The Quixotesque misadventures of unreconstructed Marcher Morgan Jones-Jones, who has probably not heard of the suffragettes let alone second- and third-wave feminists.
When seven long years had come and fled;
When grief was calm, and hope was dead;
When scarce was remember’d Kilmeny’s name,
Late, late in a gloamin’ Kilmeny came hame!
For Kilmeny had been, she knew not where,
And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare;
Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,
Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew.
—Kilmeny, James Hogg, 1770–1835
This bed was damned hard. How was a bloke supposed to get a decent night’s sleep with bare springs poking into his stomach like witch’s fingers? Trouble was, Mam didn’t agree with new-fangled ideas like replacing mattresses more than twice per lifetime. According to Mam-wisdom, those properly exhausted by the day’s labours could nod off anywhere, ergo, if you couldn’t sleep, better get your lazy backside outside and do more strenuous work. Men’s work. Cleaning out the cesspit, for example, or surreptitiously chopping down a neighbour’s trees and hauling home the firewood, or slaughtering that damned pig. Morgan sighed, for thus it has always been. Even so, he couldn’t remember ever being this uncomfortable before.
Morgan opened his eyes a temporary crack, only to be dazzled by the unbearably bright morning light. Thank God for eyelids. Hang on. Grass? Mud? A small turd-coloured worm and its small worm-coloured turd, a green and black ladybird – surely that meant he was out, not in. Moreover, he must have been lying outside all night, which just showed how much people really cared about his well-being. Levering his torso upright with his elbows, Morgan bum-shuffled backwards until he was supported by the nearest stone column.
The light was still too intense. Oh, oh, oh, his head – never would he touch alcohol again. And what appalling nightmares he’d endured. Something must be seriously wrong with him to dream up such lumpish and overbearing females…unless this was a cross creative artists must bear, their sleeping minds delving into the grossest outreaches of their imaginations for inspiration. Very likely, he decided, though it hadn’t figured in any of the Making a Million Dollars From Your Writing guides he’d studied.
Morgan risked opening his eyes again and this time discovered something very troubling. If it was morning – and it must be because the light was getting stronger by the minute, the sky bluer, the shadows longer and pointier – what was the sun doing rising in the west over darkest Wales? Everyone knew that the sun rose in the east, over darkest Essex. It always had, unless Herodotus was to be taken seriously. Pluto was the only place where it came up in the west. And Pluto was miles away. Good God, global warming wasn’t after all a cynical ploy to instil fear in the masses and make certain self-satisfied billionaire blackguards even wealthier! The ice caps must have melted, flipping the planet over in the night – except that it couldn’t have, otherwise he would have fallen off.
Properly awake now, Morgan observed that the countryside looked all wrong. There was no cloud and rain veil, for a start. No glowering winter sky. No wet black road unzipping the opposite hill. Everything was terribly, terribly green, not to mention wild and lush. Where were the scuffed-stone walls? The thick swathes of stock-proof blackthorn? Blackthorn is vital. And not just for its stock-containing properties. Thorny, pleasant-to-your-face rose for England, aggressive thistle prick for Scotland, flaccid leek for Wales, and deceptively harmless-looking bog shamrock for the other place, fair enough…yet for the British Isles as a whole nothing is more admirably suited to be an emblem of the indigenous temperament than Prunus spinosa.Blackthorn’s not much to look at but has a nasty temperament: rip you to pieces as soon as give you the time of day. Never mind all that extraneous information. He’d use it somewhere, sooner or later. But where were the sagging fences composed of rusty barbed wire and sheets of corrugated iron, with bits of brass bedstead shoved in for good measure? As far as Morgan could see, the slope down to the stream was in the right place, but there was no sign of the farm, the church, or the castle ruins? No trace of the whole damned village for that matter.
And what about the ubiquitous hill maggots, for Christ’s sake? What sort of Welsh Marches landscape has no sheep? Where had everyone gone? Admittedly, there were some funny buggers living round here – spoon whittlers, hop-pillow makers, tax dodgers, benefit fraudsters, craft potters, small-scale dope farmers, and a hell of a lot of keeping it all in the family – but even if the SAS had bombed in from Hereford to do a practice ethical cleanse overnight, and remove all signs of habitation to boot, there would still be sheep. They were what had convinced the Welsh to embrace Christianity on the grounds that the Old Testament was a damn good sheep-farming manual.
Anyway, the SAS wouldn’t have been up for restoring the stone circle. Someone had. Each column stood completely upright, shining in the sun, either freshly sand-blasted, or newly quarried. Morgan trembled. What it boiled down to was that this wasn’t Home. He stared at the alien landscape for a very long time. Nothing moved. It was watching, though. The feeling was exactly like being watched by Mam’s third eye, the one in the back of her head.
Slowly it dawned on him that something else was lacking, an absence infinitely worse. Where were the comforting phallic symbols of the British landscape, the gloriously male monotheist church spires, the chimneys, tall or squat, ridged or hooded, the battalions of pine trees, pillar boxes, BT poles – all those things necessary for the reassurance and sympathetic uplift of the fragile male ego? Phallic significance could be read into anything, everything, everywhere, if you put your mind to it. Not here though, apart from this sticky-uppy stone circle, and being a circle in itself lessened the uppy-significance of the stones. Morgan shuddered. The contours of these hills were such that they all looked like well-rounded bellies and bums and cellulite-dimpled thighs. The landscape vibrated with unrestrained fertility. Even the trees and bushes, and there were plenty of them where there shouldn’t be, for normally sheep nipped off anything that had the audacity to flourish a leafy one-finger salute above ground, were lollipop-rounds – like the paintings of toddlers or overpaid New York naïve painters – every last one weighted down by an over-abundance of bulbous fruit.
Morgan sat. And he stared. He pondered. And he sat some more.
Sheela-na-gig. The name just popped into his head. Why, he didn’t know and not knowing made him even more uneasy. There’s a carving of that gloriously immodest lady on the church at Kilpeck, not so many miles up the road, between Pontrilas and Hereford. Ten-year-old Morgan almost died of shame when he was dragged there for a Sunday afternoon picnic – Mam’s idea of a picnic that was, reduced-price currant buns, carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs – as a treat during the school holidays.
“Don’t say I don’t take you nowhere, Morgan Jones-Jones.”
At least it made a change from Borth, which was where the family took their one-day annual holiday. There’s a place: Mam Heaven.
“Don’t walk on the sand dunes and mind the marram grass. Oh, look, a shell. I do believe it’s a razor – and another. Pick them all up. Yes, every last one. It will save me buying grit for the hen’s gizzards. And since we’re here, fill these half dozen carrier bags with seaweed for the asparagus bed. Go on. Nobody’s taking any notice of you. Oh, those sea-pinks are pretty. Thrift, it says on the sign: a lovely name. Keep watch while I borrow one for the garden. I just so happen to have a trowel in my bag.”
Nothing else memorable at Borth, unless you counted vicious Welsh seagulls and great big transparent jellyfish dotted about the beach like giant snot globs. Some years a solitary ice-cream van limped over the horizon but Mam was too mean to shell out for a cornet, claiming she didn’t like the look of the vendor.
“Don’t know where his hands have been.”
Getting back to Sheela-na-gig, the woman has no shame at all. No knickers either, the brazen hussy. Go and see for yourself. There she is, crouched on the side of Kilpeck church, not just showing everything she was born with but holding it all apart to make sure everyone gets a proper eyeful – and pulling a nasty face as well. It’s said she’s the fertility aspect of the Great Mother Goddess so what can you expect? Poor Morgan, not expecting to be confronted with anything of the sort, and praying, as he’d never prayed before, to any old god that would listen, that his Mam wouldn’t put on her glasses for a better look, wanted to jump inside a grave and bring the stone down to hide him. In the meantime, crowds of people milled around, complete loonies, being Oh-so-civilised, gawping and muttering, ‘Oh I see’ and ‘how very interesting and ‘gosh, look at that, Pagan and Christian co-existing’, as if nothing was wrong.
Earth and Other, Other and Earth, that’s why Morgan was following this train of thought. He didn’t yet know it because, his head being in the state it was, he’d forgotten the date. We three, the All-knowing, the All-wise know. What that small corbel of the Goddess so flagrantly displays – her vulva, not to put too fine a point on it and use the C-word – is also carved into that archetypal symbol, the vagina-shaped Vesica Piscis. This is the feminine principle of generation from which spring all other geometric forms, the triangles, squares and ‘golden mean’ rectangles that abound in sacred architecture.
Got the picture? No? Fish bladders! Stick with us. This could be important. Imagine an oval formed by two intersecting equal circles. Yes? Well, there you have egg and womb and entrance, representing equilibrium between equal forces, the interpenetration of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter, life and death. It’s a shape extensively used in the Christian church, especially as a frame for the Virgin Mary and Jesus in stained glass windows, though the symbol predates Christianity and the age of Pisces. It was used by the ancient Egyptians in construction of the pyramids, and can be found at some of the megalithic sites. In short, it’s the symbol of creation – and not the imaginary creation of that old man with the white beard and pointy Jupiter finger either. More to the point, it is mankind’s gateway to this world and therefore, inevitably, to – the Other.
Morgan quickly moved on from contemplation of the sacred profane to mindless repetition of The Ancient Mariner, the memorising of which – at the age of fourteen – had not, as expected, increased his pulling power. “It is an ancient Mariner and he stoppeth one of three by thy long grey beard and glittering eye now wherefore stopp’st thou me the Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide and I am next of kin the guests are met the feast is set may’st hear the merry din he holds him with his skinny hand there was a ship quoth he hold off unhand me grey-beard loon eftsoons his hand dropt he holds him with his glittering eye—”
He was interrupted by the arrival of Mercher, who turned up dragging its chain, looking as bad as it smelled while attempting to whistle insouciance through its canines. The dog had nothing much to say for itself today, which mattered not since Morgan wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Mercher sniffed suspiciously at the stones, scraped disconsolately at a bank, then burst into full-blooded baying as Venus erupted from the earth like newly planted daffodil bulbs after an autumn downpour, a land-locked parody of Botticelli, without the shell, or the modesty, but with the haunches. Not that body image concerned Venus – one quick sniff of the fruity air and off she thundered. Few pigs reach the Elysian Fields other than through a bacon factory and rashering severely diminishes the appetite. Moments later she could be seen hurtling up the opposite side of the valley, galloping from tree to tree as she cleared fallen fruit with all the delicacy of a giant vacuum cleaner.
Morgan inspected the hole through which Venus had arrived. He could just about remember falling. As everything seemed to be operating back to front, perhaps today it was possible to fall upwards, in which case he could easily climb back down again. He lowered himself into the pit and began scooping out loose soil with his bare hands. Mercher joined him, panting heavily and trailing strings of drool as it enthusiastically scraped earth from one side of the pit to the other, and as often as not into Morgan’s face.
“Get away from me you stupid fucking animal. Do you call that helping? And did anyone ever tell you how bad you stink?”
Mercher drew back his gums. “That’s rich, coming from you, after the last few days, begging your pardon.”
“At least I never stank of sheep.” Morgan shuddered. “Ugh. Disgusting dead lanolin smell.”
“Not surprising. I’m a sheepdog. I’m Welsh. If there had been any decent entire bitches within a thirty-mile radius I’d smell of them. And before we discuss your personal and if I may say so somewhat solitary and cerebrally-fuelled habits, we’d better get out of here. This hole is starting to heal over.”
They scrambled out. Within minutes the displaced earth had been sucked back into the wound, shuffled down, and new grass was sprouting. Mercher thoughtfully provided a shot of nitrogen. Soon it was hard to see the faintest scar of Venus rising.
“That’s it then,” said Morgan. “I give up. None of this is real. The only thing to do is wait for whatever it is to wear off. I’m going to have a kip.”
Loosening the baler twine, he stretched out on the grass and waited. From time to time he attempted a few breathing exercises to stave off panic. In one-two-three. Hold one-two-three. Out one-two-three. Gasp. Hyperventilate. Fat chance of sleeping though – he was too terrified of what might be around the next corner or under his feet. So he just waited, his eyes flicking here there everywhere. Mercher departed, leaving seventy per cent of his reek behind. The sun clawed its way up the sky. And still nothing else moved.
The temperature rose sharply. It couldn’t be November, thought Morgan. Even a late Indian summer never gets so hot. At this point Coleridge kicked in again and he began to worry about dehydration. Shielding his eyes, he peered into the distance, following the course of the invisible stream downwards, and right at the bottom of the hill, more-or-less where the farmhouse should have been, he made out a nice round little pool.
Another ten minutes and forty-seven unpunctuated lines passed before Morgan risked leaving his sanctuary for a quick drink. Since there was still no one to be seen, he decided on a swim. Off came the baggy old apology for a suit, the detachable starched collar, the cobble-elbowed shirt, the vest, the Union Jack boxers and, last of all naturally, the socks. In he jumped. Tepid bliss. So much so that he turned to positive thinking: either he was still asleep – in which case better be careful he didn’t drown in the bath – or he’d wandered into the wrong valley during the night. It was easy to confuse one with the next. How green was my valley? As green as several hundred other such geographical features, Morgan suspected. As for the standing stones, the Marches were full of the damn things, so many that people hauled them out with JCBs on the sly and used them as gate-uprights, scratching posts for cattle, beer-garden ornaments, even base plates to replace rotten thousand-year-old oak timbers in unsuspected early medieval halls posing as barns. There were at least three other stone circles in the farm’s vicinity. Give it another few minutes and he’d get his kit back on and sort the situation out. As soon, that was, as he’d finished experimenting with the use of a continuous stream of excess gas as a buoyancy aid. But another odd noise, something between snorting and choking alerted him. It wasn’t the dog. Nor was it Venus. He bobbed down, hands clasped round his genitals in the classic man-disturbed-without-trousers pose.
But where were his trousers? Half a dozen hunched pirouettes on the pond bottom, squinting into the sun, established that all the clothes he’d flung down on the bank had vanished. Only the boxers, and his socks – one toe-less khaki and one heel-less black – lingered right at the water’s edge, soaked through from the waves he’d been creating. Not that it mattered, since he put them on underwater, in a heart-warming display of modesty. When Morgan finally emerged, splashing and cursing blue murder, he made out his trousers ripped in half, flapping like death-ship flags from the topmost branches of the nearest tree, with his shoes nearby, suspended like weights on the length of pink baler twine. His effing and blinding was answered by a running chorus of snorting and sniggering, jeering and hooting from whatever bastard creatures had put them up there.
The minute Morgan clapped eyes on them, all hope fled.
There were four perched up in that tree watching him. One thing was certain, humanoid they might be – one of them was wearing his jacket – but they definitely weren’t human. They were as alien as the landscape. Nothing rounded about them though, quite the opposite. They were skinny and spindly, excessively long-limbedand long fingered. Every feature was pointed, ears, eyes, chins, even their mouths were almost perfect V’s. But it was their pallor that did it: pale as the living dead bar a faint purplish blush to cheeks and lips. And with eyes the no-colour of February rain. They were as fragile-looking as dandelion clocks. And the hair, great crests of it – silver, moon-shadow, with just the very tips tinted a different hue for each of them, bright blue, violet, saffron, pink, so that as their heads moved the ends rippled in spectacularly coloured waves, exactly like the coat of Mam’s chinchilla Persian when she had a mind to stalk grasshoppers. Fourteen, or thereabout, Morgan put them at, a nasty age as far as he could remember, obsessed with self and with self-loathing, and preoccupied with the first stirrings of the acne-hormonal crazies. He steeled himself for another quick look. It wasn’t his imagination. Apart from the hair colour they were indistinguishable. Carbon copy clothes, too. Baggy Mao Zedong suits in very pastel shades. The one with the violet-tinted hair stood up on a branch and began a fair imitation of an outraged orangutan, hooting and beating his chest, scraping at his armpits, jumping up and down.
Morgan walked away, hoping the kid would miss his footing. Now was the time to go back to the stone circle and crank up some optimism. He might have missed something, some hole or door or entrance or cave or aperture or shaft or qanat or burrow or tunnel mouth. If it was there, he’d find it. Or, God willing, stumble upon a perfectly reasonable explanation. He might, for example, have blundered into a film shoot. He could still be dreaming. The sharp sting of a hail of unripe fruit on his back put paid to the latter. Little bastards.
Mercher reappeared the instant Morgan set foot inside the circle. The dog did a quick round of all the stones, smelling the base of each before cocking its leg and turning the space into home territory in its own inimitable way. “Weird place, this. Nose doesn’t work properly. I want out of here.”
“Fine. Me too. Got any ideas?”
“Anubis, was that reflected soundwaves, or just indecision? Ask them.” Mercher crouched, gaze fixed on the middle distance, craning its neck first one way then the other. “Bugger me – fleas are biting hard in and out today.” Thus began a full-scale emergency scratch, followed by a violent ear-shaking, drool-whirling, chain-rattling session, before frantically scrubbing its behind along the grass for about twenty feet, yipping and whining with discomfort. For an unexpected encore, the dog sat down and licked its own testicles.
The aliens watched from behind the stone columns in silence. They were the perfect audience. Only when Mercher collapsed, performance over, exhausted nose between exhausted front paws, did the nudging, pushing and whispering start.
Finally, Blue-hair yelled: “Hey mister, is that a dog?”
“Don’t be daft,” sneered Yellow-hair. “It can’t be a dog. Everyone knows dogs aren’t real.”
“Well it sure as Hertha ain’t a cat.”
“It is a dog,” Morgan assured them. “Belonging to me,” he added, hoping it wasn’t listening. Mercher raised one ear and exhaled, but said nothing. The boys ventured a careful few yards nearer.
“A dog? A dirty dog.”
“Really a dog? Wow!”
“Aw, smell that.”
“No dogs here?” enquired Morgan.
“Not one,” mumbled Mercher. “I checked.”
“You can’t have checked everywhere.”
“Did so. Flat world. Came to the edge.”
“Dogs went out with Adam,” said Blue-hair. “They’re extinct. They were Man’s best friend, you see.”
“Everybody knows that,” smirked Yellow-hair.
“So you can’t be from round here, can you?” said Violet-hair. “Did you come through the Portal?” He tentatively laid one pale hand on a stone pillar.
“The Portal. It’s the old way through to the Otherworld.”
“This? The stone circle? A sort of gate, you mean?”
Violet-hair nodded. “Yeh – kind of.”
Yellow-hair snitched his nose. “Everyone knows that.”
“Ain’t much used anymore.” Violet-hair puffed out his chest, pleased to find some jerk who knew even less about things than he did. He lowered his voice. “Leads to a bad place called Hertha where people sell their grannies.”
“The Underworld,” added Blue-hair.
“Terrer,” squeaked Pink-hair, not to be outdone.
“I got lost and ended up here by mistake. No offence but I need to get back right away.” Morgan attempted to sound relaxed about the problem, man to man. “We’re going to have to activate this thing. Can any of you guys help me out?” Violet-hair shook his head. It was quite impressive. But disappointing.
“Nah. You’d have to get a Mother to help you use the Portal. None of us know how. Boys aren’t taught science.”
“And girls are?”
“Yeah, but a girl wouldn’t help you. No chance.”
“Would your mother?”
“They might. Perhaps. If they were in a good mood.” He looked doubtful. “The thing is, not many people use the Portal these days. A whole lot came through many years ago. Not like you though. They were smaller, with,” Violet-hair stretched his eyes into flatter slants, “and sort of browner. But there was something wrong with them. They all died. The Mothers said there’d been tinkering with the building blocks of Nature in Hertha and all non-essential excursions there were cancelled for the foreseeable future. Not that we would have gone anyway. Only Mothers can do stuff like that.”
“I could take you with me,” Morgan offered, desperation overcoming good sense. He opened his mouth to make further, wilder and thoroughly unkeepable promises, but the sheer horror on Violet-hair’s face stopped him. “What’s up? Wouldn’t you like to see what uh Hertha’s like?”
“Boys don’t,” he said.
“Don’t like adventure?”
“Of course they don’t. It’s not masculine.”
“Everybody knows that,” chanted Yellow-hair. Morgan shot him a nasty look.
“Well,” he said, abandoning that line of attack, “better take me to your mother, then. I’ll ask her to get this contraption working. I’ve got to get back somehow.”
Violet-hair fidgeted. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Not many people come through anymore. None of them go back. They’ll want to keep you. The Mothers like playing with aliens.”
“And you’re really alien,” Blue-hair assured him, pointing to Morgan’s chest. “You’re all furry. Not like those brown ones. You’re more like the cats. And that dog.”
“Or the old human-tale apes,” observed Violet-hair. He looked thoughtful. “You might be the missing link.”
“All right,” said Morgan. Mustn’t yell. Mustn’t shout. Mustn’t seize the nearest heads and bang them together. Must keep calm at all costs. “So, your mothers probably won’t help me. Fine, then let’s go ask your fathers.”
They all looked at him and then looked at each other, before wrapping themselves in a mini-scrum. After a few minutes they emerged, cheeks a little more purple-flushed than before and not meeting his eyes.
“It’s dangerous,” announced Violet-hair, “and unmasculine. We’d be in real trouble if we were caught. But we’ll do it if you give us the dog.”
“Sod that for a game of shepherds,” snarled Mercher, preparing for the off. “I’m not going anywhere with those wankers.”
“Done.” Morgan had already dived on the chain. He wrapped it round his wrist.
“Shutup,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “How else are we going to get out of here? Go along with it for a bit. Be nice. Wag your arse. Lick and slobber. Entertain them. Do something disgusting. What do you mean like what? Just act natural; do the things you usually do. Snuffle at their genitals. Sample a few assorted turds. Pee against church doors. That’ll keep them quiet. Meet me back here in a couple of hours.”
“I don’t trust you. How do I know you won’t bugger off and leave me here?”
“Because I’m relying on you to keep the farm clear of cats. Look – we’ll go into partnership. I’ll buy a proper gun, maim them, and you can finish them off. We’ll market the fur.”
“And get me a couple of young bitches?”
“Yeh, yeh, whatever you want. All right, let’s go.” Morgan handed the chain to Violet-hair, who passed it on to Pink-hair. Mercher licked all round, grinning and wagging and making enthusiastic little let’s-go-play runs, almost pulling Pinkie over.
“Me and Hyacinth are taking you to the fathers,” said Violet-hair. “Crocus and Orchid are going to hide our dog where the Mothers won’t find it. You know what they’re like.”
“Don’t I just. Mothers!” Morgan had a sudden and inexplicable vision of death-mask bared teeth, tried to think, drew a blank, and left it at that. They started off down the hill in the direction of the pond. A long drawn-out wolf howl stopped them dead in their tracks. Already Mercher was playing up, grizzling and digging its heels in.
“What’s the hell’s the matter now?”
“Not spayed bitches?” howled Mercher. “I know what cheating bastards humans are. And no fobbing me off with dachshunds or Chihuahuas or any such abnormalities. Promise me?”
“I promise to let you choose your own bitches,” shouted Morgan. “Now can I go? Can we get on with it?” They continued down the slope. “Hyacinth, that’s an unusual name for a boy.”
“Suppose,” said Hyacinth.
“And what’s your friend’s name?” asked Morgan, nodding his head at Violet-hair.
“He’s called Lupin. What about you?”
“All boys are named after flowers. They’re nice masculine names. Pretty. Not like some of the poor old guys. Morgan’s not too bad, but imagine,” Lupin grimaced, “being called Sernunnos, or Hermaze.”
“We’ve got to be careful,” Hyacinth cautioned him. “We’ve got to keep out of the way of the Mothers and any rotten girls prowling around. Especially with you half-dressed like that.”
“Why?” asks Morgan, glancing down. He’d got his vest and jacket back, but no trousers, of course, and his dad’s old shirt hadn’t stood up to the rough handling either. He looked all right though – just a bloke who liked wearing shorts. “Is there something I should know?”
“Let’s hope you don’t find out. They’re all bad news. Mean. Cruel. And they’re bullies. Never let them get you on your own.”
“Never trust any of them, no matter how nice they seem,” piped up Lupin, sounding as if he was reciting a lesson, “they’re only after one thing as any father will tell you. All of them will interfere with you given half the chance. Let a bad Mother get her hands on you and you might never be heard of again.”
“Oh.” Morgan straightened his face. “I see. So where are you taking me exactly?”
“To see a really, really old bloke, to Sernunnos.” Not a leader, it turned out. Men didn’t have leaders. “Sernunnos is so old he was about when things were different and there’s just a chance he might remember how to use the Portal.”
By now they were trooping along the valley bottom, the boys getting more jumpy by the minute, speaking in whispers, keeping under cover, flitting from tree to tree, and encouraging Morgan to crouch lower so that he was hidden by the foliage. Soon the rampant greenery subsided into manicured parkland. Birds started to appear: small and every colour of the rainbow, moving in noisy flocks several hundred strong and reminiscent of starlings. There were butterflies, too, and flowering plants…or not. He wasn’t sure. The difference was blurred. As was his vision. Both seemed to move…or not. And hum, or vibrate…or maybe not.
Soon they reached the outskirts of a settlement, situated more or less where the old village had stood in the early eighteenth century, with dwellings of sorts dotted about in small arbours, hardly visible until you were right on top of them. This was real Green country. No roads, just grassy tracks. Not a vehicle in sight. The houses themselves were modelled on scaled-up Nature, especially the ones furthest out. Think exaggerated Roger Dean fantasies – cracked amethyst geodes, turned outside in; partially concealed caves with serpentine staircases; interconnected magpie nests or exotically contorted seed pods strung between trunks and approached by gossamer ladders. In addition, there were homes resembling extruded fungi – puff-balls, slender stalked chanterelles with linked walkways, even sulphur polypores piled up like pancakes. Nearer the centre of the settlement the dwelling places were standard dome shapes made out of some opaque material that gave slightly under pressure, a bit like the membrane of shell-less eggs– what Mam, against all the evidence, referred to as cockerel’s eggs. Yolk-less and useless, these must never be brought into the house, but tossed over it. No mean feat—
Morgan squawked as he was suddenly grabbed from behind and shuffled inside one of these cockerel-egg domes.
The first thing he focused on was the cat, a big skinny thing, Egyptian-looking, steel grey with a pure white diamond on its chest. Damn and blast it, he thought, everything else here arse-backwards yet there still has to be a bloody old flea-ridden moggie sitting on a chair. The cat stretched, snarled and dealt him an almighty swipe across his bare legs.
“Fuck you, human.” It stalked out, tail swishing.
“Bastet, Bastet.” Quick as a flash, an old geezer ran after it, wailing and carrying on, pleading with the creature to come back inside. Ignoring him, it arranged itself just out of reach and treated the world to a display of acrobatics incorporating thorough nether hygiene techniques. When they tired of watching that, the egg’s occupants gawped at Morgan.
“Who in Terrer’s this?”
While Lupin and Hyacinth gabbled out an edited version of ‘The Finding of the Hairy Stranger’, Morgan took the opportunity to size up what passed for grown men here. He sniggered to himself. These were puny little creatures, without exception, as stick-insect skinny as the boys. Not much taller, either. And talk about decrepit – all three were mangy and manky and battered, with boils, black teeth and broken nails. No fancy hair for them either: more like six-month toothbrushes – well chewed into the bargain. It was only when they introduced themselves that Morgan realised every last one was in drudge. The hideous scars and warts and boils were painted on. The only one really getting on a bit was Backus, still sorrowfully croaking, “Bastet O Bastet O Bastet,” in the doorway.
As cats’ names go, Morgan supposed Bastet wasn’t too bad. Nothing worse than folks on their suburban doorsteps calling in their moggies with posh names –ZarAthUstra, ErAsmus, RimthURsar, ÆlUrus, TrismOgistUs, ColoQUINtida, MarAnA-a-atha, XanTHIppe, HypERMnEstrAH – all finally descending, in despair, to puss, puss, puss, accompanied by the downmarket rattle of spoon against plate. Even, in extremis, growls of: “Come here, you cooking fat.”
Backus himself was as wrinkled as a raisin, his skin dead-white marbled with purple thread veins, eyes much the same; the last pathetic stub of hair had faded to the colour of old retsina. “Sit down, lad,” he said, finally making a brave effort to pull himself together. “Nothing personal. My Bastet isn’t used to so much bare skin, that’s all. Speaking of which, we’d better get you covered up before someone sees you.”
One imperious hand was raised. Rowan – a stunted, russet-haired fellow – shed arthritic senility to scuttle off and rummage for a sheet which Morgan dutifully wrapped around his near-nakedness, while Hermaze quit drooling and mumbling to bring him a warm drink, a particularly nauseating herb tea.
“Now then,” said Backus, “young Lupin and Hyacinth here tell us you came through the Portal and need a bit of help getting back – and what they were doing up there when they were supposed to be finishing their tapestry assignments I’d like to know but we’ll go into that later. What we need to know is, did you come by accident or design? Were you mucking about with some ritual, or were you summoned?”
“No way was I trying. I don’t want to be here. I simply want to go home.”
“Yes, yes, we understand that. We want to help you, but what we can’t work out is whether you’re a straightforward fall-in or whether the Mothers had a hand in it. They keep quite a few Hertha-men up there. Guests, supposed to be – hanging around for centuries, some of them. Things have been quiet for a while, but we’ve heard rumours of to-ing and fro-ing again, so could be that a talent scout spotted you. Or,” Backus swallowed convulsively, “it may be punitive. You haven’t had a run-in with a Mother have you? Offered physical violence? Answered back? Taken her name in vain? Laughed out of turn? Raised your eyes to heaven? I hope not. I really hope not.”
Morgan’s bowels tied themselves in two half-hitches and a granny knot. “Tall, are they your Mothers? Big?”
Backus nodded. Hermaze nodded. The boys nodded. Rowan put one hand a good foot above his head and drew a hefty hourglass shape in the air surrounding himself.
“Might have.” Morgan’s colour drained out leaving him nearly as pale as the rest of them, barring the sickly overlay of green, as his mind conjured up an enraged Miz Kurswell. She was tall as him, easy. Broad in the beam, too. Front like a ship’s prow, and with Big Hair, white, but ever so tastefully pewter-rinsed. He’d upset her, could not for the life of him remember how – some trifling thing – yet was pretty sure the harridan was out to get him. “Are you telling me that w-w-w-w-women really are in charge here?”
Nobody spoke for a full minute which was an answer in itself. Then Rowan edged up to him, licking his lips nervously and leaning forward to stare into his eyes. Morgan moved as far back as his chair allowed.
“Why?” Rowan whispered. “Aren’t they where you come from then?”
“GOOD GOD NO,” bellowed Morgan, sweating a bit and pressing all thoughts of Mam as deep into his subconscious as he could reach.
“And it works all right?”
“Naturally.” Morgan turned crimson. “Women do as they’re told back home. They wait on us hand, foot, and phallus. Dozy bints by and large. Not a lot up top. Good for some things, mind – the three Ks, you know, and the other – but men run the show, men are in charge, men make the decisions, Oh, yes.”
“Just as I thought!” crowed Rowan, striking a heroic pose. “Not all laughing at me now, are you?”
“Dear-oh-dear-oh-dear-oh-dear-oh—” Old Backus began wandering backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, wringing his hands and taking on again. “Morgan, you poor lad, it’s clear to me that the Mothers have summoned you here for a reckoning. I know it. They won’t be satisfied till they get you up there.”
“If you ask me…” chipped in Lupin.
“Nobody did,” said Backus snapping out of it pretty smartly. “You and Hyacinth would be better employed inventing some very good reason for not finishing your assignments. We had all this with your embroidered tray cloths, and the petits fours, AND the candle dipping. I haven’t forgotten.”
“We should storm that place,” Lupin shouted, after the obligatory adolescent two and a half minutes of silent sneering and mimicking. “Those prisoners might be from Hertha but they’re still men like us. You lot are always going on about brotherhood and masculism. We’ve got to act. There’s been too much jawing and not enough doing.”
“Right on,” agreed Rowan.
“You-ought-to-know-better-Rowan-what-an-example-to-set-don’t-be-so-silly-violence-never-solved-anything-besides—” Backus paused to suck in air. “Besides, it’s not in our nature. Civilisation relies on the gentle and loving self-sacrifice that masculinity epitomises to, well, to be civilisation. Change is needed, agreed, but we must use peaceful means – negotiation, compromise, diplomacy – lest we turn into what we oppose. Really, I don’t know what it is about this generation of boys. Quite, quite different from how we were at your age. Some of you are very unpleasantly aggressive. Tom-girls. Ugh. But this poor lad, this innocent—” He sighed. “Oh, what shall we do for poor Morgan? How can we help him? They’ll hunt him down sooner or later. Of course they will – their depraved appetites will see to that.”
“You’re jutht their type, I fear,” agreed Hermaze, with much sighing and head-shaking. “The perfect thtud. Ith the hair you thee,” he glanced down to where Morgan’s sprouting knee poked from beneath the sheet. “We’re all lacking in that department – or we depilate quick ath we can – tho they really go for it. In gender thtudith we call thingth like that la différenthe.”
“Gender studies,” sneered Morgan. “Male. Female. That’s it. What’s to study?”
Backus shook his head. “You poor innocent.” Stifling a sob, he clasped Morgan’s shoulder. The rest of the group also homed-in, a soft cuddly close-up-as-you-can-get-without-meaning-something-else group buddy-hug, punctuated by little incoherent mumbles, a few tears and murmurs of all brothers under-the-skin solidarity.
“We’ll take you to Sernunnos. Do everything we can to get you home.”
“Remember, whatever happens, we’re here for you.”
“To comfort. Listen. Share recipes.”
“And uglification tips.”
“Bros in adversity. For ever and ever, Ourmen.
After ten minutes of silently flitting between dwellings, Morgan was ushered into a narrow cleft, barely wide enough for him to squeeze through, and guided, backwards, down a spiral stone staircase with steps so shallow it was hardly possible to get a toehold. Although the floor was ridged and rough, the cave at its base was more designer grotto than dwelling. Stalagmites and stalactites joined to form convenient room dividers. Icy water cascaded down a rockface, spilling through a series of pools fringed with ferns and what might have been striking bromeliads – as beloved by Mam – or nasty-looking, mightily segmented insects.
The largest space was unfurnished save for a massive adze-hewn table and some hefty stools. At one end of the table sat a hunched little figure, an older version of the other boys, painting for dear life. This one was as pale and angular as an albino daddy longlegs, with eyes pink-rimmed from inadequate light. His elf-locked hair was splotched a dozen different colours. So were his clothes. This was Mosaic, an underground artist, who threw aside his brushes and galloped to meet Morgan, throwing his spindly arms around him.
“Morgan, isn’t it? If only you knew how I’ve longed for this moment, Morgan. I’ve had these dreams, these visions of a wonderful place where men and women live together in perfect harmony. See? I’ve captured them in my paintings.”
Morgan looked at the images of angular buildings, tall skyscrapers of glass and steel, trees of a thousand sharp elbows, all neatly arranged flanking a grid of perfectly straight streets. And along them strolled tall, powerful, androgynous beings in dresses, politely conversing.
“Is this how Hertha looks?” demanded Mosaic. “Is it how I imagined it?”
Morgan hesitated. “Ye-es.” There were some lovely straight lines, not a curve anywhere, but men in drag? He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as the other’s silence demanded further artistic feedback. “The trees are nice.”
Thankfully, Sernunnos chose this moment to shuffle in, wearing pastel green camouflage and accompanied by Baal, a truly monstrous cat, sleek, black, tall at the shoulder as a Labrador, and with bright red eyes. Clearly this fellow ranked pretty high judging by the way everyone scurried round kowtowing and making sure he was comfortable. Candles were lit. More of the pondweed herb tea was brewed. A rough-and-ready armchair was dragged from an adjoining room and piled high with cushions. Morgan was allowed to approach only when Sernunnos was comfortably settled, blanket over his skinny legs.
Sernunnos really was old, far older than Backus. His hair had only the faintest sap-green tinge to the silver, and fell into two points, which curled forward, like ram’s horns. Bird bones pressed sharp and tight against the puckered parchment of his skin. His fingers were cramp-clawed talons. Nevertheless, his eyes were bright, and when he spoke Sernunnos still seemed to have most of his marbles.
“Well, the good news is,” he croaked, “that I know the dance sequence to open the Portal. I’ve used that route quite a few times myself – illegally, of course, and not for some time, but it’s like riding a uh a thingamajig a what’s its name – short-term memory’s the problem, I can remember Boudica and her shenanigans as if it were—”
“Opening the Portal?” prompted Morgan.
“Ah, yes, found out how by accident. Just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time and saw the Mothers sending a procuress through. What a sight – all done up like a Fairy King, with her muscles strapped down. They do it differently these days, I believe. Siloxane and—”
“Will you help me get out of here?”
“I’ll try, naturally. Dangerous, though. We have to wait until after dark. The Mothers seem to know about everything – eyes and ears everywhere. If they should catch us….” He drifted off for a moment, then brightened, and came back grinning. “Does anyone on Hertha remember me? They ought to, the fun and games we used to have with fertility rites. All sorts of things I was called: the Horned One, the Green man, god of the Other World. All of it complimentary, don’t you know. Popular, that was me – and not just with the ladies. Know why? Eh? Know why? Because it was yours truly who developed yeast. Yes, I gave Hertha men control over brewing beer. And in return, they presented me with the wheel. Not that I was allowed to develop it. No space being a flat world – couldn’t have people falling over the edge.” He sighed mightily. “Those were the days. Ah, those were the days. Mind you, last time I was there things seemed to have changed for the worse. There was some female in charge, calling herself a Virgin Queen. Couldn’t be doing with that sort of madness – too much like home – had to get out fast.”
“I see,” murmured Morgan, trying to keep his impatience under control. “Well, that’s all very interesting.”
“Yes,” agreed Sernunnos. “It is. But what I didn’t tell you was—” He frowned. “Where was I? Ah, yes. I’m in charge of landscapes and gardens here, you know – bit of a comedown, but there you go. Whereas my job used to be breeding new varieties of food plants, these days I’m reduced to supervising the donkey work. Anyway, after the yeast, I invented the potato. Had to work on it in secret. Marvellous vegetable, delicious – banned here, alas. Well, it’s addictive. I mean, have you ever heard of people going back to acorns and couch grass after eating spuds? No. But there’s more to it than that. Oh yes. It was my retake-over bid. Unfortunately, it failed. See, unless you have the antidote, it seriously stimulates the sex hormones – testosterone in men, oestrogen in women, makes men more aggressive, and women more passive. As such, it’s the perfect tool of government: leaves no trace, especially if you persuade them to eat the skins. I’ll never know how the Mothers found out but that’s another story. Couldn’t let it go to waste though. On my last visit, I gave a handful of tubers to some fellow – Rawley or Rally or such-like – in return for the loan of a fast horse to get to the nearest gate. Did the potato catch on? It did. Good. Good. So what’s Hertha like now?”
Morgan scratched his head. “Well, there have been lots of technological innovations.”
“Magic, yes. Go on. Tell me about the struggle for supremacy.”
“In a nutshell, there isn’t one. When it comes down to it,” declaimed Morgan, “men are still in charge, in spite of all the bleating for equality. We let women believe things are changing. We give considerable publicity to overt acts of suppression in other, supposedly more primitive, places. We allow a handful of carefully selected women to get top jobs – but then we make her one of us so that pretty soon she reacts like a man and despises the women who haven’t made it. Basically, apart from those few aforementioned, there are no institutions or areas of government where women have anything else but token roles, except in a supportive capacity. WE are the masters.”
“That’s definitely because of the potato.” Sernunnos nodded sagely, stroking the cat that lay with its eyes open a thin red crack. “All that power in exchange for a broken down nag. Go on.”
“The thing with women that you might have missed,” Morgan continued kindly, “is that you have to keep them busy. Reproduction is very handy. Make sure womankind knows that she isn’t fulfilled without progeny. Four or five sprogs, well spaced out, will keep a woman out of the running for up to twenty years, especially if money’s a bit tight. By then she’s knackered and grateful to stay home and put her feet up. Fashion is good, too. Keep a female focused on her looks. Make sure she knows how she should look to be a Real Woman – which, naturally, must be nothing like real women look. Slam it home. Then keep changing it. Too fat. Too thin. Too this. Too that. Then, by the time she’s lived long enough to be powerful she’s got her first wrinkle. Now she’s too old. Look through her. Pretend she’s invisible. Cue for a nervous breakdown. A lot of energy goes into image that might be severely disruptive if used elsewhere.”
“Thath all very well and good,” lisped Hermaze, “but it doethn’t help uth. I mean, obviouthly your women aren’t like ourth.”
“Hertha women sound completely feeble,” said the one with the pretty powder blue tips, who’d been so busy dusting the rock pools. “Call themselves women – they sound like mere shadows of Our Girls. I like a woman to be a woman. Big. Powerful. Protective. Lots of muscle. Strength of character. It makes me feel like a proper man.”
“You’re a proper namby-pamby,” sneered Morgan. “I’d be ashamed—”
Powder blue’s eyes widened. “You should be ashamed, standing there with your great hairy legs and dirty fingernails. Look at those horny toes. It’s abnormal. You’re nothing but a,” his face twisted with contempt, “a misogynist.”
“Leave it out, Elverin,” snapped Sernunnos. “You’ve never been to Hertha. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I wouldn’t want to. A-noon’s quite good enough for me, thank you.”
“Look, most of us aren’t asking for that sort of supremacy,” said Mosaic. “All I want is equality.”
“Why not supremacy?” demanded Rowan. “We had it once.”
“That’s just myth,” insisted Elverin, “people tales.”
Sernunnos shook his head. “It’s the truth. I was there. Long time ago though.”
“I don’t believe you.” Elverin’s blue tips quivered. “It would be completely unnatural. Women were made superior. They were created in the image of God after all.”
“God’s male,” said Morgan outraged.
“Don’t be profane,” gasped Elverin. “How could a Creator be anything but female?”
“He just is. God the Father. Vicar told me.”
“And he’s male too, I suppose. What nonsense. I’m not listening to this sort of blasphemy. You’ll be telling me next there’s no such thing as Original Virgin Birth. Then we’ll be struck by lightning.” Elverin pinched his lips almost flat, which was quite a sight. “Don’t listen, any of you. Leave well alone. I’m all for a bit of liberalisation – letting us choose our own colour schemes and so on, but there’s such a thing as going too far. Bar a few minor niggles, we get along fine. The Mothers know what’s best for us.”
“Ith quite dark now,” whispered Hermaze. “We really ought to make a thtart.”
“And that’s another thing,” shrilled Elverin, “it isn’t right, this going behind their backs. If they’ve called this filthy Morgan creature, it’s probably for a very good reason. You shouldn’t – AW! He struck me. Did you see that? The filthy alien struck me.”
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 her Holocaust novel Gretel and the Dark (Hamish Hamilton) and Once Upon a Time in Paris (CentreHouse Press). Granville has long been interested in myths, legends, fairy-tales, and in her writing has combined these tropes with her close study of the post-Enlightenment feminist struggle – all these facets euphorically alive in Curing the Pig.
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