Notes for a Picnic

2015 new story for JMG space bats competition

“We have pictures… we know what some of them looked like… When they look back at us we see thought in their eyes… then the fragments of writing light-up… and that is what is frustrating… there is so much more they would tell us.”
“Yet”… the older man began his reply, and then the conversation paused for a long while in the quiet place beside the wide-open shutters where the light air stirred a curtain and a pattern on the white wall.
“Yet”, the Recorder resumed. “What chance has brought us is a small part of thought. Can they reach to us now, however we are stirred by these new thoughts that are so old?”
Outside the water ran strongly but quietly, smooth in the channel to the gate; like the time of year past our solid walls. “We have all this”, the Recorder gestured to the summer and its order. “There is enough.”
The much younger man knew this was sufficient for the day, but he also knew that he had reached the Recorder in some new way.
“I will continue with the annotation and bring the fragments into better order.” He left it hanging in the air, waiting. The Recorder smiled. “You have the summer. Life lies before you.”
‘Order’, ‘better order’ – the work continued. That was why he was back here so early. The spring sowing with the family had been as busy as usual: there had been much handwork and planting. His older sister was strong and the household had filed singing to the fields and garden. The small house stood on a narrow fan of soil that supported a terraced garden where more fertile water trickled from the hill. Below them successive field terraces merged with broader fields flanking the wider valley floor. For weeks before our little fellows, they were strong children, had helped old Dan feed and harness the horses for harrowing and rolling for all the farms; a wide expanse of fine tilth along the Vale; each farm like theirs neat with its own garden beds adjacent wider fields. Now the first of the flowering trees round the houses were beginning their blossom. As old Dan always said, “We must be done by the time the swallows return.”
Returning to the Library he had begun again to handle the fragments of text, the pictures, annotating the recorded speech. It was like the planting but this time in his brain, he thought. Arrangement, comparison, hard work; hold thoughts to the light, place them, then during the quiet dark let memory re-order them to find their own way to the daytime. What was that ancient poetic quote in one of the longer chapters? “Dress with the wreathed trellis of a working brain”. Deeper still in the darkness, clear water under the far hills gradually becomes utterance again and glitters like the gleam of eyes looking out from streams. Here at Library the flow could be strong and smooth. “I have all summer, even for so large an ambition – call it hope”, he wrote. “I am sending you this note for the hope we all have in the work before us”.
We all rely so much on Michael, he thought, as he delivered his letter to the posting desk.

After reading the letters once more, Michael’s head nodded a little. It was as if he had unseen companions travelling with him; voices in several tongues. The rail journey had been many slow days among endless trees. In the morning the rising light flickered briefly through the leaves ahead. Now the shadows had caught up with them again. Time spread a pale white sky above his brief sleep. The quiet conversations continued round him.

“We are not the first”. Mechanic looked up from the table, the lamp gleam in her eye. “My winders can make this tool, but we do not understand it all”
“No more did the original makers, if the notes are to be believed”: Sir Ion his face in shadow, leant forward and laid down his spectacles. “Dates are uncertain. We should remember we are looking at a tool probably abandoned when overtaken by digital programs. This one is almost certainly at the beginning and end of its own short evolution for a particular purpose. Nevertheless, we might be encouraged. The documents retrieved by Michael Gee from the North and lodged with the Clandestine Brothers those many years ago record an industry of diverse tools in the Old Orient derived from this original tool.”
“Your points are well made Sir Ion, but this one flew with incredible accuracy, at the heart of what they called inertial guidance. Do we understand the purpose of that navigation? This instrument had an autonomous function within that original purpose … I am still a Recorder with Dispersal of the Blessings. Even if we have limited resources and the reach of the Clandestine Brothers is declined – indeed it may no longer exist – we can still support this work. Can we begin to measure again the meaning embedded in this device? We still serve that purpose.”
The two young scholars with notebooks exchanged glances. This was the first time that they understood the presence of this quiet man with the heavy dark beard.
Speaker Roberts came slowly to his feet. “Sir Ion, Recorder, Mechanic, Scholars all; with your permission I should sum up? … We meet because we know how to make tools, and we take time to discuss the meaning and limitation of knowledge. Where we go from here is to preserve what we can know, and to continue to probe the ancient knowledge. We know that we must trust much that we cannot verify. And ancient knowledge had limits, perhaps fundamental limits. Of course we persevere with goodly deliberation and retain our inheritance of wisdom, and acknowledge the traditions of the Ancient Orders including the Clandestine Brothers when those traditions still live among us. Wisdom tells us that illusion and spells lie within our pursuit and that there are many perils for our understanding, but that this is still part of the traditional Dispersal of the Blessings … Thank you Recorder for that reminder … We should end our evening, with that thought? … Let us raise our mugs of this good beer and part now with cheer and quiet deliberation.”
So ended the seminal meeting at The Seven Stars, which was to lead to The Society of Further Direction. Thus began a New Era of Dispersal.

“I am a member of The Clandestine Brothers?” she thought, “Though I do not know how I was chosen. And The Brothers no longer exist, if they ever did”. Time had brought obscurity and gave wide latitude to her thought.
She smiled to herself. It had been a common place during studies that The Clandestine Brothers were an early and humorous fiction invented by some unknown materialists, self-aware and seeking to explain by hindsight the retention of ancient fragments of knowledge – to legitimise an otherwise hidden purpose – thus to tolerate the randomness of poring over such gleanings that came their way.
The story had come her way via lost songs and unusual dreams. The Society of Further Direction of course had discovered long ago the appalling truth of the purpose of inertial guidance. The story of that tool lingered in her mind. The tool was so subtle that its complete performance had evaded its makers’ understanding, yet it stayed true to the single purpose whatever material perturbations encountered.

The following are from Diary notes of T. Strong; a contemporary of L. Bright.
Many generations ago my family had supported the Recorder of their day and the journeying of Michael Gee.
I got to know L. Bright and something of her unusual dreams from our study years while we worked for our bread during summers in the ordered ancient landscape that was our inheritance, miraculously preserved through generations. I was often recruited to both her wanderings and ideas. Time though flows more swiftly these days, and in later years I found myself in faraway places where my generation hoped to restore lost valleys. Letters with fragments of her new stories could not keep pace with change in our lives.
But Bright came this way, singing over the dry lands to our valleys, travelling with the hardy herdswomen who always sing when they first catch sight again in the distance the high ground of summer pastures. She had left the nomads when they crossed our river in its lower course across the wild plain and followed the path to us. So we sat again beside a summer stream and I heard about The Clandestine Brothers and the strangeness of recruitment out of time. These were seed bringers – few but hardy, and recurrent.
“You remember those stories we read”, she said, “family diaries, wireless links, old language and Mr Andrew’s message?” She paused and touched my hand for a moment. “I went back – rather I went to find again that old land.”
My eyes must have widened. “Yes, scary” she said; “maybe everything had failed, even the stories, the witness trees and all the protection and good lives – I would be too late – much too late – there would no longer be a past to touch.”
“And it is hard to go there. The world is a divided place again and we have only little rumour of the troubled seas they called Atlantic North.”
I made no reply.
She shook her head softly; eyes turned inward following again her hidden journey. “You know that story about the instrument that kept constant adjustment – the little motor among the gyroscopes that knew where they were in the ballistic trajectory –a journey to obliteration – a threat held by those terrifying ancient ancestors of ours?”
I nodded.
“Well, it was invented in that old country and Mr Andrew – he was real you know, not just a story – knew of the records of the man who made it. These were kept in that country from the beginning, long before Michael Gee brought back records of such instruments along with so much else from the Libraries of the Greater North. But our Further Direction people overlooked this older source. And I know now that in the days of invention long before Mr Andrew, there was a great sea-haven of our ancients in that country, next to their City where they kept their knowledge. There was a big firth where they loaded boats with great flying engines that could be released from the bottom of the sea on secret command from the Greater Empire. They gave the boats and engines very old names, like a God, or the spear of a God… though they did not believe in the God – they had a fancy for dressing up their commands.” Again Bright shook herself slightly.
“I have several tongues that still live and can reach across and join with others. And many old words still live in surprising places – so I could find my way. There are good people in faraway places who keep good customs and could keep me safe while I threaded my journey. My simples and salves for babies speak clearly enough, and also singing helps with babies”, and Bright grinned. “And my old name helped especially as I got closer.”
“And had the good people we learned about failed in the end?” I asked, and swallowed.
“Well nothing stays the same” – she glanced swiftly at me. “There were very hard times again, but we can still reach them. They are still proud of ancestors and are still interested in families and history.”
“You remember when we studied. In our own very old family diaries there is record of the days of great sea-winds in the north? These blew across that Old Land for a long while perhaps for many decades, maybe a century, just when they had come to think the most dangerous days were long past, gone for good. It is hard for us to imagine, but they were much closer back then to the Shadow and the Failure of Knowledge. Remember Mr Andrew knew well he was part of the Dispersal of Blessings crossing centuries? But when they showed their diaries to me there were long gaps long after Mr Andrew’s time: long after the days you and I had read about in old stories when we were children. The woods along that coast must have suffered badly – but there was always low-growing forest and a sheltered bank for wild nut trees. I think they could still grow vegetables and harvest berries even in hard times. And they kept enough of their tools”.
“Are there still the small robins that follow them in the gardens, and hedgehogs?” I asked; my mind still in our childhood stories.
Bright gleamed. “Yes, I saw those when I helped in the herb gardens. And families still write letters and post them. And children still play in little streams or along the shore and practice football and sing. And the great barns are kept full enough for any seven years of need. And there is precious oil in great jars from trees in their southern parts.”
“Their health must have stayed good enough and the uncertainty of storms might have helped keep them safe from war. We do not know. Our knowledge is too fragmentary. I think at least five new centuries must separate us from Mr Andrew. But they were cut-off again, not only from us. The story gets strange. I could not figure out their Church. It came and went but seems for a very long while to have made a virtue of separation – a kind of calmness; yet impatient with their World, with the solid ground. There are traces of that still there I think. Perhaps they live in more than one world” – she frowned slightly. “I think they are a little lost in sorrow again – some promise they could not keep. But songs are like that – not always stories for children.” She broke off.
“But like us they avoided war; perhaps it was luck or the great winds blowing across the sea helped, or the Greater North kept the peace at the right time. Like us though they have few children as is the old way and these are much cherished.”
We paused, listening. Below us my brother’s small child and his friend played in the shallow pool of the stream.
She became animated. “And these tools of navigation that can constantly re-balance themselves; what do they remind us of? We use tools to do things and we use them to think with.” And Bright looked earnestly at me. The small birds and the children were momentarily silent.
“You remember the Clandestine Brothers. I still think the story was a jest – how otherwise did they become so well-known – but the stories … how do these come round? I am fond of one story that I read in a Library in the Old Land. The scholar writing said that when he read just the notes from one very remote ancestor – he was lucky they had survived millennia – he could hear a man giving his brilliant lecture. I think the stories come round and find us like that. That scholar wrote well of constancy.”
“Yes” I said. “I can sometimes hear old voices. They can be quite close. There is stories travel with me and I am more surefooted. We are not in a lecture hall; it might be different here. I have the wild things and they also bring stories. There is a pair of wild geese I have known for more than half a decade now. If they stay it is only for a few days. I had not seen them for two years, but this year they came to find me, flying very low right above my head and calling.
”You called back?”
“Yes, I was overjoyed. They followed me and dog; circling over us, and then went to their usual place. ”
Bright looked across the lower summer meadows and the wild ground shimmering to the horizon. “I have been thinking about wireless” she said.
“I learned some things – call them messages – in Mr Andrew’s Land – I still call it that. We did not know it but they continued with wireless even when our histories tell us they had gone silent those centuries ago. But they used wireless for intelligence; for monitoring the traffic of others – and only transmitted boat to shore and point to point between watchtowers. Before the time of storms they built towers difficult to see from a boat, and they have re-built them now. Their links are very discrete. – Now there’s an old word!” She grinned.
Bright looked again at me. “I think we should make some relay links to you here. You are not to be detected because of others hearing your wireless. I know that was agreed at the beginning, but it would be better with relay and we can keep watch with you. I have been talking to the herding people while they travel. They say nobody follows them, but that we should be alert.”
I looked at the children. Yes I replied quietly; a cloud suddenly between us and the sun. “I think there is enough here that can support the devices.”
Bright looked further across the valley and then something closer to hand caught her eye. She pointed to a very large and beautiful snail that had emerged in the cooler damp shadows by the path: “how wonderful!”
I was pleased. “These have emerged again in the last few years now the trees and bushes have grown. We did not bring them; somehow they must have always been here.”
“Only to think” she said. “We know these animals go back to beginnings beyond all of us recent creatures. It must have been a singular gentle path to reach here; it could not have been otherwise. The trail was not interrupted; the trail that has led to her was a long and peaceful trail beyond any reckoning, even when so many kin of each generation must fall beside the way. That much we know and trust from the ancient studies we have been blessed with”.
She paused. “I told you I think I found notes of the man who invented the tool, the motor of constancy. And of course we know this tool originally was for dreadful navigation. In many ways our ancients did so badly. I found notes that might be of this man’s own journey. He was a musician and knew many great musicians and many songs that came from the past. But parts of him became old and his health failed and all the knowledge and intellect of those amazing times could not help him, though he dreamed of longer and better life. I understand now they knew little of many important things. We do better.
She then asked me if I knew how Old John was faring back in our childhood’s homeland.
“He is well and working and 110 years at his last birthday, the last we heard”, I replied. “But he has a long way to go to match the memory of our Old Dan two centuries back. He was blessed, and our family was blessed with Dan for 140 years”.
“Yes, we do better” she replied. “These little ones here are healthy. We are very blessed. And now you and I must forget old stories for a while and gather the children to take them home to family. The shadow over the pool grows longer now”.
We began to tidy the children’s belongings and the little food that was left over. We will leave a little by the pool for the birds and other creatures.
Suddenly Bright stiffened–of the instant her eyes extra wide and alert and looked intently past me to the little ridge some fifty paces from us already in the afternoon shadow of trees.
“Who is that”? She breathed.
I turned casually, my hand reaching for my safety weapons. “Ah…” I let out my breath. “He is a friend though we have not seen him in a while. He comes always with reason. I guess he is come to see you”.
“How could he know”? She murmured.
“We guess he has wider kin, but he and his wife know many things. Though they are a very little people and we guess he is very old; they have been here all along, probably – like the snail”. I smiled and raised both my hands in salute. The little old man raised his hands likewise smiling, standing still and dappled in the shadows – we caught a brief glimpse of a tooth. The two little children had gone silent and had crept close to Bright and me. “Raise your hands to the little old Faither”, I said quietly. Silently and with wonder we stood in the afternoon sunlight amid the quiet rustle of leaves and the small talk of the stream.
The birds began singing again. The little man advanced down the slope with no sound, crouched briefly at their height and raised his hands again in greeting the children and then stood smiling in front of us, his eyes intent on Bright. He nodded, came a little closer and touched her sleeve, not lowering his gaze. Then he looked across at me. He has a few of our words.
“Good sister” he said. “We heard her singing”. He reached into his shoulder bag for a pouch and handed it to Bright. “Good flowers for sister – blessings”. He gestured to include all of us that we should stand and be blessed among trees and sunlight beside the water, looking out to long journeys where the stream leaves our valley. Then he nodded again, raised his hand, blew a kiss to the children who each blew one back; turned and was gone. Even the birds this time did not mark his passage.
“I did not know of these small people” Bright said.
“Well, neither did we guess anything until we had been here some years and the earlier restoration work that we had come to help with began to bear fruit. They approved when the streams began flowing properly again – and I think it was something also to do with the return of bees and honey”.
“And they know many things”? Bright asked.
“Do you remember”? I started my reply, looking at the point through which Little Faither had vanished into the trees, and then further on into the next glade, just one branch still swaying more than others perhaps.
I continued, “When sometimes we saw high clouds travelling toward the setting sun more swiftly than our near clouds and there was no wind for us to feel, we fancied we could hear the voices of people travelling high up with the clouds – or it reminded us of people we might have once known? The old man tells me that his people on the clearest star nights at the driest time can hear the stars – far-off – perhaps some music. It is like stories you can hear even if you cannot understand; perhaps just a few words above the murmur. One year I travelled with him for a while to the dry places and I could hear the stars’ murmur, but not any words. If there are voices then they must be a distant multitude – just some of them near enough. These small people hear and see much and have stories to remind generations. They have been listening a long time”.
Bright paused before reply, shouldered the bag and held her hands out to the children. “There will be songs” she said. “And we will sing some this evening before bed”. Little Jay piped up, “we can sing our going-home song now”. So we all sang our way home.
Later, before the hard work of the next few days Bright briefly renewed our talk. “I will go home soon to help with the harvest” she said, “Mother will need me and I will stay at least until next year. Later, it would be good if you can spare half a year or perhaps a year if you could. We need to survey for the wireless relay, or perhaps you can do that from here?”
I promised to make a start here but also make the journey. I was concerned enough for our small community and I knew some of our few older children would welcome the visit to their far-off cousins and the bigger valleys and the different work and studies. We make these journeys not very often and I have not stayed long for many years. There are people I need to ask to check the Library as well as connect with Wireless and the New Directions network. It would be good to see Library again and the strong walls and water running smoothly.
Bright also said, however, other important things to me and I took note.
She said, “Of course I listen to our members of New Directions Society with great respect. I value still the time you and I studied with them. The Society has long been honoured by our people and they have uncovered much ancient knowledge. We expected though always to turn over old stones and find intellectual depth. We value history and the sorrows of good people. There is much we shall never know, but I now suspect that well before the last, the ancients lost their reason.
She said, “We could use your stories when you come to us again. We need to practice some New Listening. I think we also are beginning to misunderstand reason – the ancients used the term rationality. Perhaps this happened before. There are limits we should respect even if by the end of their time they did not.
“If we are moving in one direction it should be to go back further than the ancients and their knowledge. Our ancients seem to have missed much and often enough to have asked the wrong questions. There are different blessings for us to hand on.
“The ancients seem to have believed that knowledge needed large numbers of scholars and vast numbers of instruments. We have found that very few people are needed as seed bringers. Remember Lucy in our childhood story? Knowledge can flourish out of sight and find a way through when not expected.
“Thus, a made-up story in jest can find new telling, and people listen.
Before she left for home L. Bright asked me to request the Little Faither if she could come back and learn from him and his wife. Mostly she wanted to learn their old tongue and some new songs.


T. Strong writes in his later journal: “L. Bright seems to have wrought much for our new listening across our world, and to give us reason for new expression. She began to use her full childhood name as if we could read again and so remember another younger Lucy whose name was already old in the stories we loved as children.
“… sadly written again in haste…much later from my notes I see we followed Bright – and much then followed thereafter. I guess we may have been just in time. I realise now why those days seemed so speeded-up, even though we were still young. We had unseen deadlines – an old and dread-sounding word that the ancients used – but needed all the charms we could find for synchronicity– another old word but maybe an antidote to some of the dread – the right time to manifest. The Little Faither seems to have helped Bright greatly. He was a very smiling person. That is another story for another time.

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