Sunday, August 28, 2005


The following entry used to be the story for the S'pore Polytechnic Creative Writing Competition, but, as will be seen, its a little bit too long (the limit was a thousand words.) So there.



Pale dawn filled the yawning sky. The sun, wreathed in pale wispy clouds, rose in the east, and a silky topaz light covered the awakening world.

Lord Landan Sayde stood in his chambers, situated high above the plaza that was even now massing with a great host. Even from the loftiness of the King’s Tower, Sayde imagined that he could hear the ceaseless clamor of the thousands of men below. Sayde pulled at the gauntlet on his right hand as his squire fussed over his armour. He winced as the boy fastened the heavy steel plate securely on his chest, and resisted the urge to make a sound as a carelessly fastened leather harness rode up his crotch.

Sayde’s squire gave him a brief apologetic look. “My lord, they say you will be leading the heavy horse to the battle,” he said as he re-fastened the wayward harness. Sayde gave no answer to that. The boy made a good squire, and would doubtless become fine knight one day, if the gods were good. But he had a worrying disposition towards nosiness. Curiosity in excess serves a man his own cold leftovers in the end, as the sages said.

But the squire was oblivious to Sayde’s lack of answer. He continued, nonchalant, as he straightened out Sayde’s mailshirt and soothed the creases in his cloak. “Cruel Sendric will be at the field, they say, my lord. Father says this will be a crucial battle. He’ll be riding out as well, my lord, under Lord Pandon, leading the vanguard. You are riding in the foreguard, my lord?”

Sayde loosed a quiet sigh. “Yes, Leo.” Sometimes innocence and naïveté could be precious. Especially to one who had seen many terrible things in life. Like him. “The foreguard Harriers are my command.”

“Pity you aren’t leading the foreguard itself, my lord.” The squire finished tying the last of the laces on his boots, and stood, blowing on his hands and admiring his handiwork. “The foreguard sees the most battle, don’t they, my lord?” His face was shining with excitement. “Would it that I were old enough to go. My lord father says your first battle makes you a true man.”

Battle is as likely to make you a dead one, Leo. A wise man prays for peace in his time.” Sayde adjusted his gorget. “Thank you, Leo. You will be a fine knight one day.” The squire beamed with pleasure. “Luck to you, my lord,” he gushed. “May you slay many a foe this day,” he concluded, more formally. Sayde nodded gravely in return. “Though they say some of the Cruel King’s best bannermen are on the field. Lords Shien, Tartar and Skyde are coming, or so they say. And the Silken Sword, my lord.”

Sayde stopped in his tracks. He turned, keeping a carefully neutral expression. “Lord… Tlyan? He is on the field?” His tone was carefully nonchalant, but it could not keep the shock and tension out of his voice. Deep down, he felt long-buried emotions stirring in their fiery bowels.

“Why, yes, my lord. I heard tell from Lords Tymont and Shelldike. The Silken Sword’s commanding the foreguard. The scouts, my lord. The news came in while you slept.”

Sayde walked away without another word.


Sayde’s face was set in dark grim lines. For a man who rarely smiled, it gave him an even more fearsome appearance. The stableboy squeaked as Sayde took the reins from him. Even his destrier whickered uneasily, sensing his master’s mood.

All of a sudden he felt that his heart no longer belonged with the battle. His thoughts were plagued incessantly with memories of Tylan, whose swordplay was so smooth and elegant that men on both sides called him the Silken Sword. Sayde was no coward. But his heart lurched at the prospect of facing Tylan on the battlefield. He suppressed those thoughts with savage determination, gripping the reins tightly in his gauntleted fist. Before him the glimmering plaza stretched wide and vast, packed with forty thousand men. More were assembling outside the keep itself, a host of a size that the Kingdoms had rarely seen.

Gods, I beseech you, that I should not face Tylan on the battlefield. Not again.


The mighty host rode rank by rank out the huge gates of the city. King Vaeran himself rode at the head. With Sendric abroad the king could not afford to seem cowardly, huddling safe within the walls of his castle. He was obliged to face his foe on the battlefield. But it was a challenge he was glad to take. Vaeran was a brave warrior and a good strategist, and he was well-loved by the smallfolk, even the ones languishing under Sendric’s cruel rule.

Sayde rode at the head of the column of calvary, brooding amidst the cheers of the populace. He paid little heed to the flowers, the coloured papers, and the spring leaves cast on him and his men. Vaeran is loved, indeed. And today may see me cursed before gods and men.

It seemed an eon before the entire seething mass of men and steel streamed out of the bright city. The huge city gates lumbered shut with a resounding boom, and the deafening cheers of the people were suddenly muted. Sayde muttered a quick prayer, and spurred his horse on.

The host crossed the Maiden’s Neck and deployed themselves before the precarious crossing, waiting for the approach of the enemy host. Sendric’s army was possibly larger by five thousand men; but they had an advantage in terms of location; the White City had been built upon a high hill, commanding an excellent view of the surrounding lands. Sendric was approaching from the east with his siege weaponry, and the bulk of his host hoped to win through the Maiden’s Neck and seize the countryside, pillaging the environs.

From the high loft Sayde could make out the approaching enemy. Light from the dawn glinted off the splendid array of steel in the distance. Sayde tried not to think of Tylan, but stray thoughts he could not control were creeping up with malicious intensity, and he began to sweat under his helm. His hand gripped tight on the hilt of his longsword.

The wait was almost unbearable, but at last the approaching army reached the base of the hill. Lord Pandon roared an order and flung his sword forward, and a thousand bolts of death were loosed from a thousand bows. The deadly shafts blackened the sky and descended like rabid wolves upon Sendric’s host. Sickening tension filled the air as wave after wave of arrows were loosened, driving their way through neck and head and chain-mail, a deliverance of death.

At last King Vaeran let loose the hounds of battle. The clear call of the king’s warhorn resounded across the plain. Pikes were lowered, swords unsheathed. The Valekyd, Vaeran’s own house knights, belched forth a fearsome basso roar as they ran downhill, swords swinging with wild abandon. Footmen filed through gaps in the pikemen rows, brandishing shortswords and warhammers, descending to meet the approaching army below.

Sayde unsheathed his own sword and turned his head. “Form up!” Warhorses neighed. “We ride down to dance with death!” Pointing his sword forward, Sayde led the charge. The drumbeat of iron hoofs filled his ears as he rode. He felt the familiar rush of adrenaline surge into his blood, and a strange calm settled on his senses. His consciousness narrowed into a pure cone of scything parity.

They plunged into the flank of the enemy like a dagger through unguarded flesh. Sayde felt the onset of the battle high. He rode his horse high, calm as his sword sloughed through his enemies, calm as his arms became drenched in hot blood. The dance of death tilted precariously towards one side, and it was not his. Beside him Mandore Kane, his knight-at-arms, laughed as he cut down the enemy. They had seized the field. Kane slaughtered the infantry captains and chopped through an enemy banner that had been planted upon the bare earth swimming in blood and bile, sending the great pole with the green-and-gold sigil of King Sendric’s house upon the banner crashing down upon the ground. The soft fabric turned black as it soaked up the blood.

“My lord Sayde!” This was Kane’s voice, grating in his ears. “The enemy foreguard knights are unprotected from the backs and flank, in engagement with our forces! I say we seize the chance and crush them between the King’s hammer and our anvil!”

Sayde looked around and saw it for true. Sendric’s infantry lay dying on the field, and the bulk of his forces were on the other side of the battle, fighting with Vaeran’s rearguard knights. Freeriders and mercenary forces would also be riding abroad and plunging into the fray from the rear. They were free to crush the knights of the foreguard, as long as the battle did not sweep their way.

But Sayde hesitated. He remembered the words of his squire. Tylan commanded the foreguard. Sayde’s heart gave a sickening lurch and his weathered face fell. Kane was staring at him. “My lord? Are you well? We must ride, soon. The fray approaches on swift legs.” Sayde gritted his teeth, looked up with eyes that were haunted by sorrow. “Raise the banners, Kane. We will ride.”

“Very good, my lord.” Kane shouted for the banners. “We ride! Sayde knights, we ride!!” Sayde and Kane led the long line of the surviving knights in a furious gallop towards Tylan’s men. “Wedge up!” Kane roared. “There will be more slaughter this day!”

The prospect that had so haunted Sayde was now imminent. The specter of the unbearable thought of facing Tylan rose in his mind again, and it would not go away. The vast bulk of Sendric’s foreguard loomed ahead of them, engaging Vaeran’s knights. In the distance Tylan’s banners, silver sword on an azure-blue field, fluttered in the wind. Once again the knights plunged like swift lightning upon the foe. There was no time to react. Sayde’s knights carved a vast swath of death across Tylan’s men before they could face the new threat. Under the hammer and anvil Tylan’s forces broke and scattered. Tylan himself still led a hard core of his most experienced knights, an island amidst the seas of Vaeran’s men, desperately fighting their way out of the encircling foe to flee back to the core of Sendric’s army. “They must not be allowed to rejoin Sendric’s army,” Kane declared to Sayde. “We must capture and kill the Silken Sword.” Sayde squeezed his eyes shut under his helm. “We must seize the chance, my lord. Ride to the Sword’s men and pinion them under our swords, and the day will be yours.”

Black anger filled him. He felt filthy and unclean. All he could do was to mutter, “Do it, then.” He dug his legs hard into his destrier’s flank, and the warhorse spurred forward, blood dripping from its mouth where it had crushed the enemy between its jaws. Together his knights rode to engage the dense knot of Tylan’s men fending off the swords of Vaeran’s footmen. Morningstars flashed and gored men’s bowels. Beside him he could hear Kane’s roars as his sword rose and fell, rose and fell. The cries of men filled his ears. A piercing shriek from a dying knight caused Sayde to look down. The knight was lying in a pool of his own blood, and he was weeping in pain even as his hands tried, ineffectually, to gather his spilled entrails. Kane’s horse rode over him, and the hooves landed with a sickening splash and thud, mangling his organs even more. A last kick cracked the knight’s skull, and when the hooves rose they were slick with blood.

Sayde’s stunned reverie broke only in time to block a swing of a sword from a wildly screaming knight. His parry slid quickly into a fluid strike that lashed a red smile above the knight’s gorget, sending him toppling off his horse. He looked around. His knights had done their work; the enemy was dead or scattered. But Tylan’s tattered banners still rose high above the boiling battlefield. As Sayde watched a stray arrow whistled through it, tearing at the thin fabric.

Kane came to him, breathless and face flushed. He was grinning from ear to ear, even as one ear was dangling from a thread of skin. “My lord! The enemy is broken, but the Silk Sword still rides.” His face fell as he saw Sayde’s expression. “My lord?”

But Sayde had had enough. He turned his horse and galloped away, not heeding Kane’s surprised cry. He was leaving the fray to his men. He could not face Tylan in the field. Could not look upon his face again.

But the gods had another plan for Landan Sayde. As he spurred his horse forward an incoming knight with Sendric’s green-gold serpent emblazoned on his surcoat rode past, straight at Sayde. Almost by reflex Sayde lifted his sword and stood ready. Then he looked up, and his sword froze in midair as his eyes met that of Lord Tylan’s.

Sayde only stared. The Silken Sword’s golden helm was askew and his viridian cloak torn to rags, but his features still shone reassuringly out of an older, more weathered face than Sayde remembered. Tylan’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled a bitter smile.


Sayde swallowed and held firm his sword, even as it was pointed toward the bleeding ground. “Tanaris.” The name was said in a ragged whisper.

Tylan’s smile faded, and was replaced with a look of sadness. “Old friend. So…finally, we meet once more, on the battlefield.”

“It didn’t have to be like this, Tanaris.”

All around them a battle raged. They were in the eye of the storm of blood. A curious lassitude came over Sayde. Ironically, he felt at peace, not a bit like what he had imagined of this encounter on many a sleepless night. Finally, he had met his friend again after all these years.

But Tylan’s weathered face only deepened into an angry scowl. “It had to be, when you declared for the False King and forswore your vows.”

“Open your eyes, Tany. Look upon Sendric’s kingdom. There is nothing there but blood and cruelty. Sendric once put an entire village to the sword, men, women and children all, just because one man cursed him behind his back. Who can declare fealty to a king who wields cruelty as a weapon?”

“He is a Nirius of the first blood.”

“So is King Vaeran.”

“Only of the second, and of the queen’s blood.”

Sayde felt frustration well up in him. “Vaeran is a noble king, and wise.”

He was not prepared for what came next. Tanaris’s features contorted into pained anguish, and his words came out in a low, hollow growl. “Sendric killed…he killed my daughter, Landan. You think I have never considered? You think…” he wiped his lips with an angry flourish, and his voice resumed its normal timbre. “But we are not here to quibble over allegiances. I heard all your arguments. You betrayed me, Sayde. Betrayed me, and your rightful king.”

You betrayed me. My allegiance was never his”

“Enough.” Tylan drew himself up to his full height. With infinite grace, he drew his sword. “Now our swords will cross, and we will die in the name of our kings.”

“No, Tanaris.”

“No?” The mocking answer came, and Sayde’s ears burned. “Are you afraid to face me in combat? I can’t count the number of times I threw you in the practice range.”

“Remember, Tany. Remember our friendship. Remember the times of Jindric’s reign, where we were the greatest friends, and men marveled at the strength of our bond. They say that no stronger bond save a marriage could be forged between Houses Sayde and Tylan.”

For a moment Tylan’s scowl wavered. Then his face hardened again. “Those days are long past.”

“No friendship dies a complete death.” In a fit of daring, Sayde slid off his horse and stood before his erstwhile friend. He removed his gauntlet and held out his hand.

A tear slid slowly down Tylan’s face. “I will not waste my daughter’s blood.” His gait shifted to a swordsman’s stance. “I am sorry, old friend.” He brought his sword forward and drove the deadly point towards Sayde’s face.

Sayde stared at his doom. The deepest nightmares of those nights were coming true in the most terrible fashion. But even so, he could not bring himself to cross swords with Tylan.

The sword point halted a centimeter away from Sayde’s face. Tylan trembled, and the sword point wavered. “Fight, damn you, FIGHT!” He shook his sword. Sayde stood, impassive, almost daring to hope. Finally, Tylan lowered his sword. The point grazed at Sayde’s cheek and left a bloody red line. It was the most delicious pain on earth, and Sayde felt that he had, at last, reached the very ends of the world.

“You will not fight, will you?” Tylan almost sounded wondering. “You have more honour that I…brother.”

“I could not raise a hand against a friend.”

“Then you are honourable.”

“No less than you.”

Faint smiles flickered across both their faces. “Then I will go…brother. Till we meet again…in hallowed halls.”

“And share a cup of mead.”

Sayde stood there watching as Tylan ran to Sendric’s battered host, even now being pummeled to bloody bits by Vaeran’s victorious forces.

"Till we meet again…Tanaris,” he echoed under his breath.


Thursday, August 25, 2005


The cold rain was falling outside, and the windows rattled with the force of the wind. Tiny shards of rainwater slid silently down the clear glass. The rains were in the height of their intensity in this time of the year. To Jacob it seemed merely a portent of darker things to come.

At least it was night, he thanked the stars. Jacob never went out at night. Everyone who knew him understood that. Jacob did not understand exactly why he disliked going out at night. But it did seem that the reason always skirted naughtily around the contours of his mind; though he never could remember. His nights were...strange. He was always terribly sweaty after a night's sleep; sometimes he would also seem to sleepwalk. Once he distinctly remembered dozing off in the sofa without changing out his officewear, which was surprising in itself because he rarely retained such memories; and when he woke the next morning the dandelions were dead, and he was back on his bed, hair matted with sweat, wearing only shorts, and his face covered by a sheen of oil. He would try to grasp at the memories but they always went away.

And a new day would dawn.

Always punctual, always industrious and driven, was Jacob the office worker. In his drab cubicle in one of the ubiquitous office blocks of the city, he would compile office reports, summarize documents, prepare spreadsheets, type official letters - and he never went overtime. Not once in his eight years of work did Jacob step out the office later than was necessary. And when it came to promotions, Jacob had already refused thrice, always professing family pressures when he had none. His superiors were all bewildered at his eccentricities, but Jacob had his own, unknowable reasons. But he had brought the promotion letters home, had them laminated on a weekend, and placed them up on the wall. He often took to staring at them in times of idleness, wondering.

Jacob reclined on his chair. His bare feet were hitched up on the coffee table. Outside the rain continued beating on; like all other constructs of nature it was blind to mortal needs and whimsies. Jacob's eyes were fixed upon the ceiling, examining a small spot of grit. His hands fiddled idly with a coin, rolling it about with nimble fingers. The coin read "Lycantropa Ringardia" on the front and was wreathed with embossed motifs of flowers.

Jacob felt a strong sense of deja vu, a faint rememberance on the edges of memory of the same scene repeated over and over again in the course of his life. In that etheral memory he was always rolling the coin between his fingers. Come to think of it, he didn't know exactly why he had begun playing with the coin in the first place. He delved into inner thought, trying to recall where and when he had picked up the coin. Or why he owned it in the first place. didn't even know where it came from.

He frowned. Try as he did, he could not dredge out the irritating memory from the depths of his mind. It was a frustratingly familiar sensation. He let out his breath in a long slow sigh. All at once, he began to hear a soft, subdued voice yammering faintly at him
from the corners of his consciousness . Disconcerted, he sat up, in abrupt attention. As he waited, tense, the tiny voice grew louder, and he could make out words. He wondered if he were finally going mad.

As the voices grew louder and more insistent, Jacob jerked up from the sofa. His knee knocked the coffee table over and sent it toppling to the side, spilling the assorted magazines and books onto the floor. Jacob clenched his fists and looked wildly around him, searching for a foe that was not there. His hands flew to his hears and clamped down hard on them. "GET OUT OF MY HEAD!" he roared. Spittle flew in all directions. "GET OUT! GET OUTTT!!!!!" Sobbing, he loosed a wail of fury and despair. But the voices were oblivious, and like the beat of wardrums they bore down on him. Jacob collapsed on his knees, squeezing his eyes shut. Tears spurted forth nonetheless. He felt as if his head were about to explode with the grisly force of nattering voices, filling his soul with gargantuan rage and despair. Jolts of pain lanced through his head. Once again deja vu pervaded his awareness. He'd experienced this before.

Beside him, the coin lay on the floor, unheeded. The inscribed words glowed a faint green. A livid purple suffusion began to shine fiercely from the rest of the coin, bathing the room in a lurid violet light. And as if from some distant place beyond the bitterest seas a titanic but infinitely soft voice could be heard, intoning the words Lycantropa Ringardia in tones both grand and filled with a certain saturnine satisfaction.

On the floor, an agonized Jacob let out a last piercing shriek that changed pitch to an animal growl. His teeth melted into fangs; rank slaver filled his mouth. His face elongated into a muzzle and sprouted coarse hairs. His eyes glazed over and turned an angry red. His body was twisting and rippling, proportions changing, legs and arms growing claws and thick hides. His clothing disappeared into his body, revealing the agile new creature that now crouched on the carpeted floor. And once-Jacob growled, baring his teeth in a savage snarl.

In the sky overhead the clouds parted and the rain finally stopped, and the full moon emerged, huge and white and glowing with suffused light, hanging low over the night sky flecked with sparse stars.

Jacob dropped on his legs and let out a mournful howl that shook the earth. With one powerful leap he - it - bounded to the window, opened it with his powerful claws, and escaped. On the floor, the coin shimmered and the lurid glow faded away, and the room was left bathed in all the normal colours of modernity.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Music awashes me in emotion.

Melodies drift like eternal clouds towards the amalgamation of vision.

Harmony penetrates the soul and drowns it in the sweetest liquid bliss.

Music is like the sea; it carries you wherever it may deign to go. The waves of harmony are strong yet gentle, the salt-flecked air cool on wet skin. Music draws out emotion, and emotion, in turn, is the genesis of all music. Truly soulful music can never be industrially produced.

Only a soul can understand truly how profound sound can be.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Stony Waters

John McFarlane was an old man. He had seen eighty summers, and life held little promise for him now. He watched his granddaughter come to him, smiling prettily as she approached, and held out his frail arms to wrap her in a feeble embrace. The sweet child knew not to hug him too tightly; his body was already brittle enough as it was. So instead of the tight embrace that was her custom to the grownups she held her grandpa's chest carefully to her face as he stroked her hair with his gnarled, mottled hands.

"Good night, grandpa," she piped in her high, young voice, and showed her bug teeth as she grinned. McFarlane smiled back, pulling his sagging lips back in what must have looked like a grisly leer. The leer of a skeleton, perhaps, he thought surlily. But the child only giggled as she slid out of his arms and stood before him. "Good night, child," he replied, voice old and soft. Inwardly, he sighed.

It was another sleepless night. McFarlane lay with his eyes open, staring up at the dark ceiling. He thought of his youth, of the days of his strength and passion, all a hazy blur in his mind. He thought of his three-years-departed wife, how she had captured his dreams when he'd first beheld her. That, at least, remained clear in his mind, the memory of their first kiss, of Joanna, their first child, as she lay crying in the maternity ward. He smiled, remembering the trepidation they'd felt at raising her. In the dark, at least, he could imagine in his mind that he did not leer in a skeletal fashion, that his smile was as bright and cheery as in his youth, a smile that had gained his wife's love.

He thought of death, and wondered why he didn't fear it any longer, as he had once.


The next morning, they found Mcfarlane dead. He had died peacefully in his sleep, or so they said. He granddaughter had been the first to find him. She had gone up to his bed to wake him. But no matter how much she shook him, he would not wake. His head only lolled limply on the pillow. No breath escaped his lips. Horrified, the girl had run to her parent's room, weeping hysterically and crying, "Grandpa! Grandpa!" in her fluting voice. It was tragic, people said. Tragic and surprisingly emotional. His granddaughter had loved him very much. Whenever they saw the stricken girl they would lay a hand on her head and whisper condolences softly in her ear, and assurances that Grandpa was a great man and he was now residing in that place above the sheerest clouds, in God's realm.

The girl would then face them, tears streaming down her face. Filled with all the innocence of a young child, she would say, "I want my Grandpa back. Even from heaven."


McFarlane woke with a start. It was a grey morning, and cold wind blew lightly through the opened windows. So I did sleep after all, he thought to himself. For a few restful moments he watched the curtains billow, then with a painful lurch sat up in bed, dangling his stick-thin legs over the bedside. He enjoyed a windy morning; he liked the feel of the air on his bare feet. He winced as he brought his arm to bear, pushing himself up vainly from the bed. Dull pain shot through his legs like the bone-splitting crush of a mace on flesh. Arthritis getting worse than ever, he thought.

"Curious," he said, aloud. "Erissa!" he called with all his strength. Even so his voice came out old and weak. But his granddaughter didn't come. He shuffled to the bedpost and put on his slippers. Clutching the desk he squeezed his eyes as another jolt of pain lanced through him. "Arthritis bad today," he muttered under his breath. Painstakingly, he limped toward the door, opened it, and peered out with his rheumy eyes. The corridor was empty, the usual sounds of breakfast were strangely absent.

He ran a hand over his spotted scalp in indignation, then worry. Where'd they go? Why'd they leave me here? He thought of his granddaughter, ever caring, ever protective of her grandpa. They'd sit and he'd tell stories...No, he thought to himself, nothing to worry, they'd come back sooner or later.

He climbed down the stairs, grunting with every step, and made himself comfortable on the sofa. He settled down to wait.


It was a grey dawn on the day of McFarlane's funeral. He had been well-respected in life by the people of the town, so many turned up for the service. The granddaughter, dressed in black, cried until her eyes were red as she listened to the solemn recitation of her grandfather's virtues. People looked at her, some in sympathy, others in pity.

Later, she stood in front of the crowd, sobbing again, as undertakers carried McFarlane's heavy coffin out of the van, bringing his body to his final resting place. Solemnly, they lowered the coffin into the hole in a slow, respectful fashion, and stood aside as others shoved soil into the grave. At its head, there stood the gravestone, grey and ornate, and the epitaph stood out in clear embossing from the rest of the words.

"You lived well
And died in peace.
Rest well in heaven."

As the last shovelfuls of soil were packed onto the fresh mound, Erissa wept as she set a bouqet of crysanthenums gently onto the grave, murmuring, "I love you, grandpa," under her tears.


Mcfarlane was losing his patience. Soon, however, his impatience began to be tinged by worry. Their car was not in the garage, as far as he could see. He grabbed a cane and began pacing as well as he could across the room. He was about to give up and call a relative's house when he heard the sound of the doors opening, the distinctive double click of the latch, and the piping voice of his granddaughter. It seemed surreal. His daily routine had been so unceremoniously wrecked; he was going to give them a good talking-to.

His daughter entered the kitchen, where he was sitting now, taking a rest from his pacing. He stared out the window, deliberately ignoring her. He heard her say, "Hello, father,". He frowned. It wasn't her to be so formal. Her voice sounded metallic in Mcfarlane's ears.

"Where have you been?" he asked, pointedly.

She said nothing. Her back was on him, as she worked laboriously to unpack their groceries. For a moment Mcfarlane was chagrined. Why hadn't she answered?

He was on the point of asking her again when she turned and faced him, and Mcfarlane's words died in his mouth as an uneasy, queasy feeling enveloped the pit of his stomach. His heart fluttered. The house had suddenly turned cold. As cold as his daughter's smile, uncannily like a snake's, as her purplish lips bore down upon him like two graveworms.


Erissa sat in her room, brooding. Her mother was calling her to dinner, but she didn't feel like eating. Her thoughts floated incessantly to her grandpa. The tears threatened to fall again. "I'm not calling you again, Erissa..." her mother's voice sounded outside her door. Erissa kept quiet, lower lip quivering tremulously. "Erissa..." her mother's voice sighed outside, "please...we're all very sad about grandpa too..." the voice stopped, and began again, not so strong as before. "He loved us all, as he loved you. Come on, come have can't hide in there forever, you know."

"Joanna," her father's voice now. "Come on, its okay. Let her be alone for awhile. We'll keep something for her." They were still whispering as they walked away. Erissa could hear their footsteps going downstairs, for dinner.

She stood up and clambered to the window. Outside, stars shone bright, painted against the dark blue sky. She closed her eyes. "Grandpa, please come back to me," she prayed, starting to weep again. "Please...please...please..."


"I love you, grandfather," Erissa said, smiling as she kissed him on the cheek. Mcfarlane endured it, trembling and eyes wide, as the soft, wet things came away. He resisted the urge to wipe his cheek. he made a tremendous effort to smile up at Erissa, who was smiling in that cold, lifeless way. "Goo..od, child..." was all he managed to stammer.

Erissa's voice rang out again like to bite of cold steel. "What's wrong, grandfather?" she hissed, still smiling. "Are you feeling fine?"

"Yes, dear child, yes..." Mcfarlane felt ice creeping up his spine. He watched, trembling, as the girl walked out the room door. His gut wrenched in terror.

Whats happening to me? He thought wildly. They seemed...dead, lifeless, always smiling, always polite. Mcfarlane wondered at his own sanity. He touched his bald pate with a trembling hand. What's happening?


Erissa ate breakfast the next day. Her parents were cheered at this; they fed her more than she was used to. She didn't complain; she knew, with an odd maturity that belied her youth, that they cared for her and loved her more than anything else in the world. Grandpa's death wasn't the end, she thought. The world was still bright, and colourful, and shining.

She spooned up the last of her cereal and returned the bowl to the basin. She walked up to her parents, who were smiling with relief. She smiled back, and said softly, "I'm sorry, mom and dad."


The cold dawn broke. Mcfarlane knew this wasn't a dream. The world was ghostly before his sight. Quiet and dreadful. He got up, shivering, and looked around. Erissa didn't come as she was usually wont to. For once, he felt a sort of relief. It wasn't him, he knew with a wrenching certainty. But he didn't know why, or how. He made his painful, slow way down the stairs to the kitchen. The world was cold and grey. It felt strangely empty, as if he was the only man left in the universe. At table, they were already seated, food untouched before them, utensils bright and inhumanly immaculate. The old man brought a hand to his eyes as that unquiet feeling rose in him again. He felt burnt in cold fires, and his soul felt torn apart.

His feet scuffed on the floor. And at once seven dead faces, smiling one and all, turned towards him, but those were not
the faces he knew. Those were the faces of death, and their dead gaze lanced into him like cold fire. He gasped in fear and loathing. A sudden stabbing pain in his heart caused his eyes to widen. Spasmodically, his hand clutched at his chest. Breath rattling, he fell on the floor, eyes wide and bloodshot, and there he lay and writhed in agony.

Seven pairs of eyes looked upon the old man's wildly jerking body, and on not one face did the cold, dead smiles flicker.


Six years passed, and the bereaved family got past its grief. Every year Erissa, blossoming into a beautiful young woman, would come with her family and kneel beside the grave of her grandfather. She would murmur silently and smile, and place new flowers on his grave.

Death was a natural cycle of life, she understood now. Death tempered life. And with that realization came a curious sort of peace, as if truths as old as the world had come out themselves and unveiled her innate fears, and purged that fear away. She pursued life with a passion, studying hard, and became an accomplished violinist who frequently performed in school. She was active in girl's soccer and tennis and won many a medal. Her grandfather would be proud of her. So proud, if he had been alive to witness her achievements.

And that was her primary driving force. And, she thought, when she, too, finally grew up and had babies, and watched them grow up and have their babies, she would remember her grandfather's kindness and loving concern, and treat them the same as grandpa treated her. And when she, too, passed, he would be there, waiting for her, strong again, arms held out in an embrace like so long ago.

She thought, and dreamed, and smiled. And was at peace.


Six years passed. Mcfarlane was eighty-six. He had survived the heart attack, alone. He sat in a chair, a pitiful, doddering old man. Cold. Always cold he felt now, and whenever anyone, even Erissa, came, he would recoil, eyes widening in rheumy fear and revulsion. Erissa would stand there, smiling and nodding with that cold dead gaze, seemingly unaware of his terror. His lips let out a soft moan. That seemed the only sound he could make now, even though his mind was lucid. But his terror was the stronger by far.

The years had driven him mad, he thought. The years of inner torment, and their slimy visages that caressed his skin, and their cold, lifeless smiles that bore down on him - he had gone mad because of them. The world had turned to stone, and all that remained was the cold. The eternal cold.

He had last changed four years ago. Last eaten three years ago. He had tried suicide once, but his strength failed him, and those terrible specters would come and watch him, smiling and nodding, showing their teeth which always seemed to be sharp, blinking eyes that were filmy and black and bleak and dead. Their gazes would strip his soul bare, and he felt cold, cold as winter. Not his body, but his soul.

He knew, at last, where he was.

He was in Hell.

Mcfarlane wanted to die. But, deep down, he knew that he could not. He knew that death would never claim him. He knew that this dread changeless illusion would stretch on unto infinity, forever unto eternity. He would never die, huddling on his chair as this ghastly terrible world flitted about him, and the only weak sound that would escape his weak lips would be cold...cold...cold...


Satre said, hell is other people.
Hell is only what you make of it.

The world is like the frozen tranquil of a lake.
Above is the sky.
Below is the water.
Lowest of all are the stones.
And that is where the stony waters reside.

'Ware the stony waters,
Where stones rise out to dry;
For there is a stone which never dries.
And that stone is death.


Saturday, August 20, 2005


Potential new banne

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Swordsman

Perhaps the plain had once been verdant with grassy fields. Perhaps it had once been tranquil and serene, the only sounds the rustling of the leaves and the soft cries of birds.

The grass had been trampled under the boots of a hundred thousand marching warriors. Thousands of braziers obscured the battlefield in pungent smokes, dulling the sounds of life. Battle standards, multitudes of them, fluttered wildly in the wind. A battle was to be fought, a battle that would alter the lives of men- a battle that would consume the flames of conscience and set loose the rabid hounds of battle.

The lone swordsman did not march with the rest. He walked his own time, made his own gait. He wore no mail and no helm, his clothes billowed freely, a brocade of light and silken colours. His sword was long and slender, bright clean and sharp, strapped securely to his waist. But what struck his companions the most was the predatory smile of anticipation that played across his face.

The host halted, and men muttered and sweated under their armour. Destriers whickered, weighed down with armour and flesh. The tension was palpable, weapons were clutched tight. The swordsman, however, remained calm and smiling. Perhaps, deep down, that capacity for fear still existed in him, but he had not tasted true fear for a long time. His sword was his defence against fear, and fear proved to be a cowardly enemy.

And a clarion call sounded, the raising of the banners and a whistling of a woodwind. The vanguard raised their bows and released a flurry of death into the air. Biding their time, waiting for the mighty foe to respond, anticipating their reactions and gauging their style. As soon as they had set down their bows fresh arrows were nocked, bows up and pulled back to the ears. A command was shouted again, and arrows whistled once more, clouding the skies.

The enemy responded. A hail of fury resounded in return and men loosed their bowels. Even under the looseness of their formations arrows still struck home, driving their way through neck and head. It was clear that both armies cold not hope to keep this up. The real battle would have to begin. And so, the lords bannermen raised their longswords and pointed to battle. And thus did the bloodbath begin.

The swordsman ran, his steps light and quiet upon the trampled grass. His sword was still in its sheath. As the heavy infantry met on the field, the swordsman joined the bloody deluge. His was not the violent hacking and slashing of these armoured beasts. His was a dance, a dance that delivered death like a snapping snake, light and delicate and elegant. A hulking giant with broadsword in hand rose before him, leering battle. Graceful as a cheetah the swordsman swiveled low and brought his sword out in a blinding flash. No armour inhibited the sensuous beauty of his glide as he brought his sword almost daintily up the soldier's throat and stabbed through it, avoiding the jugular. He swiveled again as the man died above him and cut backwards, underhanded, through a gap in another man's armour to plunge through the heart, then brought it back out to parry a heavy blow from a third soldier, and spun low on the ground to snake his sword up the man's mailshirt and spilt his entrails on the burning ground.

His mirth knew no ends, and he laughed expansively as his weapon flitted, a shimmering ghost, through the battle, each blow perfectly timed, each thrust a lethal one. Bodies were left in his wake, bodies who died swiftly and cleanly, some not even knowing the cause of their deaths. His clothing was stained by no blood of his adversaries, and was still yet undamaged, billowing as he danced the dance of death.

Heavy calvary charged past the ongoing battle, and the force of their gallop made the ground tremble. Lances set down and bore upon the skirmish, the great warhorses biting and trampling terrified infantrymen too slow to escape their terrible rage. The swordsman felt his heart leap with excitement. As a knight decked in silver armour turned towards him and brought his huge lance to bear, the swordsman stood his ground to the last moment, then leapt aside as the dreadful lance jabbed past. Humming a tune from his youth the swordsman danced forward and made three dainty cuts along the horse's exposed flank, then, in a burst of agile confidence grabbed a stirrup and climbed up the neighing destrier, too quick for the knight to react, and slit his throat in one smooth motion. The man toppled and the swordsman shifted quickly to avoid the blood. He chided himself on a poorly-executed cut, and brushed the dust off his clothes.

The destrier was slackening, the wounds on his side were leaking blood. The swordsman grabbed the lance from the dead knight's fingers and hurled it at an approaching soldier, who took it full through the chest, and leapt off the ailing horse and rejoined the savage battle, whistling with none of the cares of this world, laughing as he plowed through the fields of men.

But no one common soldier can change the course of battle. The swordsman's fellow soldiers were dying in droves even as he danced a hundred rhythms of battle. The tides of battle turned, and men routed and escaped as the enemy plunged into their ranks and reveled in the mass slaughter. The battle became a bloodbath, and the ground puddled with blood and bile. The corpses of soldiers littered the earth as calvary drove the remnants of the once-mighty host into the seas.

The swordsman stood, alone, smiling crookedly, surrounded by a ring of the dead around him. His sword ran dark with red blood, but his clothes were immaculate and untorn, and he allowed no man to touch him. As the ground rose in waves of heat and the ranks captured the fallen and slaughtered them where they stood, the lone swordsman, now truly alone, stood and dared men to pass his sacred circle. And they did, and he killed them.

Finally the lords of battle, drunk on their victory, grew tired of the sport. The field was theirs, and there would be feasting and raping that night. Their foe was dead or scattered in the woods, save one. One who was smiling even as he stood guard over his domain, bordered by the corpses of his slain. They sent their best after him, armoured in unwieldy sacrament. They died under his sword, one by one. But when at last the sun grew dim and low at the horizon the swordsman still stood there, smiling, unbloodied, stance relaxed and full of poise. The sword was his shield and he would feel no fear.

The thick ring of men closed in, and entered his domain. A thousand against one. The swordsman brought up his sword and fought the dance of his own death, stabbing and pirouetting against the army that bore down on him, attacking him from all sides. His sword cut cleanly, but for the first time in the battle the swordsman was bloodied, wounded, and battered. His clothes became torn and dirty and bloodstained.

And when at long last, entering the deep night, the contest of wills overturned and the swordsman collapsed under the weight of a thousand wounds, there was still the hint of that enigmatic, mysterious, and satisfied smile on the shadowy contours of his face.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

2 Evanescent

I am the earth, and
He is my soul.

I am his, through and through.

I danced with him in the summer, protected him in winter. I fended off a thousand weary wounds that came his way. We were one in the deep fragrant grasses on the high plains of infinity, alone underneath my sky, blue as the turquoise of a lake in spring. Our love knew no bounds. Our love was, and so it should have been, unto eternity, his eyes peering into mine as we embraced the universe.

I was his mountain, I was his hillock. I was the verdant field of his imagination, his valleys and swift seas and high passes. The eagles are my kin, and I watched over him. For he was my life and he was my joy, from summer unto the deeps of white winter. His hands in my silver hair as I looked up at his face, admiring the strength that he strived for, the strength that was his from the labours of his all.

A depth that I had but had never worked for, and he was precious to me, my protector as I was his. I drowned in his brave embrace, his soul merging into mine, as the mellow harmonies of our joining reverberated to the highest stratas of the heavens. His courage and strength and nobility, that I loved in him. He gave me life and hope and happiness, a brief spark of the light in the torrential, cascading grind of eternal darkness of existence.

But as with all things, it was not to be. Not forever.

For darkness came and marred our sight, and the matrimony of heaven and earth was broken. And the wall of sorrow came between us. The storm did not bother me, for I was above it. But it did him, for he was one of the world, privy to the slurs of time.

And so at last as all things ended so did the dreadful darkness, blocking his sight from my eyes. And as the clouds receded and the sun shone bright and new on the rejuvenated plains he was there, bereft of my embrace, exposed to the world and all its pain. And, wracked in yearning and hope, I went to him.

But he avoided my gaze, he turned on me. My hands touched nothing, embraced nothing, for he shunned me then. He said the matrimony of our communion was damned. His eyes, those young, young eyes, told all. Stricken, he went away, abandoning the truest source of his fibre, of his drawn strength.

And as he left me my tears touched the temporal earth. And the garden of man's youth was breached. And the fruits of its erstwhile splendor were consumed. And he left, stoking his independence, leaving all that was dear and comforting and a source of love for him, to make his indelible mark on the permanence of the unmoving mountains.

Was he right?

Even now, I do not know.


1 Evanescent

I am a cloud, and
She is the blue sky.

We danced together in the light of countless suns. The mountains were our playground, the plains, our rest. We stood in the tall grasses, feeling the wet earth beneath our feet. Feeling the life that crawls through the earth. I was life, and she was earth. We were communion.

Her eyes were the blue of sapphire lakes, her skin the hue of sand. She basks in the liquid gold of surf, a nymph carved by hands of men. Her song was that of summer seas, and she sang to me, light and sweet as the whispering wind. But it was not to be. Not forever.

The skies dimmed and the sun was shrouded. Storm's coming, and her song faded, a slurry of bated breaths, into the furious cacophony of gales.

It was my song.

The grasses floated in the gales, the mountains darkened, peaks in cloud, and the sky turned grey, the darkness of a coming storm. The howling wind beat on, ferocious. The song had melted into the shriek of gales. It was still my song, but as all songs go, it faded.

She was lost to me; our hands parted, and, groping, never touched again. The wall of clouds that I was not blocked her sight from my yearning eyes, and the distant peaks of gilded snow quivered with her pain. The shriek of gales wore on, and the sun's futile batterings had no respite against the implacable darkness. And light, as all light, was lost to blackness.

And my blood ran, seeping through to the earth, the weeping of my tortured shell. But the grasses turned greener, the air turned clear and dew-frosted in the morning, for not all tribulation had no good end. As they end, as all things end, the storm ended, and the dark clouds lifted, and there she was, untouched, clean, skin warmed by the glimmering sun, tan alien to her porcelain beauty. And I, I, was soaked to the bone, tired and filthy with rain, and I dared not come to her.

But she came to me, and I averted my gaze, for she was as changless as a fountain nymph and her eyes glittered a steely-soft blue. And I resisted the all-consuming urge to come to her. I knew, now, that the marriage of heaven and earth is damned by the face of God, I knew, that as the lions bray I would flit by like a lone summer while she endured the winds of winter. And as she stared at me, I stared back, stricken with all the ephemeral sorrows of the world.

Come back to me, her lips said, whispering the silent eaves of eternity.

I can't.

And our union, so young, was shattered, and I wept vanishing tears, my back ever on her, as her stricken gaze followed me. And my tears formed on her face, the holy rain of deities, shining as they slid like silken diamonds down her cheek and splattered on the muddy ground, adding, in their own way, to the splendor of life, the Universe's joy that dances across the eternal face of God.


Sunday, August 14, 2005


Morning came to the trenches, obscured by the rising smoke of the heat of last night's battle. The cold pale sun rose over the distant forest, over the barbed wire, casting the first rays of illumination over the dead no-man's land that lay between the perimeters of the enemy camps.

Wind cooled the brow of John Hudson, corporal of the 8th Infantry Brigade, as he stirred from his post. His shift had begun an hour ago, in the light of the setting moon, and he was still feeling exhausted. But a strange quiet had come over the once-bloody heat of the battlefield, as if from some mutual, unspoken consensus between the two sides. Hudson rose and stretched from where he had been sitting, watching the pale dawn.

It was Christmas Day.

Hudson's mind flashed back to pre-war days, before he had left for what had then seemed such a short and easy conflict. Saying goodbye had been so easy then, the promise of adventure sweet. It was that time of the year again, and he knew that his family would come out in full force to make their house the loveliest in the neighbourhood. Hudson smiled briefly as he envisioned the old house decorated in all the bright colours of Christmas, of the thick socks hung off the mantelpiece, of the thick green conifer that would now be standing at the side of the room, surrounded by presents. His thoughts wandered to the snow-packed path up to the porch, of the carols that the school-group choirs would sing in the streets, of the eccentric but kindly neighbour who loved to dress up as Santa Claus, handing out small tokens to the children.

Christmas day, he thought sadly, as he slid out of his dreamy reverie, and surveyed the bleak, brown battlefield around him. Soon enough the offensive would start anew; artillery barrages would herald the dreaded "over-the-top" commands given by the officers, and fire and blood would reign. But the smell of tension was not there, the dreaded sense of anticipation was distant, and the trenches were quiet, quieter than he'd ever known.

Hudson clambered to where Corporal Adrian Ross was standing. Ross was a good friend of Hudson; they'd entered the army together. Ross was similarly uncertain; the look on his pasty-white face was unmistakable.

"What's going on, John?"
Hudson shrugged, apologetic. "I don't know." They exited the makeshift dugout and crossed trenches to the front trench, the last barrier before the land dissolved into the void between the front lines. All the time they spotted confused faces, uncertain faces, smeared with mud and dirt and blood. No man was at his post. They were staring at the parapet, where soldiers were hoisting themselves up the fire step. A wooden pole with a large scrap of white cloth tied to the ends was being carried up the parapet. As Hudson and Ross stared, soldiers worked together to set the pole straight, the end with the white cloth rising towards the sky. The cloth fluttered lightly, glad and free, in the breeze. A brief patter of whisperings and even a few cheers emanated from the crowd.

"Oh my God, what are they doing?" whispered Hudson. He strode to the parapet, boots falling heavily on the rotting duckboards. "What's happening?" he shouted to a cheering soldier.

"It's Christmas, sir!" cried the boy, a slight youth with red freckles. Tears flecked his face. He pointed in the direction of the trenches, grinning widely. "The Germans hoisted a flag up! It's peace! Peace for all man!"

Hudson could hardly believe his ears. He clambered up the fire step, peered through the loophole, and drew in his breath, eyes widening. Sure enough, a white truce flag was fluttering in time to their own, behind the German lines. The smoke was clearing even as the winter gusts strafed the cooling ground. In the clearing air, Hudson could make out the heads of German soldiers, peering over their trenches and gesturing excitedly.

Slowly, he came down again and set feet once more inside the trenches. He looked around and saw common infantrymen, faces shining, some wary, some hopeful. Surely the Germans would not sink so low, he thought. Ross was looking at him, half-frantic, half-hopeful. "What? What did you see up there?"

Hudson said nothing for a while, then craned his neck to face his friend. "It's true. The Germans are flying their own flag." His voice was uncertain. "They are suing...suing...for truce."


Before their eyes, soldiers, in ones in twos, began going over the top, weaponless and palms out, over onto the no-man's land. And on the other side of the trenches, on the other side of war, German soldiers were emerging into the growing dawn, and for the first time since the dawn of the war a British and a German walked toward a common goal.

Hudson walked with them in a dream. Later he would claim that the power of hope drove his feet. The fluttering white flag drove a cut through the brightening blue sky. His feet creaked on the duckboards. He climbed up the fire-step, pushed himself up past the sandbags and the flagpole, and hauled himself up on two hands. Before him, soldiers were walking even as the enemy approached. His legs pushed his body up and he began the long crossing past the barbed wires, past the endless fortifications, to the unseeable rendezvous. It was Christmas, he told himself. Christmas. The soil was comfortably soft, yet comfortingly solid on his weary feet. Looking up again, he could see the Germans, as slow, as careful as they themselves were, but countenances radiant with the same hope as he had seen on the faces of his own men.

They want the war to end too, he realized. And the revelation was almost shocking.

"Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!"

The soldiers were shouting, smiling all the way, as the Germans reciprocated by belching out their own greetings. The magic of Christmas cheer had spun a miracle. Suddenly the war did not exist there anymore, in the medes of France. Even as the two armies approached each other they felt their hearts lightening with the wondering feeling, that liberation of tension, that they felt when realizing -they were with the enemy, and not a shot could be heard.

It was almost like returning home, returning to peace.

The two sides met half-way, amidst the ruins of the boiling battle of days past. And behind Hudson, more soldiers, artillerymen and even officers emerged, joining the peacable gathering of enemies turned friends. More Germans streamed out of their fortifications, and soon the barren nothingness was filled with hundreds of soldiers, Germans warming up to Brits and Australians and French, soldiers talking, first guardedly, then, as tension dissolved like dew on a summer's day, forgetting boundaries and hurts and inhibitions, smiling more warmly and talking more animatedly as the sun rose in tandem.

Brits who spoke little German tried conversing laughingly with Germans who understood not a word of English. All around him Hudson could almost feel the tears come as he witnessed the miraculous spectacle that Christmas had wrought. A German soldier, wearing a peaked cap, removed it with clear relief as he approached Hudson, smiling tremulously. Hudson grinned. "Merry Christmas," he said, and nodded peacably as the soldier grinned in return. To Hudson's surprise he replied, "
Frohe Weihnachten," and continued in passable english, "Oh, I understand your language. I was planning to go to Cambridge before the war broke out." He held out a hand, then realized that it was gloved, and promptly tore the glove off, whereupon he held his hand out again. Hudson removed his own, and returned the handshake. "John Hudson," he said, introducing himself. "Hermann Schiedner," the German replied, "Priva..." he let the rank designation trail off. They both let out soft chuckles.


A joint burial service was held in No-Man's land, after the company's chaplain had asked for leave to bury their dead. Hudson set to work with the rest after taking his leave of Schiedner's company; the officers had promised that there would be a time for mingling later. After the last mound of earth was packed flat the religous service for the dead began. Hudson stood still with the rest of his squad, side by side with the Germans, but the incongruency that Hudson had felt at this inexplicable period of friendship and goodwill had faded somewhat.

The chaplain stood before the formations, beside the German commander; to Hudson's surprise, Schiedner stood behind them, head bowed and demeanor solemn. "The Lord is my Shepherd," the chaplain read from his Bible. "I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures.
He leaveth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake." The chaplain paused briefly, looking up above the rim of his glasses. "Yea," he concluded, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." Reverently, he closed his worn copy of the Bible. "The 23rd Psalm."

And Schiedner came foward then, and removed his Bible, and repeated the verse in German, intoning the words with the harsh inflections of the German tongue. But somehow, Hudson thought, the message turned his voice mellow and his words wiser for their harshness, for here and now, German and British, once bitter enemies, could gather together in friendship and harmony, listening to shared faith, united
in their rememberance of the dead.

Hermann closed his Bible, and after a short prayer, which he, too, read in German, the chaplain saluted the German commander and bid him farewell in goodwill and friendship.


Afterward Hudson and Schiedner sat together again, talking, as they watched the game of football wind its way through the erstwhile battlefield. "You're a divinity student?" Hudson inquired. Hermann nodded, his thick blond shock of hair bobbing wildly. "Yes. I had originally planned to try to go to Oxford to study Divinity." Turning, he faced Hudson with a soft, sad gaze. "I feel the war is wrong," he murmured softly in his thick German accent. Hudson nodded mutely in agreement. "I feel...and I am no coward," he quickly assured Hudson, "that, if all men were to lay down their weapons, as we do now, the world would be a better place for living."

Hudson sighed. "A lot of us have thought the same, Hermann. You're not alone, I assure you."

Hermann shook his head. "I am sorry. I find it...difficult to phrase my thoughts in English. You have heard the verse spoke earlier. The Lord is my Shepherd, Psalms 23 says. What are we to place men's greed above our Father in Heaven? Here," and he drew out a battered leather purse from a pocket, and from it fished lovingly out a photo of him with his wife and family. He stared at their faces fondly. "Martha, my wife. He pointed to the picture of a smiling young woman with cascading blond hair. Her stomach bulged heavily with child. "Pregnant when I left for the war." He pointed, again, this time to an elderly couple. They, too, were smiling. "Vati and Mamma," he said softly. "I don't even know if they are still alive." He blew out his breath. "It's been so long..."

He raised his head, and Hudson saw shadows flitting in his eyes. "I don't even know whether I will see them again," he whispered.

There was an awkward silence. "Ah, sooner as later the war'll be ending. It's been a year. Don't worry," Hudson said after a while. The ball flew past near them, and an onrushing horde of laughing soldiers stormed past. "Counting on us winning?" Hermann said, smirking. "Thats what's wrong with the world, you know. Men have stopped their ears to the Word. And like Cain and Abel before us brother is forced to kill brother, kin slaughtering kin." He sighed. "The war will not end so soon. And we will pay for that with our blood." And, having said that, he let his hands fall from Hudson's shoulders and gave him a firm pat on the back, stood, and left.

The ball whirled across the baked plain, richocheting off scuffed boots. The game was still on, and the British had upped the ante, their players pursuing the hurtling ball furious as hounds. All around there were the sounds of regaling laughter and friendly curses, English and German. Suddenly a stray kick sent the ball soaring into the air. Men's eyes followed its descent even as they ran towards it. Then, all at once, the player's voices rose in disappointment. Curious, Hudson stood up to see what had happened. He smiled. The ball had caught against one of the spikes of the British barbed wire and had been punctured. It was unusable now, and the game promptly ended, with soldiers strolling away, talking animatedly.

Hudson sat down again and ruminated over his new friend's words.


The ceaseless chimes of night wore on and soon a new day came. The truce held, and there was joy in every heart. Day by day artillery was quiet, rifles stacked in the dugouts, unused. Machine gun turrets lay, dormant, and all the while the twin flags of brotherhood danced in the winds. Officers and enlisted mingled, British and German fraternized. And for once there was true honour in battle, as each side discovered humanity buried in every heart. The sword was buried and the doves came, and the land grew bright and lively once more.

The guns lay quiet, and only when the brigadiers came for their inspections were a few token and mock shots fired, mostly in the air, to warn their fellow men. And soon as they departed for trenches beyond they streamed out again, past the borders of their trenches, and talked, and played, and prayed. The war was over in this little trench. Some say it never began, for hatred begets war, and fraternity belies it.

But as all good things go it never lasts. January eighth, 1915, a German officer approached the Allied lines. All was quiet, and his face was darkly grave. "I must see the English commander," he sighed in his heavy baritone. And the commander came, but his face, too, darkened. They saluted. The German's eyes were sad.

"I have come with...very sad news, commander. The truce is over, and we must resume war."

The British commander nodded. He, too, was...sad. Sad, as the leaves that fall at summer's end. He sighed heavily. "Very well, then." For the last time, they shook hands, and saluted again. The white flags were taken down with much reluctance, the soldiers took their positions again. The artillery churned draconian fires, rifles bristled with dreadful viperish threat. At the very last minute of the truce, a singular volley was fired, a feu de joie.

"Pass it along, the Kaiser's dead." Hudson heard, and passed it to the next soldier. The truce had ended.


brayed the commander's gargantuan voice. The barrage of artillery fire had ended, the sky burned with stinging smoke and deathly fires. The earth seemed rent from end to end. Corporal John Hudson climbed out with the rest, rifles slung and ready. The German positions were in disarray after the last dreadful hammerings of thousand-pound shells, reaving the tortured frontlines apart. From far they espied the German positions, their defences in disarray. Their troops were retreating. All around Hudson saw familiar faces, men he had met and fraternized with during that heaven-blessed time of peace and joy. It was all a muddled impression in his mind, now. A dream of the past. Their eyes met and widened. Hands tightened their grip on rifles. And that momentary contact and recognition passed, submerged into the heat of battle.

A German stood, tried to fire the machine gun, unleashing incendiary fire at the onrushing British troops. Hudson had no time even to think. In the murky haze of battle, he leveled his rifle- and froze. The gunner stared back at him. They gazed at each other across the coming rain, heedless of the cries of men around them. Hudson's lips formed a singular, murmured word, whispered through the filmy water that stained his lips.



The Christmas Day Truce
is a real event; however, all characters listed here are ficticious. I have also altered the chronology somewhat for greater dramatic impact. Like the Bard...

Friday, August 12, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

This year has been quite a year in terms of cinema-going. I can confidently say that I've seen more movies on the silver screen this year than in any other year, hell, even the last three years combined.

The latest Big Thing to come our way is, of course, the Tim Burton adaptation of Roald Dahl's quirky children's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Directed by Tim Burton, a director who always inserts a macabre bent into his movies, starring the ever-talented Johnny Depp, renowned for his paradoxially realistic depictions of non-realistic characters, as the eccentric Willy Wonka, Chirstopher Lee, erstwhile vampire and wizard, as his dentist daddy Wilbur Wonka (just for that impossibly disturbing Burton bent),, Freddie Highmore, er, talented child actor, as the good-natured but gullible Charlie Bucket. That's about it for the big names, unless you want to count Deep Roy, the Oompa-Loompa(s), both, as shall be seen, male and female. (Incidentally Deep Roy also played Droopy McCool in Return of the Jedi that oh, so cast him in the international glamour spotlight.)

Anyway. To those who've never actually read the book, it goes something like this. Man sets up gigantic chocolate factory which produces all sorts of wonderful, amazing and also impossible candies of all sorts, including ice-cream that doesn't melt and a chocolate palace that does. Man realizes that competitors have sent in spies to steal all his trade secrets and clearly doesn't know a thing about copyright. Man fires all his workers and closes doors to the public, instituting a local economic slump in the process which threatens his own profitability and forces him to outsource. During the entire process man grows inexplicably rich and keeps a bad haircut. Also develops a macabre sense of humour and could probably do with seeing a psychologist and a professional barber.

One day man, during said haircut, realizes that he's growing old. Man then conceives an ingenious solution that never takes into account the fact that not everybody who eats chocolate is a child. (Aforementioned solution involves the placement of five coupons placed in random chocolate bars that have been circulated all around the western hemisphere, and the child who gets the coupon gets to visit the aforementioned Factory where he/she will be subjected to close scrutiny for his/her adequacy for corporate management.) As mentioned, chocolates with said coupons never leave the Western nations because of a random logistical error.

Said coupons are found one by one by children of such extreme dispositions that one wonders how they ever survived birth. One should also note that this does not take into account Tim Burton's, uh, alterations to the script. In an event of extreme statistical improbability (which is yet another reason for us not to study the subject) the last coupon is found by a poor boy who lives in a squatter fitted with electrical lighting and plumbing. This poor boy secures the last coupon on the eve of the invitation into the factory, in the very town that the Chocolate Factory stands in. Talk about logistical errors.

The rest of the tale is a relatively generic take on child abuse and ends with an attempted insurance fraud. (what else can punching two big holes in your factory roof be?) In the movie's case the story ends with a visit to the dentist, a cliched reconciliation with disturbing consequences, and the inexplicable disappearance of a certain house.

The best word, then, to describe Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is 'movie'. Or 'book'. In this case I'd pick 'book' because it, at least, was a wholesome tale of the vindication of morality, and a celebration of stereotypes. The movie is hardly what I'd call wholesome. Or even sane, at times. Doubtless we've all come to grips with that disturbing vision of the evil clown, with nobody under the makeup and the outfit. The movie kind of does that to the book, gives it a macabre twist that transforms it from a harmless children's tale to a darker, more disturbing story that doubtless pulls in a bit more money.

This twist is epitomized by the irascible Johnny Depp, known for playing the eccentric, but good at not doing so nonetheless (Inspector Ichabod in Sleepy Hollow, for example), who subvert's Dahl's classic to bring it more in line with Burton's idea of a Burton film. Which basically translates to a dash of dark humour and the sense of a stylized reality. Depp, as Wonka, lends this very quality. His characterization of Willy Wonka, said man who owns the chocolate factory, is brought to the extreme, so much so that in the end Wonka is transformed from an eccentric but ultimately benign and well-meaning father-figure to a similarly eccentric but slightly perverse nutcase who hangs on to his sanity only with great effort. Depp pulls this off with his hair, extremely pale skin, quirky outfit and million-dollar smile that you sometimes see on the faces of Palpatine and deranged clowns. To top it all of, Burton had scriptwriters insert an unsettling element into the film - Wonka's backstory, where, he, as a child, had an overbearing and pathologically inclined dentist father who treats candy as the devil and forces the young Wonka to wear ridiculous braces. (One wonders why he ever let him out for Hallow'een then.) Hmm. And we wonder why he got into the chocolate business.

Depp acts Wonka with his usual excessive eccentric alacrity. His version of Wonka is plagued with an unhealthy fascination with burning puppets, a phobia of saying the word "parent", a perverse enjoyment in watching children and their parents suffer, and a curious penchant for mindblock when addressing moderate collections of people. All neatly covered by his disturbing backstory (which, allegedly, reflects Burton's own childhood.).

That's the crux of what many see wrong with the movie, especially those who actually read the book as tiny youngsters, laughing at all the parts when the bad children get hauled away. Depp (and possibly Mr. Burton by connection) just doesn't get what Wonka was intended to be like. Or maybe, the rest of the Dahl fanbase don't get that Wonka's supposed to be an eccentric nutter with one foot in the asylum. That's the trouble with cultural subjectivity; belief is just a matter of opinions, which is probably why democracy came about in the first place. As for myself, I'm ultimately ambivalent about the whole issue of Depp-as-Willy, I see merits in Burton's portrayal of his, but at the same time can conceive of problems trying to integrate that screwed-up performance with my innate vision of Dahl's Willy Wonka. (Which is the benign version.)

But I never have that problem with movies. I watch adaptations to get a better conception of the fictional world that the book is set in, rooted in a tangible medley of colours, shapes and sounds, instead of the vague impressions the swirl around in one's mind's eye when reading the book. The impressions might be your own, since all authors are dead, but they are tantalizingly, unsatisfyingly, vague. So I watch adaptations as they come. But ultimately I still accept the booksas the prime sources of imaginative stimulation in whatever world they might have been set in, since they offer 1. The authentic experience, and 2. They've got the timeline right.

So the book is tantamount to reality, a movie akin to its dramatization. Ironic. As a whole, I don't have any problems with the movie, not even with the unsettling Burtonesque twist to it, but I do have problems with two issues. One, Wonka's backstory, and two, the acting. (Other than Depp's, of course.)

Wonka's backstory, to put it short, is ludicrous. I'm not against the idea of adding (or, heavens forbid, even subtracting), stuff from movies where the move is prudent. But the idea of a paranoid-obsessive dentist father as the origin of Wonka's eccentrism and love of candy (and of the subsequent inexplicable reunion of said father and son at the end-which was probably some sort of hypnotic procedure - its hard to tell where Burton's concerned.) is plainly farcial. Maybe it was intended for a little grotesque humour, but the concept itself feels like a cheap addon to the original story, the likes of which Burton, to his credit, adhered to faithfully and conscientiously. Would it that he had cut Wonka's backstory out, the movie would have been that much better, and still keeping the obligatory dose of Burton's style in it. You just can't escape the Hand of Depp.

The second big problem I have with the movie was the acting, or rather, the confines of the script which led to the absymal performances of the parents of the ill-fated children. During every one of the scenes where their doted-on children are led to terrible fates these parents, hardly acting like the over-proud and over-protective parents they should have been, stand like docile animals and watch with confusion on their faces as their babies are creatively disposed of before their eyes. Maybe emitting a cry or two now and then. It's the script, really, and some bad acting on the actor's part, and it really took out the carthartic bite out of watching the fulfillment of their inexorable, untimely ends.

On the bright side, the book was quite faitfully adhered to, down to the songs and the hair toffee (and hair cream.) Almost every single quirky thing from the book was included, with few exceptions. The humour was genuinely, cleanly funny at times, though most of it was spent on Burton's gruesome antics. Atmospherically, the movie was good; the chocolate factory was beautiful, and the Buckets acted quite well. They projected a sense of decency that comes with poverty. The movie ended with a minor unexpected twist and was heartwarming enough, even though it was straight after a, shall we say, rather contrived reunion.

All in all, adequate, sometimes plagued with contrivance, hyperbole and gruesome humour, and Wonka's characterization is dubiously done at best, and at worst. (Depends on how you see it, don't it?) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a worthwhile deal if you've actually read the books, but will probably come off as slightly boring for adults who haven't.

"I shall say no more." -translated ending of the emperor Kangxi's valedictory edict, 1722

Looking for Something

Tony missed his brother so much.

Tony still remembered standing on the verandah, sniffling, as Mom gave Gary a last, tearful hug before he went away, smart as ever in his blue uniform. He had been five then, smaller than Rikki, their terrier. Mom had hugged him too, tightly, and tried hard to hide her tears. When he saw those tears he felt sad, but when Mom explained that it was alright, that Gary was only going to be away for awhile, and he would come back and bring them lots of presents, he accepted it as calmly as only a child can, gazing at his mother with innocent blue eyes.

Three years later, Gary was still gone. At night sometimes, after lights-out, Tony would imagine his brother on the big ships he'd said he would captain, sailing all over the world. He would imagine standing next to his brother as Gary ruffled his hair in the way he'd always liked, and told his men to set a course for Wonderland. Surely with a ship like that they'd be able to reach it, and there Tony would, in his mind, explore and relish the figures of his childhood, when Gary or his mother would read Alice to him as he drowsed and follwed the girl heroine on her adventures into that mystical place.

At breakfast sometimes Mom would get mail from Gary, and as she read she woud declare proudly to Tony how Gary was having a great time, how he enjoyed the navy so very much. Once Tony asked her whether Gary would come and take him on a trip across the world. Mother always smiled at his comments and ruffled his hair, but didn't say anything.

But Tony knew that Gary's trip was almost over. He'd overheard the grownups talking about how the big war was ending and how the good guys were winning. In the stories Tony always liked it when the good guys won, but sometimes, in an idle reflection, he wondered whether it would be more interesting if the bad guys won for once and took over the world. The grownups would come together and discuss while Tony listened from up the stairs. "War's ending," they'd say, "Hitler's forces are retreating to Berlin,". And then Mother would get that dreamy look of relief, and the ladies would gush that the war was almost at an end and their boys would be coming home before long.

The night after he'd heard that, his heart was leaping for joy all the way through dinner, and when he got into bed he asked his mom whether Gary would come back soon, with his presents. Smiling, her mellow brown eyes twinkling, she nodded and said, "Yes, Tony, he's coming back," and mother and son embraced. Tony didn't sleep, thinking happy thoughts of Gary and the stories and smile he would bring back, to him greater than any present in the world. And he waited patiently, as the war drew to an end, for his return.

It was a clear blue morning of 1945, when Mother came up into his bedroom and gently shook him awake, smiling at his bleary eyes. "Come on, Tony. It's eight o'clock. Rise and shine!" She pulled Tony up and went off to prepare breakfast as Tony sat by the edge of his bed, yawning. "Remember to brush at the edges," she said as she went down.

Tony hated brushing, but mom always said the tooth fairy didn't leave coins for children who didn't brush their teeth, so he did so vigorously, brushing till his gums ached. He splashed his face with water, then dried himself up using his thick woollen towel, staining the front of his pajamas in the process, then changed into fresh clothes. Leaping out of his room he bounded down the stairs in a flash, taking two steps at a time, before he remembered that mom didn't like him to do that, always saying he'd trip and fall and break his nose. And then he'd turn into a Rudolph, she'd say, chiding.

The dining room was quiet. Dishes were already set, neatly on the table, cups and cutlery. Tony felt mystified. He walked, more slowly this time, into the kitchen. "Mom?" he called.

Then he saw her, slumped on a chair by the fireplace. She was sobbing in great heaves, hand clutching a piece of paper torn at the sides by the force of her grip. On the table, there was a single opened envelope. Tony was horrified. Breathless and shocked, he ran up to her. "Mom? Mom, what is it?" his fluting voice grew perceptibly more desperate.

Tony's mother raised her face to him, ravaged by the running streaks of shedding tears. She was still crying as she held Tony tight in a shaking embrace, hands folding protectively over his body, stammering, "He's gone, he's gone, he'll never come back..."

The world seemed to turn upside-down for Tony. He didn't know, but he knew, knew beyond knowing, who Mother was referring to. He stared at the paper in her hand.

"No, he can't be gone. He promised me he'd come back! Mom, where'd he go? Where is he? Why isn't he coming back?" There was no answer save that of his mother's crying.

Tony cried too.

That day was the hardest Tony had ever spent, alone, while Mother locked herself up in the bedroom for hours at a time, brooding and crying. He could hear her. Gary was gone. he wouldn't come back. The words shocked him; he wondered how this could be true. He couldn't understand why his brother would never come back. He couldn't understand why his mother said so. Gary was a hero, he'd fight his way out of anything, like Superman did. That night Mother didn't cook, distractedly, she apologized to Tony about it while fingering the piece of paper she had been carrying all day.

When it was finally time for bed, Mother came up to Tony's room and tucked him in. She had regained her composure somewhat, and smiled sadly at Tony as he settled in.

"I'm sorry, Tony..." she began. "I'm sorry I had to lose it like that during breakfast. Its just that I..." she trailed off, not knowing how to continue. She reached out with a hand and stroked his head. "Tony, I know this must be hard on you...but Gary...he died. He died a hero." She tried to smile again but her lips were trembling. "He died helping to save the world, Tony, and you should be proud of him for that."

Tony looked up at her with those soulful eyes that had come from his father. She sighed sadly, thinking of him. Tony took after his father, imaginative, otherworldly, sweet by nature, and their blue eyes were the same. Gary...Gary was more like her, brown-eyed and cheerful-but tears threatened to invade her again at the thought of him. Almost savagely, she held them back. "Will he come back?" Tony asked, stubborn. "Will he come back one day?"

Mother's composure almost broke. She sighed heavily. "No, Tony. He won't." She rose from the bed, Tony's gaze still fixed upon her face, his blue eyes filling with tears. And before she herself broke down she hurried away, choking out
a half-hearted 'good night' before turning off the tablelamp and rushing out of the room, shutting the door. From inside Tony thought he could hear her muffled sobs.

He cried until he fell asleep.

The clock struck midnight. It was the 7th of August.

And Wonderland bloomed with flowers, bright, orange-yellow ones that seemed to be made of flame, so big that they soared into the bleak sky. And in the morning, the sun dawned bright and glowing, and the wind was gentle, and birds were chirping. And men declared with silver trumpets and grand cannoning that men's troubles were over forever, and the world would rejoice in splendour. Tony saw Humpty Dumpty together again, solid and in the glow of health, laughing that it was all a little joke. And Gary came in a golden ship adorned with ribbons, sailing his way back home, and stood before the verandah, hollering that he was home, like he always did, that his hands were full of presents and someone should help him at least if he wanted a share. And Mother came out, joyful and happy, and embraced Gary while all the presents dropped to the floor. And after dinner Gary told him of all his wonderful adventures on his Golden Ship while Tony sat by the big sofa and Gary by the rickety one by the fire, and Mother on the other side reading and listening with a smile on her face. It was all the same again, the same as before, and it would be that way forever and Gary wouldn't have to go anywhere, not for the rest of his life. And finally, Tony was truly happy.

Then Tony woke, and the morning was bright and sunny, and the wind blew gently, and the birds chirped.

It had only been a dream.

Tried from a child's perspective. Bah, bah, bah.