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Stories from Goldin: A Tale

povertyTHERE WAS a land where people were divided and set apart from one another in enmity — men against women, rich against poor, belief against belief, tribe against tribe, class against class, children against the old, and so on. Nevertheless, they were constantly forced up against one another by the density of their numbers, by vehicles that could carry them anywhere at great speed, by greed, by trade, by need…. This situation created a lot of trouble for everyone, and violence, strife, robbery, rape.

Now this land had a wise ruler whom I shall call John, and this John, on hearing of the plight of the people, was at first disbelieving. He lived in a palace with high walls, and wherever he went he was surrounded by smiling faces and armed guards, and never came in contact with the poor and aggrieved, except in a ritualised manner. He was tempted to remove the minister who told him but, being a wise ruler, he decided rather to find out for himself what his people suffered.

“Oh really?” he said to the minister, “And can you please tell me what the status of my median citizen might be?”

The minister went away and conferred with the gatherers of figures, the bureau of census takers, with the economists and the statisticians, and after a suitably long time, he returned to the Wise Ruler. “Your majesty, your median citizen is a woman who….”

John stopped him right there. “I do not want a woman. What is the condition of the median man in the land?”

The minister did not argue. He went away and consulted with the economists and the statisticians, with the bureau of census takers, the gatherers of figures, and after a slightly shorter time, he again returned to the Wise Ruler.

“Wise one, your median citizen is a man like yourself, of the same cast and colour. Like yourself he is five feet and nine inches tall, but in every other respect he is different from you. He is considerably younger than you are….”

“My age! My age! What is the median for my age?”

Again the Minister consulted, and again returned to John.

“Wise one, he lives in the direst poverty, and has many children but no work. He is ignorant and bigoted, knows nothing of the world beyond the horizons of his own suffering.”

“Show him to me.”

“Sire, you must understand that there is no such man—he is a figment of the imaginations of the gatherers of numbers, the bureau of census takers, the economists and the statisticians. They compose a man out of averages.”

“Nevertheless, show him to me. Find the man who most suits your description. But do not disturb him. Leave him ignorant of the search, and come and tell me.”

The minister ordered the bureau of spies and the bureau of informers to search for a man who fitted the description. Maximum discretion was advised. They sought in the demographically correct areas, but had problems finding anyone who perfectly matched the set of attributes. At last, and with great stealth, a certain spy found a man who seemed to match the requirements of the statisticians. The spy told his handler, and the handler told his director, who told the Chief Spy, who told the Minister. The Minister ran to the Wise Ruler.

“Wise One,” he said, “we have located the man you seek. He is the same height and age as you, and lives in this very city.”

“I wish to observe him without him knowing it,” said John. “Find out what can be done. And remember, his life must not be disturbed in any way.”

The Minister consulted with the Commission on Surveillance and with the Ministry of Oversight. He called in consultants in the fields of Observation and Supervision from the world of trade.

“We can insinuate various devices into his house, and possibly onto his person. These could allow you to see him, but the pictures you see will be blurred and inaccurate. You will be able to hear him, if he speaks near a device. Were it not for your absolute condition that he should not know that he is watched, it would be a simple matter to buy his co-operation. In that case you could observe everything.”

“Do what you can without,” said John.

When they were ready, the ruler observed. The man was poor and had back trouble. He had many children, though it was sometimes difficult to tell whose children were whose, as there were many other adults who came and went through the man’s house. Sometimes he went to seek work. His wife worked as a cleaner. When she was out working, he took whatever money he could and went drinking. He argued and beat her when he came home. He had another woman, or women.

The Ruler disguised himself as a common man and, slipping away from his guards, met his subject at a drinking hall. There he bought him drink and engaged him in talk. The man was the same height as him, but fat and jowled, and his breath was short. He sweated as he drank and smoked. He had few ideas and little to talk about. All of his aspirations were those of others and his desires were for things the Wise Ruler already knew to be worthless. His knowledge was little and twisted, though this did nothing to limit his arrogance. So instead of conversing, the Ruler and the subject exchanged pleasantries and clichés. But try as he may, Wise John was unable to hide his irony and distance for long, and the man soon became first suspicious then abusive under his questioning. The Ruler had to flee, and later had difficulty explaining his black eye to his aides and sycophants.

The next day the Ruler summoned the Minister, who came running, quaking with fear.

“This man, in what respects does he not resemble the statistical mean?”

“Sire, he was a ninety nine percent match. The best we could do. The mean has three point seven four children and he has four, but we could not find anyone with a partial child. There are a number of other small differences.”

“He was the best you could do?”

“Yes, sire.”

“The man is arrogant, mean, and violent. He is a drunk.”

“Yes, sire. The majority of poor men of his status are intermittently these things.”

“And the women?”

“The women are more sober, in general.”

“But they are oppressed by the drunks?”

“Yes, sire.”

The ruler shook his head. “This man hardly deserves to live.”

“That is already taken care of, sire. The man has an incurable disease. He will die within a few years.”

“Does this not make him unique?”

“Sadly, it does not. Most men of his type are thus afflicted.”

Then the Ruler called a great convocation of the wise of his realm. “My citizens are poor and ignorant. They are violent and angry, drunk and hungry, and unable to see the path to their own welfare. Added to this, they are burdened with avoidable disease and early death. I am determined to empty the coffers of the state, change the laws, or do whatever it takes to raise them above their misery. I call on each of you to offer such advice as you can, and will pay heed to the most persuasive.”

The convocation went on for many days. The most persuasive were a group of wealthy merchants and traders from other lands, who, being wealthy, could afford to hire the best thinkers and rhetoricians.

“Give us free rein, sir, for trade creates wealth, and wealth is what the land most needs,” they said, and they said it so seductively and with such implicit power that the Wise Ruler took their advice.

At the end of five years, the Wise Ruler again called the minister, and told him to again find the median man. The Minister again consulted with the economists and the statisticians, the census-takers, the spies, the informers, the observers and surveyors.

They found another man, for the first had died, and in any case conditions had shifted. Again the Ruler observed him. He was poorer than the first, and had more troubles. He too was ignorant and arrogant. He was angry, scared and powerless at the same time. He coughed. He did occasional menial work, or none. When need pressed he tried small crimes.

The Ruler called in the traders, who arrived late. “My people are worse off than before,” he said.

“Well, sire, it is too early to say, really, but we think our plan is already starting to work—quite a few people are already substantially richer, including yourself and those you love. The effects will soon trickle down.” And they took him to their lands and honoured him and lent him more money.

And after another five years, the Ruler again observed his median citizen. He sat despondently outside a crowded shack among barren fields. He was fashioning himself a weapon to rob his neighbour. His children were hungry and dirty. He hit them if they cried.

The Ruler summoned the leaders of the traders in his land. When they had gathered he commanded his guards to slaughter them, which they did. Then he emptied his coffers in the service of the poor, and in the effort to raise all his citizens to adequate living. The thieves among the poor benefited greatly from this programme. None will trade with a murderer of traders, so soon his country was bankrupt, unable to secure the necessities of life. Then the poor, armed by crime, rose against the Wise Ruler, and finding him in the Palace as they looted it, hanged him from a tree in the Palace Gardens.

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BellaMANY YEARS ago there lived a timber merchant who had three daughters. The eldest he named Hope and she was stern and responsible. She had long dark hair and a pale apron, and when she was of age, she married a trader. The second he called Faith; she had nut-brown hair, and was bright and studious, and she married a priest. The youngest he named Bella because, he said, he wished for no man’s charity. She had blue eyes and yellow hair and was pretty and feckless, and when she came of age she said to her father, who proposed that she wed a grocer’s son, that she did not wish to marry just yet, as she fancied there were a few things she still had to do, though she could not however say exactly what they were, as they had not yet happened.

Her father agreed reluctantly, and the marriage was postponed for a year. He told the groom’s parents that he still needed her around the house, as his wife was ill, and not expected to recover.

But she had other plans. She went to another city, taking only her clothes and a golden ring from her grandmother that was supposed to be her eldest sister’s. There she worked in a market, and then at an inn, serving food and cleaning rooms. But her heart was not in these things because all the time she was waiting to discover what it was that she ought to do. She was certain that cleaning chamber-pots was not it.

The men at the inn soon enough noticed that she was a pretty girl, and, finding her willing, lost no time bedding her. But they were unnerved by her manner in bed because she giggled when they tried to pleasure her, as though she were being tickled—and most of all at the moment of bliss, when, instead of dying the little death, she screamed with laughter until she was all tears and snot. When she tried to suppress her laughter it was even worse, as the resultant sniggering and snorting struck them as derision, and they were unmanned and unable to go on.

So Bella carried on emptying chamber-pots and serving food, and after a year her sister Faith came to her and said, “Our father has sent me to fetch you. It is time you married the grocer’s lad.”

“I would come, though not gladly, but I find that I have not yet fulfilled my quest. There are yet things for me to do.”

“There are piss-pots enough to empty in the grocer’s house.”

“Would I stay there?”

“Where else?”

“Tell our father I cannot come. Tell him anything, any lie. Only I do not wish to marry the boy. Not yet, not yet.”

So Faith returned to her father and told him: “Bella is set on disobeying your wish, though the life she has found for herself is a worse one than the one you chose for her.”

Then the timber merchant sent Hope to call her back. When Hope arrived at the tavern, Bella was no longer there. A groom told her to look in the red light district, with a wink and a leer, and goosed her as she turned to leave.

Hope visited all the bawdy houses. At last she found Bella in a big and gaudy place where she was Diana the Laughing Whore. Men paid money to make love to her and wagered their potency against her laugher.

Hope found her in her working clothes—a state of semi-undress. She took her own coat off and draped it over Bella’s pale limbs. “I have come to fetch you,” was all she said.

“Ah, yes, you want me home,” Bella said, “but I will not come, because I still have things to do. And besides, if our father knew about Diana the Laughing Whore, the shame of it would kill him.”

“Our father need know nothing. Only come home, where your betrothed is now a grown man, and awaits you.”

“Is he a handsome man?” Bella asked.

“No, he is not. But his father now owns three shops, and besides deals in fruit and meat at the market. There are two servants who would ease your load. Leave this place, and come home with me.”

“Please give me more time. I feel that my destiny has yet to manifest, that something special is waiting to happen to me and I cannot come until it does. In the meanwhile, I get by as best as I can.” And she gave Hope her coat back and went out into the hall to meet the men.

Hope went home and told her father that Bella would not come, and the father became angry and took a great book, and, placing his hand on it, swore a great oath which disowned his disobedient daughter. But after a while he found that he still missed her cheerful face around the house. The prospect of a life that absolutely excluded the sound of her chattering and laughing in another room seemed drear. In his mind, too, he turned against the grocer’s son, who was, as far as he could determine, a loose-living lout and a lover of men.

Then one day he called Hope to him, and asked her to make discrete inquiries about Bella, and to beg her to come home, at least to visit her aging father, who now lived alone.

When Hope reached the bawdy house she found that Diana the Laughing Whore was no longer there.

“Ooh, she was a popular one, that one,” said one of the women. “With all the men betting and peeping through the holes, she paid off her debt and bought her way out. Left with a troupe of actors, she did. Not more than a month ago.”

Hope sought the actors, but was told that they were on tour and were in another city, and that Bella was the leading lady in a high drama. She followed them by coach, and found Bella backstage at a big theatre, dressed in fabulous satins and paste gems.

“Our father is old and pines to see his daughter again. Never mind the grocer’s son.”

“I would love to visit my father and make merry with the friends of my childhood again, but soon we are commanded to perform for the King, and I may not refuse. Besides, my heart tells me that I still have things to do, though I cannot say what.”

So Hope told her father that Bella could not visit, as she was commanded before the King, and the merchant grew proud of his daughter and boasted before the townspeople that his Bella played for the King. So he sent both Faith and Hope, saying: “When the play is over, she must come home. Offer her whatever we can offer. Forget the marriage.”

And when they came to the great theatre, they were directed to the palace. “The King fancied her,” said the director with a smirk. So they went to the great palace on the hill, surrounded by the great parks and fountains and walls and moats and gardens and out-buildings. There, after some fuss, they were shown to Bella’s suite. They found her dressed in satins and pearls, with a great diamond on her finger and an even larger one around her neck.

When they conveyed their father’s request and made his offer, she laughed like a bell. “The King is a sombre man, bearing on his shoulders the weight of the world, but when he saw my face he smiled and, wishing to smile again, he had me brought here. Now he visits me and we laugh together for hours. For it is my way that instead of showing passion with gasps, sweats and flushes, laughter comes from me as water from a rock. Now, I tell you this as sisters only: many men have sought of my love because of my yellow hair and smiling face, but few have pleasured me. They are unmanned by my laughter, thinking themselves mocked. But the King is so arrogant that he cannot imagine derision directed at his Royal Personage. He finds in me a merry relief from his cares. For him, as for so many men, pleasure was always a part of pain, and the pleasure of conquest greater than that of the body. But with me, he has a new experience—delight mixed with laughter. So he keeps me here, giving me whatever I want except my leave. I could not come home if I wanted to, and I am not altogether sure that I want to, for the King and I have much joy to share, and I still feel in my heart that I have things to do. But perhaps I could bring you to the court.”

Then they returned and told their father that Bella was the King’s mistress, and he grew proud and fearful, for nothing is more dangerous than the attentions of Kings. “Do not go again to the palace until we are summoned. The salons are full of daggers and intrigue.”

A summer and a winter passed, and still no summons came, and all their letters to Bella went unanswered. Then one day the timber merchant and his daughters were called to the palace, but told to travel incognito and to enter by a secret door. Arriving there, they found that Bella had born the king a son. The matter had to be hushed up as the bastard son would be in danger of his life, along with his family. The King told Bella to take the child home and raise him, and that he would call for him later. He named the child John, and told them to be on their way. Bella said, “I do not wish to go. My heart tells me that I still have things to do.” But the King said: “My state comes before your heart,” and commanded it and his spies ensured it, and Bella returned home to live with her ailing father and her son.

As the King had also ordered them to total secrecy, the merchant had to endure the shame of his bastard grandchild without the glory of being able to boast of his lineage. And the bitterness of it made him old and ill and he died before his time.

The King himself followed him not long after, and his firstborn son the Prince succeeded him, and John was forgotten as though he had never been. Bella married the grocer’s other son, the younger good-looking one. She taught him to laugh in bed, and they kept a grocery store which, if I am not mistaken, is still in the family name.

 

cartAS I was walking from one town to another I came upon two men arguing by the roadside. From where I first saw them, it was apparent that they were about to come to blows. Though their voices were raised I could not make out what they said, because their anger slurred their speech. As one man grabbed the other, he saw me approaching over his opponent’s shoulder. At once he left the fighting and became quiet, gesturing to the other with his eyes. The suppression of a guilty start is as obvious as the start itself, so I at once apprehended that here might be danger. I relaxed my body and smiled and made to pass by.

Near their feet was a sack, and from the sack spilled small parcels wrapped in oily brown paper. I looked the other way. Both men turned on me.

“You!” The older one with a beard shouted, “Where do you think you’re going?”

I looked down and made myself small, and mentioned the name of the next town, and continued to walk, though slowly. The younger man grabbed at my arm, just as I raised my hand to scratch my nose, so he missed. “Stand still when you’re spoken to!” He roared. So I stood still, which seemed the wisest thing to do, as both of the men were looking threatening. Then he did something the innocent never feel compelled to do—he explained what he was doing to a stranger.

“In the bag are medicines to cure the next town of a plague. Our task is to get them there, for the alleviation of suffering and to the glory of God.” The older man’s expression showed some surprise and amusement. “We wish you to help us, because we have been bearing this heavy load too long.” And he picked up the sack and handed it to me, cramming the spilled contents back in.

The sack had a dark and bitter scent. At first it sat lightly on my shoulders. The day was not unusually hot, but the more we walked the heavier it became—disproportionately, it seemed to me, to its weight or the distance travelled. The older man walked ahead, guiding our small party, and the younger walked behind me, prodding me with a stick whenever I stumbled or slowed down.

I thought to drop the sack and bolt, knowing that they would not leave it and its presumably valuable contents by the road, but there were two of them, and each stronger and swifter than I.

We had not been on the road half an hour when we met a farmer driving a bullock cart in the opposite direction. Seeing us, he slowed down and asked: “Hey, why don’t you help the old man?” The one behind me ground his stick into my back, and whispered that I should be silent.

The one in front said, “My son and I are unable to bear the burden, because we are under an oath before God, and may not work on this day of the week. This kindly old man has agreed to carry our sack for us to the next town,” and gave me a look signifying that I should regret anything I said to the contrary. While we were thus halted, I laid the sack down.

The cart driver said: “Bring your sack up onto the cart, and I will take you to town, after I have dropped these bags in that field over there,” and we all got up onto the cart. So we all rode over to the field and then back to the road, headed towards the town. I was kept silent with threatening looks which, if he saw them, the farmer chose to ignore.

“What’s in your bag?” The farmer asked me.

“Medicines,” the old man said. “Sweetmeats,” the younger said at the same time.

“Ah, those too. The mind of the young is ever on the food,” the bearded one said. The farmer smiled and shook his head.

Around the next corner were two pretty women walking towards town, sweating in the hot sun. The farmer slowed his cart.

“Hop up, you two,” he said, “There’s room for you if everyone shifts up.” So the girls clambered onto the cart and the farmer whipped the beast, and on we went. Soon the one woman noticed the sack.

“What’s in the bag?” she asked, nudging the farmer, taking the sack for his.

“Sweetmeats. And medicines. They’re not mine. These gentlemen are taking them to town.”

“Let’s have one, I’m hungry,” she said, and reached for the bag. The two men both lunged to prevent her from touching it, and hit their heads against each other.

The younger man looked at the other in rage. “You fumbling old fool give it to me!” he shouted. He tugged at the bag.

“Shut up, you worthless piece of shit. Remember where you are,” hissed the older, clutching tighter.

“Piece of shit, eh?” said the younger and was about to lunge at the other’s throat, to judge by his look, when he was brought up by a giggle from the women. He looked down and clenched his fists.

The bearded one spoke: “The sweetmeats are for a wedding. We can’t share them because they have to be accounted for, each one of them, so that all of the guests can get their share. I wish we could dally and share them and things sweeter still, but I can’t.

“Oh, who’s getting married then?” asked one of the women.

“I don’t know the names. Not in this town, but the next.”

“You’ll be late if the stuff is for today. And if it’s for tomorrow it’ll spoil in the heat. Let’s just see one. Can’t harm it with my eyes, but I can pretend I was at the wedding anyway.”

The man with the beard shoved the bag deeper under his knees and tried to ignore her. There was another cart ahead piled high with dung chips ready-dried for the fire. On top of the heap sat two young farm hands and on the other side of the heap was the driver, though we could only see the end of his whip.

“What are you taking to market, apart from your pretty selves?” one lad called to the women.

“Sweetmeats,” she said, “This greybeard has a bag of wedding pastries and such which he won’t share: a whole feast in a sack.”

“Mean old bastard,” the lad said, laughing, and they both jumped down and trotted beside the cart, peering in for the bag and for a glimpse of the women’s legs.

Now they started to tug for the bag in a teasing way, showing off for the girls. The men with the bag both became angry, and the younger shouted at them.

“Leave us alone. Fuck off!”

This, of course, had the reverse effect on the young men, who laughed and teased, plucking at the sack and glancing at the girls. The carts came to a downward slope and speeded up, so the boys jumped onto ours, making seven in the cart. At once a fight broke out. The farmer was forced to pay attention to the bullock, which was having trouble on the steep downhill, but managed to keep up a steady stream of shouts and curses to his passengers.

I decided it was time to make my exit, so I quietly slipped off the back of the cart, taking my small bundle. We were going quite fast, for a bullock cart, that is, and I nearly fell. As I steadied myself, the noise of the fight and the driver’s shouting stampeded the bullock, who set off at a gallop towards the narrow ford in the stream below. I watched the bag, tugged from three sides, erupt. The small oily parcels spilled all over and off the cart, which was now going at breakneck speed. As it reached the ford the cart lost a wheel and the whole thing twisted sideways, tipping all the passengers into the pond, tumbling the contents of the bag into the water, and leaving the poor bullock thrashing in the yoke. In the process the cartload of dung chips was also dumped into the stream. I didn’t need to hide myself as I walked away. They were all too busy to notice something as silent as my departure.

green man

MY HUSBAND loved a game of cards. He liked to vie with the luck, to pit his skill against the flow of things. “Only from chance comes something new,” he’d say.

Once he was gambling with some friends at an inn, when a man arrived looking for a room. A worthless lay-about too idle to herd swine. Soon this man, who named himself Jack, asked to join the game. “Yes,” my husband said, thinking by the man’s look that he could have no stake, “but to play you must show your earnest in gold on the table.” So this Jack pulled out a gold coin and threw it down. The coin lay there like an adder, for it was no simple coin, but a great spell and full of danger. But by my husband’s honour the game must be played. In the first watch, my husband took half the coin from Jack. In the second watch, Jack took back what was his, and double beside.

Again and again they shuffled and cut the cards. Always the coin was on the table. In the end, as the rooster crowed, Jack was the victor. All my husband’s gold lay heaped before him.

Jack was keen on my husband’s green skin and on his voice, which seemed a string of spells, and on the way that whenever you looked at him he seemed to be someone new. As my husband rose to ride away, Jack asked him where he lived. “East of the sun and West of the moon,” he replied, mounted and departed.

Then one day this Jack arrived at our hall. He had flown there on a horseshoe he’d got from the smiths, and he landed just beyond the flowing river of our moat.

The drawbridge was down, and invited his step upon it. But someone, maybe those very smiths, had told him of the bridge: if he set even one foot upon it, it would turn to web and dew.

So, instead of tramping in through the fatal gate, he hid and waited until our daughters came out to bathe. We had three girls, and as Jack watched, each undressed and turned herself into a swan—the firstborn and the next became black birds, and the young one, our darling Iris with the golden hair, was a white swan.

They entered the river, and while they were at play Jack stole Iris’s clothes and hid them, and waited for her to come for them. Of course, he had her then, for to see Iris bare was to bind her in a spell of helpless love until death.

She bore him in over the moat on her back or in her lap, our Iris, and she promised him anything, if only he wouldn’t tell her father. He raped her, I think. Raped her with her consent, which he gained by his trickery, by his thievery. Or I must own my very flesh to be traitor.

Soon this Jack came right up to the castle gate and stood before my husband, who was shocked to see him there in his own castle. “I don’t believe you’re a man. You’re a spirit or a ghost.”

“Oh no, I am a true man sir. A true man.”

“Ah, then I’ll set you three easy tasks which will prove it either way. Things any true man could do. And if you can’t fulfil the tasks, you die as a liar and impostor.”

“And the tasks?” Jack asked.

“Into the well behind my castle my wife dropped her golden wedding band. To accomplish the first, bring me that ring.”

At the well, Jack tied a long rope to a big stone and let it down. But the rope ended well before the water could be sounded. Then Iris stole my husband’s finding-spell and with it took this Jack deep to where the ring lay golden in the dark.

“You have done well,” my husband said, and shrugged. “Now see this castle, with its moats and spires: it was a moment’s work, a game, for me. So show me you’re my equal man, and build yourself just such a keep, or more.”

Now we had him—but again the girl, our Iris, the youngest daughter of the golden hair, abetted him. She showed him how to bind the cobweb and the walnut shell and add the spittle of a bat, and blow on it just so. She whispered in his swineherd’s ear the words to make it real, and up jumped his castle opposite our moat. Where ours was dark and ivied, his was bright and stood tall, with marble like the snail’s inner shell.

“You have done well,” my husband winced, “but look, the wood is full of ants and everywhere they scratch and scurry. Rid me of them in just an hour’s time, and I must concede you are a true man.” Jack blanched. But ah, our little Iris she took my husband’s gloves to put magic in Jack’s hands, so that in an hour, his fingers, finer than ants, go everywhere in the underwood, and in an hour the grove is clear.

Jack got his gold for that. “Now you’d best be gone,” my husband said. Then he took Jack to the stables and offered him a fine dark mare who flared her nose. Jack refused her and the roan mare too, but chose a mule that brayed beside them. She was Iris, our youngest daughter.

Then my husband raged. “You are no real man, or true! In each thing you have cheated me! You stand in my castle like its lord! My wealth, my power, my blood, you would steal by stealth! On my honour take the ass and be gone, and do it fast.” And while Jack left, he gathered arms and spells and rode with stings and scorpions in Jack’s pursuit.

My husband rode like fire. His horse foamed. With him came the older daughters, their hair flying behind them. The gap narrowed. Soon only a field’s width divided them. He nearly took Jack, but as he drew near Jack wielded the mule’s spell to put rivers, lakes and sea between them. To my husband’s green power, rivers became roads, lakes became plains. Again in time my man drew near. The mare’s hooves bled and foam was at her mouth. Our daughters followed hard by. Now her spell divided them with mountains, hills and dales.

Still he pressed on, hot on Jack’s trail. The mountains, hills and dales grew green, and he followed with the swiftness of the wind. From his side he drew his great wooden club. The girls drew swords as sharp as leaves.

Then Jack unpacked Iris’ strongest spell, leaving behind him fire, hell and pits, into which my husband and my oldest daughters fell. The green has no power to grow in fire. That was the end for them. Though Jack, I heard, married Iris and lived, for all I know, happily until he met his end.

 

The Green Man of Knowledge is based on a story told by one Geordie Stewart, in Aberdeen in 1954, and reported by William Anderson in Green Man (Harper Collins, London, 1990)

THERE WAS a man. His name was Zack. His parents came from what is now Latvia, but he was born in this country. His father had a small business, and he inherited it when the father died, when he was thirty-three. The mother lived two more years. Zack stayed with her throughout her cancer. He looked after her. During this time his mother’s domestic servant left and Zack found a young woman called Agnes to help about the house. Agnes was an orphan from a Catholic convent in a tiny town at the edge of the desert. She had never been in the city before. The nursing agency, which was also Catholic, found her. She hadn’t done well at school so they were sending her out to work. They wanted her in a good home, and didn’t ask Zack or his mother much about their religion. They made arrangements for her to attend the local church. Her wages were minimal. She was sixteen, nearly seventeen, slight and plain, with a common face. She lived in the maid’s quarters outside the house. Stolid, mute and uncomplaining, she helped Zack nurse his mother right up to the end. After she died, Agnes stayed on. She cleaned and cooked. He put up with tasteless convent food, pleased that there was something on the table. If he noticed the half-hearted way that she cleaned, he said nothing about it. He joked with her and found he could make her laugh easily, though her laugh was always nervous.

He started flirting with her. She endured it stoically. He never forced anything.

She found friends, started drinking. Twice he found her in the kitchen blind drunk, hardly able to stand. She spilled a pot of pepper into the soup but served it anyway. She spent time out at night. Strangers visited her in her room. One evening, he stood in the doorway as she was preparing supper. She came through to fetch something but he didn’t move. She squeezed past him, then stopped and pressed herself up against him. He kissed her. They made love. She was very responsive, and her simple face became animated in a way that he had never seen before.

She slept in his bed. She bathed in his bathroom in the morning. He suggested that she move into the house, but she refused. This was the height of the repression, and could have created some problems. They never once mentioned the law.

They became lovers, but she still kept the strange hours and friends, the drinking. Sometimes he bought her little presents and they vanished into her room. She started stealing things. He had to lock his money away. He told her that he loved her. She always looked down.

One night while driving home he saw her standing with the prostitutes on Main Road. He drove past. She turned away when she saw him.

He said nothing to her. They made love with even more passion than before. He drove down the main road every night. Two nights later she was there again.

He parked around the corner a few blocks away and found a place under a tree where he could watch her without being seen. Soon a car pulled up. She went over to it. The man in the passenger’s seat opened the door. She leant over to speak to him. He put his hand up her short skirt. She wiggled on his hand.

At home he became cold and distant, unresponsive to her. Still he said nothing. When she crept into his bed at night, he tried to turn away, but ended up making love anyway. He took to hiding and watching her on the nights when she worked on the streets. Twice he followed cars. Once they went into a block of flats. The other time the car parked on Signal Hill.

She came home with her face badly beaten. He cleaned and bandaged the cuts. He sent her to bed and looked after her. They were very tender. Once when they made love she called him ‘father.’

She went back to the street as soon as she was better. Then one night she didn’t come home. Two days later the police were at the door. They searched the house. They found bloodstains on the sheets from her menstruation. They matched the blood. They arrested him. For three days he was interrogated. They took him to see Agnes’s body. It had thirteen knife wounds in it. He cried and cried. He told the truth until the truth unravelled. Then he told whatever he thought would please them.

One of the other prostitutes talked. They found the murderer. The man had been a pimp and he had killed her over a debt and a matter of territory. They let Zack go, although they had a confession from him. Even sleeping with Agnes had been a crime, but they agreed to look the other way.

He went home. With his parents dead and no siblings, he was a rootless man. His house seemed dangerous and empty. He bought a gun. His work suffered and he lost business. His name had been in the papers.

He drove to the convent where Agnes had been educated. The place was a brick model of an Italian cloister. The mother superior received him in her office. A sad white plaster Jesus looked down from a cross on the wall. Zack told her about Agnes, leaving out the fact that they’d been lovers. The woman heard him in silence, her hands folded on the desk. When he told how Agnes had been stabbed, she crossed herself.

In the end she shrugged. ‘They start with disadvantages. Agnes was brought here when she was nearly four. She was covered with bruises from continual beatings. We never found her parents. As a girl she was stubborn, sullen and rebellious. We tried to correct this, but my feeling is that we got her too late. This is not a new story. We do our best but the pull of the world on our girls is strong. Evil is everywhere’

‘Agnes was not evil.’

‘No, but she was stupid. I remember her. She should have been protected from it.’

‘I tried. Like you. My mother’s death distracted me. I should have watched her more carefully.’

The Mother Superior sighed. ‘Forgive yourself, so that God can forgive you. We do what we can.’

She showed him two photographs. One was a class photo and he couldn’t find her in the group until the woman pointed. Agnes was sitting cross-legged in front. She looked about ten. The other was from a Christmas pageant. It must have been taken shortly before Agnes left. She was dressed as the Virgin Mary, sitting near a crib, wearing blue. The colour was faded.

He took this picture with him when he left. It was night when he drove away and the desert sky was full of stars.

That’s the end of my story. After six months Zack sold everything at a loss and moved to another city. I believe he still lives there.

fox2ONCE THERE were two lions who lived on a wide Savannah plain. The male lion was red, with a splendid black mane. The female was black, and when she ran she had the speed of a cloud in a hurricane. They ruled everything, and lived in peace with each other. All animals feared them except the elephant, who was too busy eating to play much part in politics. Fox came to them: “Since you are such prolific hunters and such benign rulers, I make petition for your humble servant to be considered when you eat, that perhaps some scraps may fall my way.”

“And what shall we get in return?”

“Your majesties, I am but a humble fox. I have few resources. I can offer only some plover’s eggs or a dainty rat, and scanty pickings of those.”

The lions agreed: “You poor fellow. You must be starving. You may clean the carcasses after we have eaten.”

Fox thanked them prolifically. After a few days, Hunting-dog also came to the lion. “The fox gets fat on your leavings, and we get nothing. Your benign and democratic majesties would be seen to show favour,” and the lion said: “You may also pick the carcasses. See to it that you wait respectfully until we have dined. It is the hunter’s right.”

Soon Crow came by, and Hyena and Meercat and others, and the kill was surrounded by a hungry rabble. As the longeststanding scavenger, the fox became the leader of this pack. He went to see the lions. “Your subjects are hungry and they grow unruly. If your exalted majesties hunted more often, of course, the problem would not arise.” The noble lions redoubled their hunting. They went out twice, even three times in a week. They slew impala relentlessly, cut down zebras like grass. The rabble feasted well and prospered. After several seasons had passed, the lions were going out daily.

The prey became worried. They gathered near a water hole and conferred. After some argument they elected Kudu as their representative and sent him to the court of the lions.

Fox intercepted him. “Where are you going?”

“I’m on my way to see the king and queen with a petition from their subjects.”

“They are busy. You may give the petition to me. I shall pass it on to them. Wait here.”

Kudu gave Fox the petition, which was inscribed by beetles onto elephant’s-ear leaves. Fox trotted off with it and dumped it in a ravine. Then he went to the lions who were returning from the hunt. “My most enormous Lord and greatest of hunters, there is a fine kudu standing in the gully down there. You could have him merely by strolling over and jumping off that rock onto his back. Mind the horns if you do.” And the lion bounded over the rise and leaped onto Kudu and broke his neck with one efficient blow.

The slaughter continued, and again the prey assembled. This time they sent the Eland, and that night the fox’s scavenging followers dined on eland.

As their train of rabble multiplied, the lions continually increased their hunting efforts. They had to range further and run faster to find quarry, but being good rulers they did this willingly. A time came when their efforts were not enough. The hungry scavengers became angry. Fox addressed them. “The lions aren’t bringing us enough meat any more. They grow fat and lazy.” All the animals railed against the lions. Fox saw his moment. Leading this starving mass, they took the lions by surprise, fell upon them and ate them. Fox made sure that he ate the Red Lion’s heart. The animals carried him high. They cheered him as their new king.

Fox told the others that he wished to hunt alone. He trotted off among the bushes until he saw Wildebeest, then dashed towards him, roaring. Wildebeest stepped aside.

“What’s got into you, Fox?” he asked.

Fox said: “I have become King of the beasts, and a great hunter. I have the Red Lion’s heart.”

Wildebeest laughed and carried on eating grass. Fox charged again, and Wildebeest kicked him. Fox slunk off and hid in an abandoned badger’s set. On the way he robbed a quail’s nest and licked some grubs from under a turned fallen log. And that is, of course, why the animals no longer have a king.