A rather dark short story I wrote not terribly long ago. A vague tale of a crush. set in a year of war, 1697.
*** So long this life of fashioned woe, so short in expectation and florid splendor. The tide pulls in long, and flatly swallows the barren dunes.
Never thought to stand here in stagnant pools of receding brown brine. Never planned to keep so still.
Lost in the Marshland with a slipknot. Forever and a day in a self-exile never quite imposed- Growing salty and misdirected in this frosty morning glaze under a feeble half glared sun. Brittle stalks of long grass poking through fragile films of ice. This endless winter where even the salt freezes. ***
“Children of the Massacre”
Remember in St. Brεnn? Children of the Massacre, the bleeding days. They plucked us from our cribs, and slaughtered our parents, our brothers, sisters, cousins – A generation wiped slate-clean by other people’s malice. And when the devil finally passed on, bored of his reaping, we were alone with our elders of the Curiae, doddering cluelessly under the pathetic yoke of the tired and conquered – Complacent to the ceaseless bloodlet of the permanently scarred.
You went away only days after I’d known you – escaping the House of Burgesses as it burned…. when you awoke from the blind stupor of frenzied fleeing, you were suddenly a child of the Cymbεline Valley – a place fertile, green, musty – Where lives are clocked by agriculture and the season – a land forever obliging – a cornucopia of the kingdom. A land of trysts in the forests and fields. Songs around the hearth. Lust without intrigue – desire purely of the soil and sun. Pura vida.
That day, I burned in the Guildhouse Square, in a ghastly refuse pile with a thousand others – twisted grey limbs, a moaning mountain of agonized wails. Reviled to annihilation for a world we never made, nor ever wanted to make. Our simple flesh and simple dreams sacrificed for the petty grudges of dukes, kings, and warlords. Denied all mercy, we who never even asked for it. The skies turned red and black that morning, the cathedral cloaked in a thick bloody shroud of haze. Heads, arms, legs strewn in the streets and in the trees beyond the walls. I became part of that Putrid Charnel – each footstep sticky with liquefied flesh and mashed entrails.
AD 1697 – their calendar, their time. The fields dripped with disgust.
Only a week before, we first secreted to the intimacy of that alleyway – during the falling of Golden mornings, well-fed days, and heady nights
Incinerated crimson, my bones blackened, my ashes afloat, joined with countless other discarded lives. From high above, in the vomiting haze, we saw for the very last time the city of our upbringing.
You may have seen the pyre cloud above your Cymbεline Valley – wisps of muddy crimson grey crying in the upper sky. And beneath, a bright green fog growing sick with yellow. The blooming of Riotous Spring, first drops of fever – pulsating, demanding incessant devotion. All life violently bursting from the soil, confused, flailing, groping – every cell livid and without control. Chronically unrequited. Incessant impossible longing, no climax ever enough. Vitriol coursing rampant.
And the rains fell. Ashen corpses pouring down in the form of mustardy powder. The survivors stumbling from the slaughter upriver as living cadavers, limbless refugees dragging themselves dazed and heartbroken along the sloppy road. Among them – the merchants who gouged their prices in time of plague and famine – the merchants who were now beaten on the side of the paths, now getting their due; the haughty magistrates from the gilded towers who pinched the pennies over the needy, now getting their due with bludgeons and axes – the nuns and monks raped in their convents and monasteries, and the innocent minions of the slum, all avenged with – starvation and grinding thirst.
My ashes fell upon it all, and saw all. I saw you, that reveler of the night, never far from the spice of taverns and brothels – never meant to sow and reap every day after day, under your uncle’s hard eyes and his foreboding manor. Taken up by the village boys you’d met on weekends at the market – exchanging your body’s thrill for a fish or a bushel of wheat to fill your uncle’s coffers. City girl gone country – you couldn’t last this for long – the endless summer feasts of bounty and uninvited fondling; dalliances and drunken stupors in barns and mud – always with the same boys over and over again.
Though you all ignored it, you knew this futile harvest was the last. By summer, another army will gut all it all to the roots- scouring and ravaging the valley for the millionth time. A nowhere life.
*** This freezing marsh and dull sunlight is forgiving. Into loving indifference, the ragged resign themselves. In summer, when the oystercatchers and plovers cackle insanity, and the fishermen move up the coast – that is the paranoid time, when a lifetime of instinctively cultivated evasion takes hold, and the shadows of reeds and the grey of short nights are the only refuge. Anonymity must be carefully earned. The purgatory of survival ***
I come for you this soggy day – the soil and sky filled with burning red. I follow the hedge-rows of yew bushes that line the winding path up to your uncle’s manor. Soon enough, these berries of death will take their poisonous claim. I slip to your bed while you are entranced by the relief of sleep- your hands no longer those of a city child. Calloused fingers clutch a tarnished pendant the Bishop had presented to you at the last feast of Brεnn. … We can never again be the boy and girl playing at our bodies in the alleys of our beloved town…
Suddenly I know that I don’t know you – we are just two of many shell-shocked victims crushed by the timing of our births, and we are ultimately alone. Still, compulsion drives: I whisper almost silently into your sleeping ear -“The Marshes of Flarange – there I go to frost my charred sack of vapor and ash. Oysters and fish shed no blood, and no man comes to spit desolation. I will wait. Wait for years upon years if I will. But I can promise no forever.”
***If I am found, if I am found out… of what, how, who, and why, I have long forgotten. I ply my days in zen-like constancy, by raft amongst the reeds, or on the cliffs in a thousand different self-built shelters, carved-out caves in the bluffs, each furnished and designed for every mood, season, day, weather, etc. Luxurious hermitude, extravagant asceticism. Peace = boredom = decadence. But the hole is already dug, the legs have already sunk so far. Decay is the only prognosis. We preciously orchestrate it, like the manor nobles and mystical priests would do when they came to St. Brenn on Tournament Days, in their flippant finery, florid speech, arrogance, custom, prejudice, airs, violence, scorn, and revulsion. Laying carefully placed stepping-stones to mark their fresh-faced cakewalk to the grave. But all this is nothing new – same old scenes with different costumes. ***
And here, for her I wait. But not forever.
“We got up early, washed our faces
Walked the fields and put up crosses
Passed through the damned mountains
Went hellwards and some of us returned
And some of us did not
In the fields and in the forests
Under the moon and under the sun
Another summer has passed before us
And not one man has, not one woman has Revealed the secrets of this world
So our young men hit with guns in the dirt
And in the dark places
Our young men hit with guns in the dirt
And in the dark places
Our young men hit with guns in the forests And in the dark places
And not one man has, not one woman has
Revealed the secrets of this world”
I should start by saying that I’m only familiar with PJ Harvey’s very early stuff, and somehow missed what she’s done for most of her career. Nonetheless, this album, released in February of 2011, has recently grabbed me.
Every generartion since time immemorial has its war music, and the topic crosses through every genre, from the bombastic 1812 Overture and Benjamin Britten’s landmark War Requiem, to the 1960’s folk protest song. The reason is obvious – war stirs extreme and confusing emotions and experiences, and the arts addressing it try to make some sense of it, for both those directly, and indirectly involved.
In Let England Shake, PJ Harvey and filmmaker Seamus Murphy take a hard look back at the defining conflicts their country has experienced over the past century, and reinterpret that history in a way that addresses the current war generation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The danger in making art about war is that one will become too heavy-handed, but Harvey and Murphy navigate the territory well, not shying away from being explicit, but not indulging in it. There are countless war songs out there, but no artist has surmounted the challenges of making an entire album on the topic. As the NME put it: “Francis Ford Coppola can lay claim to the war movie. Ernest Hemingway the war novel. Polly Jean Harvey, a 41-year-old from Dorset, has claimed the war album. And like Coppola and Hemingway, calls it straight…”
The lyrics are succinct and the musical production is hazy and ethereal, at times verging on the raw distorted psychedelia of the Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star. Each song develops constantly, and ends differently than it begins. The changes are often disjointed, which match well the jarring nature of violence. Atop this dreamlike bed, Harvey’s voice is powerful and plaintive, and recalls the folk singers of the 1960’s.
The music alone is a masterpiece, but one cannot talk about Let England Shake without including the equally brilliant films that accompany each song. War photographer Seamus Murphy treats his videos in much the same way as Harvey approaches her music – not shy, but not over-the-top; hard and soft in equal measure.
Much of his footage is of daily life in England and, with the music, create an elegy to a home that is lost in nostalgia and memories. When you miss something, even mundane details carry weight. Murphy captures that feeling poetically in his images. Each video begins with a person (Murphy engages everyday people for his scenes) reciting some of the lyrics of the following song. It’s an element that draws you in an unusual and intimate way.
The work reflects on the past – in fleeting images, and in references to the slaughter of trench warfare, and the Gallipoli Campaign, a horrific and tragic episode of World War I which has long been the inspiration of English-speaking songwriters. It also, of course, tries (all one can do with such a topic is try) to address the impact of our current conflicts, and to address both the nobility and tragedy of war. Most poignantly, it also considers the future – how history repeats itself, and how the generation that follows ours may be resigned to further futile killing.
Albums that can stand as a continuous piece of coherent and developing thought are very hard to come by. Add the fact that Let England Shake has been created around such an incredibly thorny topic as war and you have a masterful piece of art.