My great-grandmother was just ten weeks short of her hundredth birthday when she died, without any fuss, but with four generations about her bedside, in the council house she’d lived in for half a century. She brought up her own two children and ten orphaned nephews and nieces who she had also brought into the world in another council house a couple of doors down. She had run a pub and hated it, kept a dispensary for sick and injured birds that she loved, was unpaid child minder for family and neighbours. She was a huge personality, a wonderful, compassionate woman and when she died, even the Protestants lined the street to see her off. There were no gun salutes, no national mourning, no outpourings of grief by millions who never knew her. But she is remembered for the things she did, despite poverty and discrimination, with the most basic of health care and no modern appliances to ease the work burden. After so many years, her light still burns bright, though she will never be immortalized in history books, and only her grand-daughter, my mother, ever painted her portrait.
Birds fly into the setting sun their wings never burn.
Thanks to the editors at Ekphrastic for finding room for this horse piece. The subject is one I researched for my last novel, so I’m pleased it rang true. You can read all the chosen work here.
At first, they had a Mistress of the Animals, those Black Sea peoples, the plains and horse peoples of Asia Minor. They passed on their heritage from mother to daughter and they brought husbands into the maternal home. The Mistresses watched over their charges, offered grain and wine not blood, made whole, nurtured. The Mistress of the Animals was flanked by lionesses. Nurturing huntresses.
Did the horses notice the tipping of the world when the Mistress was replaced by a Master, when the lioness guardians grew wings, talons and cruel beaks? Did they feel a change in the hands that held the reins? The plains were as wide, winters as hard, but the hands, were they as gentle?
The winds that swept those antique plains swept away the tenderness. We reap the whirlwind now; horses bear heavier burdens and cruel bits. They race and jump and dance, carry children in endless circles. They obey, their eyes on the whip, noses sniffing our recycled air. There are no horse dreams in this brave new world.
Poets on the shores of the world’s fringe wrote in the sands of the foaming shallows, in the stars that march across dark hills, of how the world has changed. Utterly. We snatch at the whirling debris, listen for hoofbeats.
I’m pleased to have another short piece of fiction in the Ekphrastic Review. You can read all of the poems and short stories here.
The abbess dipped her brush in the crimson and carefully dabbed in an eye. The monster winked at her. She filled in the other eye. Black pupils bored into hers, and she turned away for a moment to clear the vision. She had been gifted with visions since she was a small child and they called her Hildegard. The name had faded, but she had the visions still.
Her fingers itched to continue. Paint us. Give us life. There was more crimson needed for the demon’s tongue. The abbess added three tiny brush strokes. She had been worried that the visions were sinful, but the archbishop had encouraged her to set them down in her books. Not sinful then. But disturbing. Distressing sometimes.
She changed brushes. Ochre. The prince’s breeches. The monster’s head was between the prince’s legs. Why did he have a demon in the place of his manly parts? She sighed. An allegory possibly. Men’s urges. Though the times were reasonably calm, even if the English were still fighting one another. They had no king, hadn’t had one for as long as she could remember. And the Pope was calling for another crusade.
The abbess looked at the red-eyed monster, black, hair like serpents. Evil, but not a Saracen, she decided. They worshiped one god, not like the Heathens. They were simply fighters. It was their land after all. The men fought and the women prayed. It was the same the world over. She thought for a moment about the Saracen women, praying, cloistered and veiled just as she was. But in their houses, fountains played in colonnaded courtyards, and birds sang in cool shaded gardens. Their husbands and fathers watched the stars and made maps of the heavens. Did their women watch too and wonder with them? She would have done, if she had been able. She hoped her Saracen-sisters did.
She had never known her own sisters. Hildegard had been given into God’s service when she was too young to remember, and her occupations had always been those of God’s handmaiden. She had been observed night and day. Protected from evil.
Green this time. The Serpent with a woman’s face. The Serpent always had a woman’s face. It was God’s will. She paused, the brush poised above the tiny puddle of verdigris, thinking of a clear desert night, a deep black sky alive with stars, a jackal howling.
In a deft movement, the hovering brush dipped instead into the oak gall ink, and the abbess gave the Serpent a neat black beard.
For the dverse prosery prompt, to fit the line from Oliver Wendell Holmes: Through the deep caves of thought, I hear a voice that sings into a 144-word piece of prose.
World in a shell
I hold the shell to my ear and listen to the rise and fall of the ocean. Where are they born, these echoes that roll through the deep? Caves of thought? I hear a voice that sings with the voice of the whales, and the song is older than mankind, old as the ocean and those who first learned the currents and the tides. The song tells of the making of the world from air and water and woven strands of kelp, the birth of mountains and rivers that run always back to their sea-home. Of trees that mimic coral forests where birds dart like feathered fish. The shell spirals in and out, chambered like a heart, all the pearly hues of a dawn sky and it sings the ages of the earth until the silence after the final echo, the age of Man.
He breezed in one day, cat-roared in the street until I opened a window, and in he jumped. Cool as a cucumber, an expression coined by someone who must have met him in one of his former lives. He was a beautiful, stripy tom cat with a tiger tail and a couldn’t-care-less attitude. He had arrived on our little street a few days previously, said the odd-job man who had a shed on the vacant lot at the end. Picked fights with the homeless cats who camped there and obviously decided he was a cut above the local fauna. We called him Raymond, and he turned the house upside down. It was like living with a tornado, a flash of long muscular limbs leaping from one piece of furniture to another, massacring the children’s soft toys, peeing everywhere, letting himself into every room, cupboard and the fridge. Stole an entire chicken once. We would watch him from an upstairs window as he made his way across the rooftops, leaping up sheer walls with the ease of a big bird, laying claim to his territory. Although he caused havoc, we forgave him everything, and when, exactly one year to the day he arrived, he walked out, never to be seen again, we were grief-stricken. We kept hoping that he would be back, picking his way along the garden wall, his tiger tail held high. Four weeks later, when Trixie waylaid the children on their way home from school one afternoon and followed them, wailing, all the way, crossing the main road, we knew that Raymond had moved on. Every stripy tom cat will forever more be a Raymond, a species all to himself, and we haven’t given up hope that he might still, one day, leap back through an open window.
Tiger, Tiger, somewhere in the night you made a choice, stalked into a new story, perhaps one more of many.
Perhaps you have a book now, a frieze stitched in stars, and if we look across to where the city lies, we might pick it out above the orange glow, a constellation of nine lives.
Before it got too hot, I took the dogs out for a walk around the newly mown meadows. Yesterday our walk was curtailed because Trixie followed us and a cat in a field is fair game as far as dogs are concerned. The day before we had to double back because of rabbits, the day before that the marsh beaver family was out by the pond and they send Redmond berserk. Bix doesn’t like them much either. I had great difficulty controlling Redmond who yelled his head off and had to be thumped.
Today, before it got hot, and after Trixie had come back in from seeing Imelda off, and I had checked that the marsh beavers weren’t in sight, we set off. Sniffed two dead snakes, juveniles. One at the edge of the meadow, sliced in half by the mower, the other beneath the trees, half-eaten.
Deeper beneath the willows, where the mower doesn’t go, we startled a hen pheasant. She didn’t fly away, but hissed and fluttered at the dogs who were surprised and excited but not murderous—the long grass in front of us was seething and cheeping with pheasant chicks. Bix got tangled up in Redmond’s lead, yelped, threw himself into the sedge and refused to get up. Redmond, non-plussed, let himself be untangled and led away. At a guess, they have not been used for bird-hunting.
We left the pheasant in peace to gather up her chicks. I’d like to think she’ll look for somewhere safe from fox and feral cat, but it’s not in her nature. At least I can keep the dogs away.
Relentless heat broken grass throws no shade well water recedes.
I watched a video recently of an urban forager, an expert, an example, showing how it was done. He spent his lunch hour in the local park ransacking the bushes for all he would need for a foraged meal. In the end he had about forty grammes of leaves in a little Tupperware box. He ate them with pride. I assumed he was not going back to work on a building site.
Millennia of back-breaking work to coax nourishment from the earth, short, harsh lives devoted to the task of survival, growing and harvesting, threshing, winnowing, plucking and preserving, keeping the great god hunger at bay, was all a misunderstanding then? If only we had invented municipal parks before the plough.
Woodland glades of hair grass berry-bushed and beneath the trees lush green leaf-spears
but I stand hungry amid plenty the river flowed too long since I knew as much as a wide-eyed hare.
There is so much life around me now, so many dependent on me for food, shelter, company, a knee to sit on, a hand to hold, that mythical bottomless bank balance. There are trees to be tended, meadows to mow, roses to prune, a home to be kept open for all those who need it. I remember how I moved away, not needing my parent’s home any longer, cutting adrift and tying up where I chose. There were so many things I abandoned on the way, friends as well as familiar objects, always moving, gathering no moss. And I think about the dwindling years, how dogs and cats die, children grow, move away, move on. I wonder where the memories will go, the love still to give away, when there is no one left. A precious hoard. And no one to take it.
I always look at this type of prompt, hoping that the line of poetry will be one that could possibly be slipped unnoticed into a piece of prose. More often than not, I don’t see it. Merril’s offered line from a poem by Sara Teasdale, though nagged at me because it suggested something that I only understood this morning. 144 words exactly.
You will do anything for me. Always have. Anything within reason at least; I’ve never asked anything truly outrageous of you. But am I just being selfish? I keep asking myself if I doing the right thing. How can I be sure?
I shall see again the world. On the first of May a new life begins for all of us, though I will be the only one to leave. I will take myself and my self-doubts to that shining city I have always dreamed of visiting and build a new suit of armour, but this time, made of sunshine and cicadas.
When I return to the familiar, shabby and humdrum, you will all be here, still, always, unchanged. The old house, children, cats and dogs, the birds and the busy silence, and most of all, you, generous and loving. My immutable magnetic north.
The egret picked its way through the reeds to where the open water of the lake began, the stately progression of a Medieval princess dressed in white samite performing some mystery. He shifted his weight; the movement frightened the bird and it launched itself in a shower of droplets into the sky. Envy made her want to weep. “Oh to have that freedom, those white wings.” He shrugged. “It’s not freedom. It’s just following nature’s orders.” “Sometimes,” she said, “the great bones of my life feel so heavy, I could drown in these shallows.” He took her hand. She knew what he was going to say, the platitude about how he’d always be there to carry her. She pulled her hand away. “The shallows call with more passion than I’ve ever heard from you.” “I know,” he said and turned back to the house.