y wife, Aubrey Holes, split in half the other day.
I was five miles south of Dartford, late May afternoon, driving slowly through the lovely Burne Valley area, along that minor road that connects the A6 and the A790, pointing proudly all the while at the shadow of my lacquer-blue Triumph Herald as it wriggled over the blossom nimbi of the blackthorn hedges, squat and loud with bees. I was just coming up to the roundabout at Naxey, where I take a left --the light is primeval today, which I suppose means clear--and her right side came clean away.
Cheerful lions roam the wasteland there, as you will probably know, many over 500 years old, and still bore the plumby imprints of the prophets' thumbs, where the prophets had kneaded the velvet hides of the lions in the night, whispering: "manes" and "rains" as they did so, "maaaanes and raaaains," over and over again. I pulled over and stared at the lions, weighing the odds.
"Aubrey Holes," I said, "do you think you can make it to that phone box?"
"Not like this," she said.
We drove on.
The gaunt cottages of Whymondsbury formed up in our retinas now, speckled along the Bewsley lane at widening intervals like a ticker tape of acceleration, the temptation to increase speed so that the houses come at regular intervals is almost overwhelming, but I resist, knowing that to appear this early would signal a hunger on my part, that would not go down well with the board, or the seamstresses, or their boys. Aubrey Holes says nothing, but I suspect she is thinking the same.
By my reckoning, we had about an hour to kill before Aubrey became irreparably bipartite, so I sped off down the lane from Whymondsbury to Hamilton. Soon the lane ran out and I was scrambling through brambles and dens of close-packed oak, and savoury smell, and, where a fallen tree let in the light: creeping buttercup, meadowsweet and bluebells. I could just hear, above Aubrey's Left and Aubrey's Right battling through the undergrowth behind me at a dogged hop, rabbits grinding their teeth in the earth--very methodical scrump, scrump--and I half turned with tears in my eyes, and said, "here, and here, and hare, and here," pointing, but she said, "I'm old."
We stood to catch our breath at the top of a hill, and thunder tingled along the neck of the horizon, and the plateau was bisected by sidewinder pollen-streamers of cooler gust rushing ahead of the storm--we were very excited--and Aubrey pointed to the lions in the distance who shed nervy glances, first at their manes, and then at the sky. And then it was down the hill to Hamilton.
In Hamilton my brother Joe practises weaving and metal smelting. He has already smelted most of the metals up to iron. He lives in an offensive tower there. I think it is the form of the tower that offends. In addition he has a number of bolt-holes for his family. I tell him about Aubrey and he smiles. He points to the vast death-wish lever he has constructed in the garden since our last visit from the second hand of a ting-tang clock. Or did he say: vast swish death's lever? My brother has an impediment--not a speech impediment though that too can be impeded--and it's hard to tell, but maybe this is a "distinction without a difference," or as they say in Hamilton: "two seas are as deep as one." I nod, though I haven't a clue what he means. Is he suggesting I pull the lever, when the burden of responsibility grows too great? Or that Aubrey? Come to think of it, I don't even know if the lever is lethal to the puller, or their partner, or someone else entirely. I imagine pulling it and seeing no change, but never quite sure that someone somewhere had not come from grief by my action.
We drink hand wine, the three--four--of us, served by very plausible monkeys. One monkey, the arch-monkey has wet himself with fear. I asked Joe about this, and he told me that the Derodine Alliance had been making unacceptable demands. I decided to declare war. The Alliance controlled the whole of the Moschlek Peninsula up to the Doerfel Mountains, a loose league of Derodine tribes, plus the obstinate Team Leaders of the Doerfel foothills, subdued only last week. These, I suggest, we woo as allies. My brother collects fifteen big jars of hand wine for just this purpose and loads them into his van. Still, we were vastly outnumbered, and would require special inventions.
While our monkey technicians get to work, me and Aubrey and Joe's sons, Here and There, suddenly cross the River Eleven to take out 'Neath village, as it lies on our route, raising 'Neath to the ground and selling the old couple who live there into slavery to pay for our expedition. They were very good about it. My brother suggests I get the hands, but I don't like to, and anyway there's no time. A monkey invents a sort of ballista.
Now, with just under half an hour left, I must choose the leaders for the expedition. First, John Montechristo from the house at the end, a knotty fellow with eyes like bulbs of gall harbouring embryonic waspish thoughts. His fingers flit through the black pewter-barbed waterfall of his beard like pink salmon, curling it into volutes--we will pay him by the curl, I decide. John will be our navigator. His huge impassive face. It is said that once he attained nirvana but was indifferent to its charms. I pick John because of his strong right arm. Aubrey offers John a handful of soil, but he just stares at it, as if to say: "What am I to do with this?"
Next is Rebecca Stooge, a small caustic zebra of a girl, always looking around. My brother puts the crescent moon on her head, as this, he says, will embolden the enemy. It certainly adds to the dolomite pallor as she looks around. She sits on his settee now with her feet on the coffee table, two gaping owl-eyes of condensed sweat where her heels rest on the glass top, flipping through a book of Joe's weavings. I pick Rebecca because of her encyclopaedic knowledge of siege warfare.
Third is Arthur Sulphate. Albert and I go way back; we were in the air together, but now he's called Anthony and I hardly know him. His movements have a recursive quality, as if he's always looking back from a moment ahead, with these actions already done; when reaching for his pint of hand wine, or turning his head to follow the trajectory of something we cannot see, it is almost obscenely direct. "Do we have to have him?" Aubrey whispered. "Better safe than sorry, love," I mutter. I pick Arcturus because of his wistfulness which I think might affect the enemy. Arthur and my brother keep trying to impress Rebecca--Sulphate with a lute recital, my brother by spitting quietly in her hair. But I'm too busy to see how that plays out.
I pick Pisanne because of her adamantine wit. She is fourth, a graceful Adratic merlady, iron hair like cable coils. What stray splinters of late sun make it through Joe's curtains are quickly swabbed by the tarnish of her sooty bronze classical armour, whose near-blackness radiates the heat of earlier-on in migraine pulses, and on which are picked out in electroplated filigree the Seven Commandments of the Sea Religion: 1. Thou shalt undulate; 2. Thou shalt modulate; 3. Thou shalt mutilate, etc. (Nothing is forbidden in the sea.)
Then by pure chance the Mayan God L arrives. He hands out little parcels of water to all, along with his card and a light-hearted list of "Things to Do When Drowning."
As it happens, all our generals are lost at The Crossing of the River Twenty, our first engagement, and God L leaves too, in a puff of copal, to transport them to his watery netherworld. Now we transmount the Doerfels and down to the Doerfel foothills, where Joe's hand wine does woo a few of the Team Leader tribes: the Polyvinili, the Discriminantes and the Hoary Henries. But now it's the Germ Tube Equinox, their chief religious festival. Should I wait for them, or press ahead? Joe and Aubrey Holes are looking to me. We camp a few minutes by an old shop, in a polluted wasteland very much like the lovely Vale of Burne. Joe stared at the sun. Aubrey stands apart, thinking. I decide to press on.
We only had ten minutes left, if we were to save Aubrey Holes, but I had a plan. I sneaked down to the circus at Stonely Tony and let out the boxing kangaroos. Driving them before us, we advanced across the Hippopontine Marshes and the jagged Tetanus Mountains. Many kangaroos are lost here. Finally, we burst onto the Moschlek heartlands, defeating the Derodine legions in three hard fought engagements, and causing the Derodine leader to sporulate, then closed on the Derodine capital, Star-Thrust. Waving rugs, we drive the kangaroos into a culvert, whence they penetrate to the drains of Star, and explode into the commercial centre of the old town. The Alliance sued for peace, and we went back over the mountains.
With Joe's blessing, Joe's son There, married a Team Leader girl called Yellow Capella. They had fifteen daughters who all died and we buried them in the fifteen clay vessels, in the hillside, in the shadow of the High Doerfels that evening. Our whoops of sadness made really good echoes, we all agreed, so I decreed that in future this would be the funeral ritual in that place, to shout and to make echoes. Then Yellow Capella died, and Joe's son died too. "What?" said Joe. By this time Joe was blind. Nearing the ruins of 'Neath, Michael the arch-monkey slipped off to wonder at the graves of the prophets, and died.
Just two minutes to go now. Joe suggests there is still time for a pint of hand wine, but I don't know. I point to one of the large clay vessels, queryingly, but Aubrey Holes shakes both halves of her head. The right segment seems particularly incensed that I could have even thought about hand wine at a time like this. A look of quiet desperation has entered her eyes. A simple salt tear works loose and drops, unk!, in sparkly slow motion, till swallowed by perspective somewhere near the floor. She points at that. We exchange a glance. "WHAT?" says Joe. We belted through the woods. Midges rose and fell in columns in the sunset, like fountains, pistons, or a giant very diffuse thought. The gnashing of the rabbits was quieter but much fiercer, a susurrus, tending towards some silent crescendo. In the distance we heard the lions limbering up, and trumpet blasts of angels practising.
At the car I turn. Aubrey Holes is hopping manfully across the last field. I rush to help by hauling the magnet out the boot of my lacquer-blue Triumph Herald. When she was both in, I slammed the pedal and away through the twilight lanes of the lovely Burne Valley. We reached Stitch Central with seconds to spare. The lights were already off, in fact, and the seamstresses haring to be off, and their boys chafing at the bit, but we pointed to our watches, and to the ting-tang clock on the mantelpiece, because we were within our rights.
"We're within our rights," pleaded Aubrey Holes.
"Well within," I pointed again.
The board came out to look. They assessed the split and said that it could be mended, but only at a terrible price. We paid that and left, Aubrey whole, but each somewhat the sadder.
Peter Tunstall lives. In England is where. He's translated Old Norse sagas for the Northvegr Foundation, and stories by him have appeared lately in Wicked Whispers and Antipodean SF. And there's one coming in the next 3rd Bed. Click on the title though, and you'll find his collage novel, The Appleyarders.
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story copyright by author 2004 all rights reserved