A nope rope around the neck

FAIRY TALE

“In these perilous times,” a recent Guardian article urged, “progressives must create narratives that shine a light on crises such as climate change and the plight of refugee.” And megalomaniac world leaders, and climate change, and pollution, and weapons of mass destruction…

Contemporary fiction tends to be situation-specific or narrow in frame, but a fairy tale’s whimsy or fantastical narrative creates vaguery, allowing different analogies to be applied according to circumstance. The headline of the Guardian article was, “We need new fairy stories and folk tales to guide us out of today’s dark woods.”

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THE GIRL WITH THE SNAKE SCARF

Once upon a place, in a faraway time, there lived a warlock in a tower, afraid for his wife to leave. Across many ploughed fields stood a castle, where a necromancer surveyed the crops, and his queen cared for him. The warlock could make new things happen. The necromancer made old things happen again.

The fields were like vast woven tapestries, and a girl stitched them together as she jumped and played, the bobbin in the silk.

One day, a serpent approached. “Why do you tend the fields?” he asked.

For many reasons,” replied the bobbin.

Tell me three,” said the snake.

The first,” the girl said, “is to feed everyone.”

And the second?” the snake wondered.

The second, is to keep this land for feeding people.”

You have one more,” the serpent reminded her.

But most of all,” the girl said, “it’s because it’s fun.”

Very well,” said the snake, “carry on.” Then he promptly disappeared into the night.

The bells of the warlock’s tower rang, while the necromancer’s banshees sang, on opposite sides of the land, while horses and soldiers guarded the castle and the tower. The bobbin made her way home, through the woods, until the path in the green inferno split in two, where the snake waited.

Which path?” he asked. “You have three choices.”

Three?” asked the bobbin, “but there are only two paths.”

And you have used one option. You have two remaining.”

Why have I only two left?”

Because that is the number of paths you see. You have spoken twice now.”

Then,” the bobbin said, “I choose right, because I always do. Or left, because I’ve never gone that way.”

And now,” said the serpent, “I am gone.” And with that, the snake disappeared into the undergrowth.

With all her choices gone, the bobbin walked home on the right path, then she ate porridge, made from the fields, before resting ahead of another day.

The next day, the fields were covered with petrified horses and soldiers, frozen where they’d perished. The snake appeared again.

The warlock’s army want the necromancer to return their dead. And the necromancer’s army want the warlock to pay his army more gold. Can you see a problem? You have three tries at this game.”

The bobbin thought.

There are two problems which are one,” she said. “The necromancer and the warlock. They want what the other has, and they don’t ask their armies what they want. So everyone dies.”

That is very clever,” said the snake, “and you used your three tries in one. You win. But no-one has won. So you need to go now, before the fighting starts again. Let me ask you a question, to ponder as you sleep: If you were to plant one grain of rice in the corner field of this vast pasture, then two in the next, four in the third and so on, doubling with each square. How many rice plants would you have in the 64th field?”

The bobbin walked home thinking, down the left path, and the snake hung coiled from a branch. “You chose the left path,” he said. “Let me ask you another question: Does the right path still exist, because you can’t see it?”

On the third day, the bobbin had to jump over many lifeless souls to reach the middle of the land. There, only nine fields remained, and a battle had already started. In some pastures, the warlock’s troops stood in circles, chanting. And in others, the necromancer’s army burned crosses.

The serpent greeted her again. “May I speak closely, in your ear?” The bobbin nodded, so the snake rested around her shoulders, then whispered, “You may speak three times today. Did you work out the rice problem?”

Yes,” she said, “there would be enough to feed everyone.”

And the problem now?”

They were only fighting over land, and there was enough for everyone. Now both are dead. Now there are only nine fields. The long game has become a short one, which no-one can win.”

So now,” the snake said, “you know there’s another way, and you have to tell them.”

But why would they believe me?”

They won’t now, because you just spoke for the third time.” The bobbin had used her three chances. “You didn’t think enough before you spoke, you spoke too soon, and now you can’t.” The serpent coiled around her neck. “If you were able to, you could have gone to the centre field, the middle earth. You could have formed a shield. They wouldn’t kill an innocent bobbin. So they would have approached you, and you’d have told them they are playing a game which can’t be won now. And they would have listened, because yours would be a new voice to them, one they’ve not heard before. And now, they won’t hear that voice today. Tomorrow, it could all be over. You lose.” The snake tightened his grip.

The girl felt light-headed, so she stumbled down into the middle earth, and the serpent loosened his grip. She stood in the centre of the stand-off, and the snake tightened its grip. The troops gathered around the central square and the snake coiled tighter around the girl’s neck, lifting its body above her head. Soldiers from either side approached as the girl’s feet left the ground.

One of the warlock’s troops held the girl’s legs while a necromancer’s guard pulled at the snake, until the girl fell to the ground. Both free, the girl ran straight ahead to the warlock’s tower, protected by the necromancer’s army, and the snake chased the warlock’s troops towards the necromancer’s castle.

Walking home, the girl looked at the left and right paths, where she’d met the snake before. She parted the bushes and there was a third path, hidden behind the leaves. One she’d not seen before, because she didn’t think it was there.

Once upon a time in the future, in a place not far away, this will happen more than once.

© Steve Laker, 2018

Theory of relative generality

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Writing history can often require a lot of self-discipline, especially when the researcher is keen to learn much, about many things. And so it is with a character I’m creating in a new story, and with me. In science fiction and in fact, there are links, concentric circles and cycles, which give a thing structure.

Relative generality

It’s a fact that all links on Wikipedia eventually lead back to philosophy, and Wikipedia is a very pleasant way to spend a few lost hours, just clicking on links and reading more and associated articles around a subject. Most of my family history research has been in online archives, censuses, and local history groups, but Wikipedia is also useful (and distracting) alongside.

I was researching my maternal nan’s house in Tudeley, Kent, and the records are thinly spread, but I’ve concluded that the house was originally built as a farm house for farm workers. This would be entirely in keeping with my family’s farm labourer roots.

The first family I can find living there were the Bowles family, listed in the 1881 census. Given the size of history (it’s as big as space, and that’s very big indeed), I can only research and write so much, when it’s going into a book based around my family. So tempting as it is to wander off, I’ve tried to restrict myself to the relevant details, including the first recorded use of buildings and the more interesting stories of those who lived within and thereabouts. But like the universe in sci-fi, and philosophy on Wikipedia, everything can eventually link back. I like to form circles in writing, at the same time metaphorically placing rings around things for further reading.

History and economics are cyclical, and it was by coincidence that I watched a documentary on British invasion recently: Not the days of empire and slavery (none of my family’s employers’ families have links to the slave trade, but if they had, I’d have delved further. As it is, they were wealthy but self-made, and with a social conscience), but further back in ancient history. Most of my ancestors were farm labourers, with housing that came with the job. Like my family life, it was communal but not communist. It’s the farm workers and farming itself which led me on a digression into the further past.

I looked at invasions of Britain, or immigration into the country. Thanks to recent advances in DNA technology, research has found that Britain has a long history of immigration and invasion before that which is generally known, as it’s only now being discovered. Long before the Roman and Norman conquests, Britain was home to prehistoric natives, as far back as the Stone Age. In Ightham, where we lived for 12 years, there are remains of Palaeolithic settlements. Recent discoveries suggest that one of the first invasions of Britain was an altruistic and evolutionary movement, when Stone Age implements became tools. The hunter-gatherers of the time developed farming, eventually growing crops and raising livestock. As an aside, the so-called Celtic invasion was more one of fashion invading culture, as humans became more artistic.

Pinning down a definitive family line is especially difficult when the family played mainly supporting roles in history, rarely making it into anything recorded outside of the census. But it’s romantic to think that our ancient ancestors may have been some of those friendly invaders who taught the cavemen to farm.

Having researched my family name already, establishing it as (in our case) either an occupational one (we fished from lakes), or residential (lived beside lakes), I decided to take another quick digression back in time, to find the origin of the word the name is derived from: Lake.

The word has its roots in Anglo Saxon, so it’s logical to conclude one of two things, even with the little recorded history of individuals I have: Either we were part of the Germanic tribes from continental Europe from the 5th century, or we were here already, living by lakes, or fishing, and then we took up farming. It’s impossible to confirm either way, but returning to romanticism, we were always a peaceful folk, either exploring and discovering, or working in communes to improve a way of living. We were always a bit left-wing.

In the family history book post-digression, I’ll be in Ightham for a while longer, recalling more personal stories from the past, linked with wider events in history. As it moves forward, it will end in the 1980s, times of change for the country, and for us as a family, when one of the owners of the big house becomes involved in a Stock Exchange scandal, and we have news reporters camped at the end of the driveway. It was also the time of the Cold War, and the eve of great global changes, in politics and elsewhere.

Back in sci-fi land, I’m writing the last two stories for The Unfinished Literary Agency (out in January), with one set in a post-human world of animals and machines. There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on her own home planet. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Each of us is linked, through no more than six degrees of separation. Like me, the girl is trying to connect past and future to make a circle among others, where people can find their place.

Life can’t be reset, but look inside yourself, and you will find the return to innocence. And from there, that’s the beginning of the game, of another life.”