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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Trick Or Treat

I’d never been trick or treating before. It wasn’t really a thing when we were kids. Instead of trick or treating you’d just run around in the dark throwing eggs and flour at each other over the park until the park keeper chased you away.

There was nothing more frightening and exhilarating when you were 14 than the beam of the park keeper’s torch sweeping through the trees and all of us scattering away into the night.

So this year, as my 40th birthday treat, we decided to go trick or treating. Proper trick or treating, with costumes and little buckets for the sweets and everything.

The most terrifying thing I could think of was being a teenager again so I was dressed up as myself from 1992: long greasy hair, a ned’s atomic dustbin t-shirt, an awkward straight limbed stance, a neck dotted with shaving cuts, several thousand suicidal thoughts per second.

My sister was dressed up as some sort of cat, and my mother was dressed up as the log lady from twin peaks.

The log lady isn’t frightening, I said to my mother. She said “Well, you can’t hear what the log’s saying.”

“I suppose,” I said, and shrugged in non-agreement agreement.

Cats aren’t frightening, I said to my sister. She scratched at my eyes and bit my throat out and then dragged me back to the house and left me on the doorstep for my father to find.

I didn’t really have an answer for that.

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Notes:

1. Written on September 9th, 2018

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Trick Or Treating By Car

Most people seem to have a bunch of Halloween stories if you ask them, odd and unsettling events, all dressed up with dread and portent, urban legends repurposed as their own. A chance meeting with an old friend you find out later died years before, a kindly old lady with suspiciously hairy hands asking you for a lift home, a mysterious something brushing against your arm in the dark, that sort of thing.

Something teetering on the edge of plausibility. Something scary. Or scaryish, at least. Something spooky.

I’ve only got two Halloween stories, and I’m not sure either really fit that description.

The first one is pretty mundane. I made the mistake of going for a walk round here on halloween one time. I was on my own, just out for a stroll, and these arseholes ran past and egged me.

That’s it, that’s the whole story.

But I remember for a second thinking I’d been shot, not just the impact of it as that egg hit me in the stomach, but the sensation of putting my hand to my belly and feeling the wetness there, the sickly thickness of it against my skin. Then I held my hand up to the light and saw it was just a mess of egg, and that initial tremble of fear was overwhelmed by a somewhat tetchy annoyance.

Then came the mocking laughter from the kids as they sprinted away down the road, and my annoyance collapsed in on itself and I was left with nothing but a faint feeling of embarrassment that somehow lingered on for days.

My other halloween story is that last year I went trick or treating by car.

My brother turned up out of the blue in a brand new car. Some sports car. I don’t know what. I hadn’t seen him in months. He sat outside my house and beeped his horn and when I came out to see what was going on he wound down his window and the first thing he said was, “Let’s go trick or treating, Jill. Let’s go trick or treating in a car.”

He smiled. It’d been so long since I’d seen him. I loved that smile sometimes. I loved it now.

“I bet you’ve never been trick or treating in a car before,” he said.

And he was right I hadn’t.

The way he said it, too, as if this mundane idea was actually the absolute height of decadence, something so opulent there’s no conceivable way I could have ever done it before. Imagine it, his voice said through the wound down window, driving around town, demanding sweets from the innocent and the guilty alike. It’ll be glorious.

How could I say no?

In the boot he had two costumes. A wolf costume and a little red riding hood costume. We mixed and matched. I took the little red cloak and the wolf hands, he took the wolf’s head and the wicker basket.

“We’ll never pass as kids,” I said.

“Maybe I’m just a really tall kid,” my brother said, his voice slurred by the mask.

“Yeah right. A really tall kid driving a bloody car!”

“Well, okay, why not just say I’m your dad?” he suggested. “You’re short enough.”

He smiled. I hated that smile sometimes. I hated it then. Wide and knowing and filled with so many teeth.

“Urgh, okay then,” I relented. “I’ll need a mask too, though. Wait a minute.”

I went back inside, and came out wearing a kabuki mask I’d bought for some masquerade ball years and years ago. With the hood pulled up around it I looked suitably terrifying, although, I must say, the hairy hands were probably a bit much. But still, I liked them, and it was Halloween. It was going to be cold as hell tonight.

My brother looked amazing, standing there in his suit and tie, the wolf’s head on, leaning nonchalantly against this flash new car.

It was almost five, dusk already, just getting dark. We got in the car and sped off round the corner.

“Where are we going?” I said, cradling his wolf mask in my lap, running my fingers through its hair.

“I dunno,” he shrugged. “Just around. Wherever takes our fancy.”

He drove out of town first, round the bypass and then back again, getting a feel for his new car, accelerating up through the gears, before eventually we looped back towards the estate where we’d grown up.

He pulled up outside our old house, the one where we’d lived until I was five, till he was seven.

“How about here?” he said, taking his head from my lap and putting it on, placing one smile over another.

An old lady answered the door, almost old enough to be our grandmother, and my brother said, “Trick or treat?” as if he did this every year, as if he really was my father and I really was his little girl, too shy to speak.

While the old lady scuttled off to get us some sweets from the kitchen, I could see my brother leaning his head round the door, trying to get a look at our old hallway, our old stairs. Trying to see if there was anything the same, anything he remembered.

She came back with an apple for each of us, and some kindly words about being careful out there on a night like this. “And aren’t you a sweet little girl,” she said to me. I was too scared to reply and turned and ran back to the car. Behind me I could hear my brother apologising.

“I think she’s a bit scared, she’s only young… And, yes, yes, very tall for her age.”

The next few houses were just… houses. They didn’t seem to hold any special significance that I could see, weren’t the homes of old friends or relatives, as far as I could remember. But at each one they paid out handsomely in sweets, as if our journey was divinely ordained, good luck bestowed upon us by the god of cars, the angels of deceit.

After the fifth house, back in the car, my brother warming his ungloved hands above the heated air vents, he turned to me and said, “That was him. It was really him. Did you see that? It was him.”

“Who?” I said.

Him,” my brother said, before revealing some half-remembered name from our distant past. “Oh god, I used to love him so much. I used to idolise him. He used to be so fucking cool. I can’t believe he still lives at home!”

He laughed loudly through the wolf’s mask for a moment and then, suddenly, shouted, “Oh god I hope his parent’s haven’t died. Maybe he’s inherited their house. Oh god, I don’t know. It could be anything, it could be anything.”

And then, a few minutes later, when we were halfway to the next house, “He used to be perfect!”

None of the next few houses provoked anything like this from my brother, although after one he said, “That was their mum, remember, the twins, I used to go round there all the time. Oh god, she looks exactly the same. Exactly the same. I used to think she was so old, I used to think everyone was so old. But they must have been younger than us, then, younger than we are now.”

It was about eleven when we got to the last house. I only knew it was the last house because my brother whispered, “this is the last one” as we crunched our way up the gravel drive and knocked on the door.

An old man answered. My brother held up our basket, a gingham cloth tucked neatly over the top, as if rather than being filled to the brim with deceitfully gotten sweets we had brought with us a nice picnic we wanted to share.

“Trick or treat,” we said together.

“It’s a bit late, isn’t it,” the old man barked at us. “It’s almost midnight.”

He slammed the door in our faces.

“Nice bloke,” I said.

“Well, he does have a point,” my brother said, looking at his watch.

We were almost back to the car when we heard the door behind us open.

“Here,” the old man said, tossing a chocolate bar in our direction. “Now go to fucking bed.”

And the door slammed again.

“Who was that?” I said. “It’s not the ghost of our father or something is it?”

“No, no,” my brother said, and then wouldn’t say any more.

We drove back to my house, put the fire on, and sat there while our bones tingled from the heat and our skin itched as life slowly returned to it. My brother tipped out the spoils we’d accumulated on the floor between us, a huge mound of sickliness, all the sorts of things I’d never usually eat. We took off our masks and gorged ourselves on it like ravenous animals hunched over a fresh kill.

The power went out at midnight. Even the fire cut out. My brother gave a ridiculously knowing theatrical scream at this sudden descent into darkness, and we both burst out laughing. After the laughter died down, we lapsed into a prolonged contemplative silence. I sat there in the dark, eating sweets from the pile on the floor around me, our phones out in front of us, their screens our candles.

Eventually we tired of keeping our phones awake, of the constant nudging and nurturing they needed to keep their flames from guttering, and we so let them splutter out, let the darkness take back the room.

I tried to scare myself with that old game we’d play as kids on nights like this – this isn’t a sweet it’s an eyeball, this one’s snot, this one’s not a liquorice lace it’s a wiggly worm! – but I think I’m too old to make myself giddy with squeamishness now. And in any case, it doesn’t really work when they’re your sweets, when you already know what they’re not, even if you’re not exactly sure what they are until you pop them in your mouth and bite them in half.

The church bells chimed one o’clock. I listened to my brother’s breathing in the dark, the ragged breaths that implied unseen tears. A chill went through me, and just as I was about to ask if he was okay he said, “I’m dying, Jill. I’m so sorry, I’m… It’s cancer, Jill. It’s cancer and I’m dying.”

I felt it like a knife to the heart. Like a bullet to the belly.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. What can you say? What should you say? I still don’t know what to say and I still wish I’d said whatever it is I needed to say then but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t and I didn’t and I should have. I should have known and I should have said and

and

and and and

In the dark, in the silence, that seething horrible silence, I reached out to hold my brother’s hand. And as my furry wolf-gloved palm clasped his own, he let out a piercing shriek of unabashed terror and scrambled away across the room in the dark, a stark fucking howl of anguish and horror and christ knows what that broke my heart forever.

“Oh, christ, Jack, it’s just me,” I said. “It’s just me. It was just these stupid fucking wolf hands, these stupid fucking gloves.”

And for a moment then I wanted the silence back, wanted the silence of my failure and the dark of my heart to swallow me whole and never let me go, never have to let me show my face again, never have to let me live with the shame and the embarrassment and the grief, O god the grief.

But then the words came. I took the gloves off and held his hand in my own and the words poured out, poured out of both of us there in the dark, the words and the tears and every last remnant of our hearts.

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Notes:

1. Written on the 14th of September, 2018

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