I had no soul. Yet the place where my soul should have resided did not feel entirely empty, did it? But one could never be exact as to the degree of such emptiness, unaware of how much space any emptiness was called upon to fill.
In my case, the place-of-no-soul eventually became a shrinking, if tantalising, fallowness, fraying at the edges and sucking me towards the middle of my own tiny body – or, at least, towards where the body’s centre of gravity appeared to be.
A sense of absence – a sorrow without sadness – a need without desire – a bereavement in a world where death did not exist – a pain that required no painkillers – an anxiety for a loved one who was never to be born – a hope without faith – worse still, a faith without hope . . . these were the various symptoms of a missing soul.
I did not know my own name, but someone else did. She, this someone else, was Elspeth who, despite being a fullness in contrast to my own emptiness, was even smaller than me. Many called her petite; many more a midget. She enjoyed that part of the day which was neither afternoon or evening, but a bit of both, especially when the trees around her mother’s cottage collected sighs, sighs for their leaves to articulate with a needlepoint of rustles.
Having left her mother to clear up after her own attempts at clearing up which her lack of height prevented her from perfecting, Elspeth wandered the place that, in her dreams, was her own garden with swing and see-saw. But, now, it was a nondescript expanse of set-aside belonging to a local farmer. Were it not for me, she would probably only play there during her actual dreams. Instead of which, she went there as often as possible; she knew, in her heart of hearts, that I was essentially a dream.
“How are you today?”
As soon as Elspeth spoke, I emerged from behind a vision of myself which I had planted as a prop to amuse the girl.
I said: “I have no soul, therefore I cannot possibly exist.”
My voice was spoken with confidence, as if it could actually be heard by someone’s ears.
“You don’t exist?” Elspeth said, inevitably ignoring my words. “But who wants to exist? My life is nothing but trouble.”
There was a grain of truth in her statement, although it had primarily been made as a comfort to me, like a nurse with a dying child.
I, the ‘dying child’ in question, looked at Elspeth from my greater height and said in pining troubled tones: “At least trouble is something. It’s better than nothing.”
“You are silly!” she announced.
At that moment, the sun performed its own magic act, having earlier duped Elspeth and me with its version of Peek-a-Boo between some distant trees. A shaft of gold penetrated our heads, causing eyes to become torches playing noughts-and-crosses, and, then, a game of who-blinks-first.
We played touch-catch, with nobody winning, until there was no longer any doubt that night had lost the need to cheat in its tenebrous game of hide-and-seek. After Elspeth, amid blown kisses, had departed for real dreams under cottage-thatch and cot-top, I loitered in the soon-to-become-even-more-nondescript meadow, along with the memories of our games.
Anxiety was something I could manage to set aside. But love was something else altogether. My emptiness, still yearning for a soul, vowed to have different thoughts tomorrow, one of which thoughts might allow us to play leap-frog over each of our bodies in turn – instead of the ardently breathless chase involved in a touch-catch game where neither of us ever managed to touch.
Elspeth was a wayward sleeper, stretching her legs towards the cot bars, to test if they were now long enough to reach the end. So as to get to sleep, she told herself stories . . .
Once upon a time, Elspeth herself swung an axe at a mighty bole. The sun lifted in unseasonable speed above the shaggy trees, stage-lighting the forest-clearing in readiness perhaps for her handsome prince’s entrance. Her voice picked out heart-felt ditties – ditties from those shanty song-cycles often forced out between oldster’s crooning lips in despairing lullabyes, at dead of night when the deep pan moon floated into antique windows.
She kept a weather eye on the inn, where a-woman-with-no-name would even now be speaking half-truths to nobody but the ghosts. Then, wiping her face with the bottom of her blouse, Elspeth turned in the other direction to see whether the ferry across the river was back in action. The ferry-keeper had been poorly for some days, so the cargo-stacks queued along both banks further than she could ever remember those crate-henges to stretch. But most important of all, there was one area she scanned with more anxiety than the rest – the forest path along which the prince had earlier departed with the earthenware jug. She hoped he would soon return it, brimful with the sweet coolness of golden spring wine.
Not long since dawn – even so, the giant silver bird-fish which emerged from the rivers of the sun were more surprising for their punctuality than ever their lateness or earliness could evoke. These were the carving mysteries of the heavens above, which Elspeth had never questioned because, like the sun itself, they were simply always there. Her ancient parents – whom she’d concocted specially for this story – despite the blind spot of their lives between childhood and old age, said these smooth-lined fish had always brooded in the sky’s heartlands, visiting Earthen by-ways within certain tolerances of timing.
The plumes of fire from their tails and gills were the strangest ingredients of bird-fish flight which, paradoxically, appeared the most normal. Elspeth would often place her hand in mock salute above her big brown eyes, thus shading them from the glare, whilst keeping watch on those she suspected kept watch on her.
Today, again, she dabbed her watering eyes with the bottom of her blouse. At the back of her mind, she was intrigued and amused by the contrast between the ferry on its rust-cranking cross-river chain and the sleek silver bird-fish frictionlessly forging the sky. It made her feel uncharacteristically depressed. And she continued to swing her axe…
The prince was longer than usual making his anticipated entrance and the grain of the wood seemed set against her strokes. She took a plait of hair from the back of her head and placed it across her upper lip like a man’s moustache, soaking up the ever-renewing beads of sweat. Her skirt fell about her legs as if it had a sculptor’s will of its own, the complex pleats changing like a map in motion above the pretty ankles. She was bare of feet, long since transformed by weathering into the appearance of fine-textured wood themselves.
The other men who shifted around between fresh-cloven boles had only eyes for her feminine shape, deeply jealous of the prince’s place in her soul. None noticed the hovering of one particular bird-fish within a proximity of which history had never spoken, even in the books which none now ever opened for fear of the pages being found welded together like spongey wood. The fact that none could read or write was another, secondary, factor.
The glinting underside passed over her head and then roofed the river. Even the old ferry-keeper could be seen emerging from his hut, face raised at an impossible angle, curved fingers crabbing at the back of his neck. His ferry was the only way to cross.
The woman-with-no-name tottered from the inn, her drink slopping out of the tureen in her hand. She waved a fist at the intruder, her words, too, heard, but misheard, beneath the seething of the other bird-fish even now settling upon the river’s wide kiss.
Where was I? Elspeth accepted everything in life, but not my absence.
Adventures were pleasurable risks. But, now, all was coming apart in her hands, as she held her own fingers in snailshells to her smarting eyes. This squeezed prison of sight could thus discern pointed faces at the holes neatly arranged along the bird-fish’s silver flank. Never even thinking that, one day, she, of all people, would be called upon to write new history books, the moment passed without her truly realising its importance. The humming monsters re-soared into the sky, their plumes of fire eventually forming a corona of tails around the story-book sun.
After hours into days into bigger units of time than could be countenanced by brief existences such as Elspeth, the prince’s corpse was eventually discovered near a spring of the river’s source: a body incredibly and inexplicably bereft of its toes. Her tears had already dried in advance of real sorrow’s proof source and inner pain. She knelt beside the man she loved.
Wiping a sprig of hair from the tearless sweat, she kissed his dislocated lips with a passion that could only dig her deeper towards his own now empty soul.
He had possibly believed that the spring’s golden flush held wondrous qualities of mind-change and, thus, it was his favourite haunt. He had once told Elspeth the source of the jug’s contents, but she never believed him until now. His dead face was quite beyond recognition, but his buckled skins, freshly sliced each morning from dew-damp boles, were still clinging to his thews.
His bone-case had become one with rank decay, his eyes blindshot … and the inner carcass was a taxidermist’s false start.
Elspeth married him, as had been planned … or as good as married him, by marrying his corpse that was being supported by forest workers on limp limbs at the woodside altar. The corpse was then placed to rest in the marriage cot, whereby for the years ahead, the-woman-with-no-name would help Elspeth with the regular ablutions and worship of the mouldering corpse.
As the age-blotched moon dipped to peep beneath the eaves, the two women crooned lullabyes, eager for the renewal of the river’s rusty cranking – toward which Elspeth never again chose to venture.
The new history assigned to Elspeth remained unwritten simply because she couldn’t write – even though the neatly slivered wood paper had been specially supplied for her to do this by the forest workers who loved her.
But history was remembered, eventually, when the daughter of Elspeth — a child spawned from the corpse’s prolonged throbbing of productive rigor-mortis on the wedding night — grew up and learnt history by some form of princely osmosis in her genes and then she taught me about it all so as to fill my soul’s emptiness . . . but I only paid attention to her lessons sporadically because I was often busy playing lonely games of touch-catch and of who-blinks-first on hillsides swept by the translucent girders of God’s golden eyesight.
The silver bird-fish have not returned. Yet, at deepest night, disowned moons tend to ghost their way into cottage windows with dead-pan eyes and twitching gill-like craters.