The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 86 – Old Tuoni

Chapter 89 – Old Tuoni

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

That evening as Tim walked home his head still spun from what he had done and everything he had learned. Even the street had looked different. The next day it was the same. The pavement, sky, trees and houses all had a new clarity as if they had acquired extra dimensions of colour and shape.

It was Tim who had changed. He saw with different eyes and had learned to take far less for granted.

Morse had changed too, only slowly returning to the cat he used to be. Tim had carried him home last night but this morning the cat was waiting by the door to go back to Mrs Woosencraft at number 23.

Overnight someone had dumped a battered cream-coloured Mercedes convertible across the road. One of the hubcaps was gone, the side window a taped-up sheet of plastic.

Tim stopped dead in his tracks. With its broken headlights, crushed wheel-arches and cracked windscreen the car had known better days. Days when three women who liked to wear red drove it.

Uneven footsteps hurried behind him. ‘Hang on old buddy, I don’t go that fast.’ It was Troy Jarglebaum.

‘Troy. You made it.’

Jarglebaum was still big in the belly but his face was gaunt, he looked older and moved less easily.

‘Most of me, I guess.’

The two men looked at each other. They’d had their differences but after what they’d been through on the Sea Cucumber they were small things.

‘Troy. On the ship. I saw you fight.’

Jarglebaum’s eyes briefly lost focus as he relived those last dreadful minutes fighting Imelda on the sinking ship. He shuddered, then flashed those tombstone teeth of his. ‘That was you with the cargo net.’

‘Yes. Me and Foxy.’

‘You saved my life.’ Troy stuck out his hand. ‘Thanks, Ace. Nice one.’

Tim didn’t know what to say. The main reason was the way Jarglebaum had said ‘Ace’. He accepted Jarglebaum’s hand. It seemed natural to follow through with an embrace.

‘Not so tight,’ Troy wheezed.

Tim stepped back. ‘How did you get here?’

‘A short-wave radio in the lifeboat and GPS on Markus’s mobile. We called the Iron Herring, they picked us up and the supply chopper flew us ashore. A couple of pints of blood and some bed rest and here I am, right as rain.’

‘Koponen’s alive?’

‘Last time I looked.’ Jarglebaum raised his voice. ‘You’re still with us, aren’t you, Markus?’

The passenger door of the Mercedes creaked open and Markus Koponen emerged, dapper as ever. He settled a new white Stetson on his head and crossed the road.

‘Thanks to you two.’

‘I’m glad you made it,’ Tim said.

Koponen bowed stiffly. ‘Though perhaps not so glad to actually see me. I can hardly blame you. How is Ms Bolivia?’

Out of the corner of his eye Tim noticed Jarglebaum grow attentive. Careful not to look towards Mrs Woosencraft’s house Tim said, ‘She’s well, and quite safe.’

‘I am pleased to hear it. You’re a resourceful man, Mr Wassiter. I underestimated you.’

‘I have my methods,’ Tim said knowingly.

Jarglebaum chuckled. ‘You got lucky.’

‘That,’ said Tim, ‘is one of my methods.’

‘And I don’t dismiss it lightly.’ Koponen drew himself up. ‘I won’t be stopped, Mr Wassiter. I can’t be. Too much is at stake. More now than ever, now we know there are people… Things…’ Koponen took a deep breath. ‘Well, now I know where so much of Kylma Kala’s profits went. I was blind and foolish, so very foolish.’

‘She’s not completely human any more,’ Tim said. ‘I really don’t think you’ll see her again.’

Koponen’s eyes glistened. ‘There’s still part of me–’

Jarglebaum put his hand on Koponen’s shoulder. ‘Markus, this is getting you nowhere. They ripped you off big-time, sank your ship and tried to kill you. Whatever they are, they aren’t your girlfriends.’

‘I know it, Troy,’ Koponen sighed wearily. ‘And you were right, I didn’t listen. Ah, well. Mr Wassiter, I hope you still believe I’m one of the good guys.’

‘I’ll accept you’re not one of the bad ones.’

‘That will have to do. I’m not going to give up. If I have to start again, I will. Sisu. We Finns never give up.’

‘I believe you,’ Tim said.

‘I’d like you to come and work for me. You and Ms Bolivia.’

‘I can’t imagine she’d be interested.’

‘Even after what she saw aboard Sea Cucumber? Don’t you want to find out more about what happened to those women? And that thing, whatever it is, is still down there, still damaging my operations.’

‘They called it Tuoni.’

Koponen went very still. ‘By the old Gods, did they? What else did you discover?’

‘They wanted to marry Foxy to Tuoni, for her to give birth to his daughter, a second bride.’

‘Tuonetar, the daughter-wife,’ Koponen half-whispered. ‘This is… crazy.’

‘Yes. How do you know?’

‘The Kalevala, Mr Wassiter. The more you research legend and myth, the more truth you find. These stories form part of my country’s gestalt, they are part of what I am.’

‘Legends are in the past.’

Koponen gave a thin smile. ‘Isn’t your King Arthur the once and future king?’

‘Guys,’ Jarglebaum broke in. ‘You have totally and completely fucking lost me.’

‘It appears something dangerous and ancient is trying to return,’ Koponen explained.

Jarglebaum’s instinctive guffaw died in his throat. ‘OK, I can go along with that.’

‘Whatever it is, it is very powerful and believes it is Lord of the Underworld. This new Tuoni is not something we can ignore any more than we can global warming,’ Koponen said. ‘Mr Wassiter, please talk to Ms Bolivia, then call me. You know where I am.’

Tim couldn’t help but be amused by Koponen’s persistence. ‘I’ll mention it.’

‘I ask for no more. Whatever she decides I would very much like to hear about your trip back to shore.’ Koponen prepared to cross the road. ‘Troy?’

Jarglebaum shook Tim’s hand again. ‘See you around, Ace. Look after yourself.’

‘You too.’ Tim walked him to the battered Mercedes. ‘A pint in the Bat and Ball?’

‘Only if I’m buying.’

Koponen doffed his hat before climbing into the car. ‘You can keep the Imperial. It’s time I had something less ostentatious, less traceable. Something with a white roof.’

Tim walked away then looked back at the Mercedes. Under his shirt the pendant pulsed. ‘Your Merc is fine apart from the bodywork. Change the water pump at the next service.’

‘How’s the Imperial?’

‘I don’t have it,’ Tim called back. ‘I don’t even know where it is.’

Koponen found that highly amusing. ‘What goes around, Mr Wassiter.’

‘I prefer the 55 Belvedere.’

‘Work for me and I’ll buy you one.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 85 – Inanna

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Asklepios was gone. Unbidden, a tear welled in Banipal’s eye. He laughed at his own self-pity.

Praise the Gods for the gifts they give, he chided himself. Don’t weep because you wanted more.

He would go to the temples and seek understanding. Ishkun’s philosophy came back to him: head, hand and spirit – all must be provided for. Of late Banipal’s days had consisted of little else but his work, the hand of Marduk showed strongly in the pattern of his life. He had not kept his promise to Ishkun and neglected his physical aspect. It was obvious which deity he should petition for help.

The courtyard below his workrooms opened onto an open plaza. On the far side, flanked by double rows of squat oval pillars, the high bronze-banded cedar doors to Inanna’s temple stood ever open. There the priestesses offered their own bodies to honour the goddess. For a lesser donation they would bathe, oil and massage the supplicant’s body. For less still they would dance. For nothing at all they did as they pleased.

At the doors Banipal removed his sandals, washed his feet in the ceaseless stream that flowed from the twin cisterns and went inside.

The interior of Inanna’s temple was cool, pooled with light and shadow from small oil lamps burning here and there. Banipal made his way through the silence to the purifying rooms. There he gave over his offering, a nugget of natural gold, and was admitted.

Alone in the peace of a cool-water pool he stripped, bathed, then floated for a while in the dim silence. He rose from the water, dried himself and walked naked into the next room, where a muscular male priest oiled and scraped his skin with a strigil carved from the shin-bone of a lioness.

The priest departed. Banipal lay face down on a low wooden couch padded with cushions. The chill of the pool and the rough tingle of the strigil faded to a pleasant glow. He tried to clear his mind and seek Inanna’s peace. It wasn’t easy, his thoughts kept returning to the ghosts, Asklepios, the geometries on the table.

Warm hands pressed on his shoulders. Unheard and unannounced one of the celebrant priestesses had entered the room. She began to massage his back.

She was strong and skilful, kneading and pushing the muscles and tendons under his skin. Banipal groaned as she found a knot of tension above his shoulder blade and was rewarded by a satisfied, feminine laugh, relaxed and easy. Shoulders, spine, hips, thighs and calves all yielded to her skill. She pressed her palms onto his kidneys, her hands burned like hot bronze and sent warmth deep into his entrails.

She touched his shoulder. Banipal turned onto his back.

The priestess was a woman neither young nor old, still in her prime. The grey veil of the celebrant covered her face. Her oiled skin gleamed copper red in the lamp light.

Her hips were wide, her breasts full and heavy. She had given birth at least once, her belly marked by a spreading fan of pale stretch-scars.

Banipal admired all the aspects of her beauty, each one emphasised by the shadows pooling in the hollows and curves of her body: her female form; her mother-marks; that carrying and giving birth had altered her body. He felt a pang of envy, her whole body was Inanna’s gift in ways he would never know.

This he knew he must accept. Her gifts also brought great risks. Men too had their gifts, their lives held different dangers.

‘This evening I am weary,’ he informed her politely.

The priestess understood. She laid her hands on his brow, his heart, his stomach. ‘I am a vessel of Inanna’s peace.’

‘I am in need of that peace’ Banipal said.

‘What is your offering?’

‘I am my own offering.’

‘For now?’

‘Now, and always. My whole self.’ Banipal said, completing the simple ritual.

He closed his eyes. A gentle breeze moved across his stomach and thighs but he felt no arousal. The priestess pressed her palm onto his brow again and he exhaled. As he did he felt his entire body loosen, limbs sinking, spine settling, all sinking towards the supporting wood beneath him. Peace filled him – Inanna’s first and last gift. He felt her presence beside him, within him. The warmth of her body, the soft pressure of her stomach against his scalp.

So Banipal slept, and dreamed the strangest dream of a city with streets, of buildings without doors or windows. Mud brick dwellings stood crammed together like eggs in a nest, each with a single entrance in the common roof, both door and smoke hole. The whole city was built upon the ruins of an earlier age. Beneath that lay older ruins, and older still. Over the centuries a great tel of rubble had risen above the surrounding grasslands with the current city on top.

He stood above the entrance to what he knew to be his own home. Storm-light flickered ominously. Every other inhabitant was safe in their homes, safe from the storm and the creatures that made it. He was the last, and alone.

 Banipal climbed down a single-rail wooden ladder into the darkness of his single room home. Lightning flashed and a few heartbeats later thunder rolled across the plain. He blew the embers of the fire into life and added a little kindling.

As he built the fire two people dropped into the room, a lean young man and an old woman. Strangers seeking refuge, they knelt with palms upraised until Banipal touched their shoulders and accepted them as his guests.

Both were weary and far from home, exhausted by a long and arduous journey. The fire caught and in the growing light Banipal saw the tattoos on their bodies – patterns of the clustered dots and lines, circles, arrows and angles. Numbers, he realised with a start, they had numbers even in these ancient times. They understood the abstract and measured things beyond the seasons.

The storm circled the city. All three curled beside the fire and slept. Dreamers within a dream inside a dream.

Down to a time before legends–

Where tall ships lay at berth in a grand harbour beneath a city of pillared domes and bright spires. A city unwalled, where a roofless temple of marble steps and gilded columns stood in the green foothills of a towering, cloud-bannered mountain. A city that glowed with light at night, where machines had minds, and winged platforms slid across the sky. The kingdom, the city, of many names: Thule, Ys, Atlantis…

The three of them stood on the sweeping quay under the shadows of marble gods and saw the city was past its glory days. The harbour breakwater was a tumbledown ruin, one city quarter was abandoned, another had been smashed to rubble by something enormous that had rampaged through it.

Beyond the harbour a titanic segmented creature was being towed out to see by a flotilla of three-masted ships. The creature was alive and strove mightily against the massive chains that bound it tight. The flotilla headed towards the cold heart of the ocean. There, the beast would sink. There, like all the others of its kind, it would die.

Only one living thing could be so gigantic.

Tuoni

The word beat inside Banipal’s mind as if spoken by another voice.

The name broke his dream. Startled, he hovered in the formless darkness of his own mind. Who is there? Who spoke?

A crone voice came. ‘Wake up, bachgen. I see the way home.’

Instantly Banipal was wide awake on the couch. Above him the veiled celebrant pressed down on his breastbone with the heel of her hand. Between his legs his manhood was achingly erect. He could only have slept for moments.

The priestess sensed his confusion. ‘What is it?’

‘A vision.’

In one graceful movement she swung her leg across his hips and mounted him. ‘Tell me,’ she said.

The sensation of her engulfing him was incredible.

#

Tim’s eyes jolted open at exactly the moment Mrs Woosencraft’s leg jerked and sent her stool flying across the room.

She returned Tim’s wide-eyed gaze with aplomb. ‘Well, that takes me back. Not the kind of ride I imagined. Very impressive.’

Foxy and Tim spent the rest of the day with Mrs Woosencraft. First Foxy insisted on hearing about their dream journey while it lay vivid in Tim’s mind. He told her of Asklepios and the nightmare winds, the tattooed men and women from the honeycomb city of manmade caves, and the bright city and the beast on the ocean.

They discussed what it all meant. Mrs Woosencraft summarised: ‘Warm waters have woken something from the first great days of mankind. Something that was supposed to die. The ancients created it, then they tried to destroy it.’

‘That creature controls minds and changes bodies,’ Foxy said. ‘Deep magic cannot do that, nor can your numbers. It knows things we don’t.’

Sea Cucumber is lost, the crop destroyed. Koponen didn’t know what was going on,’ Tim said. ‘He was trying to save the world, now he might not be alive. I feel sorry for him.’

‘Part of the world doesn’t want to be saved,’ Mrs Woosencraft said gloomily.

Tim shared her mood. ‘So much has happened so fast. I really feel out of my depth.’

Foxy burst out laughing. ‘That’s such a funny thing to say.’

It relieved the tension in the room. Things night not look good but Foxy and Mrs Woosencraft were becoming friends. The old witch gave Tim her best advice:

‘You’ve started to find a way through the veils we wrap around ourselves. I do it one way, Foxy uses another, now you’ve found a third. I’m sure there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to see things as they actually are, it prefers to make up its own rules and pretend they are true. It’s strong but when it’s confronted by things that it can’t explain some people break free and cast about for new ways, new answers. The veils grow thin, an open mind glimpses a new way.’

‘You think that’s what happened to me.’

‘Stress is kind of a crash course to open your inner wossname.’

‘It’s hard to realise I actually went to those places,’ Tim said.

‘You did, and in a way you didn’t,’ Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘Like all magic there are limits you shouldn’t push past, dangerous ones. You took chances and I let you. Worse, I encouraged you. I should have known better.’

‘We found out a lot. Where do you think we were?’

‘More a case of when,’ Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘That first was Babylon, the second – somewhere very old, but the third, that golden ruin on the island was older still.’

‘Foxy, that’s where you’re from, isn’t it,’ Tim said.

Mrs Woosencraft settled herself down in her chair. ‘It’s where we all came from.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousands Fathoms, Chapter 84 – Origin

An early draft of this story started with the question ‘Where does anything really begin?’ This weeks chapter offers at least one suggestion. It’s a longer read than in recent weeks, but there is quite a lot going on! Enjoy.

Chapter 84 – Origin

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Blown like thistledown by the dream-winds Tim sensed Asklepios’ location in the blustering blue-grey clouds as nothing more than a sense of rightness in one direction more than any other. He swept closer, Mrs Woosencraft a growing weight on his back. When they had set out she had been no burden beyond a slight inertia, the further they travelled the greater her weight had grown.

Asklepios resolved into the same pinpoint of blue-white light Tim had seen on the beach during his first dream-flight. His light rose to meet them, hung steady then plummeted like a falling stone. Tim dropped down after it and broke free of the mists. Above him stars glittered in a moonless sky, far below a double-walled city stood beside a broad river on a winding plain, the very place he had brought Asklepios. Free of the mists that had plagued him on his first journey Tim saw the city was on a grand scale with wide, brick-paved avenues, two and three story buildings, and towering stepped temples. Temples were everywhere.

Asklepios’ soul light glowed inside a room at the base of one of several buildings around a plaza. To the west a bridge with a dozen arches spanned a wide energetic river. Immediately to the north an enormous stepped pyramid thrust into the sky.

With no sense of transition they were inside the room beside Asklepios’ sleeping form. Mrs Woosencraft dropped from Tim’s back though her weight, the effort of carrying her, did not. She looked around in wonder, especially at the table.

Tim reached for Asklepios’ hand and drew him out.

Asklepios and Mrs Woosencraft’s spirits recognised each other immediately.

Asklepios thrust out his splayed hand. ‘Servant of Bez! Begone from this dream. I cast thee out!’

‘You can talk, interfering meddler. I’m glad to finally clap my eyes on you.’

‘You know each other?’ Tim was dismayed at their mutual hostility.

‘She is the root of all my troubles,’ Asklepios said.

‘He broke my teapot.’

Tim clutched his head. ‘What?’

‘Remember the bee and the glue? That was this idiot,’ Mrs Woosencraft said.

‘I was helping Tim,’ Asklepios said with affronted dignity.

Mrs Woosencraft looked at the two men in sheer amazement. ‘You two were working together?’

Asklepios bowed serenely. ‘Indeed we were.’

‘Foxy was plagued by cats,’ Tim said. ‘I didn’t know it was you.’

‘Oh–!’ Mrs Woosencraft clenched her fists, opened her mouth and struggled to find the right words. ‘Just forget it. Water under the bridge.’

‘A gracious offer I gladly accept.’ Asklepios turned eagerly to Tim. ‘Have you come to take me home?’

‘This isn’t it?’

‘Sadly, no.’

Mrs Woosencraft cleared her throat. ‘I can only apologise.’

‘All right, we’ve been working at cross-purposes, but I can put things right,’ Tim said. ’Asklepios, I can take you home but I’m not strong enough to carry you both.’

‘Leave me here,’ Mrs Woosencraft said without hesitation. ‘It’s the simplest way.’

‘I’ve only done this once before. It’s not easy–’

‘Nothing worth doing ever is.’

‘If something wakes me up–’

Mrs Woosencraft folded her arms. ‘I’ll take my chances. You and Foxy, you’ve made it all worthwhile, see? I want to look around. Especially at that table.’

Reluctantly Tim agreed. If he did wake then she could end up marooned here like Asklepios. ‘I’ll be as quick as I can.’

‘I’ll be fine, bachgen.’

‘The people here have been kind to me. I would like to say goodbye,’ Asklepios said.

Tim opened the door and saw a shaven-headed man with a long, plaited beard dozing at a table. He was neither fully asleep nor awake. Tim tried to draw him out and to his surprise the man’s spirit emerged and stood in front of them.

‘This is Banipal, the man who saved me.’ Asklepios raised his hand and Banipal returned the gesture.

‘Goodbye, my friend. May your gods bless you,’ Asklepios said but Banipal gave no sign he understood.

‘He’s in his own dream, he cannot hear you,’ Tim said.

Asklepios accepted the fact calmly. ‘I shall miss him.’

‘Are you ready?’

‘To go home?’ Asklepios beamed with pleasure. ‘Always.’

He was not as heavy as Mrs Woosencraft but heavy enough. In a trice they were high above the city, then higher still. Asklepios cried out and clung on. Mist enfolded them and he relaxed.

‘I see you wear my pendant.’

‘I had to use the last charge.’

Asklepios’ disappointment was palpable.

‘It helped save people’s lives.’

‘Then I am glad.’ Asklepios became thoughtful. ‘Now it is uncharged please be careful when you remove it.’

‘What will happen?’

‘I have no idea.’

Tim smiled to himself. ‘I’m going to miss you, Asklepios.’

‘And I, you. In the past few days I have lived an entire lifetime of enlightenment and adventure. Now I am ready to go home.’

‘Then show me where.’

Asklepios fell silent. Far across time, distance, and possibility, a dim red light shone. ‘There.’

Travelling the mists was not getting easier. Tim struggled against a rising wind – a growing pull to wakefulness. Unbidden thoughts of Mrs Woosencraft’s back room intruded. He saw himself asleep there clearly, it would be such an easy thing to open his eyes. He pushed onwards, determined not to let Asklepios down a second time.

The winds grew contrary, gusting hard in one direction then the other. ‘Think of home, Asklepios. Remember the street, your rooms, your family, every little detail.’

‘My doorstep has a chip where my son dropped the bucket.’

‘Yes.’

‘My room– My dearest wife–’ Asklepios’ voice dropped a tone. ‘I shall bathe more.’

It worked. A steady breeze built behind them first countering then cancelling the push against Tim. For Asklepios there was a rightness to this direction of travel. He was going home.

At long last the dream-mists parted. The two men stood in a monochrome alleyway of tapered arches in mud-plaster walls. Nearby stood a particular doorway familiar to Asklepios.

‘I am home.’ Asklepios dropped to the ground, knelt, and kissed the packed earth.

Exhausted, Tim leaned on the wall, the urge to wake almost overwhelming. To wake and sleep again –

Asklepios gestured apologetically and backed away. ‘Master, my children, I am anxious–’ Colour bloomed around Asklepios as he stepped into the waking world, red-mud plaster on the walls, a patch of blue sky, a waft of orange blossom.

‘Farewell.’

Colours faded and with them Asklepios and the alley. Tim was alone in the mists.

Wind slammed against him. Asklepios had brought him close to the waking world. Tim pushed increasingly vivid memories of his own home from his mind and began the wind-torn journey back to Mrs Woosencraft, each moment an act of sheer will.

She shone far brighter than Asklepios and for this Tim was grateful. It was so very far…

Brighton. The shingle beach front, happily screaming children, music on the pier, the sunshine on his face. Morse asleep on his bed.

Thunderheads of black and grey cloud piled in front of him, the winds against his chest like a forbidding hand. In the far distance a scatter of bright motes blew – dreamers like himself. Most went with the winds but one drove headlong into the dream-winds towards some far destination on a dream-quest like himself.

That brief moment of kinship gave him strength. He drove on through air so dense it felt solid. Grab and pull, grab and pull. Mrs Woosencraft was still far away. A trembling fear built in him, the growing certainty it had been a big mistake to leave her. Dark clouds circled all around, the wind a soundless hurricane. Weary beyond measure Tim veered and swooped towards her beacon light.

When he finally breached the mists she was terrified.

All that remained of the city was Asklepios’ room. Outside there were no buildings, no city, just a windswept charcoal-black tornado through which pinpoint lights whirled tore round and around.

The corners of the room sloughed into smoke. Mrs Woosencraft clung to the table, the last item of furniture in the room.

Then the walls of the room were gone, rubbed away into nothingness. They stood on a corroding circle of floor within black storm-winds spattered with bright motes.

The look she gave him was half gratitude, half incomprehension. ‘Leave me. Wake up, be safe.’

All around was a maelstrom of dark dreams, nightmares and terror.

‘Out there – its madness.’

He was right and she knew it. If he left her, even if she woke. Her face set hard, she tried to push him away. ‘Save yourself.’

He did not need saving, this was still his dream and he would always be safe from his own nightmares. But her–? They would tear her apart.

The power of the dream-storm was daunting. They climbed onto the round table and clung to each other. If they were going to go it had to be right now. Tim lifted Mrs Woosencraft onto his back. His knees buckled, her weight was astonishing. The idea of going into those winds with her on his back an impossibility.

He couldn’t do it.

Mrs Woosencraft climbed down. ‘It’s all right, Tim.’

‘I’m sorry.’ What else could he say?

She squared her shoulders and looked down at her feet. ‘I never thought I’d go out like this. Look after the cats, won’t you?’

‘I’m here to the end, Mrs Woosencraft–’

She took his hand. ‘Dorothy.’

‘I won’t leave you. Dorothy.’

The dark winds touched the table and it resisted. It resisted and even here, even now, Mrs Woosencraft gave a great laugh. ‘I knew it! That Asklepios, he’s the bloody one.’

They stood inside a dream-tornado of black wind spattered with whirling motes of light – other dreamers blown by the dream-winds wherever they took them. The thought shook Tim like a thunderclap. He had brought Mrs Woosencraft with him, her spirit was connected to his dream. Therefore– Those lights were dreamers, if he could attach himself to one of their dreams–

The mad black winds were close enough to touch. Tim clutched Mrs Woosencraft’s hands and flung himself towards the nearest light.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 83 – A Ghost

Super busy this week, it’s good, but days feel a little breathless at the moment. I made it ! Here’s this week’s chapter. Hope life is good!

Chapter 83 – A Ghost

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Banipal stretched out the ache in his back. After Asklepios’ failure he had returned to his own studies and spent longer than he intended bent over his bench inscribing clay tablets.

He rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes. He was avoiding the obvious question – was Asklepios a fake? Was the man he had pulled from the river, the man now sleeping beside the expensive round table in the other room, making a fool of him?

If so then he was being tricked by a well-educated man. Banipal had already incorporated some of Asklepios’ number secrets into his own work and solved problems he had previously struggled with. No, to doubt Asklepios was to doubt the Gods. Ishkun was right, this was a test of tests. If the Gods so chose they would reveal their purpose when it suited them.

The last time he hunted with Ishkun the lion had taken their final quarry. It was a clear message from Ninurta, Lord of the Hunt, that they had hunted enough. So far there had been no such sign from wise Marduk.

The strangest feeling came over him. Unbidden, he found himself looking towards the door of the room where Asklepios slept.

The feeling grew and grew. He felt oddly separated from the room in which he sat. Somehow he had become distanced from it, yet remained within.

The door drew his eye powerfully. Still seated, Banipal simultaneously felt himself rise up and move forwards. He passed through the door without opening it. Three ghosts stood there.

Charcoal grey and semi-opaque, the apparitions stood braced against a wind Banipal could not feel. For a moment he was frightened, certain they were three of Anu’s terrible demons. Then he saw one was Asklepios. And here was another wonder for Asklepios’ body lay sleeping on the mat. The second ghost was a tall, dark-haired young man. The third had the form of an old woman.

The ghost of Asklepios turned to Banipal and solemnly raised his hand. Without quite knowing why, Banipal did the same, and realised Asklepios was filled with a great joy. He wanted to speak but before he could Asklepios faced the tall ghost and they both vanished.

The ghost of the old woman turned her cold grey gaze on Banipal. Their eyes met and –

Banipal lay at his scribing bench, his face pressed on the desk. One of the fired clay blocks pressed uncomfortably into his cheek.

He stood, filled with a transcendent sense of connection to his vision. This had been no simple dream. As he opened the door into the other room he was certain what he would find. He was right, Asklepios was gone.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 82 – Moving On

You’re probably not supposed to have favourite bits but this week’s chapter of the Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, is one of mine. I hope you like it too.

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Chapter 82 – Moving On

Elsewhere in Brighton an overweight middle-aged man became aware of someone sitting beside his hospital bed. It was a young woman, one who now wore her hair in a black rooster-cut with a red fringe.

‘Hey,’ Gabby said.

‘Jeez,’ Troy struggled to sit up and not to let the pain show as the stitches pulled. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’

‘You visited me.’

Jarglebaum winced, gave up and lay back. ‘I was interviewing you.’

‘Seven billion people in the world and I had one visitor. I don’t care about the reason.’

Troy looked at her narrow face with its too wide mouth and too long nose, her pipe-cleaner arms and her really quite lovely brown eyes and wondered why someone like her would go out of the way to visit a copper old enough to be her father.

‘Pass me some of that water, love. These hospitals are too damned hot.’

She carefully poured water from the jug and handed it to him with her left hand. She saw him watching. She held her head up and looked right back.

‘How are you doing?’ Jarglebaum said as gently as he had ever said anything.

‘I’m meant to say that.’

‘So tell me.’

Gabby looked down. ‘OK, I guess.’

‘The shop going all right?’

‘I’ve hired a manager. I went back for a bit but every time the door opened–’

That was all it took. Troy was back on the Sea Cucumber. It was dark, the ship was sinking and Imelda was kicking nine different types of hell out of him.

Gabby touched his arm. ‘Troy? Are you all right?’

‘Yeah, sure.’ Troy breathed hard, sweat prickled across his back. ‘It comes and goes. How’s the hand?’

Gabby tried to make a fist with her right hand but it wouldn’t close. ‘I can’t hold a mug, I can’t write. I don’t think it will ever be the same.’

‘I’m proud of my scars, you should be too.’

‘At least I can tell when it’s going to rain.’

‘That’s my girl.’

Gabby tried a smile. ‘All I ever wanted to do was run a pet shop and sell fluffy little animals and goldfish to nice people.’

‘Yeah, well, you shouldn’t let God hear your plans. I always fancied a bar on a beach somewhere hot. Babes in bikinis queuing for pina-coladas. That’s why I ended up in the public sector with three-quarters of fuck all for a pension.’

‘I think I’m going to sell up.’

Troy thought things through. ‘Look, Gabby, I know who hurt you and I reckon you’re safe. I know their names and I know what happened to them. I honestly don’t think they’ll be bothering you again.’

Gabby’s eyes widened. ‘That sounds heavy.’

‘It is, but not how you think.’

‘A long story?’

‘Yeah. For another day.’

Gabby sat on the end of the bed. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Take a break. I’m out of the service and there’s a rich guy who owes me a favour. Apart from that I don’t want to risk screwing it up by talking too much.’

Gabby looked out the window. ‘I’d like to hear that story when you’re ready.’

Look at her, Troy told himself. You’re such an idiot. She’s been through tough times and she’s all alone. You’re just some kind of father figure.

He tried to keep his voice light, conversational. ‘It’s a deal.’ He held up his arm with the saline drip attached. ‘I’m out of here tomorrow, looking forwards to a better drink than this.’

Gabby jumped to her feet. ‘I could get you something from the hospital café. How about a strawberry and banana smoothie?’

The thought of all those vitamins made Troy’s stomach recoil. ‘I was thinking of something stronger.’

‘Gooseberry and rhubarb?’

Oh Christ, this is never going to work, Troy thought, but he was laughing so much it hurt.

To be continued…

Writer not rich enough for a bursary.

Note: This is essentially the same as a recent Twitter thread I’ve posted. I decided to blog about it too because not everyone uses Twitter and it’s easier to cross-post from here to places like FB. Also, because I am incensed.

Briefly, some background: I am the current Chair of the Milford SF Writers conference, an annual, week-long event for critique & discussion. We’ve run in the UK since 1972.

Since 2017, thanks to the generosity of individuals and two EasterCon committees, we have been able to offer bursaries to BAME writers around the world, and currently are funded for a few more. We’ve always been pleased to offer two bursaries a year.

To date, as well as UK writers, this has allowed SF&F writers from Nigeria, Netherlands, and USA to attend Milford. Not this year.

For 2019 we were again delighted to be able to fill both places. Except – annoyingly, frustratingly, infuriatingly, one must now fall vacant. Because UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have rejected their visa application on the grounds of ‘financial capacity’.

One committee member is highly experienced in the problems the Hostile Environment policy causes musicians seeking visas, and has seen the refusal letter. It says there is no room for appeal, and in their experience it means exactly that. The writer we had been hoping to welcome to the UK says it is too heartbreaking a task to try again.

We’ve lost them. This is enormously disappointing. We are proud to be able to play our own part in increasing inclusion and diversity in our field of literature and the arts, immensely grateful to our donors. It is obvious that everyone benefits.

But this is where we now are with the poisonous Hostile Environment policy that Theresa May, our outgoing Prime Minister, introduced in her time as Home Secretary. It tells us low-income writers from other countries are not welcome, & we cannot help them with grants & gifts.

In short, this government thinks they are not rich enough to be given a bursary.

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 81 – To Sleep

An odd week. My life in most respects is ordinary, but this week has been strange. I’ve been deeply distracted but have managed to work hard, the main reason being the mutual support and encouragement of a couple of lovely people.

Equally important, old Mrs Woosencraft is about to take her afternoon nap in…

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Chapter 81 – To Sleep

It wasn’t easy to fall asleep when people expected you to. Although Tim was very tired and comfortably settled onto Mrs Woosencraft’s settee he just couldn’t do it.

Once Mrs Woosencraft drew the curtains she dropped off with no trouble. Now she lay in her chair with her hands folded over her tummy and her feet on a low footstool. Despite being asleep there was an air of expectation about her.

Tim’s mind was still full of the past day’s astonishing events: the sinking ship, the great swim, Jarglebaum and Koponen’s unknown fate, the shark women’s transformation and wild revelations.

A shadow passed over Tim’s face. Foxy kissed his forehead. ‘I’m going into the kitchen,’ she whispered. ‘Go to sleep.’

Tim found himself thinking about the flies under the lampshade in his room. During their swim to shore he had seen small shoals of fish circling under floating mats of weed, discarded fishing nets, waterlogged pallets and other debris. Foxy had said such places were refuges, the fish were hiding.

What were the flies hiding from, he wondered? They were safe, he didn’t mind them being there. They should land and have a rest. Maybe it was safer for them to keep on the move. He zoomed in closer and flew with the flies. His office expanded to became a titanic space filled with vast objects like the valleys of Colorado.

I think I’m asleep now, he thought.

And he was.

Tim opened his eyes into a room bled dry of colour. Mrs Woosencraft looked up at him from her sleeping body. He reached down and drew her out. She took one look at her own form, and nodded. In the kitchen Foxy sat colourless and still, both she and the room looked like they were drawn on pieces of paper in astonishing detail. Tim led Mrs Woosencraft into the garden.

Gale-winds blew out to sea, the monochrome sky streaked with tattered clouds streaming like wind-torn banners. Mrs Woosencraft jumped up onto his back, lighter than a feather. Tim thought a single word – Asklepios. For a moment he struggled against Mrs Woosencraft’s inertia then surged up into the sky. The ground fell away below their feet. The wind whirled them in four directions – then one.

To be continued…


The Girld from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 80 – All She Needed

I really do need to pull my finger out and start prepping the print/e-book versions. With the edits all done, and new cover art I just need to do- everything else! Have great weekends, and I hope you like this sweet little chapter.

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Chapter 80 – All She Needed

His parent’s front garden was exactly as Smith remembered. Shoulder high dahlias flanked the path; blue pansies, pink daisies and orange marigolds still clashed in the flower bed.

Why shouldn’t it be the same? Had had  only been away a few days.

It felt like forever.

The garden gate clicked shut behind him. ‘My, what a lot of flowers,’ Heidi said. ‘They’re so, um, colourful.’

Smith pressed the doorbell. Soft chimes rang in the hall. I’m not nervous, he told himself as he reached for Heidi’s hand. I’m excited.

A slightly stooped female figure swam into view through the hammered glass of the front door. She stood still for a moment fumbled the catch and flung the door wide. Violet Smith looked joyfully up at her son.

‘Hello, Mummy,’ Smith said.

‘Who is it?’ Albert Smith called from upstairs.

‘Derek,’ Violet said quietly. She called out louder: ‘Albert, it’s Derek. He’s come home.’

Furniture bumped upstairs, a door slammed. Unbuttoned cardigan flapping, bifocals swinging from the cord round his neck, Albert Smith erupted onto the landing and thundered down the stairs. ‘By God, my lad, where have you been? Your mother’s been worried sick.’

‘Albert,’ Violet cautioned.

‘Whatever you’ve been up to, my lad, it was not Good Thinking.’

Violet’s voice carried an edge. ‘Albert. Derek has a friend with him.’

‘Actually, it was very Good Thinking indeed,’ Derek said. ‘Hello, Daddy, this is Heidi.’

Albert Smith lurched to a halt, reassessed the situation and stuck out his hand. ‘Hello, my dear. Won’t you come in?’

It didn’t take long. Violet knew she could be good at this sort of thing if only she had the chance. She’d waited such a long time.

‘So tell me, where did you meet Derek?’ Violet said.

‘In the office where I work. Del helped me out with some calculations.’

She calls him Del, Violet thought happily. ‘He’s always been good with numbers. Lists and timetables, things like that.’

‘Did you come over on the bus?’ Albert said.

‘No, in Del’s new car.’

Albert looked through the lace curtains, gaped and turned back. He managed a rather high-pitched, ‘Derek, where did you get that car?’

‘It’s not mine, I borrowed it.’

‘When did you learn to drive?’

‘It wasn’t that difficult.’

That wasn’t the answer Albert had been looking for. He opened his mouth, lifted a finger.

‘I like your front garden,’ Heidi said a little loudly.

It was all Violet needed.

‘Come out back and see what I’ve done. Derek, go and show your father the car.’

She’s nice, Violet thought to herself as the two women toured the garden. Her top is cut a bit low, but I expect that’s just me being old fashioned. It’s not every girl who’d pretend to be interested in flowers to please her boyfriend’s mum.

Later in the front room the two women looked out the window at the men. Albert knelt beside the wing of the Imperial making circular motions with his palm over the dented bodywork. Derek helped him up and they stood back, arms folded, heads nodding slowly.

Violet took a deep breath. ‘You and Derek get on well.’

Heidi smiled to herself. ‘We’ve really only just met.’

‘I know, dear. I can’t help it, I’m his mother.’

Out by the car Derek said something. Hands stuffed in his pockets, Albert roared with laughter. Watching them, Violet felt her feet were about to leave the ground. She blinked hard, it had been a long while since she had last felt this happy.

Albert and Derek came inside. Violet put her arm round her husband’s waist and gave him a hug. ‘I’d like to go to the garden centre. Heidi suggested I put a purple clematis over the trellis,’ Violet said.

‘Derek and I need to go to the car shop.’

‘Why don’t we go together,’ Heidi said.

‘I’ve decided to become an explorer,’ Derek said.

To be continued…

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Almost all stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Not necessarily in that order, and sometimes there are more than one of each. Each one is as important as the other.

Beginnings

The vast majority of advice I received about novel structure was focused on the opening, and it was all about getting published: your opening needs to be vivid; it needs to be engaging; that engagement must be immediate. The reasons given being that these things help get you past the slush reader and/or agent and/or commissioning editor to the desired goal of acceptance, contract, and publication. Yay!

This made me wonder about who the audience actually was, especially for newer or less well-published writers. Was it yourself (you should always, always write for yourself), your (prospective) agent, your (prospective) publisher? Where were the people you were really writing for? Sometimes it feels like a readership is a long way away but it’s also worth remembering that any reader is free to put down your story, and when a submission reader, agent, or editor does that your story proceeds no further down that particular path.

One thing a good beginning does is make a series of promises: this is where we’re going, and why; we’re going with these characters; this is their world. Of course not all promises need to be kept, but they should never be dishonestly broken.

Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song has a superb, beautiful and engaging beginning. As a writer I still remember thinking ‘Why do I even bother? I shall never be this good.’ As a reader I was compelled and excited to read on, the promise of a good book was terrific and it led me deep into:

The Middle

There’s also much advice on how to get through the great swampy middle, where plot wanders in circles, tension withers and dies, and characters stand in empty rooms and discuss what they should do next.  When that happens I believe they are not really talking to each other, they are asking the writer for directions.

Often I’ll put a book like that down, or skim to the end. More rarely I’ll keep reading because the quality of the writing keeps me engaged. Then, even more rarely, all that seeming wandering turns out to be deliberate, it draws into sharp focus, and you realise the writer really did know what they were doing. The brilliant The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane, a book about the ancient footpaths of Britain, is a very good example. Truly, not all who wander are lost.

Usually though, it’s best not to wander. Where is tension, where is pace and forward movement? An agent once wrote that they could not remember ever having put a book down because it had too much tension. This is top advice, and really is worth paying a lot of attention to. Without it your reader may never reach:

The End

A good ending is essential but I’ve not read much advice on how to do that, or even what one is. An ending needs to be as good as you can make it for several reasons and a key one is that a reader remembers how they feel when they put your book down. And that determines how they talk about it, and even if they will ever read another book by that author. Word of mouth is incredibly important – I once had a long fantasy series recommended to me on the basis that ‘after book three it gets quite good’. Reader – I never started.

I’ve read many reviews of books in series that complained about how the end was not an end, just a pause in the tale, and how disappointing that was. I seldom had the impression they were giving up on the story, and actually, it’s wonderful that the reader continued to trust the writer. Or maybe it was just hope, because clearly the story wasn’t over. I too hate to leave a story unfinished.

The End depends on the Middle and the Beginning.

If the beginning is about making promises to the reader, then the middle is about trust, and the end is how you reward that trust.  An ending needs to pay back in some way on the promises you make to the reader in the course of the story you have told.  Whether your ending is full of blood and thunder or quietly introspective, whether those promises were directly kept, or subverted, the end should summon memories of the journey we’ve shared, author, reader, and characters. In a word, it should be satisfying.

I remember the tears in my eyes finishing Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky, the ‘sensawunda’ of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and the open and unresolved end of Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows. I am sure you have your own favourites.

I think this is important enough to say again – People remember how they feel about a book when they put it down. Ideally this should be at the end.

~

(This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the Milford SF web site in April, 2019. )

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 79 – In his Dreams

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve posted a chapter. There’s good reason for that, it’s nothing bad but it’s also something I don’t want to go in to here, though I might blog about it later.

Meanwhile, mysteries are being resolved and some questions at least are being answered in…

Chapter 79 – In His Dreams

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

The more Mrs Woosencraft explained, the more intrigued Foxy became. As her hostility faded she occasionally interjected comments of her own. She even went out to the kitchen to refill the kettle.

‘Why don’t you sit in your chair?’ Foxy said on her return.

Gratefully Mrs Woosencraft sank into the cushions.

‘Move up, Tim,’ Foxy said.

Tim lifted Morse onto his lap. The cat’s eyes never left Foxy and she frowned back at it.

‘Never mind him,’ Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘He’ll get used to you.’

Tim didn’t find Mrs Woosencraft’s explanations all that easy to follow. There were long stories and there were long stories, hers seemed to be recapitulating most of human history. He had a few questions of his own.

‘You still haven’t said why you really wanted to find Foxy.’

Mrs Woosencraft pursed her lips. ‘Because I’m old. I’m the last keeper of Deg Naw Wyth, and only an average one at that. I’ve never seen Deep Magic and this felt like my last chance before I well, you know – cark it, brown bread, pushing up the daisies.’

‘Deg Naw Wyth. What does that mean?’

‘It means Ten, Nine, Eight, and the name is a trick because all of those numbers can be broken. It came up from Africa centuries past and took root here. Once– Oh, that was just once and an age before my time. All that’s left are a few fragments – lucky seven, everything I say three times is true.’

‘Un Deg Naw,’ Tim said thoughtfully. ‘You named your cats after numbers?’

‘Well, yes. It was tempting to be clever and call them things like Hilbert and Keith and Heegner, but to be honest it made them easier to remember.’

‘It’s not very affectionate.’

Mrs Woosencraft shook her head. ‘They don’t mind, and they’ve got their own names. Secret ones like ‘Scrwch’ or ‘Yrowl’ they don’t want us to know about. We were all in this together. They wanted to see a mermaid. Don’t ask me why, cats just like looking at them. Me ? All I wanted was to meet someone who knew one of the old ways.’

Foxy took over. ‘Our magics don’t overlap, we’d lost contact. My mother warned me about cats but she didn’t know why, it was just something we knew. We had forgotten they could be a sign, a request for a meeting.’

‘Such a shame.’ Mrs Woosencraft shook her head sadly. ‘Poor little scrap.’

‘What happened to her?’ Tim said.

‘I did,’ Foxy said regretfully. ‘I’d only just come ashore and straightaway she was there, following me. I decided better safe than sorry.’

Tim could believe it. He remembered her reaction to finding Morse in her flat and shifted uncomfortably. It was a difficult thing to discover the woman you– He had to know. ‘Did you–?’

Foxy shook her head emphatically. ‘I scared her off. A lot.’

Mrs Woosencraft squeezed Foxy’s hand. ‘We’ve both made mistakes. I want you to call me Dot. All my friends do.’

‘All right.’

Despite their reconciliation Mrs Woosencraft was exceedingly glum.

‘The skill is gone. Nobody is interested in the old ways. I don’t have a student, not even a chubby little goth girl in black lace, purple hair and a nose ring. Soles on their boots like breeze blocks, some of them. Nineteen isn’t very far to go at all. Ethel managed twenty-three and a bit of twenty nine. Her tutor mastered thirty-one. These days hardly anyone even knows their thirteen times table.’

‘There isn’t enough room in our minds for everything,’ Foxy said. ‘New things push aside the old. Then the new becomes old and the very old ways return in a new form.’

‘I think she’s right,’ Tim said. ‘Foxy and I managed a divination with maps. And I–’ He became self-conscious under Mrs Woosencraft’s suddenly penetrating gaze. ‘I can make things happen in my dreams.’

Mrs Woosencraft cocked her head. ‘Tell me more.’

Tim narrated his experiences with Asklepios.

‘That’s right,’ Foxy said.

‘You knew all this too?’ Mrs Woosencraft exclaimed.

‘I was going to get around to it.’

Mrs Woosencraft flapped her hands with excitement. ‘Show me his pendant.’

Tim pulled it out from his shirt. Mrs Woosencraft cupped her hands around it without touching.

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘Whatever was there, it’s gone.’

‘You don’t believe me,’ Tim said.

‘I do, but I’d like to see you do it.’

‘It’s not that easy,’ Tim said. ‘I have to be asleep.’

Mrs Woosencraft settled back into her chair. ‘Well, I think it’s just about time for my nap.’

To be continued…