Thursday, 24 December 2009

Baboushka: A Fable for the Christmas Season, Part II (#fridayflash)

This is Part II of a two-part Christmas fable.  Read Part I here.

"Baboushka was a determined woman, and as wise as the astrologers.  Although she hadn't the learning to interpret the skies, the significance of the new star was clear to her.  It was the portent of great change in the affairs of humanity.  And this change would come, the astrologers had said, by the birth of a child.

"She decided to spend the night tidying her home and packing for the journey. Tomorrow she would rest.  Once evening came, she would go to Ashaba, the village elder, and ask to borrow his best camel.  She would offer all her savings, small as they were, for this privilege.  Then she would follow the star, and make haste to join the astrologers on their journey.

"So Baboushka, working the hardest she had in her life, tidied and cleaned her home, and packed the belongings she needed for the journey.  By sunrise, she was exhausted.  She took her breakfast, double-checked she'd packed her special gift for the child, then collapsed into bed.

"She woke long before sunset, and spent the afternoon bargaining with Ashaba.  He would never give his best camel for the price she was offering, he said, and certainly not to a woman.  Baboushka pressured and persuaded with all her determination.  Eventually, he reluctantly agreed to loan her a camel, though the one he gave her was the oldest and the slowest in his flock.  She took the camel home, loaded her bags onto its back, and waited for sunset.

"Sunset eventually arrived, but no matter how hard Baboushka looked, she could not see the star.  Had she dreamed the visit of the wise men last night?  Had the magical story of the astrologers enchanted her into seeing things?  Like all people with a great calling, Baboushka doubted herself, but she knew she could not miss seeing this child if what the astrologers had said was true.

"So she set off without the star to guide her, following the direction out of the village she'd seen the astrologers leave.

"Day and night she travelled, but Baboushka never reached the wise men.  She pushed her camel harder and faster than it had ever ridden before, but every village she arrived in, the wise men had already passed through.

"With the help of kind strangers who had met the astrologers on their journey, Baboushka arrived in Bethlehem, the village where the Christ-child was born.  But by the time she discovered the precise place of his birth, the cave was empty."

"Why?" Artiom asked.

"The Christ-child's parents had fled to another country. Herod, the ruler of Bethlehem, heard that the newborn child would become a king. Herod was afraid for his throne and wanted to kill the child."

"Did Herod kill him?" Artiom gripped Grandmama's hand.

"No, Artiom, the child escaped safely.  But Baboushka never found him to share her special gift."

"What did she do with it, Grandmama?"

"Baboushka didn't know the Christ-child had fled to another country.  She searched all of Bethlehem for a newborn child, and left her gift with the first baby she found in case he was the Messiah.   Then with hands weary from her journey, she stitched together another special gift, and searched for another child to share it with in case he or she was the Messiah.

"Still, today, Baboushka continues her search for the child.  Every Advent, she rides Ashaba's camel across the whole world to search for the Christ-child, in case the Messiah has come to earth again.

"With each child she finds during her search, Baboushka is never sure whether he or she is the Messiah.  So she leaves a gift for all children."

"For me too?" asked Artiom.

Grandmama smiled. "For you too, child."

"Does she think I'm the Messiah, God's special one?"

"Maybe she does," Grandmama replied.

"And what do you think, Grandmama?"

"Me?" Grandmama laughs. "I agree with Baboushka."

Friday, 18 December 2009

Baboushka: A Fable for the Christmas Season, Part I (#fridayflash)

"Where do Christmas presents come from, Grandmama?" asked Artiom.

Artiom, at the grand age of four-and-three-quarters, knows already who brings the Christmas gifts to his home on a surprise night during Advent.  But for Artiom, at the grand age of four-and-three-quarters, knowing is not enough.  He needs to hear the story.

Grandmama, for her part, at the grand age of eighty seven, is old enough to know that a life is nothing more than its stories and memories.  So though she has told Artiom the story twice this week already, she starts once more.

"It is Baboushka, child," Grandmama says. "Baboushka brings your presents."

Artiom has climbed onto her knee. "Why?" he asks.

"She brings you gifts in case you are God's chosen one, the Messiah."

"Why?" Artiom asks again. Grand-mamas need prompting.  He knows this.

"Many centuries ago, long before even I was alive," Grandmama tells, "the Christ child, God's chosen one, was given to the world.

"This child was a king, though he was not born at a palace, but underground, in a cave where animals were kept.  The birth of this Messiah would have been a forgotten secret but for a star.  A bright star shone above the cave that night."

Wide-eyed, Artiom listens.  Grandmama is on her way now.

"Astrologers, men who watch the skies, had seen the star many weeks before.  As students of the skies, they knew the star signalled the birth of a great and noble king.  So they sold all they had, except what they needed for the journey, packed their bags onto their camels, and followed the star.  With the money they had made from selling their possessions, they bought gifts for this new born child.

"To follow the star, they travelled at night.  During the daylight, they pitched their tents to eat, rest, and sleep, and to allow the beasts they travelled with to do the same.  On occasion they passed through a village and were welcomed by the locals.  Then they stayed at a home for a meal and a bed, in exchange for which they told story of their journey.

"In one such home they stayed with a lone woman, Baboushka.  They slept little that day, because Baboushka, they discovered, was loved and cherished as a kindly aunt by the children of her village.  The children frequently visited her home with their laughter and games.

"Baboushka was loved for her smile, and for her gentle, playful nature.  It was said her eyes sparkled like a little girl's, and her laugh was as careless as the chirping of a sparrow.

"When they allowed her to, which was often, Baboushka joined in with the children's games.  She never lost her temper and never scolded, not even when two impudent girls stole newly-sewed dresses from her workroom to try them on, then ruined the dresses by playing in the dust of the street while wearing them.

"Most of all, Baboushka was loved because of her special gifts.  Each year, on every child's birthday, she would make them a trinket - a toy or a hat or a purse - with left-over materials from her dress-making.  Always, these gifts met the child's unspoken desires.

"Now, when the astrologers arose from the little slumber they had managed that day, Baboushka shared with them her evening meal, and for their part, the astrologers told their story and showed Baboushka the star shining in the evening sky.

"Upon seeing the star, Baboushka proclaimed: 'Allow me, wise gentlemen, to join you on your journey to visit this noble child, whom you call the Prince of Peace. Let me come with you to bring my own gift.'

"The astrologers discussed Baboushka's proposal among themselves, and after only a little debate they decided she should join them, provided she could withstand the hardships of the journey.

"'I'm a tough woman,' she said.  'Give me a day to prepare my home, to tidy it for the weeks I will be gone, and to make arrangements with my neighbours for the time I am away.'

"But the astrologers said no, they must depart tonight to keep pace with the star.  Baboushka must leave with them at once.

"Baboushka would not come. She needed to prepare her home.  So, with heavy hearts, the astrologers thanked her for her hospitality and bid her farewell..."

This is Part I of a two part Christmas fable. Read Part II here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Proper Cure for Hiccups (3WW)

It is a queer fact, well known among even casual readers of magical history, that hiccups are a sign of the afflicted having recently stood near the Bleak Place, the threshold between the human world and the Otherworld.

This is why children are more susceptible to hiccups that adults.  Children, with their innate, uncorrupted knowledge of magical things, are more likely to believe in the truth of the Otherworld, and are thus more prone to infringe upon its boundaries.

A small number of children, the disappeared, have accidentally crossed the threshold.  These are always the children of un-schooled, simple folk.  So their parents, having no understanding of magical history and the ways of faeries, despair for their children.  They despair because they do not know that human children are upheld as Royalty in the Otherworld.  To faeries, children are Princes and Princesses.  One child, much beloved by the faeries, was made their honorary King and was seated on his own specially constructed throne on the days of faery festivals.

Human children can only enter the Otherworld accidentally.  No human being who has deliberately attempted to make the crossing has ever been successful. Faeries, on the other hand, can cross into the human world at will.  Their path into the human world can either be direct - though this is difficult - or via a human host.  When a human comes close to the Bleak Place, a waiting faery can fly across the threshold and into the human's mouth.  If the faery manages to stay inside their host's mouth until the human leaves the threshold, then it has entered the human world.

The problem, of course, is that a human with a faery in his or her mouth will be afflicted with hiccups.  The faery can only escape during a hiccup, or if their host receives a fright. 

Ignorant human beings, not knowing the cause of hiccups, believe a drink of water to be the cure.  This is a grave danger for faeries entering the human world.  Water cures hiccups by choking the faery to death.  Strong faeries can survive a good soaking, but many drown in this way.

The proper cure for hiccups is patience.  The faery will escape eventually.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Holocaust Theology (#fridayflash)

Everyday I teach the holocaust to bored, sleepy undergraduates. During a weekly seminar, postgraduates dispassionately debate the theological and psychological implications of the Shoah in the life and faith of the Jewish people.

In my early years of teaching I'd walk away from each class bitter. Bitter that the trauma and horror of it never penetrated.

Yet later, when trauma entered my office, I told her she deserved to fail.

She arrived unannounced, her eyes moist and red, rubbed raw at the edges. A newly-bought book under her arm.   She placed it on my desk. Elie Wiesel's Night, a paperback copy, Oprah's Book Club edition.

"I can't read it. I just can't," she said, sobbing.

I handed her the box of Kleenex from my desk drawer.

She explained. "It's too much, too invasive. Horrific."

"Holocaust Theology is one of the most popular freshman courses on campus," I said. "Hundreds of students who apply are turned away. You're lucky to be here."

She was listening. I was getting through.

"In eleven years of this course running, you're the first to complain. The book report is fifty per cent of your grade.  If you don't read it, I'll have to fail you."

She nodded softly, submissive.


She stood, leaving the book on my desk, and left the office.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Very Good Telly (#fridayflash)

In Belfast there is a park, a beautiful park. And although in this part of the world rain and grey cloud are more typical than sunshine and blue sky, palm trees thrive in this park.  Trees native to the land - beach, oak, pine, and horse chestnut - compliment their tropical cousins, and form the stalwart of the park's refreshing atmosphere.  A parade of rose bushes, with wooden benches set between them, add colour and fragrance.  During the summer, groups of university students sprawl themselves across the open grassy spaces.  Some play frisbee, others football.  Some chat in groups, others find their own space to read a book and absorb the warm sunshine.  A traditional ice cream van provides refreshments.

Now, though, it is winter.  The rose bushes are dark and bare, the colour of their twiggy branches merging to the onlooker with the mud beneath them. In this cold and wet season, the park's paths are only used as through-ways.  No lovers wander the paths hand-in-hand, giggling at their special secret, and pausing to share kisses. No families use the park for a bike-ride, with the little ones on their little bikes following mother like ducklings.  The only cyclists in the winter park zoom to work, slicing through the ice-cold air.  Men and women in suits, under umbrellas, trot quickly along the pathways, heads down.

Only there is one who has learnt to see the world differently.  For him, the emptiness of the winter park as an opportunity.  The park, with its winding paths up and down steep hills, becomes his space, the place where he can come, determined, with gritted teeth, to remember that he is alive.  This man is an immigrant, Chinese.  He is a short man, whose wrinkled face reveals deep inner scars.  The English words he speaks are few.  He wears a green rain-jacket, hood up, and black jeans. 

Each day in the winter months, he waits for his carer to leave for her next client, then dresses himself up in his outdoor clothes - a feat that takes him until late morning. Once he has wheeled himself to the park, his arms are sore.  Parking his wheelchair beside a wooden bench, he lifts himself out, then shuffles himself to make the bench comfortable.  He closes his eyes and journeys deep into his inner world, finding the place within himself that restores strength to his arms and revives the tension in his legs until they feel stiff with life. 

When he returns from this inner world, he stands, moving slowly, leaning on the arm of the bench, his body shaking.  Once upright, he grips one hand onto the handle of the wheelchair, and begins his walk, a full circuit of the park.  For the trotting business-people, if they cared to walk this circuit, they would be finished in fifteen minutes.  The giggling summertime lovers take half an hour.  By the time the Chinese man has finished his circuit, nearly two hours have passed.    Once finished, he collapses in his wheelchair, closes his eyes, and gasps on the icy winter air like a marathon runner crossing the finishing line.  No one congratulates him.  He wheels himself home.

The afternoon hours he passes by taking off his coat and shoes, cleaning his wheelchair, and climbing back into bed ready for when his carer arrives to bring him dinner.

By the time she arrives, he's watching the evening news.  "Was there anything good on telly today?" she always asks when she brings in his meal.

"Yes," he replies, nodding enthusiastically. It's the one thing she says that he understands, and he knows how to respond.

"Very good telly. Very good."

Friday, 9 October 2009

Memories of Feet (#fridayflash)

Sparkling crimson with high heels. Her going out pair, for when she wanted attention.  Plain black leather, flat soles, for school. Only six months left, three more exams, and she'd be finished. Scruffy trainers she used to wear to walk the dog, the wrinkles in the old white leather scarred with dry mud.

All these Aileen is placing, slowly, gently, into a black plastic rubbish bag.  All her daughter's shoes. Never to be worn again. Never to be seen again. Aileen holds each shoe still for a moment, recalling its story, before placing it in the bag. Her eyes are glazed to mask her pain, her face is smooth, expressionless, numb of feeling. Only her mouth, fallen open, betrays her horror.

Pale pink ballet shoes. Months of saving pocket money. Then a whole day shopping, choosing, trying on.

Never to be worn again. 

Aileen's own shoes she takes from the hallway and hides them in her bedroom wardrobe.

Her daughter is coming home today, and before Aileen takes a taxi to the hospital to collect her, all the shoes - these memories of feet - must be gone.

Such are the scars of war.

Friday, 25 September 2009

A Room-full of Discarded Dreams (#fridayflash)

If you have ever sat before your piano to set loose the dark melodies that haunt the dungeons of your inner life, you will know the magic consumes your fingers. The music seizes your mind, surges through your torso, and your fingers dance

Such is the magic consuming Susan's fingers as you watch her now, sitting before her mahogany piano.  Her fingers dance to a mournful dirge, to a lullaby of grief, of barren, wasted years.

Listen carefully. Devote your ear to this melody, for woven into its minor harmonics are the stories of a broken life.  Listen carefully, for this is the first dance of Susan's fingers in two decades. The music whispers the secrets of Susan's silent tears.

The melody flows from these tears, these transient gem-stones forged in the recesses of Susan's being.  It flows from this small room's pale pink wallpaper, patterned with carousel horses and circus clowns. It flows from the empty white crib behind her, the room's centrepiece.

The cradle is empty but for a small, fraying teddy bear.  The bear's fur is worn down to patches, its plastic eyes dull and lifeless.

The melody flows from this teddy bear too, and if you asked Susan why she is weeping, why this room is empty and decorated with circus clowns and carousel horses, why she has given over her fingers to the voices of grief, she would turn her eyes to this teddy, this nameless teddy.

There is healing in the setting free of demons, healing in the sound of mournful lullaby.  Such healing that were you to take the teddy bear, and hold it before Susan with a look of compassionate wonder in your eyes, she would turn from the piano, dry her tears with a paper tissue, and tell you a story of which even her husband knows only fragments.

They'd chosen to live in this house because it was small, she'd say, much smaller than their previous home.  There'd be no empty bedrooms. Only a study for her husband, and a music room for her piano. Nothing to remind her of the empty womb.

Susan found the teddy bear the day they'd moved in. She'd found it in this room, her music room. In the room had been an old, dusty wardrobe. The removal men said they'd take it away.  They'd lifted it out, Susan watching, then laughed at the squashed teddy bear that dropped from behind it.  "Throw it out for us, love," they'd said.

She'd followed them outside, watching them load the wardrobe into their van.  When they'd pulled away, she ran back to the room, looking at the the teddy. It was lying on its side, curled up like a foetus.

It was only a small bear, the size of Susan's palm. Its fur was worn and fraying.  Maybe a child lived here once, Susan thought. Maybe this was a child's room.

Susan knew, then. The teddy was a sign. She stood on holy ground. She'd taken off shoes and knelt before the bear, picking it up and pressing it to her face.

She'd get the room ready now, she'd decided. Pink wallpaper, it would be a girl, and a white crib.

She'd leave the piano in here, wouldn't play it until the baby came.  Such was her fervour, such her belief in this sign, such her commitment.  She'd sacrifice her dreams, her talents until the prophecy came to pass.

"Thank you, God," she'd whispered, clutching the bear to her lips. "Thank you, God."  Its cotton skin was soft, stinking of child's bed.