Sunday, 5 July 2015

Four Scenes from the Major Arcana

Fiction from May 2014 - several friends were writing Tarot stories for a potential musical project at the time. And I’ve been obsessed with the literary archetypes of the Fool and the Hanged Man for years. 

The Fool
The Year of Our Lord 1100, New Year's Day. Good Christian men carousing in quiet streets, rats lapping up their spilled wine. Between the empty buildings and deserted squares, I pass mercenaries playing dice in the doorways of impromptu taverns. I watch holy men swatting away a pickpocket while bartering bright jewels for food. I ignore the soft whisperings of a drunken prostitute.

I had been warned in Antioch, but listening to warnings had never been my strongest suit. Six months after the siege, when the Franks took Jerusalem with steel in their hands and God in their hearts, the rot and rubble have filled this city with more vibrancy than we pilgrims ever could. My small white dog (acquired when we were both starving and shivering on the outskirts of Constantinople) still whines and retches at the stench of the long-dead. I've grown used to it.

The city is too big, they haven't cleared out all the skeletons. They hardly need to. Frankish noblemen are lying in mouldering palaces beneath the Temple Mount, nervous young monks reading them the psalms. The roads are yawning, the mosques are empty. Weeds begin to grow underneath counters, swarm through floorboards, wither in the sun.

The sky an impossible blue, a wisp of cloud resembling nothing less than Christ as a lion rampant. Deus Vult.

Pack slung heavy on my shoulder, I wander and witness. Ignorance is holiness. In a skull-white square, a leper knight, one-eyed and white-bearded, preaches to the carrion. Light in his eyes, he remembers the slaughter. He warbles between languages, speaking of angels and innocence. A brown streak of dry blood adorns his tunic.

Every night, the memories of the city's stones multiply in my dreams. The armies of Christendom vaulting the walls, a flood of wolves tearing street from street, ripping up the earth, drowning the wells. Swords plunged hilt-deep. Jerusalem faltering on the cliff's edge. Plunge forward, weapon in hand, joyful.

The Wheel of Fortune
It feels sort of twisted to say it, but I actually like A&E departments at three in the morning. I like the blurred, dreamlike blankness of the afflicted, the smooth professionalism of the nurses, the messy egalitarianism of battle-scarred drunks sharing space with nervous children and silent pensioners. The wash of chemical light merges with the hum and burble of electronic equipment, the sound shifting in and out of phase with reassuring regularity. Nothing smells of anything.

I was sitting with my daughter on the hard plastic chairs to which we had been directed. She was shivering, and shaken by occasional storms of violent coughing. But she didn’t seem to be frightened, and I was grateful for that.

There was a television hanging in the corner of the waiting room, small and old fashioned. No sound was emerging from it, and the rest of the patients in the room were ignoring it. Televisions are supposed to be distracting; I allowed myself to be distracted.

The programme was badly dated. It was some sort of gameshow, with hairstyles and a garish set from a forgotten corner of the 1990s. A young man in a slim purple suit capered silently between the contestants, who looked tense and worn under the studio lights. At periodic intervals, the contestants would grab and then spin a rainbow coloured wheel, adorned with numbers, cryptic phrases, and alchemical symbols. A young woman with a feline grin revealed hidden letters from vast, blanked-out phrases.

I began to feel unsettled. This didn't seem to be a broadcast from a television channel. The image quality had the thick, stuttering grain typical of a VCR that had been watched and rewatched to destruction. The fact that I was the only person in the room looking at the television began to feel odd, as if the others' refusal to watch was motivated by emotions that I could neither grasp nor understand.

I stared at the television for some time. The rest of the room seemed to darken and pulsate, but the image on the screen only became brighter, harsher. The wheel spun and spun, the man in the purple suit laughed and laughed with easy charm.

I blinked. The television was gone, a blank space in the ceiling where it used to hang.

My daughter was coughing blood.

The Hanged Man
Here’s Jonny Dostoyevsky, seven foot two in androgynous clothing, mottled with bruises and blood. He’s suffering badly from exposure, confused and disorientated. He does not know how far from the city he has travelled or for how long he has been travelling. Jonny is finding it hard to think straight, what with the mental flashes of the young men whose boots, bricks and bottles smashed into his ribcage with the force of asteroids, and who screamed hatred at him long into the night. It is unclear to Jonny whether he is experiencing this incident every hour in actuality, or whether he is merely subject to trauma-induced flashbacks.

Jonny has found himself in a semi-rural churchyard on the outskirts of an upscale commuter village. In the daytime he might travel between tea shops, antique sellers and unwelcoming stares, but right now it is midnight, so he slouches between the graves, the trees providing shade against the streetlights. The church ahead is a massing of dark grey stones, Victorian if Jonny suspects correctly.

He walks then stumbles then walks again through the grass and the weeds, and pushes without hope against the heavy wooden door. To his surprise, it opens. Someone must have forgotten to lock the church tonight.

The interior is pitch black, but Jonny is familiar with the architecture of empty churches in the dark. He fumbles briefly for a lightswitch, finds it, and the room is illuminated. It is rather plain and chilly, but unpretentious and well cared for. It will do nicely.

As Jonny glances across the room for the safest and most comfortable place to sleep, he notices that something is wrong. Although the stained-glass window above the altar is dark against the night, he can see the form locked inside its mosaic. It shows what he knows to be neither Christ, nor the apostles, nor the prophets, but quite a different God hanging one-eyed and restless from the branches of the world tree. The figure is upside-down, a coil of green hoisting up his leg; his head  flanked by two abstract scrawls of black glass suggesting the flight of ravens. The god is heavily muscled, in pain, waiting.

With our heads bowed, let us walk respectfully away from the circle of rest. Let us pack up the old symbols of sanctuary and wisdom, of suffering and rebirth. Let us wrap them in silk cloths and place them in wooden boxes inlaid with pearl and ivory. Burned in ink across billions of pages, the signs and signifiers may stand sentinel, white shadows on a white screen.

The World
Sir Hempsworth Bullhorn stood plump and jocular, armed with ceremonial pith-helmet, pickaxe and monocle. The room he stood in bristled with wood-panelling, stags' heads, incomprehensible paintings and at least a dozen almost-identical civil servants. On the table before him lay a young woman, unashamedly nude, posed in an uncomfortably artistic fashion, her elbow and hipbone digging into the hard wood.

“You have all met my wife?” asked Hempsworth, an attempt at a roguish smile congealing somewhere in his cheeks. The dozen almost-identical civil servants nodded smoothly.

“Mrs Hempsworth Bullhorn is an extraordinary woman” her husband continued, “Magnificently accomplished. Magnificently obliging. And I am sure that she will be able and willing to assist us with our plans. Allow me to provide a few details.”

The dozen almost-identical civil servants took out their notebooks. Mrs Hempsworth Bullhorn attempted to look satisfied with this state of affairs, but the strain of her pose was more than visible.

“I have travelled”, said Hempsworth, “to every kingdom, principality, republic and unruled territory on the Earth. I've seen cities of glass hanging from ropes in the clouds. I have hacked my way through jungles of iron growing from the bodies of vast eagles. I have traded with men as small as mice and hunted mice as tall as men. I can tell you this much: it's a mess out there. And quite frankly, it needs cleaning up.”

A rustle of approval from the dozen almost-identical civil servants.

“The map is as good a way to start as any. A planet spiralled and spidered out into hundreds of warring, formless territories is no sort of planet at all. Especially when we own the whole thing already. So rather than continuing to pretend that the world is a plane of multicoloured scrawls and swathes of blue, I suggest we use my wife.”

Twenty-four interested eyes on Mrs Hempsworth Bullhorn's uncomfortable flesh.

“Pin her up like a butterfly, surround her with some vague but portentous symbols to get the blood up, and Bob's your uncle. The world as we know it captured and divided by clarity and simplicity. We'll hardly need to think about anything ever again.”

There was applause, then, brief but sincere. The expression on the naked woman's face was difficult to read. And somewhere beyond the room's thick windows, the seas began to shift.

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