Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Grateful
by Brittany Warman

In my mind, prince,
I have woven evergreen branches through my hair
and fallen through worlds like snow.

I have sucked the juice
from red ripe pomegranate seeds
gratefully, with abandon–
I have explored my life inside enchantment.

In my mind
I have been light on a butterfly’s wing,
the shadows on a forest floor,
the ticking sounds of a clock.

I have heard the ocean’s cry;
seen the glitter of the city inside me.
I have built a tower
from the pieces of my spell haunted experience.

In my mind
I have walked inside a cat’s eye,
swam with seals,
and slept beside my own still body.

What right have you,
love and swords,
to end my dreams?

To call it waking,
to call it a kiss,
and say I should be grateful?


Brittany Warman is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and is currently working on her master’s degree in folklore at George Mason University. She has had creative work published in Magpie Magazine, Finery, EMG-Zine, Jabberwocky, and The Sarah Lawrence College Review. Her website is www.brittanywarman.com and she journals at briarspell.livejournal.com.

 Posted by at 2:20 pm
Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

The Wolf and the Three Wise Monkeys
by Hal Duncan

Once upon a time, there was a Big Bad Wolf, a cultivated guy, top hat and tails, but a bit of a cad, a cur, a bounder, not a bad sort per se, but of dubious scruples and instatiable appetites, a propensity for exotic narcotics and avante garde Swedish art magazines featuring young male cyclists in sundry stages of undress. He came to me, he did, in the bathroom mirror one day, saying, Where the fuck’s my fairy story, scribbler?

Snickety-sharp teeth aglint in his grin, eyes of steel, he was switchblade, poetry, fury. What was I to do?

So I began: Twice upon a time, I said — since we’re starting again — there were three wise monkeys. Tom, Dick and Harry, Larry, Curly and Moe, what they were called… we dunno. Let’s call them See-No, Hear-No and Speak-No, the Brothers Evil, Esquire. A fraternity of swine, they were, unholy trinity of primal primate power-mongering, living lavish on their spoils of class war. They’d left their mother long ago, gone out into the world to make their fortune and fame, make a name to be spoken with awe. They built houses in the forests of Fantasia.

The first wise monkey built his house out of money, a papier-mache palace of five pound notes, no windows, so that everywhere he looked he saw the wonders of his wealth, blue notes layered and lacquered smooth to a mockery of marbling, balustraded balconies, broad steps sweeping down from a mezzanine to a ballroom with a bar fully stocked, bottles of every beverage you might name and then some. Blood of the indebted. Tears of the bereaved.

Alone in luxury, gaze caged in the grandeur of his greed, he drank.

It was beautiful. While he could still see it.

Enter the Big Bad Wolf.

— Let me in, let me in, he says. Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!

— Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin, says the monkey. Or chest and back, whole body really.

Couldn’t shave, you see, that monkey, lost his eyes in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

So the wolf he huffed and puffed, and that house of money caved, came crashing down on the sophisticated simian. The wolf hauled him from the ruins, ripped his throat out, tore open his soft underbelly, feasted on his innards.

Second wise monkey built his house out of bibles, thick leatherbound tomes of scripture inscribed on illuminated calf-skin. Closed and sealed, of course, the books mere building blocks of walls to muffle the sounds of the material world beyond. A vast cathedral of catechisms was mere vestibule to a mansion temple, a monastery tower of myth and morals.

— My father’s house has many rooms, he’d say, when visitors questioned the sheer scale of this city of the soul, when he still heard the questions. My father’s house has many rooms; I’ve got to measure up to him, you know.

Big Bad Wolf strides up, proud citizen of Sodom.

— Let me in, let me in, he says. Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!

— What? says the monkey.

— Fucking let me in, kiddy-fiddler, says the Big Bad Wolf. Or —

— I can’t hear you, says the monkey, eardrums sealed with candlewax to mute all dissent.

So the wolf he huffed and puffed, and that house of bibles fell as Babel, down upon the pious primate. The wolf hauled him from the ruins, ripped his throat out, tore open his soft underbelly, feasted on his innards.

Third wise monkey built his house out of bones, skulls of civilians slaughtered in airstrikes on foreign soil, fibias dug from mass graves of genocide, femurs of cannon-fodder carnage and collateral damage, vertebrae and ribs cemented in human glue, a fortress ossiary.

Squat and circular, the bunker of bone sat as a crypt, ash grey as concrete, filmed with the dust of death, only a few dark slits to let the light in, and a chimney belching black smoke, filling the forest with a stench of burning plastc, roast pork.

Many found it unspeakable. Not least the wise monkey.

Behold, the Big Bad Bhagavad Wolf, devourer of worlds.

— Let me in, let me in, he says. Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!

— Aaaa, says the monkey.

— What? says the wolf.

— Aaaa, says the monkey, his tongue hacked out so no tribunal could make him talk of terror and torture.

So the wolf he huffed and puffed, but that house of bones stood solid as a skull, the military monkey secure inside. He huffed and he puffed but that house stood steadfast and silent — monolith, monument, mausoleum.

— Fuck this, said the Big Bad Wolf.

So the Big Bad Wolf climbed onto the roof, to the chimney. Inside, the monkey was shovelling filleted flesh into the furnace when a stream of piss drenched the flames. And the wolf dropped down into sizzling, smoking embers.

Big Bad hauled that monkey from the ruins of flesh he hid in. Throat, soft underbelly, innards, you know the score. Found the monkey’s tongue, yanno, pickled in a jar on the mantelpiece, wears it round his neck to this day. Everywhere he goes it tells the atrocities it knows, to all who’ll listen.

And they all live happily ever after.

What’s the moral to this story? Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know. I just made it up one day, when the Big Bad Wolf came knocking at my door.

— Let me in, let me in, he said.

— Sure, I said, and there he was in the bathroom mirror, snickety-sharp teeth and eyes of silver. Tongue round his neck.

— Where the fuck’s my fairy story, scribbler?

So I gave him one.

— Cool yarn, said the wolf. Little preachy perhaps, but I liked it. Now… tell me the one about the Wolf and the Seven Little Archangels.


Hal Duncan was born in 1971, brought up in a small town in Ayrshire, and now lives in the West End of Glasgow. A member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, his first novel, VELLUM, won the Spectrum Award and was nominated for the Crawford, the BFS Award and the World Fantasy Award. As well as the sequel, INK, he has published a poetry collection, SONNETS FOR ORPHEUS, a stand-alone novella, ESCAPE FROM HELL!, and various short stories in magazines such as Fantasy, Strange Horizons and Interzone, and anthologies such as NOVA SCOTIA, LOGORRHEA, and PAPER CITIES. He also collaborated with Scottish band Aereogramme on the song “If You Love Me, You’d Destroy Me” for the Ballads of the Book album from Chemikal Underground. His current proudest achivement however is the upcoming staging of his “gay punk Orpheus” musical, NOWHERE TOWN by University of Chicago Theater Group. He blogs at Notes from the Geek Show.

 Posted by at 2:19 pm
Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

The Witch of the Third Night
by Alexandra Seidel

On the first night
they brought her straw
an entire harvest wagon full
and told her to spin gold from it
she told them that she couldn’t
that humans cannot
coax gold from straw
 
They didn’t care
they locked her in
and locked the straw in with her
and the moon was full
 
On the second night
they brought her salt
a small ocean full of salt
and told her to reel silk from it
she told them that she couldn’t
that humans cannot
charm silk from salt
 
They never listened
never cared
bolted fast the door
and let her sleep among the salt
and that night
the moon was waning
 
On the third night
when the moon was black
they didn’t come at all
or rather
not all at one time
she liked men even less
after it was done
and found
 
that she could make a dye of red
with spindle pointed, poised, and brought down fast
 
they left her all alone
after that black moon night
and
 
the moon was almost full again
when she had made a house from chicken feet
and from burning skulls
and had put the young ones to sleep
down down
in the dark


Alexandra Seidel writes poems and stories of the ominous, the macabre, the mythical and every so often, the comical. She swears, sometimes ideas come to her all fancy dressed with painted masks of scarlet and emerald, silver and gold. Thanks to some strangely good fortune, her work is (or soon will be) Out There: Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Cabinet des Fées, Dreams & Nightmares and others. Being a writer, Alexandra keeps a mangy blog right here: http://tigerinthematchstickbox.blogspot.com/

 Posted by at 2:18 pm
Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Blood, Snow, Birch and Underworld
by JoSelle Vanderhooft

I.
A daughter like a window:
full as glass
and just as empty.
The queen sucked her forefinger–the one
ever responsible for accidents,
and thought a canyon in her forehead.

Girls like blood and winter and bare branches.
All the rage, like hearts in strong boxes,
dolls in see-through coffins,
little dogs in little bags.
But what is popular is deadly as starvation,
just as catching.

A mother knows this,
when her own did not. Knows
the terror of monstrosity in miniature.

Three red drops on white,
the shellacked sill a perfect frame.
The glass between flawless,
Invisible.
Correct.

The finger circumnavigates her navel,
dips into its wishing well.
Such a daughter: beautiless as air,
No heart
and no guts.
Invisible
and safe.

Her own gut moved,
complicit.

II.

Cardinal on birch.
Snow between.

Ballet-balanced Cipher watches him
tilt head, shake wing–
twitch like the physick’s organs
electrified for the king’s curiosity.

“It’s like this, majesty–”
a flipped switch,
the heart’s veins hop.
“The blood travels on a circuit,
like the seasons.”

The Court applauded.
Unnoticed,
she closed her hand over her breast,
thought of living fruit.
Her own heart, certainly,
did no such thing.

The cardinal perks,
vanishes into December.
She watches, strokes her breast
again.

It doesn’t beat.
Not even when Mother died.

Not even when Father dismissed the doctor,
called for something
softer, more attractive.

It makes no noise at all.
Not even my footsteps do.

Sometimes,
sometimes
she thinks everyone
knows her emptiness,
looks through her like this windowpane
in search
of something red.

III.

Stepmother
is Mother’s reverse.

Skin like grave-loam,
hair curled
brown
as wasting ivy,
dry and thin-ribbed winter
for her predecessor’s hips and bounty,
for her pallor less snowfall than August sun.

Even the mouth is different:
Knife-gash, menses smear–
Obscene, titters the Court.
Not button-prim like their Lady
who ate only in nibbles
and touched no wine.

Cipher does not think it so.
It is the first that smiles.
“You’re Cipher, right?”
Not daughter, princess,
window.
Her lips draw into a seed. “Well,
my dear?
Don’t be afraid.”

Her smile
is the winter sun
between drives of schorl clouds.

A cardinal’s wing shadows the clerestory;
Cipher’s fingers flutter to her breasts.
Beneath her touch, a twist in hollowness.       

Something is not there
that wants to be.

Stepmother’s tongue 
tastes the corner of her lips.
“Interesting.”

IV.

The year’s wheel turns from snow
to colder snow.
Midwinter visits in her holly wreathes,
and crowns of candle fire.
It is a holiday, Stepmother says,
so let the balustrades wear evergreen;            
the tables and ladies
moan with seedcakes and sweetmeats.
Her eyes reflect the hearth, amber
upon amber.
Cipher swirls a sugar cube, considers—the stars
of Tartarus must look the same.
At her left hand, Stepmother laughs a toast;
the stars turn to her
         and burn.
Stepmother smiles a wealth of fire opal,
leans in for a secret–
“The birch when everyone’s abed.”–
clinks stein with Ladies and then Father,
choreography subtler than wind.

Cipher’s breath snags in her ribs–
the new sun ascends between her legs.

V.

The moon is full when dreams of emerald
and amber fall off like a sheet.
The air bites Cipher’s breasts beneath her gown.
The flagstones nip her heels,
snow bites her toes.

The sky’s unraveling quartz,
lapis, chalcedony. Snowflake
obsidian catches upon her lashes,
veils everything in air
and the moonstone winter-light of–

Stepmother
at the birch,
hair a wave of darkness,
smile like the sickle moon.
Empty calls to
Empty.
She waves benediction–
beckon: Come.
steps through the hanging trees.
Her gown is a tear of ruby
cardinal wing.

Cipher follows,
does not blink away the snow
that settles in her eyes.

Stepmother’s burning,
beacon through elder, oak
yew and prickle-pine.
Trees stranger, tall
and ragged. Twigs of diamond,
drusy, chrysocolla pull her skirts,
brush back her bangs,
won’t wait—Stepmother
moves like corpse candle light,
in mist direction, 
but purposeful as plagues.

The darkness parts
upon another red–
tree bare as black pearl
spread ventrical

Fruit beating
each
a heart.

Stepmother
shifts like circulation,
cups one pomegranate,
brings it to her hands.
“Do you know
how you were planted?”

The wind whispers
in shades
In cautions.
Cipher does not listen,
hears only the beat
of living seeds.

She shakes her head, embarrassed.

Stepmother smiles,
like gold might smile.
“Carefully,” she says,
“like harvest grain,
like potash in fire:
for another’s purpose.”
“Tell me,”–
the pomegranate cradled in her hand–
“what need has either
soil or window
for a heart?”

The wind ripples their hair like sails
and there is a space beneath her ribs.
Cipher feels above it,
reaches–

“Hurt is in the taking.”
Stepmother strokes the red curve.
“Eat, and there will be hunger,
want, rejection.
Death, too–
For seeds must die to yield.
Eat not,
You will know the story of a window–
empty
as the world is full.”

The fruit is ice inside her palm,
heavy, cold–
familiar as the space
–that must be filled.
Cipher shuts her eyes
and plucks.

The seeds stick like stars
inside her.

VI.

Stepmother vanishes
like hoarfrost.
The palace forgets her like a dream.

The cardinal hops branch,
shakes snow from wings like waking.
Cipher smiles
like a window opened,
and a breath

         Escaped.


JoSelle Vanderhooft is a poet and author whose works include The Tale of the Miller’s Daughter, The Memory Palace and the 2008 Bram Stoker Award finalist Ossuary. She regularly edits collections of lesbian fiction, which most recently include Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories and (with Catherine Lundoff) Hellebore & Rue: Tales of Lesbian Magic Users. She lives in Florida.

 Posted by at 2:17 pm
Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Bone Song
by Sara Cleto

Once upon a time, you broke me into pieces. You took my voice, you cut my hair. You cast a spell, and I fell asleep.

I let you do these things.

I don’t know why. You were beautiful, yes, but not more beautiful than my song. My hair was brighter than yours, and my magic was stronger. I had a book of spells, thicker than a tree trunk, brimming with words that were so true, a human voice could never shape them. I had a wand of oak and maple, tipped with pure silver, crafted long ago by a grandmother’s grandmother and imbued with all the wisdom of a crone who had once been a maiden.

But my magic was white, white and unforgivably innocent, and I dropped my book and my wand when I fell into your arms.

Your touch was something hot that flared against my skin, shedding sparks and leaving tiny star-burns in its wake. Caught in your briar-arms, pinned by wolf-eyes, you were every tale ever told, conspiring against this most naïve of princesses.

I knew, even if I did not quite believe, what would happen if I lay down with the wolf. Even the prince of the wolves. But when you bared your fangs at me, I was overcome by a certain tender sentimentality, and I went to you.

You gobbled me up.

Bones, strewn in the dirt. Leaves, disintegrating under the acidity of spilled blood. You ran into the woods to lick your muzzle clean, to pick the fleshy fragments from your briar-arms.

I lay there for too long, watching sky bleed into darkness and grow anemic with light more times that I can count.

A goose-girl found me there. She swept my bones into a heap and sang to them. When they finally sang back, she seemed unsurprised. Joint by joint, piece by broken piece, my body knit itself to the rhythm of the music.

Skin grew across the bones like ivy, and midnight hair poured from my skull.

When I was whole once more, we rose and walked into the woods. We sang to the bones of the princesses. And to the bones of the wolves.


Sara Cleto graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in English Literature and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Folklore and Literature at George Mason University. Among her interests are reading obsessively, plotting foreign travels, and drinking large amounts of coffee. Her work has appeared previously in Mirror Dance and Moon Drenched Fables.

 Posted by at 2:16 pm
Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Kytgy and Kunlelo
by Rose Lemberg

Ancestors fill
all things. In the green-moss stones
the ancestors of riverdark live,
in the rivers — star-mothers,
in deer flesh — unborn children.

Kytgy, the little girl, sits
on the green-moss stones,
she smells roe in the riverwind,
reindeer in the tundra-wind,
blubber smell coming from the sea-people–
she doesn’t want to smell war.

“Forefathers — small
spirit-fires, mosquito swarm,
foremothers-mousebreath,
teach me to see
openings
in the five worlds,
the five-times five worlds,
so I too can become
mosquito-fire,
mousebreath — so I can
squeeze between worlds,
above us, below us,
so I can
hunt war.”

The ancestors teach her,

“It’s the same country,
this reindeer country
moss country, fast-flowering tundra country
everywhere, we ancestors
live in deerhide yarangas
above us, sun and moon live
in deerhide yarangas;
below, kele-spirits,
in deerhide yarangas;
and in this world, you,
Kytgy,
shaman-child,
wear this parka of stitched spirits
when you go to hunt war:
the war is nearing.”

Kytgy, the little girl, sits
on the green-moss stones.
She smells blood in the riverwind
bitter tears in the tundra-wind.
How will she defeat war?

Kytgy goes
stitched spirits buzzing,
to her father’s yaranga.

A spirit-hearted child she summons.
a spirit-hearted warrior is needed.

“Father, father, go you visit kin!
we need to birth Kunlelo.”

Kytgy’s father goes to summer-camp,
sable-parka shaking,
eyes crossed, mighty hunter,
beaded parka shaking.
Of all women
he doesn’t want to choose
embroidered women
in their kerker suits,
berry-sweet women
in their hunting furs.

“Give me that one, the one with matted hair,
fishbones for beads,
lice for ornament,
that one, the crooked-eye orphan
who sits close to the smoke,
away from the entrance.”

They comb out the orphan,
pop the lice with their fingernails,
make her bride
for Kytgy’s father,
that mighty shaman-child’s father.

Nine months Kytgy waits
talking to eider children,
lemming pups, wild children,

all the in-between children.

“No need,” they say,
to squeeze between worlds now,
Kytgy, you mighty shaman:
ancestor-work is coming,
war,
war,
war is coming here.”

The babe, boy-child, Kytgy holds in her arms.

“Now the world comes right.
Now we have birthed Kunlelo.”

Kunlelo goes,
mighty warrior, to fasten war,
to protect his land
from the white-smoke people,
to take blubber
from the walrus people,
to take elk-land
from the antlered people,
to take berry-land
from the pinecone people,
to protect his land
from the white-skin people.

How will the world come right now?
None can defeat Kunlelo.

Kytgy takes off
her parka of spirits,
puts on her best furs, embroidered furs,
bride furs, blood-bride furs,
follows the sea-wind to the walrus people
lies down in the ditch by the sealskin yaranga,
waits for the men to marry her,
that berry-bright sister, Kytgy,
to marry her there in the ditch.

Nine months — she gives birth,
leaves her child with the sealskin people,
to raise her child with the blubber people.

She walks
the world, fleeing from enemies,
goes to the antlered people, elk people,
pinecone people, deer people,
wind people, star people,
white-smoke people,
white-skin people,

Wherever she goes, she marries,
wherever she goes, she gives birth,
wherever she goes, she leaves children.

Kytgy, peace-bringer,
from whom the whole world descends,
Kytgy, peace-bringer,
became the ancestor in all things.


Rose Lemberg is an immigrant from three countries. She currently works as a professor of Nostalgic and Marginal Studies somewhere in the Midwest. Rose’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and other venues, and was recently reprinted in People of the Book: A decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her poetry has appeared in Apex, Goblin Fruit, GUD, Jabberwocky, and Mythic Delirium, among other venues, and has been nominated for the Rhysling Award. She edits Stone Telling, a new magazine of boundary-crossing poetry. Rose can be found online at http://roselemberg.net.

 Posted by at 2:15 pm
Dec 152011
 
Catherine Rémy: Where myth and landscape meet
by Erzebet YellowBoy & Catherine Rémy

Sigyn Sataerie by Catherine RémyThe cover art for the 14th issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest was provided by Catherine Rémy, a visual artist who draws inspiration from landscape and myth. Her work has been exhibited at the Chatham Arts Centre, Covent Garden’s Jubillee Centre, the Medway Arts Centre, the Cornflower Gallery, in Stuckist shows and in a number of books and magazines. Born Rémy Noë, Catherine experienced gender dysphoria at an early age and escaped into art as a means of coping with her condition. In her own words: “As my paintings are such different styles, which confuses art galleries, I use two names for the two difrent styles. Rémy Noë for the landscape work, and Catherine Rémy for my mytholgical work.” So, while you can find Rémy Noë on Wikipedia, it is the mythological work of Catherine that interests us. The first question I posed to Catherine was the usual “how did you get started”. I’m always fascinated by what draws people to live a creative life, what inspires them, influenced them, and what obstacles, if any, they have encountered along the way — such as expulsion from school and threat of arrest.

“When I was five years old my mother left my family, leaving me with my sister and father who bought me up. I did not see much of my mother after this and she died only four years later. The only real solid memory I had of her was that she was obsessed with myths and fantasy stories. I always remember she had a huge old copy of Lord of the Rings on her bedside table. As soon as I could read well enough I read this book and many others like it. As I grew older I exhausted the genre of fantasy and began to explore in depth the original myths, most of which were Anglo-Saxon, Northern European, Celtic and Finnish.

At the same time all of this was happening in my life I was always painting and drawing. My reaction to gender dysphoria was to escape into nature and paint; out in the countryside drawing and painting I found peace, and through many years of doing just this got my skills in the arts of drawing and painting. These two passions met when I went to art college and began to be taught in art history and more advanced ways of painting. I loved the idea of putting stories and narative into my paintings and drawings of the countryside.”

West Field Wood © Catherine Rémy 2007

West Field Wood © Catherine Rémy 2007

“My main influence in the devolpment of my style was Turner and his use of perspective, and the study of the way the human eye curves perspective. I exagerated this and began to put the stories and myths I loved so much into my work.

I discoved from my reading of Anglo-Saxon myths the history and culture that went with them, and how in the early period the culture was much more shamanic in feel than the later medivial time. I began to visit the location of many of the stories, to see the places and graves of long forgotton kings, sites where great battles were fought, doomed romances took place and to see how the myths in this close but also alien culture were heavily tied into uniting the people with the land and the seasons. I painted on site, hour after hour, creating many rough drawings and sketches, and then in my studio combining them into my now devolping style.”

Kingswood II © Catherine Rémy 2010

"Centre section of a painting carried out on site in kentish woods, part of a larger piece which will be three contained circles on wall with large circle on ground." Kingswood II © Catherine Rémy 2010

I understand that you attended Canterbury College of Art from 1993 – 1998, but had some troubles there. What was going on back then?

“My career as I was devolping this way of painting had its ups and downs. I went on from doing a BTEC at Canterbury Kent instituite of Art and Design (now UCA) to a degree. Here I hit a wall — the modern art world. The college was almost entirly given over to conceptual art and drawing and painting were almost not allowed. I of couse did not stand for this and soon found myself expelled for several high profile arguments about the nature of art. I then discovered the Stuckist art movement which grew as a counter reaction to this way of thinking.”

You were a founding member of the Maidstone Stuckists. Can you tell us a little bit about that and about what drew you to Stuckism?

“The Maidstone stuckists came about as a result of a group of us in Maidstone talking about how much we admired the main group of stuckists in London and Chatham. There were quite a few artists in maidstone who always use to drink in the goth/punk/alternative pub in Maidstone called The Minstrel, we always talked about our ideas and how much we disliked the artistic establishment, most of us having been spat out of the system at one point or other. I talked to Charles Thompson (one of the two people who formed the main body of the Stuckists) and he invited us to form our own subgroup, christened the “Maidstone Stuckists”. We were mixed between artists and poets with an aim toward getting some sort of artistic comunity going in Maidstone. We all liked myths and the artwork, stories, poems influenced by them, so had a good comon grounding together and thought this would be a good base from which to grow. We started to hold twice-weekly meetings in different pubs in Maidstone, put on shows wherever we could, and often had other Stuckist artists from other groups showing their work with us.”

Stuckist Turner demonstration, 2000

Rémy Noë (dark glasses, background right) at the first Stuckist demonstration against the Turner Prize, 2000.

“Sadly over time we all started to get hit by life, the meetings and shows happened less often, untill they faded out all together. After the movement died down, I went back to art college again. This one was also in Canterbury, but this time I attended Christ Church University’s very good art department, also known as Slade by the Sea. Here I found myself getting lots of new ideas, and really learnt how to do life drawing very well. I studied anthroplogy and ancient art, especially Anglo-Saxon and Sami art. I wrote my dissertation on the art of the Sami, falling in love with their culture after making a very good Sami freind on a walking holiday in Sweden. For my reseach I travelled around the arctic circle area of Norway, Sweden and Finland, looking at art from 10,000 years ago to the present day in remote but very friendly villages.

I’ve now finished and have a B.A and M.A in fine art, and am introducing the ideas and ways of working I’ve learnt into my mytholgical paintings, as well begining to explore China, and learning about the culture there.”

Why do you think you’re drawn to working with myths and old stories?

“This is a tricky one to put into words. One of the things that attracts me is their closeness, yet at the same time alien nature, to our culture. The whole Wade/Weyland cycle of myths, for example, feels so alien to our modern sense of morals, especially the central piece of the Weyland story where he gets vengeance on those who wronged him. I know there are vengeance stories in our modern times, but Weyland’s revenge is shown as a positive as opposed to, say, a modern tale where unless one is a psycopath, one feels guilt for taking revenge, even if one is justified.

The story of Weyland’s father Wade goes further into my area of interest than his son’s tales which, although a good read, doesn’t really tie the people and the landscape together. Wade is scattered all over Kent — for example Watling street, which goes from one end of the county to the other, bears his name (‘Wat’ being another version of Wade). I also strongly suspect — but haven’t fully delved into the idea yet — that St. Nicholas and Wade have some connection. These tales — where the very essence of the land has been reborn into heroes, gods and monsters — are what inspire me. The landscape we live in can possess us to such an extent that we need the myths and stories to become one with it.”

Which of these stories do you love best?

“I would say, without doubt, that even though not an old mytholgy but a re-imagined one, the tales from Tolkein’s “Silmarillion” (especially the tale of Lúthien and Beren), have had a lasting influence on me. I’ve found many versions of this tale from “real” myth, but still the Tolkein version is the one that moves me inside. That conquering of death and giving your all to the one you love, the way it is written, the depth in the echoing of older stories it’s built on — everything about that story from the moment I first read it has capitaved me.”

The White Lady © Catherine Rémy  1996

The White Lady © Catherine Rémy 1996

This can be a difficult question for artists to answer, but which of your own paintings do you love best?

“My favorite painting is Sundeomma. The place where I based it on is a very (for Kent) remote valley in the heart of the North Downs, which always seems to me like it has the real feel of nature and myth in it. The story for that painting I sort of made myself; I was inspired while walking the Downs — nothing complex, just the meeting of the day and night. I plan to paint from there again one day, this time using the shadow-like stories I am begining to read about from the Bronze age, stories that only seem to exist as ghosts within other tales and the strange rock art from this time.”

Sundeomma © Catherine Rémy 2001

And finally, what do you hope to achieve with your work?

I see my mytholoical paintings as in many ways forming the third part of this triangle between the landscape where we live and die, the stories and myths that tie us to the land and visual images uniting the two. I want to give people a new way of seeing what at first glance might be just a small wood, an isolated hill.”

 Posted by at 2:15 pm
Dec 152011
 

Fighting FaeriesKirsty Greenwood, the artist whose “Fighting Faeries” was featured on the cover of Scheherezade’s Bequest 13, has a talent for expressing the unworldly and transient nature of her subject. Describing herself as “a quixotic painter, illustrator, sculptor and seamstress”, she engages with paint and pencil, with wood and fabric, and with her own dreaming self to create a range of work that is both whimsical and strangely eerie. She described “Fighting Faeries” as a picture about “fighting your inner daemons, being lost amongst one’s own obsessions and ensuing madness; a basis for many Folk and Fairy tales.” Fairy tales and myth inform much of her work, as can be seen in the painting “Shoggoth” and the natural media sculpture “Draco”. We wanted to dig a little deeper into Kirsty’s dreamscapes, so CdF co-​​editor Virginia M. Mohlere spoke with Kirsty about her influences and inspirations.

Virginia: You described the image we used for Scheherezade’s Bequest 13 as different layers — photos and drawings, and your CV mentions your interest in “visual misunderstanding” and “ocular strangeness.” Where does this interest spring from? Are you a fan of optical illusions, or does “ocular strangeness” mean something entirely different to you? Does the “visual misunderstanding” in your art spring from your experience of seeing the world?

Study of a Gug II © 2001

Study of a Gug II © 2001

Kirsty: My interest in visual misunderstanding comes from an addiction to dreams and nightmares/dreaming and having nightmares! During the night I am the main character in many strange and often horrific moving pictures, which are based on frequent glimpses of unreality, by which I mean that I feel confused or disorientated by everyday scenes; I see things that ‘aren’t there’ or misunderstand visual references that others seem to instantly get — image dyslexia or something! I’ve learnt to enjoy these ocular strangenesses, and use them as reference points for work. I believe it’s why I have such a strong affinity for myth, folklore, fantasy tales and stories, and why I like to produce illustrations for such.

I also love non-fiction, especially biographical writing — it’s reassuring that other people aren’t so different. I like to layer different media in my art, it produces images which are open to the dynamism of serendipity and halts the limits we often put on ourselves to make the thing we have in our ‘mind’s eye,’ which can often be repetitive or stylistic.     

So I find mixing things up makes it easier to create something fresh and original.

V: How many times have you sung “Sweet Child of Mine” at karaoke?

K: Ha Ha, brilliant! Not ever, but I sang “Paradise City” with my best friend Laura, at the Metro Center karaoke many years ago… she was much better than me! I’m quite shy, so that and singing Free’s “Alright now” are the only times I’ve ever done karaoke… plus I have an awful voice.

V: You work in lots of media, and even within a medium, your styles really vary. I was interested by the paintings on your website, and that some are totally abstract, some are pretty psychedelic. It’s almost like your fantasy paintings are the most “realistic.” Is that a conscious decision/statement, or just how the work comes out?

Room of Roots © 1999

Room of Roots © 1999

“..It was certainly a room of roots. Not of a few simple, seperate formations, but of a thousand branching, writhing, coiling, intertwining, diverging, converging, interlacing limbs whose origin even Steerpike’s quick eyes were unable for some time to discover.” Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake.

K: I suppose it’s partly conscious, but mostly because I want to try new mediums and techniques in order to be proficient in as many as possible. It has at times been dependent on what I have to hand; through a lack of funds or the need to get something down before the muse flits!

I think I have so many styles because I’m inspired by countless things, whether the medium itself, Art, other Artists, music, literature, environment or dreams/nightmares, etc. To make fantasy believable (or more acceptable) it has to be based in reality, it has to be directly identifiable — then show its difference.

V: By moving among painting, drawing, sculpture, and textiles, do you teach yourself new techniques or seek out mentors? Do you find that the media are more a way to stave off artistic boredom, or do they feed one another?

Thomas Perez © 2010

Thomas Perez © 2010

K: I spent four years at college studying Art and Design and learnt a lot, but I generally teach myself new techniques. I learnt to sew from my brilliantly practical Mum, who used to make many of her own clothes. My Dad is a very gifted artist, who taught me to draw, paint and appreciate Art.

I particularly love drawing and mixing it with photography. I think they complement each other well; I can blend the styles to suit what I’m trying to achieve. Because I’m often inspired by disjointed views and weird feelings, it’s easier to recreate those by mixing mediums. It’s not necessarily to stave off artistic boredom, more a need to be original and non-repetitive. Yes the media often feed one another!

V: Erzebet and I are both CRAZY about your clothing. Is all of the fabric vintage, or do you manipulate the textiles? (I immediately assumed that you designed the fabrics yourself, until I read the “about” page.) Is sewing yet another branch of your art or a “brain rest”?

Green Poppy Clothing

K: Thank you! Most of the fabrics I use for clothing are vintage/second hand or from charity shops. I love old clothing and past fashions. At college I made several ‘garments’ using sculptural techniques, recycled materials and vintage apparel: a willow twig corset, feather corset, vintage fabrics patchwork, bone and old metal head wear to mention a few.

For me, sewing has sprung from a loathing of wearing clothing I know anyone else may own; its pure vanity really, so I sew in order to have outfits that are unique and made to fit. It used to be cheaper too, to buy old clothing/cloth and revamp it, not so much anymore with the current vintage trends.

Often wearing the clothing I’d made, people would want to know where I got it, and many a time their response would be “will you make me one?” or “you should make them to sell”, so I decided to set up my own clothing label (Green Poppy) to make one offs and very limited runs of attire using vintage or hard to find fabrics, cut from old patterns adapted to modern tastes. It certainly does give me a brain rest as you put it, though it hurts my back, and not something I feel I could do full time.

V: Describe a just-right day.

K: Well, if I had my way, this would happen:

A blustery autumn day, I’d get up late (11am-ish, because the later I sleep, the better dreams I have)… eat my weight in Marmite on toast and Yorkshire Tea for breakfast… open my emails to find a message from a book publishing house (The Folio Society would be my 1st choice) with a commission to illustrate Don Quixote, or Gormenghast (my favorite novels)… go for a long walk with my boyfriend, over the moors I grew up on… happen upon a pub, sitting with a pint in front of its roaring open fire, Patti Smith would walk in, sit down for a chat, discover my art, love it and commission something for her next novel or album cover (this would be heaven), home for a tea of chip butties, then to work through the night on those dream commissions…!  

(A girl can dream…)

 Posted by at 2:15 pm
Dec 152011
 

Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale
By Carolyn Turgeon, 2011
Reviewed by Valentina Cano

MermaidA retelling of the classic “Little Mermaid” tale, this is an interesting, even darker take on the story.

The atmosphere is fantastic, Nordic and stark, a perfect setting for an ocean myth to take hold. There is a nice contrast between the lushness of the ocean kingdom where Lenia, the mermaid, lives. This place is full of colors and life, while the convent where Margrethe is hiding, or even the castle she later travels to, is bare and almost colorless. It makes for an interesting work.

The characters themselves are well crafted, and very different from the idea we might have acquired from the original tale. Lenia is complex character, not necessarily an easy one to love at first, but there is a power to her, a strength that earns her our respect if not our whole-hearted love. By the last page, we are cheering for her, breathless to see her end up safely where she needs to be. Margrethe is less complex, her actions clearer, but nonetheless important. Although we do find ourselves hoping for Lenia to be the victor, we also root paradoxically for Margrethe to have her happy-ever-after.

This is a wonderful story shaped into a wonderful, fresh novel. It is not for the younger teens, though, since there are some sexual moments, but for the older young adults and for adult themselves, it is a fabulous, magical book.

 Posted by at 2:14 pm
Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Salt
by Joanna Hoyt

I.

This is how it was in the beginning, though they kept it se-cret even from me. This is the tale my mother never told me:

The fire roared. The thick curtains shut out wind and rain. The king and queen sat side by side, shivering, not touching, not speaking, staring at the door.

The old woman entered along with a gust of wind.

“Where is the child?”

“Here.”

Even by firelight the birthmark covering the baby’s left cheek and eye was dark and vivid.

“You see,” the king said heavily. “You know what they’ll say. To have a third daughter and no son is bad enough; but to have a daughter who’s witchmarked—they’ll talk of a curse. And some will do more than talk.”

“Might it not fade?” the queen asked. The old woman stared into the shadows.

“No, it will darken as she grows. She’ll have her health, though, and strength; her shoulders will be broader than her fa-ther’s. She’ll be short and broad and strong and dark.”

“Then they’ll think her a changeling, or think–”

“She’s yours,” the queen said sharply.

“I don’t doubt you, love. They may.”

The old woman turned, looked the king in the eyes. “What would you have me do?”

“Change her.”

“Take her away and steal some pretty child to lay in your cradle?”

“No. No, I mean change her. Make her what she must be.”

“I can’t change what she is. I can change what she seems, but the price will be high.”

“I will pay whatever you ask.”

“I will take nothing from you. But to be one thing and seem another, that always costs dearly. Your daughter will pay the worst of the price, but you’ll pay too, both of you.”

The queen raised her head.

“Every king pays that price, and every queen, and every royal child.”

“She need not be a royal child. You’ve two daughters al-ready. Tell the court that the child died. Let me take her, let me raise her to be what she is.”

“And the tongues would wag at that, too. The captain of the guard already murmurs about a sick king and a sonless throne—and he has three sons, damn him. There mustn’t be anything else to strengthen his claim that I’m cursed.”

“Well,” the old woman said, “you chose. I’ll do what you ask now. Later the choice will be hers to make.”

II.

By the time I was old enough to know anything of it my fa-ther’s throne was safe enough, though he was not always well enough to sit on it. The harvests were good, which made folk less disposed to think of curses. The guard captain had been publicly disgraced as a bribe-taker. My father had lords who were loyal to him, either for love of him or for fear of each other. And he had his celebrated daughters.

People praised my older sisters for their skill with lan-guages, their music, their courtesy. People called me, beautiful as the morning of the world, called me the blessed child, the luck-bringer; and they brought me their griefs as though I truly could bestow good fortune or blessing. Under the cover of my sis-ters’ music, ladies sat down beside me and murmured of what they had lost, or what they had always longed for and never found; when I walked in the garden alone, maids and gardeners bowed low to me and then lifted their heads and poured out their sorrows and fears. Their loss was past my mending, sometimes past my under-standing. I was only a child. It was my helplessness as much as their grief that started me weeping. Behind my eyes the tears were wet, but as they rolled down my cheeks they hardened and fell into my lap as pearls. Those at least I could give to comfort my people.

Only my parents looked warily at the pearls I shed. I learned to avoid my father in the sick spells which came more and more often as I grew older. He was ever gentle to me in health, but in fever he shrank from me in fear.

My sisters envied my fine bones, my smooth fair skin that never perspired, the pearls that fell from my eyes. Once the eld-est scolded me until she wept. I touched her face and felt her tears, still liquid, on my hand; I put my hand to my mouth, tasted salt and envied her.

Salt was dear even for a king’s household; most went to pre-serve our meat for winter, leaving little for the table. But my sisters could taste salt as often as they cried.

III.

My mother found me sitting alone under the rose arbor with a lap full of pearls.

“What ails you, love?’ she asked. She did not touch me. “Your father’s ill, but he’ll not die of it; and the doctors might find something yet to bring back his full strength..”

“I wasn’t crying for him,” I said, ashamed that it was so. “For myself.”

She tried to look past her fear for him and see me. “Your sister said you’d quarreled.”

“It isn’t fair,” I answered. My voice was husky, not the high clear tone in which she had carefully trained me to speak.

“When was life ever? But how do you think your sister has wronged you, love?”

“It’s not her. I don’t know who wronged me. I don’t know why I have to be like a statue instead of a girl. The young men talk and laugh with my sisters, and they stare at me. You hug my sisters and you stare at me. All people want from me is my beauty, which I can’t give them, and luck, which I don’t even have, and my tears, and there’s no salt in my tears, they’re not real…”

“Daughter, you’re luckier than you know.”

“I’m sick of being beautiful. I’d rather look like the gar-dener’s daughter and have people treat me as though I was human.”

“Have I taught you so little? Do you think royalty is ever free to do what it would rather? We do what we must.” Indeed she had taught me how to flatter a stupid ambassador from an important country and how to be cool toward a friend who might otherwise be accused of being a favorite–though I had few real friends in any case.

“What we must? And is a statue, a lovely doll, all that a queen must be?”

“Is that what you think I am?”

“No,” I admitted. “What you act like, maybe, but not what you are. You lie, you all lie, and you all know you’re being lied to, and I guess you like it that way. But you always lie for a rea-son, and you’re real–you cry, you sweat. You choose to tell lies, but you’re not one.”

She jerked her head back as though I had hit her; then she turned and walked away in silence.

I jumped when the voice spoke behind me.

“You can choose, too,” it said. I turned and saw a bent old woman with a straight clear gaze.

“You were listening?”

“So I was. I knew it would come to this; I knew, whatever your parents thought.”

“What do you mean?’ I asked her. And she told me the story my mother never told.

I believed the story; believed, too, that I could choose. Looking into her eyes I saw my reflection—not the familiar face I loved and hated, but a broad rawboned face whose left side was overspread with a cloudlike mark the color of dried blood.

“She would weep salt,” I said.

“You will,” the woman answered.

IV.

How was I to choose? It was easy enough to resent what I had when I thought I could not change it. Now that I could… I paced in the rose garden, thinking, while the sun slid down the sky. At sunset the chamberlain called me to my father’s side.

“Is he…?”

“No, lady, he’s no worse. But no better, either. He says he’d best put all in order.”

My father sat propped against the head of his bed, with my mother and his doctor at his right hand and two of his most trusted lords at his left. My sisters stood straight and silent at the foot of the bed; their faces were very still, but there were salt tracks on their cheeks.

“My daughters. My dear daughters.” He swallowed, pushed himself straighter in the bed. “My heirs.”

I had thought the kingdom would go to my eldest sister, or more likely to the man she wed; I thought perhaps it was the lat-ter likelihood that kept her from deigning to wed any. But my daughters, my heirs, he had said. I was torn between the desire to be a queen, and the shame of thinking such a thing while my father was ill, and the fear that I would be made a queen and never be free to go away with the old woman and wear my true face.

“The kingdom.” He licked his lips. “I wanted to hold it safe for you. I did my best…with these friends..” He gestured toward the lords, but his eyes were on us. “But how long can I hold it, like this? You…you’re all healthy and fine and fair and clever. You’ll find men to help you hold your own, once it is your own. Tomorrow I’ll proclaim you my heirs. To take possession in a year’s time. But tonight…tonight I make the divisions. Tonight you must understand what each of you will get. There must be no bitterness over this tomorrow in the hall. You must stand to-gether to hold the land I give you. You understand?”

We understood. The kingdom’s threefold division was ancient, obvious and unequal. There was the City with its guild-halls and sculpture-gardens, its library and its great houses; its mistress would be a lady of note. There was the lowland with its fertile grainfields and orchards; its mistress would be a woman of wealth. And there was the hill-country with its wild forests and its herdsmen; its mistress would not be landless, but there wouldn’t be much more to say for her. For me, as I was youngest.

“I am content,” I said.

“Wait,” my father answered. “You don’t know yet what you’re to have. I don’t know yet. But I must choose tonight.” He looked at each of us in turn. I thought he might question us to see how well we understood the laws, or how well we understood which courtiers and nobles could be trusted, or how wisely we might marry. Instead he asked us, “Do you love me?”

“Yes,” we all said together.

“How much do you love me?” he asked. “Speak in turn, so I can hear you.”

I hardly heard what my sisters said. My heart thumped dully. I must not wound him, nor lie to him, nor destroy my chance—only I did not know which chance to take. When he turned to me I an-swered “I love you like salt.” Like salt, which I craved, which was alien to me. Like salt, which I might yet choose at the cost of everything else.

He understood. His face paled; his hands clenched. “Is that all you have to say?’

I began to understand. He had meant to divide the kingdom between us, no doubt, for the reasons he had given. But he had done it tonight because my mother had gone to him, because he wanted me to see how much I would lose if I chose what he had not chosen for me.

No tears fell from my eyes, but my skin itched terribly; I couldn’t help scratching. Great patches of rose-and-cream skin fell to the ground. It hurt, but I didn’t bleed; I had another skin underneath, thicker and coarser, slick with sweat. I could feel my bones shifting, shortening, thickening. My sisters stared at me. My mother screamed. I turned my face away from them and from the queen I might have been.

“Then let salt be your portion,” said my father’s ragged voice behind me. He began to speak with his lords about dividing the kingdom in two parts instead of three, about coming up with a story to cover my disappearance. My mother called one of her maids. I followed the maid and let her take my gown from me and give me a coarse gown and cloak that would have chafed my old soft skin. When my father’s steward brought me a pack full of salt I took it up on my shoulder. When he took me to the castle gate and told me to go, saying that my mother said I might find a haven on the north road, I went, not looking back.

V.

I walked a long way that night, alone and nearly unafraid, under the starlight in the dark of the moon. A King’s daughter must fear kidnap, and a lovely girl must fear lawless men, but I was neither. The strength of my legs and the easy swing of my arms pleased me. My mother had struggled to teach me to dance and to walk with small delicate steps as a lady must. Now I strode manlike through the City and into the narrow belt of orchards on the edge of the hill-country. My body was tired, but not unpleas-antly so; my heart was a dull ache; my stomach was empty.

At sunup a woman came out to milk her cows and I asked food in exchange for a handful of salt. She looked doubtfully at my face, and gladly at the contents of my pack; she gave me a filling breakfast and sent me on my way with a loaf of bread and a pocket-ful of apples.

“And give my greetings to the saltweller,” she said as I de-parted. “I hadn’t heard she’d taken an apprentice.”

“Nor has she, for all I know. Where does she live?’

The woman gave me directions, blessed me, smiled at me as I walked away. I did not know whether I was more glad or sorry that there was no longing in her eyes as she watched me leaving.

The road narrowed to a footpath as it climbed into the hill-country. The bones of the hills grew starker. I recognized the great rowan tree that the farm wife had described, and the little path worn through the weeds on my right hand. In the clearing I found a small cottage, an apple orchard, a brown goat, a dozen great white geese who ran at me with necks outstretched, and a bent old woman who called them off and watched me with clear eyes.

“You chose, goddaughter, ” she said.

“Did I?’

She looked at me more closely.

“Not yet. But you’ve lost what you had, for all that. Well, well. There’s time yet.” She looked into the shadows of the ever-greens. “Three years you’ll have. Three years to be both. While the moon shines you’ll wear your pretty skin again, and the rest of the time you’ll have your strong body. But you can’t keep both gifts forever. Three years, and then you’ll have to choose, and there’ll be no going back.”

VI.

The years passed quickly over me. I was glad of the strength of my arms as I carried jars from the brine spring to the boiling pans, as I tipped the mother liquor from one pan to another, packed the dried salt into boxes and carried them down to the vil-lages. I learned to hold my head high when folk looked on me with pity or contempt, to laugh gently and reassure those who made the sign against the evil eye, to smile and sit eye to eye with the children who ran from me at first. In time their fear wore off: I was no longer the witchmarked stranger but the saltweller’s ap-prentice, a strong, ugly, good-natured girl with a ready answer for anything and a strong back for any burden. Sometimes they told me their griefs, as the courtiers had done when I was a child. My hearing seemed to comfort them. And sometimes I could lend a hand with the harvest or keep an eye on the babes.

Such were my days. Every afternoon before dusk I returned to the old woman’s house. At the first touch of moonlight I felt my skin softening, my arms and legs extending, my waist and shoulders narrowing, and looking in the well (the fresh spring we drank from, not the brine spring), I saw the king’s daughter’s pale lovely face. Sometimes I wept for the beauty I had lost, and some-times for fear of losing the strength I had won. Sometimes I laughed to think of the two gifts I held, one of them always se-cret.

News came slowly up into the hill-country, but it came. First there was the rumor that the king’s youngest daughter, the blessed child, in grief at her father’s illness and in fear of unrest among the nobles, had taken a vow to live in solitude and pray for the health of King and kingdom. “And may none of the lord-folk work against her prayers!” the merchant who brought the word added. So I served my family as well by my absence as I might have done by staying. Later word came of the crowning of my sis-ters. There was little word of how they ruled, but the taxes rose slowly, and the land had peace.

One day in the full of the moon, late in my third year at the brine spring, we had our first guest: the son of the king whose lands lay beyond my eldest sister’s eastern border. That day I had stayed to tend the brine-pans while my godmother went to meet the traders in the village. She shamed the prince into carrying her heavy trade-goods back. I came around the cottage with a bas-ket full of goose eggs and there he was, smiling like the sun. My godmother hurried into the house, pausing in the doorway to cau-tion the two of us to behave ourselves. He gaped; then he recov-ered himself, murmured some unmeaning gallantry, asked me about the work of the spring, never looking at my face. I thought how differently he would look and speak if he saw me by moonlight. My godmother came back out, gave me a look that was not without pity and called him into the house. I fled to the brine spring. When I came back he was gone. That night I sat beside the well from sunset until dawn and returned with my hands full of pearls.

VII.

I did not answer when my godmother asked if I wished to wear my beauty by sunlight again. I tried not to listen when she re-minded me that my three years were nearly through. I worked my-self to exhaustion during the days, and I sat by the well while the moonlight lasted. The moon waned, vanished, waxed again. When it was full again, and I had only two weeks left for choos-ing, I stood staring at my face in the well and at the pearls in the grass around my feet, and I heard a branch crack in the oak above my head. I stared up at the king’s son. He dropped to stand by me. I could see his face clearly in the moonlight, hand-some and gentle, longing; and I knew what he wanted from me, and I could give it. And how could I not want to give it? I held my hands out to him, and he took them, and then he stooped to kiss me. The moon rang like a bell.

He drew his head back and said “In tales it’s the maiden’s kiss that turns the monster to a handsome man; but you broke free of the spell yourself, and all I have to do is kiss you in cele-bration.”

“You know, then? You know I was the woman you saw before—the one with the mark.”

“No,” he answered, smiling. “You only looked like that woman while the spell was on you. This is who you are.”

“No. That was who I am. This is the spell.”

He frowned. “That’s what the beldame said, but not what your parents told me when I brought them the beldame’s message and the pearl.’

“They lied, then. They thought they had to, I suppose. But…How are they now? I haven’t gone beyond the village these three years.”

“Your mother’s well. Your father ails, but he lives. They have joy of their daughters, I think…I mean, of your sisters. They…they said that they were dismayed by your enchantment and they drove you away, and later they were terribly sorry, but they didn’t know where to find you. They hoped that you would come to them again before your wedding.”

“My wedding?’

“Our wedding,” he said, smiling. “If you’ll have me.” Plainly he hadn’t much doubt. Why should he? He was handsome, kind (for he had carried my godmother’s load), rich and royal. And marrying him would allow me to be a queen without threatening my sisters’ inheritance.

“And you’d have an enchanted queen?”

“I would have you,’ he said, and my blood ran hot in me. “And—whatever your life has been here, you were raised a lady, it will come back to you.”

An owl called in the wood behind me. I turned and saw, not the owl, but the pattern of my life as it would be there; the graceful compliments, the polite evasions, my saltless tears. And he—would he be satisfied once he really knew me? And who would know me as the farmers knew me? Who would tease me, or hug me, or ask me to bring in another load of firewood? And would he be able to bear it if I was not satisfied with him?

I turned back. “If you would have me,” I said, “you’ll have to have me as I truly am. As I look by day, not as I look now.”

“But even the beldame said…”

“Yes, I could change back—or I could have, once. I can’t now. I’ve chosen.”

I saw the hurt in his eyes, and the pearl tears rolled down my cheeks; and once again I felt my soft skin peeling away, my bones thickening, and I knew that he saw my true face in the moon-light. He recoiled; he couldn’t help it.

I held a handful of pearls out to him. “Here,” I said. “Take these for yourself. And a basket of salt for my father’s table. Tell them where to find me, if ever they want to. Give them my love. And you—you, go find someone you can love. It won’t be hard. My blessing goes with you.”

“How can it?’ he asked.

“Because you showed me what I chose.” I said. “You set me free.”

He blinked at me, bowed low and turned away. I walked back to my house, to my work.

Years later in the marketplace I heard a minstrel sing of the King’s fair and virtuous daughter who wept pearls, who was the joy of her kingdom until her father banished her for failing to flat-ter him and a jealous enemy cast a spell of ugliness on her, which endured until another King’s son found her in her exile and saw her true and lovely face by moonlight.

The minstrel put his lute aside.

“That’s never the ending!” called a farmer in the crowd.

“Well, I had the tale from a strange fellow who broke it off there. But who can doubt the ending? He broke the spell on her, and they wed, and they live in bliss until the sun shrivels.”

I laughed until the salt tears streaked my face.


Joanna Hoyt lives on a Catholic Worker farm in upstate NY with her mother and brother and various guests, goats and chickens. She also has stories published by Mindflights and Daily Science Fiction.

 Posted by at 2:14 pm
Dec 152011
 

The Silence of Trees
By Valya Dudycz Lupescu, 2010
Reviewed by Donna Quattrone

“I eagerly went onto the unknown, looking for magic, for mystery, for adventure. But sometimes magic finds you. Sometimes it comes in the least likely of forms: in a small black river rock, a deck of hand-painted cards, a sprig of purple herb, or an envelope from home…”

The Silence of TreesFairy tales are fantastical journeys; full of treacherous twists and turns, shadowed forests, unlikely helpers and often unlooked for opportunities. There is always magic of course, and usually love as well.

The Silence of Trees is a tale that contains all of those things. Often billed as historical fiction, the story revolves around a Ukrainian woman named Nadya who, as a girl, sets out into the woods against her mother’s wishes to have her fortune told. The music that entices her to the gypsy camp is as mysterious as the destiny that is described for her there and, from that night forward, Nadya’s life is forever changed.

The brunt of The Silence of Trees is told from the perspective of the immigrant grandmother Nadya has become. She looks back upon her experiences and the choices she has made from the security of her family home in Chicago, a dwelling where cultural traditions still reign, myriad secrets abound and ghosts that are far from silent linger on.

Nadya’s anecdotes bring history to life and also serve to chronicle her attempts to come to terms with her past, a quest that is fundamentally necessary for both herself and her family. The move to integrate the old and the new into her current life is presented in a way that is utterly personal and universal all at once, cumulating in a tale that is poignantly engaging.

The Silence of Trees is Valya Dudycz Lupescu’s first novel, and it clearly exemplifies the author’s sheer joy in spinning tales. Her writing style is eloquent and wonderfully atmospheric; it weaves a web that draws the reader in, right from the beginning of the book. The prose echoes with honest emotion viewed through the lens of wisdom and then competently transposed in the voice of one who readily acknowledges the impact that stories can have upon our lives.

The narrative is richly informed by folklore and deeply imbued with fairy tales and the stuff they are made of. House spirits are appeased and old women are honored, even meals are rife with meaningful rituals. In The Silence of Trees, traditional tales are more than simple gifts handed down from from one generation to the other; they become the breadcrumbs that can lead one home. They are utilized not just to entertain, but also to illuminate the path to transformation and, perhaps most importantly, to remind us of the possibility of a happily ever after.

 Posted by at 2:14 pm

Skellig – review

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Dec 152011
 

Skellig
By David Almond, 1998
Reviewed by Virginia M. Mohlere

SkelligHere are the bones of David Almond’s Skellig:

• Michael’s family recently moved into a ramshackle house with a crumbling garage
• Michael’s infant sister is desperately ill
• Michael and his parents are trying to keep up their spirits and routine
• Mina, the girl across the street, is a home-schooler with a passion for birds, William Blake, and secrets
• There is a being in the garage who seems to have wings

I read this book in the Cleveland International Airport and on a flight from Cleveland to Houston. In the middle of the terminal noise, the plane engines’ shriek, the book made a bubble of quiet that I could inhabit. Skellig is about uncertainty, about fear and hope, without one bit of hyperbole.

Do you know any toddlers? I love people that age, as they realize that they are separate beings with a small measure of control over their environment. Part of that process includes feeling things for which they as-yet have no language, and you can watch them get buffeted by their own rogue waves of unnameable emotion that busts out of them all at once.

Michael is a little like that, in that he is a young boy (I’m getting in the 10-12 range) with a fear he can’t find the words for underlying the possibility that his new baby sister might die. The actions that he takes are beautiful illuminations of grief: creeping into her room at night to lay his hand on her back, playing poorly on the soccer field, fighting with his friends.

He retreats and creates his own bubble, consisting of the crumbling house, the strange girl Mina, and Skellig, the thing in the garage. Mina has her own secrets — a dead father, a boarded-up house — but she anchors Michael into the place of his new home, the birds that surround them, and an idea of poetry.

Michael doesn’t waste time brooding over things. Like many boys his age, he is mostly action. Unable to take action to help his sister, he helps Skellig even when it protests, because he must do something to help. That stubbornness becomes a gift that lifts Michael up from his own fear and in so doing lifts those around him.

 Posted by at 2:14 pm
Dec 152011
 

Let England Shake
By PJ Harvey, 2011
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of song,” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betray thee,
One sword at least thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee.”

— Thomas Moore (1779-1852), “The Minstrel Boy”

Let England ShakeWe think we know PJ Harvey, after almost twenty years; we may not be surprised that she has made a concept album about war, since she has always inclined to forbidding themes. Her reputation for somberness would not on its own make it easier for listeners to take her seriously as the creator of Let England Shake. Spooky chicks are supposed to move on to war after having exhausted suicidal heartbreak as a topic, and from them, war isn’t supposed to matter except as a new way to explore suicidal heartbreak. PJ Harvey has written enough about romantic heartbreak, and in grandiose enough terms, for the ante to be upped very far if she turns to politics; beyond that, her physical presence is against her. The slight, gaunt-featured young woman with her soft speaking voice and genteel private manners must beg the question always asked of women who essay political violence as a topic: “What on earth does she know about it?”

She may know more than meets the eye. On previous albums, Harvey’s famous angst has often sounded more like real pain and recovery than the attitudinizing of many singers. It sounds specifically like the struggle of a gifted young person derailed from who she originally was, itself something rather peculiar. Her elfin looks would make it possible for her to drift through her career as someone to be seen, rather than known; but at some point, perhaps with what she herself admits as a dangerous period after her first album, Harvey became a person who had to grow self-consciously as a survivor, and thus to make the glimpses of her inner being more important than the surface of a persona. Not an English thing to do, and not something Harvey often does with emotions that are owned, as opposed to acted.

Her distance could make it harder to care about her inner being, let alone her personae; but it does the reverse. The secret of her charisma is that she resembles a character in a stage play. Harvey’s boyishness adds to the impression and lends it an additional, potentially tragic dimension, like that of the Minstrel Boy or Pup in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover. If anything awful happened to her for real one would feel complicit, as the audience in classical tragedy is complicit: she invites us to relate to her as her stylized being is observed, with fascination, from outside, and this, then, would be what we had come to see. If one needs or cares to imagine “PJ Harvey in the real world” — what it would be like to see her live up to the plots of songs like “Hook” or “In the Dark Places” — one can take a glance at Emily Henochowicz, a young PJ Harvey lookalike who joined Palestinians protesting the Maavi Marmara raid last year and had her left eye knocked out by an empty tear gas can. She has since managed her life with extraordinary courage; in an interview, explaining that her parents were having a harder time than she was, she said that her “basically silly” personality was still hers while she recovered: “I was just full of giddiness — which I think was quite confusing for my mother.” What is most impressive about Henochowicz thus far is her talent for letting reality be and yet rising to the demands of human perception. She wrote on her blog for August 8, 2010: “Google thinks the words most associated with my name are, ‘facebook, blog, new york times, jewish, youtube, washington post, video, cnn, 21, eye.’ It clearly doesn’t know me, but it does know something happened.”

PJ Harvey is like most creative artists and composes as if the world outside does know her, inevitably putting her at a remove from the randomness of the real thing. But at her best, she creates characters and viewpoints that suggest real trauma, approached from within, with the necessary appreciation of randomness and the staginess imposed by perception. The traumas in her songs may be mysterious but they are lived within the song: cajoled, joked with, satirized, worried at, cursed out, run from screeching, returned to in humility, integrated into an essential awkwardness; all very much as authentic human beings deal with things that are not going away. Like Emily Henochowicz, Polly Harvey is often a silly little girl. For instance, a lot of her sexual acting-out has been on the level of silliness rather than reality, at least on stage: her leotards, split-schoolgirl poses, lipstick applied as if in front of Gran’s attic mirror, and Minnie Mouse shoes were all in the tradition of British sexual naughtiness that includes Monty Python and Borat, that is to say, a lot of snickering by people who don’t know what they are talking about. The private reality for Harvey was clearly a lot more complicated, with much more to say about emotional ups and downs than about getting it on, in any real detail; she got away with it because her emotional ups and downs came across as being so physical. “Rub Till It Bleeds” and “Dry” were metaphorical in a way that Marianne Faithfull’s “Why D’Ya Do It” could never be. Harvey writes about sex like a cerebral person whose feelings wrack her body and are otherwise difficult to access. The “You exhibitionist” line in “Sheela-Na-Gig,” the song that first made her notorious, carried the most weight as an accusation against an emotional person in a buttoned-down culture, especially one who has admitted to pain. Indeed the role-playing Harvey engaged in after her first difficult encounter with fame may have been a way of hiding her real project behind lewd greasepaint, and writing it all off as a joke in very British fashion. She has said that she composed much of Rid of Me “at my illest” during the breakdown she suffered after Dry. If she learned how to distance herself from her material in performance, the purpose was to reduce the temptation to identify her with her work.

But this depersonalization has only increased a sense of risk: risk to her above all, if any one of her scenarios came true. It’s in this sense that Harvey really does resemble Patti Smith, though otherwise I agree with her that comparisons are sloppy. Harvey may well have learned how to exploit a similar vocal range by listening to Smith, as Joan Baez may have done with Amalia Rodrigues; but voice and words, though not unimportant, are not the center of Harvey’s art as they are Smith’s. Harvey is first and foremost a composer and a musician. When her massive guitar fire marks the bridge of “In the Dark Places,” it announces the distinctiveness of her personality as its own source of resistance to any received antiwar sentiment. Harvey’s keening voice may be saying one thing (protest, emotiveness) but her guitar says another: that Harvey does not protest so much as she wades into acceptance for her own purposes, with the big guns on her side. Her art is a theatre of cruelty with little in common with the punk theatre of cruelty. The main victim is Harvey, as in much of punk; yet unlike the punk rocker, this victim is celebrated as such in her music, less in self-defeat than in the kind of amor fati (in retrospect) that led Patti Smith to twirl off a stage and break her neck while singing “Ain’t it Strange”: “Hand of God, feel the fever,/Hand of God, I start to whirl…Go on, go on like a dervish/Go on, God, make a move.” Smith fell on that line, and believed that it had been taken literally. She absorbed the fall into the persona of someone who is perhaps not quite willing to take any punishment, but is ready to turn almost anything into what she has to give back to the world, in martial self-realization rather than lament; she announced on the knowingly titled Easter that she’d been “Heading for a spill, but it’s all spilt milk to me… Love’s war and love’s cruel and love’s pretty cruel, pretty cruel tonight,” but “I feel it feeling no pain.” It may have been God’s move, after all, and it may be incumbent on the victim to make it count:

Oh, I would like to see you one morning,
I would like to talk this over very sincere.
Maybe we could meet in this life or after,
But until that time I’m tabling Him.
He is the one who disabled these veterans
Veterans of pushing through next to Him,
There was only one liar over in the Garden,
I don’t know when we’ll get there again.
But for now this is my answer — oh, I must accept the truth.
But then again, is this answer forever,
Or is this just one simple question, in the quest from my youth?
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.”

This 1979 version of her famous cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” casting doubt on her own blasphemy (and sung while she seemed barely able to stand upright for pain), belongs to a clade of songs Patti Smith has written about her ordeal as a portal to expanded consciousness, of which the most famous is “Dancing Barefoot” from 1979: “I’m dancing barefoot, heading for a spin,/Some strange music draws me in,/Makes me come on like some heroine.” Twenty years later she was still at it, in “Lo and Beholden”:

Dove calls and God he notes it all
You know it’s true,
Here is my seventh veil and last
It will cost you.
The royal word it has been cast
The prophet’s head is all I ask
For beauty and the naked truth
It will cost you.

This sort of amor fati will be foreign to most of us, naturally. It was almost 30 years before I realized that “Dancing Barefoot” was about Smith’s literal fall, as well as her falling in love with Fred Sonic Smith of MC5, to whom she sings “Oh God I fell for you” at the end. When she returned to the stage after her husband’s passing, “Dancing Barefoot” became a direct reference to her brush with death, connected now with her widowhood but addressed directly to Him rather than him:

Oh God, I feel the fever,
Oh God, I feel the pain,
Oh God, forever after,
Oh God, I’m back again,

And oh God, I fell for You!

Though Harvey is not as brash, in keeping with her Englishness, she has some of the same tendency to masochism as a poke in the world’s eye, even a call to arms. The essential difference with Harvey is the plot she pulls out of this inclination. Smith’s is that of the adventurer humbled into giving of herself. Harvey’s story is about an innocent who must make something original of a plot not her own, that of an innocent’s betrayal and humiliation. Instead of the obvious and sentimental options she turns the plot into one of self-discovery, as if Mozart’s Cherubino were to be sent off with the Prussian army for real and find out he was really Figaro, the survivor.

Harvey’s last three solo albums renew her own cycle, following a pattern resembling her first three: Dry, Rid of Me, and To Bring You My Love. Dry and Uh Huh Her pick Harvey’s own pocket, just as critics noticed with the latter album. Were it her first, it would be hailed as the very impressive debut that Dry was, its limitations and its self-referential nature understood as those of a beginning artist at the end of the first round of things she had to say (that relationships are full of angst). Neither is a bad album, but neither gave any clue as to what was to come; Uh Huh Her bears no obvious relationship to White Chalk, a masterpiece almost equivalent to Rid of Me and resembling it closely.

To say this sounds like madness on the face of it, since no two albums sound more different. White Chalk finds Harvey singing in a soprano voice for the first time, to soft accompaniments of harmonium and self-taught piano. Rid of Me remains her most extreme album; Nirvana’s In Utero was influenced by it; it is scored for guttural vocals and bizarre electric chords, a little like Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia in its minimalist frenzy but written after, not before, some sort of terrible fall. Indeed it is tempting to imagine Rid of Me as the album Smith might have made in 1977 had she been able to record. The title track begins with a guitar riff that sounds like a heartbeat, weak but stubborn, going on for quite a while before Harvey’s voice begins with a similar sort of murmur. She sounds as if she is talking to herself, assuring herself she is alive, but barely able to find breath as she counts down a revenge fantasy up to and including rape. The rest of the album relies much on the sounds, as well as the thoughts, of a literally damaged person. “Legs” finds this proud woman humbled into a series of groans, shrieks, coughs, six-year-old revenge fantasies, and attempts at the stiff upper lip, alternating with such conviction that one can almost see her lying bloodied on a sidewalk and trying to pick herself up by first painful degrees. The lyrics to the song tell only half the story: each noise she makes in it matters, from the barely controlled but weak sobs at the beginning to the self-irony in the scream at the middle. It takes a few more songs before she can describe what happened, metaphorically if not literally, in “Hook,” which sounds to me like a rape song more gut-wrenching than X’s “Johny Hit and Run Paulene.” (PJ Harvey has sung that, by the way.) As such “Hook” approaches the transcendence of “Dancing Barefoot,” “Lo and Beholden,” and Smith’s rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” in recent performances, with the difference that “Hook” sounds like what it means. In “Dancing Barefoot” Smith turns a messy trauma into an acceptance of grace and risk, and thus of love for a man; in “Hook” a woman prostrates herself before a supernatural male who goes on to beat the daylights out of her:

And rode in
Fucking mad
With a halo
Of deep black
Till my love
Made me gag
Called him “Daddy…”
Took my hand

Said “I’ll take you Kathleen, to your home and mine”
Good Lord he hooked me, fish hook and line

Now I’m blind
And I’m lame
Left with nothing
But his stain
Daddy your maid
She can’t sing
She can’t feel
She’s no queen

The lyrics are difficult enough, but the melody makes them unbearable, with a chorus that sounds like a person being stomped and has a moment on the musical bridge that leaves little doubt. There is enough of this sort of thing in Harvey’s corpus to make it understandable that some listeners cannot stomach her. Yet feminists have adored Harvey; if her treatment of violence turns people off, they are much likelier to be men. It is her honesty that wins respect, but it is a curious kind of honesty that turns an all-too-possible scenario into a metaphysical archetype. Harvey suggests that by laying her humiliation so bare, she is giving it back to the offender with interest. Nor do we know who or what that offender is. It could be a real-life man; it could be a demon lover; it could be fate or the world; it could be something in her imagination. It could even be God. (On 4-Track Demos, a collection of outtakes from this period, “Hook” is if anything more brutal than on Rid of Me and the battering in the middle is accomplished by an organ.) As a rape song “Hook” is hardest to take as an archetypical scenario, strongly resembling all those English folk songs in which “He’s laid her down upon her back and he’s asked of no one’s leave,” and the maiden’s redress is either to tell off the offender (“Stand off, stand off,/You’re a false deceiver” on Fairport Convention’s Full House) or, exceptionally, to name him in court as in “Royal Forester”:

She went up to the king’s high door, she knocked and she went in:
“One of your chancellors robbed me, and he’s robbed me right and clean.”
“Has he robbed you of your mantle, has he robbed you of your ring?”
“No, he’s robbed me of my maidenhead, and another I cannot find.”

The complement to “Hook” is “Ecstasy,” which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the triumph of the will. It may be the only song in Harvey’s corpus that releases her full power. Tempting as it is to ask what would happen when Harvey really gave it back, the answer is perhaps that one would finally see her at her strongest and that would be quite enough. The irony is that the strength is that of a Pyrrhic victory. Sung with confidence on 4-Track Demos, on Rid of Me the vocal part is a tatter, and a groan, that of a person at the end of her rope; but it brings in a guitar setting that suggests the arrival of an army — a power that is hard to associate with Harvey herself, or any one person, yet one which she and no one else on the scene is calling up. She sings that she is “flying, hitting heaven’s high/I’m head on brake too low… I’m telling you look at me.” While it could be a masochistic love fantasy, disagreeably exchanging the physicality of “Hook” for emotional obsession, the album gives other clues. “Hook” was followed by the gender-bending of “Man-Size Quartet” and “20-Foot Queenie” (“I’m coming up man-sized/Skinned alive/I want to fit, I’ve got to get/Man-size,” and “You bend over Casanova/No sweat, I’m clean, nothing can touch me”); the lesbian obsession of “Yuri-G”; and a reprise of “Man-Size,” followed by misery on “Dry” (“I caught it in the face/Coming round again”) as the first one recouped bitterly from “Hook.” “Ecstasy” seems to me to continue Harvey’s androgynous male identification. The ecstasy is that of the warrior who has realized his or her identity, at dreadful cost. The question asked by the guitar is if the warrior can be a warrior without a hundred bullies behind her as the real source of strength; or if she is flying on her own; or if both and more are true. Before they can be answered, the questions are lost beneath the magnificence and malevolence of the flight, as if turning into a mythical beast, or a holy warrior, is the best revenge. (In the film of The Man Who Would Be King, “The Minstrel Boy” is reworked as “The Son of God to the war is gone.”) It is an awesome track, literally, but it inspires the feeling Benjamin Britten had about the music of child gamelan players in Bali: that perhaps “it is not good that such things should be.”

Musically White Chalk is the opposite of Rid of Me. As on Rid of Me and all her other albums, one can assume that Harvey has not experienced everything she sings about on White Chalk, though the title song references her native Dorset and can be assumed to be first-person Polly Harvey:

White chalk south against time
White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme.
I walk the valleys by the Cerne,
Down a path cut 1500 years ago,
And I know these chalk hills will rot my bones.

The intimacy of this song speaks to a talent of Harvey’s that cannot be begged or bought. She is one of those artists who can seem to be singing just for the listener. There is no way she can know how much a few particular songs have moved me, including much of White Chalk, which at first frightened me enough that I had to be careful about playing it; not because it is an eerie album, though it is, but because the third wall often seemed to break down. “The Piano” can be heard many ways, for instance: it sounds like a song about domestic violence; it also might be about a ghost; it might also be a metaphor for the piano itself. It matched a particular moment in my life so uncannily that I still find it difficult to listen to, and must say no more than that it put a fingernail on a juncture at which concern for the dead must give way to awareness of the living, that violence against women was an issue, and that the logistics were as complicated politically as the photographic tableau in which Emily Henochowicz, fallen, was gathered into the arms of an Arab woman:

Hit her with a hammer
Teeth smashed in
Red tongues twitching
Look inside her skeleton

My fingers sting
Where I feel your fingers have been
Ghostly fingers
Moving my limbs
Oh God I miss you…

Daddy’s in the corner rattling his keys
Mommy’s in the doorway trying to leave
Nobody’s listening, nobody’s listening
Oh God I miss you…

Whatever the true origin of White Chalk for Polly Harvey, it comes from a source of personal loss, going beyond grief into damage. Harvey herself does not suffer on each and every song and record — at least, the shadings of suffering that she explores differ far too much for her ever to be self-pitying, let alone confessional — but on these two albums she presents a persona that is piecing itself back together as it sings. The two are not identical in grief any more than they are in music. Rid of Me is an album of the first year, as it were, and White Chalk perhaps of the second or third. It has naked moments of pain (“Broken Harp,” “Dear Darkness”), but its clinical fineness of detail could only be mustered at a point when survival begins to be assured. Most comfortingly, Harvey’s stoicism here is intact, avoiding real disclosure in favor of pastiches of anger and grief that might always just possibly shade into truth, and are unforgettable when they do; the quality of pastiche retains Harvey’s English reserve at its most heartfelt.

PJ Harvey has much in common with Richard Thompson, whose greatness manifested itself after a severe physical and psychological trauma. She could not have less in common stylistically with Sandy Denny, and yet she recalls Thompson’s intimate musical partner in one key respect other than their Englishness: one never quite believes Harvey is telling us about something that really happened to her, or that she isn’t. This way, scenarios that partake of fantasy, soap opera, and low comedy retain at once a Shakespearean gravitas and the sense that we are looking into the depths of Harvey’s heart. On A Woman a Man Walked By, the second of two collaborations with John Parish and the last album before Let England Shake, one must be satisfied with good fragments, which on a solo Harvey record might always be incorporated into the one grand, advancing and retreating disclosure of the artist’s being and thus catch fire on their own. The title song carries conviction, not only because the lyrics are memorable, but because Harvey’s contempt for someone less brave rings true. Funny though it is, this is one place where the Harvey of “Ecstasy” may reappear, and once again the sight is not quite pretty:

I once knew a woman man
A courageous friend I thought
It turned out so wrong was I
When we were up against the wall
He had chicken liver balls
He had chicken liver spleen
He had chicken liver heart
Made of chicken liver parts.
Lily livered little parts, lily livered little parts!

Prematurely going bald, any passion long gone cold
Still I wanted to explore the damp alleyways of his soul
All the times I tried to help, he’d spit in my face and laugh,
That woman man, I want his fucking ass!
Hermaphrodite, he’s looking likely,
Cramped in a taxi, I see you too clearly,
Sucking on a little pea, sucking on a little pea
My my, you little toy — you’re just a mama’s boy
Where’s your liver where’s your heart
What’s with all your woman parts
Now it’s my turn to laugh
I’ll stick it up your fucking ass!

And so at last to Let England Shake, which I have listened to perhaps fifty times by now and have come to understand as more than a pastiche. I like and respect it enough to wonder if one day I will be embarrassed for having responded to it initially as a pastiche and worse, as a received and unearned antiwar statement of the kind so available to young poets and singer-songwriters, albeit with lovely tunes. After a while I warmed to its peculiar levity, somewhat like that of wartime poet Stevie Smith in this poem:

It was my bridal night I remember,
An old man of seventy-three
I lay with my young bride in my arms,
A girl with t.b.
It was wartime, and overhead
The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.
What rendered the confusion worse, perversely
Our bombers had chosen that moment to set out for Germany.
Harry, do they ever collide?
I do not think it has ever happened,
Oh my bride, my bride.

Nothing on Let England Shake is on that level of wit, but it is possible that “I Remember” was not even meant to be witty, and “The Glorious Land,” for instance, creates a similar effect of tossing off its references in such a cavalier fashion that listeners cannot possibly be manipulated by it, whatever else they may be. American-style protest art manipulates or else “witnesses”; English war stories go through the motions.

And how is our glorious country plowed?
Not by iron plows.
Our land is plowed by tanks and feet.

And what is the glorious fruit of our land?
The fruit is deformed children.
The fruit is orphaned children.

To an American it sounds much too fatalistic for a protest song, but English war protestors are in a difficult position today. The English public is not comfortable with the servile role the nation has appeared to occupy in relation to America’s wars, but an uncomplicated pacifist identity has never been as easy for the English as for Americans, or for those in other violent societies such as Ireland (Sinéad O’Connor, Bono). The “protest” elements of “The Glorious Land” and “The Words that Maketh Murder” may be too twenty-first century English to register entirely on American ears. Harvey hits the nerve at which England must be aware of the factitiousness of its self-understanding as a pacifist nation — small, vulnerable, much-battered in living memory — and the ease with which these attributes inspire belligerence rather than any hatred of violence. It’s a masterstroke on her part to quote from a Russian ballad in “The Glorious Land.” Outwardly few nations look more different than Russia and England, rather as few records could seem more different than Rid of Me and White Chalk, but they have one thing in common: a victim complex when it comes to war, resting alongside a long history of bloodlust. And the options left each for emotional expression in the present are often restricted to a generalized concern with suffering, sympathetic in theory while in practice it can be tedious, as on the less-inspired episodes of Spooks.

But apart from the chords it strikes, particularly with English listeners, Let England Shake is the companion to To Bring You My Love, likewise representing a milestone in recovery from some kind of crisis. As with most recoveries, it’s artificial on the surface. The artificiality takes some getting used to, suggesting what my mother (born 1938 in Germany) describes with contempt as “war-as-scenery,” like the Biblical angst-as-scenery in which To Bring You My Love is drenched. What redeemed that album and made it striking is what redeems Let England Shake and makes it just possibly revolutionary. It is much more about the music than the words, the persona, even the singing, though it’s fine that all of these are accomplished and none are incidental. Once one begins to hear Harvey’s melodies as the complex living organisms they are, the suggestion of the received — that Harvey may have picked history’s pocket, or her own — is not relativized so much as it is made dynamic. The beautiful melodies of To Bring You My Love reworked the atonal Rid of Me into process as well as anguish, since the next album had found Harvey in such a different place; likewise Let England Shake could be shtick on its own but saves White Chalk from becoming shtick on one repetition, and so on. The elements of the received provide just enough distance to allow us to enjoy the music as music, and to realize that the whole point of these songs about war (as about rape and madness and religion) is what happens when we begin singing along.

So this record has repaid repeated listenings. That began when I decided that “In the Dark Places” is possibly her finest song ever, going directly where “Hook” and “Ecstasy” seemed to go while they left us teased. It too is based on a Russian song, creating a welcome change from the easily accessed British war references. This sort of indirection can be splendidly practical, as in much of Carolyn Forché’s poetry: the distance created by universalism allowing a more personal, earned way back into the historical particulars, with room for the reader or listener to add his or her own interpretations rather than being hectored. It can also lead straight back into the war-is-hell girl-with-guitar clichés that Harvey courts and flouts at the same time. “In the Dark Places” blows those clichés out of the water when a delicate, familiarly lamenting lyric gives way to a whisper of universal wisdom, pleading for what the victim of violence most needs, and then mows all the soldiers down in a way that cancels the lament. A record that threatens always to say too much turns finally on something that sounds as if it has been said before, but usually hasn’t been and isn’t. Its simplicity would be portentous in any other context but that in which it appears, bracketing the terrible and unfussy “So our young men/Hid with guns” bridge:

And not one man has
And not one woman has
Revealed the secrets
Of this world

It’s true for the dead of Stalingrad and Gallipoli, but also for Jean Stafford in “The Interior Castle,” for Patti Smith in 1977, for Dick Francis’ very English protagonists. In Isabel Colegate’s Orlando King, a twentieth-century retelling of Oedipus Rex, the title character reflects after being seriously injured in a fire: “Knowing what he suddenly did know about flesh and blood was not frightening although it was deeply serious.” That the truth of mayhem is serious in a private way is something nearly everyone uses too many words to say. By putting it in sixteen, Harvey speaks “no more than grace allowed/And no less than truth,” in the words of Stevie Smith, including that it is a truth that one does not need to have been to a battlefield to know.

She may or may not know what this is like, but Harvey has the stuff to communicate it honestly all the same, and having done that the rest of the album falls into place. Two much-admired tracks, “The Words that Maketh Murder” and “All and Everyone”, still seem to me to be trying too hard even though they are technically fine. But the other songs are all sui generis in a way that transcends protest, Gothicism, or any other externally applied labels that categorize lived engagement out of existence. That Harvey’s engagement is deeply private and her social conscience rests upon her talent for melody — the tune sticks itself in one’s mind and the words stick themselves to the tune, with personal associations soon following for the listener — is neither privatistic nor mystic, though it partakes of both elements. Let England Shake is most effective when it resembles a movie in which one overhears a woman singing to herself. “The Last Living Rose” and “On Battleship Hill” are thus far more political than “The Words that Maketh Murder.” The revulsion from violence in the latter is easily accessible to anyone with a television set, but “The Last Living Rose” carries a burden of idiosyncratic Englishness that will make anyone feel more strongly about any threats to it, together with the senses in which England deserves a good thrashing:

Goddamn’ Europeans!
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books, and fog rolling down behind the mountains…
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings,
Past the Thames river, glistening like gold hastily sold
For nothing.

“On Battleship Hill” brings us closer to the pity of violence than the handsomely mounted, but predictable Gallipoli song, “All and Everyone.” In a land too saturated with history always to see the present, “On Battleship Hill” laments the passage, with time, of any trace of history, accessing the particular through the universal of “Cruel nature/Cruel, cruel nature.” Harvey says as much in an interview:

I was thinking about the cycle of conflict that’s ongoing, always will be, always has been, and long after we’re come and gone, it’s just going to continue, so—this nature of history repeating itself—so I wanted to look at conflict across many eras…and I think one thing that does connect is nature, the land, what we do to the land, the way it keeps going after we’re buried in it, you know, and so that was a focus…war’s just going to continue and the continuum is the land…but also great beauty there, as something of hope…I didn’t want to lose sight of that. (Interview available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSOMnKuYRy0&feature=fvwrel.)

This approach risks turning war into a trope, just another force of nature; on the other hand, it is honest. And anyone can identify with it. Like many people for whom particular places have inescapable associations, Harvey is sure that “On Battleship Hill, eighty years later,/A hateful feeling still lingers,” but observing that there is no evidence of this beyond what she wishes to see, she allows that “cruel nature has won again” and decides that this is what she hears “carried on the wind.” We are left to decide whether war is the same as “cruel nature” or not. But “cruel nature” exists; for some it will not be on Battleship Hill but closer to home that “a hateful feeling still lingers” because “cruel nature has won again.” Harvey’s answer to the riddle is sane: it is madness to project human pain onto parts of nature that saw it, when each and every inch of the world has seen it; yet knowing this, and knowing that nature will truly win in the end when no one is left to remember one’s grievance, would one want to be without that grievance, now? There is comfort in this; and yet like a true Englishwoman, Harvey recognizes the catch, as in Edith Sitwell’s observation that “Hell is just as properly proper/As Greenwich, or Bath, or Joppa.”

To communicate these things, Harvey’s style has changed, but remains very much hers. Those who have criticized her new debts to folk-pop and classical music ignore the elements of both her work has always possessed: much on To Bring You My Love recalls Steeleye Span, and her ugliest music on Rid of Me suggests that the basis of her guitar style is classical. In the same spirit, those who criticize the artificiality of the war-consciousness on Let England Shake should remember that her consciousness has always been expressed through a maze of artificial personae and been separated from her attitudinizing only with difficulty. Hers is the matter of Britain: less the question of who a person is when the mask is removed, than which mask pulls off which part of a person with it. The difference between Harvey and cookie-cutter English war poets is that she is aware of it in assuming this mask among others. Having realized this, “All and Everyone” has recently begun to grow on me, and “The Words that Maketh Murder” may not be far behind.

If she does not convince us that she knows war by anything but second- and third-hand, Harvey convinces that she is herself on this album and if she were forced to know “the secrets of this world” of violence, her response would implicate everything we’ve seen of her thus far. Her self is elusive, but its awareness of its own fragility is not. We know just enough about it to know what would be lost with it if the fragility of all life exacted too much of a price. “Ecstasy” suggests that it is complicated, and perhaps not always sympathetic, but perhaps also something better than sympathetic. Recalling “Ecstasy,” she points to what may be a key in the title of a B-side associated with the new album, and as good as most things on it: “The Big Guns Call Me Back Again.”

PJ Harvey is many, if not always an army as in “Ecstasy”; she may be too many for some, and she is not to be taken lightly; by her enemies no more than by her friends, I should think. One may not wish to meet all of her on a dark night. Fortunately, we are seldom all of who we are at once, and PJ Harvey knows the wisdom of embracing this fact. She remains adept at hiding in plain sight. It’s an English thing to do.

Dec 152011
 
Scheherezade's Bequest 14

Bradie Law and the Grumpenmire
by John Patrick Pazdziora

This happened so long ago, it might have happened somewhere else. It happened on a farm just over the hill on the crooked path from the village. But that’s not news to anyone, because everyone knew something would happen someday to Bradie Law. He’d come to a bad end, they’d say, sure and certain.

If ever there was a worthless fellow, he wasn’t half so worthless as Bradie Law. If ever a ploughman was idle, he wasn’t half so idle as Bradie Law. And if ever a fishwife were tiresome, she wasn’t even a third as tiresome as no-good Bradie Law.

On market days, you couldn’t hardly sneeze for fear Bradie Law would pop up behind you, asking about your health, whether you needed a handkerchief, and wouldn’t you want to buy this bottle of Sneeze Remedy he’d brewed?

That was all Bradie Law was good for. He spent his days fussing with bottles and chemicals and herbs and incantations, blowing things up and trying to make something — trying to make anything — that would make his fortune. Bradie Law had a dream, and made no secret of it. He would someday be so rich that he would never need to work again.

The villagers agreed he would come to a bad end.

On a week with three Tuesdays, Bradie Law got up on Tuesday morning and swung down the crooked lane to the village. It was such a rare thing even then for a week to have three Tuesdays that the burgomaster had announced a special Tuesday Market Festival to honour the occasion.

“Why, here it is and this is it,” thought Bradie Law. “If I’m not a rich man by the third Tuesday, I’ll come to a bad end sure enough.” So off he went with a bag full of tonic for shakes and mallender. It smelled like eggs, he reasoned, so it must be good.

Now, no one told Bradie Law because no one remembered, but there’s nothing so unlucky as a week with three Tuesdays. The wall between worlds grows thin. Things slip through the cracks, and shadows creep by unnoticed.

Bradie Law didn’t know. He didn’t notice the raven screaming from his chimney pot, or the one-eyed black cat that darted across his path. But he noticed, sure as thinking, when he came round the bend and met the Grumpenmire.

It sat on a stone and leered at him. “Hallo, hideous,” it said.

Bradie Law thought this was a bit much from a Grumpenmire. “Hallo yourself, prune-head.”

“What’s in the bag, skeleton nose?” said the Grumpenmire.

“It’s your old mum, an’t it?” said Bradie Law.

“No, it an’t,” said the Grumpenmire. “I ate me old mum years ago.” It waved its fingers and shouted, “Smatterwrack!

Bradie Law’s bag began to shiver and shake. The bottles inside rattled together, and squeaked, “Law’s Tonic for Shakes and Mallender! Law’s Tonic for Shakes and Mallender!”

“Well, badness me.” The Grumpenmire grinned evilly. “That sounds like a bad end if ever I heard one.”

“No it ain’t,” said Bradie Law. “It’s me fortune, that’s what it is. I’ll be getting a bag of gold for this lot, you’ll see.”

“A bag of gold, eh? Well, well. I think not. Can I just say a poem for the love of me foul old mum?”

“What?” said Bradie Law.

The Grumpenmire cracked its knuckles three times, and muttered,

“In the bag go
Smatterwrack
shake and shudder,
headstone crack.”

Bradie Law shivered. “Well, thanks very much and all, but I’ve got to get to market.”

“Oh, it’s to market you’re going,” said the Grumpenmire. “But it ain’t gold you’ll come back with.”

Bradie Law hurried down the road to get away from the horrible sound of the Grumpenmire’s horrifying cackle. As he climbed up over the hill, he shivered and shook, chattering his teeth even though it was midsummer. He thought this odd, but didn’t think to look in his bag.

The village square was decked for a festival, with brightly coloured booths and gaudy decorations. Even the monument to the village founder, Sir Rolford Graves, was wrapped in wreaths and garland. People were singing and dancing, vending wares and buying them, eating and drinking, and having a grand old time.

Bradie Law swung into town with a skip and a dance, and perched on the monument to the long late Sir Graves. “Now then!” he shouted. “Have you got a shake? Have you got a shiver? Have you got a shudder in your side? Mallenders got you down? Then step up, friends, step right up. Law’s Tonic for Shakes and Mallenders is what you need! Finest scientifical chemications bring back that spring in your ear and the song in your eye. A spoonful here, a spoonful there, and the ladies will beat you away with sticks!”

A crowd had gathered for a laugh. “What’s it this time, Bradie?” shouted someone. “Pickled cat guts?”

“Dog sick?”

“Old Mother Shrewsbury’s piccalilli?”

“You cads!” shouted Bradie Law above the laughter. “Finest scientifical research has proven that a spoonful here and there of Law’s Tonic will cure the worst mallenders known to medical types.”

The burgomaster shouldered his way through the crowd, resplendent in robes and jewels. He waggled his head and laughed, moustache billowing. “You’ve not got a cure for anything Bradie! I’d stake a guinea your tonic is just trouble!”

“I’d stake my hat it’ll cure shakes and mallenders,” said Bradie Law recklessly. “Boundless energy in five minutes. In fact, I take it myself every day. Watch!” Amid raucous laughter, he pulled a bottle of tonic out of the bag.

It was frozen solid.

Bradie Law gaped, looked at the bag. Steam curled off its coating of frost. Long tendrils of ice crept round the monument. He dropped the tonic, shattering the bottle. “Run, everybody run!” He jumped off the monument, ran into the crowd. “Something’s going to happen!”

Everyone was still laughing, jostling him good-naturedly. Then the sky went dark as night. It began to snow, deep drifts swirling in a deathly gale. The monument shuddered. Ice frosted and cracked round it. The very stones of the marketplace trembled. With a noise like grinding hinges, the monument broke, opening a gaping hole into nowhere.

Out of nowhere echoed a long rising moan. Something glowed terribly blue. A translucent old man hopped out of the monument, swinging a sword cane. “Curses! Trespassers and varlets! Where’s the Grey Duke and his vengeful army with iron shoes as thin as a whisper, eh? Where’s me noble steed, what?” He glared about severely. “Who’s the ruddy sorcerer mucking about with me eternal rest, what, what? Out with you!”

The villagers didn’t answer, or even hear, as they were too busy screaming around the marketplace and back to their homes, knocking over booths and destroying decorations. Bradie Law hid under an overturned apple cart.

The spectral old man noticed the bag of tonic. He prodded it savagely with his sword cane.

“Peddlars,” he snorted. “Miserable hawkers, eh? Bah!” He ground the bag derisively beneath his heel. “I’m going back to bed.” He climbed back into nowhere, pulled the monument upright behind him with a snap.

Bradie Law scrambled to grab his bag. He turned to rush out of the village and nearly collided with the burgomaster.

“Well, Bradie.” The burgomaster waved his hand toward the wreckage of the marketplace. “Trouble. I think you’d agree?” He snatched the hat off Bradie Law’s head. “You’ll come to a bad end, Bradie Law, sure and certain.”

The next morning, Bradie Law woke with a terrible headache that did nothing to help him forget the day before. He noticed with some disgust that, apparently while trying to forget, he’d botched the labels he’d been writing. But he shoved the re-labelled bottles into his bag and set out. A raven perched on the chimney worried him. A one-eyed black cat darting across his path worried him further.

The Grumpenmire sat on the rock as before, picking feathers out of his teeth. “Hallo, horrid.”

Bradie Law winced. “Hallo yourself, muck-nose.”

“What’s in the bag, pear-face?”

“Four little kittens I’ve been roasting on the fire,” said Bradie Law wearily.

“If I didn’t know you were lying, I’d begin to think we might get on quite well.” The Grumpenmire waved its fingers. “Smatterwrack!

The bag began to shiver and shake. The bottles clinked together, and squeaked, “Law’s Enchantum Magicalllly Cure Alls! Scribble Smudge! Blot!”

“The pen leaked,” said Braidie Law defensively.

“Well, badness me,” said the Grumpenmire. “You haven’t been brewing unlicensed potions have you? Naughty, naughty!”

“Not brewing nothing,” said Bradie Law. “This is genuine ghost-trod tonic, it is. Authentic spirits. I’ll come back with a bag of gold.”

The Grumpenmire cackled. “Trying to get rich off your ghostly friend, eh? I think not. How’d you like to get a raven’s view of things? Get a little undead wisdom.”

“No thanks,” said Braidie Law.

“Oh, it’s no trouble!” The Grumpenmire smirked. “It can be my bad deed for the day.” It cracked its knuckles three times, and muttered,

“In the bag go
Smatterwrack
load of feathers
break his back!”

Bradie Law was already running up the hill as fast as he could run. The Grumpenmire watched him go, and whistled a revolting tune. The one-eyed black cat rubbed round its knees.

When Bradie Law reached the top of the hill, he was running so fast he didn’t even think to stop. The ground swept away beneath him as if his feet were hardly touching it. He clattered into the village. The villagers had redecorated everything. But the festive air was dampened, partly by large drifts of snow still melting here and there. A high fence wrapped round the monument now. The burgomaster was nailing up a sign that read, “KEEP OFF.”

Bradie Law was used to people staring at him in horror when he entered the village, so he didn’t think anything of it. “Morning, folks!” he shouted as he ran. “Happy Tuesday Two, everyone! Step right this way to see a wonder of the ancient world, enchanted tonic touched by ghosties, guaranteed to magically cure all your magical mallenders!”

He stopped for the very good reason that no one was listening. They were just staring at him. And, he realized with sickening dread, they were staring up.

He looked down. The ground floated happily some distance below. The bag at his back ballooned gently, swaying here and there in the wind. He was promptly sick. The crowd of villagers scattered.

“Bradie Law!” bawled the burgomaster. “Come out of the sky this instant!”

“Proves my point!” shouted Bradie Law. “How can mallenders get you down when you’re already up? This stuff is magic!”

“Magic be bothered and be blowed!” bellowed the burgomaster. “Come down!”

Bradie Law perched on top of the monument. “Anyone for six coppers a bottle? Six coppers only!”

“Bradie Law!” said the burgomaster. “I’ll stake six gold coins you won’t get half a copper for your wretched tonic.”

“And I’ll stake my coat I’ll get a bag of gold.”

The burgomaster laughed. “A bag of gold? You can’t even get down.” He walked away into the crowd. The crowd started laughing, and walked back to the booths and the festivals. Bradie Law clung miserably to the top of the monument. There didn’t seem much else to do.

He’d spent the morning watching the festivities below. Now that he was a safe distance away, the villagers seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Occasionally someone glared at him in relief, but that was all. He could nearly taste the sizzle of hot butter and sugar, the crisp sweetness of midsummer ale. He heard the singing and saw the dancing, and watched the merchants do brisk trade, the clink and clatter of gold dancing round the market.

He wondered how he could get down.

The wind tugged at the bag, still floating beside him. Bradie Law looked at it. It seemed to be straining to fly again. Well, that would be absurd, he told himself. All sorts of nasty things could happen — wind, rain, fire, losing one’s way —

He jumped.

The villagers screamed as Bradie Law swooped overhead, hanging from his bag and laughing wildly. He spun the bag in circles. The wind was in his hair and in his face. Higher and higher he went until the village was a dwindling blot of colour on the wide world below.

Then he clung to the bag and dove, rushing down round the monument and away out over the crooked path through the endless hills. He snagged his feet carefully on the thatch of his cottage, and sat beside the chimney pot.

He carefully opened the bag the tiniest bit. A handful of sleek, black feathers burst out. He sneezed, gagged, and sneezed again. The feathers floated away.

Bradie Law climbed down from the roof with the bag of raven feathers, feeling thoughtful. The burgomaster was waiting at the cottage door. Bradie Law sighed, handed him his jacket.

The burgomaster folded it up, chuckling. “Bradie Law, Bradie Law. You’ll come to a bad end, sure and certain.”

The next day was Tuesday. Bradie Law swung along the path with the bag of feathers under his arm, jumping over the one-eyed black cat as it scuttled past. The Grumpenmire was waiting for him.

“Hallo, stupid-head.” It thumbed its nose at him. “Had a nice flight?”

“Wonderful, thanks,” said Bradie Law. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a bag of gold.”

“Oho!” sneered the Grumpenmire. “Badness me! Earth got you down? Put a feather in your shoe! Law’s Do-it-at-Home Seven League Boots! Coveted by kings and countrymen! I think not.”

Bradie Law stared at the Grumpenmire in horror. “How did you know what I was thinking?”

“Your old mum told me.” The Grumpenmire caught a passing sparrow in its teeth. “Funny things, feathers. Amazing how they can make — make people — make — a — ah-CHOO!” It rubbed his nose, grinned viciously. “The Seven League Boots to Make You Sneeze, eh?” It cracked its knuckles and muttered,

“In the bag go
Smatterwrack,
snoff and sneezle
wheeze and hack.”

Bradie Law sprinted up the hill. As he reached the hilltop, he felt the bag grow heavier. He opened the bag in horror. The feathers were gone. The bag was full of fine black dust. He poked it dismally. A cloud of it whiffed round him. He sneezed and sneezed till he couldn’t see from sneezing.

Furious, eyes streaming, he shook his fist at the Grumpenmire. “I’ll still come home with a bag of gold!”

“Ha, haaa!” called the Grumpenmire.

Bradie Law trudged down to the village, his bag over his shoulder. An idea grew in his mind — impossible, really — absurd — but, he thought, wasn’t that the point? As he reached the village, he started to shout.

“Now then, now then! Right this way, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen! Law’s Original Guaranteed Sneezes! Sneezes for sale, sneezes for sale! Buy them in bunches or purchase in pairs! Sneezes for sale, sneezes for sale! Who’ll buy from me bag of sneezes?”

A crowd began to form in spite of itself. Dancers stopped dancing and singers stopped singing. Vendors stopped vending and buyers stopped buying. Everyone started to follow Bradie Law through the village, pointing and laughing, hooting and catcalling. Dogs and children ran yapping alongside. By the time Bradie Law reached the monument, the whole village was at his heels.

He leapt onto the fence beside the sign that said KEEP OFF. “Sneezes for sale!” he called. “Who’ll buy from my bag of sneezes?”

Everyone laughed and shouted, but no one offered to buy anything. The burgomaster shouldered his way to the crowd. “Bradie Law, you harebrained fool! Get off of that this instant!”

“I’m selling sneezes, burgomaster,” said Bradie Law. “Would you care for a dozen or so?”

The burgomaster laughed till his face was twice as red. “Sneezes? Sneezes? You can’t sell sneezes in a bag!”

Bradie Law held up his bag. “I have here a bag of sneezes. I’ll stake my cottage that Law’s Original Guaranteed Sneeze will be the finest sneeze you’ve ever sneezed.”

The burgomaster guffawed. “You’ll come to a bad end, Bradie Law, I’ve always said so, sure and certain. So I’ll stake a hundred gold pieces to say you don’t have any sneezes in your bag, Bradie Law.” He turned gleefully to the crowd. “Anyone else care to say he don’t have a sneeze in the bag?”

Everyone did. The burgomaster jotted notes and sums, chortling, as people called out copper and silver and goods and gold. He turned back to Bradie Law, still laughing. “Are you ready to leave town, Bradie Law?”

“I’m ready,” said Bradie Law, “to show you my bag of sneezes.”

He shook the bag of dust over the crowd.

Everyone sneezed. The burgomaster sneezed. The vendors sneezed and the buyers sneezed. The children sneezed and the dogs sneezed. The dancers sneezed and the singers sneezed. They sneezed till they couldn’t sneeze for sneezing. The sneezing was so strong that a scientist who was looking for earthquakes on the other side of the world suddenly found one.

The dust settled. The sneezing stopped. The villagers stared at each other glumly. Bradie Law sat on the fence and whistled.

Bradie Law could hardly drag his bag down the crooked path, it was so full of gold. He saw the Grumpenmire waiting on the stone. “Hey beautiful!” he shouted. “Happy Tuesday! Thanks for the bag of gold!”

The Grumpenmire gibbered. “Gold? Thanks?

Bradie Law pulled out a handful of coins and threw them at the Grumpenmire. “Keep this! My thanks for your help and kindness!”

“Help?” spluttered the Grumpenmire. “Kindness! Smatterwrack! Gah!”

It burst in a cloud of putrid smoke. Bradie Law never saw it again.

Bradie Law kicked the one-eyed black cat, threw a stone at the raven, and went home a rich man. But he died of happiness a hundred years later, so the villagers agreed he came to a bad end anyway.


John Patrick Pazdziora (PGDip, Belfast Bible College) is a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews, and a freelance writer and editor. His poetry and fiction have been featured in New Fairy Tales, Enchanted Conversation, and Scheherazade’s Bequest. His articles have appeared in various academic publications, including Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment (Cambridge Scholars, 2011) and Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Lit Geeks, Academics, and Fans (Unlocking, 2012). He lives in Scotland with his wife and daughter.

 Posted by at 2:13 pm
Dec 152011
 

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE
By Sarah Helm, 2005
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

A Life in SecretsWomen who assume the power of life and death over others are often demonized. Failing that, they may be sentimentalized, as has happened in film and print to the thirteen female agents who were sent to their deaths in Nazi-occupied France by a branch of English intelligence, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE’s goal was to subvert Nazi operations in Europe by means of sabotage and aid to the local resistance, employing men and women who could impersonate civilians and were usually sent by parachute drop. Its most famous agents were sent to France. Some of them were extremely useful to the Allies in fighting the Germans. Forest Yeo-Thomas, in particular, was potentially the equal of his friend Jean Moulin in uniting the French resistance movements, had he not been captured and sent to Buchenwald near the end of the war. Yeo-Thomas is one possible model for Bigwig in Watership Down: his code name was “White Rabbit.” He worked for the independent Gaullist (“RF) section of SOE. The main “F Section,” as it was known, was headed by Maurice Buckmaster, a naïve-seeming eccentric who came in for considerable criticism during and after the war for his decision to send women to France. The rumors of F Section incompetency and callousness toward the agents increased with their fame. Violette Szabó, a Vivien Leigh lookalike and by common consent the most romantic figure among the women agents, was portrayed in film-star terms by Virginia McKenna in the film that cemented the reputation of SOE’s women fighters, Carve Her Name with Pride.

The agents’ control is believed by many to have been the original for Miss Moneypenny in Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. She was Vera Atkins, an elegant blonde, with that sort of accent — “more British than the British” — that is guaranteed to rub true members of the ruling class the wrong way. In the beginning, SOE recruited specifically from the upper crust, and some public-school mythology has naturally accrued to the real-life heroism of the agents. This is especially so regarding the image of the women. The female agents who were sent to France were nearly all very young; many were attractive — several positively glamorous, like Violette Szabó — and, in the words of Buckmaster, they were “touchingly keen.” Vera Atkins was older, reserved, and a lifelong spinster. Thus the lost agents are remembered in conventionally feminine terms, with the allure and the measure of innocent, bloodless heroism allowed to some doomed women. Vera Atkins, on the other hand, tends to be remembered in sinister terms, in the absence of tangible evidence that her actions were suspect. The aura derives from her personality alone.

For most people this can be said quite literally: nobody knew anything about her. Upon learning that she was born Vera Rosenberg in Crasna, Romania, the most common reaction for her acquaintances was disbelief tinged with a kind of relish. The brother of one of the murdered agents was amused, in the midst of a conversation as to whether his sister had indeed been reduced to a “bloody mess” at Dachau, to learn that Atkins had this in common with Leslie Howard. Atkins’ origins were not secret but not at all publicized. Her Jewishness and foreignness satisfied a deep-seated desire among those who knew her to cut Atkins down to size. This was an impulse shared even by Charlotte Gray writer Sebastian Faulks, who has his Vera figure dye the hair on his heroine’s head while forgetting her pubic hair. It’s safe to say that the real Vera would not make this mistake.

It’s one of those touchstone moments of misapprehension that do much to tell us who the real person was: in this case, a woman so little sentimental that it was precisely her remembering such details in the face of death that many people couldn’t forgive her. She is now the subject of two biographies, one published in  2006 and one in 2005, to some acclaim, by journalist Sarah Helm. Helm’s book, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, is a brilliant and unnerving piece of investigation, though not without flaws. It has been praised by none less than M.R.D. Foot, the doyen of SOE historians, and it is extraordinary in the amount of personal detail Helm has uncovered about this most secretive of women. Though some of the revelations about Atkins’ private life are striking, Helm is even bolder in unearthing a fetid aura of rumor that surrounded her and dictated much of what is still believed about SOE. Ian Fleming’s semi-comical character of Moneypenny bears little relationship to the real-life mythmaking: quite a number of witnesses testify that Atkins exuded menace. More than a few are frightened of her now, several years after her death and seventy years after the war. The menace exists in an abeyance that cries out for logical explanations. For some of Atkins’ contemporaries, that is the point: she did nothing as agent after agent, including most of the lost women, was fed into the black hole of the Prosper network, the largest SOE group in France, which collapsed under its own weight in 1943, and whose penetration was obvious to all except Buckmaster for almost a year. One person believes Atkins must have been a Soviet double agent, another that she really worked for the Nazis.

What startles the reader is how many people believed these far-fetched theories and how many of them in turn were people who should have known better. As a feminist, one is driven to ask what it was about Atkins that led her to be remembered in such malevolent terms. There were all kinds of rumors about SOE, but they did not adhere in the same way to its men — least of all to Buckmaster, perhaps the most culpable in the Prosper disaster, who’s remembered as a dear doddering daddy. In contrast to Atkins, something was known about the male principals. Buckmaster especially was an emotional man, given to tears when pressed about SOE’s mistakes later in his life. Helm’s impressionistic portrait of Atkins suggests strongly that this was just it: Atkins did not leave evidence of how she herself felt about things, which is considered to be of such importance in analyzing a woman’s character. Atkins may have been a megalomaniac of sorts, or she may have been a shrewd and realistic woman who didn’t care much for others’ opinions of painful controversy, but in any case she knew what most people do not: how to hide her relationship with herself. It’s this that one most needs in order to analyze motive. Lacking it, Helm tries to analyze Atkins by looking at or speculating about her deeds, themselves hard enough to pin down.

As a result, this is a book in which theory is not easy to separate from implication. Helm goes over the most significant conspiracy theories regarding SOE and tests them out against the fate of the women agents. Some of this ground has been covered before. It is a flaw in Helm’s book that she does not do more to credit Elizabeth Nicholas in particular. Nicholas’ book, Death Be Not Proud, is more amateurish in tone, but quite similar to Helm’s in many respects. The chief difference between Nicholas’ book and Helm’s is that Nicholas, who was personally acquainted with one of the agents and grew close to several of their families, was convinced that there had been double dealing. Specifically, she believed that the reason the collapse of the Prosper network led to the death of ten out of the thirteen female casualties was that they were somehow deliberately sacrificed in a counter-game, to mislead the Nazis as to British awareness of the tragedy. Helm is vigorous in blaming the worst of the Prosper disaster on Buckmaster, who refused to believe in it for a year and continued sending agents to join Prosper and its tributaries even after he heard a German accent pretending to speak in the voice of one of the male agents, over a captured radio. (Prosper himself, in civilian life a half-English, half-French barrister named Francis Suttill, would be suspected of making a pact with the Germans in the belief that his agents would be saved; he and many others did not survive the war.) But she does not go further than accusing Buckmaster of extraordinary obtuseness and Atkins of slavishness before his authority. Nicholas believed that women were used deliberately as decoy sacrifices: the belief in women’s lesser capacities would make their deaths less suspicious. Nicholas went out of her way to credit Atkins, pointing out the efforts she went to in tracing the lost agents. It is thus uncertain how much she believed, as Helm does, that Atkins was supine before Buckmaster or otherwise implicated, though Helm names Nicholas as one of Atkins’ exposers. (Nicholas’ contemporary and complementary writer, Jean Overton Fuller, would speak of Nicholas as if she were as suspicious as Fuller; but this was in the 1980s, after Nicholas’ death and many complex changes of position and suspicion on Fuller’s own part. One of the great frustrations in researching this episode of history is that it can be difficult to sort out who thought what about whom among researchers, as among principals, well after the fact — never mind at the time.)

Given the widely disseminated conviction that there must have been something fishy about Vera Atkins, Sarah Helm is perhaps under some pressure to deliver the goods. She milks Atkins’ hidden origins for drama, and argues that Atkins’ Jewishness at once provided the motivation for her fierceness in fighting the Nazis and for her timidity in opposing anything Buckmaster did or didn’t do. Thus Atkins’ Jewishness becomes a sign that she was on nobody’s side, somewhat in keeping with Kissinger-like Realpolitik — a tempting conclusion for people on various sides of the political spectrum, and a rich source of reflections on the price of survival.

The difficulty is that not all of it is necessarily warranted. Allied Jewish agents were valued, as the only nationality whose anti-Fascism could be guaranteed beyond a doubt. A number of SOE’s agents were Jewish, including Brian Stonehouse, who survived four concentration camps and drew a sketch of two women agents killed at Natzweiler, one of whom Atkins may have confused with Noor Inayat Khan. (This was Sonia Olschanezky, herself Jewish. Olschanezky bore a striking resemblance to Noor, but the sketch reproduced in Helm’s book and identified as Olschanezky is of Andrée Borrel, Prosper’s chief lieutenant. Stonehouse identified the woman in the sketch separately from a woman resembling Olschanezky.) SOE’s chief coder was a Jew, Leo Marks. Atkins’ enemy nationality would, to be sure, have posed a more serious problem; it was in defiance of the regulations. But it was not entirely unknown, and in many clandestine organizations, Jews from enemy nationalities were not considered as being German or Romanian rather than Jewish. If it does not necessarily follow that Atkins’ Romanian birth certificate would have spelled the end of her SOE career, how much less probable is it that her Jewishness represented such an insurmountable obstacle? It’s far more likely that Helm’s Atkins believed it might, in the face of all the evidence, because she wanted more than to stay in SOE: she would not have wanted to be a target for the kind of casual anti-Semitism remembered in Marks’ memoir, not after she had suffered the humiliation of losing the happy butterfly life she enjoyed as a pigtailed girl in Bukovina. Above all else, as Helm’s interviewees see Atkins, she wanted to be English.

If this is true, the mystery of Atkins’ self-image might be considerably elucidated by the affair she had with Richard Ketton-Cremer, a member of the Norfolk landed gentry, marriage to whom would have sealed her Britishness. Atkins did not marry Ketton-Cremer, but it’s possible that her acquaintance with him opened her eyes to possibilities that she could never again risk losing. And tantalizing indeed is the possibility that Atkins failed to confront Buckmaster, not for fear of being labeled an enemy alien, but for fear of losing entry to that club. Her personality was at once grand and guarded, and may have required the buttressing of social status for her to function. She somewhat resembles Alma Rosé, the Viennese musician who led an orchestra of female prisoners in Birkenau by styling herself as a combination of Toscanini and the headmistress in an English boarding school, to which one survivor compared her. This incongruity is played for all it is worth by Fania Fénelon in her eyewitness account, Playing for Time, in which she ridicules Rosé much as James Watson did a third tough Jewish lady, Rosalind Franklin, in The Double Helix. Fania Fénelon described Rosé as a megalomaniac, so insulated from the reality of the camp by her own delusions of grandeur that she was proud to play for Himmler (likely a fabrication on Fénelon’s part). A less hostile biography of Rosé presents perhaps an even more disturbing picture, of a truly brave woman whose heroism in saving lives (nearly all orchestra members survived, though Rosé did not) was inseparable from her bizarre ambitions for “her” girls: she planned, after the war, to lead the Birkenau orchestra on a world tour.

Vera Atkins was every bit as proprietary of her agents as Rosé of her musicians, as given to peacocking, as impassive before their mortality, and just as devoted. It is no wonder that so many suspected ulterior motives; in Atkins’ case, political machinations of the most Bondian kind. Atkins’ Jewishness is indeed of relevance here because it makes Nazism impossible and Stalinism unlikely, but a few of the people to whom Helm indicates as much react with seeming disappointment. She was the sort of person of whom it is said “I’m glad she’s on our side.” In Atkins’ case as in Rosé’s, the banality of good comes uncomfortably close to that of evil, and vice versa.

Two implications thus run parallel: that with so much smoke, there had to be fire, if only of a banal sort; and yet that Atkins was playing her own game, aware of Buckmaster’s limitations, unwilling to challenge him, but prepared to push her own anti-Nazi agenda through between the cracks. Helm runs into some trouble when her parallel implications contradict each other. Her excuse for Atkins’ behavior resembles nothing so much as the excuses many Vichy loyalists made for Philippe Pétain: that he did not know what was going on, or else that he was playing the Nazis for fools while scheming to liberate France. If she was seduced by ego, Atkins may or may not have known what was going on, assuming for now that it was restricted to incompetence on the part of Buckmaster. (There are other theories, focused on the tolerance shown toward a known double agent in Prosper: SOE historian Jean Overton Fuller, many French people, and a pack of conspiracy theorists each believe he was protected by the British for their own ends, though Fuller suspects further incompetence and the French and other conspiracy theorists imagine a grand plan to deceive the Germans.) It should also be pointed out that it is very unlikely Atkins would have been able to do anything about Buckmaster’s failures had she seen them clearly. That was not her job; to behave otherwise might well have indicated that Atkins had delusions about her own power. The final impression left by the book, apart from the mill of Gothic rumor it exposes, is that Vera Atkins may have been much as she presented herself. She did her job; it was tough; she did it well. If she were a man, that might be enough to make it unnecessary to defend him against baleful musings.

Helm gives full credit to Atkins for her extraordinary odyssey into postwar Germany, single-handedly tracing the fates of the thirteen women who did not return from the camps (together with over a hundred men). Yet the family members who owed it to Atkins that they knew anything about their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers all had uniformly negative impressions of her; they speak bitterly of her detachment in general and her coldness to them in particular. It remains possible that it was Atkins’ unsentimentality that most inspired paranoia. Tania Szabó and Vilayat Inayat Khan may have expected things of Atkins that they would never have dreamed of asking the tearful Buckmaster to provide: emotional involvement, above all.

Tania and Vilayat were the daughter and the brother respectively of two of the most celebrated agents. Helm draws many implications from Atkins’ relationship to Noor Inayat Khan, who was sufficiently her opposite to represent a fine dramatic foil. The unworldly Sufi girl, who was the only woman of color to die on an SOE mission, is often cited as the best example of the agency’s savagery in sending women to work in the field: she was slight and appeared defenseless. Helm uncovers evidence that she was tortured to death, which has, sadly, been verified since by release of Noor’s SOE file. But there is abundant evidence that Noor was an outstanding agent in most ways once she was in the field. Almost alone, she survived the fall of Prosper and kept herself alive for several months in the most dangerous job, that of radio operator. When she was betrayed, it was by a woman who was jealous of a male agent’s interest in her. Her own mistakes compounded the tragedy but did not cause it. She fought so fiercely when arrested and tried so hard to escape prison that she was eventually kept in chains.

The sentimentalization of the women agents has, itself, played into a subtle politics of gender that has done as much as anything else to gloss over SOE’s blunders. If women were sacrificed, the reasoning goes, the agency might be guilty of ruthlessness in sending them but not of incompetence in setting them up to be captured, when they could not be expected to survive long. The latter charge has been raised against the handling of the male agents, with some fairness: Prosper himself was encouraged to raise a huge army of resistors and then told to remain under cover for almost a year, guaranteeing that thousands would fall with him when the network was blown, and probably contributing to his paranoia about those in charge. (In France, many still believe that the “Prosper” network was given up as an act of disinformation about the true date of the Allied invasion.) The truth is that several of the dead women were brilliant Resistance fighters long before they joined SOE. Andrée Borrel and Madeleine Damerment, both in their twenties, survived for years in occupied France (the average life of an amateur résistant was three months), helping Allied airmen into Spain. M.R.D. Foot makes the same point in observing that SOE’s women agents did not expect special treatment and went into the field as prepared for death as any male agent. Nor does the legendary status of SOE’s female sacrifices do justice to the SOE women who survived and did magnificent work: Pearl Witherington, Lise de Baissac, Nancy Wake, Yvonne Cormeau, Anne-Marie Walters, Eileen Nearne, her sister Jacqueline Nearne, Virginia Hall, Yvonne Baseden, and many others. Of the agents who survived the war, one of the best known is Countess Krystyna Skarbek (“Christine Granville”), whose fame rests largely on her having been stabbed to death after the war by a jealous lover. (Her other claim to popular fame is that she may have been a model for Fleming’s Vesper Lynd.)

Interestingly, Yvonne Baseden, an agent who survived arrest and incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, speaks with insight of Vera Atkins’ mistrust of her. “I think she was trying to put us at ease by looking herself at ease, as if it was something which a lot of people were doing and that it was nothing out of the ordinary… She had reason to be quite suspicious of me… I think she must have thought — you know — why had I been released? What had I done to be released and not the others?”

Baseden did not love Atkins, but she understood her. It leaves us wondering whether the other women agents might also have done. When women have the power of life and death, especially over other women, judgments of their ethics often hinge upon perceptions based on fine emotional distinctions and interpretations of correct behavior. Fania Fénelon gagged upon the thought that Alma Rosé could be proud of her orchestra while her people burned; the families of Vera’s agents noticed that she seemed “very pleased with herself.” At the Ravensbrück trial, Atkins sent postcards to her mother that might as well have been sent from some little spa on the Baltic coast. She might have been sociopathic in her calm; or else, she might have attended the trial and written the postcards on the same days in the awareness that both were her duty.

But she remains a disturbing figure. Helm’s research suggests that she could resemble a brilliant child, a prodigy, with a prodigy’s isolation and devotion to her elders’ precedent. After the work she did to uncover the agents’ fates, it is remarkable that so many of their families waited years to learn the most elementary details; the mother of one, Diana Rowden, did not know that her daughter had received the Croix de Guerre until Elizabeth Nicholas found out in the 1950s. One can speculate that Atkins was too enamored of her role as keeper of secrets to stop playing the game; another, somewhat kinder interpretation is that Atkins was inclined to solace herself by maintaining the sense that the buck stopped with her, just so long as nobody knew the details. In any event, the slipshod way in which the details crept out has provided fodder for conspiracy theories that may never end.

In classic gendered fashion, there is the same degree of unsubstantiated speculation regarding Atkins’ sexuality: some believe she was a lesbian, others that she must have been a man-trap. Neither is impossible; neither is substantiated. When asked to explain why, witnesses cannot allude to more evidence than a feeling she gave them. The imaginative Jean Overton Fuller remembers Atkins in a gauzy black top, obviously meant to seduce her. (It is possible that Atkins was in love with Violette Szabó, whom she insisted on seeing off personally.) No witnesses admit to being drawn to Atkins that way themselves, but it is intriguing to find how often it is said that she was “almost beautiful.” “Beautiful” is a designation of approval when applied to a woman, not idealizing her appearance so much as it simultaneously recognizes power and simplifies it into innocuousness. By saying that Vera Atkins was “almost beautiful,” witnesses appear to be wrestling with their incongruous perceptions — of an extraordinary woman, a noble woman in so many ways, who also scared the hell out of them.

Perhaps that is also why Helm’s biography goes soft in certain places, seeking emotional connections Atkins would have disdained; and perhaps that is why Helm returns instinctively to the spy story’s lowest common denominator of intrigue, the best self-justification we all have for meddling and snooping — next to the belief that the subject would have wanted it that way, which also comes up. Helm’s sleuthing on the likelihood that Atkins passed money to Nazi officials to save her Dutch relatives (one plausible reason for Atkins’ deference to Buckmaster) is dramatic, but spread a little too thin. Inevitably, these fillips of suspense also remind us of the journalist’s obligation to pry into other people’s soft spots, and the results can be uncomfortable. Helm interviews Yvonne Baseden and spots a purple balloon on the ceiling, reading “Happy Eightieth Birthday,” while Baseden’s eyes fill with tears as she recalls Ravensbrück. At the annual memorial to the SOE members lost in France, Helm observes a disturbed woman, “still mourning her fiancé, who was killed while serving with SOE in France, but she had never been told quite how he was killed or why. I wondered whether the woman in black had grabbed Vera’s arm and how Vera had responded.”

Up to a point these glimpses of SOE life behind the scenes are important even as they can make us cringe. It’s needed in the wake of the fictional representations of SOE, beginning with the sanitized biographies and films and continuing with Sebastian Faulks’ meretricious bestseller, Charlotte Gray. In writing on Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, Cynthia Ozick observed that what an insider can convey most valuably is “the smell of a house,” and this Helm does even as an outsider. It is instructive to observe how much of this SOE “smell” will be familiar to ordinary women. As indicated, the strength of Helm’s biography over an official version will probably lie in its attempt to do justice to the complexity of emotions surrounding Atkins and its revelations about the quality of these emotions. Male heroes are idealized after their death, but they also tend to disappear without clear emotional traces; their survivors resent their absence above all, the lacuna in a family left behind by means valorized in society. Prosper’s children remember growing up without their father in more ways than one: his wife erased all traces of him from their lives. This may have been the way Atkins wished to vanish from public sight. Helm begins to restore an outline, not of Atkins’ inner life, but of the effect she had on others. As she does so, she begins to recreate Atkins as a gendered figure. The resentment attaching to the memories of women heroes are likelier to concern lies, evasions, and compromises: in fine, the awareness we’re left with of the disconnect between real and official narratives of power and survival. They resemble the mixed emotions we have had about our mothers, the life-and-death choices they made when and as our fathers, their consciences protected by the demands of the masculine role, could not or did not.

Feminist commentators have tended to view all forms of militarism as a grafting of masculine values onto women’s lives. By contrast, other feminists such as Vera Laska, Margaret Collins Weitz, and Claudia Koontz have observed women adapting traditionally female modes of behavior to warfare on opposing sides of conflicts in such a manner as to make it less of a given that militarism and women’s lives are natural enemies. The significance of Atkins’ gender in her work was not that she was less female for engaging in militaristic activity but that she did not have the professional training associated with males in positions of equivalent responsibility. Atkins was an amateur, if a very gifted one, and she was capable of making mistakes. This may actually place her closer to the traditional role of the mother. Feminists who draw ethical prescriptions from the experience of mother stress that maternalism is by definition an improvisational ethic. The ethics of secret-keeping have also been traditionally female and improvisational. Atkins’ life drives us to ask whether a female “ethic of care” is not also, when necessary, an ethic of deception, secrecy, militarism, and downright ruthlessness, not to mention vanity and self-delusion. This may go a long way toward rescuing the figure of the mother from sentimentalization, but it raises further thorny questions for feminists. A mother is, first and foremost, a woman with power. Atkins may have been little maternal in appearance, yet she did function as a mother toward the agents in the simplest sense: of wielding the power of life and death and assuming it as her natural right. She thus removed the mental escape route most of us cherish, of imagining civilian life as the world of mothers and not fathers, demarcated from war and its horrors by the gender line. Her ambiguity as one of the “good guys” reminds us that women’s power has been trivialized in part because power of any kind has potential for destructiveness. Thus our desire to view maternalism and militarism as opposites can only be frustrated if we admit maternalism its full power. It may be significant that the harshest judgments of Atkins, including Helm’s, have come from women; several of the men she encountered remembered her as notably kind, even maternal.

Like the rest of us, Helm loves and hates her mother figure, and fills in the gaps of her story imaginatively with the intention at once of undermining and forgiving her; like the rest of us, she has some telling insights and others in which Atkins is unrecognizable, sometimes both at once. It is typically hard for her to accept that Atkins, as a consummate secret agent, had agency: that she made her decisions as an independent being, not as a victim of history. By intervals she assigns too little responsibility to Atkins, and then again too much. Copying Tania Szabó, Vilayat Inayat Khan, and many others, she wants approval and does introspective calisthenics on realizing she will not get it. She falls prey to the ultimate daughterly illusion by suggesting that Atkins wanted her personal story told. The story begins when Helm seeks out Atkins’ niece and sister-in-law in Cornwall, searching through the bland press clippings that constitute Vera’s personal files, and discovering uncensored oddments that she interprets as signposts which Atkins left to point the way for a future biographer. Most of them have to do with the guilt that Helm assumes Atkins felt over the deaths of Noor Inayat Khan and the others.

There is evidence that Atkins was not invulnerable. After her return from Germany, she went for a long time into seclusion. (She had just learned that Ketton-Cremer was also dead, killed in action on Crete.) Helm is believable on Atkins’ compulsive self-control, and the anguish it may have guarded. “Close friends felt only sympathy for Vera. Behind that controlled façade they sensed that she was all the time suppressing her own emotion and her own guilt.” But if she proposes a Vera racked by guilt over the agents’ deaths, and thus leaving clues scattered about on purpose, Helm is quite likely kidding herself.

In fact an official biography was commissioned by Atkins and has come out early this year, and perhaps that awareness of the rival biography caused some of the flaws in Helm’s. Though nowhere near as good in most ways, William Stevenson’s Spymistress is the superior work in terms of its presentation of the nitty-gritty details of Atkins’ work for SOE. Stevenson’s book goes even further than Helm’s in describing the miasma of anti-Semitism in which Atkins had to work and her awareness of her Jewish identity. It does not confirm Helm’s belief that Atkins had to lie low with Buckmaster as the price for her power; if anything, it indicates that Atkins was much braver as a Jew than Helm was aware, a judgment based not on what she may have done in the Netherlands but on many attempts she made to wake the British high command up to what was happening to Europe’s Jews. The unforgiving Leo Marks shared his high opinion of Atkins with Stevenson, a regard based in part on their common fate as Jews. But where Leo Marks filled a tome with his anger at SOE, Atkins kept loyally silent, and suffered the opprobrium of her peers. Stevenson’s book also turns up a few personal details that are easily as juicy as anything Helm has found. (Rather than Ketton-Cremer or Violette Szabó, the great Yeo-Thomas may have been the true love of Atkins’ life.) And if Helm as a woman relates to Atkins as a good/bad mother, Stevenson as a man seems much more concerned to “place” her as a romantic figure. He stresses Vera’s beauty and sex appeal, describing her black hair (most eyewitnesses remember it as blonde) and “smoky eyes.” Alma Rosé, as Fania Fénelon saw her, is perhaps conveniently replaced with the biblical Esther or Judith, or indeed the beautiful and heroic Alma remembered by some of the Birkenau orchestra survivors.

Yet of the two, Helm’s biography of Vera Atkins comes closer to an essential truth about power figures in a dark time. Helm’s book is in every way distinguished as a literary production — it is beautifully written — and impressive for the amount of clutter it has cleared away from a story that once seemed tangled beyond hope, even if in some places it adds its own. But the truest distinction of Helm’s book, imperfect though it is, may lie in the honor it pays to the emotional ambiguities that remain for the survivors of war, especially regarding the memories of its outstanding players. If Helm at times succumbs to the need all survivors have to force intractable details into a pattern that makes sense, like Atkins’ beloved England we can still be grateful to have such an ally on our side; and as with Vera Atkins, we can probably forgive her.

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