Ere the Sad Gods That Made Your Gods

I have been working somewhat eclectically but nonetheless diligently on Plenilune, and for the past hour I have found myself scribbling the following piece. It belongs before Plenilune, and pertains to one of the various 'shires,' which has some pertinence in the novel proper and puts in its obligatory appearance at social gatherings, etc. (I say some pertinence, by which I mean I think it may have rather a lot, only I haven't made that part up yet.) At any rate, the following section is a stand-alone, a mere novelized history blurb from the Honour of Thrasymene. I hope that does not sound too dull to you. I found it rather thrilling, myself.

"What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on the hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?"

The Ballad of the White Horse, G.K. Chesterton (again)

* * * * *

“Will you not stand down?”
“Nay, I will not stand down! Is it in your mind that your lord rose to his height and made Thrasymene what she is by the womanish notion of standing down—do you think?”
Feyfax’s words and tone cut deeply into me and I turned hotly to check him. No one spoke so to Mother—save Feyfax, of course, which thought checked me in the act of running my head into the lion’s mouth. I watched the two of them, Mother every bit and more a match for her red-blooded son, Feyfax looking down at her serene, drawn face with the light of rage in his eyes. For a long while they stared at each other, neither moving, neither speaking—I am not sure, now, that either even breathed. I think Feyfax at least did not, for after a long silent spell he let out a long, low breath and asked gently,
“Will you stop me, O Mother?”
A thin arch of brow rose on Mother’s face and I knew, as Feyfax did not know, the horrible aching that its supercilious appearance was masking. “Will I stop you? My bull-voiced son of thunder, who in our Honour or all Plenilune will stop you from your course when once you have set your sails with the wind? Not I. Ring, perhaps, but not I.”
At mention of me my brother looked round—swung round, really, like the bull she likened him to, and stared at me from underneath his black brows. I do him a disservice to paint his portrait all in rage. Fury, often mistaken for ill-temper, was never far from Feyfax, but he was a goodly-looking man, better than I and with more presence: such a man as others are wont to follow. He took after Father in that regard, while I took after Mother more, yet Feyfax had not Father’s cool head for council—and I had coolness from Mother and Father both.
“Ring?” His voice lay down upon my shoulder like the naked blade of a sword. “Ring… Will Ring set himself at cross-purposes with me, who is as much my father’s son as me?”
I tell you that I have my sire’s cool head for council and for knowing what words to say to a man which will turn his heart in my hand as one turns a chess-piece on the chequered board. But I tell you that since I got the awful word of my father’s death—the killing death, and not by accident—it had rushed upon me that this moment between Feyfax and me would come. Now it had come, and I did not know what to say. By habit I frowned and grasped back in my memory to the moment of the news and the things which had rushed upon my mind then.
It had been a shock. Underneath my frown I thought that I must have taken it as Mother did, quietly, stone-facedly, a moment unmoving as the images whirled like the mistral through my mind: Father and my uncles hunting in Gottgovae, which are Carmarthen runs, which the Carmarthen call the Place of the Holy Dark, (for the nomadic tribes of the steppes are pagan and make gods in hidden backwoods places as men make dreams in the hidden backwoods of their minds); I saw the flickering of light-and-shadow dappling the horses’ flanks; I saw the dogs arranged in rank with their boys, strung out through the deep woodland at the base of the hills where the highlands dropped and became the easy, endless, rolling expanse of the steppes. The nomads had found them and shot them without warning, and thrown them back over the Thraysmene boarder with the brand-mark of the infidel on their brows. This I had been told, I had not seen myself. I was really not sure I could see without feeling ill, for when I did feel rage I only got sick, so that Feyfax had that much over me in constitution. I did hate him a little for that, for it was a raw soreness below my belt which I was painfully conscious of, which neither of us ever mentioned, which always lay between us.
But now was not a time for soreness and sickness and rage. I came back, looking out of my eyes once more, feeling rather stark pale in contrast to Feyfax’s angry colour. For a moment it did not quite look like Feyfax’s face, then it came back into focus once more and I knew what to say.
“I put myself at cross-purposes with no one, Feyfax, for I run sails-with-the-wind with our father.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mother look away as if to hide her face: I did not see her expression.
Feyfax flung up his head, nostrils distended, a growling snort in the back of his throat like that of an angry stallion. “Do the dead make their own vengeance! I will honour our father and I will not allow his death to go unpunished, his name to go besmirched. He will have his vengeance. They will pay the blood-debt.”
“In blood?” I asked softly.
He cut off the word with his teeth: “Yes.”
I left the moment in silence for some time, looking over the hard, uncompromising lines of Feyfax’s mouth and handsome brow, looking at the pale yellow and amber radials of his eyes. He would be a hard man to win, I realized, if he would be won at all. And suddenly my shoulders felt very weary under the weight that was settling on them. I felt rage turn over once in my belly and then become that horrid sickness; but I was careful not to let it show in my voice when I spoke.
“Look at the thing thus, as Father would have looked at it, and consider. Thrasymene has never been great among the Honours: her land is poorer than others, her griefs greater than others, with the sea on our right hand and the steppes on our left and she caught between them. Mind you what work Father has put himself to making a voice worthy of hearing among the gatherings of the other Honours, at the New Moons and at feasts and in judgment. Perhaps our soil is poor and our wind smells of salt, but he gave us a voice. He gave us respect. He knit us so that we are not so many manor houses and petty lords as we once were, but an Honour in our own right.” I swallowed back the bile in my throat and steadied my voice again as it was time to drop from the rhetorical thunder to the soft entreaty. “The wicked live long in bitterness, but to the good heart comes the arrow at noon. Let us take this murder as testimony to our father’s greatness and make his memory that of a martyr. Do not undo the labour of our father through war, for how could we know who did the deed?”
Here Feyfax interrupted me. “How could we know? Perhaps we could not, but we could be sure if we killed them all.”
Mother never said a word, but out of the corner of my eye I saw her whip her head around, her face white, sheer white, and the steel disbelief was in her eyes as her son’s words hung heavy on the air.
I forced myself somehow to go on as if my thoughts had not been broken. “So. And it would be fitting, would it not, if we think in terms of blood-debt, for them all to die—for where is there a man of worth like our father? Surely every drop of blood in Plenilune would just atone for his murder… But will it soothe the bitterness? Will it bring comfort to our mother, will it bring more children to this bower; will it solace and guide our Honour? Are we heathen gods—” my voice rose in rhetorical pitch “—that we drink the blood of our foes and are thus satisfied?”
The owlish eyes flickered over my face. The other’s face darkened under my own gaze, darkened and grew distant and strange. “What man are you,” asked Feyfax softly, accusingly, “that war is so distasteful to you?”
For a moment I was dreadfully afraid Mother would rise to my defence, which would have been to add injury to insult, but thankfully she made no sound or movement. Indeed, I think the three of us made no other sound or movement for some time, and then I heard my own voice saying, perfectly levelly and with a tone I did not recognize,
“How dare you dishonour our father with such words?”
The tawny eyes flashed. “Dishonour? At whose door is this dishonour, when you will not lift your hand to avenge our father? Father! Does the word mean nothing to you?”
“It means the world to me, Feyfax, as you cannot believe!” I retorted. I was losing my grasp on my rhetoric. “And it is thuswise that I choose to honour our father’s life and living, not his death and grave! I will not see his work torn down and cast sunsetward into the sea as if it were nothing for the sake of spilling blood out of someone’s heart—blood which cannot bring his blood back into his own! The life of our father is gone, Feyfax. Take not the life of our Honour in your quest for vengeance.”
We were both panting now, the sound of it throbbing in the little light-flecked bower which belonged to our mother; our heads were lowered, our fists were clenched—I did not recall closing my own, and what a tiny fighting cock I must have looked before that bull which was my brother!
“So,” said Feyfax, very quietly, as if he had finally reconciled himself to the thoughts in his mind; “you will set yourself at cross-purposes with me.”
“Oh, my sons,” our mother groaned, and hid her face behind her hands.

Beautiful People - Margaret Coventry

In terms of wit and jollity I can't compete with Anna and Abigail, who can put their tongues in their cheeks and make a pretty verse around them. I'm slower and blinder and more like the harper, but they put up with me. Now it is time for Beautiful People (hurrah!) and though I get more enjoyment out of hearing about Anna's and Abigail's (Abigail hasn't posted hers yet, but we talked about it, and that is much the same thing), I got some fun out of my own answers. I hope you do too. Goodness knows they were difficult enough this time!

"That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory
Than we are tired of shame."

The Ballad of the White Horse, G.K. Chesterton

Margaret Coventry, Precocious Chit

1. If your character could be played by an actor, who would it be?

I’m afraid I simply don’t know. It isn’t as if I am totally ignorant about actors, I’m just a perfectionist and I haven’t found Margaret. This is a perfect portrayal of her physically, but this is only a model.

2. Does your character have a specific theme song?

This is a very curious question. I haven’t been on the sharp look-out for theme songs, and consequently nothing perfect has popped out. I think the Fox would insinuate himself into a private joke of my family’s and sing her “Bad Day,” but the only song which has come up for Margaret thus far as been Audrey Assad’s “Show Me,” which is very pretty, and probably rather apt, but less jolly and light-hearted than one might have wanted. So sorry. You may keep the Fox’s company for that.

3. What's her worst childhood memory?

Can she remember? There were too many unpleasant memories to pick out a worst one, but they all involved her sisters. I think Adamant wasn’t the only one half-glad to leave them behind, even if it was in the company of—but I spoil.

4. If your character had a superpower, what would it be?

She would wither with a singular glare beam. In fact, she gets so much practice that it’s just as well that she isn’t a witch (I don’t quite go in for these modern mutants and scientific superheroes) because several people would have been withered into a flaky skeletal heap by now, otherwise. She does have grit and high ideals, though, which, in a pinch, can work for a superpower.

5. If your character crashed on an island with a bunch of other people, how could your character help the group survive?

It depends on who was in the group. Her high ideals are not always that high. As for helping, she probably wouldn’t be much of one even if she wanted to be. She is not an out-doors sort of person, nor does she know much about the elements, but she at least has pluck and dignity, and she would not make a nuisance of herself.

You could raise me like a banner in a battle
Put victory like a fire behind my shining eyes
I would drift like falling snow over the embers
But for now just let me lie

"Show Me," Audrey Assad

6. Is she married? If not, does she someday wish to be?

Yes, that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? At this point, no, Margaret is not married; and at this point she might marry Skander, if he asked, just to spite Rupert—though she does like Skander well enough. (It would be the most enormous bit of spite, you see.)

7. What is a cause she would die for?

None that I can think of—none that she has told me of. There will be things, presently, and people, to which affection will have grown so strong and the knowledge of value will have grown so strong for which Margaret will be willing to do that extreme a deed. But not yet.

8. Would she rather die fighting valiantly, or quietly at home?

This is a difficult question to answer. It does not follow that Margaret would not die fighting valiantly for her home, or die quietly in her sleep somewhere else. Such is life. Or, rather, such is death. But the old Coventry Saxon in her has a strong appreciation of fate and the rightness of things. She would probably like to make a pretty and momentous gesture before the end.

9. If a stranger walked up to her and told her she was the child of the prophesy, would she believe him?

Probably not, but she isn’t a violent cynic. If it were true, she would probably be brought round to the idea at length. She would ask to see the prophesy and inquire into its validity, perhaps, but unless you were really in earnest she would most likely pass you off as a charlatan or a lunatic—and probably be right.

10. Does she prefer the country, or the city?

Margaret prefers the country, but this does not mean that she has any knowledge of it. But having gone from one cage to another all her life, standing on an upland path gives one at least the illusion of freedom.

* * * * *

“Are you afraid?”

He turned to her, eyebrows flyaway as if in surprise. “Of pain?” Then he fluttered his shoulders. “Nay, it takes a braver man than I to fear pain. I am just a fool.”

Margaret looked away and sighed as a pigeon sighs at the start of a long wet evening. “Sometimes you laugh,” she remarked, half-reproachful, “and there is no laughter in it.”

He turned to her again, quite suddenly, and very surprised, and stared hard at her for some time. “Yes,” he mused at last. “I see why he chose you.”


Anthologia: My Favourite Things

I am not always sitting here with a cup of tea, but I frequently am, and I am now: I am sitting here at my desk with a concoction of camomile and mint, and lots of other things that sound pretty, like orange leaves and hawthorn berries, and I am wrapped up in my blanket - not really because of my cold, but for the comfort of the thing. I am glad for the tea, warm down my throat, for the long shadow of the wearying weekend is still over me, and today has been long and I pushed myself perhaps ill-advisedly to be productive. So the tea and the blanket are very welcome just now.

Abigail just wrote a post about her favourite things. It was a short post, a sweet post, as to the point as Abigail can be, yet with plenty of eloquence, as is her nature, and it was a real treat to read because Abigail is a cool cat and does not always make herself easy to know - which is part of her charm - even for me, and I have known her all her life. She is cool and grown-up, calculating and logical, a no-nonsense kind of person at times (would you have guessed it?) so to get a peek at the dear things of her heart was like being invited into someone's own private garden. You can learn a thing or two about a person by observing the things they most love...

So what about me? What are my favourite things? I asked myself. We are always following the other, Abigail and I, and this time it was my turn to follow her. Some months ago I followed Megan's example and wrote a post about the things that make my life sparkle; but what about my favourite things? Just this morning I was asked in an email by Rachel if there was a quote from any book I had read (or perhaps a movie) which best described my personality, and as she is reading The Eagle of the Ninth presently and I am reading Blood Feud, and as Sutcliff is always at my elbow, I had a long and agonizing time trying to explain to Rachel that I didn't know, but that I could have said any of the things Cottia in The Eagle of the Ninth said, and at the same time I shared an understanding with both Marcus and Esca over the matter of the dagger pattern and the shield boss... And the problem, I think, is that my favourite things get so drawn into my own heart that they cease to be themselves, but are myself; and I do not always know they are my favourite things, my particular things, until something arises to bring us apart. Then I know they are mine to me because of the awful wrench I feel in my chest. But I will do my best to translate the unspoken language of myself which even I do not wholly understand, and tell you about my favourite things.

they are

a girl from Oklahoma // my copies of my books (Beowulf, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, Simon, The Great Divorce, The Worm Ouroboros...) // the stuffed cat I was given when I was nine and in the hospital for surgery // my betrothal and engagement and wedding rings // my pilot razor point pens // Saturday evenings // the sting of the wind on a high open hillside // November // Kipling's poems (The Land, The Roman Centurion's Song, Dane-Geld, Norman and Saxon...) // my two cats Minnow and Aquila // my family // my amber necklace // letters // my writing and my reading // surf-sound of the wind in autumn trees // my cherry-wood notebook // the primrose-colour of the sunset // the preaching of the Word // sun on my skin // freckles // my husband, who understands my unspoken language better than even I do

These are my favourite things, which is to say these are my things: which, in some ways is obvious (as with my family) and in other ways I find it harder to explain (like the sunset and the wind and a whole month that is usually stormy). Some things are childish, some things are loyalty, and some things speak the same language I do and conjure the awful viking-longing in me to go after them, or before them, or on the wave of them, beyond the rim of the world altogether.

Sarah, take me by my arm
Tomorrow we are Canaan-bound
Where westward sails the golden sun
And Hebron's hills are amber-crowned

The Rim of Our World

I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full of what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one's eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people's eyes can see further than mine.
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

I think most of you have read Mere Christianity at some point already. I admit I started the book back in high school and, for whatever (probably bad) reason, I was unable to "get into" it. I put it away for some years, knowing I would pick it up again some day. And now I have, and I am blazing through it, just chapters from the end. And I don't know why, and I feel very guilty for it, but at first I was not so enamoured with it as it thought I would be, as I thought I should be. Not unlike his book The Abolition of Man (and he actually references that work in Mere Christianity) Lewis started out with the barebone facts that reality gives us about Morality and the telltale way that People Act. Because these were talks delivered on the air, I saw the sense in this, and it was nice to get "outside" Christian thinking for a moment. But as we went on and Lewis tried to explain theology to the unbeliever and the believer (and I know he knew he was no theologian) I began to get fidgety and cross because I knew the answers to some of the questions he was postulating, but he wasn't around for me to tell him so. Furthermore, I stumbled across and was shown several mistakes in his own lines of thinking, which was a nasty turn for me, though I by no means consider Lewis to have been infallible. I'm well aware that one has to go into any work making sure of its truth, but I was as full of humph and phooey at that moment as I was full of Thera-flu.

Well, that's what I didn't like, and that doesn't amount to a great deal. I did thoroughly enjoy his chapters on "Forgiveness" and "Charity." That is to say, I enjoyed them for this deliberate truth and frankness. "Forgiveness" and "charity" are both virtues which I hardly possess. From my earliest years I have had the ability to hate long and to hold a grudge forever. But Lewis, very deftly, showed me that forgiveness and charity are not nearly so hard to have when one has Christ. I have been trying to have forgiveness and charity. I never stopped to let the hatred, the grudging, the forgiveness, and the charity go, and take hold of God and my neighbour the image of God. When you've dropped the frantic race after the virtue and taken hold of the one who possesses all virtue, it suddenly isn't so hopeless and dependent on man - because anything dependent on man is hopeless. Alexander Pope says that "hope springs eternal in the human breast," and that's true, but I find more often than not that hope is mere delusion. If hope is not fixed on anything faithful (and even virtues are faithless without any Life) then it will make the heart sick.

Lewis is the same as always. I walk softly into his works with a big stick and, having beaten the crows off the bush, I glean a tasty crop of berries. And Mere Christianity, despite the crows, has helped me in my quest. As I mentioned in my previous post, I know what is required of me: to do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly with my God. And my quest, as I see it, is now to know God. I want to know what he is like, what his heart is, what he delights in, I want to know his Person. I know what he requires of me, but if I ever want to know myself (and am I so very much worth knowing?) I need first to know my God. I think this must have been my quest all along, but I got caught up in all the turmoil of doing what Christians are supposed to do, and the Body of Christ, and the law of grace, losing sight (though never forgetting) that we are all derived from him. All I had been doing was well and good, but I had put the cart before the horse. We are all of us going back to Eden, to walking with God in the garden, to unhindered communion with him. I am reading Lewis, but my quest is beyond mere Christianity.

"Sir, we would see Jesus."

The Hound and the Hart

The message of My song will always be true;
Mi corazon, my heart, belongs to you.

I am sitting here at my computer, listening to "Saviour: the Story of God's Passion for His People," trying to find the words for something which has been in my mind for some days now. Back in January I wrote a post about learning God's nature not only from the things he blesses us with, but also from the things he withholds from us. From the age of hellfire and brimstone, teaching has swung to the extreme of (shall I say?) an "overly" good God, one which is not holy but indulgent. Reality, not to mention Scripture, does not support this view of God, and I dealt with this in my own small way, in my own small soul, in my post in January. But my own thinking has not allowed me to stop even at that. On the one hand I have the things which God in his wisdom has seen fit to give me, on the other I have the things which God in his wisdom has seen fit to not give me. (It does not go without saying, for it is so uplifting to hear it, that all these things, given and not given, are done in the uttermost love as well as the uttermost wisdom.) I postulated with these two that one can learn something of God from them both, and this led me up against yet another fallacy of common thought.

My position in life (my twenty-one years of it) has allowed me a front-row view of people in the church. I am also rather a great listener, by virtue of being a bad orator, and I have heard many times people strain (with great conviction, and perfect sincerity) to "know the will of God" in their lives. At first you might suppose there is nothing wrong with that. And why not? Any God-fearing individual would naturally want to know his Father's will. But first off, as time went by, I noticed a curious specificity about this striving. I have seen high school students drive themselves to rags and shreds fretting about getting into the one college in accordance with God's will, as though there were something inherently sinful about all other colleges. I have seen people worry about getting a single job which God wants them to take, as if putting one's hand diligently and God-fearingly to any job was not what He wants. I am inclined to believe this rampant specificity about God's will a product of a society glutted with prosperity. There are so many options! What if we picked the wrong one?

While this is not the main thrust of my topic, I will deal with it for the sake of moving on. I am aware that people are willing to pray ardently for God to show them his will, and by all means, do pray! I have written a post on that, too. But I am told that there is a collection of written works that are God's revelation to his people, and I believe what I am told is true. And the more I believe that these works are God's revelation of himself by himself to his people, the more the grubby blue-covered book lying on the floor next to me takes on a fantastic aspect. God (let the definition of that sink in a moment) speaking in ink (a language I know well) to me (who am I?) in that book. God, taking the time, taking all time (literally) to sketch out his nature by lives and ink. I am not sure people really grasp the enormity of this gift. So many people, far from consulting this book which wrote itself, go instantly and rather ignorantly to their knees and implore God to show them what he wants them to do.

It is a very good thing that God is long-suffering, for we are shallow, stupid people, as a rule, but I think a lot of this stress of "doing what God wants" can be relieved by going and getting that manual and attending to it from time to time. If I had children (which I don't yet) and I wrote down on a paper what I wanted them to do while I was out (clean the bathrooms, sweep the kitchen, fold the laundry, etc.) and then came back only to find all those jobs undone and the children asking me piteously what I wanted them to do so that I might be happy with them, I should be put out instead. I left them instructions! In fact, I homeschooled them so that I could be sure they could read! In light of this analogy, it is a very good thing that God is long-suffering, for we very often go to him with piteous wails seeking to honour him and know his will without having taken the time to read his instructions. I read such very broad and general instructions in his manual, like praying for those in authority, and honoring one's father and mother, and building one another up, and living quiet and peaceable lives, and, in whatever we find our hands put to, doing all to the glory of God. So very broad, so very general; in fact, the sort of instructions that can thrive in any age, in any culture, in all time, with the ease of a ship passing through the sea. But no, Heaven help us, we are a practical lot, a materialistic, practical lot, and we must have out bullet-points and our outlines, for we feel very naked and vulnerable in the wide fields of God's freedom.

Now that I have said that I will approach my main point. It is all very well and good (and I mean that sincerely) to want to know the will of God. But what seems to be lost in the eagerness to turn faith into "religion" (this is an age-old and fatal eagerness) is a quiet but persistent plot-line in the Story of Redemption. It comes out sometimes, as in the backward memory of Eden, in a man like David, in Jeremiah's dictation of odd people like a Canaanite woman and a Roman Centurion. The plot-line, and the revelation, and what these people did, and ourselves should, really seek, is

the heart of God

I have this thought heavy in my own heart and I listen to this "Saviour" album, and the music seems only to echo my own thoughts. What good is there in flying higgledy-piggledy after someone's will (and someone so living-close to us as our Father) if we know not his heart? And when we know his heart, will we not also know his will? How many of us, rising in the morning and facing the future, think, "What is the heart of God?" rather than "What is God's will?" There is nothing wrong with asking the latter, but without the former it is devoid of that filial adoration incumbent upon God's children. If I seek the latter I am only a servant, only a servant, in the House. If I seek after the former I am child - and I can't tell you what doors open up at that thought through which I see glimpses of the most splendid, the most comfortable, the most living riches of my Father. There is such a sense of safety and belonging in seeking after the heart of God which fretting after his will cannot seem to ever give.

So I put this to you. In this whirlwind hunt of the Hound of Heaven and the hart that panteth after water, this hunt which goes round and round upon itself, be after God's own heart. Never fear. The Hound and the Hart will catch each other in the end.

Touched Mad

Between Chesterton and The Lays of Ancient Rome (which I was poking through again) and Kipling (who is never far from my consciousness), words have been running through my head with more cadence than usual lately. I can't say it is very good cadence, and as my cold has nearly completely stolen my voice away I can't possibly put any of my lines to music, but there is something splendid and shining and stirring, all the same, in a good clear shaft of poetry.

This is largely for Anna, because of the Chesterton which is still running in my blood, and because Anna has Chesterton in her blood too.

* * * * *

There’s something a bit happy, and something a bit sad
In the faces of the men that God touched mad:
For they know Hell’s torment and they know Hell’s fate,
Though they come not to Heaven’s doors too late.
They shan’t look back, but they still bear
The wounds that Earth and Hell dealt them there.
They know Heaven’s laughter, which sounds like tears;
They know all eternity is shorter than years.
They are the mad ones, laughing sorrow’s laughter,
The motley fools and jesters due to rule hereafter.
They build a house of people, and mortar it with blood,
And make an ark of stone-work for a fiery flood.
You can crush them and they’ll laugh at you—break them and they’ll sing.
Burn them into ashes, cinder—they’ll only mount on wing.
They are the everlasting ones, the ones beyond the grave;
The ones Hell killed a God for, the ones God came to save.

England, Which Was Tinder

Thank Heaven! At last the trumpets peal
Before our strength gives way.
For King or for the Commonweal -
No matter which they say,
The first dry rattle of new-drawn steel
Changes the world today!

from Edgehill Fight, Rudyard Kipling

This is for Abigail and Anna and Rachel and Megan and all ye other peeps. It fell into my head the other night like chess-pieces falling out of a chess-box when I was pretending to not be awake. Whether or not it belies my fragile state of mind during those hours only you can tell.

* * * * *

Despite that it was summer the wind was up and chill-sounding in the eaves, and the accustomed place before the fire was as comfortable as ever with the old, familiar mahogany shadows gathered round and the old, familiar black kettle humming a tom-cat’s tune on its hook. There was a peep through the east window of the night sky: a blurred, watered image of brindled grey and peacock-blue, which was all the night sky would be at the height of summer. The blot-whir of a bat flashed across the pane and was gone in an instant; the kettle hiccupped and continued humming on the fire.

Never before had she thought of these things as old and familiar. They were so old and so familiar that she never gave them any thought at all. But all day long something uncanny, like the darting of the bat, like purple thunder, had hung over her. She had sought her familiar pallet before the fire as a child seeks a familiar toy and had waited with formless but painful anxiety until Mew had come in—Mew, who was the life-form of all old, familiar things. But even he had not quite dispelled the feeling of thunder which had hung over her. He had not asked, though he must have seen it in her eyes. With clockwork precision he had carried on, washed, eaten supper, read, and now sat with her by the fire with his pipe in his hand, the flame of it matching the colour of his hair, the brooding of his eyes.

She stirred and whined softly under the hum of the kettle. Without looking round Mew’s hand moved off the arm of the chair and brushed her head in an absentminded gesture of comfort. So—he did feel the thunder in the air. She searched his face, but he was too far gone away inside his own thoughts for her to read his mind. She only knew that he was troubled and that she could not take the trouble from him.

The summer wind gusted strong against the house, and in the lull that followed the back of it there came the soft triple splutter of hooves. The tension was so great that she started—though it could have been only a post-rider, and nothing more, for the old High Road ran close by Mew’s place—but Mew put out his hand more strongly on her head and said,

Sa, sa, Simple. Swef, my heart.”

He pushed back his great dark bog-oak chair and rose, hesitating a moment as the wind cast the sounds of horses wildly about, hesitating until the sounds became sensible amid the wing-beat of noise while the firelight cast its warm mantle about his shoulders. He seemed to catch the direction of the noises at last for, with a little shake of his shoulders—to get the mantle just right, Simple thought—he went away out of the room. The sounds of his boots echoed back to her dully on the hardwoods, out of the room, down the hall, toward the front door.

With a pathetic whine she gathered her legs under her and rose, crouched a little, listening, then stole after him, too unwilling to leave him and his firelight mantle alone with the sense of danger that was lingering overhead. The wood cool underfoot, her fingers groping half-consciously for objects in the dark, she followed the scent of the pipesmoke and the scent that was, inexplicably and indescribably, Mew’s smell alone.

When she reached the hallway there was a confusion of suppressed noises coming toward her from the door. Horses, men on foot, someone calling—and underneath the pipesmoke she could smell the mustiness of thyme. Still whining low, half to comfort herself, half as a sort of confused warning, she inched closer until she could make out Mew’s shoulders dark against the muted grey of the night sky. Then a light flared in the dark beyond, jagged and painful in Simple’s eyes, lashing with it the squeals and turnings of the horses.

“Bartholomew!” a voice cried.

“Richard.” Even with the uncanny light in his hair, making him look like a candle, and the deep night on whose threshold he stood, Mew sounded as level and disinterested as if chancing upon acquaintances in the middle of the night were a common—an everyday sort of thing. “ ‘Tis late, man. What do you out at this ungodly hour?”

There was a splutter of outraged laughter in the yard. Simple, stealing closer, caught a sidewise view of Dick Tumbrel’s face with its finely pointed beard, a little worse for wear and tense with news.

“Have you not heard?” the man asked, taking an abbreviated step forward. “The King has raised his Standard at Nottingham! We’re to him. Do you come also?”

Behind her, hidden in the shadows, but oddly sweet and silver in this atmosphere of tension and torchsmoke and firelight, the old clock chimed the hour.

Mew turned his head as though taking in a greater scene which Simple could not see. “At eleven o’clock in the night?”

“At any hour of the night!” cried Tumbrel.

The flame-haired young man seemed to consider this for a moment very gravely. “Nay, I think not,” he said at last. “The King has not invited me. I should feel awkward going without an invitation.”

This was met with a profound dumbness. Mew’s words seemed to have struck the other men a blow disproportional to their pensive, idle tone. It was several moments before anyone could find his tongue again, and at last someone blurted out,

“Good God, man, you don’t—you can’t—of course you jest!” Then, in a lower, more surly tone, added, “But it is a jest in bad taste.”

But it was Dick Tumbrel, in a voice as surly but by far more dangerous, who answered. “Nay, Bartholomew Grant is not a man to jest. He knows not humour in his grey-clad bones.”

And Mew, as if to spite him, but to spite him gently, said, “God seems fit to have clad the summer night with such a grey. Who am I to scorn such a colour for my own dust?”

“Do you come,” pressed Tumbrel with the voice of a bear at bay, “or do you not?”

And Mew, ever more gently, replied, “I do not.”

Again the profound silence, again the darkness and torchlight lifting the hairs on the back of Simple’s neck. As if from far away across that silence she was hearing Mew’s voice, deep and tuneful as he read aloud.

Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, ‘Whom seek ye?’

At last Dick Tumbrel gave a rattling sigh, as if he had just made up his mind and it had not been easy. “So, you will not come with us. Is it, then, that you do not think of the King as we do?”

Mew looked down at Tumbrel—Mew looked down on everyone from his height. “I am free to think of the King as I choose in my own mind and my own house. The King, not having asked my opinion, will not be otherwise troubled.”

“I think he must needs have leisure to ask you your opinion, Neighbour Grant,” growled Tumbrel. “Best you come with us all the same.”

If Mew said anything more to let the conversation tumble as it were so many pebbles out of his hand, Simple never heard his words. To the left of him, clear in the torchlight, she saw the movement of two men toward Mew, ready with the obvious intent of catching him and taking him away. She never heard Mew, nor Dick Tumbrel, for in a flash she was across the hall, ducking low and springing up under Mew’s left elbow, full into the chest of the foremost stranger. She got half a mouthful of sweaty white collar and half a mouthful of soft, stubbly flesh and to both she clung while the world upended and came crashing down with a jarring impact on the gravel yard. There was a splurge of yelling overhead, a storm of torchlight, and out of the storm blows began raining down on Simple’s head and sides. For some time she hung on, worrying at the stranger with a caterwaul shriek in her throat, until she heard Mew again and realised it was he who was walloping her as a man would whip a dog off another.

So howe! so howe! Get back! Hark you—back into the house! So hoo arere!”

And with one last mighty blow he struck her hard enough to dislodge her grasp and send her pitching wide, shoulder to the gravel, while the torchlight made a riot of the sky and faces above her. Light mazed her vision; her tongue tasted blood on her lip.

“Nay, get back!” It was Mew again, but not, this time, to her.

“What—what is this? She would have had Addison’s throat open in a minute! Addison?”

There was a bleary spluttering of oaths from Addison as he was helped off the ground. Simple’s vision cleared a little and she saw with faint surprise that she was outside the house now and that, whatever great things loomed on the horizon under the colour of twilight grey and purple, a very real war had broken out on Mew’s doorstep. He stood by her, brow weighted down by darkness and fury, and Dick Tumbrel stood across from him, a hand on his mate Addison’s shoulder.

“I’ll put a bullet from my horse-pistol into your malkin’s brain, Grant,” said Tumbrel thickly, “only you come away now quietly and no more harm done.”

And Mew said, as clearly and calmly as Tumbrel was thick with wroth, “The chit is addle-witted and knows not what she does. Friend Addison, jump not a dog’s master if you want not to feel the dog’s teeth.”

“Dog’s teeth—!” choked Addison, and staggered forward with his arms outstretched.

But Tumbrel hastily caught him by the shoulders and shoved him back among the others. “Never you mind!” he growled, and turned back on Mew. The point of his beard quivered like a little dark fighting cock. “Bide you here, Neighbour Grant,” he said warningly, “and mind before dawn that the kingdom hangs in the balance—and just you mind where your allegiance lies!”

“Well I mind it,” Mew replied, level and terrible. “Good night, Neighbour Tumbrel. Mind that you light a lantern so that your horse does not deposit you in a ditch on your way to Nottingham.”

With remarkable dignity Dick Tumbrel reasserted his position on horseback, gathered his fellows like a cloak about his shoulders, and was away back down the long, winding, hawthorn-hedged lane, down into the throat of summer’s night, with his face toward a place called Nottingham. Simple did not wait to see the last horse-tail flicker into the dark, but tried to slink behind Mew’s legs and into the safety of the house. But before she could get by him his hand dropped heavily on her shoulder, stopping her.

She glanced up into the shadow of his face. Where his eyes and mouth should be the night made only dark, featureless holes, but there was a relieving softness in the pressure of his hand and the way his voice sounded to her.

“Good pet… Good God, this wind blows harder and faster than I had reckoned.”

She whined and turned her blunt button nose into the flat of his palm.

The paleness of his face flashed down at her. “It was a fool—fool thing to do, Simple. They might have let us be, else.”

He was angry with her in a formless, exasperated, distracted way, more like now to splutter at her and ignore her than to cuff her and berate her. Just at that moment she was horribly afraid he would go, and found she preferred the cuffing and berating more than lonesomeness. She pushed in close against his side, arms around his middle, and whined singsongly, long and high, her teeth sunk harmlessly but determinedly into the mouse-grey of his doublet.

For a moment his arms rested heavily across her shoulders, one hand pulling the strands of her hair gently through the fingers as one might idly pull at a dog’s ears…then he stirred, saying with gentle gruffness, “Nay, lay off, chit. Lay off. Lay off and come by inside to your bed. The tinder of England will lie another night without going up in flames. We have a little time. But what are these things to you, eh, my mazy-headed chit...?”

Simple did not know. She only knew that she followed after Mew with her hand lost in his, stumbling with a sudden blind weariness after him in the dark toward the fire and her pallet. She knew it as she knew an old, familiar thing—but she knew with a painful, irrational clarity after he had bedded her down and given her one last tousling pat on the head before turning away to his own room, she knew she was going to lose the old, familiar things after this. She did not know how, or why, and it seemed unfair, but as she lay on her pallet watching Mew walking away with the dark slowly closing in about him she knew it—she knew it as surely as she tasted thunder in the air.

She lifted herself up on her pallet to call after him, but already he was gone. With a sigh she lay back down, a dry face nestled in her arms, and stared squint-eyed into the low hot smoulder of the fire.

Whatever this thing was that was England, which was tinder and would go up in flames soon, Simple vowed in the primitive law of her heart to keep Mew safe from the flames. Meanwhile—she shifted longwise and settled into the rough warmth of her blanket—she had one more night of the old, familiar things.

You Got Burn'd

"Wilt thou egg me on so much?" said Juss.
"Ay," said Brandoch Daha, "if thou wilt be assish."

The Worm Ouroboros

Having given it some thought, I am willing to admit that languages not only grow but, like snakes, shed lengthy carcasses of dead skin and leave that skin behind as they move on. And I am willing to admit the futility of trying to go back to a time in the past and live it out, word for word, definition for definition. This will make you absurd, irrelevant, and universally misunderstood. Words move on. Words die. Words are born. But neither do I subscribe to pessimism or fatalism or nihilism. There are some words that ought not be given up. There are words which, though of past ages, give a renewing spice to current ones. There are concepts of reality that have built higher than even Babel could reach, and need, therefore, new terms to define them. If I might be so bold to say, a good writer can bring out of his storehouses words both old and new.

I said once that a writer and a reader is caught up in a sort of unspoken conversation which stretches across all of history (we have but the mute charades of prehistory, and they say nothing), and I had the delight of being privy to such a war for words as made me laugh on several accounts, on accounts not merely that of diction. Upon hearing that some of his poetry had been written off by a critic as containing an abundance of "obscure language" and "imperfect grammar," Robert Burns replied with the following letter.

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

(signed) R.B.

To know half the vocabulary in this little letter (which I'm relieved to say I do), to have half the wit in wielding it (which I'm ashamed to say I do not), would be a thing of game skill and humour. What an art! what an art, which we must not let die.

Hail, Robbie Burns. We salute thee.

Here It Is...

...the moment you've been waiting for! The New Year Writing Contest for The Penslayer and Scribbles and Inkstains has come to a close. We had gobs of beautiful entries and we had difficulty picking only one to take the cake and only one to be second-place.

the ice cream: sky-glory (Yaasha)

What is it?” Aron covered his eyes with both hands. The image of it still burned in his eyelids, shooting pain through his head. It was delicate, like a butterfly’s wings or a column of smoke, yet in the delicacy lay perfect design and order, which indicated a strange resilience. It appeared to be formed of several strands, each with its own quality, each lending its unique radiance to the whole. Like hair, Aron thought.

He dared a glance between his lashes, trembling, and the pain seemed to explode behind his eyes, but he could not look away. In a way, even the pain accentuated its beauty, proving that it was more than a fragile apparition. And its size! It filled his vision, one side licking the dark river that flowed to Aron’s right and the other touching the clear purple mountains in the distance on his left. The entire sky seemed to blaze with its glory and to brush the bottom of the rainclouds with many colors.

“What is it?” Aron asked again, clutching his sister’s hand.

Nura stood, transfixed and breathless for a moment, then whispered reverently, “It is a rainbow.”

The delicious ice cream side to our writing contest was this piece by Yaasha, sporting a breath-taking new look at rainbows that was, for Abigail and me, completely unexpected. Thank you, Yaasha! I will never look at a rainbow quite the same way again.
* * * * *

the cake: time (Alex)

I know who you are.

It took me a while to figure it out, but now I know. When we first met, you came into our house, to see my father. He was drunk again. You stole his wealth, you stole his reputation, and you stole his kindness, and eventually you stole his life. I didn’t cry, because you had stolen my family’s affection for him, too.

You were a strange looking man, very old and yet very young, dressed in garb from about every era and every culture that there has ever been. I counted at least ten pocket watches and thirteen wrist watches, so I could hear a distinct ticking sound whenever I went near you.

You turned to leave, but you said you would be back one day, and that we’d better be careful about what we allow you to take. I asked what your name was.

“In time, you will come to know it,” you said.

Those words puzzled me at first, but now I know your name was hidden in your words all the while. I know who you are.

You are Time. And I’ll be ready for the next time you come to call.

This one took the cake and made off to Wonderland with it. Alex's piece is both fascinating and eerie, and one of the rare occasions Abigail and I have seen second-person employed so poignantly. Chilling, Alex, very chilling, and also beautifully defiant. We enjoyed this one immensely.
* * * * *

Huzzah to you both, girls! Heraldic emails await you both to make sure you get the happy news and remind you of the prizes. And thank you, all who entered. This was a treat for Abigail and myself and we hope to do it again someday. Meanwhile, keep up the scribbling! May your pens never lack for ink nor your imaginations for light.

Words Run Like Greyhounds

"I will speak daggers to her, but use none."

I have had a very busy, rainy day with very little scribbling and gobs of reading. Honestly, between Chesterton and The Golden Warrior and a years-belated reread of The Golden Goblet (which was unexpected but not unpleasant) I don't think I did much else today besides a walk and three cups of tea. Three cups is highly unusual. Don't judge me.

But to keep wayward scribblers like myself in line Katie has graciously taken it into her head to host a monthly snippets bout. "Snippets" sound to me a lot like "whippets," which in turn remind me of greyhounds, so the following is a pack of words which I have written and wouldn't they just love to break lead and get away from me and hunt down your imaginations!

February Snip-Whippets

With an upward rush of his arms, a ring somewhere among his fingers glinting like starfire, his voice suddenly became like thunder, like power, and it stung Margaret horribly. “Welcome the Hollow Moons, my friends! Welcome the Hollow Moons!”

And the room gave back the cry, “God rest the Hollow Moons! God rest the year!”

For being flagrantly unsociable,” mused Rupert, “he can deliver a stirring speech when the occasion requires it.”

...before she could resist against her better judgment, or do anything rash, she was pulled in by Rupert and they were striding out into the middle of the room while the crowd and music whirled like compass-needles around them.

[Mark Roy]turned his head away and looked after the baron, his own face clouded by thoughts, the muffled sound of thunder in the lift of his shoulders and the gold-traced dragons that were depicted there.

In the dark wings of the north end of the ballroom the players sat, tiered on their benches, like a jury of angels. They were all in warm, dark colours and seemed to melt into the shadows, illumined only by their single candles. It was a strange, eerie thing to sit just below them, looking up into their shadows, while it seemed the candles, not their fingers, played the light upon the strings. It was a strange, eerie note they played, a minor key which seemed to conjure the formless, painful longing in her soul and give it a kind of voice. Margaret sat in her seat, her hands gripping the arms of it until her knuckles turned white, and suffered the mournful song to wash out of the high dark down over her.

Rhea,” he purred at last, a panther-smile curling on his face. “Mine own familiar Rhea, who starved me and took all the light out of my world, what does she here? She knows her cunning and beauty. What need has she of a lookinglass?”

It was not like a reaper’s sickle, it was like the sickle-curve of ocean sweeping at her, for her, to overwhelm her and her alone—as if no other soul but hers was meant to soil that inexorable blade. Her eyes fell shut against the impact.

God, take my soul. I dare not die without thee.

Really?” Centurion raised a brow. “The game moves on apace."