A Long Long Time Ago

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Peter Sclemihl by Marc Nash

Tidal Flow by J S Watts

Now is once upon a time. Then was now. Time once was then and will be again.

The priest is listening to the waves hissing at the edges of the beach and to the air hissing from the lungs of the dying soldier laid out at his feet. He is certain he is dying. British spears have pierced his flesh and British magic is coursing through the streams of his blood. The time left to him is ebbing with the tide, but in the meantime the steady retreat of life is leaving truth in its wake.

“Tell me what you see. What is it in the air?”

The dark haired man struggles, but then the words start lapping at his throat,

“Eagle. It’s an eagle. Big. Proud as the Ninth. The air is his. But something else. Red wings. Serpent tail. A dragon. A dragon is challenging the eagle. They are fighting. Beak and teeth and claws. Now there is fire, dragon fire and the eagle is falling in flames and there is blood. Flowing in the streets. Women and children slaughtered. Blood and flames and the screams of the dying. So many dying….. All dead now.”

He stops, but the bubbling of his lungs indicates that he is not with the dead. Not yet. The priest wants more. The slaughter he knows about, even if the soldier didn’t. Three of the intruders’ citadels have already fallen in blood and flames. The people were the dragon and the dragon was victorious. What he needs to know is what comes next.

“Tell me what you see now. What happens once the eagle falls and the killing is over?”

Silence. He checks the soldier’s breathing. He is alive. Just. He pours more liquid between the man’s lips.

“Tell me. What is happening now?”

The breathing quickens, but is growing shallow.

“The dragon rises glorious. He shines in the sky. Bright, so bright, but the eagle is rising again. His hurts are healing, feathers regrown. Circling. Circling the dragon, holding to his blind side. Now falling like a rock. Dropping down the sky onto the dragon, his claws blinding. They are both falling. The dragon hits the ground first. Blood flooding the earth where men lie dying, hacked and torn and bleeding. The eagle kills. The dragon is ended.”

The priest has heard enough. If the dragon is going to perish then he, for one, will make sure that he kills as many of the eagle’s followers as he can in the time remaining to him. His knife is already against the throat of the dying man.

“Now, the eagle…,” the knife pauses, “rides the dragon’s carcass, seeping into it. Both melting. Soaking into the ground together. Then red shoots rising. Dragons in eagle feathers, eagles with the scales of a dragon, flocking, filling the air. So many, so…”

Whatever the soldier was going to say dies with him as the priest’s knife slices into the man’s neck and the blood flows. The dragon isn’t dead yet.

A cave on the sea shore. A man, a wise man and an adviser to kings; a man who would deny the magic of the old priests as a little herb lore and too much superstition, but who will be known, after his death, as the greatest magician the islands have birthed, is listening to the waves as the tide is coming in. He will be safe and dry enough in the cave, but he will be cut off for a few hours; time enough to escape the demands of the King’s hall and to think things through, but focussed thinking eludes him. His mind is tired and needs sleep. He indulges it and shuts his eyes. Pictures play across the inside of his eyelids. Dragons: one red and one white; deep in the earth under a citadel, high in the sky, fighting. Always fighting and the white dragon seeming to be winning until one destroys the other: the red dragon victorious. The white disappears into the dark of the sea and is forgotten until the red plunges into the water and the sea is bright with red and white striped fish: swimming, splashing, leaping. The nets of time will be full.

He wakes or, if he wasn’t fully asleep, he opens his eyes. The red dragon victorious is the message he will take back with him. It is what the people and his King need to hear. The fish are for the future.

A sea shore on a south easterly coast. An old woman known equally for her herb lore and her good crab stew is searching the rock pools for her dinner. She is careful because she knows that more than sea creatures may be found along the sea line. The sea serves as a border for the King and his high men, but it is a boundary for other things too; a place where land, sea and sky meet in constant flux and none holds sway. Where borders are uncertain it is easy for things to pass through; sometimes unnoticed, sometimes not. Sometimes welcome; sometimes not.

She has seen the signs in the pools and knows that a new king is coming and blood flows in his wake. He will come from the sea, while the now king waits for him on the soil, only to receive his fatal message unlooked for from the sky. One king dies and another takes the throne and the land and the rights of the people, but in the end the people will prevail; they always do. The foreign king will install his own high men and strengthen his frontiers, never knowing that the boundaries of the people are as fluid as the sea. It will take generations, but eventually there will be generations in which the land and the sea are inseparable, past borders forgotten. The wind has whispered its truth in her ears, but it is a truth for the future. Just now she is resigned to the fact that you can’t hold back the tide and she needs to find her crab before the rains come and mix the sea with the sky still further.

Fast-forward with the technology of later centuries. Tides have come and gone. Waves roll in. A vast city squats on the sides of a meandering river. Its roots deep down are in the soil and ashes of a citadel that has felt the heat of the flames: again and again. You cannot hear the sea from here, but the river eventually crawls into an estuary and mixes its waters with the ocean’s and the ocean’s tides lap back up to the edges of the city stones. It could be any time or no time, but it is always this time.

Those calling themselves prophets have, yet again, predicted rivers of blood, but this time their sanguinary nightmares have proved false. Less intelligent men continue to preach the old lie of maintaining the purity of the blood lines, a return to the days of the white dragon; forgetting that in its time it was not the ultimate victor and that in our time our souls are mottled red and white and many other colours besides, our boundaries blurred and opened to uncertainty and opportunity by the constant hissing of the waves.

You are waiting for an end to this story: A climax. We are instructed from childhood that all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end; a protagonist, a dilemma and a resolution, but I beg to differ. Borders shift, blood pools, the tides ebb and flow and anyway, it all depends on where you choose to start and what you decide is the end. Any absolute beginning or ending that might have been, or may yet be, are so very far away as to be incomprehensible and who is to say that stories must have straight lines? Water droplets pull themselves spherical, regardless.

Today I am listening to the river water with its tang of salt lapping against the edges that contain its flow; the edges as they are currently. Dragons dance on the edges of imagination, but maybe that was all they ever did. It is a good day. The air is mild. I have prepared fresh crab for supper. Dark hair, light eyes and pale brown skin reflect brightly in a nearby mirror, themselves reflections of a nation of once upon a times. Now is once upon a time. Then is now and what was once then is with us still.

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5 Responses to A Long Long Time Ago

  1. ‘A Long, Long Time Ago’ is an ironic label for this part of the walk. Both Marc Nash and JS Watts take a modern perspective on traditional tales in two very different pieces of writing.

    Marc’s piece, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Peter Schlemi,’ reads like part academic thesis and part excoriating critique. It’s clever and very demanding of the reader. He seems to lament the loss of the oral tradition – something that I see as very much alive and well. And it was the (to us) facile simplicity and formulaic approach that meant the traditional fairy tales could be easily retold and translated across language and culture. The time had to be non-specific and the themes universal – i.e. love, fear, survival, hope.

    But while my view is not so bleak as Marc’s, I do admire the keen wit and intelligence and the surgical incisiveness that Marc brings to his tale. There’s no resolution, no redemption but it’s a highly moral tale. And above all it is sly and engaging storytelling. Awesome.

    JS Watt’s ‘Tidal Flow’ has a saga feel to it. It is lore, it is symbolic – a nod in Beowulf’s direction in some ways. It’s laden with symbolism and the language is beautiful. The modernity contained in it flows easily through the mythic structure. There is too the flow of time through the whole piece. There is a recognition of where society is now – but also that there’s no start or end point to the themes and narrative contained here. A rich, poetic tale of where we are now and there’s no going back.

  2. marc nash says:

    Thanks Anne, I don’t particularly lament or believe that the oral tradition has gone, I think my point was trying to be more about the bureaucratising and making anodyne of story through mass produced print and attendant market demands. Dan raises an interesting point in his introduction to this exhibition, whether any archetypes remain in the modern world. bviously the ones from lore persist through art, but in life itself? I suspect not. Where my view is bleak is that humanity in the current era seems increasingly atomised and fractured. less able to call itself the collective noun humanity even.

    Many thanks for your response.

    M x

  3. danholloway says:

    Interesting discussion. I think I tend to agree with Marc about atomisation. Maybe it’s my existentialist roots, but I don’t agree that this is bleak. I think seeing oneself in terms of external lables – however many of them we use to shade and colour ourselves like some real life wee-me – is incredibly bleak. Seeing oneself as unlike any other – for me that bestows the ultimate value on a human being – of course it makes us alone – but we are together in our aloneness as Sartre might have put it but didn’t

  4. J.S.Watts says:

    Re. Anne’s comments about Tidal Flow (and thank you for the likening to Beowulf, by the way. I just hope my writing has the same longevity), I’d just like to add that no, there’s no going back because we are here precisely because of where we’ve been. Tides will always ebb and flow, of course, but each change brings with it new possiblilities and new hope, amongst other things.

  5. Quenntis says:

    I’ve only read ‘Tidal Flow’ on this page, so I’ll only comment on that one for now.

    ‘Tidal Flow’ examines the flow of time in an interesting way for a ‘fairy tale’ themed story. The use of dragons to represent groups/cultures of people that win and lose throughout the circle of time is quite striking. The actual structure of the story is cyclical, too, ending as it started. I like the use of present tense throughout, pulling the reader along the flow of the story, but then leaving the reader at the end without an ending; only a meeting with the narrator/storyteller/author; only a sense that he/she should read the story again and again watching for the slight changes hinted at…

    Thanks for your story, it’s made me think again about the nature of time, history, and fortune-tellers… Q

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