The Hyacinth, the Witch and the Cormorant

The Hyacinth entered the river mouth, returning at last from a long voyage in the South Seas. She sailed past the castle and on up the narrowing river with the tide, her rainbow colours glowing brightly in the sun, which was setting on the starboard side.

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‘Look thee well!” cried Prince Halwell to the gracious couple that reclined behind him upon cushions on the fo’c’sle deck. Ahead, beyond a bend in the river, a magnificent red tower stood proudly on a hill above the marshland. Krake alighted on Prince Halwell’s shoulder and wagging his slender head vigorously at the pair, said, “That’s the town of Totness.” (You see, he was a Talking Cormorant.)

The Duke of Salisbury came forward and stood at Halwell’s side; a noble hunter returning home with his bride from the Southern Isles. His face was grave as he gazed north toward the tower, which drew gradually nearer as the oars of the Paying Clients pulled the Hyacinth up the winding navigable part of the river. He turned and spoke to his Duchess, Rebekah the Wise. “My Lady, this worthy town is held by a witch who has caused it to rain every Saturday when the people hold their market. Worse: fauns, dryads, nymphs and satyrs, and even gnomes, have been forced into slavery. And Talking Animals are made to wait at table for the witch and her crew.” Krake hissed in a way that left the others in no doubt how he felt about this last piece of information.

Rebekah joined them at the bow rail with a strange light in her brown eyes. “My Lord, let us together with our brother free the good Totnesians, human and otherwise, from this blight. Yet let us be not hasty in condemning all witches: the wide world holds good witches and bad, and indeed some that are both good and bad.”

Krake said, “You humans make things complicated. Bad witches: yes, undoubtedly. Good witches: well, possibly.  Show me a good witch, and I will believe you. But a witch who is both good and bad? There is no such thing.” And because Cormorants do not enjoy philosophical discourse, he slid off Prince Halwell’s shoulder and into the river before anyone could answer, to fish for the royal supper.

It grew dusk, and the royals went below to take oars, so that three of the Paying Clients might stroll on deck and rest their weary arms and core muscles. For they were of a generation who knew all about teamwork, and indeed, leadership.

As the Hyacinth nosed her way alongside Totness Dock, lamps twinkled from cottages newly built on the Plains, drained marshes where Halwell and the Duke had first met fighting alongside one another in battle with the Telmarines, many years ago.

Several Water Voles (larger than the non-talking kind) leapt from the deck and made the ropes fast, and the royal party disembarked. The Prince offered his hand to Rebekah, but she had already leapt from the side of the Hyacinth and alighted softly on her feet, upon a bale of wool waiting for export on the now-friendly Telmarine ships. “Now,” she said, “where does this witch lurk, she who enslaves the free and causes it to rain on market day?”

“We will find her in a cave at the foot of the hill,” answered Halwell. “She is usually surrounded by many courtiers, but they are unlikely to offer us much of a battle as they are advanced in years, and slumberous from much feasting. However the lady is powerful in her own right, and it is she whom we should either fear or slay, for she is said to enchant the hearts of men and women so that they cannot see the evil she represents. We must be mindful that she is in service of the Dark Powers, however she may seem to the contrary.”

And so the three ventured forth in the twilight, picking their way between sedge tussocks and tall reeds. Now and then a snipe or woodcock that had been roosting in the marshes flapped up in a panic from under their feet, and the Duke was quick to snare them for the pot (they were not Talking Birds, you understand). Krake flew with the party, sometimes diving into a dark inland creek for a tasty morsel.

Presently they all saw a lighted cave-mouth between some crack-willows. As they drew nearer they heard music from within: the melodious sound of a harp, and the voice of a lady, singing sweetly. Suddenly several elderly gentlemen, their large bodies dressed in fine merchants’ clothes, stepped from behind the trees and surrounded the small group, making aggressive harrumphing sounds.

Prince Halwell drew his sword, and Krake got ready with his sharp beak and strong wings. But Salisbury motioned to them to lower their weapons. “I would not give thee battle,” said he to the courtiers, “for thy great age stays my hand. But by the Lion’s Mane, we will see the Witch.”

At those words Rebekah raised her lithe arms and undulated her body, making a long, low sound, stranger than any they had heard as they crossed the marsh. One by one the gentlemen fell asleep where they stood, enchanted by wild magick, and on their round faces they wore blissful smiles.

As the royal party entered the cave, they saw a tall fair woman in a flowing dress, seated upon a cushion. She looked up swiftly from her harp. For a moment they saw an expression of mingled fear, hatred, and anger, but this was instantly replaced with a charming smile. “Why, I have visitors!” trilled the lady. “Come and warm yourselves beside my fire.”

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The Duchess, Duke and Prince entered cautiously, and spread themselves out around the cave. Krake, they knew, guarded the entrance.

“My Lady,” began Prince Halwell, “we have come to request that you release the Talking Animals, and the people of the streams and the woods, from their bondage.”  (Somehow, now that he looked upon her face, he no longer had any thought of slaying.)

She threw back her head and gave a merry laugh, and they all saw a bright blue jewel gleaming against her white throat in the firelight. “But the creatures are not slaves! They serve us willingly, because they wish to do so.” She threw some kind of powder into the centre of the fire, and began strumming again. “ Why, it brings them joy to wait upon our person. Do you not believe us? Would you have them return to their former miserable lives, trying to grub a living from the land?”

“This sounds reasonable,” conceded Salisbury. “You may indeed speak truth.” “Aye,” agreed Halwell, “I too am of a mind to believe it.” Rebekah stared at the Witch through the flames, as though she were trying very hard to remain awake.

“You must sit, and eat,” urged the Witch, waving fingers with very long nails towards a steaming pot beside her. The three sat; Rebekah last. A monkey dressed in a scarlet waistcoat emerged from a shadowy corner of the cave, and began ladling rich stew into locally made hand-crafted ceramic bowls. The three thought they had never smelt anything so delicious, and accepted spoons from the monkey’s proffered paw.

With that, Krake flew in like a black arrow. “Enough! There’s no good in this witch. Can’t you see, she wants to turn you all into slaves as well?” They gazed blankly at him, and the Witch resumed her beguiling song.

Krake landed upon a cross-pole above the fire, spread his enormous shaggy wings and deposited a copious load of guano onto the flames, which steamed, and went out. A dreadful-smelling smoke filled the cave. The Duke and Duchess, freed of their enchantment, leapt forward and grabbed the Witch by her forearms. Prince Halwell seized her harp. Suddenly she no longer appeared beautiful, but quite ordinary, smaller than before, and rather afraid.

“We have discovered the source of your enchantment, Witch,” said the King sternly. “Now that Krake has put out your fire and stopped your song, the Totnesians are free once more, and market days henceforth shall be both sunny and dry, and free from all but gentle breezes.”

The Witch looked nervously about her, no doubt wondering why her courtiers didn’t come. “I have turned them into statues of sugar,” said Rebekah. “I will release them from their enchantment only if you agree to go far from these lands, and never return.”

“My Lady, you are tender indeed,” said Prince Halwell. “Yet I do not trust her. How if she enslaves some other place, because we were merciful and let her go?”

“I say lock her up and throw away the key,” said the Krake.

But the Duchess said, “No, it is biblical nonsense to suggest that her suffering would somehow atone for the suffering she has inflicted. It is enough that the enchantment is over.”

The Duke looked at the Witch. “What say you?”

The Witch, upon being addressed, regained some of her former height, though not all. “This prince perceives aright,” she said in a very different, plain voice. “If you set me free, the Dark Powers will indeed compel me to enslave some other fair town such as Strood, and in my heart I would rather not do so.” She turned to Rebekah. “Good Queen, I see you have the power of enchantment, and I see also that you are just. I beg you: transform me into a seal, that I may live out my days in and around the mouth of this iconic river. I offer my pledge that if danger should approach from the sea I will swim upstream and warn friend Krake, that a defence of the town may be mustered in good time.”

The three humans looked at one another and nodded. Krake merely shrugged his black shoulders, which they took as agreement.

“It shall be done,” said the Prince. “For your remaining days you will pay for the disservice you have done Totness, by protecting the townsfolk from invasion.”

She bowed her head. “I am truly sorry for misusing these fairest of folks; therefore it will be both honour and penance to serve them thus.”

And so Rebekah spread out her slender arms and began to make a sound, this time more complicated, seeming to hold many rich tones at once. Gradually the Witch turned a mottled black, and her shape transformed until she had become a rotund, whiskered seal. She hauled herself out of the cave, past the courtiers’ statues, and into a nearby creek. A few bubbles rose to the surface, and after that she was never seen in Totness again (though more than once in the years that followed, Krake came to warn the townspeople of strange ships that were approaching, though they  turned out to be friendly).

“Well, that’s that,” said Prince Halwell, as he and the Duke clapped one another on the back. “And so, good Krake,” said Salisbury, “do you still aver that witches cannot be both good and bad?”

Krake shook out his sleek black feathers all over, as if to dispel the smell of smoke. “Have it your own way,” he said. “But I’ll be sure never to cross my Lady,” he said, his round eyes darting towards Rebekah, who was now releasing the courtiers. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some fish to catch.”

And he flapped away into the starry night.

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The Hairy Pony

It was a dark and chilly autumn night, and golden light from the bay windows of the Hairy Pony promised a welcome haven from the weather.

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Within, an odd company was assembled in the small front parlour. Around the low table in the window was a group of elves, speaking in low voices as they leaned in toward one another, their wild and fair faces lit by the glow of lamplight.

Alongside the opposite wall, up which climbed a glossy-leaved ivy, its tendrils reaching out across the ceiling, sat a group of dwarves on stools, laughing as they threw their heads back and drained their tankards, spilling foam on their brightly coloured tunics (when it wasn’t caught by their jutting beards).

At the bar sat a hobbit, hair falling like waves from a middle parting, shapely bare feet curling around the foot-bar of the stool. His grey eyes were thoughtful as he gazed into his ale.

The landlord lifted his shaggy head and glanced up as a face appeared in the top pane of the glass door. At least, the eyes appeared, and a pair of glinting blue eyes they were, under bushy white eyebrows. The rest of the face was obscured by distorted bottle glass, but through it could be discerned a white beard to go with the eyebrows. The body could not be seen for condensation clinging to the lower panes, but the appearance of a head at the top pane could only mean a visitor the height of a human.

The door opened, and raindrops blew in behind the old man, who wore a long grey cloak and a battered, pointed hat with a brim. His white beard and moustaches gave the impression of flowing waterfalls. As he came down the three steps into the parlour, his eyes flashed around the company before coming to rest on the hobbit. He nodded, and the hobbit nodded back. The landlord was astute enough to notice that some understanding passed between them.

“An Americano with hot milk, please,” said the newcomer.

“I’m sorry, I can’t do you an Americano,” the landlord told him.

The tall man’s eyes glinted dangerously under the brim of his hat. “I had word from those I have met in other parts – good men and true – that this place was famed for its brews – and its hospitality. Would you withhold refreshment from me on such a night?”

The landlord, however, remained calm and cheerful. “We only sell ales here; that’s what those folk meant by brews. Or perhaps they were speaking of our sister tavern, The Prancing Barista, which is a day’s journey west along the Road. That is indeed a top quality coffee establishment, and if you are travelling that way, I would recommend that you call in.”

“My direction is my own business. It seems that the information I received was incorrect,” said the old man, adding darkly, “maybe mistakenly, maybe not.”

The hobbit beside him set down his tankard upon the bar, and turned to the stranger. “Let me buy you a pint of their finest. Do you prefer a stout, a citrusy ale or a malty bitter?”

“Thank you, I will have a stout. And I would gladly pass time in your company; it is long since I heard news of the little folk.” He looked around the crowded parlour and asked the landlord, “Is there somewhere we may sit and talk quietly?”

The landlord nodded, his long curls swinging. “Yes, there’s a room just down there, in the back. You will have it to yourselves, if that is what you desire.” He asked the hobbit, “More ale?”

“I believe I will,” replied the hobbit, “and bring some cakes as well.”

As the pair walked down the narrow ramp to the back , the dwarves exchanged meaningful looks, and the elves’ low talk intensified.

From either side of the bottom of the ramp, a bench adorned with colourful cushions ran all the way around the little room. The old man gestured toward a table in the corner. “We will be private enough here,” he said. “There is only one entrance, and we will see anyone coming down the ramp in that mirror.”

They removed some of their heavy outer garments, hanging them on convenient hooks beside the fireplace.

As they sat to the table, a fair maid in a green velvet dress came bearing a tray laden with two glasses, chocolate beetroot cake, halva croissants, and raspberry mud cakes. “Ah, supper,” said the hobbit contentedly, and the maid smiled sweetly as she placed his pint of stout in front of him before bustling away up the ramp.

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“I have it!” announced the hobbit, patting the pocket of his gaily coloured waistcoat. “I have got the ri-”

“Be quiet!” hissed the other. “Walls have ears.”

“I have got the riddle my cousin set me last week,” hastily amended the hobbit in a loud voice.

“And you would do well to keep it to yourself,” whispered the old man with a stern look. “Now, we must make our ways separately; it will arouse suspicion if we travel together. Tomorrow, you will travel along the Road to the Prancing Barista, and I will take the back paths and meet you there at dawn the following morning. From there I will guide you across the moor to the mineshaft, where you must fulfil your fate. Now let us eat these excellent cakes, and then I will depart, and you must go to your rooms.”

Some time later, when the last drop of ale had been drained and the last crumb of cake consumed, and the two guests had gone their separate ways, the maid came for the tray. Then the landlord entered the back room, looked swiftly around, lifted a section of the wooden bench, and pressed a secret catch under a stone in the wall. A portion of the wall swung back, revealing a doorway into a chamber beyond.

There in the candlelight sat a small, slight lady, with fearless blue eyes, and hair as white as snow. She wore a fine and flowing gown the colour of new beech leaves, with intricate white embroidery that looked like the work of elves. A chain of gold girdled her slim waist. Behind her chair stood a tall, handsome man with fine eyes and a sharp nose, hands behind his back. The lady leaned forward eagerly, her small hands clasped in her lap.

The landlord pulled the door closed behind him, and the bench could be heard dropping back into place. “That was them, wasn’t it?”

“It was them alright,” she confirmed. “I heard every word, and they’ve definitely got the ring.”

“I asked the dwarves to spread themselves out, so there would be no room in the parlour, making it necessary for the hobbit and his friend to come to the back. They agreed, but I think they, and the elves, suspect something.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she assured him. “They’ll know soon enough anyway. Now I’ve got to go; I’m supposed to be at a meeting of Elders in the Hall. Thank you for that.” Her consort pulled back her chair as she rose to her feet.

Two days later, as first light dawned over the rugged moor, the hobbit and his cloaked companion, carrying their packs on their backs, made their way down a grassy path towards dense woods, leaving the Prancing Barista behind them.

“It was true about the coffee,” remarked the hobbit. “And those cakes! I believe that I can die happy, if die I must on this fearsome quest, having tasted those cakes.”

Suddenly there was a rustling in the tall bracken beside the path, and out stepped a woman with snowy hair, with a tall, finely dressed gentleman close behind her. The hobbit stopped in his tracks, and looked around frantically for a path in the bracken down which he might escape and hide. But his cloaked companion caught his arm. “Wait; I know who these two are, and I believe that they are friends. Though quite what they are doing here, I do not know.” His steely eyes flashed.

“I’m here to make sure you don’t go the wrong way, you old fool,” said the Lady.

The bearded man started, and his mouth fell open.

“I heard about you getting mixed up when the Park Ranger gave you directions to the Hairy Pony, and I was worried about the quest,” she said. “I would have joined you earlier, once I’d ascertained that you were who I thought you were, but I had back-to-back meetings all day yesterday. My companion and I plan to come with you, and make sure that ring goes down the mineshaft before the Dark Powers can get hold of it. I know everyone round here, and that may be useful. But it’s up to you.”

The two companions glanced at one another, and nodded almost imperceptibly.

“You may come,” said the old man.

“Well, thank you very much,” she replied.

“It is we who should thank you,” said the hobbit formally, bowing. For he felt that this Lady  was wise, kind, and true, and that she and her noble companion would be valuable allies on the Road. Then his face became rueful as he patted his bulging pack. “Though I suppose it means I shall have to share these cakes between four instead of two!”

As the companions set off along the path through the bracken, the sun rose fully above the moor, and the skylarks began to sing.

On the Dart Side

In the morning mist that hung above a broad bend of the river, a heron stood, hunched and brooding, beside the reeds. A pair of egrets darted here and there, and now and then a sleek cormorant surfaced, looked around, and dived again. The still water reflected tall trees on the bank, and from them came the spring songs of many small birds.

Abruptly, the birds ceased singing. The heron jerked out of its reverie and the cormorant, twisting its black neck, scanned the sky. A disc-shaped object was descending from the north fast and silent, bright lights flashing. It skimmed the water, and there was a hiss of steam; the egrets scrambled out of its path, and floated up into the branches. The disc bounced gently a few times, came to a halt, and morphed into a big black cruise boat.  The birds resumed their singing.

Aboard the boat, rows of passengers in white plastic armour sat stiffly on the benches. On the bridge, a tall figure in a black helmet and robe raised a megaphone to his masked face. “I am the Dart Invader. Troopers, your attention.”

One of the passengers prodded his neighbour. “Look, a seal!” he hissed from within his mask.

“Attention!” the Invader intoned though his ventilator.

“I didn’t see anything,” muttered the other. “But then I haven’t got an outside seat.”

The Invader glared at the two, and they fell silent. “Now, listen carefully. On your right you will see a majestic 18th century Palladian villa, set in Capability Brown-designed grounds. That is our target. The Force is especially strong here, and the Emperor wants the whole place for the Dark Side. Half of you will come with me to rip out the vineyard using lightsabres, and cover it with pebbles; it will be a car park. We will obliterate the walls of the kitchen garden and tarmac it over , and it will become a shuttle pad. We will also rip up the forest beyond that point” – he pointed – “and install a shopping mall with a MacDonald’s, a Costa, a Wetherspoon’s, ten-pin bowling and a multiplex cinema.

“Everyone forward from the bridge: you will erect metal barricades alongside the river for a mile either side of the house, so that nobody will be able to see the beautiful bits unless they pay.”

One of the Troopers raised a hand. “But if we do that, the beautiful bits won’t be beautiful any more.”

“Well, leave room between the water level and the barricades, for those who pay. They can stand with their backs to the wall.”

Another hand went up. “High or low tide, sir?”

“Work it out,” said the Invader ominously.

A Trooper sitting near the front spoke out. “But the animals won’t be able to get to the river to drink.”

“If they can pay, they can pass.”

“But, sir, the animals on this planet don’t have money – “

He breathed heavily into his ventilator. “Then they cannot drink.”

The Troopers exchanged glances with others in their row.

The Invader waved his blaster. “Get up. As we go downriver I want you to storm the banks, ten at a time. Shoot any humans on sight – and don’t miss!”

The first ten Troopers surged over the side and swum to the shore, some using breast stroke and some front crawl, with one or two doing doggy paddle. When they reached the reeds they were forced to crawl through red mud to reach solid ground, sullying their white suits.

Then over the edge they went in tens, as the cruiser navigated slowly around the great bend, passing between red buoys to avoid tidal mud banks. The last party scrambled out and into the woods, drawing their blasters as they splashed through vermillion puddles on the track.

“Now,” said the Dart Invader to the remaining few, “we will sail as far as that point”– he pointed – “and erect a giant gate across the river, to prevent any vessels coming up from the port and interfering with our plan. We need to have this finished by the time the Emperor arrives”

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It was high noon on a hot September day when the Eta-class shuttle decelerated across the moor, and tracked south west across the town, and on towards the bend in the river. Emperor Insidious looked eagerly out of the window for the new Dark Side Earthpost.

“The shuttle pad is just behind the house,” he told his pilot.

“There’s nothing there, sir” the pilot called over his shoulder. “My scanner is showing a – a vegetable patch. Oh, are those artichokes?”

“A vegetable patch?” growled Insidious, craning his neck to peer below. He saw no barricades beside the river, and only a strip of forest where the shopping mall should be. “Land wherever you can,” he ordered the pilot, and sat back in his seat, scowling. Something had gone badly wrong.

They skimmed low over a field of sheep who scattered, leaping wildly, in all directions. The pilot put the shuttle down on the only piece of flat land he could find. It was filled with human cars, but he managed to find a space at the end of a row.

Insidious leapt out and strode down the hill, his robe billowing behind him on the warm breeze. The road turned – to reveal another bend. And another. And another. Insidious was getting hot in his hooded black apparel… and then below him in a cattle yard, he saw a man wearing a green coverall and wellington boots. The man span round, saw him, and reached for a pitchfork.

The Emperor raised his hand menacingly.

“Don’t kill me!” shouted the cowman. “I’m a Trooper!”

The Emperor hesitated.

“Anyway, you can’t go in there with your lightning bolts; we’re having an Open Day!”

Insidious raised his hand again. “For this you shall die!” Blue energy crackled towards the cowtrooper, who leapt sideways and rolled over a straw bale. Insidious strode towards him.

“Don’t!” shouted the cowtrooper. “Let me tell you everything.”

Insidious, if truth be told, was puzzled, and unsure how to proceed. He had given his newly promoted Dart Invader clear instructions: what had gone wrong?

“Alright.” He sat down on the straw. “But you had better give me the truth!”

“Well, when we arrived, a morning mist was hanging over the river, and egrets –”

Insidious snarled, revealing crumbling teeth. “Cut the nature diary! Where is the Dart Invader?”

“Oh, Vader! Well, he sailed along to the point” – he gestured – “and disembarked. There, on a length of auspicious rune-carved stone, sat an old man: very small, pointy-eared, cross-legged. Vader says he reached for his blaster, but something stayed his hand. They talked; no-one knows what was said, but by the end of their conversation Vader had decided he wanted to learn mindfulness.  He came and found us – we had only just started preparations for the Destruction – and he insisted that we all attend mindfulness courses too.

“It’s hard to explain, sir, but within a short time none of us felt like putting in barricades, or tearing up the forest. We decided to stay, and now all of the Troopers have tasks here. Some work the vineyards, others help with catering, and me – well, as you can see, I look after the cattle.”

“And the Dart Invader?”

“Vader works up at the burial grounds. But he’s here today, sir, to help with Apple Day.”

Insidious glared. “Show me this Apple Day.”

They walked together towards the buildings, and approached a desk with an ‘Entrance’ sign. The Emperor slid his hand within his robe. “How much is it?”

“Entrance is free if you didn’t come by car,” smiled the man at the desk. Insidious peered at him: the voice was slightly familiar… but the cowtrooper was tugging his arm. “This way!”

They walked past a table on the grass where children were drawing trees. A young woman smiled up at him, holding out a pastel. “Like to have a go?”

Insidious had loved drawing as a child. He sat down, looked at the work of the boy next to him, and began to draw his own tree, leaning across the table to get more pastels so he could do multi-coloured leaves. “Very good!” said the young woman, and he felt a strange glow of heat in his chest as he stood up. It was not unpleasant.

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Next, he and the cowtrooper went over to a wooden apple press, where the Emperor lent his strength to pulling on the levers. He noticed a sense of immense satisfaction as golden liquid trickled into the bucket below.

Hearing singing, he followed the sound, and discovered a choir warming up their lovely voices beside a mellow wall of the perfectly proportioned house. The leader, a tall dark woman, waved eagerly for him to join in. “We need another bass!” Seeing him hesitate, she added, “The songs are all easy. You’ll pick them up.” He pulled an ‘I don’t know’ face. She nodded, beaming, and Insidious found he couldn’t resist. After twenty minutes of singing, he walked away, oddly elated.

Over the course of the afternoon he came third in a race in the Apple Olympics, joined in a circle dance, found a hidden wooden apple under a stone trough, and bought a bottle of apple juice, and drank it.

People were starting to leave, laughing and smiling as they passed, clutching their wooden apples, bottles of juice and rolled up sheets of A2. Some of them were singing. Insidious felt a presence at his elbow, and turned to see the pilot. “Sir, I came to look for you. You were gone ages! Can we go now?”

The Emperor looked around. “But there is all this to clear up! I’d like to help.”

The pilot shrugged. “You help if you like, but I have to get the shuttle back to the Galactic Empire. Are you coming, or not?”

“Stay, Sid,” said the cowtrooper, laying a gentle hand on the Emperor’s arm. “You’d be welcome, and there’s plenty of room. There’s a new mindfulness course starting tomorrow…”

“Sir,” said the pilot, “are you coming, or not?”

Sid grinned slowly, revealing a piece of apple skin wedged between his teeth. “Not,” he said. “Not!”

He threw back his hood, and laughed so loudly that it woke the heron from his dreams.

 

 

Through the Arch

The USS Transit, fresh from an exploration of a new M Class planet and a brief skirmish with the Borg, settled into standard orbit around Earth. Captain Pipkins stood at the window of his ready room, watching the horizon of his beloved home planet moving steadily across continents.

As the Transit cruised above the surface of the globe, Pipkins grimly observed the snowless Antarctic, the dwindling rainforests of South America, unbroken ocean where low-lying pacific islands had been, the North American Desert encroaching north, and the remaining fragments of Arctic sea ice. As the Transit passed into the dark side, he saw Europe lit up below him – all those light bulbs, and most of them probably not LCD. Gritting his teeth, the Captain stepped out on to the bridge. “Intern, where is Commander Prompt?”

At his makeshift workstation in a corner or the bridge, the intern tapped his screen and replied, “I believe he’s in Holodeck Two, Captain: it’s currently running Friendly Romulens“.

The audience whooped and clapped with escalating energy as generous offers of cuddles, cooking and cash came in for the beaming hopefuls on the stage. The Commander folded his arms and smiled, his eyes twinkling with satisfaction and relief. This was the seventh time he’d run the program, and with each modification it had been better.

‘Friendly Romulens’, an intergalactic event showcasing new business ideas, had always been a buzz, considered a great success by all taking part. Now, he thought, it was as close to perfect as he could get it – audio, timing, jokes – thanks not only to his vision and technical upgrades, but a team he was proud of.

With perfect timing, a voice overrode the applause.  “Commander Prompt to the bridge.” He nodded; he was done. “Computer: end program.” The stage and audience disappeared.

Moments later the lift doors opened on deck three, and there stood the Captain. “In my ready room, Number One,” he said, indicating a cream wooden door. Closing it behind him, Prompt raised an eyebrow. “Problem?”

“Not exactly. Commander RioGrande has been doing some research , and it seems we have a brief opportunity to make use of a temporal rift in the settlement of Totnes. We can use this rift to go back in time to 1712, just as Thomas Newcomen is about to invent the steam engine, and prevent him from doing so. Now, Commander, I don’t need to tell you what this might mean for mankind.”

Prompt nodded. “It would avert the industrial revolution, eliminating the effects of man-made climate change.”

“And don’t forget peak oil; Commander RioGrande was very clear about that.” Pipkins turned again to look out of the window. “But Counsellor Bunks has reminded me – in fact, she was most emphatic – that if we do go back in time and prevent the steam engine from being invented, we will alter the course of the future, with unknown consequences.”

A slow smile spread across Prompt’s face. “That, Captain, is exactly why we should do it.”

Pipkins stood at his window for a moment, the back of his head silhouetted against the stars . Then he turned. “Agreed. Make it so, Commander. You have twenty minutes before the temporal rift closes.”

“I’ll assemble an Away Team.”

*

Half way up Totnes High Street the air shimmered, and four officers from the USS Transit materialised: two on the pavement, and two off. “Watch out, Commander!” yelled Lt Long as she pulled Prompt to safety, a nanosecond before a delivery van sped past.

“Right,” said Commander Bennison, consulting her antique watch. “We’ve got eighteen seconds until the temporal rift opens. When it does, it only stays open for one second. We’ve got to get through as fast as we can!”

The Away Team looked around them. Commander Bennison snatched up a skateboard from a shop doorway, and Lt Long grabbed a unicycle that was leaning against some railings. Prompt narrowed his eyes as he looked down the hill at a yellow bus coming towards them. “Oh, no,” said Bennison. “You can’t! It’s going the wrong way; you’ll reverse the flow of time!”

He grinned. “Not if we put the bus in reverse! Computer : arch.”

arch

On his word, a whole spectrum of colours began flowing and crackling across the stone arch that spanned the narrow street below, filling the space with an oscillating rainbow. A couple of passing Totnesians glanced at it briefly, and resumed their conversation.

Long glanced at the clock above the arch: seven seconds left. “Now!” she yelled, leaping on to the unicycle and wobbling rapidly down the hill. Apologising to the bus driver, Prompt leapt into his seat, rammed the bus into reverse and screeched backwards towards the arch. Bennison brought up the rear on her skateboard, gathering speed as they all plunged together into the iridescent sheet of colour.

The team came tumbling out of the arch on the lower side. “We made it,” said Long, glancing around at the old shop-fronts, the women in long skirts, and men with beards and broad-brimmed hats. “We’re in the 18th century.”

Commander Prompt pointed. “Look.” Below them was a broad plain, stretching down to the river. “But how are we going to find Newcomen?”

Bennison said, “I was talking to someone the other day who knows a descendent of his. Apparently the workshop was in the area where the Tourist Information office used to be – I mean, will be, in the future.”

They made their way down the hill, and using their tricorders, soon found the exact location. Beside a stream was a small stone shed, from which came the sound of banging on metal. Their phasers set on stun, the team burst in through the low wooden door.

A bearded man, his shirtsleeves rolled up to show grimy, muscled forearms, leapt back against the wall, his eyes wide.

“Thomas Newcomen?” barked Prompt.

He nodded, speechless.

“Are you trying to invent a steam engine? A device that will lead to the combustion engine, which will lead to the breakdown of local economies, ripping communities apart?”

“Commander,” interjected Long, “we haven’t got much time.”

Newcomen looked even more bewildered.

“Oh yes,” went on Prompt, “which will also lead to unbridled capitalism, resulting in social inequality, polluted rivers, soil depletion, acidic oceans, mass extinction,climate change, and the eventual destruction of humanity?”

Newcomen’s eyes darted left and right. “Nay, tha’s got it all wrang. I be developin a means of two-wheeled travel.” He pointed to a metal cylinder the surface of a bench. “This ‘ere’s gooin to be wad I call its crass bar.”

“You’re fixing up a bike?” Prompt looked closely at the hollow cylinder. Alongside it lay a smaller, solid cylinder that looked as though it would fit within the first. “You’re lying.” He rapped. “That’s a piston!”

Both men lunged for the objects at the same time – and as they did so, the Away Team were suddenly enveloped in a shimmering film of rainbow colours that pulled them off their feet and out of the shed, sucking them back across the plain, up the hill, and through the arch – where they landed back in the 21st century. Fortunately they had arrived on a traffic-free day, so instead of materialising in the path of a van, this time they found themselves standing on a chalk hopscotch grid.

The Commander, clutching the metal tube in one hand, touched his transmitter with the other. “Prompt to the Transit: three to beam up.”

*

Later, in the Observation Lounge, Lt Hula stood beside the screen, showing a visual record of the mission that he’d edited from images uploaded from the team’s tricorders. The final scene showed the prismatic colours fading to nothing, and a flock of pigeons landing on the top of the arch. Hula dimmed the screen.

“And so, Captain,” said Prompt, “we were unable to alter the course of time. But we did bring this back.” He handed the hollow cylinder to the Captain.

“A remarkable artefact,” murmured Pipkins as he turned it in his hands. “One half of the prototype of the very first piston.”

“He’ll just make another,” said Prompt.

“Unless all your talk of destroying humanity puts him off,” commented Counsellor Bunks.

Pipkins shook his head. “Then someone else would invent the steam engine, sooner or later. One of the interns has been doing some research. Are any of you familiar with the work of Professor Shelduck? According to him, even if Newcomen had been put off, which is highly unlikely, the idea of an engine was in the Field and would have emerged anyway, in someone else’s hands. No, we have always been going to burn our fossil fuels until they ran out completely. Nothing can change that – not even the crew of the USS Transit.”

Captain’s Log: The Away Team have been unable to avert humanity’s headlong rush into global environmental disaster. It seems that we truly cannot change the past. Be that as it may, the crew of the Transit are all agreed on one thing: we can shape both the present and the future, and together, make them as good as they can be. And that, as long as The Transit is under my command, is what we will do.

 Lt Long, relaxing in her seat on the bridge, turned to Prompt and said, “Well, I’ve never seen a bus go backwards so fast. Perhaps you should be considering a new career, Commander.”

Prompt looked at her, and half-closed one eye. “Oh, no – I have a Friendly Romulens’ Forum to arrange.  Intern, lay in a course for Risa.” He winked. “I understand The Risans are looking out for new recruits to their circus. I’m sure they could use a uni-cycle rider.”

Captain Pipkins smiled, and raised a hand. “Engage.”

 

 

Image: Jeff Hill with thanks. For more Totnes images:

@JeffHil24563317

 

 

 

Matthew on the Mound

Now when Matthew saw the crowds, he went up to Castle Mound and sat down. Hearing of this, the crowds came to him on foot from the town: up Castle Hill, or along the High Street, or through the  Narrows, and they too sat down upon the grass. There was a multitude so great come to hear him speak, they spilled out on to the slopes, and there was barely room for the sheep, yet they remained.

totcastle1

As it had been ordained, Matthew spoke from his book of poems. ‘The mound is round, there isn’t a rounder mound around.’ The crowds who hearkened unto him were greatly amused, and so were the sheep, and there was much laughter within the ancient walls of the castle keep. (And thus were sown the seeds of a new poem.)

As the evening approached, a bright star appeared in the south, low above the horizon. A man in the crowd nudged his neighbour and said unto him, look, that’s Venus.

Matthew ceased reading from his book of poetry, for his throat was sore and his brain was weary. His friends came to him and said, Matthew, send these crowds away. For you are tired, and hungry, and between us we have only these two sourdough loaves from Seeds, and these five tins of sustainably caught sardines from Ben’s Farm Shop.

Matthew replied, but these good people have come to hear my poems, and they too are tired, and hungry, and some of them are sick. I would not send them away without them partaking of a glass of wine, and perchance some gluten-free nibbles from GreenLife.

But Matthew, replied his friends, it is past the hour when such items can be readily obtained. Let the people go into the town and let them eat at its many inns. Furthermore I believe it is the evening for the Il Vulcano pizza van. A woman in the crowd said unto her friend, we know what is coming next.

And from within the crowd came a mighty shout: stand back, and I will raise salad leaves from the ground upon which we stand. Another voice proclaimed, let me milk these sheep, that we may all partake of keffir. And some began foraging, and others killed a lamb, each according to their ability. And the good folk from the Share Shed saw that not one single soul who laboured to feed the others, was without a tool.

And so it came to pass that the mound became a place of feasting. All ate, although their numbers were five thousand men, as well as women, children, trans, cis and non-binary, gender-fluid individuals. Yet all were more than satisfied, as the food was endowed with greater nutritional qualities than that of common fodder.

Some of the people were seen to be sick, and others came forward to heal them, offering their cranio-sacral therapy, their mineral  supplements and their mini-counselling sessions. Then it happened that singing broke out; many candles were lit, and many instruments could be heard: indeed, there were so many tunes in progress at the same time, so that no one melody could be identified. Matthew looked upon the joyful throng and was glad.

So it was that the feast on Castle Mound continued throughout the night, and lo! there miraculously rose in the east a full, blue and red, harvest hunter-gatherer’s super-moon, by the light of which the assembled revellers were able to continue their feasting until dawn.

When the cock crew and the sun appeared in the east, only then did the crowd disperse, making their way to the many coffee shops of the town below, each seeking not a hot drink for themself, but a public toilet.

Now when all the people had gone, carrying their recycling with them,  Matthew’s friends said unto him, Matthew, why did you not eat, when the crowd has performed a miracle and produced these organic baby salad leaves, these fruit trees, these oats and honey, keffir, yoghurt, several varieties of cheese, and all these nuts? Were you not hungry?

And Matthew replied unto them, I chose to fast, as I have long been overdue a detox. But surely the time has come for me say unto you that behind this bush, I did hide a handwoven wicker hamper. Friends, sit here upon the grass with me.

They did as he said, and when Matthew lifted the lid from the hamper, lo! within it were six bottles of Sharpham wine: two red, two white, and two rosé, and many bags of nibbles from the abundant shelves of Greenlife. And behold, many of these snacks were not gluten-free, and indeed many were found to be salted; yet they were delicious, and the company fell upon them with great joy.

Waterfalls

Mighty cascades pouring from mountain shelves in Iceland, turbulent rapids sculpting the rocks of the Grand Canyon, or the numerous mini waterfalls that animate Devon’s rivers: all embody a sudden rapidity of movement; a step-change. Travelling down the river of life, we each encounter personal waterfalls that must be navigated.

Mini-waterfalls are usually quite safe. Mallards paddle and forage undisturbed close to water that slips between, or arcs over, small granite boulders. They pass down, twirling in the gentle current, only if they decide to. Choosing an experience that feels edgy is to choose the waterfall: to dive in and learn to play the violin, join a group, shop somewhere different, speak to a stranger, or try unfamiliar food.

Mallard+in+Dell++2015+1a.jpg

You can usually get out of a mini-waterfall half way down, if you decide you don’t like it – though if you follow through, you’ll probably arrive in the calm pool below relieved, exhilarated, and wondering what you were so anxious about. To inexperienced or nervous ducklings, negotiating even a tiny waterfall can feel like passing through rapids. But the more falls they successfully negotiate, the less afraid and more resourceful they become.

Rapids are like a dare: you enter them knowing they’re potentially dangerous. Typically you’ve made your decision and planned for the rapids some way upstream, but there can be no assurance you’ll emerge safely. Your heart is racing, but a strong voice (inner or otherwise) insists you make the attempt. Once you’re in, you’re committed to the ‘trial of the soul’ you chose.

Rapids are significant, unpredictable experiences:  taking a test, facing an audience, moving home, a career change, leaving a relationship. You’re on the far side of short rapids quite quickly; others require endurance. Your task is to ride the buffeting twists and surges like a skilful goosander: relaxed but aware, ready to adapt your tactics in a moment, prepared to seek help from rescuing wings if you get into trouble.

goosander.jpg

Mighty falls, however, are seldom of your choosing. They may come as redundancy, disease, betrayal, bereavement, or death. Believing yourself  to be in still waters, you gradually become aware of a deep roaring; of a strong, smooth undertow pulling you inexorably towards the edge – beyond which may lie oblivion. There’s no point in fighting it: you could hurt yourself more if you struggle, and you’ll need all your energy to heal and recover. Besides, it’s taking you anyway.

You may get smashed and deluged during the plunge, but at the end of most falls (except maybe the last) you’ll eventually rise to the surface. It’s possible you will never fully recover, at least never be your familiar self again. A way to endure mighty falls is to submit to them like a precious, cushioned seed: to deeply accept that you’ve left behind all you knew; to trust that the next quiet stetch of water will offer you peace and time to grow in your soul something new, resilient and beautiful, ready to meet the next waterfall.

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It Takes a Village

According to some, the therapy industry thrives largely because our parents didn’t give us everything we needed to grow up happy and safe. Apparently in order to heal, we first need to recognise their failures; naturally, such recognition generally releases tears, anger and indignation. For healing of the whole family, however, it helps to recognise that our parents couldn’t give us everything we needed.

There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Over countless thousands of years human children, like many other young animals, grew up in large family groups. They learnt from, and were nurtured by, the whole community. If you were quite different from either of your parents, there would probably be someone around who was enough like you to recognise what you needed to grow well. Crafters, healers or musicians would teach their skills to those youngsters who showed promise, or interest.

Today, it’s usually down to a small family unit to provide everything; no wonder it’s not always sufficient, however hard the family tries…

In the pre-civilisation extended family group, it wouldn’t matter if some adults’ primary skills and interests were something other than parenting; there would be more than enough protection from the group’s natural guardians, cuddles from the natural nurturers, and instruction from the natural teachers, to go round. Older children would lead play with younger children. There would be less need of fierce competition for attention, for love; and the older children would learn important caring skills.

tribal-council

As in any primate group, emerging warriors could try out their strength, power and sexuality against those of a similar calibre and appetite, rather than immature, unready siblings too weak to offer a match. I meet many in my ‘soul coach’ practice who were damaged by such encounters. But the young adult, the emerging warrior, feel they must try themselves somewhere.

In healthy tribal groups, adults would feel deeply connected instead of isolated; reaffirmed daily by playing their vital role in the group, and by real, unambiguous contact. Old people would not experience long groundhog days of loneliness; they’d generally be loved and respected. Communities would benefit from their long-accumulated wisdom, and their knowledge of a wider community: the myriad familiar plants and other living beings, the land our very sustenance comes from.

Small wonder there is so much depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness; so much addiction, medication and suicide. Small wonder so many have difficult relationships with basic and natural aspects of humanity such as sex, power and attachment. Small wonder so many are plagued by guilt:  parents who could not be everything, brothers and sisters who mistreated siblings, siblings who let it happen, families who don’t know what to do with their elders.

Community has been gradually eroded by ‘progression’, its loss greatly accelerated by the industrial revolution. Local ‘tribes’, with their ancient, interweaving stories, can never be recreated.  Protection, instruction and cuddles are outsourced to strangers (some of whom do a better job than others). A monetised, disconnected ‘village’ is encouraged by the state, because it grows GDP. This breeds fear of those outside the family unit; children are taught young not to trust.

Okay, here’s the obligatory ‘utopia’ disclaimer:  community, of course, was never perfect. In losing the best of community we also lose the worst, including the long feuds, the petty conflicts, the lack of privacy. But even with all that, tribal living was probably a lot more emotionally healthy and more balanced than the societies most of us inhabit today.

However, it’s immensely heartening to see how easily and quickly the best of community can be recreated: in streets and neighbourhoods, through places like the Lammas Eco Village, by organisations like the Network of Wellbeing, societies of shared interests or values, in families and online everywhere. Conflict may still arise: this will always happen where there are humans. But in healthy community, conflict is recognised, named and carefully negotiated.

Thankfully, humanity has realised what we were in danger of losing forever. Community in its many forms is beginning to burgeon again, in myriad collective, creative responses: in cities and in valleys where the candle of community has been lit, and is holding fast, even in the cold wind of the 21st century.

It seems we really can use our collective wisdom, creativity and intention to find ways for our children to be raised by healthy, thriving, diverse ‘villages’. When we are able do this enough, maybe we are able to reclaim healthy adulthood, meaningful lives – and true community, at its best.

www.gillcoombs.co.uk