THE FIRST TIME THE WORLD DIED

It happened many, many years ago. When mankind were creatures of wind and stone, when the bear and the lion were enemies together, when the sun was young and he and the moon were still friends. Before the dark of enlightenment, before we trapped words within their paper prisons. Before Christ or Buddha or Mohammed or any of the young and ferocious gods, there was only the Empty and the Full.

The Empty were gods of thought, and curiosity. They ran and explored, peered into the thoughts of trees and under rocks to see the families of insects underneath. They were quick and happy, humourful and fey. Never satisfied, their hunger was their force. To worship an Empty was to worship the wind, or the water; the unrelenting movement of nature.

The Full, on the other hand, were gods of immutability, of stillness. They sat and glowered. Not for them the curiosity of a new world, they wanted nothing more than they had. They were slow and ponderous, sour and still.. Those who worshipped the Full paid their homage to stone and dirt; the immovable constants.

At that time, mankind was huddled together into tribes. Emboldened by their numbers, these tribes had slowly spread across the land, reaching from the far blue sea in the East all the way to the sandy deserts to the West. The South held lush forests, rolling hills and green pastures, and so most of the tribes settled there, becoming farmers and hunters, gatherers and men of labour. And it was here that civilisation first crept in, sinking its insidious fingers into the hearts of the tribes and banishing all thoughts of wildness and wickedness. Civilisation was the friend of the slow, solid gods of the Full; they admired its permanence and endurance. And in their slow, solid way, the Full lent their aid to the Southern tribes, teaching them the skill of working stone, of bending wood to their will, of gouging the earth to make trenches and rivers.

Far to the North, the land was much different. Wind and water played together to create white snow-laden vistas, tundras full of hardy animals with thick coats, snow-capped mountains like teeth on the world. The tribes that settled here were different too; tall, angry, hairy folk, wrapped in as much fur as the animals they hunted. They roamed across the Northern lands, picking up their tent as they saw fit. And this pleased the Gods of the Empty, in their own way. These Empty, fickle creatures delighted in seeing the tribesmen fight and risk themselves daily. They chortled at the sight of the bearded warriors cavorting alongside their women around a roaring campfire, made huge with the fat of a roasting kill. And, just like the Full gods in the South, they helped these Northern tribes where they saw fit; showing the tribes how to harness the wind for propulsion, how to explore and inquire and be curious.

And for a long time this balance was kept. The Empty gods stayed in the North where there was wildness for them to explore, and the Full gods sat, solid and dull, in the South, where the tribes built and laid foundation and fought back the wildness.

But eventually something changed; and it was the humans that ruined things. A particularly fruitful year had given the Southern tribes a better than usual harvest, and as the grain poured into their largest city, they turned their eyes to the North. They had everything they could want in the South but, as greedy men do, they wanted more. They looked at the North and they saw a rich land ready to be civilised.

And, like a pet echoing its owner, the Full gods looked North as well. What they saw was an abomination to their eyes; a land full of wild changeability, a land of seasons and weather, a land which (they thought) cried out for the solid dullness of civilisation. A land that needed art, and politics, and laws and order. And so they turned back to their worshippers in the South and started whispering to them. They told the priests how no tribe could stand against the might of their armies, how nothing could stop them from taking what they wanted, if they only reach for it. The Full gods whispered into the ears of the Southern priests and it didn’t take much to turn their hungry human minds to thoughts of conquering and killing.

The grain mills were silenced, replaced with the din of blacksmiths and fletchers. Livestock was killed to create leather armour, tidy cultivated forests were eviscerated to make catapults and arrows. Each plowshare made a dozen swords, and before long a vast Southern army set out. They had shields and armour, siege weapons and camps, order and precision. And they marched North with a desire to kill.

The Empty gods saw this coming, from many miles away. They saw the vast army of Southern men, coming to take their wildness, and they were angry. Their anger was the roaring of the wind, the shouting of the water, the muttering murmur of leaves. Their anger grew and grew, and the Northern tribes huddled in their tents, afraid and ignorant, as death marched towards them and their gods turned to spitting snarling beasts and thundered south to deal with the threat.

When the wind started to hit the Southern army, they lowered their heads and marched onwards. They had wind in the South; a soft, weak wind nothing like this grabbing throwing heaving wind they now faced, but nonetheless they marched on. When the wind grew, they sabotaged their own siege weapons to create great fires to push back the biting cold. After all, reasoned the priests who marched at the head of the army, the savages in the North would have no great walls to hide behind, no order of their own. And so they whipped their men onwards to capture and kill.

Then came the water. Driving rain, great fat drops which sunk into every part of the marching men and made walking a chore, as they struggled through mud and mire. The fires made from the wood of catapults and trebuchets fizzled and died. But still the men marched on, urged by the spittle and ire of the priests. They abandoned their wagons to the rain, shouldering what they could salvage and leaving the rest for the animals.

Then, screaming like fury and vengeance, the Empty gods attacked. They whistled and whirled, stabbed and ripped. A single angry god is terrifying. The host of keening demons, wearing faces of wood and water, descending down upon the host of Southern men, was unholy. They danced amongst the soldiers, decapitating with their claws and rending with their teeth. The screams and whimpering of the dying men filled the valley with noise and, not far from the battle, the Northern tribes shivered in fear at the sound.

Rising from the slaughter like hounds from a kill, the Empty gods forged onwards, unsated and unsatisfied with their massacre. Their coats gleamed white and red in the low North sun as they roiled and frothed onwards, clamouring like waves on the beach as they flew South for vengeance.

The Full gods met them in battle, for they too had heard the noise and knew it could only mean one thing. The Full gods rose up, each one different yet taking form echoing the order they craved so much. One was like a giant ram, horns of glinting gold. Another was an armoured knight, with shield and lance. A third was a bull, a fourth was a fisherman with a net and trident, and so on. They stood, solid and ordered, in the skies, watching the frothing rage-filled army racing towards them.

Their battle broke the world. When gods fight, men die, and the destruction was untamed and wide-spread. An Empty god in its death throes destroyed the Northern tribes, thrashing around on top of them as they died. The head of a Full god landed on the largest Southern city, breaking the walls and spilling out grain across the land.

One by one, the tribes of men were squashed or killed, trampled or beaten, until nothing remained except the battle. The land, too, was brought to ruin by the behemoth’s war.. The mountains and rivers, cities and fields, tents and houses were all laid waste.

Eventually, nothing remained but the bodies of gods, Full and Empty, and one last struggle. One Full god and one Empty god still fought, in the centre of the ruin of the world. Each was the strongest of its kind, a champion of the conflict, but even gods grow tired of killing eventually.

Slowly they broke apart, the Empty god’s ferocity turned to exhaustion and the Full god’s order broken and shattered. The Empty god, a great mass of fur, blood and teeth, stared about itself, flanks heaving, white eyes white and startled. The Full god, in the form of a farmer, lent on his pitchfork and struggled to breathe.

For the longest moment, the two gods stared at each other, and around at the ruin that their kind had caused. Slowly, the animosity between the two faded, sinking away like a memory. Like the stitching of a wound, the two gods drew close together and spoke. They spoke of the damage they had caused, of the world they’d destroyed, and both of them vowed never to do so again.

And as they spoke, each god felt something they’d never felt before.

The Empty god felt itself fill up inside, as the determination to improve coalesced into a faith, a conviction inside its heart. It knew something; something which filled it a little. It would still spend its life searching, but the Empty god realised that being fulfilled wasn’t a weakness.

The Full god felt something of itself leave, as the realisation of its mistakes formed into a desire to do better, to learn more and to develop. It was still convicted and driven, but now the Full god realised that that drive had a direction.

Together, the two gods walked from the battlefield. Now they would rest, now they would recuperate. But tomorrow; tomorrow they would rebuild the world.


REQUIESCAT IN PACE

The abbey was still and quiet, the darkness creeping into every corner and cloaking every surface with a dusky blanket. It was a sea darkness, swept in with a touch of fog from the shore upon which the abbey stood.

Yet even now, in the mouse hours of the morning, there was light and activity. Already a fire was lit in the kitchen, banishing the darkness, whilst monks were tying on aprons, warming up the bread ovens, and wheeling out the great barrels of mead which would adorn the vast wooden tables in a few hours time.

  Deeper in the depths of the abbey there was more light; flickering candles in the copying room. Tonsured brothers worked and murmured quietly, the soft buzz of conversation muted by the tall shelves of rolled manuscript which made a maze of the large room. The scratching of goose feather quills was a staccato itch, which would cease as its wielder dipped the pen into the ink pots and resume as they went back to their writing.

 Another candle bobbed and flickered along the corridor; the night brother on his rounds. Armed with a heavy cudgel that he’d never had to use, the portly guard cut a comical figure in his heavy wool robes, determined face examining and interrogating every shadow as if it held a marauding army. As usual, nothing disturbed his vigil and he passed onwards, an orb of brightness in the night.

 At the back of the vast sprawling architecture of the abbey lay the wash-house, and here too was light in the form of braziers; great heavy iron contraptions which pulsated their heat throughout the whole low room. The room was daubed with whitewash to insulate the walls, and it was hot; too hot for the monks who worked there, all of whom were sweating profusely. Some were busy scrubbing robes identical to those they were wearing, whilst others were pulling and heaving the long wooden hanging trestles down from the ceiling, suspended by a pulley system as complicated as any siege weaponry. Upon these trestles, the wet robes would be hung and then re-suspended, filling the hot room with steam as they dried. These monks were nearly done with their night’s work and soon they would trudge wearily to bed. Although first Mass was in less than an hour, the Abbott himself has assured these brothers that their souls were kept safe in the Holy Virgin’s sacred hand and She would excuse their absence in lieu of their hard work.

 Across these scenes; the cooks, the copiers, the night brother, the washermen, stole the first patina of daylight. Not yet light enough to be seen, instead it was felt in the air, like leaving a smoky room. The birdsong grew more pronounced, each creature seeing the oncoming dawn as a challenge. The working monks all re-doubled their efforts; some to be finished before daylight, others to complete the tasks in time. Soon the first bell would ring, and bleary-eyed brothers would shuffle along the venerable corridors and into the cloisters for First Mass. Once service was done, they would sit for breakfast and so the cooks worked quickly and competently, setting places in the great hall and wheeling out the vats to be filled with steaming porridge and a meagre portion of honey from the abbey’s beehives.

 The first creeping fingers of dawn slid over the horizon of the sea, bringing with it a sudden light all around. As it rushed through the abbey like a tide, dispelling the shadows where it fell through the seaward windows and doing valiant battle against the darkness on the landward side, the monks in the copying room carried on their work, unconsciously reaching out to pinch out candles and replace their cappers before returning to work. Their job would continue for many hours yet; the brief interruption of Second Mass a mere irritation in their studious eyes. They would work till midday, until they were replaced by another horde of brothers, when they would grab a few hours of sleep and return. Each monk would jealously hide his project away, guarding it from their brothers’ tampering.

 A few more minutes and the sun was visible, now a speck on the horizon, now a line, a great bright orange sliver heralding a clear crisp day. The night watchman paused at a window and glanced out. By now the darkness had been beaten into submission by the oncoming light and was in full retreat. Satisfied that his job was well done and another day would indeed rise, the night brother started to make his way to First Mass, feeling like Ra in his glory as he graciously allowed another day to begin. Nothing had ever gotten past his ferocious cudgel and candle, he thought, effortlessly dismissing the fact that nothing had ever tried. His watch was over; he would doze through First Mass then return to the dormitory for a well-earned sleep.

 Another few inches of sun crept into view. By now the abbey was awash with activity; brothers rising and dressing. Some who had been tasked with the duty were drawing buckets of water from the well to be used in First Mass, while others hurried ahead to the mass hall to make preparations; pews straightened, the Abbott’s wine filled, and the great golden statue of the Most Sacred Virgin Mary lovingly and efficiently cleaned. In the washing room, however, all this activity went unnoticed.

These dedicated brothers, excused from their veneration, worked in a near frenzy to complete their work and get to bed. Shoulders aching, they finished hanging the last of the robes and pulled on the ropes to send them up to join their fellows, hanging above the braziers. Already the room was full of steam, and some of the monks had given in to the heat and rolled the sleeves of their robes up, forearms gleaming with sweat. Soon their job would be finished and they would be falling into bed, lulled to sleep by the sonorous chants of their brothers at Mass.

 As the sun rose inexorably, the Abbott stretched in his opulent quarters, blinked open his eyes and watched from the window; the only glass window in the whole abbey. He was on no timetable; the brothers would sit in contemplative silence until he appeared at the font, ready to bless the holy water and sit back down. The occasional benevolent smile in the vague direction of whomever had the honour to read that morning’s text would be his only exertion. He stretched once more and returned his gaze to the still sea view. The abbey awoke under the sun, ready for another day of holy work and religious adulation.

 And in the distance, creeping into sight of land, five longships sailed, their huge square canvas sails filled with wind, cracking and breaking over the waves, bringing death and worse to the abbey.


THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BUBBLE

All was silent, save for the gentle sound of waves lapping against the porcelain. Mrs Pemberthy sat, modestly covered in bubbles, luxuriating in the warm water. Mr Pemberthy squatted with a tap poking into his back. Not for the first time he wondered morosely why he always had to have the tap side. He had tried, once, to suggest to his beloved wife that they switch sides for a change. She had dismissed the idea with a shake of her head and the idea was never brought p again

The Pemberthys were not, as a rule, an affectionate family. The two Pemberthy children, Agatha and Ronnie, had called their beloved parents ‘Mother’ and ‘Papa’ until they were 10 and ‘Margaret’ and ‘Norman’ from then on. For his 3rd birthday, Ronnie had received a pen. Agatha had accidentally broken it a few months later, and Ronnie had written a letter of complaint to his mother. No, they weren’t exactly affectionate.

This weekly shared bath was the exception. Mrs Pemberthy was well aware of what her own mother used to call ‘wifely duties’. Watching her mother growing up, Mrs Pemberthy had closely monitored what ‘wifely duties’ might be, and upon marrying Mr Pemberthy she announced that they would be taking a bath together each week, whereafter they would engage in relations and then have an early night. The relations had sometimes fallen by the wayside (Agatha was a particularly difficult baby) but the bath remained, a fixed point in the turmoil of everyday life.

Mr Pemberthy hated this bath.

Mr Pemberthy was a shy man. He knew this. His wife knew this. His children and his boss knew it. He was the sort of shy man who recedes into the background, which was peculiarly effective for his job as a security guard for a large department store. Many would-be miscreants would find themselves discouraged by a subtle yet disapproving cough from what they had previously thought was a mannequin. He was terrified at the idea that he might actually have to shout after someone and chase after them, but so far that ordeal hadn’t crossed his path.

As any shy person would tell you, the very worst possible way to spend an evening is naked and wet, being interrogated by another naked and wet person, while you’re both pressed into a small water-filled container with what feels suspiciously like a knife sticking into your back. It’s stressful, is my point. There’s a fine line between relaxation and torture.

“How was work today, dear?” Mrs Pemberthy started her assault with a feint. Mr Pemberthy had seen this before; she would start with a simple question, with a seemingly obvious answer, all the while gearing up for her main attack. This was what the experts called ‘married life’.

“Fine. I had to ask a woman to leave the store because she was trying to put some… *ahem*… some of the undergarments from our… *ahem* … our adult section, she was trying to put them into her… *ahem* …her… *ahem*” he trailed off helplessly, gesticulating vaguely at his ribcage.

Mrs Pemberthy nodded absent-mindedly. She rarely listened to her husband when he went on about his work. When a mutual friend had first introduced them to each other, she had been thrilled with the idea of dating a security guard. It was all very romantic and dangerous; supposing they’d be stopped in a dark alleyway? Then her new man could fight the muggers with his bare hands, then kiss her roughly, then… at this point the younger Mrs Pemberthy’s mind had drifted into its own adult section.

She had quickly realised that Mr Pemberthy wasn’t the sort of security guard to do exciting things to willing women in dark alleys, he was more the sort who would do crosswords in the break room. Nevertheless she loved this shy quiet man, and had set about immediately to change him completely into the picture in her head. To her confusion, this had proven harder than she’d thought; it had become quickly apparent that Mr Pemberthy actually enjoyed doing crosswords.

Fast-forward 17 years, back to the bath. She had managed to graduate him onto Sudoku, which she counted as a victory, but he was still shy and quiet. She hadn’t been taken in an alley, but last time they really went at it, he had slapped her ass, which was a step in the right direction.

“Now, I wanted to talk to you about Agatha” She now said to her husband. “Agatha wants to go riding with her girlfriends, and I said we would talk about it.”

Mr Pemberthy groaned inwardly. This meant that Mrs Pemberthy would talk about it, and he would nod or shake his head at appropriate moments, and then she would arrive at a decision and expect him to impart this decision to his young daughter. This would be a long bath.

He hunched down a little further into the water, and rearranged the tap in his back. His shifting swirled the water, and a large bubble rose up and lay on the surface between the married couple.

“Go on, dear?” He replied, to his wife on the other side of the bubble.


UNICORNS AND CHOCOLATE

“Fuck.” Said the unicorn.

“Shit.” It continued.

“Wank.” This last swear was delivered with an air of finality. The verbal part of it’s disgust thus registered, the creature craned its large cumbersome head around and peered at the bear trap which embraced its back leg like a clingy girlfriend. Upon examining its predicament, the unicorn decided that three swears probably wasn’t enough and so let stream a series of words that it had seen on late, late night TV. Unfortunately, what with the unicorn’s lungs being several times larger than the lungs of the actor who delivered the lines, it ran out of words before it ran out of air, and the effect was ruined by some long moments of heavy breathing.

“Hi.” The unicorn jerked its head around and gracefully leapt two or three feet into the air in fright. Upon its inevitable descent back to the forest floor, it realised the cause of this unexpected greeting. A small girl stood about 10 feet away, watching the unicorn with an air of detached interest. She was eating a bar of chocolate, also with an air of detached interest. Her general air of interest seemed so detached, in fact, that it wouldn’t have been a surprise had it fallen off altogether. The girl and the unicorn regarded each other solemnly for a time.

“Hello.” Replied the unicorn, adding as much decorum and gravitas to the word as it could manage – an effect which was only slightly ruined by the whimper of pain that escaped alongside the greeting. The girl nodded in reply.

“Whatcha doing?” The girl removed her chocolate bar from her mouth long enough to ask the unicorn this question, before replacing it firmly

“Oh, just sort of standing here.”

“Why?” Each question was accompanied by the soft popping sound of a chocolate bar in transit.

“Nice day, I just want to.”

“Why?” Pop.

“I mean, it’s not by choice…”

“Why?” Pop.

The unicorn lost the few strands of temper that it had left.

“Because of this bloody trap that I’m caught in, you moronic little creature!” When unicorns shout, they use their previously-mentioned lung capacity to great effect. In the silence which followed his outburst, the sound of squirrels and other woodland creatures evacuating their nearby homes in great haste could be heard. The grass seemed to bend desperately away from the huffy horned horse. The girl stood still.

“Just seems silly.” She remarked to thin air. The unicorn breathed heavily.

“What??” It demanded. “What seems silly?”

“Ain’t you a unicorn though?” The girl removed her chocolate bar one last time and, with an air of finality, stowed it away in a pocket of her dress for later. She stomped her way over the uneven ground that lay between them and finally stood, less than half a foot from the unicorn, and surveyed it critically.

“I mean,” she said, in the tone of someone who is doing some very deep thinking, “Can’t you just, like, fly away or something? Aren’t you magic?”

The girl’s scornful tone and her utter disregard for the inherent nobility and natural grace of mono-pronged mythical creatures infuriated the unicorn, and it made a great show of tossing its mane and displaying its horn. Usually, after a mere second or two of mane-tossing and horn-displaying, the target of such an exhibit would cower appropriately and the natural order would be restored. To the unicorn’s great surprise, however, the girl merely flicked her own hair and wrinkled her nose. Totally thrown off balance, the unicorn coughed and looked away. The girl looked at the unicorn impassively. After a while,

“I… I can’t.” The unicorn spoke in a small voice. “My leg hurts.”

The girl walked slowly around to the unicorn’s side, and examined the bear trap critically.

“Yep.” came her voice matter-of-factly from out of the unicorn’s sight. “It’s caught in a bear trap, ‘s why.”

‘I mustn’t stab a girl.’ thought the unicorn furiously to itself, and said nothing.

“I mean,” continued the voice. “I could lift it off you…”

“You can??” The unicorn cried incredulously. “Isn’t it really big?”

“Nah, not really,” the voice replied. “It’s not even properly on your leg, just got some of the skin at the back”

Silence. Then,

“Oh.” Said the unicorn.

“Um.” Continued the unicorn.

“Right.” It said. “That would be great, if you could, yeah.”

A moment of silence passed, then the unicorn felt a great pressure fall off its back leg. Instantly, its horsey instincts kicked in and it took off at a gallop – which would have looked wonderful and majestic and beautiful except its back leg had fallen asleep and instead the unicorn crashed into a tree and tumbled to the ground.

“You should rest that for a bit.” The girl spoke from above the unicorn, and looking up the creature saw that she had retrieved the chocolate bar, now more fluffy than before, and was standing looking down at it.

“Yes.” snarled the unicorn through gritted teeth. “Thank you for that.”

“S’alright.” said the girl noncommittally and sauntered off.