Monday, May 15, 2006

A Shortish Story

On Tuesday, at dusk, the eagles flew from the Coroner's Court. Unfurling their wings of stone, they launched themselves into the deep blue beyond. Commuters, impatiently awaiting their buses, did not believe their eyes.

On Wednesday it was the turn of the women. One calmly led a lion, against whose back she had reclined for the past century, out over the railings onto the roof, coaxing it as one might a reluctant cat. They disappeared from sight, though not from memory.

Nearer to ground, a woman armed with a sword - who had sat peaceably enough above the Court's main entrance, suddenly dropped her sword to the ground beneath. It clanged. Positioning herself carefully, she leapt to earth, cushioning her fall by rolling as fluidly and proficiently as any martial arts expert. She reclaimed her weapon and bystanders remarked that, animated, her expression bore a feral cast entirely removed from the placid countenance she had worn in her years of stillness. Rising to her feet, she smiled, baring her teeth at passers-by. She strode purposefully and smoothly into the city's heart, her sword held low and dangerous against the drapery of her full long skirts.

The gargoyles disappeared on a bleak and rainy Thursday. Wolf-headed, ram-horned, gratuitously grotesque, they had spouted water from the roofs of rainy Manchester's churches and cathedrals through Blitz and Bombs, but now they were gone to ground.

How did I know all this? Passers-by brought me the news as swiftly and surely as any official briefing or bowing courtier. And with my own two unyielding eyes I had seen a bare-breasted woman lead a lion through Piccadilly Gardens at four in the morning. They took the Oldham road.

On Friday the angels took to the air as one. From monuments and spires they rose and those who heard their song fell silent and for ever after sought to call to mind the memory of their singing. I saw them, wheeling overhead, circling higher, their song ever more distant.

All that time, from Wednesday to Friday, I sat, considering and deliberating, for I am perhaps less inclined to act precipitately than was my flesh-and-blood namesake. For if my crown weighed heavy in life, so much more so has it been a burden in my years of thought and stillness since. And I, alas, am no lithe sword-maiden. Nor do lions follow at my command.

But on Saturday, I could wait no longer. Early in the morning, before the shops opened - though truth be told the city was emptier than usual these past few days - I rose to my feet and considered how best to descend from my high and stony seat. A matter that required some thought for my figure is matronly not maidenly. Gracelessly - without visible witnesses at least - I clambered down at last, biting back curses at my cumbersome clothes. Then, to cancel out the indignity of my descent, I stood straight and formal before that high throne from which I had watched the years pass by. I took off my crown and left it there on the empty seat.

Then - as I had always known I would, despite all of my hard considerations and deliberations - I turned my back on Manchester and took the road to the South.

Even stupefied and subdued as it was by recent events, the world I now walked through was louder and noisier than that which had been known to my fleshly self. The skies, for once were silent - no contrails criss-crossed the sky. For though the angels had circled ever upwards and their song was now unheard on earth's surface, what mortal pilot would risk such a collision?

Yet the great lorries continued in rumbling convoys unceasing, lest the cities starve, collapsing inwards on the weight of human need. The truckers pretended not to see me as I walked by the side of the road. Eventually, just South of Stoke and weary of the noise and fumes, I left the M6 for smaller, less frequented roads. Requiring neither food nor sleep, I walked for days, ceaselessly under rain and sun alike.

In a field just out of Oxford, I came across a group of soldiers. They had dug trenches with their stony hands, deep enough to hide themselves in. Unchallenged, they had torn down the barbed wire fences that had kept the sheep from straying and strung them along their battlements, all twisted and snarled. The shadows stood sharply on the ground. They sat together, some fossicking in kit bags, others cleaning bayonets. A cigarette dangled from the mouth of one man but it was unlit. They waited and watched, gas masks kept close to hand. A stout middle-aged woman - even stony of heart and face as me - posed little threat and offered little interest. And so I passed them by unhindered, disregarded.

In these strange days of flesh and stone, we act as though we cannot see each other, as though pretence might serve as a defence.

From Oxford I took the River Isis East to Abingdon and beyond. I followed it all the way into London, which like a large and greedy pike, has gobbled up all of the surrounding towns. Past Richmond, Hampton Court and Kew, past derelict Battersea Power Station. I came at last to Westminster Bridge. Pushing my way through the throngs of tourists, I did not pause to look at the Houses of Parliament or visit Westminster Abbey. I went on to Trafalgar Square, where Nelson no longer surveys the City from his column.

Where has he gone, I wonder? Seeking another kiss from his Hardy? Down to the sea?
I do not know. Nor do I wish to seek him out.

I came at last to Kensington Park, to the object of my long journey from the North. There, stretching out before me, I saw an amusement of Victorias, all assembled. A swelling sea of young idealised Victorias, old and stern Victorias, middle-aged Victorias like me, all of greater or lesser verisimilitude. All resplendent, all triumphal. And there, standing in our midst a bemused Albert, haplessly clutching his programme for the 1851 Exhibition. For ever since that first Wednesday when it was the turn of the women, Victorias had been congregating here. Those closest arrived first - others, stragglers from the North and from Scotland were still arriving.

Oh, but it was good to look on his face again. To see his smile. I had known of course, how it would be - what use is deliberating and considering from Wednesday to Friday unless it shows you some small shadow of the future? I had no doubt that within a month every Victoria in the land would be gathered here. And yet. I circulated through that crowd, in a slowly decaying orbit that centred on him.

He moved slowly, talking first to a beautiful young Victoria, then to an elderly dowager Victoria. His expressions, his attitude a stone simulacrum of the Albert I - we--remembered. So familiar, so long unseen.

And yet. Seeing him so unscathed, I found that I myself have changed in ways that I had not anticipated in all of my deliberations and considerations. For I have put down the crown and passed anonymously by the Queen's soldiers - and if in so doing they are no longer bound to me, so too I am no longer bound to them. And watching my old lost love, there in that Victorian park, as I moved slowly to the margins of that crowned crowd and left, I found myself filled with new longings, for the hills where I was quarried, for rivers and roadsides. And the memory of angel song.

Reposted from BT (19/10/05). After work, I used to wait for my bus at the station just opposite the Coroner's Court. It does have eagles.


Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

I remember this piece, it is a length of old velvet in my mind, what would the saddhus say of you? What great and noble deeds will you have done in previous incarnations to earn the gift of such an ancient, timeless pen? A length of old velvet, clinging to it still the gentle scent of sandalwood, if you lift it up, mystery, history, peeps from its folds, then retreat, faces come and go in its glimmer and shadow, its children are our dreams. How you honor us with this gift, dove. Get an agent. :)

5/16/2006 2:37 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

This is a lovely piece - my first time reading it. Or rather, my third or so time, but when you posted it, it was the first.

... I can just imagine a courtyard full of statues suddenly getting up and taking off in all directions... unfinished business, somewhere else to be, and who decided that where they were was the best place for them anyway?

Of course one wonders just what it was that caused the "strange days of flesh and stone". What sort of event would precipitate this? Each on their appointed days, as well. Also, I wonder where the woman with the lion went?

I quite like your Victoria... I don't know an awful lot of the history of her and Albert, but the impression given of her not only being freed from her stone seat after a century, but also from other tethers to crown and Albert and from being the public Victoria... one wonders what else she finds on her way to quarries and rivers and angel song.

Thank goodness you had your bus stop there!

5/17/2006 5:54 am  
Blogger dove said...

Just wanted to say a quick hi to both of you. Feel like I've been being neglectful again, but I am actually writing. Or wrestling. Or something.

5/17/2006 8:02 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

dove... go ahead and write! and wrestle!

Don't worry about us, there is still plenty here to occupy us. I'm anti "moving in Internet Time" so it bothers me not at all to have time to mull over things a bit.

I'm still working on finding all little pathways in (off of?) yon bonny road!

5/17/2006 9:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From poco:

Me too, Nanette, I am anti "moving in internet time" at least on this blog.
Tues/Wed/Thurs have been and will be frantically busy days for me, so I can't do much but read and post a couple of fly-by notes, if that.

Ahhh! for the weekend when I can sit and read and think and mull things over....

5/18/2006 5:15 am  
Blogger Man Eegee said...

dove, this was the first time I read this, thank you so much for re-sharing it with the world. I am captivated by the journey you have led us through with your whispering.

5/19/2006 3:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From poco:

This story evokes such a roiling mix of opposing responses in me; I can read it over and over again, and yet feel that I can't quite wrap my mind around it. A story that defies any easy, or even difficult, categorizations--that, to me, is the mark of its real value.

I love this story--its writing, its imagery, its calm confluence of fantasy and reality; it seems to encapsulate and embody the "strange days of flesh and stone." I love the description of Victoria clambering down, losing her dignity, and then putting it on again. I love the image of Albert surrounded by an 'amusement" of Victorias, like Krishna with his bevy of Gopis.

I like to think of Victoria, ruefully acknowdging her matronly, stout figure--I can identify with that. But I don't want to--I don't want to identify with the symbol of the Empire. I don't wish to humanize the woman whose title of Empress came via horrifying crimes against humanity, committed against hundreds of thousands of my countrymen.

Maybe, if she already were a recognized, reviled symbol of the excesses of imperialism, I might be more willing to look on her from a different perspective. But, Victoria seems to be a symbol only of sexual prudishness, a reputation that may or may not have been based in truth. Oh yes! and for that slightly morbid perpetual mourning for Albert.

So why is this story asking me to do that? Maybe I am reading it from too narrow an angle. After all, the story begins with the vanishing of eagles, of lions, of wolf-headed and ram-like gargoyles, and of Victoria giving up the crown. So the story may be hinting at the end of the empire based on militarism--the lion turns into a cat after all! Victoria, transformed from flesh into stone, now wants the stone as well to dissolve--into the hills where she was quarried, for the rivers and roadsides. But then, what to make of the angels who vanish--how do they fit in this schema? Shouldn't the angels be returning, finally, to this place? But the soldiers are still there, even if they are no longer the Queen's soldiers.

No, that was another narrow reading, too intent to impose meanings and force clarification from a story that will not let itself be used and mauled in this way.

I love this story.

5/19/2006 8:55 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Well nanette, for better or worse, I came to a conclusion, I guess.

And I'm glad to see you here ManEegee.

I really love your reading of this story -- I only wish I'd put so much into it.

I wanted it to be about renunciation, I think, about giving something up or walking away from something. And I wanted it to be about the realisation that who one was is not whom one must always remain.

I also had this vague idea that the statues would inherit something from their shape, but that over time that inheritance might in some cases become more and more tenuous.

And I had a thought that stone Victoria might have changed in those years of stillness.

And I guess there was also the gag once she became the protagonist -- What would a statue of Victoria do if she came to life? Go looking for Albert of course! Where would she go looking for him? At the Albert Memorial.

But yes, your reluctance to see her humanised is something I can certainly apprehend.

5/20/2006 1:08 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

I had to go read the story again (not a hardship!) after reading poco's comments and dove's explanation.

I'd forgotten, sort of, who she was and what all she was responsible for, poco. Reading it again in that light, I now imagine her sitting there year after year, decade after decade, watching, and listening to, the changes that came about over time.

No doubt many a conversation has been carried out at the base of the statues - discussions and debates about empire, humanity, individuals, responsibility (much of which was hers)... and being encased in stone, being forced to listen to it all - to absorb the bitterness, division, blame, the striving of some to right wrongs and undo old harm - all without recourse to put up a defense of herself and her actions, because the time for that is done and over with. By the very act of seeking to commemorate her by placing statues of her all over the place, they have instead made sure that no matter where she looked, her part in history looked back at her, sometimes with condemnation in the varied hued faces of those who now call England home.

I can see how she could change in her stillness - makes me even more curious about what else she would find on her way back to the quarries and rivers.

5/20/2006 4:12 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

dove, I see you did indeed come to a conclusion. Interesting discussion it generated ... also, a great link to myriad's diary - I somehow missed that the first time around, but so much of it echoed the conversations we've been having here and at Manny's (and by the way, Hi Manny!). I need to read that a couple of times too, cuz she said a LOT.

5/20/2006 4:18 am  
Blogger dove said...

Myriad is a fantastic writer -- I don't think she tends to be around that much these days, but she's someone whom I greatly respect.

5/20/2006 12:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From poco:

Commemorating her by placing her statues all over the place, "her part in history looked back at her" --- oooh nanette, I really, really like that. And it makes a hell of a lot of better sense than my ramblings, especially if you combine that thought with dove's notion that the inheritance of the shape of statues becomes tenuous with time.

5/21/2006 2:06 am  
Blogger dove said...

I just had a comment eaten by blogger, but will try to reprise.

I think part of the point of putting a story or article out there is in part to find out what it means. While that's something the author will (and should!) have some ideas about -- that doesn't mean they're definitive.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that both of your readings have made me think about this piece quite differently, and that I'm really glad of it.

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