SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND
This week we're featuring a piece from THE INVENTION OF HAPPINESS a Brian Aldiss collection of short stories scheduled for launch at next month's World Fantasy Convention in Brighton.
Brian Aldiss was born in Norfolk in 1925. After leaving the army, Brian worked as a bookseller, providing the setting for his first book, The Brightfount Diaries (1955). His first published science fiction work was the story 'Criminal Record', which appeared in Science Fantasy in 1954. Since then he has written over 300 short stories and nearly 100 books, including the acclaimed novels Hothouse, Non-stop and the Helliconia series, all regarded as modern classics. In 2010 The Hand-Reared-Boy (1970) was longlisted for the Lost Booker Prize. His most recent SF novel is Finches of Mars.
Several of Brian's books, including Frankenstein Unbound, have been adapted for the cinema and his story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ was adapted and released as the film AI in 2001. Besides his own writing, Brian has edited numerous anthologies of science fiction and fantasy stories and the magazine SF Horizons.
Brian is a vice-president of the international H. G. Wells Society and in 2000 was given the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America. In 2005 he was awarded the OBE for services to literature. He lives in Oxford, where his bookselling career began in 1947.
Most of these stories are fairly dark, glowing with gloom. I like it that way
The Hungers of an Old Language
“Was that a goat?” Ken asked. “A goat of a kind, with long shaggy coat and immense grooved horns . . .”
Ken Bekerwire’s village was perched between mountain and sea. As the mountain was high, so the sea was deep, in a continuous narrative of geology. In this isolated place, Ken made a living from fishing, as his father had done before that and his grandfather before that.
His grandfather had been killed in a war fought for the country he hardly knew; Ken’s father too died in a foreign place, fighting for the country he hardly knew. Ken had been spared war, but now fish were scarce and he felt old age drawing in upon him like a tide.
In the lusty days of his youth, Ken had once been prompted to climb the mountain behind the village. A boulder from the heights had trundled down to land in his vegetable patch, and he had taken it as a messenger. There were messages in all things.
At the top of Mount Greyharn he had found a thatched cottage. From this cottage had come a shy maiden, very slender, whose quiet beauty posted at once to Ken’s inner feelings. This was Sheela Bawn Graay. The two of them had talked and talked until he kissed her lips and took her down with him into his village. When the sun cast the shadows of sunset on everything, she cried that she was so thin. She was starving, starving. What food was there on a mountain top this far north?
He took her to the little inn and piled her plate with potatoes and the meat of goats. “I am not greedy,” she declared. She gave a brave smile. “There is so little to eat up on the mountain. Once I had two hens, but they died of winter cold. Some birds’ eggs I can find in season. Otherwise, well, a bird perhaps. Even a snake . . . Or a fox if I am lucky . . .”
All people on earth—and it may well be the same elsewhere—have a secret history as well as an ordinary history, marked by passing years; some folk are barely aware of that inward history. But as he lay in bed with an arm about his slender new bride, Ken listened to what Sheela had to say of her inward story, of which he knew nothing.
And in her story of long ago, this mountain—her mountain—and all the land behind it had been elsewhere, and were joined to the great continent which now stood a long way distant, separated by the deep seas.
To break her fast in the morning, he cooked her the mackerel he had caught previously, and she ate with joy, laughing at her own greed, laughing and weeping because she had grown so thin.
Still her story went on, unwinding over the table.
According to Sheela’s tale, great swords of ice had come, sawing up the land, and behind them rushed arms of the sea, and so the two lands had become and remained severed.
“But I, through my long parentage, retain knowledge of those distant times,” she whispered to him, pressing her dainty breasts against his great chest. “And I retain knowledge of the Old Language.” She gave a little whispered laugh. “It’s said you cannot speak the Old Language unless you’re starving.”
“How’s that?” he asked, perplexed.
“I was told the Old Language was never spoken when ruined by fat in the lungs or stomach. You cannot imagine how hard was life in the days when the Old Language was everywhere spoken.”
“Speak it to me,” Ken whispered. He felt that some vital unknown knowledge was to be passed to him—to him who knew so little beyond the times of tides.
So Sheela—or more properly, she said, Sheelagh—broke into a chant, where vowels were misty and consonants many, and filled with ancient music. The effect was more like a stifled cry than ordinary speech as spoken in the village. And so Ken fell under this lady’s spell and feared her almost as much as he loved her. Because this song, this speech, came from a distant land and time immeasurable, to be caught in Sheelagh’s delectable throat.
He asked her how old was this strange tongue she spoke.
“I only know it’s older than is my mountain.” she told him.
So they passed many months, body to body and mouth to ear.
As he lay beside his mysterious Sheelagh, Ken was the one who witnessed how her ribs showed under her pale flesh, and how thin were her arms, and how flat her stomach; truly, she was one woman able to speak the Old Language.
And he recalled during the pleasures of their love-making something his father had said—his father, gaunt and hairy, sitting in a creaking bamboo chair—“Poverty is the natural state for humanity. Wealth starts in the stomach and corrupts it . . .”
The natural state for humanity? Ken did not know. Indeed, he knew no one who was not poor—meaning, half-starved. It was a fairy tale to him that there were rich people...
At one time, he invited his neighbours to enter his room to listen to Sheelagh singing one of her ancient songs. And two old crones of the village, huddled in a corner of the room, nodded their grey heads and said, “Indeed, yes, it is no less than the tongue once spoken from a distant age, when plentiful fish gleamed like a spill of diamonds in a new sea . . .”
But the fish were no longer so plentiful. Generations of fishermen, including Ken’s father and his grandfather, had diminished the stocks. Many people in the village now went hungry, near starvation, to eat but twice in the week, because of the shortage of fish.
No one could understand where the shoals of mackerel had gone. They could never believe that those same shoals had disappeared into village stomachs. It was that same appetite that had caused the Old Language to die away.
A day came when Sheelagh, obeying a mysterious summons, climbed back up the mountain to her deserted cottage, She went slowly, and when she arrived at that stark old homestead, she lay on the floor and with pain delivered a small baby daughter, showing a wisp of red hair, matching in tone Sheelagh’s own ample curls.
And Sheelagh cried and nursed her baby, cried because she had fulfilled a vital part of a woman’s destiny—and the baby did not then cry with her, but smiled its tiny unrehearsed smile.
When this dear new child cried, imagining the challenges of life ahead of her, then Sheelagh believed it was in the Old Language that she cried—as her mother had told her she had once done. As she had then needed milk, so did her infant now.
As for Ken, he seized on the opportunity of his beloved girl’s absence to launch his boat and sail for deeper waters, where he hoped to find shoals of those elusive fish which were starving his village.
This was an uncertain day, misty, hovering between changing seasons. Ken scarcely knew where he was heading.
Rain set in, only to die away towards the horizon like an old blown shawl. But out of the murk ahead, Ken’s keen eyes picked out land looming.
He knew there was no land anywhere near, not within half a thousand miles, as his father had said. This was just a small island, a wart upon the tousled sea. He made for its shelter with a feeling almost of terror, for here was strangeness indeed.
A gull came and cried its inscrutable regretful call before disappearing into a cloud sailing above the land.
Ken moored in what passed for a bay and lowered his nets—into which mackerel swarmed in joyful abandon. He hauled his catch on to deck and then (because he was not as young as he had been some years ago), went and lay down upon a patch of sandy beach to rest, and indeed to sleep.
In his slumbers he thought he heard some words of the Old Language his Sheelegh had taught him. He woke, sat up, and found to his terror a horned beast standing over him, horned and bearded and immense. It backed away, while regarding him with strange goat eyes. Its horns curling backwards to its shoulders.
“Fear not, Two-Legged one!” It spoke in a mere whisper, and the words too were of the Old Tongue, or very like.
So the pair of them were together, man and animal. Other goats came and gathered at a respectful distance. Both male and female came, and one female goat had with her a small offspring, as if to mirror the child to which Sheelagh had just given birth, many a league distant.
The goats spoke only in whispers and imperfectly, brokenly. But Ken’s understanding was little better.
Nevertheless, as the great daylights of the noon wore away and the Earth turned its shoulder from the sun, he gained—or thought he gained—an understanding of an old history, as recounted by these animals gathered about him. Long long ago, immeasurable lifetimes past, so they told him in their bleating whispers, the hominids (meaning mankind) had domesticated an animal. That animal was the Ancestral Goat, which voluntarily went into partnership with the hominids. Those were long past golden years, when all the trees in the forests bore fruits—more than could be eaten—and the world was nothing but forests, green, dark green and untrodden.
Alas, in all stories, even those whispered by a herd of goats, what is halcyon must pass away as desolation dawns. So it was in those olden days. Matters could not be understood. Floods, rains, pestilence, starvation—the earth shaking, in order to remove the irritants of life upon its surface.
So survivors had fled, hominids and goats, all . . . Long whispered talk about this bad time, during which some of the goats present here on this drab spot wandered off to find and eat the seaweed to which their tastes had adapted.
It seemed that those survivors of their early fathers had come in their flight to the end of land. Seas and storms had rushed in. Darkness had prevailed. Those few who lived through this punishing time found themselves—what was that word?—Ken knew it not—‘stranded’ on this island. So they lived through the harsh centuries, talking the old talk, eating seaweed, or the odd fish trapped in pools. They awaited a hominid who would come and rescue them and restore them to wider pastures.
Much of this Ken understood, or thought he understood. But what was all goathood when set against his lovely Sheelagh? He fancied that if he did not soon get back to his home port, someone would raise the cry ‘Lost at Sea’, and his love would be anguished. So he laced up his boots and stood to bid the talkative goats farewell.
“Oh no,” said they, with mighty tossings of horns. “You are the hominid that has come to save us. We will not let you go away. You must take us all to those broader pastures which we crave—which we have ever craved!—where there is no more seaweed, and trees yield the golden pear and little saplings wince to our very sharp teeth . . .”
And what was more, they showed Ken those very sharp teeth.
Sharp teeth, magnificent curved horns, devil’s eyes...All set against him, with the horns rasping his thighs.
But Ken had his wits to rely on. He stood firm against his captors and spoke a few words in the Old Language.
“Indeed, I am come to rescue you. But you see that my boat is small. It would sink under your combined weights. I order that two of you are to accompany me now to my land. There we will assemble many boats to sail and rescue you all. You will be welcome in my land, with many green things to eat.”
“What does the hominid say?” the horned animals asked each other, shuffling in their confusion.
One said, “Let us kill the hominid now and seize his boat.”
Although the suggestion was popular, the wiser goats among the crowd had to confess that none of them knew how to sail a boat.
At last an understanding was reached. Ken was allowed back on to his ketch, with two animals preceding him there.
He stood stolidly in the stern, clutching an oar, staring at the small army of horned animals which now came from the beach to wade into the waters and watch him sail away.
“What if he fails to come back?” one old goat asked. But others immediately set upon him.
“You can always trust a hominid,” they said.
The engine started up with a roar, frightening those animals who were up to their hocks in water; they stampeded to safety. Soon the island from which Ken had escaped was lost in a gathering mist. It might seem the little boat now floated alone in a world of water. The two goats folded their hooves under them and crouched flat on the deck, jaws against the planking, evidently affrighted by the immense unfolding of waves surrounding the vessel on all sides.
Evening was drawing in with a light scatter of raindrops when land
came in sight, together with the village in which Ken and Sheelagh lived. Ken cut the engine and they drifted into port. Candle light showed in a window or two of nearby houses.
And who should be standing there, awaiting him as he docked? Why, his dear wife Sheelagh, holding in her arms her little newborn child.
Ken skipped ashore, tied up the boat and ran to embrace her, calling her his dearest darling, kissing her and the head of the baby with that ginger curl on top.
Sheelagh caught sight of two goat faces peering anxiously over the side of the recently moored boat. She was momentarily horrified.
She emitted a small shriek, clutching her husband more tightly,
asking him with tremulous voice, “What have we there?”
To which, still clutching her, now laughing, he uttered the one word, “Food!”