Tale #25: The King And The Light

There once was a King who had ruled his kingdom for many years, and there remained no-one who dared to question him. Such was his power that there were none upon the earth who he considered his equal, and so one day he called down a star from the night sky and bade her walk with him. It was there, in his vast garden, that he asked her to be his wife.

“Where would I live?” she asked.

“In my castle,” the King replied.

The star laughed, and said she could not, for she was used to the vastness of space, and walls were not to her liking.

“Well then, if not in my castle how about in the fields of my kingdom?” he said, and he showed her the extent of his fields and the vastness of his domain. “All this is mine, and within it you can go where you please, for you would be Queen and none but me would dare stop you.”

But still she refused.

“Even your kingdom has borders. And borders themselves are walls,” she said. “Walls of another kind, yes, but they constrain all the same.”

“Then, if not my wife, my prisoner you will be,” the King said, and he called for his guards to capture her.

To this the star replied, “Wife, servant, prisoner, slave – what difference would it make what you call me? Without choice, the imprisonment is just the same.”

The King’s guards led her to the deepest and darkest part of the castle’s vast filthy dungeons, and there, in the smallest cell, they locked her inside. “Perhaps when this cell has dimmed the fire in your heart you will see the error of your ways,” the King said to the star.

To which the star said to the King, “It is not only me this cell holds in place, for you as well are bound by it.” But the King would not listen, and he left her there, glowing to no-one in the dark.

After a week, the King returned and asked once more for her hand in marriage. The star looked just as bright as before, if not brighter, and still she refused. “If a week is not enough to change your mind, then so be it,” said the King.

“And to you I say the same,” said the star. But the King would not listen.

After a month, the King returned for a second time, and asked her again to marry him. The star’s radiance was brighter than ever and she refused once more. “If a month is not enough to change your mind, then so be it,” said the King.

“And to you again I say the same,” said the star. But the King would not listen.

After a year, the King returned for a final time. “I have asked you three times to marry me, and three times you have refused. If you refuse me a fourth time, I shall abandon you here and you shall know nothing more but imprisonment for the rest of your days.”

By now the star was so bright the King had to shield his eyes against her majesty. “I have spent a year in this cage, hoping each day that you would come to understand that these walls have imprisoned you just as much as me. But you have understood nothing.”

The star reached out and took the King by the hand. “Look, I shall show you,” she said. And with that her brightness flared and the King’s castle was burned to the ground, and the people within were set free.

And then she shone more brilliantly than ever before, and every wall and building in the country was reduced to ash, although the people within were left unharmed.

And then her brightness exploded outwards once more and the walls and the borders of all the Earth were destroyed and everyone across the world was set free. And in the comfort of her light there was much rejoicing and a shared sense of kinship between all which would never fade.

The people of the world did give her praise, but they did not make a God of her, nor even a Queen, for her light had shown them that those that rule are another wall imposed upon the world, and the Gods themselves yet another.

To the King she said, “To you, and only you, shall I show a truly wall-less world, out beyond the binds of gravity.” And she bore him up into the immensity of space, and took him to the deepest and darkest part of her infinitely vast domain, and she set him down there in the darkness, where the only light was her own, for the rest of the stars were too far away to cast their light upon him.

“Now, my King, you are free.”

And she left him there in the dark, in the cold, far out beyond the walls of the world.

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Notes:

1. This was written in May, 2014
2. But was first published in November, 2016, in the anthology Liberty Tales, published by Arachne Press
3. You can see this story being performed by the actor Cliff Chapman at a Liberty Tales launch event here.
4. The illustration is by Holly English, the final of four illustrations she drew for these fairy tales.
5. The original title of this was The King And The Angel Of Light, but the angel bit got removed during the publication process.
6. I was really obsessed with the song not here/not now by the angels of light at the time I think

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Tale #24: The Lunar Queen

I heard a story that went like this.

A troubled king was beset on all sides with trials and tribulations that were beyond his capacity to control. Even his wife was critical of him. In his anger at her betrayal, he shouted, “If you believe you can do a better job than me, I shall grant you a kingdom of your own to rule. Then we shall see what manner of monarch you would make.”

Nevertheless, she continued her criticisms of his policies, and he had her banished from his kingdom and exiled upon the moon. He said to her, “I grant thee this kingdom of rock and ruin. Now let us see the great successes of it you shall make!” And he left her there in the vast ocean of dust that was now her domain.

The queen did not despair. “First,” she said. “I need air so I can breathe.” And so she spoke to the northern winds of the earth, for they blew harder than any she knew, and were despised by the people that lived there for their malevolence and unceasing destruction.

“The people of the north do nothing but complain about you, and have no appreciation of the support you grant them. Come join me here on the moon, and blow as hard and as long as you like, and let them pour their smoke up into a windless sky and choke beneath a fog of their own making.”

The north winds agreed to join her on the moon, and brought with them their birds and their bees, and so the queen had all the air she could breathe, and a great deal more besides. And the north winds had a whole world on which to blow, and blow they did.

“Next,” the queen said. “I need water for me to drink.” And so she spoke to the southern seas of the world, for they were deeper and wilder than any she knew, and were hated by the people of the south for the ships that they sank and the storms that they brewed.

“The people of the south do nothing but complain about you, and have no appreciation of the support you grant them. Come join me here on the moon, and spread you waters as far as you wish, and as deep. And let them pour their filth into their own soil, rather than down their rivers and into you.”

The south seas agreed to join her on the moon, and brought with them their fish and their whales, and so the queen had all the water she could ever need, and a great deal more besides. And the south sea had a whole world round which to flow, and flow they did.

“Now,” said the queen. “I need some land on which to live.” And so she spoke to the eastern mountains, for they were higher and harder than any she knew, and were feared by the people of the east for the barrenness of the soil and the coldness of their cliffs.

“The people of the east do nothing but complain about you, and have no appreciation of the support you grant them. Come join me here on the moon, and stand as high as you wish, and as proud. And let them try to grow their crops without the rains you squeeze from the sky for them.”

The eastern mountains agreed to join her on the moon, and brought with them their goats and their glaciers, and so the queen had all the land she could ever need, and a great deal more besides. And the eastern mountains had a whole world on which to stand, and stand they did.

“And,” she said. “I need some woods in which to walk.” And so she spoke to the western woods, for they were thicker and wilder than any woods she knew, and were hated by the people of the west for the monsters they contained.

“The people of the west do nothing but complain about you, and have no appreciation of the support you grant them. Come join me here on the moon, and grow as thick as you like, and as far. And let them try to build their houses and heat their homes without your wood.”

The western woods agreed to join her on the moon, and brought with them their flowers and their foxes, and so the queen had all the places to walk she could ever need, and a great deal more besides. And the western woods had a whole world on which to grow, and grow they did.

“And finally,” she said. “I need some friends with which to talk.” And so she spoke to all the women of the world.

“The men of the world do nothing but complain about you no matter what you do, and have no appreciation of the support you grant them. Come join me here on the moon, and live exactly as you wish. And let them try to live their lives without you.”

The women of the world agreed to join her on the moon, and brought with them their joy and their love, and so the queen had all the friends she could ever need, and a great deal more besides. And the women of the world had a whole world on which to live, and live they did.

Whatever happened to her husband I never was told.

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Notes:

1. Written September 2016

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Tale #23: Old tales are made new in the telling

I first heard this story from my aunt, when I was about fourteen or so.

We were making jam in the garden out of old plums, my aunt, my sister and me, all of us stood around the kitchen table we’d dragged out there for the afternoon, our hands stained yellow and brown, the knives slippery in our fists.

“When I was little,” she said, as if it had actually happened to her, as if it was actually true, “when I was little, not much older than you two, we lived in Mundon still, your mum and me, at your grandparents’ old house, that you probably don’t remember,” she said to my sister, “and that you definitely won’t,” she said to me, “in the months between your grandparents dying and us all having to leave. But I worked here in Maldon.

“I had to walk through the woods to get to work,” she said.

“There aren’t any woods,” I said, “not near here.”

“There were then,” she said. “They were here, here and all the way down the road, before the towns began to sprawl towards each other, and everything was thinned out a bit and made plain.

“I walked through the woods because it was quicker than the road, and it was nicer, too. And safer, I thought, away from the trucks on the road that threatened to knock you into the bushes, leaving you caught there in the branches like an old carrier bag tattered into wisps in the wind.

“What’s that? Yes, of course we had carrier bags then.”

(The way I’m telling it, and the way I remember it, was that it was me making these interjections, but it was almost certainly my sister, for she always understood that stories are a collaborative thing, dialogues rather than monologues, while I was content just to listen, to learn.)

“The path was always overgrown, in the summer, in the spring,” my aunt almost sung. “We hung a sickle on a hook by the stile at the edge of the woods, and you’d take it with you when you walked your way along the way, and you would hack away at the brambles and the branches that got in your way, and you’d leave it at the other end of the path when you’d gone all the way through, so that someone else could use it when they went back the other way.

“I don’t know if I was the only one who walked the path or the only one that had the good grace to keep the path, but the sickle was always there waiting for me, in the morning, in the evening, in the lateness of the night if I’d been out. But I was a big girl even then. Especially then,” she laughed. “All that lifting at the warehouse did wonderful things for your arms. I wielded that sickle like a bloody scythe.

“A stream ran through the woods, winding back and forth across the path so that I had to cross three bridges. And on my way home one day I met the devil on every one.

“At the first bridge he looked at me and said, ‘Let me have a kiss, and only then will I let you pass.’ And so I gave the devil a kiss and I crossed the river and continued on my way.

“At the second one he was there again. ‘Let me…’ Well,” my aunt laughed, “‘Let us,’ he said, ‘let’s fuck, and then and only then will I let you continue on your way.’ So I stood against the tree and let the devil have his way. And a very good way it was, I’ll have you know. A very good way indeed,” my aunt laughed.

And my sister blushed and so I expect did I.

“At the third bridge,” my aunt said, “there he stood again. He waited until I was near and then he said ‘We’ve kissed, you and I, and we’ve loved, so now all that’s left is for us to marry.’ ‘And then you’ll let me continue on my way?’ I asked. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Of course.’

“And I know I was young, and I know I was stupid, but really, I thought. Really. What did he take me for? So I told the devil to give me his hand, and he held it out for me to hold.

“I swung that sickle down so hard it went clean through his palm and pinned him to the bridge.”

My aunt held up a plum between her fingers and sliced it apart with her knife. She picked the stone out with the tip of her blade, then threw the halved plum into the pot.

“And,” she said, “I went on my way.”

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Notes:

1. Written in July, 2014

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Tale #22: A Long Winter’s Night

There was a woman who lived in the woods. She sat by the fire on that long winter’s night, her young son cradled in her lap. She sang him songs and told him stories and said don’t be afraid, until he fell asleep and she sang no more.

Outside, under the fullness of the moon, in the deepness of the snow, the boy’s father gibbered and howled and screamed and begged and battered his bloody fists against the door.

She looked at the boy, his sleeping face angelic in the flickering fire’s light, and she looked at the door, and imagined what snarled beyond. She wondered if this was all there was; violence, now, and in her son, yet-to-be. She wondered what use was love. All this love.

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Notes:

1. From August 2014
2. Inspired by one of the verses in The Sounds Are Always Begging by Bonnie Prince Billy And The Cairo Gang, from the album The Wonder Show Of The World (2010)

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Tale #21: The Wolves In The Woods

In the woods a night of snow and howling winds and wolves at the wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our youngest son, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But he is our child,” and to that Father said, “We have two more.” So Mother threw her youngest son over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled around the boy and in the darkness they consumed him.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our daughter, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But she is our child,” and to that Father said, “We have one more.” So Mother threw her daughter over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the girl and in the darkness they consumed her.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our eldest son, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But he is our child,” and to that Father said, “We can always make more.” So Mother threw the eldest son over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the boy and in the darkness consumed him.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them yourself, so that I may escape.” Said Mother, “But I am your wife,” and to that Father said, “I can always marry another.” So Mother threw herself over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the woman and in the darkness consumed her.

But soon the wolves were back at his wheels. Father said, “They are getting too near,” but there was no-one left to throw, and soon the wolves had surrounded him, and Father was forced to stop. The wolves circled the man, round and round in the darkness. They began to shiver and cough and choke and one by one they spat out his children and finally his wife.

And his family circled round and in the darkness they consumed him.

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Notes:

1. Written on July 21st, 2014
2. Illustrated by Holly English
3. The last line is an echo of the last line in The Three Wishes

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