The Piper at the Back Gate 2

For the first half of the story see the post below this one.

I kept my eyes shut, hoping to be able to let them accustom to the new light, but I really wanted to open them and see the player of those pipers. I did wonder if I were asleep and dreaming all of this.      

The rough sound of the pipes had become smoother and more even and I sensed that in the silence, the player had perhaps been altering the pipes to make them sound better. I let myself listen to the tune that was never quite a tune; I kept thinking I would recognise the melody but I began to understand this melody had no name because it was new. It issued from the mind and the pipes completely newborn and unnamed. It came to me that I was the first human being to hear this piece of music.

  Finally, I made myself open my eyes.

  I’d begun to know what I’d see for some time but even so, it came as a shock. My mind said it wasn’t afraid but my knees disagreed and gave way, and I pitched forward onto the grass, suddenly boneless and unable to stand.

  Apart from the piper, everything else was a complete shock. From being a scrubby bit of land tucked away behind a row of old council houses, the land had transformed into a glade from a forest. No wonder I couldn’t see any streetlights; they were gone. In the penumbra of light shed by the piper, I could see trees seeming to extend into the distance for a long way before being lost utterly in deep shadows. What trees they were, too! I’ve seen trees like them only in dreams, great giants from the ancient past, trunks rearing to the sky like massive stone pillars, their bark rutted and coated with moss and lichens. The undergrowth was scanty, the grass dotted here and there with the white dots of sleeping daisies amid emerald moss as lush as a carpet. Even in the weird light I could see that the usual forest floor army of brambles was absent.

  The piper lolled against one of the huge trees, half sitting and half sprawling against it, his legs crossed and his eyes twinkling as he blew soft notes in his set of pipes. They were made of reeds, I thought, or maybe bamboo, but I know nothing of these things; I only know he made such tender tunes as he breathed softly into them.

   I’d known him for many years but I thought he’d been a dream, a fantasy lost in childhood memories. He’s a shape-shifter but he’s gone back to the form that amused him most, the one that humans used to know him by, and later reviled him for, calling him devil or demon.

  “You don’t think I’m a demon do you?” he said, softly, letting his pipes drop into his lap, his hand still curled round them protectively.

  I shook my head but I didn’t seem to be able to speak. I’m not afraid, I wanted to say but on some levels this wasn’t true at all. I certainly didn’t think him a demon.

  “When did we last meet?” he asked and again I shook my head. I didn’t know. In all the years since I first glimpsed him, I’d often thought I’d seen him again but never quite sure whether my over active imagination was playing tricks on me. I’d even begun to doubt my own experiences as a child.

  “That wasp,” he said. “The one you saved from the Coke. I was there. You didn’t see me, of course.”

  I swallowed.

  “Then you know about the one I killed,” I said, my throat dry and rough.

  He shrugged.

  “It happens,” he said. “You had good reason. That’s all I ask, really. Good reason.”

   “But we didn’t meet then,” I said. “You were watching me, but I didn’t know.”

  “Didn’t you?” he asked, one eyebrow going up at a comical angle.

  “I didn’t know,” I said, firmly.

  He shrugged again.

  “It doesn’t matter,” he said.  “I think we almost met, when was it, now. Ah yes, 1982, Summer time, Bedford Castle. You ran away.”

  “I was scared,” I said defensively. “You don’t know how scary you are, you know!”

  A small creature had appeared in the grass near his crossed ankles and he scooped it up; it was a tiny baby rabbit. He held it up to look at it and black button eyes regarded him evenly for a moment before he let it down and laid it on his lap where it sat happily whiffling its nose at the pipes in his other hand.

   “Scary am I?” he asked.

  “To a human, yes,” I said. “Very scary indeed.”

  “Are you scared now?” he asked.

  I considered. To be honest I was feeling odd but not as scared as I had been.

  “A little,” I said.

  He nodded.

  “I suppose it’s only natural,” he agreed.

  “What do you want with me?” I asked.

    I wasn’t sure why I had or where I’d found the courage to ask it.

  He shrugged, a strangely elegant gesture that seemed very human indeed.

  “I get lonely,” he said.

  I almost laughed out loud and he must have sense this or read my mind because he did then laugh. His laugh reminded me of the sound a stream makes as it flows over rocks.

  “I do,” he said a little defensively but I thought he was not serious really.

  He sighed. The little rabbit shuffled and then scrambled off his lap and disappeared into the grass.

  “There’s not many of you left these days who can sense me,” he said. “The children don’t play the way they used to, you know. They don’t climb trees much or paddle in streams or make things from bark and leaves. So they grow up and never know what’s out here, beyond their garden fences. Some of them never even go into the gardens. They surround their lives with concrete and metal and plastic and never feel grass beneath bare feet or the moon on their faces or the frost in their lungs.”

   “It was going even when I was a child,” I said.

  “I never dreamed it would,” he said. “I can scare humans still but they never see me any more. I can pull their hair and trip them up and yet they don’t know I am there.”

  He gazed round the deep dark shadows of the forest.

  “They never come here in their dream even,” he said.

  He seemed downcast and the pipes had slid from his hand and dropped into the grass.

  I managed to get to my feet and staggered over to where the pipes seemed to be dissolving in the earth and retrieved them. I put them back into his hands, brushing off the earth that seemed to cling to them. He stared at them as if he’d never seen them before and then with a renewed smile, his teeth gleaming like the light on the surface of moonlit water, he set them to his lips and began to play.

  He watched me for a moment and then stopped playing.

  “You will keep telling people about me, won’t you?” he said, his voice seeming to plead with me, but playfully. I didn’t believe he really needed to plead; it was part of his games, like the game an otter plays with a shiny stone for an hour in the sunshine.

  I nodded.

  “As long as you keep playing those pipes, I will,” I said.

  I could feel myself becoming rapidly sleepy, like a slow anaesthetic seeping into my bloodstream as the melody seeped into my bones again.  I felt my eyes grow heavy and irresistibly they closed as I sank gently to the mossy surface of the forest floor.

   When I woke, the dew had fallen and I lay curled like a hedgehog in the middle of the lawn, my nightie sopping wet and stained with green from grass and lichen and bark, and dawn light shone through low level clouds and the rising sun hung like a dove-grey pearl beyond the trees.

  I sat up, my body aching with the damp and my head pounding and tried to remember how I’d ended up here. I must have walked in my sleep, I thought and then I saw the back gate stood ajar still and as I rubbed my eyes, I saw the tiny fluffy white tail of a baby rabbit whisk away out of sight and I remembered.

The Piper at the Back Gate 1

I’ve decided to serialise this short story as it’s a little long for one go. More soon!

The Piper at the Back Gate

   I was woken again by the sounds of panpipes playing somewhere beyond my garden fence. So soft I could scarcely hear it, the faint melody crept like the scent of midsummer along the vines of honeysuckle and into my bedroom window to tug me awake. I lay stupefied as the song wound around my heart and took a firm hold before dragging me to full wakefulness. The past few nights I’d woken in the same way but as my senses returned, so the melody faded and I’d sat on the edge of my bed in the darkness suddenly unsure of what I’d heard. The bright brash light of the bathroom had broken the spell utterly and I’d slid back into sleep like an otter into water.

   But that night I could not turn to sleep again; the wild unearthly song that rose from my night garden could surely never emerge from a forgotten stereo left playing away to no one.

  A faint breeze trembled the curtains but I didn’t go and peep out. I’m not sure why even now.

   Instead I slipped from bed and crept downstairs barefoot and clad in the floating white nightie I’d always hoped made me look like the heroine from a gothic novel but in fact just made me look like a tent that has been blown away by a campsite gale. I found my way by memory and feel, not wanting to turn the lights on. Beyond the mess of the conservatory the garden seemed darker than normal and I stepped cautiously out onto the patio, my feet these days too tender to walk easily over bare concrete strewn with bird seed and escaped gravel.

   The hideous orange glow of the streetlights had vanished as if the power for the whole area had been cut and the night sky was the purest shade of deep indigo studded with the white pinpoints of the distant stars, shining with a luminous and lovely light. A quarter moon hung golden in the sky, a harvest moon in the making.

   The scent of flowers filled the still cool air; the final few flowers of the honeysuckle seemed to twinkle in the dim light and the lilac stars of the night-scented stocks poured their rich fragrance into the darkness. A single cricket began to thrum his song somewhere in the bushes, and the night breeze shook the shrubs. My feet were cold in the grass, and I could feel the moist earth beneath them.

  Just as I began to think I had simply dreamed the music, I heard a faint trill, a little rill of playful music that made me certain this was no recording. The sound was rough and a little breathy, oddly inexpert like a talented child who has made a set of pipes and now seeks to play them.

  To my surprise, the back gate was standing a little ajar. We seldom open it and to be honest, the padlock is stiff and hard to use. I put my hands to the top of the gate and I could feel that the bolt was drawn back and the padlock hung loose.

  I wanted to slam the door shut, and to run back to the house and pull the sheets over my head and not find out what lay beyond my back gate that night. But the better part of me was enthralled by the spill of luminous light that I saw pouring through the gap between gate and fence, and every trill of those unseen pipes grew sweeter and wilder as I listened as thought the player had got the hang of them now, and I knew I would go through, come what may.

   Beyond my back gate by daylight lies an area of rough grass leased to one of my neighbours as extra garden; he uses it to store building materials and a barbeque. The grass is cut a few times a year but it’s not really either a garden or a wild area. It covers about the same area as a small suburban garden, and is bordered at the end by chain link fence and small trees that act as hedges between our gardens and the grounds of the school beyond. It’s rather a sad bit of land, neither one thing nor another.

   But that night a different world lay beyond my gate, a vista of might-have-beens. I pulled the gate open as far as I could so I had a chance to look through before walking through myself, but the odd light didn’t seem to act the way light should. It seemed to prevent me from seeing.

  The hard surface of the path beneath my feet was cold and as I stood dithering I felt all my feet needed was grass beneath them and I began to walk forward almost without intending to. The grass beyond the garden gate lay like combed hair or water weeds below the surface of a slow stream; it shone and shimmered as the night wind caressed it. My feet sank into it as into a glorious carpet, burying them up to my ankles in cool refreshing softness. I still was unable to see very much, the weird light seeming to blind me. It occurred to me that this light was like moonlight but it seemed denser and more solid.

  The night was filled with scents that I struggled to name; along with the familiar scent of honeysuckle and hay, I could smell roses both wild and cultivate and a whole host of other fragrances some exotic and others homely like the smell of stables. Amid them all was a musky scent that reminded me of deer. I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath and as I did so, the music began again.

Touchy Feely

I just had a conversation on the phone with my mother that has made me think about various things. My mum (like me) suffers with depression and while my dad is sympathetic, like a lot of men his generation, he finds it hard to show empathy, and what Mum wants more than anything is a lot more hugs, without having to ask for them. Growing up, my family was never touchy feely; I have hugged my brother twice in the last 25 years. He runs if he thinks that’s what’s coming. I have issues regarding unwanted physical contact, but I’m working on them and I do hug people I know and like. I avoid where possible the whole air-kissing routine and stick out a very rigid hand if I’d prefer to be very British and shake hands instead. This doesn’t always work with my overseas students; the Spanish especially are very affectionate(and insistent) and I’ve had some bear hugs from leaving students that have taken my breath away. As I said, I’m working on it.

But it did make me think how much touch is a neccessary part of human wholeness and health. Babies fail to thrive without it; and I do wonder if the world WOULD (as my boss said when I protested about being hugged by him!) be a happier place if we were all a bit more touchy feely. The inner jury is out on that issue, but it did make me think that therapuetic touch like massage could be such a powerful tool for healing emotional hurts as well as physical ones.

I have some expertise in this area as for six years I worked as a reflexologist and I had very loyal clients who would have written me testimonies galore about how I helped them. But the testimony that means most to me was the one my mother gave me today. I suggested(being a know-it-all and wanting to fix things for her) that she perhaps have a regular massage, or maybe reflexology. When I visited I always used to give her a treatment and she told me today how much it used to help her and that she could never previously have imagined that someone simply massaging her feet could have such a profound effect on her, and when I suggested she seek out a practictioner for regular sessions, she told me she didn’t think anyone would ever be as good as I was! I was a bit stunned because I never rated myself very highly at what I did. Obviously I was wrong about this. I live too far from my parents to be able to do this except on our infrequent visits but I hope (I shall talk to my dad about it) that Mum seeks out and tries a few massage therapists.

I am also reminded that one of the forms of healing within the Christian Church is called the Laying on of Hands. Touch is not essential to healing, but I do feel in this context, it empowers the whole process with an extra zing. People who are seldom touched respond more when the laying on of hands happens and touch reminds us of our common humanity and need for love.

So, a virtual hug to everyone, and if I get to meet you in the flesh one day, please redeem that virtual hug with a real one;  just don’t break my ribs!!!

Synchronous Fish

I walk along our stretch of beach a couple of times a week and have done in all weathers for the last three years. It’s never the same twice, and that’s why I love it. There’s hardly anyone there, often utterly deserted, or with a few fishermen with lines out to sea. Dogwalkers are often the only people you see and as the weather deepens into winter, only the really hardy venture out. The wind comes in off the North Sea tasting of Siberia and the waves are wild and high, even when there’s no storm.

It’s interesting to see what washes up or is thrown up but anything edible, from stranded fish to discarded sandwiches the fishermen leave behind is gobbled up by the ravening hordes of sea birds that patrol the shoreline incessantly. I’ve been seeking to find a photograph of a fish out of water, to illustrate a novel I wrote a few years ago but in the three years I’ve been here, I have never come across a stranded and unmutilated  fish. Apart from a few pipefish, which hardly look like fish at all, I’ve never seen a fish lying on the shore. I’ve found lobsters, and crabs and even a young seal but never an intact fish. Of course, I could always have found a photo somewhere, but that didn’t feel right.

Today in sunshine and brisk winds, I reached the shore and after  few moments, I saw it.  About six or eight inches long, black eyes staring sightlessly up at me, this discard from the fisherman nearby, lay a silvery fish. Cursing that for once I had forgotten my camera, I whipped out my phone and took a snap with that and as I bent closer, the lower jaw of the fish moved and I knew it wasn’t dead at all. I picked it up and put in carefully back in the sea and when nothing floated belly-up in the surf, I realised I had found it in time and it had swam away.

We use the term Fish Out Of Water when we mean we are out of our element, out of our true and natural setting and feeling uncomfortable about it. The truth of it is that a fish out of water is very soon a dead fish. Today, with so many things whirling round my mind, I had a sign that not only was I to be returned to my natural element and be revived but also that some of my plans are heading in the right direction. I can’t explain any more than this because there are so many other factors involved but this incident felt so very numinous and powerful beyond measure.

I think the fish might be quite pleased too….

New Friends

I’ve just added a couple of new friends to my blogroll.

First, there’s Brynn at  http://cocreateyourlife.wordpress.com

And most recently, I’d like to welcome Brother Anthony at  http://harriedmystic.wordpress.com maybe adding to your blogroll but they are utterly different; I suggest you have a little visit and see how you find them.

It’s always good to make new friends, because I feel that often we learn more from friends than we do from books.The sharing of experiences, the comfort of finding kindred spirits, the counsel we get and give within good soul-friendships are what can help us make great strides in our journey.

If there’s anyone you think I should add; or if you’ve been here a while and would me like to share your blog, please let me know!

The Soldier Ant’s Tale

I’ve mentioned that my brother is a butterfly expert(in an amateur capacity) and that I grew up with the idea that creepycrawlies were not something to be feared (at least not if I wanted to be able to go to bed without finding one there!) but admired and studied. Some years ago on a visit, my brother suggested we visit a butterfly jungle establishment not that far from where he lives; it would be “educational” he said for our daughter, then aged about 10 or 11 and who was being educated at home (and that’s another story)

Well, it was a great trip. There was a bird of prey rescue and rehab centre as well as the butterfly house and a nature walk. They even had some rather nice ice creams. Part of the hothouse that housed the butterflies was given over to other less colourful insects, and by this time feeling I needed some alone time, I went over to watch the ant colony.

The colony was housed in rather an imaginative way. Instead of it being inside a great glass case, it was in the open. The ants lived on a great concrete mushroom, with such severely sloping sides that it was very hard(maybe impossible)for them to negotiate their way off their plateau and really, when the foraging area was across a rope bridge and on another huge concrete mushroom, there was no need to leave their land at all. So there was nothing but a rope fence between me and the ants; spaced about four feet away so visitors could see but not touch the ants.

Now I am not sure what species of ant they were but some sort of tropical breed where the usual workers were tiny and there were soldier ants a good six or so times the size of the workers. The workers made compost out of the leaves they brought back from the other island and grew a type of fungus which was a much desired foodstuff. The soldiers did guard duty, and presumably kept order and maybe in normal conditions they went on patrol. As you may be aware, despite Disney animated films, biologically speaking ants are not really individuals; they  are part of a collective consciousness that works for the colony. Each ant is a clone, I think and has no independent thought processes, needs or desires.  

Or so I believed.

I became very engrossed in watching the activity of the ants and as I did so I became also aware of the activities of certain individuals.You could follow a single ant with your eyes as it performed its tasks. After a while, I became aware of one soldier ant moving among the workers, approaching them and interacting by touching antennae with them and so on. It communicated with a few other soldiers but largely with the workers. There seemed to be a pattern to it; it was moving in the general direction of the edge of the plateau, stopping every few inches to touch and stroke the workers as it moved.

Now the concrete mushroom had a spoil heap below it where the ants threw their rubbish; spent compost, bits of leaf or twig too big to break down, dead ants and general detritus. A steady procession of workers moved across the “savannah” of emptyconcrete away from the centre of the colony’s “farm” bearing rubbish and throwing or dropping it over the edge of the mushroom. This was the direction my soldier ant was moving in, but as it reached the column of workers, it moved a little away from them, and didn’t interact with them.

I watched in astonishment as the soldier ant reached the edge of the plateau, paused for a second and then simply dropped over the edge. It fell silently to the spoil heap at the bottom and lay there utterly still. I watched for another half an hour and it didn’t move. It was dead. It had died on the edge and had simply let its body fall over.

I was astounded.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the actions of that ant. I know that anthropomorphism is the curse of the true scientist but what I had watched seemed very much like a creature bidding farewell to selected friends and going to its death, taking its own much larger body all that way, knowing it was at the end of its life and wanting to save its friends and comrades the significant effort of carrying its body all the way to the disposal point.

This year I became a beekeeper. Bees, like ants, are social insects, working for the good of a whole colony and not for the individual. The single bee is not considered important at all ; and yet, I know of beekeepers, good ole boys, who’ve kept bees for more than fifty years, who will pick up on a finger a bee that arrives so laden with pollen it is exhausted and cannto fly any further, and deliver it to the hive entrance to be relieved of its burden by waiting bees so it can fly off again. One single bee and the old beekeepers will still help it. Other beekeepers are more robust: “They’re just insects! ” they’ll say dismissively. And yet, the chief beekeeper in our area says things like, “They’re lovely little ladies; if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you!”     

We use the term ANT often to convey extreme smallness and insignificance in the universe; and to convey mindlessness and an extreme form of communism where the individual is entirely subsumed in the colony’s needs.

I wonder now if ANY of that is really true.

The Power of Orange Knickers

I promised I would write this post, and now here it is.

The Power of Orange Knickers is a song title by Tori Amos, a singer songwriter whose work has been the soundtrack to a great deal of my writing over the years. Her lyrics are strange but oddly inspiring; phrases resonate in my mind and create images and stories and moods. The lyrics to this song are pretty much incomprehensible when you try and analyse them, which is the case with many of her songs. It’s the single phrase(both musical and literal) that gets my mind working.

The power of orange knickers is about what makes us feel good, the things, often secret, that give us confidence in who we are. Wearing nice undies is one thing that works for many women(and maybe men!) but there are so many things, not just physical, material things that can underpin our lives: our spiritual practices, dreams, hopes, and so on all give that secret support to our lives, especially when challenged by difficulty.

My physical “orange knickers” (though I swear I do NOT have a pair in that colour, honest!) include perfume among many things. Perfume(by which I mean both the stuff one sprays on, and incense and so on) lifts the mood in ways that are hard to quantify. I lost the impulse to suicide once, years ago, as a direct result of using Neroli oil. Yes, it IS that powerful. And now I think of it, it’s a connection too; Neroli oil is the essential oil distilled from ORANGE blossoms. In colour therapy orange is the most uplifting colour there is, the colour of sunshine on the orange groves, warming and comforting. The colour we choose for our clothing(outer and under) can have a dramatic effect on our moods and those of people around us. Obviously when worn under clothes, the effect is purely personal, but the feeling of confidence and cheerfulness is something that can infect those around us. Think how a random smile can spread around a room: I have played the smile game when out on assignments, smiling cheerfully at strangers and knowing when they smile back that as they go on, for one short moment, they felt a tiny bit more cheerful. The simple act of smiling, of using those muscles in the face, actually causes the body to release endorphins that ease pain and increase well-being.

So what are your Orange Knickers?