From the country of lost names

[entry for Greer 2016 challenge]

My profession is not infrequently a little haunted by images of the past that we cannot properly account for, nor place in what might be true context.

But I choose to start somewhere else.

‘The small sand hills had a cover of Pine trees except in places where the sand had been mined perhaps in another age. The smell of resin and the shifts of cooler and hotter air embraced the children as if time or destiny had come meandering beneath the trees; such a day when they were first explorers in a reclaimed land.’

I trust these words like I trust poets from the past reaching to me across the unseen contours of time. Words bubble up in places between then and now. We are in the country of lost names, but can know again the emanations – redolent of friendship – the pervasive air of trees preserving sunlight.

Such is memory. I cast my mind back to the beginning of the exploration.

I travel everyday on a well-worn line that is our link into a well-worn city. There is steel preserved beneath my feet and in the noisy wheels. Today I do not need the covers to protect against flying rain; there is comfort in the flowing air. It was a long time ago that childhood came to an end, and I have known other beginnings. But where we live, where I came from, even now when I go back sometimes to these places I still expect to find my friends.

Our ongoing exploration through time relies these days on writing and explication and not so much on wind and sun in trees. But the daily journey takes me past a broad bend in the river which today is again restored by the sky to silver. There is another small hill overlooking the bend where once, entranced, we joined a company in re-enactment. As best we could, a re-enchantment of Midsummer from a fantastical long ago. Here again the sun took its part in our theatre by its rotation about the wooded slopes leaving just enough slanting light and time for green magic and a rising moon. Even now the written words become voices again in my head.

They reach to me, my friends. Some I always knew, others came to me when I dwelt among their words and I saw again as if for the first time a night full of stars or found myself at an open window that let the warm love in.

The names have mostly gone or been repeated for so long that we can now rarely be sure. But we work on. I am lucky I came here when I was young and was awarded a task that was believed worth doing although it could not finish in my lifetime. I can name those who appointed me but they are no longer here for me to delight them with found treasures or the sad, lost, true stories of hopes freshly glinting in words.

The war broke our family. We lived on though he was gone. We could not know beforehand. We knew about history of course but it had been so long for us, for our parents, for so many generations. Real adventures had dangers but as children we grew up in a broad vista of joined countries. We had a long history to enjoy. Without us knowing it, however, calculations were being made. The world was growing too complicated again.

Today as I near home it is love-letters. I turn over the few that were not consigned to ashes. Dear Aunt, she was not so old when I knew her. She would have stayed in that other country with her dear young man and we would have had cousins, but her mother could no longer keep house and youth must take a turn at care. There was much love either way, so we are blessed with the written word.

She wrote to her young man: “… I feel the hand that guides my pen brings me to you.” … “Alliances are made with writing. I know many lead good lives without a pen, but I am blessed both with this slow ink to gather my thought and with a quick eye when I read your replies.” … “I am particularly joyful. Spring and the New Moon and small rain have blessed the garden … the newly coloured evening, the vibrant birdsong, the magic longing …”

She was to say later: “It was for the best … my children could have been slaying their cousins … they would have been the same age.”

So now I am directed to do more than keep the archived fragments of lives. We seek the arts of joining up memories, even if our own remain disjointed. I am blessed with blossoming skill and a small community; in a similar way a house can be renewed with a garden, where we can invite distant guests to join us among flowers. As one source has said of red poppies in the field: “Where we are drawn by these ancient blind dancers, by their new gesture, their colour.” Gathered from time, many friends with lost names are present, glad of respite from eternity to live again like children.

Tomorrow I must travel to a different country. I am a guest. Almost by chance I have become what our ancient sources might have called ‘a scholar’. There is excitement and some trepidation, but invitation is again possible these days and my colleagues buoy me up with thoughts, and entrust gifts for those we have known only by correspondence. We know ourselves as humble historians but we gaze again as through an open door. I take the preview of the book and something from all of us.

I must say goodbye.

——–

On the journey we must trust the sea, which is not a straightforward gesture these days, if it ever was. But this time of year has been an uneventful blessing. I bring with me enough to reflect upon when I have wide spaces and time. I am crossing while still in the aftermath of war and anticipate seeing scenes of loss and destruction when we reach the other side. I am haunted a little by a recently found image which travels with me. We recently examined newly discovered texts. Our profession cannot easily attribute these to any age. Nor can we reconstruct the history of the survival of these stories, except that the earliest must have been itself a written text during a period contemporary with a war, but there is much added later as if from informed commentary. There could have been investigations in the soil of even later ruins.

But I can see clearly enough as if by moonlight an image of a town within walls in a fair country. The town has roads in the cardinal directions and through the lower town a clean-running small river. The roads are empty into the distance. I can see a grid of streets within the walls, but the dwellings are dilapidated, mostly fallen rubble and sprouting trees. There is nobody there. There has not been anyone there for centuries. Then the earliest text tells us there was a sudden preparation for war, the walls and gates were re-enforced, the old streets peremptorily modified to serve a garrison. After that we lose the story again. Much of history appears to us like these ghost pictures.

——-

“We must believe we are worthy.” These are the opening brave words for our gathering. All of us have an inner caution. One pair who have journeyed furthest hold hands, such is the strangeness. The city has been rebuilt mostly of old material and we all needed to come over the one bridge, and our clothes were more different than we expected. There was comfort, though, in light glancing off the river, and in the welcome. This was more homecoming than professional pilgrimage – few formal observances – more family than nation, though nation was more restored than we could have imagined. To be handed a hot drink and a time without too many words to take in the wood-lined rooms, the worn but polished tables, restored ancient pictures and new flowers, and to pick-up the sense that those born here treasured their place, was enough reassurance.

The years have gone by for some of us who are not as lively as we might once have been, but we venture sturdily enough when it comes to work and can smile with the young persons. There is talk of harvests, not just of books or of old ideas, and the morning is stirred with carts arriving from distant gardens and boats poled past with straw from the barley fields. The country breathes into the city and dwellings. It feels as though history reasserts itself with certain adroitness. We know enough of the names but they carry a lighter weight now. This is not after all simply the aftermath of war.

My own presentation of texts prompts not only scholarly discussion. I am approached by young persons who wish, there and then, to improvise theatrical enactments, to match text with places in town and country, to match with the heavens over the town, to follow stars in the sky, to process with words through the gate. I am not a theatrical person and my memories are mostly personal, even those of the old texts, and I am almost afraid of such re-enactment of history, but I must allow these almost-children their enthusiasm. So music winds through fields to applause, and new memories find their way out of the lecture hall, to a town agog and laughing at the new foolery and old magic. We have not had such festivals for long enough.

After the lectures, I sit with the greybeards; a lady among gentlemen as my mother might say. She is fond of archaisms. Tom says by way of invitation, “We seem to have brought cartloads of ideas; you have released a flock of birds … But I must sit a while and rest this leg.” He winces. We had been discussing earlier my “Memories as Continuities – constructing new pathways”. He has had a long journey to reach here and his old wound troubles him at times.

I had previously remarked on his unusual and very ancient name. We of course only reveal personal names with care, and our disparate group have only slowly begun to introduce ourselves beyond our official titles.

Tom assumes I know the origin. “I think my parents caught the revival after the translations from those old archives which were found around that time. I was a surprise arrival so it seemed to make sense. It was a special time for them.”

The air has been gentle with us these last few days. We can sit untroubled, unhurried by the changing season and can even suspend thought of return journeys. Tom misses his old work.

“I spend too much time with thoughts and ordering the written word, but my family, our community, values the correspondence,” he says. “And the leg makes me less useful than I otherwise might be. But even now I miss my young days of heavy work. I can still heft a heavy pick for a time, and the rhythm of the work is like joining in an old song the while. Where I grew up we worked mostly alone, often days on end alone in the field or with a horse, or in the winter shed. But when I found my new family, they worked with song, unison. Great bouts of work could pass by of a morning with singing and whistling amid chaff and jokes and teasing. I would join them as best I could.” Tom was in the war and it has left him with a damaged leg in a foreign country, but with a new life.

We come towards the end of our official stay. In the morning we have a small tour of the town. Standing on the gate tower by the bridge we watch more carts coming for the vegetable market. They must have set out mighty early and perhaps many have been busy all night. One is a cart of flowers and a boy riding on top. He is more than a child and must be valuable to the man who looks like his father who is driving. Of a sudden I am reminded of my little brother growing up. He catches us looking down on him and his eyes flash recognition, and he waves as he passes beneath the gate.

——–

In the evening we go back out into the town. Small children are not in bed, though some fall asleep in the crook of an arm, in slings or in baskets. Older ones flit hither and thither while the dark gathers among the street trees and quiet talk flows towards music. Musicians invite us to the lit stage. From a far away country a small company with bright horns and trumpets has arrived and wound its way in from the fields, their white shirts next black skin under the darkening sky.

Their music makes the young people dance; strange at first, the horns talk in many voices sad and longing, engaging, joking or piercing like light with undeniable summons. There is more to come. The evening is tossed from one to another, passed back and forth, company to company, man to woman, told with old songs or by notes pitched without words, by gesture and dance. Though this is not our country, a few names we know, others are introduced, some do not yet have names. We older people are well past our bedtimes but closure must arrive soon enough. As the talk and excitement begin to disperse, Tom and I see again the boy from the flower cart. He approaches the very large black players still in the light of the stage and says something to them that makes them laugh and clap him and each other on the shoulders. So is memory and even history made.

——-

I am alone in the garden. The short quiet night seemed dreamless, or maybe I have forgotten. This is not our garden, but when sunlight opens the door I remember our old house when he came in from outside in a blaze bringing in the morning. Stronger as his days lengthened his small legs, he became a daring boy. I can think of him, even now, as he might be, a small herald for a good play.

“We will be worthy!” I say to Tom when he joins me on this last morning. “There is humour in that young man and his dad’s flowers and those large black men worthy of the stage.”

Tom has learned from us a little of our stories. He looks at me sharply: “We have rejoined the theatre, you and I. You might be dressed modestly standing here among flowers – but there could be ancient days to be revived on stage.” He grins. “We are a good company – you, me and the others are brought here for good reasons. Diverse company enough to play many parts, even if I might be the most ancient of beggars. We can borrow good lines where we will and hand them on to these young people for their fancy.” He pauses. “Though the long journey home from the play remains real enough.” And he grimaces this time, shifting his weight. “Lend me your arm awhile; we must join the others for food and for thank you and goodbyes.”

——–

I am home now and it is still summer. Mother is very quiet with the cat beside her on the chair, asleep again though it is only half way through the morning, such is great age. As is the custom, I have told my stories to the bees in their castles at the bottom of the garden. There is much to be busy with here and with the good people in the village who took care of mother and the household economy.

I have given my first account to the good colleagues at work. They were quietly agog, what with the letters I brought back with me. And the library people are fast unpacking the box of books the boy brought up from the station on his small cart. We all arrived early. I have called in colleagues from our sister institutes – I have close friends among them.

——–

There is my young friend Yasi, known otherwise by her extravagantly long title from the civic society, who serves in the new democratic networks within our City. She lives close to the centre and usually will run through the street to work, but this morning has walked via Green Market to bring fresh fruit with her to our Institute.

We already had a long talk before I left on my journey. “Sofi,” she told me, “international wireless links will not be renewed even for scholars, the military would never authorise that. But there is talk among the councils, guilds and traders that we might reconstruct wireless in the city, under some kind of guarantee. We must make it local in and around the town, for children in the morning schools. Would you know your historians who would want to work with our writers?”

We had already learned there were loosely connected but determined younger people who had survived the war who were intent on a different philosophy to find new creativity. What better than to work with imagination and theatre and music? Children explore and find their own extraordinary voices. History for them is more like geography.

“We will need some kind of constitutional authorisation,” I said before I left. “These are still dangerous times and war has unhinged more than trade and economies.”

Even as I am repeating just now this same old caution, I am reminded of the bridge I recently crossed into a still only partly re-built city. Our clothes seemed out of place then; our purposes not so much. The family welcome and the spontaneous final festival are still fresh in my mind. This morning, we are looking at one another again, and then at the others round the room. I can see our young people slightly anxious and our older friends and scholars cautiously waiting.

“On second thoughts”, I find myself saying, “let’s just start writing the scripts and gathering in some of these keen scholars and impatient former soldiers. They have lost too many years already in this long aftermath. We will educate ourselves as we go along.”

So we begin our peaceful conspiracy, and construct stories. We are joined by many from the country of lost names who walk beside us, their presence more akin now to those called by the half-formed syllables of a child. They are happy to look again as if through our eyes on familiar affection and to help us find words. Perhaps it was always so. But we should write for them.

——–

The above is an introduction – not quite a manifesto. The work starts here. Some here re-interpret the world through history and through utterance, like children who can write of their new experience in the dark. This is more than literacy; we share listening and finding with our looking.

Phil Harris
29th June 2016

Acknowledgement: I owe Ian Jack, journalist, for the insight that ‘children experience history more as geography’.

Advertisements

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.

North of the Wall

Entry for JM Greer’s 2014 story competition

The place is swept clean except for fragrant dry leaves, but there are still stories here. The trees cluster tight to the tumbled walls and to my overhung shelter. I have questions – why are there so few tracks of animals and why is there empty ground where there might be trees? I heard no wolves last night while beside my precautionary embers, but I am in strange country and do not know enough of the habits of the wild creatures. And where will I find villages again? The precious map would have looked very different in the sunlight of our ancestor in his light-hearted fast-moving assurance. The railway is still definitive and I know more than rumour of a city far off – but well guarded of course as these things should be from malign intelligence probing. Our wireless base must be used with discretion.
This journey might have been attempted 100 years ago, but if it was, the records are lost. Our family kept diaries for much of that time, so I think I am the first to follow the old idea; to keep a promise, a faith in a question. Our ancestor knew his world had entered a period of great discredit – and this was a blotch in the diary that our family must share. To follow such a forward vision and then to look forward again is a strange past-time; a hazard of bread unless the journey is in hope of giving back value to the hope of those who went before, and value to those who might follow after. But even now, why here; and why do I hazard a chance?
I am a responsible family man still moving cautiously. There is a limit to how much preparation we could have made. How not to attract attention or to be misunderstood?
The good pony and I are heading north and further inland, and are likely weeks away from any wireless base. We had some discreet wireless contact with this Land over the last decade, but none during our voyage. It could be many days yet, but I travel in hope of meeting our previous contacts, the wise couple and their family and probably other good families along the way, and I should be able then to get my first message home. I expect these are public-spirited people. If that is so it could begin to answer the signal question we are almost sure was not written in jest so long ago.

After another early morning I am now paused for us to eat a little. This is a more uncertain region than I guessed when I travelled the water-guarded roads between hills and had hospitality among the good hearted Statesman holdings, even though it has been only five days of walking since then for me and Pony. The rail line going north appeared to be in order, though sparingly used, but my tongue would have raised questions in others and I had chosen to head for the area my ancestor had crossed in such good heart when he returned home. He must have been an old man by then but he travelled with old stories of others travelling with hope in their hearts; young men and women through the oak woods with their promise of generation under these same skies – carrying a Church of Blessings for the families. More than two millennia since for some of these stories, but time is not an enemy of the family.

Tonight I am higher, near the old stone cross with its weather rubbed western face. It has been a most interesting day. I found a used path with a few cattle marks and occasionally those of wild creatures, through deep fringes of trees – some of them growing thickly together. There were pasture glades at intervals and an opportunity to rest and feed Pony on his tether. I explored on my own for half an hour another path that crossed with ours, to gain some point of view above the trees, and had an unexpected meeting. At a good pace coming toward me was a wide-horned cattle bull. We were both hemmed by trees above and below the path. I stepped below and leaned against a trunk. The bull came on, but courteously strode a pace uphill from our path and grunted as he passed. I grunted back. I guessed he was heading for company, and I knew that habitation could not be so far; though of the herders saw no sign.
Some miles passed and Pony and I reached wider pastures with distant structures on the skyline, and converged with the first person we had seen for a six days; a child leading his own pony in that direction. The child was circumspect but not afraid and hailed me appropriately from a respectful distance. I took some assurance from both his and his dog’s reaction to my unexpected presence. On asking if I might reach what I took to be his home he indicated I could come with him, though his speech was not so easy to follow. This proved a good introduction to what has been my lodging tonight. The people here are in good fettle; several adults, and two infants still being carried and the child I had met. Two younger persons appeared during the evening, apparently curious about my presence. This place has very good vegetable gardens and nut trees and fruit bushes where there is shelter. The crops of oats seem to have been good this year, the seasons being mellow enough even at this height, and the rain not always incessant. The people all appear literate and in good health with good teeth, and talkative enough after the quiet period of adjustment following my arrival. I am appreciative that this custom of quietness applies properly in these parts, and allows the rightful sense of trust. The talk was slow to begin but quickened after food when they knew my interest in history. Before dark they were able to show me the great cross and I was excited to learn they had old documents and drawings of the carved marks on this and other stone crosses, and a record of their ancient religious poems. That time was more than a thousand years before my ancestor came this way, and I was impressed by the scholarly interest and sense of depth in the intellect.
Good people; and I left them some small money and the summary account of my family history as a token of my visit, and a small glass jar and lid from the store Pony and I carried. The good woman looked me steadily in the face as I made my goodbye.
“You can travel safely across our land – and there are no wolves hereabouts,” and she smiled.
I have been careful not to ask too many questions of the land to the north. There is government, we know that, but I am on personal quest; merely a well-meaning ambassador of my family and our extended relations. Books and learning and long held stories that we have in common from childhood to old age can come alive if we find the right country and company.

I am now much further on, and think I might have missed the sunlit banks of hills that so impressed the ancestor on his afternoon. The cloud and rain has been among the trees and it has not been possible to boil my kettle. I still have my slices of porridge and Pony his bag of meal. The dried extract of berries from my last hosts is a blessing. I think of the Thousand Year House, but first must find the wise folk and their Library – started as a grange of the greater learning, but now by repute one of the refugia and a place for wandering scholars to bring their contribution.

This is unexpected. I have reached the village still retaining the name attributed by the ancestor and identifiable on the old map. But I learn to my dismay the wise man has died and the wife is old and gone to live with a daughter on one of the new farms in the drier east of the country south of the big river. The family is thereby dispersed, and I have not ascertained the location of the Library. There is a new Church but no books and no visiting scholars. The Church people are courteous but I cannot see past invisible walls. They are not apparently suspicious and offer the basic hospitality, but nothing of themselves. This is not Dispersal of Blessings, and is entirely new to me. I am even hesitant to mention family or to hope for better acquaintance. The Library in physical form is perhaps elsewhere in a civic structure under the far City dispensation, or part of this new Church? The new building is to a pattern – not the first I think – and must have required a deal of bread for the builders and diversion of the great horses. I wonder about the other railways on the old map. This was an outpost. In the hostelry where we found stabling, a young fellow talked half-remembered stories of the Three Hills, marching camps and straight roads. I wonder which millennium he is remembering. Still, we are dry, and my clothes and bag have baked enough on the hot bricks. I do not sense old sorrow nor I hope a new shadow; more a kind of hidden impatience with the here-and-now. Such matters will be important, but should I make this an end? I am intrigued still by visions of witness-bearing tall trees that allow this land to be a safe place yet. Have I found the answer to the ancestor’s question?
The village is bigger than I had expected – nearly a small town and there is a regular market. Seeing the painted black and white ashlar fronts of old houses still standing along a street reminds me this is a very old country. There are two bakeries, but only one open, and this one also cooks family meals wheeled over in large pots by children early in the day. As I wandered back, a young woman hurrying at mid-day from work in the wood joinery shop by the mill to meet her child outside the tiny school, stopped briefly beside me.
“Are you Mr Toms?” and on hearing my astonished answer, said, “You will be wanting Mr Andrew’s house – I will show you and let you in. There is a message.” And by way of explanation, grinning back at me: “We look for the house for the family just now.” So that is how I am here in the house and thinking about Mr Andrew’s message, and the selection prepared by him in case of future visitors.
This is a warm house and I feel as never before in a strange place that if chance required my stay, I would be welcome and might never leave – a strange fancy it seems. The families who come to live here will be very blessed.
My studies continued at the small window for another hour. Then the door opened and the young woman appeared with her child, a girl of perhaps 5 years.
“Janet would have baked you a cake, so Lucy and I have done it for her.” And the smiling child brought her covered plate to the table and her mother a jug of hot water for infusion, and we sat and had small cake each and infusion in delicate old cups from the kitchen drawer. I heard a little more of the story.
Mr Andrew and wife Janet had been important people for Lucy’s mother as a child and as a young person. He had coached youth football in those days, and that included her. They also organised the dances and choirs and were known as ‘the Ministers’ and were ‘asked for’ at most marriages, funerals and naming. I know more of this old tongue than many, but it was curious to hear old words come alive while the small candle burned for our taking of tea as the dim deepened.
I had already understood from my reading that the Library had fared better than I feared. Mr Andrew had received support from afar and the books and archive had been moved close to a place of learning in one of the old Cities. But there were no names or locations written down. Lucy’s mum looked at me.
“These are better just remembered,” she said. “It is not a big matter. Just a precaution, Mr Andrew said. I can tell you though the name of a family friend who can help.” She gave me the name.
“These are old names; including yours Lucy,” I said. “And you like old things?”
The child shone in the candle light. “Yes, but not just old things”, she said. “I like wee Jimmy next door and he is very new.”
So we washed and dried carefully the cups and put them back in the drawer. I judged it wise to return to the hostelry and Pony and make these shorthand notes, and spend quiet contemplation. I will need to find a way of engaging a wireless base. It seems I will need to visit the family friend who shares a name with Lucy. I would like to return to Andrew and Janet’s house – there is more there to see than was visible in the afternoon. I sensed a latent functionality in the simple dwelling as well as the accumulated good will. But that must wait another day – or perhaps I will be able to return this way.

I have been busy, too busy for my usual diary, but many notes will be attached. They are mostly a catalogue of work books and manuals. These people have more tools to work with than we have. The family friend was able to lead me to a wireless base – the antenna among old dry-stone walls (stane dykes in the old speech) is hidden among sparse trees on the cap of a hill. The stones were perhaps once an ancient signalling station but not part of any empire we have rumour of. It seems not to be part of a growing new one either. I have wondered about Mr Andrew’s precautions and about the promotion of new Churches – I still have no idea of the teaching or the source of money – and half-speculated the Cities with their sheltered access to the sea were becoming impatient again with present slower ways.
But these wireless people seem to have little connection with schemes of profit. They are of the Dispersal of the Blessings and know something of Libraries and the old ways of lending the greater learning; they were interested to see my links with so many family trees and some guessed there were old connections we could trace between us. They called the house with the transmitter half buried near the bottom of the sunlit side of the hill the “wee bothy”, but I could see the slow water below the turbine where the big trout lay nose forward, and the workshop had some of the precious old lights. Could these even be new replacements? I was not yet relative enough to ask. It was a good house and as cheerful as the hill water, and would be bright with berries later. And these would be dried for winter – precious; they are gifts across all lands.

My message home had to be short. I have made arrangements that when my brother is ready with the boat I will be called. There is a swift path to a haven I now know that brother and I can trust, perhaps a day or two of travel from here. When the time comes, I will need to be ready. I will trust Pony to these people because they know the pack trains that cross the lonely hill paths the way I have come and sometimes take trades as far as Pony’s stable in the southern haven. Pony will earn his keep as usual. The two light-weight wheels I brought with me are strong enough and will attach to frames they have here, and the path has long sections engineered for swift pedal travel. I will leave the wheels as recompense for these good people. From Mr Andrew I learn that we cannot save everything. We can copy so little. I can risk taking his selection of precious discs because we have rebuilt the old machine for translation and transcription, but we must trust the earlier choices made so long ago when knowledge became an impossible burden. Knowledge can shred like the mist that sometimes blows through these old hills. I will bring back or send a copy in readable form if that is not too bulky. I will leave one small paper book here as a token for Lucy. A child can always make new speech out of old stories.

I am conscious of the work I am surrounded by. I remember the old story of an empty hillside, the people long gone, where one could still hear the clink of spades but only in the ear of the mind. Now I see down the green road a croft; washing on the line.
I think he loved the lands I have just travelled and in his youth was carefree with good friends and came to find places he had memorised from stories in his childhood. Perhaps that begins to account for the sense I have felt in these places. Even when they are long gone, lives are bright again like leaves on the tree. The ancestor said that if it was still possible to return safely and travel these places then that would be much of his answer.
Perhaps I am beginning to know the freedom to be at home across wide lands as in the accounts of the ancestor.

*****

Hi
This is Lucy. I am the transcriber now. Mr Toms never did come back. My mother has the story such as it is. Wireless told us that he and brother had been delayed in another country but had sent on papers and discs to his family land. The message thanked us and relayed a script for me with its key. I and mother were to be one with the family and we were blessed with old names! I am still interested in old things and have read Mr Andrew’s message. I do not understand it all; he seems to be talking to people like Mr Toms. I still do not know what question Mr Toms’ ancestor wrote in that long ago and it is not clear that Mr Toms ever knew exactly when it was written. Mr Toms seems to have found at least some beginning of an answer. I hope so.
I still hope that Mr Toms will reach his home. Mother says it is possible and that he has not given up. Wireless tells us that Mr Toms’ country wireless has become very discreet. There are matters afoot in the wide world, but we know only rumours. Mr Andrew said that it was always hard work, and that what was important was the feel of what was handed on to us. Mr Toms seems to have understood that feeling.
But Wireless is passing messages to me from, I think, a relative of Mr Toms. She encourages me to keep reading and to learn more of the languages we can both use, and wants me to send helpful transcription from the three we know best, including, she calls it, “your old speech”. It is possible to record and send speech and I am doing that just now. I know from Mr Andrew and Mr Toms that it does not matter that there are few of us. Our knowledge and work can pack very small like seeds and stories grow again.
I am keeping diaries for us, and that includes wee Jimmy who is growing up now. He always says he will write it down, but he is too busy outside with his friends or down at the Mill.
We will keep writing.

L