crossing the imagined

two empty beer cans one drunk

milky way
a distant memory
of stars

blackberries and vines
sweet intoxication flows
from my thorn-spiled flesh

between fire and flood
a vale of unbelievers
throw stones
… it’s tee-time

with sun’s set: a star!
descending – to tarmac
so much for that

half seen unseen
lines – crossing the imagined
bats erratic

I blink
blind… as the bat
I do not see

balcony view
the natives emerge
at twilight
I am guest of honour
at this feast

a rash decision
to swim so boldly – baldly? –
without protection

from this fire lilith
spilled upon heaven’s green earth
seeds of destruction

sunbathing – a break
in the clouds

stir-crazy cat
askin’ me
to stop the rain

listen to the skies:
“No! This is how you do it!”
(watering my plants)
for two days now this wisdom
has been drummed into my head

weapons of terror
his words
and the fists that speak them

firefly campaigner labours for victory

cycling in the sun
I bring home
a souvenir

that I had such wine
to summon the wrath
of a goddess

asphalt a hot knife through buttercups

half and half
vanilla chocolate
equinox ice cream

equinox dividing cream
from ice

how magnificent
that our eyes should see so well
except when open

between stars a space of dark
matter imagined

waves in the Danube
how these waters still run blue
is a mystery

rivers stripped of sand
water lingers no longer
where it is needed
such thirst for concrete!

Aphrodite’s lost skirt
has left many a primrose
exposed

primrose dressed in Aphrodite’s skirt

some may have said
the parliament should be hung

a desperate vote
the papers all agree for once
blown by an ill wind

barley for the gods
too much blood has been spilled
before the altar

the study of bounds
of logic students know well
red pens draw sharp lines

tights fall in darkness
the slow drip of the craftsman
camera flashed

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Hrana – An extract of an extract

Cover of my vampire fantasy novella HrannaHrana is the name of the main character in my epic fantasy novel Kings of Infinite Space. She is a two-thousand year old vampire, first of her kind and mother to a race of vampires, but also a warrior, a thief, a wizard and a lover; naturally bloodthirsty, but good-hearted.

I was bemused to discover, years later, that hrana is Serbian for food, and I still can’t decide whether that’s oddly appropriate or not.

Kings of Infinite Space is a grand epic fantasy with many characters, many species, with gods, wizardry and magical items. Vampires are just one part of that, but Hrana’s history is an important part and makes for a largely standalone story. Thus my decision (all those years ago now) to publish it as a novella.

Which happens to be free for the next couple of days.

There was nothing accidental about our first meeting. Rashimin had heard the tales of a vampire terrorizing the vicinity and had asked Wolf to track me down. Wolf had succeeded easily; I was very inexperienced in those days. I woke up one evening to find myself surrounded by wolves, every one of them tasting more strongly of wizardry than any wizard I had encountered yet. I was very close to panic, but the ring told me to calm down. Since the wolves seemed quite content just to watch me I decided to trust the ring’s judgement. I relaxed, a little.

He’s trying to talk to you, the ring told me. Allow me to bridge you.

Speak to me? Since when did wolves speak? ‘Please,’ I said to the ring.

Hrana, Wolf. Wolf, Hrana.

Greetings, a wolf — Wolf — said. Somehow.

‘Greetings,’ I replied, from polite instinct.

Man wishes to meet you.

Wolf did not bother to elaborate. He indicated only that I should follow, then turned and started south towards the Almea. I jogged along easily, surrounded by lithe, lean, lupine forms, and found myself admiring their loping gait. At the ring’s suggestion I stopped once to feed at a village on the Oberno road (although I would much rather have tasted the wolves’ tantalizing blood), and shortly afterwards I halted briefly to bathe in a refreshingly cool river.

It was summer, my least favourite time of year. The nights are too short and too warm, the atmosphere is oppressively humid and rent with frequent, violent storms (my goddess loves storms but they make me uneasy). The Almea is a wonderful place to spend the summer, however. Besides the many cool rivers to bathe in, the forest is alive with animals from deer and monkeys to owls and badgers, their young just beginning to walk or to fly, and there is a multitude of night-flowers whose pale petals may seem bland to other eyes but to my nocturnal eyes they are a symphony of distinct hues clamouring for archlight in a discordant chorus of hunger.

Hunger! I see hunger at the root of everything! (But perhaps that is inevitable since roots are themselves an expression of hunger for nourishment and stability.) That night the very air felt hungry. The cloud cover had been thickening for over a week and that night I had not caught a single glimpse of the moon or the arch. Whenever I looked up it felt as if that celestial curtain was falling towards me, and I am mildly claustrophobic. What with the stagnant air and the sense of impending doom, I found myself praying for the storm to begin — the storm that the night hungered for.

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The temptations of flesh

He slept alone at night, his door locked from the inside, the shutters anchored firmly to prevent all but the wind from entering. Before surrendering to the warm comfort of his bed, before closing his eyes to sleep, he knelt and prayed, offering thanks to a merciful god for providing the sanctuary of the monastery, and promising to be ever pure in body and thought.

To be free of the temptations of flesh was a gift. He could walk the cloisters without fear of glimpsing a woman’s smile. His meditations were undisturbed by woman’s laughter. Only in the illuminated manuscripts that he copied laboriously by day could any hint of the female form and her seductive enchantments be found.

And there her demonic nature was truly revealed, not only her breasts bared provocatively as she offered up that accursed fruit, bidding Adam taste its forbidden knowledge.

Vile woman to be the downfall of man!

Oh, to return to Eden! To innocence in Paradise! To bathe forever in the light of God.

Would that he could banish her even from those texts, but she taunted him, slithering between the words, spitting ink like venom, her lips twisted in mockery as she spied on him from the margins.

But there in the library, surrounded by his fellow monks, he was safe from her. It was a cruel jest that his own quill perpetuated her. “Why do we not banish her?” he had asked.

“Take care, Brother,” the Abbot had replied. “Through your fear of her she will conquer you.”

But she would not. He was determined to master himself. No matter how she plagued his dreams, he would not yield to her. If he had to whip his body into submission each morning, he would. Rather that familiar pain than the memory of her lips upon his.

Or her breasts soft and warm against his chest, her hand reaching down between their bodies, her fingers curling about his…

“No!” he hissed, twisting about angrily beneath the blanket. “Our Father,” he whispered “who art in Heaven…”

The familiar prayer, repeated over and over, carried him through exhaustion and to sleep.

Lilith slipped under the cover with him and curled about him for warmth. “Sweet dreams,” she said, and smiling pursued him thither.

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Frostbite

He took her breath away. Immaculately dressed, oozing confidence, deep blue eyes that penetrated her soul and stirred within her a hunger unlike anything she had ever known. He had the perfection of youth unmarred by wrinkles, but was a man for all that, and had about him an air of ruthless determination.

He had taken her hand and led her from the bar, all unspoken promises, and they had barely gone ten paces before he pushed her roughly against the wall, his lips against hers, his hand between her thighs.

“And then what?”

“Huh?”

“He pushed you against the wall, kissed you, and then?”

She sighed. “I don’t recall. Next thing I remember is waking up. Here.” She waved her hands to indicate the hospital ward.

“You don’t remember anything else? You don’t remember him biting you?”

She shook her head, and frowned as she scratched at the bandage at her neck with her left hand. “Dark hair. Short. Short hair, that is. He was taller than me. Pale skin. And cold!” She recalled suddenly the icy touch of his fingers, and how hot they had made her. She could still feel his touch, like crystals of ice within her. She resisted the temptation to trace the path his fingers had followed. “His hand was cold,” she explained.

How high had those fingers gone? Had they penetrated the black lace of her underwear? Had his soft, cool lips discovered her nipples that must surely have been as hard then as they were now just thinking about it?

“I want you,” he’d whispered. “Tonight, and tomorrow, and forever after.”

She’d laughed, of course, but the sincerity in his eyes stopped her. “You will be mine,” he said, and kissed her again…

Or had he? “He did. It hurt.” How embarrassing to have a love bite, like she was a teenager still. “Bastard.” Embarrassing also that she liked it so much, this evidence of his passion for her.

But the rest was a blank. “I don’t understand. How did I end up here? And why? I mean, I feel fine.”

“They found you outside the bar. Alone. Unconscious. You’d lost a lot of blood.”

It made no sense. Why had he left her? Forever, he’d said. Tonight, tomorrow and forever after. But tonight was now yesterday, and tomorrow today, and already the sun was descending, making silhouettes of the city and casting its streets into shadow.

She pushed the covers away and swivelled until her toes touched the floor. “I have to go.”

“Don’t you understand? He bit you. He nearly killed you!”

She paused, momentarily shocked. Tearing away the bandage from her neck, she traced the outlines of the twin puncture wounds that were wet to the touch and painfully sensitive. “I see,” she said, looking at her bloodied fingertips.

Forever, he’d said.

“I have to go.”

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Gravity – Alternative Ending

The two astronauts glided through the almost perfect vacuum of Low Earth Orbital space, connected to nothing but each other. Ten metres of braided steel tether, strong enough to support half a tonne down on Earth where people actually had weight.

Earth. Only four hundred kilometres away, vast and beautiful. George looked down, his eyes piercing the clouds in search of the river that coiled about the house he called home – though if home was where the heart was, it wasn’t there. It was here, in the nothingness, the majesty of creation cold and vivid all around, the ever present threat of painful, lonely death.

Space. Life existing on a knife’s edge. Or hanging by a thread, perhaps. Even with all the layers of steel and teflon and whatever else that protected them from the cold of space and the heat of the sun, and hopefully any passing space junk, there was a finite supply of oxygen. Eight hours, maybe nine.

Almost gone now, though. A desperate gamble that might yet pay off. “There she is,” he said, pointing. “Looks like my calculations were right.” Which was a joke, really. He’d guessed the trajectory, and nudged and nudged with the little help his SAFER unit afforded, hampered every metaphorical step of the way by his companion. Amateur.

“Thank God,” she said.

The irony of space. It was as if the two of them hung motionless, the only change about them being the pattern of day and night on the planet below. It had grown, of course, as they neared it, though the change had been too gradual to observe. The ISS – the International Space Station – had certainly grown. What had started as a bright dot was now clearly an arrangement of modules and solar sails.

“Shooting’s easy,” he said, dismissively. “Catching the bullet’s a whole lot harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t look like it, but we’re going to hit that station with the speed of a rifle bullet.”

“Shit! There’s no way we’ll survive that! Can’t you slow us down?”

“I’ve fuel enough to make sure we miss it, but unless someone catches us, our next stop is Earth.”

“There’s no one there to catch us,” she said in bitter whisper.

“No, but we just walked from the Hubble to the ISS. How sweet is that?”

After a minute, she laughed. “It’s pretty cool, I guess.”

Together they saluted the abandoned space station as they shot past.

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Katherine Howard, Child-Queen

Last week I watched the two-part TV series Henry VIII (2003) with Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn (Wife No. 2; decapitated) and Emily Blunt as Anne’s young cousin Katherine Howard (Wife No. 5; decapitated).

In this adaptation, the first time we see Katherine she is making passionate love to a young man (Francis Dereham). Later she is introduced to the king (approx. age 49) with instructions to catch his eye, which she does, and very soon they are married. However, the young, passionate queen is unable to resist the handsome Thomas Culpeper – or she uses him to do what the supposedly impotent king is unable to do – and embarks on an affair that is her undoing.

In this narrative, Henry VIII is clearly a victim of a ‘loose woman’ (the earliest instance of this phrase that I’ve found so far – see here – though in this case not connected to prostitution), a sexually experienced woman who has tricked the king and seduced him out of ambition, only to commit the unpardonable treason of adultery. Alas poor Henry.

Emily Blunt was approx. 20 at the time of filming, and the date of Katherine’s birth is something of a puzzle, but Josephine Wilson (How Old was Katherine Howard? ) argues that Katherine was born in 1525, or possibly late 1524. If so, she was approx. 17 when executed; approx. 15 when she married Henry; and approx. 13 when Francis Dereham was in her bed. And even younger still when pursued and molested by Henry Mannock, her music teacher.

Josephine Wilson’s book, Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen, published 2016, paints a detailed, compassionate and very different picture of Katherine Howard as a young girl abused and abandoned by those who should have protected her, who chanced to catch the eye of the king and – for a year, at least – lived the dream as Queen of England. But she was unable to escape completely the secret truth of her early life; too many knew of her earlier relationship with Francis Dereham and believed it to have been fully consensual (something emphatically denied by Katherine).

Until two weeks ago, I knew nothing about Katherine Howard. So many books have been written, and films made, about Anne Boleyn, a grand story of romance and world-shaking politics, but Katherine Howard is generally reduced to a scandalous afterthought. The true scandal here is how once again the victim has been painted as the villain.

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Machine

Jennifer Pelland’s Captive Girl (see review), is a slightly disturbing love story between a woman so integrated with machinery that she is effectively disabled and the scientist who needs her to be that way. Machine echoes that, the story motivated by a woman becoming a machine, and her wife’s refusal to accept her as one. The novel’s protagonist, Celia, copes with the pain of this rejection by trying to become more of a machine, in a quest to transform away all remnants of her humanity.

The core of the story is the possibility of a person’s mind being copied into a humanoid machine, primarily as a physical replacement for a body with a critical illness and that has been frozen awaiting a cure. In this case, Celia’s body has been frozen indefinitely but she is copied into an artificial but almost identical copy of herself, to continue her married life until her body is cured and her mind can be copied back into her flesh.

The novel introduces a wide range of characters to explore different aspects and attitudes towards this possibility. One person desires the extended life an artificial body can provide, in order to live hundreds of years and see the exciting developments of the future. Another desires it for vanity – the ultimate in cosmetic surgery. Yet another represents the orthodox justification of a continued life with loved ones.

But it’s as much about the negatives as the positives. Is it really possible to copy a human consciousness into a machine? Celia’s wife, Rivka, is unable to accept as real a copy of her wife. Sometimes the copying process is defective, so that machine-copies have distinctly different personalities from their originals – and can such copies be truly regarded as copies? Or as entirely new people?

Then there are the humans who fetishise machine-copies, and humans with phobias about them. And how the machine-people confront their new reality as fundamentally non-human varies considerably too. Much of this echoes the reality of people in contemporary society who differ from society’s norms. The novel’s main story is set against a political backdrop that is a clear allegory of the U.S.’s neverending war on abortion clinics, and also of society’s fear and confusion over gender identities – and the right of others to police the boundaries.

Despite all the not-so-subtle subtext, ultimately this is a human story about love and loss, with elements of a psychological thriller. The ending is good, though it leaves open many questions – but that’s no bad thing.

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