Saturday, 20 August 2011
The great wave generated when a large piece of the Norwegian coast fell into the North Sea swept across the entire coastal area of North East Scotland, grinding the population and all their meagre possessions to mud, just as the Cairngorm Glacier had previously taken the rocky carapace of the land and milled it into fertile soil, from which the peoples’ lives had arisen. I waited for a few decades after the ravens told me about the tsunami, then left the Shelterstone once again to take the six-day walk to the lowlands. Crossing the Ben Avon plateau, I looked around for the tusk-built towers, but they had disappeared without a trace, and I assumed, the magnificent cultural achievements of the tower-dwellers had vanished into oblivion too.
Arriving at Lon-May, I saw that new settlers had arrived from the south, bringing with them some new ideas. They’d built quite substantial huts, and had at last made arrangements to encourage people to defaecate outside the immediate living area of the encampment. The winters now were less hard, and the summers fine enough to encourage the growing of little patches of edible grasses and leaves. In good years, some careful individuals would set aside a little surplus of the edible seeds of these grasses to use during the winter. Some of the older people, finding their teeth unequal to the task of chewing hard dried grains, had adopted the habit of smashing and breaking down the seeds using flat stones, to the amusement of the young. But in truth, the loss of freedom eventually suffered by everyone in these islands was caused by the good times themselves, for to live at a level above subsistence means the accumulation of a surplus, and inevitably the more powerful people demanded a share of all surpluses, sometimes pretending that a tithe would bring greater benefits, sometimes not even bothering to pretend. In previous times, to be stronger was to be more powerful, but now it was a matter of being smart enough to acquire more negotiable or transactionable stuff, and clever enough to be able to hide and control it. And as a bonus to the invention of aristocracy, taxation had begun.
In those days, though, the fish in the sea and in the rivers were plentiful and not too difficult to catch, for in those times animals and fish had little experience of the nature of mankind. Similarly, with care and teamwork, the beasts in the forests could readily be caught for food, and although hunting was fraught with danger, the hunters would laugh guardedly about their experiences, pretending to hide their scars even while drawing attention to them, but ever wary of offending the deities of the forest or the noble spirits of their prey. Being killed was bad enough, but injury to the spirit was feared very much more.
There were a few huts at the Pavilions place; the builders had been drawn there, perhaps by the feeling of power seeping up from the earth, perhaps because of the crystal-clear spring that rose a little way from the hut. There was a track running up from the road; deer and wild boar could be seen from time to time.
The people were smelly and distrustful, but impressed by my appearance and speech. They took me immediately to their headman, Csalgacus, and he and I talked for a long time. After a few weeks they allowed me to build a hut of my own. The site I selected was fated to become the sacred Pavilions place at the edge of the village.
Csalgacus was the first person other than me who could talk to my phantom hounds. He easily managed to learn their names too: K’ko-1, Br’no and C’co.
We discussed the techniques of making objects from beeswax, how to invest the model in clay, the burning out the wax and curing the ceramic mold. And how one could make the bronze metal using tin ingots shipped from the far south along the west coast and copper lumps brought from nearer lands. Csalgacus knew many of the traders personally, and through them had become aware of some of the recently developing trade routes that brought stone for axes from across the Alps, amber and furs from the Baltic, wine from Italy.
These routes were being driven by an emerging economy, and in parallel, élite groups had developed, so now power-structures 0r systems of government were in discussion, even if mainly in the context of violent fighting.
With the development of surpluses which permitted people to take a rest from the constant struggle to survive, and with the emergence of power structures which meant that the means of defence of the group had become specialised away from individuals, the availability of leisure time had increased sufficiently to give people enough economic latitude to be more experimental, to make and learn from their own mistakes and those of other people. Apart from the roving traders, Csalgacus had met one or two travellers before me, and he was fascinated by tales of lands and peoples far away, perhaps even more than he lusted after the tools and other artefacts that very occasionally filtered through to our remote land.
Language and communication were now in this era subjects of great interest, I could see. Lon-May was fast becoming a centre for thinking, talking and doing. However their shaman, Findo Gask, was entirely preoccupied with the animistic spirits he believed were to be found everywhere in the forest, the sky, earth and, of course, in animals. I simply couldn’t get him to acknowledge the primacy of the concept of cause and effect, as it seemed to him that everything happened through the arbitrary will of the gods and spirits. Although I could see that Findo’s ability to generate meaningfulness in the minds of the people was beneficial to an extent, it meant that logical thought was generally impossible for the majority who were too frightened to think more flexibly, and all such individuals were deeply resistant to anything that threatened the creaky system whereby they tried to understand the world. Not that Findo Gask was wrong entirely; but there are circumstances in which rational thought is more effectual than magic, just as there are situations where intuitively understanding the irrational is a more appropriate response than logical analysis.
I noticed the covertly smiling glances of the women not long after I took the girl to be my wife. Especially after the first night when we came back to the village after spending a week together in the wood. I’d warned K!t’ra to keep the secret of female orgasm strictly to herself, but word seemed to have got round somehow, judging by the sounds coming from the women’s hut when the hunters were away all night.
I was with Csalgacus when he died. We’d all been out on a wife-hunting raid against a neighbouring tribe, and the spear-thrust in the belly he’d sustained had become septic, as I knew it would from the very first. Of course, I used my herbs, but they were insufficient to deal with peritonitis from a slashed intestine, and I was unwilling to expose my surgical techniques to public knowledge for fear of the destructive effects of fame. I had taken good care to blunt Csalgacus’ pain during his last days and nights, but at the end his mind cleared for a moment, and with characteristic candour, he turned towards me, looked me in the eyes with something of his old asperity and grated, “You were…. always… a patronising…. cunt, Memus…..”
I was almost tempted to laugh, but with that, his glazing eyes defocussed, the pupils dilating, and a death-sweat broke out on his yellowed skin. With one final grunting exhalation, he was gone to the celestial hunting-grounds. The shaman-priests took over matters at that juncture, not particularly pleased that I, an outsider, had been with the Chief at his death.
Csalgacus was unlucky in taking five days to die. Most men in those days died early and rapidly, either from a badly-crushed skull or from a chance arrow strike. Still, at 31 years, he didn’t fare too badly compared to many. His son, also Csalgacus, didn’t last beyond the age of 20, when he died of an infection he’d caught while carrying home an enemy’s head tied to his belt. A single blackened and diseased tooth sticking out of the trophy slashed his thigh as he ran; and barely three days later, slain by a dead enemy, Csalgacus joined his father in the earth.
© Donnie Ross 2011
Monday, 15 August 2011
The cave-ravens told me: the ice had melted. Meanwhile the land had been remodelled, with soft silt milled by the glaciers’ vast bulk now supporting grass and tiny trees. Ferns and mosses were flourishing in the sunshine, the winds were milder, and there were now seasons, instilling rhythms into the new life springing up everywhere in the land.
Life supporting life; an interdependent hierarchy of plants and animals spreading and developing across Scotland. Even the raptors were helping the trees grow by dropping guano and fish-offal on the ground, fertilising the soil; and I realised that the minerals and nutrients in the earth and sea would flow life back into the land, growing and twining, aspiring ever upwards towards the sun.
The soft cawing became more insistent. Me-mus, Me-mus! Time to awaaaake! I’d lain dreaming a long time, but gradually the light diffused into my brain. The stiffness vanished from my joints, and as I turned towards the cave door I saw that daylight was flooding into the cave under the great granite lintel of the Shelterstone. The ice had gone, and down in the valley was a deep new loch, scraped out by the glacier.
I collected my leather bag of medicinal herbs, roused my three phantom companions and ran lightly down the scree, reading the stones under my feet like a well-written tract on a palimpsest. I sped along the shore of the loch and across the glen, westwards towards the sea. A large electric blue dragonfly cruised past us, close enough but at a safe distance from any hand-hurled weapon; I could see she was interested, and after observing us for a while she whizzed off towards the north-east.
During five days of walking, the ravens kept a respectful distance, but I knew they would alert me if danger threatened. And as it had been with my beloved dogs during their corporeal lifetimes, so it was with their phantoms: sometimes they were there, sometimes they were gone.
Some of the insects and plants were familiar from past times; the new trees had somehow become implanted in the landscape, which had a feeling of newness and youthful readiness for growth. The whole earth had been rejuvenated, and I knew that the new species of hominis, greatly improved in every way, was spreading northwards.
The heather was springy under my soft boots. It was a long, long time since I had crafted these from the skin of an elk, to whose individual personal spirit I’d dedicated them, and whom I now drew back into memory with respect as I walked comfortably along the plateau. With the rewarming of the planet, there was no reason now why I might not encounter one of his remote descendants grazing among the ptarmigan that fluttered and foraged beneath Ben Avon, under the stern gaze of that wrathful mountain where I had hidden from the age of glaciers, and in the rhythm of my walking I loved and honoured the courage of all those animals whose bones had littered the valleys and forests before being swept far down the landscape into the depths of the North Sea, where now they were lying and would lie forever.
Some part of me would like to be able to count them, these long gone sentient precursors, to enumerate the species and the precise number of individuals who were born or hatched, how many conceived and how many survived, to know with extreme exactitude the details of their nutrition, their habits, the degree to which they understood their world and each other, the dynamic of their group-psychology and of their solitude. Although it is possible to imagine how the flesh melted off the bones and the bones had been shifted by predators or by action of natural phenomena such as water or ice or earth-movements, scattering the evidence and information over hundreds of square miles, I could see no possible method of retrieving more than a tiny part of the data even if all eternity became available for the purpose. And in any event, I had work to do, and needed to banish unproductive reflection from my mind, to concentrate instead on expanding its powers and putting them to good use.
Having reached the plateau to the east of the mountains, turning to the four quarters I carefully attended to the cool feeling behind my forehead. Where it grew strongest, that was my direction: north-east. I was searching for the land they would call Lon-May.
Six days later, I strode for the first time into the miserable village of the hunter-gatherers who’d colonised a rough piece of ground. The women and children ran away screaming. A hispid youth rushed bristling out of his crude shelter, swinging a club, but on sighting me he stopped, falling to his knees in terror and supplication, while his shaggy wolf fled into the scrubby trees, pursued by my faithful phantom hounds. As I stretched out a reassuring hand, the man flinched from my touch, fearful of my pale complexion and my strange, finely made leather clothes.
It took me a little while to understand the language of these benighted folk, but it was not so difficult once we began to trust each other more and became able to relax in conversation. In any event, Proto-Indo-European is easy enough after one’s ears – and tongue - attune themselves to the variations that naturally develop over time & across distances which depict the wandering of groups across the land. The hunter gatherers invited me to stay, for knowledge is a very precious thing when there’s little of it to be had.
I lived happily enough with the people of Lon-May for many years. Their lives were brief enough that few noticed how my face stayed unlined and my strength undiminished despite the passage of years. I took good care to father many children, and through my healing knowledge, many survived infancy, while several of my wives escaped death during childbirth. That was something people could hardly miss noticing, and despite my efforts to conceal them as much as I could, my skills became much sought after.
Although they were keen to find out how to improve simple tools and hunting techniques through minor changes, I found it difficult to teach these people any radically new idea. Once they’d settled on a concept or a method they would stick to it without further thought, and I concluded that this would have advantages in avoiding experimentation potentially dangerous to the group economy or indeed to their very survival.
Unfortunately the people I encountered in those times had no concept of learning through making mistakes. Similarly, the manufacture and use of flint weapons and tools was the extent of their technical ambitions, although they were always interested in finding more effective means of fastening the cutting edge to a wooden shaft or handle, a design-problem never entirely solved. But all my efforts to get them to experiment with heating the green ores they’d find when digging for pottery clay were in vain. I reflected that, after all, cooking meat was already an astonishing idea for these folk, and of course they had no concept of metals whatsoever. Far less could they have imagined casting or beating out weapons, tools or artworks. I found their daily lives to be excruciatingly boring, although it’s true there was some fun to be had in the long evenings after dusk had fallen, when we dozed round the fire, making up stories, inventing comical new words and singing songs; every night a different style, although my efforts to get them to quieten down the drummer were as unsuccessful as my demonstrations of the tonal structure of scales and of basic harmony.
Even now, smiling across the gulf of 20,000 years, I remember their innocent, sunburnt faces, these ancestors of yours from long ago. The careful patterns of sewing and of their rudimentary but still quite beautiful weaving are images that haven’t left me in all that time either, and neither have the strong impressions I formed of the way in which enterprises were nearly always a matter for the group rather than for individuals. I remember vividly the happiness of the extended family when they settled down in a forest clearing to eat the day’s provender, the jollity of life in a close-knit group, and the proud feeling of solitude in their short lives integrated with a world of contrasts, where forest skills were their best defence, both against sudden violent attack from a raiding neighbouring tribe and against starvation itself.
I came to understand how individuals feel themselves unique, even although their thoughts and behaviour are typical of people in their situation; not always entirely predictable but definitely forming a recognisable pattern through time and across groups. So many of the ideas making up their belief systems resulted from a chronic insufficiency of information: they had no means of knowing that their thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions, even their decisions taken in the face of impending death, were typical of what usually happens to similar people in similar circumstances and they cohered to a statistical mean which, because there was no collection of data and no system to make sense of it, was undiscoverable to anyone and undreamt of by anyone living in those vast stretches of time.
I continued to make efforts to improve the conduct and attitudes of the neolithic people. It seemed desirable that before they discovered farming, which would enable groups to build up surpluses of food and other materials, which in turn would lead to more complex social structures, hierarchies and a spectrum of power, that they should be prepared in some way to deal with the more complex dynamic which would inevitably evolve. However, I couldn’t make anyone understand that clubbing people to death for no particular reason was neither amusing nor productive. Negotiation? Forget it. Over and over again I would din into their thick heads the principle that taking advantage of position or power is ultimately counterproductive, but although as always they would show me the utmost respect and deference as a possessor of knowledge and power, they would look at me indulgently as though they were secretly thinking that even I couldn’t be right about everything, and of course, nothing would change.
Here then was the problem, which I met over and over again through ensuing ages; the times were not yet ripe for advances in technology, thinking or ethics. In the wrong context, a brilliant idea will inevitably perish, and we were a long way from developing any viable version of the !Leonardo Mindset. Finally, after a couple of centuries of increasing frustration, I gathered my phantom hounds and set off on the journey for Ben MacDhui, comforting myself with the thought that although to an extent I might have been wasting my time on the people of these times, at least I had seeded some good genetic material in the population.
Approaching the plateau to the east of Ben Avon, I caught sight of a bright gleam, and realised with a curious thrill of disbelief that during my prolonged absence, scores of creamy white towers had sprung up, each one nearly 150 feet high and constructed of smooth slices of mammoth ivory. Each of the towers had been built on a granite tor, and I could see that the glint of sunlight had been the result of a crystal window being opened a hundred feet above me. Careful inspection revealed that someone was gazing out from one of the largest of the towers. Not only gazing, but waving, gesturing, inviting me, it seemed, to approach. And indeed, as I approached, I could hear the person shouting, and the distorted echoes reverberating between the towers. The man’s speech was loud, aggressive, with distorted cadences and odd tonality, and when I was close enough to understand what was being said, I was completely appalled by its crude prurience and filthily coprolalic nature. In such circumstances it would have been wise to have take a comprehesive view of the risks undertaken in approaching anyone whose conversational style veered so alarmingly towards what millennia later would be known as Tourette’s Syndrome, but under the piquant circumstances involving dyschronoclastically ironic wordplay and überpunning, I simply couldn’t resist approaching the turret in question and giving the bell at the front door a violent ringing.
But there was no response from the madman. Instead, while I was standing looking up, I heard a noise from the tower behind me, and after a few moments, the great oaken door creaked open with an exaggerated display of what I presumed were real as opposed to either sampled or unnaturally synthesised high-pitched notes. A slim, strangely pale brunette girl was smiling nicely at me. Perhaps a little bit too nicely, I thought, as K!t’ra ushered me upstairs, laughing pleasantly the while. The ushering process was not brief, for the helical staircase was very long and very winding, although it had the benefit of providing me with a considerable time during which I was able to view the swaying hips and rhythmically climbing thighs of the girl. I reflected that surely some long-established part of the human mind must be responsible for the deep sense of pleasure to be drawn from seeing the anatomical configuration, the proportions, the balance and sweet movement of the human female figure, the hip-thigh arrangements attaching the legs to the body and the proportions of the glutei muscles to the form of the lumbar area and of the upper thighs, all of these have an allure and an extraordinary beauty it’s impossible to imagine anyone being objective about. So much for the objective scientific mind; sexual or gender-based attractivenesses are as impossible to describe in formal terms as they are to dismiss for lack of verifiability. Was I alone in having these feelings of attraction? For surely there was something in the demeanour of the girl that told me she was receptive to my fascinated glances.
Suffice it to say that by the time laughing girl K!t’ra and I reached the 41st landing of a stairway that now seemed to afford a climb of hundreds of feet, both of us were becoming short of breath and in need of a rest. Turning towards me at the doorway of a room,
K!t’ra smiled, her bright carmine lips parted from the demanding exertion. Her voice was warm, rich and full of interesting overtones.
You may perhaps reflect that in those days, the earth was very sparsely populated, and there was a manifest need to people it with more of our human kith and kin. Earth herself, now so fresh and fecund after the ice, and with the new warmth of the sun creating ever more green and dynamic life, cried out for fertilisation, for creative fruiting and increasing multiplication. The need to get this beautiful girl with child was therefore pressing, and that for a variety of excellent reasons, and so the various onsets and initiations of heat, moisture, fullness and turgor in all relevant bodily zones were unmistakeable to us both. Notwithstanding all of which, as we opened the door into the room I made a rapid but exacting scan of the situation with all my available intuitive antennae, for it had always been very high on all of my agendas to avoid falling into any kind of trap in any situation, and I was particularly careful on those occasions when my judgement was likely to be diminished by circumstances. However, in terms of intuitive sensing of danger, at that moment I was getting a warm solar-plexus sensation as opposed to a prickly sensation there and behind the knees.
Even so, I knew very well it was risky to accept a crystal beaker full of a viscous golden liquid from the woman. Again I scanned the situation carefully, and allowed a few minutes to elapse to permit all subtle cognitive feelings to sink in before sipping a little of the shimmering beverage. I noticed that K!t’ra was easily capable of seeing my phantom hounds, and welcomed them with skilfull spirit-moves of her strong pale hands. Soon she began working the same tactile magic on my own person, and this, in combination with the effects of the drink, quickly raised the emotional temperature in the room to flashpoint.
K!t’ra was mumbling, half-singing, babbling nonsense words that meant nothing, yet sounding somehow pleasing. So much so that I made an effort to memorise some of what she was saying – “Rêve, amour, extase…” – with the intention of seeding these delightful words into Europe in the hope that they might eventually give rise to a new language in time to come. My amusements have ever been esoteric!
Completely entwined and together as one, we seemed to be flying very high above the nascent green mantle of Scotland; but the earth now shrank to the size of a child’s head, then to a point like that of a bone awl, and finally disappeared altogether. Strong magic; in many ways this was a significant coupling, as I had good reason to understand more and more with the passing of subsequent years.
Later that first day, we descended the long staircase and spent many hours cutting whorl-marks and crude pictures on rock-slabs out on the Ben Avon plateau, in line with the playful portfolio of artistic productions we were beginning to improvise as part of a complete invented culture of our own. Finally tiring of the rather extreme efforts required to groove granite, we manufactured a few dozen flint arrowheads and scrapers, and threw them into the bushes as far as we could, then retired to K!t’ra’s ivory turret, where by the evening light she repaired and re-sewed my clothes and boots; for after a thousand centuries, wear and tear begin to show, even in the chronostasis field generated by the Shelterstone.
I asked K!t’ra about the fearsomely shouting Findo Gask in the adjacent tower, and she said that he’d been there as long as she could remember. Looking down at K’ko to avoid my eyes, she murmured something about him possibly being her father.
Months later, when K!t'ra's pregnancy was well advanced, I finally received the long-expected raven-borne summons from Findo Gask: “Come upstairs this afternoon,” croaked the bird, flying briefly in through the window of the room I shared with K!t’ra.
Findo Gask received me in the second-highest room of his Dentine Tower. He was polite to a fault; indeed, the terms braggadoccio and aggressive punctilio sprang frequently to mind. Throughout our interview he avoided my eyes, and to his credit he seemed almost in control of his speech, which now consisted of scarcely more than forty percent swearwords. As he spoke, he reached now and again into an ancient wooden chest which sat near him on a coarse, multi-coloured rug, and from which Gask produced a succession of crumbling, ancient papyri, waving them at me with glittering eyes and reading passages out in a meaningful way. He kept mentioning the trouble he was having with blackheads, and I was weighing up the pros and cons of treating a common skin condition, which on the one hand might earn me some leverage with this strange fellow yet on the other might give a little too much information away.
I’d just decided against offering skilled help when I noticed that his speech was slowing to a grunting rasp, and I was horrified to notice that a lage swelling had abruptly risen on his left thigh. Even worse was to come, for within seconds the swelling had burst, and a tiny black raven’s head, with staring, animated eyes and shiny feathers, emerged from the suppurating wound. As soon as the head had grown enough of a neck to be mobile, it commenced squawking at its progenitor in furious tones. Findo Gask seemed as surprised as I was myself to see this, but he reached for a stick and began aiming blows at his tormentor. Immediately a new swelling appeared on his chest, and that too burst almost immediately, as another angry bird sliced its way through his melting skin. It seemed that for every savage but ineffectual blow dealt by Findo Gask with his stick, a new raven head boiled up from a different area of his person, and within a very few minutes the madman was thrashing wildly around in what appeared to be an entire flock of murderous, yelling ravens, each bird sticking straight out of his flesh, from which oozed a mixture of blood and pus, while the entire flock divided their efforts between screaming at Findo Gask and fighting among themselves.
Able to stand no more, and since Findo Gask was evidently beyond my help, I made for the door.
When I was close to the safety of the exit, and having opened the door, the deafening screams of the ravens mingling with the moans of Findo Gask suddenly ceased, and I looked back, seeing to my astonishment that my host was now reclining comfortably in an armchair in front of a blazing fire, smiling at me sardonically. I wondered if I’d somehow been tricked into seeing my own worst nightmarish fears becoming manifest, but then I saw that the flock of ravens had detached themselves and were flying round the room making a dizzying pattern. Soon they flew out of the window with a renewed buzz of chattering. There could be no question, Findo Gask was setting up a position, making a statement, taking the piss.
I could see that the threat from Findo Gask was incipient and imminent, and I resolved to bring K!t’ra and the new child to safety in the Shelterstone the very next day, irrespective of the weather.
We made the short journey in the early light. The dew was heavy on the short spriggy heather as we strode across the plateau and up the steeply climbing path to the Shelterstone’s entry.
© Donnie Ross 2011