The Quixotesque misadventures of unreconstructed Marcher Morgan Jones-Jones, who has probably not heard of the suffragettes let alone second- and third-wave feminists.
“Give it a rest, can’t you?” snarled Morgan, his eyes scanning the green for a large stone to dash the creature’s brains in. He didn’t feel right. His stomach hurt. They’d been scuttling between shadows for ever and Loki’s obsessive chant, entirely lactic in nature and pitched somewhere around middle C was curdling his temper. Besides, he was sure they’d passed this mossed-over apology for aresidence at least twenty minutes ago.
Loki came to a standstill. “I can’t. It’s the only thing keeping me going. Caerphilly, Orkney, Caboc, Isle of Mull, Crowdie, Dunlop—”
Morgan ground his teeth. “How much further is it?”
“Dunno. Hey! Hey!” A sharp little elbow jabbed Morgan’s knee. “France! I could go back to France. Back to France, I said. That’s the real land of milk and honey, you know. They’ve got at least one cheese for every single day of your year. Cabécou de Rocamadour, Bleu de causses, Le Fougerus, Crottin de Chavignol, Murol, Vacherin Haut-Doubs – I’m more sophisticated than what you thought, ain’t I? Le Fium’Orbo, Pithiviers au foin, Aisy Cendré, Bougnon, Frinault, Fromage Corse, Nantais – Oh, hang on, I think we turn right at this tree. Or is it left? No, it’s right. Right, I said, right. What’s the matter with you, not knowing your right from your elbow? Tomme de Savoie, Abbaye de Belloc, Livarot, Gris de Lille – yes, I’m right. It was definitely left. We’re nearly there. La Taupinière, Figue—”
“No, of course I haven’t finished. I’m an expert in my field. An expert, I tell you. I can keep going for hours – Mâconnais, Maroilles, Ardi-Gasna, Dauphin – Why do you ask?”
Morgan smiled, having spied a dead branch, half-hidden in the grass, nice and heavy, just the thing. “Because if you don’t stop right now, I’ll fucking do you in.” Loki took him literally, stopped dead, and began to water the shrubbery.
“That’s it, find your own way.”
Morgan dropped the branch. His guide lowered his voice. They continued.
“Ossau-iraty-brebis Pyrénées, Cantal, Bûchette d’Anjou, Pavé d’Auge, Péardon, Camembert, Arômes au Gène de Marc, Chaource, Gaperon, Baguette Laonnaise, Banon, Roquefort, Oh Queen of cheeses, Laguiole, Langres, Laruns, Petit-Suisse, Chabichou du poitou, Brie, Mimolette Française, Selles-sur-Cher, Raclette, Brocciu, Tomme de Romans, Valançay, Beaufort, Morbier, Bleu d’Auvergne, Fleur du Maquis, Sancerre—”
“You don’t have to walk next to me, listening,” Loki pointed out. “Skip on for a bit. Pont l’Evêque, Tamie, Salers, Comté, Fourme d’Ambert, Bleu de Haut Jurat, Soumaintrain, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, Reblochon, Vignotte, Rollot, Bleu de Laqueille, Tomme d’Abondance, Neufchâtel, Cîteaux, Rigotte, Pérail, Boulette d’avesnes—–”
“He won’t help you. Not here. Carré de l’Est, Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Chevrotin des Aravis, Coulommiers, Dreux à la feuille, Saint-marcellin – at least I’m not repeating myself – Poivre d’Ane, Epoisses de Bourgogne, Grataron d’Arèches, Olivet Bleu, Olivet Cendré, Palet de Babligny, Picodon de l’Ardèche, Saint-nectaire – Oh, bliss, bliss, bliss—”
Several dozen obscure French cheeses later, Morgan happened upon Rowan and Hermaze and was awarded a brotherly hug.
“Welcome home, brother, such as it is. Glad you managed to escape.”
Hermaze shuddered. “That cathel’th no plathe for a man. It’th full of nymphomaniakth and fanthy boys. Warned you, didn’t we?”
Neither seemed pleased to see his companion. Rowan, in particular, began twitching with antipathy. “What are you hanging around with this little bastard for?”
“Bathtard,” echoed Hermaze. “Thtinkth of pith, too.”
“I needed a guide. Sorry.”
“Nökkelost,” sang Loki, with blithe indifference, calling to mind the cheesy delights of Scandinavia, “and Gammelost, Pråstost, Danbo, Samsø, Gjetost, Jarlsberg, Maribo, Herrgårdsost, Våsterbottenost, Hushållsost, Mesost, Esrom, Havarti—”
“Filthy curd addict,” scowled Rowan. “He makes make me sick.”
“Bad enough you coming back where you’re not wanted,” declared Elverin, emerging to shake his dusters, “without bringing Puck to cause even more trouble.”
“Puck – he said his name was Loki, or was it Cupid?”
“Puck,” snapped Rowan. “He’s bloody Puck.”
Hermaze barred the door. “Well, don’t think you’re coming in here, becauth you’re not, you thpying little turncoat runt, you filthy agent of matriarchy.”
Puck smirked. “Juustoleipä, Ilves, Tutunmaa.”
“He’ll have to come in, unfortunately,” muttered Rowan. “We can’t stand out here letting the world and her husband overhear all our business.”
The atmosphere downstairs was subdued. After exchanging stories, a large pot of herb tea was brewed and the entire company sat around peering disconsolately into their mugs.
“Sorry,” Morgan said for the fiftieth time. “I had nowhere else to turn.”
“Cuajada,” mumbled the connoisseur formerly known as Loki, “Queso Ibores, Cabrales, Diazabal, Mahon, Castellano, Burgos, Roncal, San Simon, Queso del Tietar, Amrano, Manchego, Mato, Penamellera, Picos de Europa, Queso majorero, Queso de Murcia, Afuega’l Pitu.”
“See how the mighty are fallen,” said Backus with a deep sigh. He glared at the youngsters perched under the window stabbing at their tapestry frames. “Let this be a lesson to you all. See what happens when you put Self first. This ugly thing started out as Eros, a godlet with the divine task of bringing together Twin Souls, and finished up as the Trickster, resorting to pathetic scatological pranks just to get noticed.”
“I’ve decided on Pwwcha now, if you don’t mind. Pwwcha, I said. At least the Welsh still remember me. My name’s changed because I learned how to adapt, to go where I was still believed in. As for history, bug off. I stuck it out longer than you did.”
“He’s nothing but a great big spoiled baby.” Backus’ lip curled. “That’s why he’s so keen on milk products.”
“It’s neoteny, actually,” countered Puck. “And that’s a recognised condition, ain’t it? Halloumi, Caciocavallo, Mascarpone, Asiago, Pressata, Canestrato Pugliese, Mozzarella di Bufala, Crescenza, Fiore sardo, Bra, Raschera, Fontina.”
Backus sniffed. “You think you’re so clever, but all you’re reciting is a catalogue of coagulated rancid body fluids.”
“You can talk, toxin-monger, you can talk. At least I never dabbled in ethanol. No wonder your memory’s gone. No wonder, I say. Nothing wrong with mine though, and I can still remember you in your alter ego. Hey, boys – does the name Dionysus mean anything to you? Dionysis, I said. He invented the hangover. What a gift. Yes, and what about that donkey, Backus? A jenny, wasn’t it? I heard tales…. You don’t want to hear about that, do you? It’s always the same with the converted, ain’t it? Like people preaching clean air immediately they give up smoking.”
“What’s he on about, Sernunnos?” demanded Backus, looking uncomfortable. “This Dionysus, what’s he got to do with me?”
Sernunnos averted his eyes and shook his head. “No good going into all that again. Don’t worry. It’s been programmed out of you. You wouldn’t believe me if I explained. Now, what are we going to do for our Hertha-friend here?”
“Look,” said Morgan, “just tell me how to activate the stone circle and I’ll be on my way.”
“Dionysus, Dionysus,” mumbled Backus. “I’m getting some very nasty flashbacks here, very nasty.”
Puck sniggered. “And so you should. Toma, Ubriaco, Canestrato Pugliese – no, I said that last one already.” He nudged Morgan. “No good you thinking along those lines, squire, you won’t get nowhere near the portal. Nowhere near, I tell you. They’ve put a twenty-eight hour watch on the place. We’re going to have to find another way – and pretty damn quick, too. There’s a house-to-house search scheduled for tonight, immediately after moon-up. It’s top secret. Casciotta di Urbino, Castelmagno, Montasio, Murazzano – I’m not repeating myself, am I?”
“I told you he was a spy,” snarled Rowan. “How else would he know that?”
“Goddess, how can you stand him?” yelled Hyacinth, flinging down his sewing. “Let me kill the gut-headed little bugger.”
Puck immediately retaliated by unbuttoning his front and creating an impressively large lake around himself. “Robiola di Roccaverano,” he chanted, his whine now overlaid with a patina of truculence. “Touch me and I’ll flood this hovel. Flood it, I say. And I’ll call the Mothers, see if I don’t. Taleggio, Ragusano, Stracchino.”
“I am not.” Puck shrugged. “Am not, I say. How could I be? I never gave a damn about any side, anywhere, at any time, and on any of the planes. I’m neutral. Impartial. Ambisexual. I always was. Always was, I say, right from the beginning. What was it to me whether the darts hit home or not? I never stuck to the rules, anyway. To start with the arrows were made of gold. Everything was sweetness and light and love. Where was the fun in that? Boring. I caught Vulcan on an off-day and persuaded him to make me some lead-tipped ones. That added base lust to the equation. Lust, I said. Then I ran up a few wooden ones myself and invented love’s down-side – marriage. A leaden arrow in one throbbing heart, gold one in the other, blackthorn splinter in a third – now that was potentially interesting. As for this damn silly them and they and all the rest of us gender nonsense, I couldn’t give a flying fuck how it turns out. And – let’s be clear – the only reason I agreed to help this great Morgan lump was because he promised to take me to Hertha for a pig-out – Ricotta, Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo, Grana Padano, Casciotta di Urbino.” He paused. “You might as well help him, because if he goes, you’ll get rid of me as well. Toscano, Provolone, Scamorza, Quartirolo Lombardo—”
Backus threw up his hands. “If they’ve put a guard on the circle, that’s it, we don’t stand a chance.” His face contorted. “You know, I’ve got this very nasty picture of somebody being torn limb from limb.”
“Indigestion,” Sernunnos said hastily, “probably.”
“There must be another way out,” pleaded Morgan. “What about this Lilith and Eve business? Apparently I have to get permission off one to see the other to ask permission to leave.”
Rowan sniggered. “Not that it helps much, but tradition has it they’re one and the same and that Lilith started calling herself Eve after she had her makeover. Apparently, it was during her hunter gathering phase. It didn’t last long.”
“Where can I find her?”
“Well,” Sernunnos began. “No, no, forget it. It’s just a human story.”
“What? Tell me.”
“According to legend, long ago, in the Golden Age, the Great Mother Goddess lived amongst us. Then something happened. We offended Her. Or something. Nobody remembers. Anyway, She left us and went back to Her celestial home in the sky. The only way to reach Her is by climbing to the top of the Great Tower and calling Her name. Unfortunately, the tower has no door, but the story promises that whoever can find a way in and succeed in making their way up the staircase will be granted his heart’s desire. Of course, as I say, it’s only a human story.”
However hard they searched, none of them could find the smallest crack in the stonework, not even the ridge of an old doorway plastered over. Already the sun was edging down towards the east. If it had been a halfway decent tale then the outline of an ancient entrance would have been revealed by the descending shadows. Or some clue: runes, perhaps, an ancient riddle, or a raddled old jackdaw on the point of expiry flapping down to impart vital information. But it wasn’t that sort of story and there was nothing.
The small crowd had already started to yawn and disperse when a familiar rumpus started up in the distance. Morgan winced and began throwing himself against the wall. Maybe it was his imagination, sparked by desire to save his shoulder, but he thought he could make out a faint echo in the east-north-east sector.
“Rowan, it’s hollow just here. Bring me a sledgehammer or something. Quick – before that damned pig brings Mum’s Army running.”
Too late, a hideously swollen Venus had homed in on Morgan and was bearing down on him, slavering with adoration. This was the man who had given her both soul cake and freedom. This was her brother, her hero, her friend.
“That’s no pig,” bawled Puck, above Venus’ express-train shriek of recognition. “That’s no pig, I say. I remember pigs. Mean little bleeders with bristles, pigs. They lived on acorns.”
“That’s inbreeding for you,” Morgan assured him. “And nurture, and getting away with it. It leads to bigger and better forms of Piggishness.” He flattened his body against the stonework and watched in dismay as time went out of sync. His eyes misted over. Venus floated silently forwards in soft-focus slow motion, as did Di and her muscle-bound cohorts.
“Move!” shrieked Puck, kicking his shin. “Move, I say.”
Morgan was instantly plunged back into a nightmare world of pounding feet and rising dust cloud. Of sow bark and bitching imprecation. Of glistening snout and gaping chops. Of flailing arms, and stout legs working like pistons. Of threats, and promises, threats of promises, and promises of threats. There was no escape. This time they were both destined to meet their various ends. Self-preservation maliciously held its breath until the very last possible moment, and then injected a massive dose of adrenalin into his bloodstream. Galvanised into action, Morgan leapt to one side a fraction of a second before Venus slammed straight through his shadow and into the wall, dislodging stones and a great section of wattle and daub panelling. Her head remained jammed in the hole. Beyond, he made out a narrow stone staircase curving away into pitch black oblivion. In that same instance he became aware of hands reaching out for him and took a running jump over Piggy’s gigot, chump chop, fillet, loin, neck end and blade into dark and dubious safety. High above, a tiny speck of light appeared and disappeared. The tower was so narrow that his outstretched elbows grazed the sides. Up he went, as fast as he dared, spurred on not only by the desire to evade recapture but also to escape from the remonstrative bubbles of saliva floating up from Puck’s blow-hole vomitory. Each had the name of a further variety of cheese trapped inside it, released as the bubbles burst against the dripping stone walls.
“Remedou. Friesekaas. Quark. Appenzeller. Emmental. Friburgeois. Bergkäse. Raclette. Gruyere. Royalp-Tilsiter. Saanen. Limburger. Mondseer. Sapsago. Butterkäse. Sbrinz. Tête-de-Moine. Serra da Estrela. Vacherin Mont d’Or. São Jorge. Boerenkaas. Commissiekaas. Edam. Gouda. Leyden. Leerdammer. Maasdam. Bruder Basil. Oschtjepka. Sirene. Mandur. Burduf Brinza. Siraz. Liptauer. Abertam. Katschkawalj. Balaton. Lajta. Bryndza. Liptoi. Oszczpek. Podhalanskiiiiiiii.”
As the patriarchs tell it, Eve was responsible for bringing death, sin and sorrow into the world. But she was the second wife. It is said that, Lilith, the first, was even worse. Yahweh created Adam and Lilith together, but he used clay for Adam and – retrospectively, we must suppose – filthy and impure sediments of the earth to produce Lilith. Thus, she turned out self-centred, demonic, and totally evil. And that is what happens, it’s said, when women have the presumption to claim equality with men.
Well, he couldn’t go back. He had to go on. And on and on he went, sometimes not climbing at all, but hauling himself horizontally, knee to elbow in something approaching a foetal crouch, along the snake’s-gut of a passage, sometimes hurtling arse over tip – downwards, maybe, or not. But, in spite of such apparent evidence to the contrary, Morgan guessed he must still be making spiral progress upwards by the way the tiny patches of light before and behind appeared and disappeared by turns as he shuffled towards probable annihilation at the gates of the Celestial Abode, Eden, Paradise, the Queendom of the Blest.
It was slow work, much like clawing his way out of a treacle well. And as he continued, he remembered many things. And the things Morgan remembered were too painful to remember, so he tried to forget them, but they would not be forgotten. He started to sniffle, but was forced to stop by the need to listen.
The ‘Song of the Cheese’ had long since ceased, only to be replaced by something worse – a faint click and skitter of claw against stone, distant, but rapidly gaining on him. Rats terrified him, dead or alive, even in the Welsh – Llygoden ffrengig – literal translation, French mice, which didn’t help a whisker, whatever political nose-thumbing was implicated. The farm had been overrun with them in the early days of Caradoc and Rhonwen’s reign, great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats, grave old plodders, gay young friskers. Poison had been laid, but not all of the corpses removed. Fifty years later, mummified remains were still being discovered under floorboards and along attic beams, teeth grinning malevolence from tight, leathery masks, fine thick whippy tails a trifle dusty, but otherwise untouched by time. No one dared lay a finger on them, though Dai had dislodged one or two with a very long pole.
Morgan glanced over his shoulder. Life had afforded him no protection against rats. Not a sausage. If his literary bent had been encouraged he could have tried rhyming them to death, as did the satirist Seanchan Torpest when they ate his dinner—
Rats have sharp snouts
Yet are poor fighters
whereupon ten fell dead on the spot. But that was in the seventh century, and in Ireland. Weeping with self-pity, Morgan continued to climb.
Each step was now a massive block of stone, the riser measuring between two and three feet. Behind him, the noises had grown into explosive snorts and snuffles which ricocheted along the walls to overtake him. Persuaded that the pursuing rodents were distant relatives of the Porth rats, intent on belated revenge, he put on a burst of speed, rapidly hauling himself upwards, gibbering with terror.
The temperature plummeted. A thin wind began to grizzle around his ears, blocking out every other sound. Snowflakes started to fall, gently at first, riding the wind, and then whirling into a ferocious blizzard which brought him to a standstill. Something nudged the back of his ankles. He yelped, turned, kicked, and began inching backwards again, not daring to look at whatever it was. His reaching hands discovered an alcove in the wall. Stepping into it, he tied knots in his sheet and swung it across the opening to deter his assailants while he waited for the snow to clear. It took its time. When it finally thinned, he saw the steps continued on upwards for, at most, seven, then stopped abruptly in mid-air. No sign of Rattus rattus, but Adam was here had been scrawled on the wall. Behind him was another passage, dank and dark, and smelling of that very offensive toadstool, Phallus impudicus, the stinkhorn – either that, or a very dead something or other. The floor here was of puddled clay; the roof vaulted by massive, interlacing roots.
At the end of the passage was a small hole fringed with greenery.
He crawled out onto a grassy plain dotted with small blue flowers. A single, scab-barked old tree trunk, several hours round, stretched up into the massed clouds. Few leaves were visible from below, but clearly this tree bore fruit. The ground beneath it was knee-deep in cores at various stages of decay; more continued to drop at his feet as he stood staring upwards. The air was tainted by a smell as nastily sweet as belched scrumpy.
“Thanks for waiting,” snarled Mercher. Morgan jumped.
“How did you get here?”
“Since I’ve been bawling your name for the last half hour, I won’t demean either of us by answering that. Call it misplaced canine loyalty, but I thought you could do with the support. Ignored me, didn’t you? And finally, you kicked me in the teeth. Charming.”
“I thought you were—” Maybe that would be better left unsaid. Morgan looked at the iron steps hammered into the trunk. He looked at Mercher. “We need to go up. I suppose I’ll have to carry you.”
How does a mere man address the mother of all living? Morgan softly called out: “Ma’am?” After a while he tried: “Highness,” then: “Your Ladyship?” No answer was forthcoming. In the meantime, he’d never seen such clouds. To one side of the stout branches reared fair weather clouds, massive broccoli-headed mountain ranges, to the other, a mackerel sky, with spectacularly elongated shapes drifting against an azure backdrop, threatened imminent sea-change. In the centre, and feeding both possibilities, a shifting, trembling mass of pure white new cloud boiled over the edge of an invisible milk pan.
It was a breathtaking display of the awesome beauty of nature, ruined for ever by the gradual emergence of the night hag: first a leprous foot with long yellow toenails curling upwards, then ankles with crimped folds of flakily elephantine hide, a shapeless varicose-roped calf, a horribly droop-fleshed thigh, a massive triple-chinned arse, and finally the whole – an unspeakably disgusting crone shaped like a collapsing blancmange, as loathsome naked as he’d always suspected old women must be, a sight for making the eyes sore, for making the flesh creep, desire wilt, joie de vivre flee – with pendulous breasts swinging against a deeply-pleated stomach flap which mercifully concealed her pudenda, and liver-spot-dappled skin cankerous as the tree bark itself. If this was Eve then no wonder the human race was, for the most part, barely presentable never mind beautiful. If it was the Lilith depicted in the painted ceiling, then age hadn’t improved her.
“Bit low in the undercarriage,” snickered Mercher, fighting off his master’s restraining grasp in order to sink up to the neck in cloud.
Morgan shuddered. One thing was sure: he’d get no change here. The old hag was clearly senile judging by the way she was chain-eating unripe knobs of green fruit from the branches above and about her. The perfected technique suggested she’d been at it for a very long time. Not that this pastime appeared pleasurable. At each reach and pluck, a small moan left her lips, as if chronic repetitive strain injury had set in. And as she bit into the flesh her jowls quivered, her mouth puckered a sloes-in-vinegar grimace.
“Excuse me, Your Majesty.”
“Ugh?” She screwed up rheumy eyes. “I know that voice. Is that you, Adam?”
“Er, no, my name’s Morgan.” Venturing closer he saw the ancient matriarch was propped along a cleft branch surrounded by about a hundred greyish cats, all staring, and frantically scratching in unison.
The ghastly vision coyly drew a few wisps of water vapour round her flesh. “I knew you’d come creeping back to your Lilith sooner or later,” she mumbled through a mouthful of pale green crunch.
“Thing is, I’m here to beg a favour. I want—”
“If it’s about having a dog, the answer’s still no.”
“It’s not about dogs, it’s—”
“No dogs in here. And that also applies to the orangutan, the skelluidan, the mammoth, and the farocles. The answer to all or any of them is still No.”
“If you could just stop and listen to what I have to say—”
Lilith stopped. “Stop, I can’t stop. I’m far too busy.”
“It would only take a minute.”
“Stop, indeed – when I can’t keep up as it is. I have to do all this single-handed you know. No help whatsoever. You want to know why I’m doing it, is that it? Well, this is the Tree of Knowledge. Eating the fruit thereof was what started the downward slide. A bloody silly experiment, if you ask me. Knowledge brings unhappiness. Quote, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, unquote. And ignorance is bliss. Ergo the world can only be happy without knowledge, so if I dispose of every last apple from the tree—”
“Nobody will have to learn anything ever again, teachers will become extinct—”
“And Mankind be a lot happier.”
“BUT THEY’RE NOT APPLES.”
She stopped mid-chomp for the second time in a fair few millennia. A chunk of unripe fruit fell from her mouth as she cupped a hand to her ear. “Eh? What’s that?”
“The fruit – they’re pears. This is a pear tree.”
Morgan shook his head, hoping blame wouldn’t attach to the messenger. Lilith’s eyes bulged. She spat vigorously, broke off a twig, and began cleaning remnants of pear flesh from between her teeth.
“That vile, misbegotten, forked-tongue, lying worm-cast. Right back at the beginning you said he wasn’t to be trusted. I should have listened to you then.”
“I’m not Adam.”
“When I think of the aeons I’ve wasted forcing down those revolting green knobs. They never ripen, you know, it never got any better, and all for what? For nothing, that’s what. LUCIFER.”
Something rustled in the leaves. The clouds began to take on colour as the serpent slithered indolently towards them, winding itself widdershins round a series of branches: hyacinth beds, rainbows, sunlight through stained glass windows. As it finally emerged from the shadows, Morgan felt his jaw drop. There look, the Bible was wrong again. Nothing subtle about the creature. Each scale was painted differently, and he’d never seen colours of such intensity – some he had no names for. He stood transfixed, overcome by a sense of being surrounded by other colours he couldn’t see, sounds he couldn’t hear, of forever seeing as real what was unreal, of never knowing what really—
“Snap out of it,” yelled Lilith. “Ignore him and his mind games. Colour’s all in the retinal photo-receptors. He’s black and white, the same as everything else.”
“Forgive me,” murmured Lucifer. “I picked the wrong toadstool. From your quick lurch towards the outreaches of philosophical enlightenment I imagined we were dealing with psilocybe. Never mind. So, what can I do for you?” He hung poised between them, his scarlet – or perhaps the illusion of scarlet – tongue flickering with interest from a face that was one minute all lizard and the next of remarkable androgynous beauty. “Well?”
“Lucifer, I’ll get straight to the point. Adam tells me that these,” she pushed a half-eaten embryo fruit into his face, “are not apples as you told me they were. He says they are pears.”
The serpent’s expression changed to one of bewilderment. “I told you that? Are you sure it was me? I don’t remember specifically telling you they were apples.”
“I said to you: Is this the apple tree, Lucifer? Are those the apples? You said they were. What could be plainer than that?”
“No, I said it looked like the apple tree,” said Lucifer carefully. “You decided that it was. Then you asked if those were apples. I said that if it was the apple tree, then logically those must be the apples. Sound reasoning, I think you’ll agree?” He wound himself closer. “However, now that you come to mention it, they do indeed look like pears.”
The reptilian head swung towards Morgan. “How kind of you to draw it to our attention, whatever your name is.”
“Cut the crap, Lucifer,” snapped Lilith. “We both know it was deliberate. Don’t know when to stop do you, chaos-monger? Perhaps your mind’s finally going, since you can’t even remember my help-meet’s name.”
“I’m not Adam.”
“He says he’s not Adam.”
“Who else could he be? He’s here. He’s hairy. He’s got a dog, too. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Mothers see everything.”
“You’re not my—”
“I’m everybody’s mother, you silly git. I was the first. I created myself from nothing. I cloned myself a silly sister for company. Then the daft bint produced you. I warned her not to play around with her genes, but she would do it. Trying to produce a creature wise as serpents and harmless as doves; all she got was a scrap of serpent tail where it could only cause harm and a nasty tendency to violence. Still, between us we devised ways of making the best of things and got to quite like it in the end. Until you lot got ideas above your station and tried playing us off against each other.” Lilith cackled. “Then I re-absorbed her – or ate her. I can’t remember which.”
There was a short silence. Lucifer gave a discreet cough.
Lilith looked abashed. “All right, it was all me. Cloning came later. I just wanted to know what being subordinate felt like. But I’m still the Mother of All. Satisfied? Obviously not – I can see from your face that’s not what you’ve been told. So which version are they peddling at the moment, a sky father giving birth from his mouth, arse, thigh, or rib? Or are we back to the mind?”
“Still on the rib,” tittered Lucifer. “Though there is a school of thought—”
“And you can put a sock in it.” Lilith scowled at the top three inch layer of Mercher visible above the cloud. “Chancing it a bit, weren’t you, Adam, bringing a forbidden creature back with you?”
“He’s not Adam. He’s fallen through from the Other Place, where women are still supposed to smile, shave their legs, and keep shtum. He’s got himself trapped, so he’s come up here with his creature hoping you’ll send him back.”
“That’s out of the question. He stays.”
“What about the dog?” demanded Morgan. “It stinks. It’s got fleas.”
Mercher rolled despairing eyes. “I’ve got fleas? Have you looked at those cats? They’re overrun – dripping vermin. At least I can draw breath between bites. Even as I speak, ten thousand of their buggers are packing up and preparing to migrate to my fur, solely for economic reasons.” Morgan affected not to hear.
“It’s vile. Even licks its own testicles—”
“And occasionally recycles pre-digested food. I know all that. Dogs don’t change. But what’s that beside our happiness?” After several decidedly inelegant efforts, Lilith managed to haul herself to her feet. “I forgive you everything – the missionary position, the blood-sucking stories, and the babby-napping slanders. I forgive your fuelling of centuries of hard-breathing incubus and succubus fantasies, even the bellybutton fetish. Oh, Adam, after all these long ages, how can you want to leave again? We’ve got so much lost time to make up for. Come here.”
She flung open her arms. A shower of scurf, cores and pips, some germinated, fell from innumerable nooks and crannies in unmentionable and best unimagined places. Morgan backed hurriedly away.
“I’m NOT Adam.”
The serpent smirked. “He’s not Adam.”
Lilith smacked its head. “You think I don’t know that? He’s young. He’s relatively healthy. He’ll do.” Brightening considerably, shedding centuries with each step, she began waddling through the sea of cloud. “Let’s be at him.”
“You’re the Great Mother!” Morgan shrieked. “You can’t carry on like that.”
“It sounds as if you haven’t read the unexpurgated versions of your own mythology. Love them and leave them – that’s always been the Great Goddess’ motto. Actually, it was a bit more down to earth than that, but who’s standing in judgement? You’ll do for starters.”
“Sod that.” Morgan searched with his feet for the first metal rung.
Strangely, it was a lot quicker clambering down than climbing up. So quick, in fact, that there was no time to devise a plan. Setting aside any thought that his presence might not be wanted there, would he be able to find his way back to the Men’s Refuge?
The moon had risen. It was already waning, but still huge and silver. Dead or alive, Venus had gone from the base of the tower, but signs of a struggle remained. Noxious slurry was splattered on the wall. Most of the ground was churned up and the flowers had fled from every shrub in the vicinity, but worse that this – much, much worse – was the sight of a trail of cores leading away into the distance. Somehow, Lilith had got here first. Slowly, carefully, he edged round the shattered wall.
“Got you!” hissed Di.
Harmony soon fled from the hall of the Mothers. “For the love of Lilith send him back,” one-and-all howled. “And send that bloody animal back with him. I’m covered with flea bites.”
“No good blaming the dog,” Morgan insisted. “It’s her cats that are the problem. Look at them scratching.” Not that it proved anything. Everyone was at it.
“Not possible,” Kerridwins growled, twitching and slapping. “Fleas went out with Adam.” She coughed politely in an attempt to draw Lilith’s attention back to the matter in hand, but the Great Mother Returned was too busy with her first square meal in a very long time, and with observing the rapid revitalisation of the body sacred. Kerridwins looked round at the assembled women. “Right, what’s it to be – out through the Portal, or into cold storage?”
“I really think –” began Thorns, to a chorus of sighs, groans, and head-shakings. “Look, he’s an idiot and a troublemaker and he doesn’t know his place, but that’s mainly because of the rogue chromosome. If he’d had the benefit of our therapy it wouldn’t be such a problem. However, he’s still a sentient being – albeit a low-level one – and it seems unfair not to give him the choice.”
Kerridwins grinned. “All right, my dear. You’ve got a kind heart, but we do still have his education to consider. He came here for a reason. Well, Git? Which would you prefer, a corrective spell in our museum, or uh going back?”
Morgan hesitated. The choice seemed straightforward, but he didn’t like the look in her eyes one little bit. “Back to the Welsh Marches?” he asked. “You mean going back to Mam’s and Dad’s farm?”
She nodded. “If that’s what you want. But just remember, Git, and this is very important, call on us three times asking to return and you stay forever.”
Morgan stared down into the massive cauldron, troubled by the thin sheen of ice crusting its milky waters. A few women, summoned to raise the temperature, blew torrid breaths across the surface.
“In you go,” commanded a smirking Kerridwins.
“What’s this?” Morgan hung back. Something was wrong. Why wasn’t Thorns here as an independent witness? “This isn’t the Portal. Why aren’t you sending me back the way I came?”
“Oh, this is better. That stone circle’s for the hoi polloi. This is the literary route. Rebirth via the cauldron means you get inspiration, knowledge, and – hopefully – illumination. Or perhaps you’ve changed your mind and decided to stay?”
“No, no, fine, whatever you say.” It could have been worse. After all, she could have sent him back through the partially cleft Presents, and hadn’t he suffered enough? Taking a deep breath, Morgan stepped into the cauldron. It was far deeper than he’d expected, right up to his chest before he reached the centre, but contrary to expectation the water was pleasantly warm. He tried to relax.
“Down you go,” purred Kerridwins, pushing him right under.
It was so dark in the kitchen that it took his eyes several minutes to adjust. At first the lack of light led Morgan to believe it was night, but he soon realised that the windows had been boarded over. Here and there, sunlight fingered through knotholes in the crudely cut planks. Apparently, things had not gone well in his absence. Plaster was falling off the walls, leaving exposed the centuries-old wattle panels. The floor was ankle-deep in filth. Several scrawny hens were conducting archaeological surveys in the corners. A pheasant, two ravens, several rabbits and what looked like a Pekinese dog bled from the beams. And where was Mam’s pride-and-joy dresser?
Some bloody squatters must have moved in. Jesus Christ, Morgan thought, it hadn’t taken them long to turn the place into a grade one shit-hole. Good job they were out or he’d have taught them a lesson that wouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry. But why hadn’t anyone stopped them? Surely even Pritchard-idle-Evans could have lifted a hand to phone the police. Violent eviction was called for. And an insurance claim to boot. This wasn’t the joyful homecoming he’d visualised.
Stumbling outside into the inevitable drizzle, he found the yard empty of stock. As he looked around, the hair on the back of his neck lifted. Orchard and garden were wastelands, armpit-high in weeds. The roofs of most outbuildings had caved in. His mini was a rusted hulk under an avalanche of partially composted hay. The enclosing wall was down. The gates were gone. Across the road, all that was left of Pritchard-Evans’ cottage was a grassed-over tump surrounded by blackened roof tiles. This hadn’t happened yesterday – nor in a year of yesterdays. When was he?
Morgan stopped dead, remembering Kerridwins’ self-satisfied expression, her words of warning. The evil bitch – this was all a game to her. She’d let him think he was getting what he wanted, but that was just part of the entertainment.
May we three All-Wise offer a word of advice at this point? The thing about wishes is that they very often do come true, but you have to be meticulously specific about what you’re asking for. Those whom the Goddess wishes to drive mad are first granted their heart’s desire. Wish in haste, repent at leisure. There’s a Welsh Marches Once Upon a Time warning tale, The Fairy Follower, which makes this perfectly clear. Some young know-it-all, mad with lust, brain-addled by love, too impatient to follow the scrimping, saving, wait until you can afford it, route to marriage prescribed by his elders and betters, called on the Fair Family, the Tylwyth teg, for help. Clear water was set for them. A meal of fine white bread and matured cheese prepared. One of the Other duly appeared, cleared the board, and agreed to grant the fool’s wishes. He got his riches all right, and marriage, but not, alas, to the object of his desire. His beloved dwindled and died. Instead, he found himself saddled with a cantankerous old money-bags widow who made his life living hell.
Now Morgan realised why Thorns hadn’t been there to see him off. Being the only one with a modicum of decency, she wouldn’t have stood for it. God damn it, now he’d have to go and eat humble pie; beg to be dispatched to his own time.
How to get back, that was the thing? Stone circle, he supposed. Muttering under his breath, Morgan trudged towards the hillside. Perhaps when he’d knocked a few heads together and made it clear that he wasn’t a bloke to be messed with, he could negotiate a proper return and persuade Thorns to accompany him.
Morgan jumped. What now? Seven foot square of Wild Man of the Hills blocking his path, that’s what, and each massive paw clutching a leather bucket slopping water over his filthy bare feet. Wild Man possessed a purple nose, wildly bloodshot eyes, and hair that had never in its long life met a comb.
“How do?” WM repeated, eyeing Morgan’s knotted sheet ensemble with childlike curiosity. He himself was dressed in some sort of cobbled together rawhide. “Be thee a friend from up country?”
Morgan gave a vague nod. “Yes, a friend.” The fellow looked harmless enough, in spite of his bulk and the scary backwoods get-up. Still, what the hell, it was his business if he wanted to take bloke-ism to the extreme. “You don’t happen to know the date, do you?”
“Ah.” Down went the buckets. Up came the hands. A few minutes of hair-tugging and scalp scratching galvanised the single brain cell into action. “’Tis Manday.”
“And the year?”
“’Tis All Zouls. Ah.” There was a short pause. Vaguely conscious that he hadn’t provided an entirely satisfactory answer, WM added: “Lew will know. Him will be here directly. He be bringing whome the bacon. I got to get on.”
Morgan watched him shamble into the house before resuming his resentful journey across meadow wrenched from Nature by his forefathers and now reclaimed by gorse and bracken, and the tall dead spikes of snawp. A path had been beaten to the stream, the lowest part of which was dug out to provide a muddy pool deep enough for the dipping of buckets. There was no sign of any attempt at farming, arable or otherwise. Mam would never have stood for this state of affairs. Things had certainly changed.
Suddenly terrified that the circle might have been destroyed, or simply ceased to exist, he began to run up the hill. He could see the stones, was in minutes of reaching them, when a hullabaloo from the castle ruins stopped him in his tracks. Screams, howls, yells, the beating of drums, and one final screech of triumph was followed by a profound silence. Minutes later, half a dozen more wild men streamed down the bank carrying a naked corpse. As they came closer he saw it was a large gilt.
“Is that Venus? Have you finished off poor old Venus?”
“Naw,” said the red-headed bloke. “This here pig is Marpessa. Every afternoon us catches she and every night us eats she, and next day she be alive again and us catches she again and eats she, and next day—”
“Yes,” Morgan put in hurriedly, “I get the picture. Big, isn’t she? Eat all of her, do you?”
“Ah. Every last bit of her, for us must. That’s the way of it. It’s we eat she or she eats we, see? Sometimes her comes little and sometimes her comes big and sometimes her be a she and sometimes her be an he and sometimes her be near and sometimes her be far and we has to go miles and miles and miles and miles to catch she.”
“Ah,” chorused the others, “Ah,” and, “Ah,” and, “Ah,” and, “Ah.”
“Plenty to go round,” suggested he of the orange hair, introducing himself as Mighty Lew. “And while we’re waiting you can help we beat the bounds.”
Morgan glanced nervously at the standing stones. Half an hour wouldn’t hurt, he decided. After all, the stones weren’t likely to run away, and he couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten.
They trooped into the squalid kitchen which was now full of acrid smoke. Two enormous man-sized saucepans simmered on the battered Aga. The pig was heaved onto the greasy table. Without further ado, Lew seized an axe, climbed up and began unsystematically chopping the carcass into manageable segments. It was a messy and desperate business which excited the hens to the limits of their endurance. Apart from flying bone splinters, an escaping squirm or two of intestine, the eyes – which the WM pocketed on the sly – and any blood which couldn’t be caught, every other last bit went into the pans: head, tail, trotters, bristly skin, lackadaisically cleaned chitterlings, and various other mangled organs from which Morgan averted his eyes. Hunger fled.
“Right,” Lew dipped his hands in the less full saucepan to clean them, “now for the boundaries.”
Morgan followed the gang out to the semi-derelict building which had once been the granary. Here, a considerable quantity of crudely made bows, spears and cudgels hung from nails, and the old feed bins were full of large stones. Each of the men selected a favourite weapon and filled his leather bottle with a pungent liquid attempting secondary fermentation in a lard-covered barrel by the door. Something gleamed yellow from the cobwebbed window. It was Dai’s chainsaw, guaranteed for life on account of its foreign ancestry and excessive price. The blade was corroded, but a little fuel remained and Morgan was sure it could still inflict telling damage in any hand-to-hand conflict. He shouldered it, accepting at the same time some of the pungent liquid, trying to ignore the container’s close resemblance to an inflated pig’s bladder.
Mighty Lew and his followers set off up the valley road, now little more than a dirt track overlaid in places with scabs of blistered tarmac. Looking back, Morgan could see that the farmhouse was the only remaining dwelling in the valley. There was no sign of the church. Even the pub had disappeared. “Where are we going, exactly?”
Lew paused at the crest of the hill. “Us ain’t got much of a patch. They English bitches nabbed most of the good land.” Facing west, he pointed to a line of trees marching along the top of the valley, and east, to what looked like an artificially constructed ridge, a miniature echo of Offa’s Dyke. “This here is about it, east to west. Us goes north till us hits the Heavingjobby Chapter, and south until us gets to the Berlinjobby one.”
“What – you walk right round it every day?”
“And the rest.” Lew looked at him amazed. “Ain’t you done it before? Blokes up where you come from must be doing it, too. Every chapter do do it. It’s the only way to keep them out, ain’t it?”
“Uh,” said Morgan. The others all stared at him. Everyone knew that. Their eyes narrowed suspiciously. Then, enlightenment dawned on Mighty Lew’s face. He grinned and clapped Morgan on the back.
“Ah, ’tis about porkicide, ain’t it? That right, ain’t it – you ain’t made a kill yet? No need to be ashamed, lad. We all been there.”
“Ah?” chorused the others, “Ah?” and, Ah?” and, “Ah?” and, “Ah?” and, “Ah?”
“And that’s why you been sent to us, ain’t it – to sort out this Pig business and see if us old hands can make a proper provider of you.” Lew turned to the others. “Take him out tomorrow, won’t us lads? Make sure him gets his pig?”
“Ah,” enthused the others, with nods, and gap-toothed grins, “Ah,” and, Ah,” and, “Ah,” and, “Ah,” and, “Ah.”
“But for today, us’ll let he be an honorary bloke.”
“Ah,” the others agreed, “Ah,” and, Ah,” and, “Ah,” and, “Ah,” and, “Ah.”
They continued towards the boundary. Morgan saw that a large stake had been hammered into the ground a few feet from the road. When he was near enough to see that it was a totem pole covered with carved symbols indicating, with their ever optimistic upwards thrust, the male gender, the leather bottles were unstoppered, heads were thrown back, and a stream of greenish-yellow liquor was aimed at the back of the throat. Morgan felt obliged to follow suit…and choked. Never, in his entire life, had he encountered anything so foul. It was worse than the pondweed tea, far worse than senna pods, and worse even than Mam’s experimental health brews. It was about on a par with something pretty bad, though greener and murkier, lingering at the edge of his memory.
“’Tis a bit different from your recipe, I dare say.” Lew visibly swelled with pride, assuming that the pained expression on Morgan’s face was awe. “’Tis pork and dandelion champagne with wild barley – does the trick right enough.” And with that the whole troupe took turns, one after the other, at peeing copiously along the boundaries.
Getting a Billy goat to pee along the boundaries of a smallholding, or attaching bits of rag soaked in its urine or, even better, its rutting spray, to hedges or barbed wire fences, is a time-honoured method of keeping out foxes. In the Marches, and on into rural Wales, it is assumed that human male urine is a reasonable substitute. Women have always found such practices repellent. In this context, using dandelions was a fairly sensible idea. Leontodon taraxacum, dent-de-leon, pis-en-lit, wet-the-bed, pishamoolag, pissimire, is an extremely effective diuretic. The throughput achieved on this particular occasion was remarkable.
Piss a-bed, Piss a-bed, Barley butt, Your bladder’s so heavy You can’t get up.
“Have another drink,” suggested Lew, aiming high. “Gotta be done, for ’tis the only way to keep the bitches out.”
“How far away are they?” Morgan felt obliged to keep the conversation going, if only to mask his inability to contribute fully to the proceedings. Lew sniffed, and shook, and laced up.
“Five miles that-a way,” he jerked his head towards Wales, “less there,” with a nod at England. “Used to be that all the white witches lived in Wales, and all the black ones in England, but you know women. Can’t keep nothing cut and dried.”
Having emptied the first bottle, Lew had reached the amiable stage of intoxication. Morgan quickly substituted his hardly touched one and gauged it pretty safe to ask a few more questions.
“How did it all come about, Lew? Women with their own nation states for God’s sake? I mean, men and women, didn’t we all used to live together?”
Lew frowned. “Don’t they teach you no history up there? Where did you say you come from? Clun way, was it?”
“Near there,” agreed Morgan, tipping up the empty bottle.
“Well, wherever it bist, them shoulda told you.” Lew also took another long swig. He grinned. “Look, yours be empty. Here, get some of mine down you.” He watched. “That’s right, that’s the way. Now – how it came about was the mothers, see, them got the upper hand and tried to phase males out. When it come to choosing whether they’d have boy or girl sprogs, they all started choosing wenches. Supposed to be, what were it they said? Oh-ah, females were less trouble and higher achievers and more likely to look after them in their old age.” He sniggered. “They soon changed their minds when the Disaster come and they lost all their technowatsit.”
“Disaster,” echoed Morgan. “Technowatsit.”
“Advantage wiped out in an instant. Us all had to go back to the old ways.”
“Too late now – we ain’t budging. Not after the way we was treated. Thing you gotta unnerstand, Morg, is we got the magic chromosome and them bizzoms, they ain’t having it. No danger.”
“Chromosome,” said Morgan. “Not having it. But doesn’t that mean the end of human life?”
“Ah. That’s right, Morg. You got it in one. Hold on a few years, us can have every bit of land, far as Marpessa can roam. They bitches won’t be bothering we no more. Serve them right, and all.”
“But men won’t survive, either—”
“Have another drink,” insisted Lew, brushing logic aside. “And help we finish watering they boundaries.”
Morgan’s brain fogged over. At the same time, compassion stirred somewhere behind his pectorals. Men had it tough. What a waste of life this was, this endless downing of copious quantities of alcohol for the express purpose of producing copious quantities of urine. Women again: truly they were at the bottom of all the misery of the world. God damn it, why shouldn’t blokes live peacefully on their own, minding their simple business, without this constant pissing around for personal freedom?
“I’ve got a better idea,” he announced. “The Marches has been lumbered with holding England and Wales apart for far too long. Let’s cut ourselves free forever. Float out to sea. Become an independent testosterone island republic.”
“Ow we going to do that then, Morg?” Lew’s tone was kindly, but patronising.
“Ah?” came the chorus, “Ah?” and, Ah?” and, “Ah?” and, “Ah?” and, “Ah?”
Morgan grinned. With a flourish, he started up the chainsaw. His audience hastily retreated, howling profanities. The blade bit and began gouging a deep channel through the red Hereford-Radnor clay. Lew nonchalantly swaggered back and straddled the trench.
“Missed a bit!” he yelled.
“What?” Morgan’s leg paid the price of his inattention. The blade chose that precise moment to strike a stone and bounce spitefully back, completely severing his left foot at the ankle. He looked at it, sitting there, expressionless, abstracted, detached. Reality kicked in. In so far as that was practically possible.
Oh, shit. It hurt. It was time to go. “I WANT TO COME BACK!”
Eliza Granville embarked on a legal career before abandoning it in favour of a bohemian lifestyle. After coming to her senses some years later, she returned to university – BA & MA University of Plymouth, PhD Aberystwyth University – and began writing in earnest. Her stories can be found in UK, US, and SA magazines, and in anthologies. Of several novels published, the most recent are Gretel and the Dark (Hamish Hamilton) and Once Upon a Time in Paris (CentreHouse Press).