Steampunk fiction, reviews and interviews

Posts tagged “women

Soup Of The Day: With Author Jack Wolf

 

Hello! Mrs Albert Baker here, otherwise known as The Last Witch Of Pendle. Obviously there is no Pendle any more, since The Chronic Agronauts utterly destroyed it with treacle and sprats, but I’ve set myself up quite nicely here in Lancaster, running this little soup kitchen for the street urchins. There certainly are a lot of them and I’m always looking for helping hands to cook up and serve something delicious!

 

Helping me this morning is Jack Wolf – author of The Tale Of Raw Head And Bloody Bones, which Max and Collin reviewed a short time ago with their Morning Cuppa.

Good morning to you Jack! Thank you so much for coming to help me in my soup kitchen today, may I take your coat and hat? It is certainly very frosty out there today but the fire here in the bakery is lovely and warm.  How was your journey here from your own dimension?

Not too bad – the skies were fairly clear and the traffic was ok.

I’m very glad to hear that! This cold snap seems to have the Skyway Men clinging to their fires which is a mercy! And have you brought some soup with you today to share with the orphans?

I make something called Bungitin Vegan soup, which is basically a load of chopped veg – 1 onions, 2 carrots, 1 tin’s worth of tomatoes, 1 pepper, half to a whole tin’s worth of chick peas and/or other legumes, and anything else I can find in the kitchen fridge – 1-2 courgettes are good. Add at least one clove of garlic or a teaspoon of garlic paste – this is really important – and a mix of herbs and spices to taste. The italian herbs are good for this, so oregano, basil and sometimes a little black pepper. I don’t usually add salt, but you can, if you want. To cook, brown the onions and begin to soften the carrots by stir-frying in vegetable or sunflower oil for about 4-5 mins, then add everything else and about 3/4 pint of vegetable stock, and let it all simmer until everything is soft and it tastes really rich. Don’t let it burn or get too dense, as this can make the flavour too strong – you have to keep tasting it.

 

Oh vegan soup recipes are always here, what with the dairy rationing and such, thankyou very much! Now while that is simmering away nicely, why don’t you have a seat here by the fire and tell us about your book The Tale Of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, and its main character Tristan Hart? I see you have brought a copy with you to show the orphans..

full cover rawhead.jpg

 

 

The cover art is stunning! I confess to very much enjoying the book myself, not least because of the cunning use of magic, folk lore and the world of faerie to support the narrative – tell me, have you always had an interest in the relationship between our own everyday ‘stories,’ and the magical and mythological frameworks we use to make sense of our ‘real world’ experiences?

I’ve been drawn to faerie tales, and faeries in general, for a long time. I’m also fascinated by human psychology, and the idea that humans create our own conceptual worlds out of the stories – and I use that word extremely broadly – that we tell ourselves. To an extent, the ‘real world’ of our experience is something we invent – a story we tell ourselves every moment of every day.

 

And the story of Raw Head, that is a real British folk tale isn’t it?

 

Yes and no. It’s a recorded folk belief, but I haven’t found any complete tales concerning it – with a beginning middle and end, and so on. It’s likely that the original RH&BB is more a general bogeyman than a character, in the way that, say, the Wolf in the Three Little Pigs is a character. I think he was a personification of the threat of drowning in a culture where only a tiny minority of people knew how to swim, and nobody knew how to perform cpr on a drowning victim. The idea was, I think, that the fear of RH&BB would keep the kids away from the waterways in a way that a simple explanation of the danger would not. References to the figure seem to peter out in the UK after the 18thC, so I guess superstitions moved on.

But oddly enough, in the US the image seems to have persisted, and mutated – there’s a legend in the Ozarks of RH&BB where a creature by that name appears as a monstrous pig. It may be co-incidental, of course. But I drew on this alternate image a little bit as well in the novel; Tristan’s dread of Joseph Cox becomes focused on the fact that Cox works as a pig-keeper.

 

Ah yes! I didn’t recognise that wonderful little twist but that certainly makes sense!  I had also thought it reminded me of the La Lorona mythos and more localised ‘Maggie O Th’Well’ tales. Tell me, what particularly drew you to use that tale as the focal point for Tristan’s story?

 

I’m fascinated by bogeymen, and the idea that one of the tools we use to keep ourselves safe is actually terror. But the name “RH&BB” is also a wonderful metaphor for what a human being is – mind and body brought together in this messy, contradictory way – and trying to make sense of that conundrum is Tristan’s most prevailing obsession.

Raw Head is by no means the only myth you reference in the book, what other prominent faerie figures feature in the narrative?

Well, I also draw heavily on the idea of the Glanconer – the Irish Faerie seducer – or as we might now acknowledge, rapist. He’s the dark Faerie who lies at the bottom of the myth of the Elf Knight, or as I call him in the book, the Goblin Knight. In numerous folk songs such as The Outlandish Knight and Steeleye Span’s The Elf Knight (which was the first place I encountered him) he is a seducer and murderer of young women who lures them to their doom sometimes by drowning, like RH&BB, or more simply by stabbing or strangling them. But of course as a Faerie Knight he’s also part of the court of the Faerie Queen, so she had to come into the book as well – and the image I’ve used to represent her is that of the shapeshifting barn owl. I’ve called her Viviane, of course, which is a nod to the Arthurian tradition. 

Of course, and very nicely done indeed! Now, in some modern / mythpunk re-workings, the world these tales and archetypes belong to is something that is a step removed from the protagonist’s reality but in your book the world of faerie doesn’t just run alongside Tristan’s human world does it?

Well, I don’t see the worlds as being separate in the way that a lot of modern fantasy does. I’m much more drawn to the Alan Garner or Susan Cooper school of world building in which the two realms are in constant communication with each other. It’s much closer to the way I experience the world, as well.

Well, I for one can certainly identify with that, Dear! I very much liked the way that, by giving each of the main characters both a human identity and, simultaneously, a faerie-self, you seemed to re-imagine (or perhaps ‘release’) some of those ancient beings in a way that made encountering them a very fresh, real and emotive experience.

Do you think that it is important to keep exploring these tales and releasing these characters into the collective consciousness?

 

Yes. I think it’s vital, actually. In the last couple of hundred years, we have built an  industrial society that demands that we deliberately reject older, deeper ways of thinking, and more intuitive ways of experiencing ourselves and the world around us, in order to be considered full, ‘rational’ individuals. It’s a form of madness, I think – cutting off a very ancient, nourishing, and protective part of the psyche. We need to find stories that allow us to reconnect with who we really are as a species. I think faerie stories do have the capacity to do this.

 

I certainly think you are right on that point!

The book is set at an important liminal moment in British history – revolutions in the worlds of medical science and industrial technology are bringing a ‘great awakening’ of so called rational thought, but at that same time, aspects of the collective consciousness seem still to be slumbering in the ‘dream world’ of spiritual / magical understanding and superstition. Did you deliberately choose this time period as one that would reflect the turmoil within Tristan and some of the other key characters?

 

Absolutely. The period stands exactly on the cusp of the modern world – and Tristan, in particular, is a character who represents – even embodies – the confusing contradictions inherent in that historical moment. 

 

The character Katherine Montague uses the story of Raw Head And Bloody Bones to communicate and cope with her traumatic life experiences and Tristan uses it to understand and make sense of his own fragmented reality… do you think that, to some degree, we are all prone to using the language of faerie / magic to feel secure and form an understanding of our often confusing or frightening world?

 

I think there is a human tendency to perceive the world through stories – and as I said above, I think that, right now, we need better ones than we currently have. It is a form of magical thinking, in a way – constructing one’s own reality through images, words and ideas. But we don’t all draw on the language of faerie to do this: we all construct our own stories out of whatever conceptual material we have to hand. In Katherine’s case, this happens to be the language of faerie tales: the abused girl, the wicked mother, the stolen child, etc are all common tropes in the folk-awareness of her time. A modern character in her situation would most probably use different stories to try to make some sense out of the dreadful things that have happened to her, and around her. But a modern character would hopefully have more psychological support… Katherine literally can’t speak about what she has gone through unless she displaces it onto a faerie tale – which both enacts and subverts another faerie trope, the magical silence. For her, magical thinking really is a survival mechanism.

For Tristan the situation’s slightly different, because the whole thing goes so much farther – for him, the worlds of faerie, story and rationality collide in a way that is quite traumatic in itself. He may be using the story, but there is also a sense in which he is also being used – and abused – by it. 

 

While this ‘magical toolkit’ for understanding the world may be useful to the individual utilising it, it can lead to fear, suspicion and ultimately persecution of individuals who are seen as liminal themselves – the ‘outsiders’ if you will, whose lifestyle or beliefs set them apart as ‘abnormal’ can’t it?

 

We still don’t live in a particularly tolerant society – even though in many ways it is, of course, much more accepting than it was in Tristan’s time. But it’s true that standing out from the crowd in ways that the crowd don’t understand, or even fear can bring about terrible persecution – I’m thinking of Sophie Lancaster’s murder here, but there are other examples.

When it comes to holding a magical or otherwise ‘fringe’ understanding of the world in some way, I have found that intolerance has tended to manifest as ridicule, rather than fear or violence. I am a panpsychist, for example (a highly unusual position here, but actually one that was most likely the norm throughout most of human pre-history, and which is still common in certain non-westernised societies), and most educated Westerners simply cannot grasp the principles behind it. So they mischaracterise and then dismiss it. The author Emma Restall Orr went through exactly this experience years ago on BBC Radio 4 with Michael Gove. She responded by writing The Wakeful World, which is a fairly decent introduction to the concept, I think. 

 

Viviane, for example, is a character whose ‘otherness’ allows Tristan to see her as quite unreal and therefore excuse and ‘explain’ his misconduct towards her using the framework of faerie mythology. This use of faerie / magical lore against women (and often, as you highlight marvellously in the book, against Rromani women) is a very real phenomenon isn’t it?

 

It was very much a problem in the 18thC, where it did become, in addition to other things, a cloak for racism against the Romani (not that the concepts of racism, or even sexism, existed then). It’s less obvious now, and here, of course – that’s thanks to the Enlightenment convincing the populace that magic is not real – but it still endures verbally in slurs – “Witch” etc – and in cultural assumptions about the overwhelming sexual allure of women’s bodies. “She put a spell on me, your honour” isn’t really that far from “she was wearing a short skirt,” in my estimation. Both rely on the belief that a female body – a woman in a body – somehow exudes some sort of mystical aura that overcomes a man’s ability to control himself, and provides him with the excuse to, as you say, explain away his misconduct.

 

But Tristan isn’t deliberately demonising Viviane in order to take advantage of her, is he? He is genuinely grasping at the threads of, what for him is, a confusing multilayered reality and this manifests to those around him as a form of madness – demonising him, in turn.

 

Yes, Tristan is completely oblivious to the cultural programming that’s going on beneath the surface; and he’s certainly not demonising Viviane on purpose. As far as he becomes concerned, she is wholly the Faerie woman of his dreams and nightmares – if she ever had a real, human self, he can’t acknowledge that.

 

Again, the demonization of those ‘outsiders’ who come to be labelled ‘mad’ is something that has always been a frighteningly real occurrence hasn’t it?

 

Yes, it has – and it is still going on today. When I was writing Tristan I was very conscious of the stereotyping that leads to people with severe schizophrenia, or similar disorders, becoming objects of fear. People have been taught to expect the mad to behave like monsters. It’s dehumanising – demonising. if you like. it’s also statistically untrue.

 

Perhaps especially unsettling is the fact that what is termed ‘madness’ to one particular culture or at one point in history, can later come to be understood as a natural phenomenon  – the hormonal surges of menstruating or pregnant women, for example, and those whose sexuality is anything other than heterosexual…

 

Absolutely – the boundaries of what is considered ‘sanity’ are shifting all the time. I really do believe that in a couple of hundred years – assuming any humans are still left by then – a lot of the beliefs and habits we hold to now will be seen as dangerously crazy. I don’t, of course, know which ones these will be. I have my hopes, but I don’t see history as  an inevitable march of “progress”, either technologically or culturally, so it may be that some very dark definitions of sanity/insanity will come to dominate. Hopefully we won’t go back to a time when women were locked up for being disobedient, but it could happen.

 

 

I suppose it all comes down to who has the cultural upper hand at the end of the day? Here in Ire, for example, a person is considered dangerous and ‘mad’ if they crave a cup of tea or a slice of cake!

 

Now, you see, I think anyone who doesn’t drink tea or like cake must be completely crazy.

 

Power is certainly a theme that you explore rigorously in the book isn’t it? – The power we may have over the people, animals and natural world around us, the power others may have over us and that which we have over ourselves, our actions and our perceptions…

 

Yes, it’s one of the major themes of the novel. It’s connected with the idea of disconnection and displacement – that the less integrated we are as beings with each other and the natural world, the more our relationships become aligned along power lines: power over, rather than power with. Katherine’s and Tristan’s relationship is really an example of mutual power in flux, rather than power over, on either side, although it may not look like that superficially. The dynamic between them is nothing like, for instance, Jane and Barnaby’s marriage, or the sibling relationship between Tristan’s father and his sister.

 

The power that women have over their own bodies is something that you explore in a number of ways through the different female characters in the story, is this something you feel strongly about?

 

I’m very passionate, actually, about the right of a woman to inhabit and control her own body. It is still a shocking truth of our society that women aren’t always accorded physical autonomy – look at the abortion debate, for example.

 

Looking at the #metoo phenomenon in your own dimension recently, it seems as though we are still very much in need of stories which explore this issue?

 

Very much so. We need, as a culture, to reclaim and then rewrite the ballad of the Elf Knight. I think we actually are trying to do something like that, in this historical moment, at least. I was delighted to read that in the latest production of Carmen, in Italy, Carmen shoots Don Jose, not the other way round – and there’s also that new prize for Crime Fiction that doesn’t focus on dead female bodies. There are other stories that can be told. When I started writing RH&BB, several of my early readers imagined Tristan was going to kill Katherine. Er, hardly! But that tells me how deeply embedded some of these unhealthy cultural assumptions about what love is, and what women can and should expect from men who love them, actually are. I was writing against those expectations then, and I will continue to write against them.

 

 

Such important subjects but oh my goodness! I do ramble on don’t I? I must apologise, the kettle has long been singing at us and I haven’t offered you a cup of tea! What is your poison, dear, and how do you take it?

 

Builders’, soya milk, no sugar. Thanks!

 

Here you are. Now then, moving away from The Tale Of Raw Head And Bloody Bones for a moment, what can you tell me about your own involvement in the world of faerie and the enigmatic character of Lord Crow?

 

That’s an interesting question. Of course, being bound by the laws of Faerie, I can’t tell you very much! But I suppose in one way Lord Crow is an idea; in another he’s a being-in-himself. I want to explore the possibility of writing from the point of view of the non-human, and he is my voice and my persona when I do that. I guess there are similarities here with the faerie co-walker, who is a figure I’ve come across occasionally in various modern “guide to faerie” books – though to be honest, I don’t tend to read those sorts of books. The older stories speak to me much more clearly – and also, there’s a tendancy in more modern writings to try to group faeries into species, or even races – which is a hangover from the Victorian obsession with scientific classification. The faeries I know – so to speak – would wet themselves at the thought that any human being should be able to classify them into any sorts of types – especially along such spurious lines as ‘light’ and ‘dark’. They would also probably explode at the notion that they should show any real interest in helping human beings. Faeries are wild. Humans, on the whole, are not. Faerie, as I understand it – in a modern sense, moving away from some of the ways it has been perceived historically as a concept, place, or whatever – has its essence in the flow of energy through complex systems – it can’t be fixed into any stable form. The best way I have found to get to know it is to get to know the natural world, and really fall in love with that – truly, madly, deeply, without reservation, fear, or any desire for power-over it.

I think Lord Crow is quite unlike me, personality wise, though other people disagree. He’s wilder, darker, cleverer, less forgiving, and much less patient. Given the current state of our relationship to the natural world, I don’t find this in any way surprising.

 

‘Re-wilding’ is an important concept that is, happily, growing in popularity as regards our physical relationship with the land isn’t it?

 

Yes; it’s a wonderful development, but it has a long way to go. I’m hoping that it represents the beginning of a tectonic shift in the terms of that relationship towards integration and respect and away from exploitation and power-over. It’s great that people here are slowly becoming accepting of the idea that we should live alongside beavers and – to an extent – wild boar, but I also want to see lynx in every suitable habitat across the UK, and I think some research should be done into reintroducing the wolf in Scotland, to balance the red deer population and give the Caledonian forest regrowth a fighting chance. (And besides: wolves! Wow!) Just as importantly, I want to see a new ‘wilding’ of cities. Bath, where I live, is an ideal habitat for peregrine falcons, because of the many urban pigeons. It’s also a breeding site for herring gulls, which are now in serious decline. People love the peregrines and loathe the gulls. I want to see the gulls welcomed alongside the more charismatic falcons. Urban foxes, too. For one thing, more foxes can mean fewer urban rats; and it’s not so hard for the city to provide fox and gull-proof bins. For another, there’s a moral case, I think, for opening up cities to creatures that can safely live alongside us.

Humans are a bloody invasive species. They need to learn to share.

That’s Lord Crow, now, interrupting. I knew once he heard the conversation he’d be unable to resist joining in with it.

And a very warm welcome to you Sir!

Space-invaders! Manspreaders!

All right, Crow.

 

Do you think that it also concerns our spiritual or psychological relationship with the land as well?

 

I don’t think one is achievable without the other. If we don’t change our overall attitude toward the land, then we will never effect meaningful changes in our behaviour. This whole “man must overcome nature” narrative has got to change.

 

Or it will be changed.

Is that a warning, Crow?

Just an observation.

 

 

Well thank you so much, both of you, for coming to help out in the soup kitchen today, Jack, it’s been wonderful to chat with you!

I know you are probably eager to be off and explore our wonderful Lancastrian Frost Fair that is just coming to an end at the moment but, before we start dishing up this wonderful-smelling soup, would you like to tell us about any of your current projects and where we can find more of your marvellous work?

 

I’ve got several projects on the go at the moment. I’m working on something with Lord Crow, of course, but obviously I can’t say too much about that, especially now he’s sitting in the kitchen with us. Faerie law. We’ll see what develops. I’ve also finished my second novel, which is currently looking for a publisher. I’m actually quite strongly drawn to the idea of putting it out via Unbound, as I like the idea of having full editorial control over my own work, and Unbound looks like exactly the sort of model I think both writers and readers want and need – grassroots, down to earth, writer and reader-centred publishing, which doesn’t have to pander to the rather limited tastes of the big London houses. But again, we’ll see what happens. Watch this space!

 

We certainly will! And I hope that you will come back and talk to us about your marvellous work again soon. Well now, I must say that soup really does smell delicious. I think it must be about ready and the little urchins are starting to get fidgety so shall we start serving it up?

 

It’s been lovely to visit! Thank you for the conversation, tea and cake!

 

And thankyou to you all for joining us in the soup kitchen today! If you would like to read more of Jack’s wonderful works and keep up to date with his new releases, do visit his website and blog at: https://jackwolfauthor.wordpress.com/

 

 

 


Morning Cuppa: Tricky Spaces

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to Max and Collin’s delightfully delinquent and ruthlessly rebellious parlour located in the splendidly scenic city of Lancaster, Mor Ire.

True, perhaps, some have called it a rancid, mouldering pumpkin shell , hollowed out and fooling nobody as to its suitability to house an Octopus and his Very Quiet Gentleman Friend, but we consider that such people are merely embittered that they have not yet received an invitation.

So It’s HALLOWEEN / SAMHAIN / ALL HALLOWS whatever you wish to dub it 😀 and we are obviously going potty for Gena Rumple’s Steampunk Pumpkins (again!)

And to add to the festive feeling here in the parlour we are enjoying some spooktacular tea of our own evil Tea-Punk devising. We call it ‘Fire and Spice’ and you can make it in your own parlour like this:

2 tbsp of pureed pumpkin (you can by this in a can or make your own)

2 cinnamon sticks

1 pinch of cloves

1 tbsp grated root ginger

Seeds from 1 pod of vanilla

1 tsp cayenne pepper (or dried chillies if your aunt is visiting)

Soft light brown sugar to taste

Creamer of your choice (we’re using condensed milk because we have no sense of propriety)

4 – 6 tsp of your favourite black tea (we are using Lapsang but Darjeeling or Oolong would work as well. We cannot bring ourselves to recommend Assam, but perhaps you are made of stronger mettle than we..)

 

Put all your ingredients into a jug (except the creamer of course) and give it all a good mix before pouring the lot into your fabulous teapot and filling said pot with boiling water. Leave it alone for about 5 mins while you settle down with a good book. Strain through your usual straining equipment into your gold gilt edged teacup (and now you can cream-up to your heart’s content) and enjoy!

Now you may have noticed we are  a little late rising in the parlour this morning, that is because last night we visited something called a ‘motion picture show’ at The Garish. Of course the thing is bound to be outlawed soon and so we wanted to at least have seen one before they are forced underground like everything else that is jolly around here (except Peril of course, he is by no means jolly and yet very underground..)

So we do not have a book to recommend to you this morning but rather a ‘motion picture’ and it is this…

 

We cannot express adequately the rapture this film induced – Mr Darcy’s coat alone was worth the entrance fee. Admitedly the acting from the younger ‘stars’ was somewhat vacant, to the extent that at one point Max was forced to stand on a chair and cry “Act More Pant Less!” at the lead…which ended in us both being ejected from the theatre and forced to re-enter by a side door wearing fake moustaches and capes so as to avoid attention. (We were later told that the actress couldn’t have heard us anyway so the whole escapade was futile.) But, panting aside, the brighter stars in the supporting roles carried the whole thing admirably, the concept was so adorable and the strength of the feminine characters who effortlessly sat beside the male – not competing, just comfortably equal to – combined with the fabulous saqueal-worthy costuming (did we mention the coat?) and Lady Catherine’s re-imagining as an eye-patch sporting Misstress of the Blade… all made for an excellent evening all round.

So excellent a evening in fact that we completely forgot the Lacaster Curfew and had to run for our lives (not an easy thing when one is an octopus full of absinth) from the flesh eating Liver Birds which Lord Ashton employs to keep the streets free of vagrants. We made it back by the skin of our tail coats but now we are utterly exhausted so we will just sling our tentacles up here on the table and see what our Oracular Cephalopterois has to show us this morning…

 

Hm, listening to ghosts eh? Well if it’s ghosts they want to listen to they should go and visit our own Perilous Wight in his lovely library on Friday, now there’s a ghost that won’t stop talking even when we ask him politely…

As for Max and myself we are going to prepare some trick…I mean treats, of course… for any urchins silly enough to knock on the parlour door in the next 24 hours but we will be back tomorrow with something completely different so, until then

Be always, Utterly Yourself.

 


Pipe And Slippers:

 

Good evening and welcome to my magnificently macabre miscellanea of tantalising tomes…or as some ridiculous personages have dubbed it – my lovely library.

I am Perilous Wight and here in the bowels of the city of Lancaster, in the disused tunnels of an underground train system that never was, I have made it my mission to collect every book that our self-proclaimed ‘supreme ruler f the universe’ and his mincing minions have banned from the bookshelves of the new world.

But this is not a lending library! If you have wandered in here on the ill-advice of a drag-dressed octopus and its dribbling Tea Fiend, let me advise you not be so easily lead down the garden path by tales of fairies! There are certainly no fairies at the bottom of this garden;  here there is only the dark and the damp, the flickering of candlelight and the ceaseless toil of a man who did not re-animate from the dead to be pestered by people wanting bedtime stories!

But wait…what’s that you have tucked away under your arm there? A Green Fairy? Oh…. well, green fairies are always welcome I suppose, yes perhaps it is about time I put my feet up for a while, pipe and slippers and a little drop of something, the day has, after all been a long one. And I suppose I could read a very little something, like this perhaps,

MAHRIME

It will take months for the bones to heal.

For the blood to entirely cease / For the light to come and illuminate them/

And they will mend badly, leaving the limbs gnarled and awkward.

Mushrooms grow and in creep flies, things that will stomach both

and things that scurry and / things that gnaw at other meat / that howl and suck out the marrow /

The floor is a carpet of bones; who knows how deep?

Somewhere, too high above, the rain finds an in-road and slides down the obsidian

The carnelian walls / The ivory walls like / The red cedar wood / The diamond-ice walls / Papyrus / The malachite walls like the drool of something hungry / Like the tears of something lonely /Like the blood of something wounded /

Walls like silver sweat.

I am not the first to write my story here, If you are reading this then I may not be the last/

The words spiral upwards from beneath the millennia of bones, scratched into the black

The white/ red / white /red / white / green/

Walls with what? The blood stains will leave you guessing. What will you do? Start with your finger nails,

 your talons/ your claws / teeth / fangs / beak/

carving your agony until all that is left are bloody stumps of splintered flesh? Frail wafers of bone to melt like sacraments against the wall’s hot tongue? Ah but wait, you are impatient. There is no space for your story, the lives carved here spiral up out of the scope of your vision, too many to read in the short spaces of light, too high to reach even if you stood on the tips of your scaled and broken toes. But begin to read, regardless of the futility; there is nothing else you can do. Eat the words because there is nothing else to sustain you. Eat before the dark comes again to swallow them and you are alone and being swallowed up too.

I am not the first to write my story here, If you are reading this then I may not be the last. Whatever the case I am the last of my tribe, the last tear to fall from my grandmother’s eye. While our grandfather Sky wept the oceans in his grief, Puv’s tears were wiser and greener. My sisters and I, twelve of us in all, slipped out of her great tear ducts and we became the tree clans that covered the earth for a while; the red woods, pines and giddy scented cedars, the slender birches and sweet sweet maples, The berry-bearers, rose, cherry, bullace, elder, haw and sloe, oak and ivy, skipping hand in hand, Nut-bearers, hazel, beech and chestnut, .. we fell from her eye and stood, naked on the earth and we shook with fear in the breeze, plunged our fingers back down deep to coil round grnadmother’s hand, we did not want to let go, and we sucked up Ravnos’s tears, drank up all that cyan sadness and offered it back with our arms, back up to heaven. We clung to our grandmother and our hair grew long and wild and sinewed until it formed the great forests that once covered the land. We sucked up the grief water so that the land could be seen and we clothed it with our hair and so many creatures came and sheltered in us, finding sustenance and comfort inside our warm wet creases.

There were no cities back then but I remember the first little queens to come walking out of the foothills of the north. There were seven of them and with their little silver aexes they came and severed our umbilicus, our life link to our Baba Puv. Of course we screamed.

Of course we bled.

Our sap boiled and in desperation we threw out barbs, thorns; made sabers and shuriken of own wounded flesh. We grew hard and gnarled. We grew wizened, if you know what that means. No longer child-like we wrenched our fingers from grandmother’s earth-grip and we thrust with greed and hate into Sheol, that land of the dead where there is only decay, and we sucked up venom to fill our veins.

It did no good.

I watched my sisters fall, screaming into grandmother’s helpless arms as their limbs were torn away to make these seven cities for these seven little queens, a thousand lances for a thousand ladies; knights in armour smelted in the heat of a thousand burning bodies; child-sisters severed and sacrificed on their alter of industry.

Creatures poured out from their shelter like blood from gaping wounds, ran shrieking under the wings of a weeping Sky God and I spread my arms to them, gathered them in my hair, tore myself from the ground and towered to meet them, scooping the wolf clans, the bush birds and the hotchi witchies, the wild Gry and the drummers, all the grass chewers and the climbers and the hunters of flesh. I gathered them and devoured them into my dark sap self, my body howled and squirmed with their many wild voices all crying their terror and their loss

“no home, no home, no grandmother, no shelter, no rest, no hair to hide us, no tears to feed us, no home, no place, no home” was their cry. This is how I came to the seven cities, this is how I came, howling and stomping and writhing to tear down the thrones of those seven little queens who had raised their empire by the bones of my beloveds.

They wore our blood like jewels, how could I stand? They circled me with fire and brought me down with ropes of my own severed hair, they cut the wild creatures from my belly like babes.

The highest mountain range in that land is crowned with seven dreadful towers; obsidian, carnelian, ivory, papyrus scrolls, malachite, cedar wood, diamond. Seven towers for seven cities, raised by seven little queens, built to hold the darkest demons, the most vile and destructive monsters in the land. I am not the first to be entombed here, this tower is full of bones and there are stories and lives buried beneath that will never come to light. That light drips in sour pearls like milk from the berks of a starving mother who can barely feed herself much less her dying child. Still I have been here long and long and I have read all there is to read, pressing my bark-back against the obsidian curvature and bracing my limbs so that, inch by inch, I can work myself up to where the words all end and there is space, at last, to write my story here, If you are reading this then I may not be the last.

Whatever the case I am the last of my tribe, the last of the wolf clans, the last acolyte of the seed temple. I am the last because I ran. I ran from the knights with their silver blades and their bright fire, cut free from my mother’s tree-womb with a sacred store of snatched up seeds tight hidden in my drooling maw, I ran into the hollow shadows left by the slicing of the flames and I spun through tunnels of twilight thought in the mind of Baba Puv until I came to her limestone skull periphery and there I clawed out a new grotto, a sanctuary for those stolen seeds. I panted, sweltered and I bled and wept there in the dark. In truth I was lost; were those lichens, hanging down all silver-grey, the tendrils of her ancient hair? Was the water that trickled and pooled for me to lap with my parched pink tongue the sweat that slid off her wrinkled brow? Was I serving her, here, a saint whispering viridian vespers into the fissures of my secret chapel? My days were not filled with hope but fear; fear that my devotions fell only on cold stone, fear that I was a fraud and that cowardice, not love, had brought me here and held me in its thrawl. The seeds I had carried so tenderly all those many miles of running could not grow here in the gloom, draft and dank. I nestled them into the rock wrinkles of her cheeks and watered them with trickles of cave water but they sprouted pale and grew thin and wan, corkscrewing in dizzy circles, roots and stems flailing as they searched for the fingers of their grandmother to clasp and coil around, for Kam’s bright face to shine down on them and give them life. I had carved a space for the dead and all I could do was sit vigil with them as they passed away.

I do not know how many moons I sat there, how many times Kam chased his sister Shon around the earth before their children remembered me and came searching, searching for the last wolf, searching for the lost seeds, searching for the chapel in the green… there was a queen, they said – ah there is always a queen isn’t there? – a queen with a baby and the baby was sick and no doctor in the land could find her a cure. Every knight was sent riding in shining gold parade, out from the cities, across the land and sea, to the highest peaks and lowest caverns, to the high pate of Ravnos, to Puv’s own toenail and so, in the end, down they came to find me; monster in the dark with my seeds. The knight who stepped so boldly, her armour clanging like a cattle bell where no voice had e’re been raised above a whisper, told me the tale and she did not beg my assistance or offer any reward but her expectation that I would help her was all the persuasion I needed. I must help, and so I did, I gave her the seeds of the plant that would heal the child and she took them without thanks and was gone. Foolish knight. Foolish queen. Or was I the fool after all? The seeds worked swift, healed the child of her humanity in a heartbeat and when they had done with their screaming and casting out and banishing of the beast that used to be their daughter, they sought me out again, this time with fire and rope. I was easy to find, I had not run, and when I heard them coming, I was not afraid.

The highest mountain range in that land is crowned with seven dreadful towers; obsidian, carnelian, ivory, papyrus scrolls, malachite, cedar wood, diamond. Seven towers for seven cities, raised by seven little queens, built to hold the darkest demons, the most vile and destructive monsters in the land. I am not the first to be entombed here, this tower is full of bones and there are stories and lives buried beneath that will never come to light. That light drips in sour pearls like milk from the berks of a starving mother. Still I have been here long and long and I have read all there is to read, pressing my splintering claws against the obsidian curvature and bracing my limbs so that, inch by inch, I can work myself up to where the words all end and there is space, at last, to write my story here, If you are reading this then I may not be the last.

Whatever the case, I am the last of my kind, the last Smithsonian Sister of the Serpent Forge, the last daughter of Shon. Some say she is made of stone, you know, still others say she is made of cheese, imagine that! But I know my mother as the milk white swan, born out of the belly of Baba Puv and shot like a silver bullet up into the sky. Mother Shon laid her eggs upon Baba earth’s back and when we hatched we crawled out into grandmother’s arms. But it was cold back then in the early days, her smooth skin was pale and cold; sheets of ice and feather soft snow. My sisters and I shivered in our scaly skins and we came together to make a child of our own, a child who would warm the earth and be bright and comforting and a joy to us all. So we pressed our bodies together, one sliding over the other back and forth, back and forth until the friction between our scales created the tiny spark that is needed for life. Little Yag was born and he was all we had wished for – bright and cunning and quick, flamboyant and frolicsome, warm and more than warm the child gave off such heat we could bask in his glow eternally. Of course, like all children, our little Yag soon grew and began to grow wild and unruly, his hunger was insatiable and his manners a disgrace. ‘You must put him to work at once’ Grandmother said ‘or he will soon be beyond your control.’ So we built The Forge and we set Yag the task of melting the metal to make it pliable so that we could shape it into cups and cooking pots and horse shoes, farm tools and the like. With work to do our little lad soon settled into his role in life and was happy and we sisters were happy too as the snow and ice began to melt and folk began to come into the valley of the forge, they saw our work and they wanted to buy until at last we had become quite famous as the best blacksmiths in the land.

Then one day we saw a river come flowing out from the seven cities, one tributary from each hall, and they joined on the crest of the far off hills and came flowing down, a torrent of pale riders, into our valley. The knights approached our forge without dismounting and demanded that we make for them armour and weapons, lances, swords, spear heads, tools of war. When my first sister bowed her head and explained that we were a peaceful tribe who did not know how to make the weapons they desired they cut of her head with their silver axes. When my second sister pleaded with them to think of our child, our little Yag, and the impression this would leave on his young soul they dealt her the same deadly blow. So this went on, and on and on, each sister refusing or pleading or defying them until eleven beautiful serpent heads lay dirtied in the dust with their grandfather’s tears raining down over them and only I stood, trembling in my scales before these ladies on horseback, arguing with each other now what they were going to say to their queen if I too refused and there were no serpents left to work the forge. It is true that I was afraid, also you can imagine that I was angry and desperate for a way to avenge the brutal death of my beloved sisters but a snake is cool blooded and calculating in her wrath, I did not shout or make threats or spit hexes at them as others might, instead I keep staring at the horses with their feet on the hot sandy ground. “Listen” I said at last “I am now the last of my kind, you have utterly destroyed my clan and I know that I alone cannot stand against you so I will do as you ask and make these toys for you and your little queens and I will make shoes for your horses too.”

The knights seemed relieved and so I set to work, feeding my son so much that was abhorrent to me, to all my kind, so that he could make and be and do what the cities demanded, but all the while I worked I whispered, songs of righteous rage, songs of our story of sorrow, songs to make his red blood boil and his yellow bile burn.

The metal that we worked that day was forged in hate and we imbued it with such heat that even when I took the tongs and dipped each piece carefully into the cooling vat of water, it was only the surface that was cooled while the white hot core still burned and thirsted to exact our vengeance upon human flesh. “Patience” I whispered to each plate of armour as I strapped it onto each waiting arm or leg or bosom, “Patience” I whispered to each horse shoe as I nailed them onto a hundred hooves or more. Then we bowed, little Yag and I, and stepped back and waited and watched as the shimmering golden river of knights began to ripple and set its course back to the seven cities.

Breathless, we waited.

The rear guard shifted in her saddle, twitched her shoulder, adjusted her boot strap. Her horse stamped and snorted. A ripple of seemingly inconsequential motion shook ruffled the feathers of the troop. And then it began.

The riders began to scream.

And their steeds began to dance.

They danced and pranced and bucked, they pirouetted and waltzed and writhed all over the sandy floor of the Valley Of The Forge as the heat within their horseshoes finally began to penetrate their hooves and shoot its venom through their muscles and sinews in waves of exquisite agony.

Riders fell, squirming like fat overfed worms, too bloated to break free of their burning chrysalises.

The scent of burning flesh and the shrieks of horse and rider filled the air and we savoured it all like sweet Madya, like wild quail, like honey from the comb or salmon from the smoke huts.

Revenge is sweet but like all sweet things it does not last. I do not know how many moons had passed after our small victory but the earth on my sisters’ graves was still fresh when they came, bringing the wrath of their little queens, seeking their own retribution for the little scars and humiliation we had struggled to inflict upon them. The came screaming ‘Nahuatl’ , ‘Fire Serpent’ , ‘Bold Destroyer.’ They came in fear, with nets made from the hair of other martyrs.

The highest mountain range in that land is crowned with seven dreadful towers. Seven towers for seven cities, raised by seven little queens, built to hold the darkest demons, the most vile and destructive monsters in the land. I am not the first to be entombed here. Still I have been here long and long and I have read all there is to read, throbbing my coiling bulk against the obsidian curvature so that, inch by inch, I can work myself up to where the words all end and there is space, at last, to write my story here, If you are reading this then I may not be the last.

Whatever the case I am the last of my kind, the last human child to be born inside the seven cities, before they decided that human flesh was just too frail to sustain itself and instead began forging children from iron and steel. Certainly my own flesh was frail, they gave me every medicine under Kam’s bright disc until, at last they brought the seeds. The seeds knew. Somehow they knew the monster that was inside me, they knew the form my frail flesh could not hold, with gentle coiling and twisting they pushed away the meat and the fat, the blood and pith and all those vile pulsing organs and they drew out like flax what was inside my marrow; the black, the wonderous, the many-limbed, the beautiful. I stalked out of my old ivory shell, Sara La Kali on eight fine strong legs and stretched myself amongst their screaming. So small, so small, their tiny voices were like hail against my hide and their cities stifled me, I took their screams and wove them into tapestries with my hands, their fear and spun it into prayer shawls, I took my grandfather’s grief and crocheted dream catchers, mandalas from Shon’s silver light, pashminas from the river waters, swift flowing hair of Sister Pani. Everything I made I ate, and the more I ate the bigger, the more marvellous, the more terrifying I became. I travelled far, kneading stories into bread, pressing the steps of the sun dancers into wine as syrupy as blood, I took the yellow dust of the road as my warp and the cries of hatred and terror as my weft and upon my loom they became strong canvas for my tent.

I do not know how many moons I danced along the drom, how many times Kam chased his sister Shon around the earth before their children plucked the courage to come after me. They came with fire as they always do, pretending it is light, pretending it is cleansing and righteousness and Brother Yag dances and spits his delight, he is only hunger and no belly and his ‘purification’ is a death-kiss with no promises. Salivating like a Cur he held their sacred circle for them as they came with their ceremonial axes and cut off my hands.

Then it was those little knights who ran mewling back to the skirts of their city-mothers, the mothers of stone they had built for themselves. They ran back in fear at what they had done, in fear perhaps of what I would do. But I could do nothing. No more spinning, no more weaving, no more kneading and pressing, no more making at all. I howled alone in the darkness but I was not destroyed, only maimed and I determined that this would by no means be the end of me. So I bandaged up my bleeding stumps and , though the going was painful and slow, I carried on my way along the drom.

After many moons I came to the place they call The Valley Of The Forge, but the forge is long gone cold they say and the Serpent Sisters who gave birth to fire are just a myth that is only half remembered. There was no fire when I came, weary and lost, into the valley, instead there was a cave and a well of silver water and a withered snake skin cast off and abandoned nearby. I do not know what made me do it, perhaps something called or whispered in my ear below my consciousness, perhaps the heat was toying with my wits a little, whatever the reason or madness I cannot say but I was filled with a sudden urgency to put the snakeskin into the well. It was a futile and meaningless act but I went to it with every fibre of resolve that I had left to summon. It is like that sometimes, when we can do nothing useful we throw every last scrap of energy into doing something utterly pointless instead.

With the last of my strength I heaved that old snake skin into the well and felt instantly satisfied and stupid and presently very much afraid – The water in the well began to roil and out from the waters rose a silver serpent, spectral and magnificent and gleaming in the sunlight. I fell to my knees and begged her not to devour me, pouring out my story with my tears like libations upon the yellow earth. The serpent listened with her head on one side and presently I felt her tongue, rough and warm against my cheek and heard her lisping voice inside my head “I name myself Drábaneysapa, medicine-snake. They who are sick will look on me and be healed because I have crossed the great river of death and come back again. You have done me a service little sister, let me give you some advice, dip your arms there into this water and see what happens, this well is so refreshing.” And with a wink she slid out over the rim and away across the sands.

I had come so far and through so much pain I hardly dared to hope in all that I had seen and heard but I forced myself to trust the snake and, trembling with agony and fear at what might or might not happen, I removed the filthy crusted bandages from my mutilated limbs and I lowered one trembling arm into the magic well. Nothing. I felt absolutely nothing except the excruciating sting of ice cold water on my wounds and so you can imagine how I wept, how I howled, how I laughed for joy when I pulled out my arm and on the end of it had grown a spectral hand, silver and splendid and a thousand times more dextrous and beautiful than my fingers had ever been! One by one I dipped my eight broken, bloodied limbs into the well and one by one I drew out my eight new beautiful silver hands.

By now the moon was rising and as I looked up at her I knew what I had to do; surely it had been Shon’s silver moonlight, trapped and almost forgotten inside the dark depths of that well, which had allowed these miraculous transformations to take place. I would use my new gifts to make a gift in return; I would fashion for Shon a daughter, a daughter to replace all her lost serpents, a daughter so terrible in her beauty that no man or woman would be able to set eyes on her without turning to stone. All night I worked, all I had was the memory of my pain and loneliness and so that is what I used as my warp and for my weft the joy and gratitude at being made whole again. So I wove a daughter for Shon, I gave her wings so that she could fly far, far, far away from the seven cities, up to the arms of her mother where she would be safe. I set in her heart a compass that would steer her, always towards her mother’s light so that she would never become lost or trapped as I had been. I called her Wéshimúlo and I set her free at daybreak so that she might follow her mother over the horizon and away.

I never saw Wéshimúlo again but I stayed, self appointed guardian of the healing well. I slept in the cave like a hermit, carving intricate instruments of many pipes and strings from the atoms of the air with my new spectral hands. After a while, folk started to come. They heard my songs of praise to Shon, they came to be renewed by the silver waters, some were broken, close to death, others barely seemed to hurt at all but they all dipped hands, faces, legs, hair, into the well and were made whole again and their wholeness was not as it was before; it was Shon’s own memory, the blueprint of themselves as they should be and this far exceeded whatever it was they had grown into within the confines of the city walls.

I cannot say how many moons I kept vigil there in my cave beside the well, how many thousands of praises and adorations had poured from my lips before they came for me. Folk had been pouring out of the city and returning with strange new ways of knowing and being, ways which didn’t fit, ways which were cunning and weird and magical and just plain wrong. They came screaming ‘witchcraft’, ‘demon’, ‘devil’ and still I do not know why Shon did not hear my pleas for help, or come to my aid.

The highest mountain range in that land is crowned with seven dreadful towers; Seven towers for seven cities, raised by seven little queens, built to hold the darkest demons, the most vile and destructive monsters in the land. I am not the first to be entombed here. Still I have been here long and long and I have read all there is to read, pressing my spindling legs against the obsidian curvature and bracing my limbs so that, inch by inch, I can work myself up to where the words all end and there is space, at last, to write my story here, If you are reading this then I may not be the last.

Whatever the case I am the last of my kind, the last child ever to have played under the scarlet canopy of The Great Forest, the last to have felt the pine needles between her toes, the last to caress the naked wax bark of the white birches, the last to embrace the wrinkled oak, the last to play with the wolf clans and the hotchi witchies, the last to ride the wild Gry.

“Come away!” my mother would scold me “come away inside child, while they cut it down! Trees are for burning and the monsters will eat you up!”

I lay in my bed. Our house was one cut into the wall of the great city and my window looked out over the countryside that was now forbidden but I had made a pact with those trees, a promise with those monsters, to let down a red cord every night from my window and every night they came for me, panting and hungry in the dark. I smelled the rain on them, the moss on their paws, the salt in their eyes, the blood on their breath, I reached through the bars of my window and ran my fingers through their wet pelts and pricked my thumbs against their fangs swearing sweet oaths to save them all if only I ever could get away. Every night they brought me a wild raven’s egg, a gift from grandfather Ravnos. You would think I cracked the treasure case open and sucked out the gold, but I was afraid, afraid of stains and questions, afraid my mother would find out about these secret midnight monster feasts. So instead I opened my mouth up wide and carefully carefully swallowed each egg down whole.

Whole, the eggs of Ravnos came into my warm belly and my flesh cradled them like a bowl of olive wood, my womb knit around them like latticed ligaments of vine; safe, warm, nourished… it should have been no surprise when they hatched out, the fledglings scraping my tissue raw as the forced their blind passage up through my vocal tubes and tore out of my horror-stricken mouth to flop, drenched and heaving onto the breakfast table.

In front of my mother, these fledgling crow-gods scrambled from my mouth and I could not hold them back. But mothers are used to these things. She narrowed her eyes at me, did I not think she had been young once? Did I not think she too had longed for trees and monsters and given birth to sky-gods in her time? And had not my grandmother done as she would now, stuff her daughter’s mouth with wormwood and gilead, with nightshade and mandrake and bind it shut tight with ribbons torn from her own scarlet diklo?

All this she did and then she cut the red cord.

I slept, falling in my dreams through the barbed gullet of a beast that was a city that was my mother that was seven little queens with seven little axes all hacking, hacking at my scarlet life line, all trying to sever me from my beloved monsters. But I laughed as I spun through their loathly innards because even in sleep I felt them; my little ravens, my little gods, pecking away at their human-girl prison, gorging and scraping at all the cumbersome weight that held us all pressed into this room, this house, this city on a hill.

Peck. Peck. Peck.

I felt the breeze stir through me, the flutter of their strong, soft wings striving through my rib cage, the thrust of bills chiselling against my teeth and I woke to find myself cleaned of all my superfluous flesh, gleaming in my bones, seeing with a thousand yellow crow eyes. Still they scrabbled and flapped and pushed the boundaries of all that I still was until they carried me up, up the chimney and out into the sky above.

Arrows rained up at us, fired from the bows of a thousand knights in golden armour, and grandfather’s tears rained down. It should have ended there, and it did, but it should have ended differently.

Instead they brought us down with their own beasts; leather-winged sky-chariots they had built for themselves from blueprints stolen from Ravnos’ own work bench.

The highest mountain range in that land is crowned with seven dreadful towers, built to hold the darkest demons, the most vile and destructive monsters in the land. I am not the first to be entombed here. Still I have been here long and long and I have read all there is to read, flapping and struggling inch by inch, so that I can work myself up to where the words all end and there is space, at last, to write my story here, that space is so high up now that when I peer down into the darkness below I can barely see the bones of all the wretched monsters who were here before me. I have found the place where the rain creeps in, If you are reading this then you will have found it too. Did it give you hope the first time you realised what it was? Or did you not dare to let that spark kindle inside your breast and quicken your heart to a flutter? A glimmer of light, a window? Yes. Big enough? Big enough… and up and up and up… did you climb as I did, forgetting to read any more in your blind excitment? And use the last of your strength to heave yourself up onto that sill? And will you, as I have, bother to come back and carve the last words of your story here with the last of your blood and the last of your bone?

I am laughing and crying for us both.

I am laughing and crying and sweating and bleeding for every monster who has made it this far up the tower, who has seen the hopeful light, heaved themselves up with the last of all they have been to sit upon that vast window sill and look out over the view spread out below them.

If you have not yet accepted that his is where you die, you will accept it now.

You will look at that precipice, flagged by a thousand shards of razor rock on every side, so deep it seems to have no end, a grim maw waiting to drink the last drop of you out of the world so that you might be, at last, forgotten, and all hope and faith will fly away, taunting you because, even if you once had wings, you know you will never fly again.

What will you do? Will you feed yourself to the beast? That is obviously what they are hoping. Will obligation or self-indulgence haul you back down here to scrawl your last words? Or do you think enough futile and miserable lives have been catalogued here already? I myself will sit upon the wide ledge a while, and let my blood and sweat and tears fall as my offering down into the pit below, my offering to you and to every monster who has ended here and when I end my bones will fall back down to the floor and become lost amongst the others and if you are reading this, then I suppose yours will too.

I am not the last of my kind, I have a sister. A sister whose body was once the harp on which our mother played her most beautiful hymns to the moon while I sat and listened to their songs and marvelled at the sound they made when I could only manage a strangled screech.

“Hush now me chavvie me love me Weshimulo there” my mother would croon as she rocked my tears away in her eight strong black arms “I never had time to furnish you with the gift of song, but look, just look at your reflection there in the well my owlet, look at those white feathers as soft as those of Shon herself, look at your beauty little sweet one, you have no need for song. I have made you so beautiful little Weshimulo, so beautiful and you will fly up, up, up and away from us all. You will fly up to the heavens and be in the arms of our blessed Mother Moon because that is what you were made for, your very birth was an act of worship, child and I have set a compass in your heart that will guide you, always guide you back to your blessed Mother’s light.”

All her words danced around me like a breeze, I tried to snatch at them with my beak and swallow them down, I tried to sit on them like eggs that might hatch into some magnificent and monstrous truth, but in the end they all blew away from me and all that sank down into my pneumatised bones, filling them up like the weight of mammalian marrow, was that simple fact – I could not sing – and while I felt the vague tug of something at my heart strings nagging me towards some place half remembered from nursery tales, when my mother kissed my wings and told to fly I could not feel the instruction of this compass she had wittered about, only the disorientating heat of my own desperate lust to make some other noise than ‘screech.’

Under the sun’s disapproving and judgemental scowl I flew, my thoughts turned inward like berry barbs, until it became dark and then of course I remembered The Moon my mother had prattled about, and I looked into that vast velvet void and could I see her? I could not. And it may sound strange but I was grimly satisfied to find her silver face not there and anger and triumph blossoming in my breast like blood from a wound, staining my white feathers claret.

I do not know how long I floated aimlessly amoungst the shards of cloud that were busy cutting the night sky into ribbons but I do not think it was all that long before I heard them – tiny wee voices winging joyful, loud and shrill; “We go to the moon, up to Shon, blessed mother, moon, moon, up we go, up to silver shon…” and then, swooping lower down below the clouds, I saw them – hundreds of tiny tiny little dancers, silver wings painted with black henna, hands of hamsa, signs against evil, I was bewitched. I joined the dance, these wee folki they knew, they must know, where we should fly and how we should go they painted my wings with black henna that scorched and stung but looked so beautiful it must be right.

“Follow the light, follow the light, follow the light and up we go…”

There are many lights in the night sky, perhaps you know this already and can see how foolish such a mantra can be. We followed the light that burned the brightest and it lead us into the city, into its vile heart, into the arms of brother Yag (by choice or no, he is now the servant of the city folk and has forgotten who he is and where he came from, all he feels is hunger and his appetite is never satisfied). My little dancers were all burnt up in a mouthful, their intricate tattoos did not protect them. Their Mother Moon did not appear to save them. In a whisper and a crackle they were gone.

I was burnt too; burnt, stunned, disorientated and alone. But not destroyed. Not yet. The knights in golden armour, wolf pelts slung around their shoulders, bright jewels of tree blood set into their breast plates, snake skin sword sheaths flapping against their thighs, out they came from the palace of their queen and one by one I turned them all to stone.

I did not mean to.

I did not know how I did it.

They only had to look at me and their hearts in their chests of flesh became granite, cold and hard as steel – no love, no compassion, no empathy at all, just unyielding rock against which I must break. It was my own fault I know, my mother had told me this would happen, but I did not understand, I thought she meant…well, it does not matter now.

With hearts of stone, they came and broke me. The highest mountain range in this land is crowned with seven dreadful towers and the stories here are beyond reckoning; I am not the first to be entombed here. Still I have been here long and long and I have read all there is to read and now I will do as so many have done before me / as so many have done before /so many have done/ many have done / have done /done before/ before/ and  sit upon the wide ledge here a while, and let my blood and sweat and tears fall as my offering down into the pit below, my offering to you and to every monster who has ended here and when I end my bones will fall back down to the floor and become lost amongst the others and if you are reading this, then I suppose yours will too.

We do not know if there are, or have ever been, any more like us. We were once the last of our kind, that much is true. It is also true that we are now the first of our kind. This then is the story of how we ended, and how we became again, and how we will end and we think it is very fitting that ours should be the last story carved inside this tower, there is no space left, although we know that others will come, we have always been oracular that way.

There has always been one monster the knights of the seven cities could not capture or tame or destroy. Her name is always changing, always lengthening, but we now call her Bujo and to us she will always be Bujo, not that it matters anymore. There is only one thing a queen can do with a monster she cannot be rid of, and that is placate it so that it stays below the surface of the water and never rises up to destroy all that hard work of wall building that goes into hoisting up a city. The seven queens of the seven cities chose us to be sacrificed to Bujo and that makes us laugh, now, now in this tomb we laugh until our spines and teeth and bones and scales and tusks and claws and feathers all rattle together. But we did not laugh back then, no.

We trembled in our frail flesh, each the last of her own wild clan, each cut raw from our tree-mother’s belly and back bound, back to back against the great sacrificial sandstone pillar that stands on the tide line. We trembled and we waited for Bujo to come and devour us. And we tried not to think about how the devouring would feel.

But she did not come.

The tide came in and the tide came out and it crashed gnashed against the sandstone with its little teeth of shell, but still Bujo did not come.

We have no idea how many moons we waited there, bound back to back, waiting for Bujo, waiting for death, waiting for anything but the relentless ebbing and flowing of the tide, but one morning the sun rose up out of the arms of the sea, where he had been carousing all night, and once he had had done with all the eye-rubbing and shivering and chanting of ‘nevermore’ and deigned to throw an armful of light beams in our direction, we realised that we were not as we had once been.

The sea had entirely eaten away the pillar to which we had all been bound but instead of leaving us free, it had left us ‘grown together.’ Skin and muscle and sinew and bone and prickles and spines and fur and feathers had all become one and we were no longer seven maids, but one enormous, monstrous beast and once we realised our rebirth, we also realised the vast emptiness of our seven-fold belly, our seven-fold womb, our seven-fold heart and our-seven-fold mouth. We sniffed at the salt sea air with our seven-fold nostrils, vast as underground caverns, and we reared upon our seven-fold haunches and howled in the direction of the cities because we smelled, from there, meat.

With fire from our belly and nets of our own hair we came for them, those who had created us. We laughed because they trembled at a sea monster who was not there, we wept because we could see, far away, more maidens being prepared for this ludicrous pantomime, we howled because our hunger made us howl and we stormed into the city and we meant to devour it.

All our intensions, you see, were good and noble. You will not find fault with us, we are sure. We did devour much but, in the end, we became sick and weary of devouring. Our seven-fold belly was never filled, our seven-fold womb was never filled, our seven-fold heart was never filled and our-seven-fold mouth was only a vast hole down which the whole world would eventually slip, and still we would not be satisfied.

And so we grew wise. We stopped. We lay down to rest.

And that is when they came for us.

The highest mountain range in this land is crowned with seven dreadful towers and the stories here are beyond reckoning; we are not the first to be entombed here. Still we have been here long and long and we have read all there is to read and had our hopes raised and smashed and raised and smashed again. We have clawed our way up as you have, devouring the words, the stories, the wisdom of others, and it has done us as little good as it has done you to devour them. But now we will do as so many have done before us / as so many have done before /so many have done/ many have done / have done /done before/ before/ and  climb upon the wide ledge here and look out over the vast, vast ocean of blood and sweat and tears that was their offering. Their offering to us, their offering to you and to every monster who has ended here.

We will add our own offering to this and then we will take the boat which we have fashioned from some of those very many old bones and we will lower it onto the red-gold surface of the sea and we will leave this tower behind. We do not say we will be free, where is there for us to go? Round and round perhaps upon a sea of blood and sweat and tears? Will we risk clambering over the edge of this enormous basin? Risk what is left of our tissue on the jagged mountain’s jaws? We do not know what will do. We do not know what will become of us, but we think, we hope, we guess there may be other monsters out there too – there were seven towers after all – perhaps they, like us, like you, have clawed their way up through a tunnel of tales, through a long dark night, through small spaces of light and through much, much pain and loneliness, and perhaps, out there, we will be together. Perhaps we will not be free, perhaps we will not be home or healed or happy or any of the things we dreamed we ought to be (once upon a time) but we will at least be together and if you are reading this /and if you are reading this/if you are reading this/are reading this/reading this/ if / you are reading this, then perhaps you will be too.

 

Yes, yes well enough of that sentimental clap trap I have work to be getting on with so go on, out with you all now, don’t you all have parties or something to go to? Hm? What’s that? You’d rather stay here if that’s allright and shelter from the flesh-eating Liver Birds? Certainly not! You should have worn a protective suit or something, GOOD NIGHT!


Soup of the day: With Karen J Carlisle

Hello! Mrs Albert Baker here, otherwise known as The Last Witch Of Pendle. Obviously there is no Pendle any more, since The Chronic Agronauts utterly destroyed it with treacle and sprats, but I’ve set myself up quite nicely here in Lancaster, running this little soup kitchen for the street urchins. There certainly are a lot of them and I’m always looking for helping hands to cook up and serve something delicious!

Helping me this morning is steampunk and fantasy author, Karen J Carlisle, writer of ‘Doctor Jack’ which Max and Collin recommended to us all on Monday. Good morning Karen, thank you so much for coming to help me in my soup kitchen today! Tell me, have you brought along some soup to share with us?

“Thank you, Mrs Baker. I’ve got our version of homemade leek and potato soup. I grew the leeks myself. Here’s the recipe:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 leeks (pale section) – thinly sliced
  • 4 celery sticks – halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 4 zucchinis – quartered and thinly sliced
  • 700g potatoes – peeled and cut into 1.5cm squares
  • 1.5 L (6 cups) salt reduced chicken stock
  • Handful of spring onions – chopped

Heat the oil in a large saucepan on low to medium heat. Add leek, celery and zucchini and cook until the vegetables are soft (about 10 minutes). Add potatoes and stock. Cover and heat on med to high heat, until boiling. Reduce to simmer and cook, partly covered, until the potatoes are soft (about 15 minutes).

You can feed a hungry horde of eight.”

Mmm, it smells delicious, and how wonderful that you grew the leeks yourself! Here in Lancaster, Lord Ashton is apparently building a sky-garden so that every resident can have their own vegetable plot so perhaps I will try my hand at leek growing too! Now then, while that is simmering away nicely, why don’t you tell us all a little more about the heroine of your book series, Viola Stewart?

“Viola is an intelligent woman living in a man’s world. She studied, in Edinburgh, to become a doctor but was refused registration because of her sex. After her husband died, she became an optician. She is also an inventor, amateur detective and avid reader.”

Doctor Jack is based on the well-known London mystery of Jack The Ripper, however you manage to take the reader on an exciting and unexpected journey as Viola investigates, what inspired you to put a new twist on this famous tale?

“I was watching a documentary on Jack the Ripper and wondered what would happen if my recurring villains, The Society (aka the Men in Grey), tried to use him in their plans – and what if he had plans of his own? Of course, even the villain has a past – old acquaintances and a family. Perhaps he and Viola had already met? During my research I discovered little tit bits suggesting various alternatives to the traditional narrative.
I love ‘what ifs’.”

Ah, the old ‘what-if-itis’ … I believe it is the curse of every true steampunk! Now,the cover art and presentation of your books is absolutely beautiful, do you design the covers yourself?

“Yes, I do. After high school, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a writer, a photographer/cinematographer, an artist/designer, an astronaut, or the Doctor’s next companion. I wanted to do it all. I chose the safe option and finished a Bachelor of Applied Science in optometry. I recently changed careers (long story) and now I get to do photography, design, make book trailers as well as write. Perhaps I am trying to make up for lost time?”

My goodness you certainly have a lot of strings to your bow! And do you have any more mysteries for Viola to solve in the near future?

“Oh, yes. I’ve just published a second journal of Viola’s adventures, Eye of the Beholder & Other Tales, with a second set of short stories and a new novella. There’s mummies and curses and madness. I’ve already started working on the third book in the series.”

eye-of-the-beholder

As well as writing wonderful books you are also a talented artist have you brought any of your work to show us today?

“I’m participating in Inktober again this year. Inktober is a concept, created by Jake Parker: 31 days, 31 inks. The aim of the project is to practice and improve my ink work and drawing skills. I post to my Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook pages.

This year I started with some characters you may recognise:

Viola Stewart and dear Doctor Henry Collins and Doctor Jack…”

day-2-viola1

day-4-henry-collins-for-sharon_copyright2016karencarlisle1

day-3-doctor-jack_copyright2016karencarlisle1

“I’ve just released the Doctor Jack design as a t-shirt on my Redbubble store.

 

Those really are amazing, Karen, and a t-shirt with Doctor Jack on the front sounds like a very splendid thing indeed, especially for Halloween! And do you have any new releases, workshops or events planned over the next few months?

“My short story, All that Glitters, is being published in an upcoming steampunk anthology, Den of Antiquity. It’s a story set in nineteenth century South Australia. I’m also attending a few local events: a local ‘mini comic con’ over the Halloween weekend – featuring local Adelaide writers, artists and comic book creators, and I have a table in the Artist Alley at Adelaide Supanova’s pop culture event, next month.”

Wonderful, so that is lots of places where fans can catch up with you! And now the all important question, I’ve heard that you are rather passionate about tea, but what is your favourite brew and how do you take it?

“Ah, tea! My favourite brew is Prince of Wales or T2’s Black Rose, depending on my mood. Black, no sugar, in my favourite fine china teacup, thank you.”

Max and Colin will be glad to hear you take your tea black! (or ‘neat’ as I think they term it.) you know, for an octopus, Collin has very strong opinions on adding milk to hot beverages.

Well now, here is your tea and thank you so much for coming to help out in the soup kitchen today, Karen, it’s been wonderful to chat with you! Your home made soup smells delicious and I think it must be about ready so shall we start dishing it up?

“Definitely. And thanks for sharing your kitchen.”

A pleasure! Max and Collin will of course be ‘all punked up with no place to go’ tomorrow if you would care to join them in the parlour, and of course Peril will be sharing some fabulous fiction on Friday from his lovely library. I will be back next week with musician and youtuber Bellabeth giving me a hand to  dish up the soup.

Blessings on your brew my dears!