salve in their own unassuming fashion, for they also shared in it. It was the wounded pride, the profound sense of failure to one’s present kin and future descendents, which was attendant upon all men in the Estate who had failed to prosper in the Game.

My mother’s name was Merceides, and she was originally of a family which had dwelt in the hamlet of Ganolt, home to those who practised the trades and crafts. Some in Eliagard considered her family proud, since their males would often boast of the mention of distant ancestors in the marginalia of the Histories, and those times in the infancy of the Estate when they had been courtiers. Such things, however, were meaningless to my mother. She was tall, slender, and long-limbed, with lengthy, fine fair hair, which was parted at the middle of her brow, and flowed straight as narrow streams down to her waist. She had greyish blue eyes, and features which might be called ethereal, if such a word adequately describes a person whose concentration appears divorced to some essential degree from that ragged accruement of sensory jetsam which we are apt to call the world, and to which we afford at all times the comical seriousness which children bestow upon their trifles. My own looks, as my sister’s, were said to take after her; my brother was said to be like to my father.

The occupations available to women in the Estate, in contrast to many societies I have read of in the City, were severely limited, and set by traditions as old as the Walling. The wives of the highest courtiers, all of them the most exquisite beauties in the Estate, served a more or less ornamental function; they were bred and educated to be a kind of domestic objet d’art, more or less. I have heard it whispered that the courtiers, almost as though to dignify their wives the less, save the true heat of their ardour for youthful male lovers, who earn, for the undoubtedly wearisome tolerance of such attentions, lessons in polity and rhetoric. Among the nobles, whose station entitled them to the unhindered pursuit of refined indulgence, women were encouraged in the arts of music and sketching, while their husbands attained a certain dilettante erudition in the perusal of histories, poetry, theology, and philosophy. Among those of our class, which was comprised of farmers, tradesmen, and servants, women had principally to attend to the grind of child-rearing and household provision. The most common occupation attendant upon a young maid was that of servant to the nobles or courtiers, wherein she ran the inveterate risk of seduction, the males of higher classes invariably conceiving of their servants as antidotes to all minor nuisance, including that of any and all momentary impulse. Once married, our women rarely occupied any position outside of the household, save for those, such as my mother, who went among the Coven of Weavers. The Weavers, of whom I will speak in greater detail by and by, worked in the main on gowns and all manner of exquisitely crafted hosiery for the nobles. In this work, my mother took an extraordinary pleasure, which was by necessity a selfless one, since the closest she could ever come to the fruit of those patient labours was to gaze upon the ladies, in the height of the summer revels, as she served wine to their husbands, or perchance washed their feet, tired as they must be by the travails of graceful and beguiling deportment. Her other great joy was her children, of which there were two boys, my brother Calidore and I, and one girl, Briah, the eldest. In my youth, I imagined that she loved Calidore and me more than Briah, for there was frequent and fierce enmity between them, as likely over a trifle as a matter of any grave significance. Yet such was not the case, since the relation of women to men seems to follow after that of great toil, investiture, and eventual disappointment, and between women and women that of some enmity, some kinship, and eventual solace; such, I suppose is the eternal relations between difference and similitude.

What I recollect most keenly regarding my mother was how she loved me, and how I loved her, when I was child. I remember this both with a kind of singular acuity, and an impenetrable opacity, since I also recall that, upon reaching a certain age, or passing some unknown landmark in the subterranean pathways of time and growth, I could no longer understand, nor could ever again experience, such love; it belonged to the lost country of childhood, and all memories whose character may be rekindled, but whose totality remains elusive. It is thus, perhaps, that many mothers would have eternal infants, if such was the way of nature, and people everywhere seek such extravagances of affection from one-another, and finally, from shadowy and benignant deities, whose warm embrace might enfold the whole of creation. I also recall that my mother’s temperament was habitually high-spirited and gay, but she was beset, from time to time, with extraordinary and prolonged fits of lacrymosity, upon which nobody, least of all herself, ever commented, and which impeded her not a wit in whatever duty she attended to.

My brother Calidore was four years my senior, and when he was yet a boy, I regarded him as a man, for he was stronger in build than I was, and possessed a greater awareness of the nature of things. My understanding of the world as a child was to a large degree the fruit of endless questions I asked both my father and my brother, and things the Weavers told me in their impertinent and mocking fashion. Before he passed through the Red Room in the Castle, Calidore and I were inseparable playmates, and we wound our boisterous way through the narrow paths that skirted about the Little Wood and the Garden of Antiquity. The recollection comes to me now that we always played upon paths, for there was scarcely a place about us which we were permitted to enter. We could not go into Samersol, for the nobles there had no use of ragged boys such as ourselves, and would certainly have had the guards beat us for the presumption of our entry, and the mere repugnance of our presence. Nobody was permitted to go into the Woods, for an evil spirit dwelt there, who whispered profanities of such subtlety that they sounded like the breeze, and thus tiptoed through the ears to caper and gambol freely in the mind. Children could not go unaccompanied into the Garden of Antiquity, and even to play in the shadow of the Garden’s statues was a dangerous business, since those statues were said to date back to a time when men had unlimited expertise in channelling evil influences through the mere design and proportion of matter. One of the epics speaks of a pot whose shape, once gazed upon, lead to the beholder to inordinate despair and certain self-annihilation. With this in mind, there was simply no telling what nefarious ingenuity statues might posses, whittled though they be by the ages.

So, we went about those prohibited places, and off in the distance we could see the vague outline of guards making their steady patrols beneath the languid sway of evergreen woodland. As luck would have it, Calidore and I soon found the perfect game for our interminable playground of narrow paths and ominous gardens. It was the habit of our father, when it was not prudent for him to be in the Tavern, to sit us down by the fire, and spin us yarns from the Heroic Ages prior to the Walling. Our favourite heroes quickly became Hermackulus and Enkidu, for, as they had been tossed by god-inspired winds through all the oceans of the world, so did they wander the panoply of literary registers, being one moment worthy of reverent silence, and the next, gales of deep guffawing. It was said that between them, they represented the great antithetical pillars of the masculine character. Hermackulus was the man of immensurable physical strength, indomitable courage, and single-minded pursuit of honour and duty. Enkidu, on the other hand, was the man of irascible lassitude, of intellectual and verbal dexterity, of oily and disreputable charm; the fish in the water of holidays, the blessed companion at the wine stoop, the artist, and the thief. These, the Hemackulogah tells us, were the two halves of the perfect man.

The following is the tale of their meeting: in the years of peace, Hermackulus put a boast about the island of Lemnos that no man whatsoever could better him in combat. The boast had been made during the aftermath of a feast, when formal custom dictated that each able-bodied youth made some boisterous assertion or another. Hermackulus thought little of it, for he was truly the strongest in all of Lemnos, and it was incumbent upon those of godlike strength to say these things from time to time, at social functions and suchlike. He was truly surprised a week later when the news came to him that an upstart named Enkidu had disputed his claim, and challenged him to appear at an appointed date in the old amphitheatre outside the village of Carnock. Hemackulus immediately made great haste to the village of Carnock, being waylaid on-route by an adventure in which he was turned into an old woman, thus to resolve the curiosity of the gods as to whether it was young men or old women who derived a keener pleasure from the physical act of love. Being restored to his former youth and masculinity, Hermackulus arrived in Carnock at the appointed time, and was stunned to discover a tiny, rotund man with a merchant’s oily sneer awaiting him. Certainly, Enkidu would have been annihilated, but he practised a cunning wile upon Hermackulus, which came to be known as the Wile of Many Enkidu’s, and later formed the basis of a philosophical parable which argued for the impossibly of motion. The wile went as follows: Enkidu told Hermackulus that he would never defeat him. Hermackulus laughed mirthlessly, and said–

-With one blow, I will send you scuttling to the shades of your ancestors.

Enkidu answered –

-If you kill me, you will truly never defeat Enkidu!

Hermackulus was sorely troubled, for he immediately suspected a wile, and knew himself to be a man ill-equipped to deal with stratagems of even moderate cunning.

-I have not come seeking the maddening conundrums of an oracle! Explain yourself!

He bellowed. Thus Enkidu:

-In preparation for this combat, the man called Enkidu gathered about him a great number of men who look like Enkidu. These men he ordered to take upon themselves the name of Enkidu, and go about the island of Lemnos answering to that name. It may be that I am Enkidu, or one of those men who resemble him, and answer to his name. If you kill me, and I am one of those pretenders, then you will not have defeated Enkidu. If, on the other hand, you kill me, and I am truly Enkidu, then it would be as though you had never defeated me, for you could not be sure of it in your heart. There would always be those others, going about the island answering to my name, and among that number, surely, one of them could be myself.

Hermackulus was seething with rage now; his veins had expanded to the width of an infant’s wrists.

-I’ll kill them all!

He bellowed. Thus Enkidu:

-Would you really commit yourself to that life? You might kill, say, five men answering to the name of Enkidu, and say to yourself “Well, I have killed five now; surely there is a reasonable chance that the real Enkidu is among that number.” But how could you say such a thing? Not knowing how many Enkidu’s there were to begin with, there is no way to possibly calculate when you have even made a start at your quest. Do you see how my name will come to haunt you? At first, you will kill a few, and flatter yourself one of them must have been Enkidu. Then you will go back to the land of your people, and try to take your ease, feasting and hunting as you did in times past, but a report will always come to your ears of another Enkidu. Always a report of another Enkidu. And were you to actually kill the real Enkidu here today, then those men will go by that name until their last drawing of breath.

There was long silence. Finally, Hermackulus prostrated himself before the oily little man.

-I am defeated.

he said, and thus began the tumultuous life-long association of Hermackulus and Enkidu.

Postscript. To those readers who might regard the description of the anima plant as an excess of the authors diseased fancy, I would draw your attention to the mighty amorphophallus titan:

Roughly translated, that means “large misshapen penis.” When featured on The Private Life of Plants, famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough was forced to re-christen this botanical prodigy titan arum, so as to preserve the delicate sensibility of the BBC viewer. Native to the tropical forests of Sumatra, the titan arum is also called the “corpse flower”, because its fragrance is said to resemble rotten eggs and decomposing flesh.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Castle of Coloured Rooms.

“The tenacious wall which at this moment, and at all moments, casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself, aside from the conjectures it allows.”

The Wall and the Books, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by J.E.I.

“This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.”

The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allen Poe.

“When the worlds began, the Secret of the gods lay written clear over the whole earth, but the feet of many prophets have trampled it out. Your prophets are all true men, but I go into the desert to find a truth truer than your prophets.”

The Secret of the Gods, by Lord Dunstany.

Chapter 1.

My journey has brought me to a City of immense, abandoned ziggurats, whose gleaming flanks are now hanging gardens of verdant and riotous foliage, and through whose canyons, shifted in the black sibilant sea winds, go billows of sand over the old roads and signs. Many of the settlers are mesmerised by the voice of the black sea winds, and would gladly be buried under the sand, for the wind has told them of the pitiless hunger of the ocean.

This City is the strangest place. It is like that fabled ship I have read of, whose entire crew vanished, leaving their very suppers in the midst of mastication. The architects of the City have not vanished, however, but rather dwindled in number, and revoked all industry, all effort, and all motion superfluous to the bare maintenance of life. They are in the throes of passing away, and thus we have christened them the Dying Ones. There is some irony in this, for though they are certainly dying, this must be understood relative to the incalculable longevity of their own lifespan. They have been in this condition for centuries, and many generations of our time may yet pass before the last of them expires. I suspect that they are in some advanced stage of senility, some atrophy of vast and immeasurably ancient powers which is like to the dotage of gods. Their lethargy and quiescence is unshakable, and they lie before their screens like moths that have found a snug resting place, and remain stubbornly insensible of all that might rouse them. We who have fled the Estates are left to do as we please, and plunder the City’s provisions and artefacts as befits our whims and appetites. Under this most peculiar tutelage, our ragged and disparate community has gone the way of madness, and I am reminded constantly of such animals and wild flowers as might caper and blossom about the sober serenity of a mausoleum.

My journey has brought me to a square with a dry fountain at its centre, where I am subject at times to memories which cannot be my own. I recall the square in the full bloom and bustle of life, when leisurely travellers thronged the tables, drinking slowly in the heat of the afternoon, discussing a world of turmoil and hardship which had grown abstract and distant from them. They looked up at the magnificent old buildings, at lithe silhouettes flitting across the light of their gleaming high windows. The people of the street went about the tables in various guises, soliciting what generosity they could inspire or coerce. There were those beggars who possessed the dignity of affability, and those whose naked and desperate covetousness was beyond pity. There were many gypsies, some playing earthy, unfettered waltzes on guitars and accordions, others thieving with the swift precision of birds of prey, and others still flying into incandescent rages, and bestowing curses upon the air with precise motion of their fingers. Clowns gambolled and capered, and mimes avowed by gesture the presence of a variety of objects and situations invisible to the senses of ordinary men. The greatest of them seemed to avow the existence of an entire world, silent, invisible, and in some fashion congruent with our own. Perhaps it is this world which I inhabit now, or perhaps these things, after all, are only of my imagination; yet I swear I have felt, for the briefest instants, the sensation of how it was to live in times so altered from my own, that they are as like to other worlds entirely. But here, also, as the sand gathers in growing heaps, I must sift through those memories which I knew with certainty to be my own: those memories of my boyhood in the Estate, and my tumultuous passage through the Castle of Coloured Rooms, where even now the youthful players are taking their lots for the commencement of the Flogging Game, and the Elder Players in the White Room sit entranced in their long, slow stratagems. The Master watches intently over all of them, as he did in my time, without a glimmer of life in his profound and fuliginous eyes.

My endeavours here in the square are surely monuments of futility, and yet I am content, as it is said those sages were, who sat unmoving for a generation beneath the slender beams of tall trees. Whatever foods I require are brought me by the runaway who has fashioned himself the Scavenger, and daily wheels his trolley through the City, gathering provisions and curiosities from her abundant storerooms. From time to time, I am visited by one or other of the Masters, and we pass our time in conversation, or playing the game of strategy wherein icons identical in appearance, though differing in hue, struggle for the dominance of a chequered board. The Masters, I have learned, possess a strange mechanical sorrow, and take their only inordinate pleasure in games. Thus I am reconciled with my erstwhile oppressor, my enemy, it seemed, through whole ages of history. I am reminded of the old fable, wherein two warring deities end their age-old enmity at the Twilight of the World, so that they might die peacefully and begin it all again, for it is said that all things are kindled in their enmity.

It will not begin again for us. The sand will gather first, until those prodigious ziggurats are as squat cottages rising from its rippled floors. The architects of the City, who have been dying for centuries now, will surely draw their last breaths; then the ocean will draw immense toppling walls over the City, and if we are not forgotten entirely, we will live on only as myths that rational men will eschew.

Yet, as I have said, I am possessed of a strange serenity. Food is plentiful here, as the nobles I knew in my youth could scarcely have imagined. The City is of an extraordinary antiquity, and all its history, and the histories of the entire world, dance before my eyes, just as those youths in my alien memories, and I have but to summon them. There is also my own past, which I am committed to re-experience in this memoir, since those days will never come again, nor I ever return to the Estate. I have a heard a fable of a man who lived in the blistering heat of a desert city, and lead an existence of manifold suffering and misfortune. When he was a boy, he was bitten on the arm by a mountebank’s rabid jackal, and this attack left him with an eradicable scar. This scar, by some saturnine coincidence, resembled exactly the mark given as a brand to transgressors by the city’s hierarchs and magistrates. Now, it was known by all in the city that this man had received the mark only by unlikely misadventure, and had committed no sin, and yet the people were superstitious, and regarded even the jaws of rabid beasts as instruments of some higher order. Could they even transcend such fancies, the mark was nevertheless of such an instinctive repugnance to them, that they could not but shun the man, and regard him with a kind of unintentional aversion.

So he grew, a lonely and despised individual, and though his mind was prodigious, no fortune ever came to him in affairs of business, so he lived sporadically upon a variety of unrewarding activities, and sometimes even the alms of those merchants and hierarchs who wound their way through the city’s narrow, coiling, labyrinthine streets. His spirit, the fable tells us, was noble and proud as that of any prince, but life feed it no fitting matter, so that it inevitably grew cankerous with gall and envy. He took to drinking the secret wines sold by apothecaries, which had had livid, gnarled roots twining about the base of their bottles, and were said to transport the drinker to places paradisiacal and nightmarish. Time passed slowly for the man, and he seemed always to wander this shifting, vertiginous desert city alone, forming strange conjectures in his mind. Over a period of years, these conjectures cohered to form an overarching vision or mythology of persecution, which, despite the persistent reproaches of his reason, he came to believe as a matter of course, in much the same fashion as others are apt to believe more or less commonsensical and demonstrable things. He believed that there was another world, wherein he had a different name and a life more palatable than this one, but, for reasons which would remain eternally obscure, he had been cast out of that world, and into an unreal place where all things were inimical and hostile to his desires. It was, he reasoned, as though those who laboured over the design of places of incarceration, and turned their ingenuity to the methods by which the guilty are punished, had reached the very apogee of their art, and created a whole dizzying, teeming world which was in reality but a cell to hold a single individual, and a great, fathomless lash with which to scourge him. And as he wandered about the city, composing these strange fancies, he often passed a remarkable door set in an anonymous, crumbling wall, something of whose design always struck his imagination as a prodigious and alluring thing, and yet, hope having long departed from his soul, he never attempted to open it.

Many, many years passed in this fashion, until the man, sitting alone in a square with a famished fountain at its centre, resolved to kill himself. No sooner had he set his heart to this course, than a strange thing happened: the whole world was suddenly starved of sound and motion, and everything assumed the pristine stasis of a painting. The silence, in its uncanny abruptness, was like the rush of an ocean. Three peculiar figures approached him. These three were preternaturally tall, with faces identical and statue-like, as though culled from a common mould. He noted that they appeared to have no hair whatsoever. They spoke in an inharmonious and grating unity, and told him that everything he had intuited all along was the truth: he had committed a crime, and for this he had been cleaved from his natural life, and relocated to this unreal place, so to suffer untold agonies until a certain term had passed. This term being now expired, they were to take him back to his old life, and his true identity. The man, whose name in the desert city had been Jobim, wept abundantly, not because he was finally to be delivered from the great sorrows which had beset him, but rather from a heart-rending relief that he had not deluded himself through all those long years.

They set off, and Jobim saw for the last time the desert city, with its sloping, serpentine streets and alleys, and its towering mosaics of balconied apartments, over whose rails hung worn blankets and airy-hued garments to dry in the sun. There was no motion whatsoever in the city, and everywhere about the streets people were frozen like statues, as though time had stopped, with a kind of capricious insouciance, in the midst of a bustling afternoon like any other. Jobim saw many beautiful women he had once desired, and many men he had once longed to murder, denuded of all vitality and life in this fashion. He felt a strange, floating sensation, as one does upon the sudden acquisition of knowledge. He asked his guides what sin he had committed, and they responded that it would be unwise, and entirely without avail, to inquire into this matter. Finally, they came upon the door whose peculiar enticement Jobim had passed so many times, and went through it.

The door lead back to Jobim’s old life. He did know whether he would have gotten back had he tried it before, or whether it had lead nowhere until such time as the term of his incarceration was complete. Perhaps it was a feature of his prison’s architecture that he could always see the door, but never by his own volition open it, until such time as the three strangers came to usher him back. He returned to his old life, as all men do, by means of waking up, and as all men recollect the entirety of their memory upon waking, so Jobim knew he was really Alain, who had grown up and lived still in a temperate coastal city. His first impression was of the whiteness of the sky, and the chill in the air. He had been gone from his life for ten years, and in that time he had prospered greatly. He was by trade a mason, and while Jobim languished in the sweltering heat of the desert, Alain had rose to a chief foreman on the construction of a great wall about the circumference of the city. Like many other ambitious masons, he had made a considerable fortune in the years it took to raise the wall. He had married the daughter of a wine merchant, a tall, slim, elegant woman of fashion, and they had two sons.

The story might have ended there, where it not for a strange thing that happened to this Alain. It happened quite gradually, beginning with vivid dreams of the desert city, of its impossible geometry and architecture, its serpentine streets, and the dizzying maze of balconies stretching upwards, where row upon row of clothing flapped in a dry wind. He dreamt of the azure sky, and the pitiless sun. When he awoke, Alain knew that these dreams were not nightmares, as he might have expected, but rather assumed the character of nostalgic reveries. He thought of the women of the desert city, whose skin was a smooth, gleaming bronze, whose bodies were lithe and sinewy like tensed ropes, and whose eyes were like black suns. He thought of the exquisite and unendurable delirium of the apothecary’s wine, of how it had shown him prodigies of beauty and horror. Increasingly, the real world, wherein he had prospered, became unreal and opaque; he longed for his old prison, and for the fathomless lash which had raked his soul with the precision of an artist. It is said that he grew distant, and spent his last years searching his memory and imagination for the particular sin which might set him back to his old cell.

It may be that I am like the man in the fable, longing for my freedom when I am imprisoned, and for the familiar walls of confinement when I am free. It may be, simply, that there is much time to pass, and I am fond of telling such fables. However it may be, I must go back to my beginnings. I recall that the Elder Players in the White Room were apt to pass the long, slow days of their dotage whispering child-words and snatches of old nursery rhymes; perhaps it is this impulse, and nothing more, which has animated the worlds through which I have passed.

Where to begin is the most difficult question of all. When we search our memories, we find that that there was never any precise beginning, rather some point or another were we had already begun, and there was already much behind us. They say that the first people, who emerged fully formed from the mind of the Divine, knew the precise moment of their creation, and thus what it was to be nothing one moment, and to exist and be fully conscious the next. This mystery filled them with terror, until some time had elapsed, and then they found a certain beauty to it, and this beauty was the basis of the first temples. However, for the rest of us, there can be no such precision regarding our origins. We can only recall a time at which we recalled more time, as I have said, and in this sense memory is unbounded. To try and tell of the story of a life is like to consulting a dictionary, where we are lead from one word to another, and another after that. In this fashion, each memory begets more memories, until it would seem that a man would need a whole supplementary lifetime, merely to properly organise his notes of the first one. I have read the story of a middle-aged patrician who wandered through a garden, and therein smelt the fragrance of a certain flower which had grown profusely in the playing fields of his childhood. The fragrance of that blossom immediately triggered an oceanic flood of memory, and the man, moved by a kind of awe at the immense scope and brilliance of his mind’s retentive capacity, resolved to write down all of his memories. His great enterprise was doomed from the beginning, however, for his epiphany in the garden had so awakened his sense of the multifaceted complexity of experience, that he found himself lost in great digressive streams, and died before he had even completed his description of the flower’s fragrance.

To avoid such a fate as that, I will begin with a memory which, though probably not my first, is possessed of a sufficient intensity to deny all trace of opacity or embellishment. It is the memory of the day my mother brought me to the Garden of Antiquity, and the first time I laid eyes upon the Master. I should first say that I did know at that time what function the Garden served, nor what prompted my mother to go there that day. As to the Garden’s function, I will tell you now that it was the place where we laid our dead to rest. Among the many studies I have undertaken here in the City of the Dying Ones, I have found a particular fascination in the endless variety of custom pertaining to the dead. I have discovered evidences of a profound significance attached to the proper observance of funereal custom in literature of immeasurably antiquity, and it seems that this significance has remained undimmed through the ages, though the conception of death itself be utterly altered. The most common form has been burial in the shallow depths of the earth, in a wooden casket akin to that as might house wine, or some other goods, for transportation. The purpose of the casket I take to provide some modest comfort to the remains, though one might imagine them to be more or less unperturbed by such things, at that stage of life’s journey. Others, recoiling from the notion of the body’s putrescence, have chosen to have their remainders roasted in a pyre, till they be like the wistful contents of a chilly hearth. The remaining ashes were then gathered in an urn, so as to be ornamentally displayed among other bric-a-brac in the domicile of the deceased. It is comical to imagine one of our ancestors indicating their departed kin fellow by name, with a gesture to the space on the mantel between some sporting trophy and a cheap statuette of a crowing cock, to a little pot as might just as easily mount a sunflower, or a prickly and ageless cactus. Alas, it is perhaps wrong to laugh; we have always had difficulty locating ourselves, whether it be in some tangible body or elsewhere, whilst still living, and these difficulties are only compounded by death.

Still, there have been other customs. Certain kings of a distant antiquity were laid in pompous and magnificent mausoleums, after such a time as native arts had rendered their flesh almost imperishable, and all the spoils of their crown had been laid about them. I do not know if these measures lighted their passage to the next world, but the architecture of their tombs held a kind of immortality in the imagination of those who drank from the muddling elixir of antiquated mystery and forgotten lore. I have read of sea-faring peoples who placed their dead upon a ceremonial raft, and set them off to crest the foaming swells of the ocean, as oft they had in the living days. In the east, there was a spiritual people who burned their dead, and set their ashes flowing in the tide of the same holy river whose waters had anointed them as infants. So the countless dead have gone, to some or other of the elements, to earth, fire, or water; for myself, I can think of no better resting place than the sea, for all of us who grew up in the Estate dreamt of the ocean, with such ardour as only holy-men have dreamt of the ambrosial heavens.

Thus it is that everywhere, and in all times, people have held devoutly to certain types of funereal custom, and afforded the dead a dignity more universal and less conditional than the living. Where I grew up, cremation was an intractable necessity, since the space available to us for any kind of storage was sorely limited. The Garden of Antiquity was divided into a series of smaller gardens, and each of these sub-gardens bore the name and ownership of a family. After the cremation, the Master would take the ashes, and mix them with a special kind of herb in a ceremony preformed within the Castle of Coloured Rooms. This mixture was then scattered in the family’s garden, and thus each of those little plots, though they were scarcely bigger than our own cottages in Eliagard, contained many generations of the name which adorned the entrance. This always struck me as a prodigiously strange thing, when I discovered it; and yet, man is small thing, I suppose, when he has been roasted in the pyre, and only a fool would count grains of sand, though they be clutched in a child’s fist. Of the herb which been mixed with the remains, nobody knew what it was, nor had ever found it growing in any of the fields of the Estate, but it was said to help the ash mix with the earth, and of this admixture grew a very strange plant which the Master called the anima. The anima bore a fruit in springtime, which was like a large, swollen, luscious apple, but of a far more lustrous and glossy red than any apple I had ever seen. It was forbidden that any but the Master himself partake of this fruit.

I must have been about six or seven when I was brought to Garden. I suppose my brother was with my father in the fields, and my sister about her duties in Samersol. I see my mother wearing a grey smock, and a brown bonnet perched loosely over her long fair locks. I do not know if she actually wore those clothes that day, but she wore them frequently, and that is how I remember her. It was springtime, but the day I recall as chill and dreary. The sky was murky and white, the grass moist and silvery with dew, and a heavy mist purled about the river path. We were going by Samersol, and through the mist I could see great country houses and the fog-muted colours of glass ornaments and silver wind-chimes that hung in the trees. I knew that my sister was in one of those houses, but I did not know what she did there. I imagined that she sat by a great, blazing fire, reading stories from a book while a boy her age gazed at her, and mouthed the words of the story as she read. Perhaps she told me this, or perhaps I merely imagined it. I imagined all kinds of things about the houses in Samersol: that the people who lived there were like beautiful statues, or moving paintings, and everyday they did the same things, without ever aging or growing bored. I think that I actually believed this, and often pictured them in this strange, trancelike existence, their faces slowly forming expressions of surprise at things which had been said innumerable times before.

It is perplexing to go back to those times in my mind. Trying to recall how one experienced the world as a child is like trying to understand the mind of a stranger, for the thought of a child is a different thing to that of an adult, though they be the same person, or at least answer to the same name. An adult differentiates between things, and inquires after their origin. A child does this too, I’m sure, but not quite to the same degree. Perhaps it is that the child has only begun to ask those questions whose answers, accumulating slowly down the years, will ultimately cohere to form the densely organised and differentiated world they will experience as adults. However it may be, the world of a child is a different place, and it strikes me now that this world is closely akin to the ineffable unity of being sought throughout the ages by artists and mystics. Of my childhood, the keenest sensation I recall is that of places and things possessing a kind of untroubled inexplicability; a living, spiritual essence which pervaded all things, and expressed itself in some fashion unconnected with logic or even words.

It was through this world I went with my mother that day, and yet I felt I was going beyond it, for we had gone further than I had ever been from our home in Eliagard. We departed from the river path, leaving Samersol behind us, and began to climb a very steep hill. Though I did not know it then, we were climbing what was called simply the Hill, or the High Vantage, since it was the only elevated land in the Estate; the first dwellers had gathered there many cycles ago, and watched the Great Catastrophe turn the sky red. When we had reached the apex of the Hill, I saw for the first time the Estate laid out before me. I saw great fields in the south where animals grazed, and tiny, silent shapes of men drew plough ridges dark over the brownish soil. In the east, past those parts of the Estate to which I was hitherto accustomed, I saw such a prodigy as I will never forget: the Master’s Castle of Coloured Rooms. Many times in the course of this narrative, I will have recourse to describe the Castle, and each time I will fail to adequately convey its riddling majesty, for its architecture was the product of sciences beyond all our humble reckoning. It was as old as the Estate itself, and five times larger than our greatest village. It rose eight stories high, and its many turrets rose even higher, with candles burning in their narrow stained-glass windows. The roof of the Castle was a world all of its own, with outlying pathways going from turret to turret, and branching off chaotically within to circumscribe a maze of roof-gardens, miniature labyrinths, observatories, open yards where rusted astrological curiosities were gathered like baroque shrubbery, as well as countless other puzzling amenities, including a large tiled floor which resembled the chequered board of such a game which might have had men as its playing pieces, and careful arrangements of mirrors which became like blazing fires in the height of summer. I saw many tiny figures traverse the roof of the Castle that morning, and to my childish mind it seemed as though their motion was eternal and repetitive, as though each sought a particular place, but in going there passed through some turret or gate which rendered them seamlessly back to the point from which they had started, and so befuddled their memory that they went once again with undimmed determination to that same place.

As I saw all these things, I became aware for the first time of the great wall which circumscribed the whole of the Estate, and the immense evergreen forest which towered above it, and swathed the horizon as far any eye could see. Of course, I had observed parts of the wall many times before, and yet I think it was only at that moment, when I stood upon the Vantage, that I realized that this wall surrounded us, and represented the ineluctable limit to where we might go in the world. All this I experienced in an instant, this sense that the world was simultaneously much greater, yet more profoundly meagre, than I had previously conceived. I felt a dread of becoming like the guards upon the wall, and the squat shapes who went about the roof of the Castle, embroiled in their endless, unchanging assignments. I recall distinctly that I thought those things, but, being a child, forgot them just as quickly, and turned my attention to where we going. Beneath us, the path wound between the Little Wood and the Garden of Antiquity. Let me describe the Garden as it appears from the Hill. The shape of the Garden is oval, and it is enclosed in a stone wall of medium height, upon which a circular mural is painted. When I stood upon the Hill, the mural appeared a mere profusion of colours, of the bright, gaudy kind which are apt to appeal to children; indeed, my first impression was that the place must be some kind of playground. This impression, however, was quickly dispelled, for about the oval of the Garden stood three towering and ominous statues, and within the wall there was a dark canopy of unfamiliar and vaguely disquieting foliage.

The decoration of the wall, as I would discover upon many later inspections, was a very complex interwoven pattern, depicting the cycle of life in terms vegetative, human, and cosmic. At the foot of the wall, a layer of motifs depicted the seasonal life of crops and animals; this was overlaid with the life-cycle of human beings, from conception to death; the life of humans was overlaid with a rendering of the four Cosmological Ages, said both to pre-empt the history of the cosmos, and form a model of its overarching trajectory; finally, at the very top of the wall, each of these graduations was marked by a colour, following the sequence of yellow, red, black, and white. There is a suite of Rooms in the Master’s Castle, in which the children of the Estate are educated by the clergy, and young men play the Game of which I will vouchsafe more information by and by; these rooms are named after the colour which predominates in each, and they also follow this distinct and most puzzling sequence: yellow, red, black, and white. I do not know the precise meaning or purpose of this, though my long journey has denuded countless other mysteries and symbols, and robbed them of all opacity and majesty. The Master has asked me if this is not the object of all movement through time, or, if not its object, then its inevitable consequence. I do not know this either.

Towering statues stood about the oval of the Garden, as I have said, and these statues were older than the wall itself, and older by many centuries than anything else in the Estate. They were fashioned as objects of idolatry during the Heroic Ages, when men excelled in physical prowess, but had lost all knowledge of true divinity. It was said in our catechism that it took but three gods to engender the downfall of man. First, the Goddess of Pride and Concupiscence made men love themselves beyond all natural boundary; then the God of Rapacity and Gluttony made that excess of love long for ever more magnificent and hubristic monuments to itself; finally, a third god came, of a necessity imposed by the welcome extended to the previous two, and this was the God of War. It should be noted here that the design of many places in the Estate possessed a kind of subtle ingenuity of purpose, a didactic thrust embodied in the form and proportion of things. When I went among the clergy, they told me that allegory was a kind of sleight whereby an austere lesson might pass itself as an adventurous yarn, or a droll anecdote. Furthermore, the physical world was a kind of allegory which men walked through, and whose endless conceits they absorbed in a cumulative and mostly unconscious fashion. Others whispered to me that the Master had designed the Estate as a microcosm of the world, and wrought in its architecture as many puzzles and hidden resonances as were to found without. The positioning of the Garden between those aged monuments of long discarded idolatry was thus an invitation to mediate upon the immensity of time, a lesson in the capacity of time to strip the follies of the past bare, and finally, a warning of the inevitable consequence accrued by those who would entertain such follies as the pagan mind revelled in: a graveyard of the soul, and an eternal death of the spirit.

Those, at any rate, I take to be the lessons of the Garden’s geometry. However, as the child I was standing upon the Vantage, such conjectures were inconceivable, and I saw instead the God of War with all the visceral receptiveness of a child’s imagination. War had been sculpted as a two headed deity, a figure at mortal variance with itself. Its heads, simian in character and identical in appearance, glared at one another with an almost indescribable ferocity and violence. They looked, truly, as though they might escape their static stone canvass at any moment, and bite one another like ravenous hounds. The body, on the other hand, nude, muscular, and perfect in its symmetry, was a steady fulcrum of poised immobility and strength. It held in the right hand a towering spear, and in the left a shield, upon which was emblazoned an archer within a winged disc. I grew terrified, and turned back the way we had come. My mother, whom I remember as oddly distant and silent, clenched my hand roughly, and drew me slowly down the western slope of the Vantage.

A breeze rose up through the dry leaves of the Little Wood, a sound which seemed pregnant and prodigious in the stillness. Much later I would learn that the Wood housed an evil spirit, and that breeze, so quietly seductive, was his voice. Such, at any rate, was case avowed to children and the superstitious, for great conveniences were nightly made of the Wood’s secluded glades. None of this I knew as boy, and yet I felt the presence of spirits everywhere as we walked beneath the shadow of the statue, a barely perceptible horde which seemed to watch us, and whisper amongst itself as to the best means of our disposal. On the Garden wall, I saw a confusion of figures flowing into one another with the malleable ease of idle thoughts: lambs lay supine in fecund spring meadows, the bodies of males and females intertwined with an intensity of purpose, and flanks of winged divinities warred above them, in vast heavens which were as yet a void canvas upon which the universe would be wrought. We came at last to the gate, and went within.

The interior of the Garden is much like those green mazes which the nobles of long departed ages had erected upon their estates, so to pass the interminable hours of their leisure, and perhaps facilitate such intrigues as would beleaguer their bloodlines, and one day shatter the careless placidity of their days. The family gardens of which I have spoken were bordered by immaculately trimmed hedge walls, into which oval iron gates, with slender, coiling, vine-like limbs, had been wrought. It was these gates which bore the placard containing the familial name and crest, and the anima plants, nourished in their discarded generations, towered above the hedge walls, and cast sharp, disordered shadows over the path with their outstretched arms. We walked a little way along the path, and I gazed through the black iron tapestries of the gates, but all I saw within was a thick, greenish mist, in which the outline of the animas were barely perceptible. We came suddenly upon a lank and garrulous caretaker and his timid grandson. The caretaker had augmented his already considerable stature by means of a plaster-caked wooden footstool; thus elevated, he was busy trimming the topmost section of the hedge wall, applying himself to this task with the kind of rapt attentiveness a barber might bestow upon his most loyal and pernicious customer. The grandson, no less focused, caught the small trimmings as they fell at ponderous intervals, and deposited them in a wheel-barrow. The caretaker spoke to his grandson:

-He’s about today, lad, he’s about. I seen him and the child. Be careful when he’s about. Don’t look at him directly, unless he looks at you that way first. Don’t speak lad, unless he speaks to you, and then only say what’s necessary to answer his questions. But he won’t speak to you lad, he won’t hardly speak to me. He won’t hardly speak to the high nobles, and all the cant they put on him, all the high cant they put on him, and he just looks at them like he picked them out of his nose! Ha! Shush! They say he doesn’t speak to his bride, or the child neither. Some calls his bride the weeping widow! Shush! Some say he only talks to the hound, and even then, only to say a how-do every once in a blue moon! How-do, hound? Ha!

The caretaker’s head swivelled back along the path, and he registered our presence with a start. His grandson froze, with a sullen expression.

-Hello, mother, how do? Hello, boy. I’d welcome ye to the Garden, but she is open to all, and will welcome each of us, by and by. Ha. Some will be serfs, they say, some is for Samersol, and some for the court; so as the Game decrees. Some will join the hermits, and count the beans on a fig tree; some will play in the masques, and die anew each winter. But all for the Garden! It’s not such a grim thing, is it, mother?

My mother, who seemed quite nonplussed by the caretaker’s brisk and precipitate speech, nodded faintly.

-Aye, tis a fond place, like a baby’s cradle. People talk of life, as though it were it were the finest thing of all. But it’s not a thing at all, so far as I can see, for any thing I know has a back and a front, or a beginning and an end. A thing has a shape you could discern, either by the sight or the feel. None can discern a life or its use, like a workman discerns the tool in his hand, lest he knock the teeth from a child’s mouth, or fondle the head of a brick. None can discern a life or its use, like a workman discerns the tool in his hand, save for the Almighty alone, and mayhap the Master, if he has a mind at all. It’s always in the middle of some muddle, I find, except when you can lay your head on a pillow and sleep. The just and the wicked are the same for one half of their lives, the hermits say. Sometimes when I hear the soft sound of the breeze through the trees, I think that it’s all the departed souls, sleeping snugly like babes in the arm of the Lord. Other times, I think it’s just ordinary wind, no more sacred than would rip through the seat of my pants.

With that, the caretaker resumed his stool and his trimming, and his grandson readied himself once more at the wheelbarrow.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kirby Dots.

I have started a new blog called Kirby Dots, here, which will deal with slightly less esoteric matters, mainly films.
The name Kirby Dots comes from a technique of the great comic book artist Jack Kirby to create cosmic scenes and explosive energy fields by means of an artful arrangement of dots, like so:

According to the venerable Wikipadia, without whom I sometimes suspect many of these things wouldn't even exist, these distinctive black dots are "typically found in illustrations of explosions, the blasts from ray guns, and outer space phenomena." Often imitated by other artists, they became known either as "Kirby dots" or "Kirby Krackle" (I went for dots over krackle because it sound less breakfast cereal-like.)

I'm aware that thats
a) pretty esoteric
b) not a particularly apt name for a blog thats mostly about films
but I don't care.

Read Kirby Dots now, or I'll send a potent hex through your computer screen which will turn your brain into a picture of James Blunt visiting sick children in a hospital.