It is Spring again along the solar year for the Northern Hemisphere, and here in Florida that means that we still have cold nights but beautiful, sunny, cool days–and these will remain so through April… at least. Yet, around the world springtime behaves in different ways. February in much of the world is frozen. In Ireland, it is lambing season, yet the last snows can still fall in April. In Los Angeles, February is cold–but the deserts are safe to wander through at this time of year. Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire? Frozen solid. And Australia, where live a few friends of mine? The ending of Summer.
In ‘Devils and Dolgens’ we enter the world of three boys, two of which are not sure about their mutual friend… and neither should we be! Surety about anything is always a slippery slope.
‘The Adventures of Rabbit’ follows, an Indian legend retold by returning author Ed Ahern. If you don’t see yourself in this tale somewhere, your possession of a belly button may be questioned.
We are then graced with a visit from the ‘Queen of May.’ Frederick Hilary brings us this fresh commentary on one of our age-old themes. Really worth the read!
Now, the theory of the multiverse is a new one–at least empirically–so you are invited to enjoy the quaint (and quirky) “Aunty Merkel” by British writer Deborah Walker.
A Joyous Spring!
Please enjoy this issue of Beorh Quarterly.
Scath Beorh, Acquisitions
Devils and Dolgens
a story by
The firelight created a cocoon of warmth and safety in the dark meadow. The smoke drifted upwards, but the smell of the pinecones the boys had been throwing on the coals pervaded the area. Gary, Tommy, and Mark sat as close to the fire as possible, because the cool summer night made its light as comforting as its warmth. Mark had been telling ghost stories, and they even scared him. Although Tommy and Gary felt grown up at twelve, somehow Mark was always able to scare them. His voice seemed to get much deeper when he was telling a story and his bright, blue eyes changed as they reflected the light. He had black hair that gave him a sinister look, but it was his voice that caused little prickles of fear.
Mark leaned forward as he came to the end of his story. “The family was found sitting around the kitchen table. Their plates were full of food, but none had been eaten. They were all dead and there wasn’t a mark on them. To this day, no one knows how they died. I think it was dolgens that got ‘em.”
“Jesus!” Tommy said as he looked over his shoulder. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell any more stories. I don’t think I’m going to sleep tonight.”
“Good,” Mark said. “You can keep the fire going. As long as we have a fire, the dolgens can’t snatch us out of our sleeping bags. Dolgens love to find people asleep in the woods without a campfire. They crawl over their mouths and smother them, and then,” he paused for effect, “they eat them.”
Gary reached over as if to shut Mark’s mouth. “Enough already. You are the weirdest guy. Do you read anything but comic books and ghost stories?”
“Oh, I don’t read that stuff at all. See, I have these dreams—sometimes I almost think they really happen. I sold my soul to the Devil in one of them. That was spooky!”
“Jesus!” Tommy liked the word because his mother never let him use it. “I’d hate to have those things going around in my head.”
Gary threw another log on the fire. The pungent odor of burning pine tar filled the air around them. “Sometimes I worry about you, Mark. If you didn’t know so many scary stories and love to camp out, I don’t think I’d hang out with you.”
Tommy scooted closer to the fire, spit into it, and seemed satisfied with the sound of the sizzling on the hot coals. “Devils and dolgens, devils and dolgens! Jesus! I know I’m not going to sleep tonight. It’s bad enough worrying about the war and how maybe the Nazis might invade us. I dream about that a lot. I just wish this war was over and things could be the way they were.”
Mark smiled at Tommy and said, “I could cast a spell so you can sleep—if you want me to, that is.”
“Spell? What do you know about spells? You are definitely weird.”
“It’s not so hard to cast spells.” Mark moved his hands in a circle. “I can show you if you want.”
“No thanks!” Tommy and Gary scooted away from Mark and curled up in their blankets.
In the middle of the night, Tommy woke up to a guttural mumbling and then something that made his hair stand on end—a growl. He went cold and almost wet his pants. Then he realized the sounds came from Mark who, asleep, stared at him with lips drawn back and eyes wide with the fire mirrored in them.
This woke Gary up, and he reached over and pushed Mark. “Quit it! Wake up and quit it!”
Mark shook his head and jerked. “What’s happening? Why’d you guys wake me up?”
“You were asleep. Well, you must have had a nightmare,” Tommy said as pulled his blanket around him. “You were growling and you looked like you were going to bite somebody.”
“Probably just another one of my Devil dreams.” Mark turned away and curled up in his blanket. “I’m going back to sleep. Try not to wake me again.”
“Try not to wake you? Jesus!” Tommy spit into the fire. “You quit growling and stuff and we’ll let you sleep until noon.”
Eventually, they were all fast asleep, but their dreams were troubled.
Several weeks later, after school started, there was an incident in the gym involving all of them. The football coach, Mr. Marone, got mad at Mark because he refused to take a shower. Mark’s hadn’t done anything but sit on the sidelines because he was afraid he would break his glasses, so he said, “I’m not sweaty.”
Coach had a rule—everybody in gym class had to take a shower, and he never gave in. Finally, he got a group of guys to throw Mark into the shower, clothes and all. Tommy and Gary tried to save their friend, but they were shouted down, and Coach made the three of them run twenty laps around the basketball court, “So you’ll be sweaty.” Mark was visibly angered and protested the punishment, but finally ran his laps. Tommy and Gary were not happy either. After finishing their run, they sat around and planned.
“Let’s sneak into the gym and let the air out of all the basketballs,” Tommy said. “Coach will bust a gasket!”
Gary suggested putting ink in the shower heads. “Think about it.” He waved his arms and danced around. “All those naked guys covered in blue ink!”
Mark didn’t want his friends to do anything. “I have my own plan. I’m going to cast a spell on Coach. I’m going to make him wet his pants every time the class bell rings.”
“You can’t do spells,” said Gary. “Spells are for witches and wizards and you’re just a kid. You just say things like that to try to scare us.”
Mark smiled in such a way that Tommy and Gary felt goose bumps. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Coach left school early the next day and no one knew why. Mr. Theron, the chemistry teacher, substituted for him in gym class, but since he didn’t know anything about what they did in gym, it turned into one big recess with no showers afterward.
“Wonder where Coach is?” Gary asked.
“I heard he’s not coming back.” Tommy was always first with the rumors.
“He won’t be coming back. Not to this school or any school where there’s a class bell,” Mark said. “Not unless he wears diapers.”
“Jesus!” Tommy put his hand to his mouth like a girl. “You don’t mean you really put a spell on him?”
The smile that crossed Mark’s face left them wondering.
“Don’t listen to him,” Gary said to Tommy. “He’s just trying to spook you. He can’t do spells and he sure ain’t no wizard… are you, Mark?”
“Let’s just say Coach gets to wet his pants every time the bell rings. Let’s say he found out it’s not a good idea to cross me.” Mark stood up. “Remember, guys. It’s not a good idea to cross me.”
Tommy and Gary waited until he was out of sight.
“Do you suppose he’s telling the truth? Do you suppose Coach really was cursed with peeing at the sound of the bell?” Tommy looked scared.
“Nah,” Gary replied, “I bet there’s a perfectly good explanation.” He didn’t look convinced, however. He pushed Tommy and then punched him in the arm. “Besides, even if he is a wizard, he’s our wizard.”
Two more strange things occurred at school. The first happened when Mrs. Prior told Mark’s study hall that everybody had detention for a week because some of them were too noisy. Mark objected, “It’s not fair! You know it’s not fair. You can’t do this.”
“Oh yes I can, young man. You’ll be in that detention room with the rest of them and, if you keep talking back, you’ll be there longer. Just because your dad owns a store doesn’t mean you’ll get special treatment.”
Mark knew when to shut up, but he complained to Tommy and Gary. They were sympathetic, but relieved they hadn’t been in the study hall themselves.
“What are you going to do, Mark? Are you going to cast a spell on her too?” Gary said this with a smile. “You fixed Coach didn’t you? Fix her too. Maybe have her hair fall out.”
“Jesus Criminy!” (Tommy had expanded his vocabulary). “Mark, you wouldn’t do anything, I mean, couldn’t do anything. Besides, she’s not so bad.”
“You don’t care ‘cause you don’t have detention,” Mark said. “No, if I cast a spell, it wouldn’t be as simple as the one on Coach. Let’s just wait and see. How about we all go hiking in the woods after school? There’s some things I need to find. Special things.”
“What? Lizards, mushrooms, bat wings?” Gary was laughing until Mark gave him one of his penetrating stares. “Okay, sure, we’ll go with you. Right, Tommy?”
“I… I guess. Where we gonna meet?”
“Beecher Wood,” Mark replied. “It’s real dark there and lots of interesting things grow—or live there.
The guys met after school in the parking lot and hiked down to Beecher Wood. Mark took the lead, and they roamed through the woods while he looked for certain weeds and roots.
“It’s starting to get dark,” Tommy said. “I think we should head home.”
“Fraidy cat!” Gary made a gruesome face. “Think the demons’ll get you?”
“I’m not scared, I’m just careful.” Tommy looked around—nervous. “Anybody who knows a wizard like Mark should be careful.”
Mark looked amused. He had gathered a small bag full of weeds and mushrooms, which were “for biology class,” so he said it was time to go home. They all trudged back through the woods, Tommy making sure he wasn’t the last in line. “Are you really some kind of wizard?”
“What do you think? Do you suppose a kid like me could make a deal with the Devil? You think I’d sell my soul, even though I don’t believe in souls? And, if I did, do you suppose I’d still be going to school and sitting in a boring study hall with a dumb teacher like Mrs. Prior?”
After that, they walked home in silence.
A week later, Mrs. Prior had a substitute. No one knew, or would tell, why she wasn’t in school. Like Coach Marone, it was a mystery.
“Maybe it’s a contagious disease,” Mary Johnson said to Gary as they waited for the bus. “Two teachers out sick and nobody knows why. We could all come down with something serious. That’s what my mom thinks.”
“Oh, it’s something serious,” Gary said with a superior tone. “Some of us know what’s wrong with them, and I can’t say why, but I can tell you it’s not a good idea to get on the wrong side of our friend Mark.”
It wasn’t long before rumors started flying around the school. “Mark poisoned them,” or “Mark put dog poop in their food.” Other kids started shunning Mark in the halls and scooting their chairs away from him in the classroom.
Mark confronted Gary after school. “Why did you start this, Gary?” Mark’s face turned bright red. “Mary Johnson said you told her I did all this stuff.”
“Well, didn’t you say you cast a spell on them?”
“That was just a joke! I’m no more a wizard than you are.”
“Well, whatever you say, there’s something strange going on.”
Mark walked away in disgust, not even bothering to say hello to Tommy, who he almost ran into.
“Hey Gary, what’s wrong with Mark?” Tommy asked. “He looks really mad. I wouldn’t want him to get mad at me.”
“Well, he’s mad at me, I guess.”
“Jesus Criminy! I wonder what he’s going to do to you?”
Gary paled. “I don’t believe that garbage. He told me he he’s not a wizard. I believe him—I think.”
Two days later, Gary didn’t come to school. Tommy was beside himself. He wanted to ask Mark if he was responsible, but he was afraid to. He tried to visit Gary, but he wasn’t allowed in the house. “Might be contagious,” Gary’s mother said.
Two weeks passed before Gary came back to school. He found Tommy. “We’ve got to do something,” he said. “I almost died I was so sick. I shouldn’t have made Mark mad, but he didn’t need to take it out on me! I’m going to read up on witches and wizards. We’ve got to do something about all this!”
The next day Gary went to the library and checked out as many books as he could find on witchcraft. The librarian, Mr. Temple, frowned as he saw the kind of books Gary was interested in, but Gary said it was for a paper he was writing. He and Tommy pored over the books. Some of them were just too complicated to understand, but there was one thing that kept coming up—a wizard soon became the pawn of the Devil, and if you were to save his mortal soul, you had to kill him.
“Jesus! Couldn’t we just perform an exorcism or something?” Tommy’s eyes darted from side to side. “We can’t kill him! We’d be murderers. Besides, he’s our friend.”
“We’re not killing him, Tommy. We’re saving his soul.”
They talked and talked. Tommy finally agreed with Gary when he told him he might be next on Mark’s list. “My dad’s got a pistol,” Gary said. “We can get Mark to go with us out in the woods again… and then we’ll shoot him.”
“What if he’s immune to bullets? We’d just make him mad and then, Jesus Criminy we’d be in trouble!”
Gary hadn’t thought about this. He decided to read some more about witchcraft, and discovered that in the old days they tied witches up and threw them in the pond. If they came to the top, they were witches. If they drowned, then they weren’t. Tommy wasn’t sure about this. But it seemed like the only way they could prove Mark wasn’t a witch would be to kill him.
“He’s a witch all right,” said Gary. “If you were as sick as I was, you’d know it had to be a witch who done it to you.”
“How are we going to tie him up?”
“We’ll tell him we’re playing a game. Whoever gets himself loose first wins. You’ll go first, but I won’t tie you up too tight.”
“Well,” said Tommy, “it might work. I guess I could help.”
Gary began the plan by telling Mark it was time for another outing. “This time let’s go out to Beecher Pond. We’ll build a fire and you can tell ghost stories.”
Mark liked the idea. The next evening they all trekked out to the pond. They soon had a roaring campfire.
“The evenings are starting to get kind of cool,” Mark said as he held out his hands to the fire. “Pretty soon it’ll be too cold to do this.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, looking nervously at Gary. “It’s too cold right now to go swimming.”
Gary shook his head and gave Tommy a dirty look. “I know what, let’s play a game. I got some rope in my knapsack, and I know a good game.”
“A rope?” Mark pretended he had a noose around his neck. “Are we going to see who can hang from a tree the longest?”
This was a little too close to the truth, and Gary was spooked. “Nope, we’re… we’re gonna to tie up each person and see how long it takes him to get out of the ropes. Tommy, you can go first.”
Mark and Gary tied Tommy up. Gary pressed the button on his stopwatch. “Go!”
Tommy struggled and struggled. Ten minutes later, he still hadn’t gotten loose.
“Guess you’ll have to stay here all night,” Mark said.
Tommy looked scared, “Jesus! I gotta’ pee! Let me loose!”
After Mark and Gary untied him, Tommy hustled to the bushes. Mark yelled at him to watch out for demons that might grab his thing and pull it off.
“Now it’s your turn,” Gary said as he turned to Mark.
Mark smiled and held out his hands. “I won’t have much trouble beating Tommy’s time.”
Tommy picked up the rope and the two boys looped it around Mark’s arms and hands and then wound it tight around his legs.
“Hey,” Mark said, “At least give me some room to breathe.”
Gary tied the last knot and looked Mark straight in the eye. “You’ve got to tell us something. Are you a wizard? Did you cast a spell on Coach and Mrs. Prior and me? Tell the truth now. Did you sell your soul to the Devil?”
Mark, uneasy now, answered in a sarcastic tone. “Of course I did. I cast spells on everybody. I can even make these ropes disappear.”
His friends looked at the ropes as if they expected them to turn into snakes and crawl off.
“Let’s do it!” Gary said as he pulled Mark down the pier.
“Are you sure?” Tommy twisted his hands and furrowed his brow.
“We’re going to save his soul and get it back from the Devil!” Gary said.
“You guys are crazy! Don’t push me in that water! I’ll drown! You’re crazy!” Mark struggled with the ropes, but he couldn’t break loose and, as he threshed around at the edge of the pond, he fell off the pier and sank out of sight.
“Now, if he doesn’t come up, he’s not a wizard,” Gary said.
“Jesus!” Tommy shook with fright. “What if he does come back up?”
“Then he’s a wizard.”
“He’s gonna be one pissed-off wizard!” Tommy struggled with the logic of this test.
“I can’t see him, can you?” Gary was scared now.
Just then, there was movement in the water. Mark popped to the top. His hands flailed as he struggled to the pier. “Help me! Help!” The rope was loose around him, but he made little progress.
“He got loose!” Gary said.
“I can’t swim!” Mark’s head went under water.
“I gotta help him!” Gary said as he jumped in the water. He pulled his struggling friend to shore.
“What did you nuts think you were doing? You almost killed me!”
“I thought maybe you were a wizard. You know, the spells and all,” Gary said.
“Wizard! I’ll wizard you!” Mark lunged for him, but slipped and fell in the mud. “I thought you were my friends!”
“We just wanted to save your soul.” Gary moved away from Mark.
“You’re crazy! There’s no such thing as a soul!” Mark ran down the path, his shoes making sloshing sounds, his sobs echoing into the empty night.
“I guess we were wrong. I guess we really did do something crazy,” Tommy said as he watched Mark run away.
“Well.” Gary looked out over the pond. “He really did come to the top, didn’t he? Isn’t that what wizards do? I hope he ain’t too mad.”
Phil Richardson is retired from Ohio University and lives in Athens, Ohio where he writes literary and genre fiction. His wife Joyce is a poet and a mystery writer. Two of Phil’s stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Fiction and he has won or placed in numerous writing contests. His publications include over seventy stories in print and online magazines and in 21 anthologies. Phil’s website with links to some published stories is philrichardsonstories.com
The Adventures of Rabbit
a retelling by
of a folk tale
recorded by Charles Leland
in The Algonquin Legends of New England
Of the old times.
Some Indian tribes called him Mahtiguess, the Rabbit, but the Micmac called him Ableegumooch, Master Rabbit, and this part of Rabbit’s tale was told by the Micmacs.
Rabbit lived in hard times in a wigwam with his grandmother, waiting for things to get better. It was a brittle cold winter, with ice on the river and snow on the plain, and Rabbit could not find food.
One day, while running through the forest and leaving deep tracks in the snow he saw a solitary lodge. Inside was Keeoony the Otter. Otter’s wigwam was on the banks of a river, with an ice slide from the door of the lodge to the edge of the river.
Otter welcomed Rabbit into his wigwam, and offered to cook him food. Rabbit was skinny from hunger and quickly said yes.
“Wait here in the warmth of the lodge,” Otter said, “ while I catch supper.”
Otter took down hooks he used to hold the fish he caught. Laying down on his belly at the top of the ice slide, he pushed off and slid down the slide and deep into the water. In a little while he came out of the water with three eels on hooks. They quickly cleaned, cooked, and ate the eels.
My life! thought the Rabbit. This is an easy way to live. Fishers do little work and eat well. I am cleverer than this otter, I must be able to do this.
And Rabbit was so confident that that he asked Otter to come visit and eat with him- adamadusk ketkewop– in three days time.
The next morning Rabbit called to his grandmother. “Come, we will move our wigwam down to the lake.”
And they moved their wigwam down to a bank on the lake. Rabbit poured water to make an ice slide, just as Otter had. When Otter arrived, Rabbit called to his grandmother, “Prepare for dinner!”
“But what am I to cook, grandson?”
“I will see to that.”
Rabbit grabbed a nabogun, a stick for stringing eels, and hopped over to the ice slide.
But Rabbit was not made for sliding, and as soon as he got onto the ice he swerved right, then left, then tumbled tail over head until he fell into the water. And things got worse. Rabbit fur is not Otter fur, and Rabbit began to freeze in the cold water. Rabbit also is perhaps the worst swimmer of the animals. He lost his breath, struggled, and began to sink.
Otter was looking down the bank at these thrashings. “What is wrong with this fellow?” he asked the grandmother.
“He has seen you do this,” said grandmother, “and is trying to do as you do.”
“Ho!” yelled Otter.” Come out of the water and hand me your nabogun.”
Rabbit crawled, shivering, out of the water and up the bank. He gave his nabogun to Otter and limped into his lodge to get warm.
Otter slid down the bank and plunged into the lake. He surfaced again in a few minutes with several fish held on the nabogun. Otter was angry at Rabbit for attempting what he could not perform. He threw the fish down at the entrance to the wigwam and went back to his lodge without tasting a single fish.
Rabbit was embarrassed and disappointed, but not discouraged, for he never gave up. One day in Spring he was wandering in the woods when he came to a wigwam filled with several pretty girls, all wearing red headdresses and looking just like birds. And no wonder, for they were woodpecker sisters.
Rabbit may have been rash and over confident, but he also had good manners. He and the girls talked together so happily that he was invited to dinner, which he immediately accepted, for Rabbit was still very hungry.
One of the red-capped girls took at wooden dish, a woltes, and seemed to run right up a tree. She stopped here and there, tapping now at this spot, now at that, picking out insects called rice, apchel-moal-timpkawal, because the little bugs looked like rice grains. These bugs, for those who like to eat them, are very tasty. The woodpecker sisters quickly boiled the insects and they all sat down to eat.
And Rabbit thought, how easy it is for some people to live.
“Girls,” he said, “come over and eat with me the day after tomorrow.”
When the woodpecker sisters arrived rabbit took the pointed head of an eel spear and tied it to the front of his face. And Rabbit started to climb up a spruce tree. But rabbit paws are not made for climbing and Rabbit did not get very high. He began banging his head against the tree trunk, but Rabbit did not know where the insects were hiding. And Rabbit’s face began to get bruised and bled from the pounding of the eel spear head.
The pretty woodpecker sisters laughed loudly and asked Rabbit’s grandmother what he was doing.
“Ah,” said grandmother,” I suppose he is trying to do what he has seen someone else do. It’s like him.”
One of the woodpecker girls stopped laughing and yelled up at Rabbit, “Come down here and give me your bowl, your woltes.” She grabbed the bowl from rabbit and hopped right up the spruce. Pecking here and there she soon had a bowlful for them to eat.
But it was a long time after that before Rabbit’s face healed and even longer before the tree-tapping sisters quit reminding him of hitting his head against a tree with the tip of an eel spear.
Even after this, Rabbit still thought about living as other animals do and not as a rabbit does. For Rabbit was very strong of will, and once his strong mind was set he would almost have to die before he changed it.
One day, while wandering in the woods, Rabbit came to a bear cave, and Mooin the Bear invited him in.
And Rabbit asked Mooin, “I have heard a story that you are able to live during the Winter by sucking on your own paws. Is this so?”
Mooin did not explain, but only said, “Join us while we eat.”
The bear Mooin took a huge pot and put it over the fire. He filled the pot half full with water. Then he took a knife and cut a little slice from a pad under his foot. Mooin threw the slice into the pot and it boiled and grew into a huge chunk of meat which was served to Rabbit and the bear family. And there was a large piece left over which was given to Rabbit to take back to his lodge.
Truly, thought rabbit, this is a thing I can do. For it is told in wampum beads that whatever a bear can do a rabbit can do better.
Rabbit turned to Mooin the Bear and asked him, ketekewopk, to dine with him the day after tomorrow.
After Bear had arrived, Rabbit said to grandmother, “Noogume Kuesawal wohu, set your pot to boiling.” Rabbit whetted his knife and started slicing at his feet. But Rabbit’s soles are small and thin and he got almost nothing despite all the cutting and pain.
“What is he trying to do?” growled Mooin.
“Ah,” sighed the grandmother, “something he has seen someone else do.”
“Ho! You! Rabbit!” said the bear, “Give me the knife.”
Bear took a small slice from his sole, which did him no harm. He threw the slice into the pot and they all ate. But Rabbit was in considerable pain, and even after the pain went away he was embarrassed to remember trying to feed Mooin.
Rabbit began to understand that he was bad at imitating others, but good at persevering. He quit trying to do as others did and did as he was meant to do. Rabbit studied and gained magic power, m’teoulin. And it was good that he did, for he fell into great trouble with Lusifee, the Wild Cat. But that is a tale told by the Passamaquoddy, for another time.
The Queen of May
a story by
Gerald lived a cloistered life. His house was large enough for multiple families, yet he shared it with no one; the dining room was spacious enough for the gathering of many friends, yet he dined alone. The halls and corridors would have echoed with the footfalls of running children, had he any relatives to bring them, but only the draughts blew through them. It was a great old house which amplified his loneliness.
He was unhappy. Unhappy, yes, but it was not an unhappiness which weighs down on the soul and withers it, or else it did not seem so to him. Rather, it was an opiate bitterness, enlarging his sense of self and giving him a tragic self-importance. To him, one thing alone mattered: that he labour on his writings, and shut himself off from the world outside.
One day there came a knock at his door. Gerald started at this, for visitors were rare indeed, and Mrs Mulvaney had left for the afternoon. Crouched at his desk, pen poised over a sentence, he wondered what he should do. A second knock came, prompting further contemplation. At the third knock he finally rose and made his way to the entrance hall.
When he opened the door, he was taken aback. He was not used to visitors at all, and he was certainly not used to visitors like this one. A woman stood there – hardly a woman, a girl of perhaps sixteen. She wore a long frock embroidered with flowers whose colour was so vivid and texture so fine that they looked real; there were real flowers in her hair, too, and what could only be described, frankly, as straw. She smelt of fresh grass and May blossoms, and before Gerald could open his mouth she spoke. Her eyes were not a maiden’s, he later recalled, despite her youthful look. “I am the Queen of May,” she said, “and I have come to put the old to death, and to breathe upon the new.”
“I’m sorry, it’s not really a good time to…”
Gerald wasn’t given time to finish. The girl had glided past him into the house. He followed the trail of flowers and straw she had left strewn behind her in the hall.
“Why have you come here?” said Gerald, catching up with her in the parlour.
“Because,” she said, “this house is withering under your feet. Look at the carpet. It is old and ash-stained, and the colour has dimmed so that it is nigh impossible to tell what the original pattern was. Let it Spring up again.” And as she said this, something miraculous was already occurring beneath Gerald’s feet. The carpet, which had till then held a dark and indistinct pattern, suddenly became jewelled with little points of colour that shimmered before his eyes. They shimmered, and then grew into lines, and suddenly there was movement of shape and colour in the weave, as if tracing lost lines, and myriad patterns emerged as if at once: fruit, the fronds of plants, birds singing from branches, an explosion of fruitfulness and colour, bursting out so suddenly and completely from the cloth that Gerald thought he would be engulfed in the bloom of a real garden. But then he felt his feet rooted steadily to the ground and his perspective returned to normal; though there was a carpet of vivid and lush garden colours beneath his feet, he was still standing in his parlour with the familiar objects of his cloistered existence all around him.
He stepped around, his feet testing the cloth, speechless. It was magic, surely. The Queen of May, or whatever she really was, had passed on. “Come back,” called Gerald, following in her train. “Explain how you did that. What’s the trick?”
“The trick?” the Queen of May laughed without looking back. “The trick can only be felt. It cannot be explained, or put into mere words. Go look at a Spring meadow and wonder how the new shoots rise from their sleeping places. Life springs from death and Winter’s sleep. The sun is a conspirator, the thaw and an end to frosts pave the way, but there are invisible things, spirits in the earth you do not see, and scarcely understand. Do not ask me more. Come with me, and let us put an end to withering.”
They were in his study. Gerald saw his oak desk sitting idle, the pages all but unmarked, and it pained him. Let the Queen go about her business quickly, so that he may return to his equations. “I’d really rather you didn’t change anything here,” said Gerald. “You see, this is my work station, and I can’t bear anything being changed around. Things can get lost. Important documents. Mrs Mulvaney doesn’t come up here.”
The Queen cast her glance around. “Not the most inspiring of rooms, is it?”
“Well, it’s not really about inspiration. It’s the elimination of distraction that I’ve worked on, you see. Can’t have anything getting in the way. There was a window over there, but I’ve had the bookcase put in front of it, so that I don’t idle away the hours gazing out at the orchard.”
The Queen, he saw with rising dread, was already lifting her arms. “Not the desk!” he pleaded. “Anything but my work papers.”
The Queen, though, had turned towards the cabinet to the side. She spoke inaudible words, pointed her fingers towards the cabinet, and the transformation took place. The cabinet had held prized first editions of Gerald’s most beloved works: books on astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, even alchemy. It was old, deep red in colour, and the glass had become grimy with dust, so that one could barely guess what lay behind it.
Now, instead of a cabinet, Gerald saw before him a tree, a tree with a multitude of branches, branches of budding leaves, and instead of books he saw roosting white birds, doves and pigeons, trilling from between the arch of branches. He nearly fainted. “My books. What’s happened to them?” What indeed had happened to them? He looked again, and saw that just as with the carpet, it was not as he first believed, for the glass was covered with the images of birds, and the wooden frame around patterned with leaves and branches, so that the once stout old cabinet had become vibrant and a delight to the senses. He bent towards his desk, peered down at the papers, and found himself cocking his head to the right at the splash of colour that had invaded the room.
“No more,” Gerald mumbled, running after the Queen. “There really isn’t any need. But what am I saying? This is my house. I forbid you to do anything else.”
“As I’ve already explained, your house is in the diocese of the Queen of May, and so I shall do as I like.”
Gerald held back as she disappeared through the doorway. He swung his desk chair around and sat down, head in his hands. Through the gaps in his fingers he could see the lush green of the leaves on the rug, whose fate had obviously been the same as the cabinet’s. This woman had invaded his house. He would have to do something about it, something to stop her. “How does one contend with a myth?” he told himself. “How does one fight magic? Or go against the Spring?” The latter came into his head unbidden: it was her voice, the same certainty of tone and indifference of feeling, like nature personified. And then his own, much younger voice, just as unbidden, from his student days, when arguing in the Oxford debating society was his weekly sport. “In the clash of opposites there is no winning. It’s like an endless tag team. Winter strikes at Spring, Spring strikes at Winter. Every victory temporary. World without end.”
“If this is a dream, then magic may equally lie at my fingertips,” thought Gerald.
The unbidden voice returned. “Dreams abide by logic, just as waking. Magic exists, but laws cannot be bent. If Spring troubles you, look towards Winter.”
“Look towards Winter,” mumbled Gerald. “Where can I find Winter? Winter personified, of course, for that is the logic of the Queen of May. We are barely into the change of season. The balance is a delicate one. Gales may blow about the house, and frost lie on the panes, just as easily as Spring sunshine. I will go and find Winter, wherever he is hiding. Where else, but in the places where the sun does not penetrate.”
And so Gerald put on his walking boots, and tied his Winter coat about him, and went out of the house, while elsewhere in its endless rooms the Queen of May was going about her work, ruining all that was dark and sober and dust-covered. He went towards the wood first. It was no more than habit, for he went there sometimes in his walks, for the gloom agreed with him. Where might Winter be hiding? In which nooks and corners had Spring not yet stepped with her light yet ruinous tread? Old Jack Frost would be lurking somewhere, or perhaps the North Wind. He would find them, and set them loose in the house, and undo the work of that mistress of the Spring.
With his footsteps he traced the walkways in the wood fruitlessly. No sign of Winter or its ambassadors. He went to the orchard next, and found nothing there either, and thence to the old well near the courthouse, and the brook beside the bathing pool, and not one glimpse of Winter did he see. Time was running short. Vast as the house was, how many rooms yet lay untouched by the Queen of May? Before he found his champion, she would have transformed all, and set to rights what ought not to be righted at all.
No voice came unbidden from his past this time. Think, then, he told himself. Where is the last resting place of Winter, before he enters that final sleep, and Spring triumphs over all. I cannot make the North Wind blow, nor can I hasten the night, so that Jack Frost presses his fingers against the window pane. Spring sleeps in the earth, the seeds of her flowers sleep in the lowliest places, hidden from wind and weather. That’s it! Higher ground. The old stony hills. The Steeple. Where the air is raw and the winds blow hardest, that’s where Jack Frost can be found.
So Gerald struck the path to the nearest of the Beacons, and before long he was out of breath but able to look down on the low valley where his house lay, and with grim determination he vowed that he would soon return with his ally, and put an end to the Queen of May’s works once and for all. He picked amongst the stony hills, and caught himself in a shout more than once, a cry of “Winter! Winter! Come to me!” But no white, frost-garmented figure came. So he made at last for the peak of the highest hill, known locally as the Steeple, and when he got there he felt the cold Northern wind sting his face, and he stooped amongst the stones, and began to root in all the shadows, with nothing to show for his work.
“What do you look for?” said the voice at his back.
Gerald stiffened. He did not answer. The voice repeated the question, and if there was any doubt the first time he was now sure: here was the same certainty of tone and indifference of feeling that he’d heard in the Queen of May’s voice, only this voice was colder, and gustier; the words seeming to cling to the air and freeze it.
“You cannot win, but nor can she,” said the voice, before he could even explain. “Things hang in the balance for an hour, a day, a month or two, but the turning always happens, and sorrow turns to defeat, and defeat to awakening hope, and hope to victory. The great thaw and freeze are in endless dance together. Turn back, and let her do her work.”
“Not yet,” said Gerald. “Not yet. And besides, this time she has come where I have not bidden her. My house is my own. Let Spring rule the gardens, and the woods, and all the verdant glades to her heart’s content, but leave me my own.”
“Very well,” said the voice. “Turn and face me. Show me to her, and let us claim a last victory before the next turning.”
Gerald rose, and turned about him, and saw the Winter King, Jack Frost himself, with a beard of long icicles, and eyes that were like two cold emeralds, smiling back at him. “Quick, quick, let’s do the work. Lead me to the Queen of May,” he said, and went tumbling down the hill like a snowball, and before Gerald could take more than a few steps he had blown into the house and was gone from sight. Gerald, panting, gave pursuit, until he was at the door to his house; there was an eerie silence within, and with a grim step he went inside.
He passed from room to room, looking for the Winter King or the Queen of May, but saw only the signs of their passing. It was if they were locked in battle, and each room bore the marks of their victories. In some rooms Spring had lightened everything, as it had been when the Queen of May drove Gerald from the house; the scent of flowers, brightness, dust and cobwebs brushed away. In others there was the indelible touch of Winter: frost covered tapestries, lingering cold, ice upon the window panes, and the stale smell of leaves having laid long in the earth. Nowhere could he find either Winter King or Queen of May, though, and it was hard to tell who was winning, for through seeming countless rooms, and through some Gerald had never set foot in before, there was no more than a chequered history of their battle – Winter gave way to Spring, and Spring to Winter, so much that Gerald found himself disorientated.
Gerald came to a stop in one of the upstairs bedrooms. He was quite faint, and felt run off his feet. Before he could catch his breath he heard a voice at his rear. “It seems I cannot win, and neither can she.”
Gerald turned to face Jack Frost. The two green icicles that were his eyes glinted fiercely, and his mouth was set and determined. “Come,” she tells me. “I will dance with you on the lawns. Let us forget our quarrel.” She knows this must be, for we both work towards the same end, ultimately. What makes you want to escape utterly the cycles of birth and death?”
“I don’t want to escape anything,” Gerald said. “I want her out of the house. And you also, if you can do no more than bring frost and ice to one room and not the next. Can you not undo what she has done?”
“I have done so. But yet she turns things back again. She will not yield, and I will not yield, and everything is unsettled.”
“How can a man put a stop to the Spring?”
“Thanks. I’m thinking, actually. I thought Winter the answer also, yet you have done little good.”
“If that is all the gratitude you offer, I shall return to my hiding place amongst the crags.”
“What about the North Wind?”
“He is my cousin. He will do no better than I.”
“Well, I am convinced there is an answer to this. If Winter cannot banish Spring for any conceivable length of time in this house, if the great North Wind cannot blow her straw hair away, I will find another way. If Nature cannot turn against herself, what if man sets himself against Nature?”
Jack Frost’s eyes were gleaming suspiciously. He seemed ready to dart away, yet he lingered.
Beads of sweat began to trickle from Gerald’s forehead. “The answer! I have it,” he said.
“What gives power over the turning seasons? What gives power over death?”
“Magic. Power. The cabinet! The logic of the dream dictates that I use whatever means suit the myth. There is a book in the cabinet, no more than a curiosity I believed, which may do the trick.”
“But you do not believe in such things. And besides, if it is a dream, why do you trouble yourself over it?”
“Because, dream or not, it rules my work. I will rather have done with it, and if I cannot make myself wake, I will triumph in line with its dream logic.”
In the cabinet he found the book he was looking for. The spell was called “No Time,” and would freeze space and the inhabitant within so that the season could not change anything of its existence. It would turn out the Queen of May and lock all within a perpetual solitude beyond the struggle of generations. Gerald took the book and laid it open over his papers on the great oak desk. Jack Frost peered over his shoulder. “I thought you were leaving?” Gerald said.
“I will stay for a while, until the spell is done.”
A dove flew past the desk. Gerald realised that the doves on the cabinet had come alive.
“Ah, the Queen of May mocks you,” said Jack, and blew an icy blast that killed the bird instantly.
“You will not stop me?” Gerald asked as he thumbed the pages.
“Why should I? It is not Nature entire that will be stopped. It is just your tiny sphere. And besides, I would like to see the Queen of May bested at last.”
There, at last, was the spell. Gerald rehearsed the words in his mind. It only remained to speak them.
The Queen of May had entered the room. Gerald turned, and Jack Frost at his side turned with him, looking equally perturbed as he.
“Do you desire death?” the Queen of May said.
“No, life. I will stop time from flowing. I want neither Winter nor Spring.”
The Queen of May smiled. “So you will place yourself, and all in this house, beyond Winter and Spring.”
“That is what I will do.”
“So then, you will not love? And neither will you fear loss?”
“I will be beyond them all,” said Gerald. “I will have only my books to feed on. No more will the trifling world darken my path, or pound upon my door. Goodbye, then, Spring, and you too, Jack Frost. Be gone from this house. Fly out of here, whether through window crack or chimney flue, go back to nature. For nothing of nature is here.”
He saw them poised before him as he opened his mouth. He spoke the words. The next instant they were gone, and he neither knew nor cared whether the spell had banished them or whether they had fled from its power. Staring down at the oak desk, he saw that all the papers were untouched and unruffled; that the cabinet had returned to its dull coat of grime, with no trace of the carvings. All the colour and the images of nature the Queen of May had introduced were gone; so too was the filament of ice that had covered everything in the rooms where Jack Frost had scored a victory.
Gerald sat down at his desk. He wrote, and picked out a book, and took it down from his shelf, and delved into its secrets, and when as an afterthought he looked towards the corner of window visible behind the cabinet he saw only an indistinct grey blur, an abstraction of colours and shapes, giving no hint of the changing of seasons. Days went by, and weeks and months, and when from time to time, in the hour of the weakening of his thoughts, Gerald looked up towards the little space of window, he learned to read the passing seasons from the vague impressions of colour there. The realisation pricked him, when he saw, for instance, that Winter had bound the land in snow, but no sooner had the thought entered his mind than he lowered his head to the words of his book, or focused on his pen, and the memory was gone again.
There was a indeterminate longing, he decided, that came from these glimpses of change through the glass, so he gave the cabinet a final shove until there was no light from the window to enter; nor in the rest of the house did the windows let in any shape or impression now but light; he wondered why this could be, for dust did not fall upon the rooms now that time within the shell had been stopped. But it was better, for he needed no reminder of what was beyond his own domain.
Of course, there were no visitors of any kind. The housekeeper never came. There were no accidental callers, and no trifles to interrupt the work itself. Gerald scratched away on the paper, and as he did so he looked at his hands, and wondered if they looked old, if the lines that now existed had been there before the spell had been cast. Time does not exist here, he told himself. I cannot grow old, for I have sealed this house against time and the withering of generations.
His life went on thus, for how long he did not know, for there were no markers, nothing to keep a record of time passing.
And then one day, there was a knock at the door. There are no accidental callers, Gerald told himself. How can this be? There was a second knock, as Gerald’s pen quivered over the paper. And a third, and only then did he rise and make his way to the entrance hall. A memory came back to him, a memory of how, long ago – how long there was no telling – the Queen of May had come to his door to bring Spring, unwanted Spring, into his guarded rooms. He felt a pang somewhere deep within, a stirring amidst the numbness.
Was he going mad? Did he desire that the Queen come back? All this time, he had wanted to be left alone. Had there really been something lovely, after all, in the colour she had brought to his shabby carpets, to the disorder she brought to his ordered neglect?
He held his breath and opened the door. There was a woman there. It was the Queen of May, surely. Had she had come back to ask if he wanted a second chance, if he wanted to spruce up his rooms? Even Jack Frost, he decided, would be welcome. There on the threshold of the door, Gerald felt the turning about in his feelings. Was it so bad, after all, to let in a little fresh air, a little light, a little bit of nature, now and again? It need not mean giving up the work, only staggering it.
He looked at the figure of the woman, back turned to him, dressed in a long shawl of black.
“Do you want to come in?”
The woman took time in answering. All the time she did not face him, but then said,
“Come out, Gerald.”
“Why did you knock?”
“I did not.”
“Are you the Queen of May?”
“She is a conspirator of mine.”
“What about Jack Frost?”
“He, also, works towards the same end.”
She reached out a hand from her shawl and touched him, and feeling that touch he realised who had come for him.
She was leading him across the fields. He let her press his hand tightly, and walked behind her willingly enough, and the fields they passed through were Winter turning to Spring.
Frederick Hilary, a writer of mythic fiction and fantasy, has been published in Cabinet des Fees, New Fairy Tales, and the Mythic Circle. His website can be found at http://frederickhilary.weebly.com/
a story by
An English church. An August wedding.
Aunty Merkel sits at the front of the church, staring at the happy couple. She’s wearing her wedding suit, a three-buttoned crotched jacket over a matching dress. The light from the stained glass windows reflects off her wing-tipped, milk-bottle glasses.
Two widows, Edith and her sister, Moira, sit, whispering to each other, passing comment on the rest of the congregation. They have chosen a respectable position in the middle of the rows of pews: close enough to show that they are family, far enough to show that they are not pushing themselves forward.
“Is that Aunty Merkel?” says Moira. “My word, yes, it is.”
“She must be getting on a bit,” says Edith. “I remember her being around when I was just a kiddie.”
“She attends every family wedding,” say Moira. “She must love weddings.”
“She can’t love them that much; she’s an old maid,” says Edith.
“What’s that in her bag? It looks like a rat.” Moira leans forward to observe the strange creature peeping out from Aunty Merkel’s handbag.
“That’s Mr Tegmark,” says Edith. “Aunty Merkel’s hairless cat. She was always rather eccentric.”
“It’s an odd looking creature,” says Moira. When she catches the cat’s eye, it disappears into the depths of Aunty Merkel’s bag. “That’s a cat that doesn’t like to be looked at,” says Moira with a sniff.
The bride’s matron of honour walks to the front of the church. She grips the sides of the eagle lectern. Her voice trembles as she speaks.
“Nerves,” says Edith.
The words of the matron of honour flow over the sisters:
“Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
“Ruth is such a lovely book,” murmurs Moira.
Edith nods, lost in the past. They had read from the Book of Ruth at her own marriage. Such a happy marriage. She misses her Bert so much…. She seems to remember the glint of reflected light at her ceremony. “She never comes to the reception,” she says.
“She never gave me a present, either,” whispers Edith, running her finger along the neckline of her dress, which has been bought especially for this wedding and which is a little too tight.
The sounds of the organ fills the church: All Things Bright and Beautiful. It’s a well chosen hymn. The congregation know this one and they join in with gusto.
Then Cousin Mitch stands up to make the final reading.
Edith nudges her sister, “The nerve of him, bringing his fancy piece to a family wedding,” she says.
Moira raises an eyebrow in agreement, “He says she’s trying to get a divorce.”
“Divorce? I don’t approve of divorce,” says Edith.
Cousin Mitch stands at the lectern and reads aloud:
“Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offense. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and endurance. In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.”
The sisters have forgotten Aunty Merkel. Thoughts slide around Aunty Merkel; it’s better that way.
Aunty Merkel never brings a present, she brings something better. She’s staring at the happy couple and she’s shifting through their futures, unravelling the ball of tangled string to find the thread of their happy marriage.
Chaotic inflation means that multiverse is always stretching, like a loaf of bread, forever baking in the oven of eternity. Aunty Merkel likes wedding; she likes this family; she likes this bubble universe that stopped expanding a while ago, and sits static in the bread. When this bubble formed in a spasm of spontaneous symmetry it enclosed linear time. You can keep the other 10^10^10^7 bubbles with their diverse physical constraints. Aunty Merkel likes linearity; she likes ceremony; she likes repetition.
The couple make their vows.
A successful marriage is difficult, but in this bubbleverse there are plenty of worlds to choose from, there’s room for happiness. Aunty Merkel searchers for the dopplegangers of the happy couple; through the parallels and possibilities; through the hubble volumes; discarding the myriad worlds of sadness, disappointment, divorce; always following one thread: there are three things that last forever . . . the greatest of them all is love.
When the couple finish their vows and kiss, Aunty Merkel gives the couple their gift. Moira was right: Aunty Merkel is a romantic. And, although, she never brings a present; she always gives the couple their future.
The wedding is over and the congregation wait outside the church while the couple sign the register.
Edith rummages in her handbag for a box of confetti.
“Where’s Aunty Merkel?” asks Moira.
“She must have slipped away.”
“Why, Edith you’re crying.”
Edith wipes away the tear, “I had such a happy marriage, Moira.”
Moira grips her sister’s hand so tightly that her knuckles show white through the skin, “I know, my love. We both did. We were both blessed.”
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives. Her stories have appeared in Nature’s Futures, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction and The Year’s Best SF 18. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog: deborahwalkersbibliography.blogspot.com