Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Last Living Unicorns

I am sadly posting this on the day that the Western Black Rhino was reported extinct.

This piece was Commended in the Somerset Short Story Competition 2013, whose theme was 'Lost'. Copies of the resulting anthology are available for purchase from the organiser Alyson Heap - contact her at alysonheap [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk.

The Last Living Unicorns

Ammassalik, Greenland, 1861

Their fur-covered backs against the dense packed snow, faces flickering in the flame at the centre of the iglu, four teenage children are listening in rapt attention to their storytelling aunt.

In the story she tells them, there is a woman underwater, thrashing and turning in an attempt to disentangle herself from a harpoon rope, which surrounds her waist and whose sharp end has gone into a beluga. It was fired by her son. He used to be blind. When he was blind, she mocked him for it. This is his revenge - her efforts to free herself are in vain.

Like a fly on a web, her struggle is the trap. Her hair is caught in the rope and every determined convulsion of her body twists it one more time. The shot whale is turning the other way, trying to shake off the harpoon. Her hair stretches out on the rope - it’s twisting into something like a lance. Her body is starting to double over.

A mile directly below her, unseen in the navy blue depths, Sedna the Mother of the Ocean stands on the sea bed, her feet the size of giant squid. She touches a tooth with the remnants of a finger and swivels her wrist anticlockwise. As she does so, with one breath left in her lungs the hair of the knotted woman above her hardens to a spike. Her body swells obscenely and tapers towards her feet which are now fusing together in a mighty tail. With one last attempt to free herself, before she even knows what is happening to her, she flicks it and swims free of the harpoon, the world’s first narwhal.

Saverne, France, 1217

A female order sews an image of a unicorn at the Abbey of Mont Sainte-Odile. It is running, pursued by hunters on unhorned horses. Her picture shows their arrows breaking in mid-air as they’re loosed towards it from their bows, as if snapped in two by angels. Untrappable.

At the same time, in another stone room in another part of the abbey, a monk is grinding unicorn horn into powder. The powder will go into an ointment and the ointment will go onto sores in the skin of a local official. The unicorn horn is a narwhal tusk. The monk knows it was once borne by a narwhal, but he has no issue with thinking of the resulting powder as authentic unicorn horn. It’s not such a great leap, once transubstantiation is accepted. This tusk has been consecrated in one hundred Eucharists along with the bread and wine. Whatever it once was, it is now a unicorn horn.

France, 1596

Sent by Queen Elizabeth on diplomatic duties, Sir Henry Winton befell an accident. He is recorded as having been ‘physicked’ with ‘musk, amber, gold, pearl, and unicorn’s horn, and with pigeons applied to his side, and all other means that art could devise sufficient to expel the strongest poison, and he be not bewitcht at all’.

China, 1896

The pharmacist Li Shi Chen explains that Rhino Horn can cure ‘snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning and devil possession’.

Guildford, England, 2010

A young girl places a small plastic toy in the centre of her playroom.

The toy is a white unicorn with midnight-blue mane and tail, stylised here out of all recognition, her face more reminiscent of a chipmunk’s with something like a miniature upturned ice cream cone for a horn. She is called ‘Rarity’. On her rump are three blue diamond shapes.

In the official My Little Pony storyline, Rarity gained this mark on her rump when her horn’s magical ability was revealed. The horn compelled her over great distance to a monolithic rock. As Rarity stood in front of the rock, it cracked open to reveal a panoply of precious stones. Her horn is therefore known to detect jewels in any place.

Such an ability would be of great interest to many poachers, of course.

A barrier with a good few metres radius has been loosely constructed with lego around the toy. The wide space around her takes up almost half the floorspace of the room. On top of the lego, she is carefully placing upturned drawing pins. Around the unicorn, facing outwards, guns raised with the sights to their eyes for anything hostile coming over the fence, she scatters toy soldiers. They are dwarfed by the creature.

Hanoi, Vietnam, 2011

A young woman has bitten her fingernails to the quick with worry over her dying mother. The woman who is the heart of her family - a world without whom she dreads the thought of.

The word is, rhino horn can cure cancer. That it did it for a politician, a few years ago.

She’d do anything to keep her mother.

Rhinoceros horn is made of just the same stuff - keratin - as her bitten fingernails and hair.

Powdered, it sells for more per ounce than gold or cocaine.

Ol Pejeta, Kenya, 2013

There are exactly seven Northern White Rhinos known to remain in the world. Two of those are in the Czech Republic. One, on the Western Coast of the United States. The other four - all those of mating age - live here. They have become a Schrodinger’s Cat of a species. In the space of one or two human generations, they could be thriving or they could be extinct: like other magical horned beasts, known only in our minds and in our books. They are monitored twenty-four hours a day. They are kept under armed guard.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Wells Festival of Literature Poetry Competition - The Prizegiving - Winner's blog

Sunday saw the prize-giving for the 2013 writing competitions (Poetry, Short Story and Crime Novel) at the Wells Festival of Literature.

This year I had one of my poems shortlisted, and the prize-giving at the Bishop's Palace was preceded by a reading of all 27 poems that made the cut. Those writers who could make it read their own work, the rest were well represented by the Festival's own readers.

I felt blessed to be included in the shortlist from more than 400 entrants - particularly once we got to the reading, and it became apparent just what a high standard we were dealing with. I think a good half of the poets included were there, and everyone did a great job of delivering their work. I had a few family and friends with me and - truth be told - at the outset, the prospect of listening to 27 poems read aloud sounded dangerously akin to an endurance test. None of us felt that way at the end. It was a joy to be there.

By the time we'd heard all of them I just felt proud to have read my own poem in that company and not made too much of a hash of it. When the Wyvern Prize for local entrants went, deservingly, to Clive Birnie for 'The Flesh-Maker's Wife' - a superb fantasy (almost horror) vignette from the shoreline of the subconscious - I thought, well, that's that for my hopes of a gong, good to have been here.

I heard Trak E Sumisu's 'Stoney Street' as a compliment to the Rural Life Museum's current exhibition, Drawing Museum Lace, which I'd visited a few days before. 'Stoney Street' gives strong voice to Nottingham's 19th century textile factory workers and is by far the 'real'est of the prize-winners. It has some of the same spirit as Frank Higgins' deeply moving 'The Testimony of Patience Kershaw' (performed lately by The Unthanks). All of these works are vital reminders of the present as much as the past.

David Clarke took second prize for his evocative 'Song of His Sooterkin Brother', and prefaced his reading with a brief but helpful explanation of what a Sooterkin is(!). Having encountered them on the same afternoon, I can't help imagining the narrator of David's poem (who sets off to sea) winding up on Clive's Flesh-Maker's shore to be made again.

The judge was Sean Borodale, who announced each of his choices slightly teasingly with a description of the as-yet unspecified piece in question, which gave the announcement a sweet tension (though very different from the sickening kind of tension you see on TV talent show announcements). I wish now that I had been recording it when he spoke about the winning poem, as I thought as he did that he might well be talking about my poem - if he was being very kind about it! And then, what joy for me, it was indeed 'Catwoman' that he'd picked out of all the entries we'd been treated to that afternoon.

This is my first win in a poetry competition of this sort and I'm thrilled to bits. Thanks to Sean Borodale and to Wells Festival of Literature for making me their winner this year.

Hilly Cansdale won the public vote with 'Elegy for a Hidden Pool', whose 'strange grow of light' brought the 'Wood Between the Worlds' in The Magician's Nephew to my mind.

Of a great batch with not a duffer among them on the shortlist, I also especially enjoyed Ros Carne's comic 'Johann Sebastian Looks Back' ["Come in, Herr Bach," St Peter said, / "we're all delighted you are dead."]; Polly Atkin's 'Miracles of Light' [...May the beams // of your chapel be delivered by stags. May beasts / respect your flesh...]; Nick Pallot's 'Mr and Mrs Moore and Henry', which certainly outdid mine as cat poetry goes (sincerely!); Andrew Morris' 'Pubs' [There were four pubs, one for each bend / and hill, divided by chance, and finally chosen / like football teams and hats.]; and Derek Stanley's ever so familiar 'Tree' [And the same every year of course, / the finding of the lights / and the unpacking of the decorations / and the finding that the lights do not work...]. A bit early for that one, yet!

You can read all the prize-winning poems (and short stories, for that matter) on the Festival's website. I don't know if copies of the programme containing the entire shortlist are still available, but Wells Museum and possibly the local branch of Waterstone's are a good bet for them if so, and at £2 they're an absolute snip.

If you missed the link further up and haven't read it yet, here's my winning poem.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Two Heads part five

Five poems about birds from folktales. This is the fifth part of an ongoing collaboration project - earlier installments were completed with Ben Platts-Mills, Llyr Pierce, Yusuf Azak and Erica Viola. In this case, Ceridwen Brown made the bird-helmet.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Spring at Last

Today is a day for strong daffodils.
Today is a day for my shadow, fitting exactly between the yellow lines of paint on the road.
Today is a day for lambs lining up (almost) neatly on a ridge on the Tor,
And for a lamb in the field to headbutt its mother's udder in search of milk,
And for her to step gently to the side.

Today is a day for thatched roofs,
For eager birdsong,
For pigeons to make a sound with their wings like the one they make with their throats.
Today is a day to drive in a BMW or a Renault or a Citroen,
Or to leave a Volkswagen or a Toyota or a Land Rover parked...

Today is a day to practise the piano.
Today is a day to queue for a record,
Or not to queue for a record.
Today is a day to walk two dogs,
Today is a day for a businesswoman to wear a yellow ribbon.
Today is a day to buy shoes for my wedding.
Today is a day to
be there
in time

Friday, 8 March 2013

Rana, the Frog [First draft]

Yesterday morning, on my way into town, I went past a frog which had been squashed by the traffic. Unpleasant.

Then a little way along the road, there was another - then two more - all of them mashed by unknown tyres. There were many. It was disturbing walking past them, trying to avoid stepping on any. Repeatedly I’d pick out something that might or might not have been a squashed frog; and then each time as I approached it, the shape of a leg or a foot, or its particular combination of colours - pink and green - would confirm that, indeed, it was another who’d croaked his last just hours before. It felt wrong to see the pink parts.

I’d heard in the past about frogs crossing paths in their thousands. For so many to have been caught by vehicles - on a quiet road overnight - it seemed this must have been what had been going on here. If they had been that numerous, it might only have taken one big, oblivious truck going through to cause this scene of carnage.

Then on the way home after dusk, on the same stretch of road - living frogs. Again, lots of them. The faint light gifted to me by the screen of my smartphone doesn’t pick out the dead ones now (and I imagine nearly all of them are making their way through living bodies again now, picked out already by birds). The impression is of animals brought to life again by twilight.

Some hop away from me - just enough to get out of my way, really. Others freeze. ‘That’s how the wheels’ll get you’, I say to them in my mind. Some stop, facing me, in a dynamic stance, holding the tarmac in the same way Spiderman holds walls.

I stop and take a photo of one. I use the flash. On my phone-screen, he is even tinier than he is in real life. Not many pixels in the full space of wet road. I put the photo online, and my friends see the reflection of the flash in the road. Joel says, ‘The road sparkles like a frog’s eye’. Colin says, ‘It looks like a lone frog space traveller, floating in a galaxy’.

I think of the ones whose bodies are in the birds’ bodies, and where the rest of them might be.