Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Skull Maiden

In Glenborrodale Castle, there once hung a doctored picture. It adorned a wall of the dining room, where it was beheld by many pairs of admiring eyes, yet still withheld its secret. A slender fair-skinned young woman in a heavy crimson brocaded dress gazed softly into a crystal ball. Her focus entirely taken by what she saw, her countenance devoid of emotion. Was she pleased, relieved, shaken? Were the tidings fortunate or sorrowful?
Those who looked upon her posed these questions and more. She appeared innocent, but could you be sure? Was her work witchcraft or a gift? With her head bent and eyes cast down, she betrayed no clue as to what she was seeing, let alone thinking or feeling. Was she witnessing scenes of humble life or incoming death? Her apparent calmness always affected guests in the dining room so that each would speculate, as they consumed, their future happiness or doom.
Whoever sat on their own before the picture addressed her in a pitiful whine or whisper: Tell me my fate... My destiny...
All minds, at times, have a burning curiosity to know the unknown; to stake a small claim on their prosperous future or to divert the course of predicted tragedy. Unfortunately, in this instance, the widely-held assumptions were incorrect. She did not know destiny. She could not see into their future. The crystal ball, after all, was not her primary apparatus, it was secondary. The real tool of her trade was deemed too horrible, too sinister... If someone had pulled back the dark blue curtain or looked more closely the truth would have been seen, but it wouldn't be discovered until much later when the painting was cleaned.
When the skull once more emerged from behind the curtain, many human minds had been rummaged in and a vast number of lives meddled with. Mind pictures had been read, recorded, restored or stolen; the originals or copies now the rightful property of the Skull Maiden.
Whatever you might have heard, she existed. She came from a long line and their methods were before their time like Leonardo da Vinci. The Skull Maiden pictured, it's said, was the most beautiful, but also the most dispassionate. Her warm eyes left you cold for her focus was so clear, so unwavering, and nothing could disturb her cool exterior. To be in her presence, as I understand it, was chilling.
But you don't get that sense from either the no skull or with skull picture. The skull is a relic of all the maidens' endeavours combined to delve into as many minds as possible in their allotted time. To alter people's past and present memories, to change how they might create those in the future. To understand the mind and build a foundation, then a bricked wall from historical memory. To partake in a form of sorcery with spiritual and scientific connotations. The left versus the right brain. It was one big game. A study where consent was not sought, which would now be considered unethical. 
Memory, as each Skull Maiden learnt, is not infallible. It waxes and wanes, nobody's memories, even of the same event, are the same. The crystal ball traced the readable ones and the laying of hands on the skull's temples unlocked them. The skull would glow as the maiden's fingertips probed and pulled ancient or newly-made memories from its person. All would be opened, their contents logged and a copy archived in a translucent brick. After which, some were wiped, some restored, and others modified, before being returned to the person. There was no protocol. It depended on the whim of the Skull Maiden.
An individual's mind picture may change, yet it always retains some essence of its story. The Skull Maiden however loses the intellect, that capacity to divulge her own. She is all memory – she remembers so much, she forgets what's hers to own.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Virgin Bride

The parish priest gave a short address and then the final blessing, “Guard this place and this house and the souls of those who dwell there.” He made a sign of the cross in the air and sprinkled holy water on the virgin.
The virgin this year looked a little worn and pale with her delicate, blonde colouring, but still resplendent. Everyone knew the service was drawing to a close as the eldest woman rose to bathe the virgin's feet. The congregation fidgeted and audibly sighed as the smell of cakes and pies wafted in from the adjacent room. Their ears tuned to the rehearsal of the band so that rows of legs bounced with uncontrolled jigging.
The whole of the house blazed with candles, electric lighting, and mantelpiece fires. The congregation were rosy-cheeked and sweating; some men were mopping their brows with their striped handkerchiefs, while the women took to fanning themselves with the printed order of service sheet. The virgin bride was starting to look bored and other members of the congregation were beginning to fidget more and more.
Finally, the cleansing of the virgin's feet was complete and the signal was given for all to rise. The priest, the deacon and the sub-deacon led the bare-foot bride down the centre aisle, the eldest woman followed with the bride's pearly slippers and the rest of the red-faced congregation filed behind.
The priest positioned the anointed virgin bride at the door into the Great Hall, the eldest woman bearing the slippers beside her. The deacon and sub-deacon in their flowing surplices stood like sentries either side. The priest mumbled a few words in Latin and swept down a long corridor to a cramped vestry to conduct confession; a room which once had in fact been part of the kitchen and had a disused serving hatch. The hatch on the other side now gave onto the drawing room with cosy armchairs and a glowing fire. The priest reached through and helped himself to the ruby-filled decanter and a wine glass. It was going to be a long night...
Meanwhile, the virgin bride was rapidly shaking hands and accepting kisses of congratulations. When she came to the end of the line, the eldest woman helped her put her newly-washed feet back into her slippers, whereupon she paraded herself around the ballroom on the arm of a non-existent groom and performed a rather balletic first dance. All the while, her blue eyes were trained on a single spot: the roasted suckling pig, which unfortunately with her many leaps and turns made her feel sick, so that her finishing pose was a dramatically clutched stomach.
The wedding feast was in full swing; some of the assembly were moving out of time with the band to their own rhythm, but most were stuffing food into their gaping mouths. The virgin bride was forbidden to partake, apart from a slice of cake which she had yet to cut, because at present she was still being claimed by numerous dance partners who twirled her exhaustively about the sprung floor.
The last partner on her dance card twirled her to the ivory tower. She cut herself a generous wedge, revealing the Victoria sponge, and stretched her small mouth around it. The raspberry jam oozed like blood and left a sticky mess on the front of her brilliant white wedding dress. Then, still chomping she was unmercifully grabbed and dragged out of the house and down a rocky pathway towards the shore. The crowd unleashed her on the edge and retreated to a safe distance, clamping their hands over their ears to drown out the eerie whistles of the wind and the wails of the sea. In the moonlight, the trembling virgin bride prepared to be whisked into the crashing tide, married as she now was to the darkest depths beneath.
*Inspired by the vision of Edvard Munch and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Horse With No Name

When I was a boy, an old native Indian gave me a horse's head. A tiny silver charm, that fitted neatly into my palm, and was inscribed with these words on the back: Horse... Give Me Power.
It's long gone now; it disappeared many years ago on the first part of the journey. The sun burnt a hole in my trouser pocket, just wide enough for two of my fingers to wiggle through, and so I imagine the horse's head dropped onto the sand, or bounced off a hill or a rock. Although lost to me now, I've never forgotten the rough feel of it. By touch alone you could make out the horse's head: short jagged points were its mane, a slight bump was its forehead, a round tip was its nose and mouth, a strong curve its powerful neck, and a protruding lump the turquoise stone set in its throat. It was about the size of a standard fifty-pence piece, only thinner.
I thought it was girlish, but I held on to it anyway; I never shown it to anyone, not even my younger sisters. I carried it in my trouser pocket and began to hang about the Indian. He kept a tin shack as a native American shop on a piece of London wasteland, which now I think back was strange in itself, but as a kid you accept these things. He was ancient with braided silver hair and leathery skin - his cheeks were as creased as a parched desert - and he dressed casually in a shell suit with a pair of worn moccasins. He said to call him King, but I've no idea if this was his name or not, and his shop was a mishmash of feather headdresses, toy bows and arrows, dream-catchers and animal skins. He never seemed to have much custom being kinda off the beaten tourist track.
The barren land in front of his shack was like a parking lot. He owned a gold Ford Cortina, a pale orange Avenger and a white imported Mustang, although none of them were taxed or roadworthy. We'd lean against their hoods or sit on the narrow strip of asphalt, he in a hide-upholstered armchair and me on a wooden stool, and pow-wow about all sorts of things from weird dreams we'd had to lessons of survival. I learned a lot in those years, including how to drink and smoke.
Then one day I turned up as randomly as ever and King, and mostly everything about him, had disappeared. His tin shack stood empty and all his cars were gone. I thought perhaps he'd got ill, or died or finally been moved on by the council. I sat in his abandoned armchair, smoking a little weed and knocking back the cans of Foster's I'd brought him. I fumbled the horse's head and must have fallen asleep in my inebriated state as the sun was going down. A hot breath disturbed my comatose. At first I thought it was just a sultry breeze, but then there came another short puff with a snort. I cautiously opened my eyes and found to my surprise a pair of cavernous nostrils flaring at me. In fright, I jumped onto the seat of the armchair to be eye level with 'IT'.
The 'IT' was a dappled grey stallion with a thick platinum blonde mane and tail, and which seemed to me taller than your average equine breed. The horse positioned  itself sideways on and impatiently stamped its front right hoof, Get on! Get on! I hoisted myself against its side and swung my leg over its bare back. I squeezed my thighs and we took off, with me clinging perilously to its strong neck.
The land shimmered ahead as you imagine it would in a desert heat wave. In this dream-like place, it was blisteringly hot and the horse kicked up dust from the ground, but the air was a cornucopia of sound. Birds chirped and insects buzzed all around. I lost track of time as if my body was alive, but had gone underground. Perhaps it was an just for an hour or for days... I threw myself off when the desert turned to sea and let the horse run free. I blacked out as the ocean licked my face, only to find myself slumped, back in the now vacant parking lot, over a rocking horse that resembled my anonymous steed.
*Inspired by song of same title written by Dewey Bunnell and originally recorded by America

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Woman At The Window

That woman was skulking at the window again!” the smugglers grumbled as they unloaded their cargo from the wagons.
The landlord's niece thinks we don't see her, but we do.” Said Harry the pedlar with an evil chuckle. He swung his lantern up so that she again withdrew sharply into the black damp room with its peeling wallpaper.
Jamaica Inn. Joss and Jem Merlyn. Aunt Patience. Mary and charlatan parson Francis Davey. Smugglers, wreckers and horse thieves...
Maria pulled herself out from her daydream, letting go of the scene she'd just created. She'd inserted herself as if she was in the novel: drawn to the goings-on outside her window and had conjured up Du Maurier's dark, fugitive world of moonlight, clopping hoofs, low voices and drizzle. Imagined herself in Mary's place, but without her boyish senses: she had been seen!
How was it that the scenes Du Maurier painted were more real than those in front of her? She was not Mary, she was not in Cornwall, and she was not in the nineteenth century!
She reluctantly dragged her full consciousness back to the view that could be seen from her hotel window: the bay of a Spanish seaside town, but as she did she spoke aloud the words of Francis Davey, “Yes, I am a freak in nature and a freak in time. I do not belong here, and I was born with a grudge against the age, and a grudge against mankind.”
Maria too felt that same grudge, like the stab of a knife in her side; she was a freak like Davey which meant that peace was still hard to find in the twentieth century. The opposite to Davey, she was not an albino so unlike him had no halo of white hair. She was squat, with skin as brown as a nut and coal-black curls, and she wore white with vertical stripes instead of Davey's sombre black. She disliked people seeing her up close, but didn't mind if they stared at her back. Her darker skin, she felt, was unsightly and her face resembled that of a pug's: eyes too close together and nose squashed flat, and so when she ventured outside she hid behind a white scarf.
The staff at the hotel were used to her peculiar sense of herself and eccentric nature since she'd been holidaying here since she'd been struck with a childhood fever. A fever which had left her lungs scarred, and which for the sake of her health meant abandoning England for six months every year. A life sentence of quietude where only novels were allowed to excite her, so that now even being abroad with people whose skin was as gypsy-looking as hers was not enough. She craved old-fashioned adventure: desolate landscapes, tossing seas, and unruly characters who intrigued and never reacted quite how you expected them to. Reality however only gave her peacefulness: blue rippled waters, a light refreshing breeze and a lone dingy. Calm and order. A sense of nothingness. Monotony and boredom.
Maria, as always under doctor's orders, tried to desperately hold on to this restorative scene, but like a caught fish it slipped from her grasp. The daylight faded, the wind blew harder and the lone dingy with the barely-filled sail became a galleon heading for the rocks. She could clearly see the wreckers waiting on the shore to launch themselves into the stormy seas and retrieve the floating goods: rolls of silk, cases of oranges, brandy and tobacco.
Her pose at the open window said she thought she should move, but was compelled to stay with her private picture. She was drunk and giddy, like the landlord of Jamaica Inn, on Daphne Du Maurier's words.
*Inspired by Salavador Dali and Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn