Mapping the World

This Week’s Prompt: 122. Horrible things whispered in the lines of Gauthier de Metz (13th cen.) “Image du Monde”.

The Resulting Story: The Foundations

It took more time than I’d like to admit to track down a digital copy of Image du Monde in English. Even then, I found a prose version—not a poem. Still, I think the main points of the poem are kept intact. It is a summary of all the kingdoms, animals, plants, places, and so forth of the world. The poem explains in the first the beginning of the world, posits some theories on why the world and heavens are formed the way they are, and then moves onto to describe the inhabitants of the three continents it recognizes (the poem refers to India, Africa, and Europe—but India is better understood as “all of Asia”).

The book examines both the real and the fantastic—and sometimes both. For instance, it describes the repeated story of a lion restoring their young with tears, and it’s description of a tiger—a blue furred cat with clear or white spots—is strange. At the same time, it endevors to explain customs and beliefs elsewhere, although through a Christian centric lense—the author makes no secret his opinion of those who confess their sins in public and think fire caries them to Heaven, for instance.  There are other allusions to classical works—we even have reference to the tale of Atlantis, struck down by God in this case.

The book has some peculiarities—most of which are apparent and outlined in the introduction I had. One key difference is the break with where the center of the earth is—most books and bestiaries of the time place Jerusalem as the center of the earth. Here instead we have the city of Arym or Aaron, a city with round walls. This city has some Islamic mythical roots as the city where Iblis dwells—although to my frustration I couldn’t find another source on this that I could access. If anyone else can find a copy of what this references more directly, I’d be happy to review it.

There are otherwise a number of fantastic events. People cursed with tails for mocking a saint by tying fishtails to his clothes, for instance. And we are told that Aether, the element of the stars, shines because it is too pure to be gazed upon by those with sin. Which of course, all men are presupposed to have. We have stories of unicorns, manticores, basilisks, and others. Amazons and other fighting women are accounted for. Going through each would be a bit tedious, so I will present a selection of them here. We are informed of how long Adam has been walking towards Heaven, a journey he began after Eden (a few thousand years left).

We are also told that the founders of the liberal arts foresaw the coming deluge and a second destruction of the world by fire, and so they raised up two pillars. The first of iron to withstand the waters, the other of brick to withstand the flames, and on these they wrote down the ancient knowledge. This I think has plenty of Lovecraftian echoes of strange wall writings and the like—although the preservation of such knowledge by human hands is a bit rarer.

Magog and Gog are accounted for, the great giants who were sealed away by alexander and who’s tribes fight to this day. Also accounted for are nations of cannibals, sun worshipers, and men that are part beast. One nation is called out as especially fearsome, of men with the heads of dogs who have terrible claws that they can slay any they get their hands on. They have the voice of dogs, yet are notably clothed—these fierce men are then more akin to wild men then beast.

We have in the more monstrous category the aforementioned animals—but also the Salamander. Intriguingly, the salamander is mentioned as having wool that if woven into clothes will make one immune fire proof. There is a mythical panther, who’s coat appears painted, and who’s breath is so sweet that it lures along other animals—except serpents, who the breath kills. We have also strange nations marked—the land where Sodom and Gomorrah are, which are noted as barren and uninhabited. After the Amazons, there are mentions of warrior women who’s skin is pale as snow and who have teeth like a hounds.

Fascinatingly, an entire section is given over to Ireland—more than to anywhere else in Europe. We hear of a part of Ireland where men cannot die—and they leave this land when they grow too old and feeble. We have reports of six month day-night cycles—which is astounding and quite unlikely. There is also a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Here, if a man enters and hasn’t confessed his sins, he is liable to wonder forever, never finding an escape.  And if he has, he will escape but feel nothing but misery and woe for the rest of his days. The writer finds this…unlikely, which is somewhat amusing considering the rest. Still, it highlights a belief existent already back then—that once the world was more wonderous than it is now.

The last thing I’ll note is the mention of a river that makes fire “Greekish”, which means it burns forever unless put out by sand. The idea of an entire river of what amounts to napalm is frankly terrifying in a number of ways.

But more interesting to me is the similarities this work has with a certainly unrelated work from China.  The work, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, has a number of similarities, recounting strange creatures, stones, and rites of various lands. While they are distinct in a number of ways—Classic does not recount the start of the universe, and has stories scattered through out in a more regular way—they both attempt  to account for all the world, its strange peoples, practices, and virtues.

Some oddities of the Chinese Classic  in the Western Mountains includes the serpent named plump-remains. This serpent has six feet, four wings, and brings drought wherever it flies. No other animal lives on this mountain. On Mount Smallnext, there dwells a similar foreboding animal. It resembles an ape, with scarlet hands and a white face and brings war wear it goes. Another war sign comes from the Sky God at River Overflow—he resembles an ox with eight feet and two heads. Not far from him (A mere four hundred leagues) is the Great God’s City Here Below, where dwells Land My. He resembles a tiger with a human’s head, nine tails, and tiger claws.

Moving away from the animals, we can see just as strange nations recorded from this end of Eurasia as well. Again, in only the West we have reference to people with three arms and one eye, two headed people who resemble pigs,  and people who ride creatures that look like foxes with horns on their back.  We find fewer mentions of customs or anthropology here—an odd mention on if people eat millet, or if they cook. Frankly, they are more fantastic at times—Satefire country is inhabited by people who breath fire for instance, or the people of Neverdie who…well, you can guess. There are places with archers who shoot snakes, or have no guts.

Of course, there are some shocking similarities. Places with cyclopes, or peoples with only one leg and arm and eye. Places with multiheaded persons, monstrous man eating tigers—or tiger eating horses, and so on. The traits of specific stones and plants are even noted in a more detailed fashion. If I had a longer research period, reviewing the descriptions of what are roughly the same areas and contrasting the styles of presentation seems like it would be fruitful. But alas. This is already late.

So what sort of story does this text provide? Well, it feeds somewhat into the notion of other Lovecraft works, of hidden or suppressed truths known in ancient times. Here, however, I would suggest such knowledge is alluded to and not part of the main text. It instead works better as the catalyst—some sort of shaping or knowledge or perhaps prophecy that has fallen into wicked hands and is now being attempted. Or perhaps the location of a treasure that someone launches an expedition to go find. Perhaps some mystery that by medieval means was unattainable, but by more modern methods and technologies can be unlocked.

Bibliography

Birrell, Anne. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin, 1999.

Caxton, William. Caxton’s Mirrour of the World. Early English Text Society. 1913

Seeking Wisdom

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Prior Research:The Last of His Kind

Oil lamps illuminated the faces of the Muses, painted eyes watching over the scrolls of lore. It was my honor to attend to such texts—the Imperial archives, surviving riot and war, time and time again.  Sophia smiled on us still, we her sacred stewards under the Aquilla. Still, even among such scholars, neophytes whisper. There are old texts here, of course. There are texts that were penned by ancient men, in times of light amongst the dark.

But the stories that linger around men of learning. The common folk say we peddle in secrets that can cure warts, that can send misfortune on our enemies, that can alter the fate of princes. We do know many things, lost to most—collections of lore on the body, how the stars can effect the fates of persons upon birth, the histories and philosophies of leadership. But there is nothing wicked about such knowledge, rightly gained and earned.

Still, such stories color ones mind, when a man enters the hall, his hood pulled over his veiled face, hand covered by a falconers glove. In the light of the oil lamps, his white robe caught the shadows—it looked pockmarked. Something about his gait alarmed me—my eyes went around his robe, looking for signs of grease, catching a feather caught at the bottom of his robe and dust stains lining the edge. Repulsive.

Still, he approached. When he drew close, I saw that beneath his veil was a mask—a mask of well-worn ivory, with carved carnelian lips. His voice was weak, like the wind moving through the reeds of the river.

“Honored master, I have traveled far and long.” He said in practiced tones, stumbling slightly in his Greek. “I am seeking wisdom that I have heard is in your house. I ask for some sanctuary, that I might cultivate in myself better virtue.”

Practiced words, practiced pleas. Hollow and rotten from over use, no doubt. No, no there was something wrong with his manner, his gesture. No, he was here for some other reason. An ill wind followed him in. But it would not behoove a man of learning to dismiss a man without reason. So I drew up my conviction and waved my hand to brush aside his request.

“I am afraid, supplicant, that this honored library is in need of more than sophistry. We cannot permit you entry on such grounds.” I said. The man’s left hand shook at his side—a strange convulsion, but sinister.  He bowed his head and stepped back slightly.

“I see, I see. I shall return then; I shall return with more promising requests.” He bowed slightly, turning to leave. Even his gait, staggered and creaking like a broken automaton, was unsettling. I gave a brief prayer, and returned, hoping to forget his visage by morning.

It was alarming, then, when he returned the next day. This time he came, shambling mass, with a scroll in his hand. I took it quickly—and inside found a commendation from a scholar I spoke often of in Athens. The speed was surprising, until I saw the date so inscribed—this abhorrence had traveled far it seemed. That at least was not a lie.

“This is quite impressive, but we are not open to all—this place is under imperial aegis.” I said, shaking my head. The man inhaled sharply, hissing like a serpent as he stared at me through veil and mask.

“This is unreasonable, teacher. I wish to read only a tome, for my own understanding. Is that not the purpose of wisdom, to share it like the light of heaven?” he said—before coughing into his robe and glaring at me with hate. “If you fear I am here to make off with your scrolls, you may attend me—even a man such as you would be able to over power me in this wretched state.”

This…was true. His form seemed light, robes hanging from his frame like they would from a dying oak. And unobserved, he might make off with some texts for some distant Persian. I sighed and nodded.

“Very well. What wisdom drives you to such lengths?” I said, gesturing at the many, many shelves of scrolls. The man seemed contented, leaning back some.

“It is a text by Damascius of Athens, last of that pagan line. Marvelous stories of Demons is the title.” He said, scratching at his chest. I caught a glimpse at his wrist beneath his gloves—how many sores were on his arms. Some seemed to ooze pus and blood. Maybe it was the oil lamp.

“Well, I think I know that text.” I said, taking a moment to consult the inventory before leading him back, deeper and deeper. His steps followed, stilted and scrapping on the stone. Such a broken wretched shape—but he had come with commendation with Athens. And I could not turn him away, not yet for that.

But his coughing, his hacking and wheezing. It was stifling, and seemed to douse the lamps momentarily with the phlegm he spewed. At last, not to far from the entrance, but when we were alone, I turned to face him again.

“Sir, please, you must leave. You may be a scholar of good intent, and wisdom you do profess, but I cannot risk that you will riddle these halls with your misfortune. Plague and bile spews from your mouth—go now, before a black death comes to the wise and learned of this house!” I said, pointing out ward, my own lamp held high. He recoiled at the light—but in silence acquiesced. And gone he was, from this house of wisdom, even if the air of his presence remained.

Of course, he returned. Like the pestilence that clung to him, he returned. An old itch on a royal thigh, with a letter of health from many a doctor—many of repute, who attested not only his health, but that whatever illnesses and conditions he had, they were not present in the miasma. He had many herbs sewn into his cloak now, to keep the stagnant air at bay.

“Now, at last, may I seek my text?” He asked, his irritation clear. I acquiesced, biting my tongue. It seemed no matter the documents or proofs I needed, he would find them. So at last, we returned to those muse lined halls.

He coughed hacked, but no mucus was left in his wake. Perhaps there was something to the assertations that these outbursts were like the twitches of muscle memory. He staggered, he stumbled, he cursed. But this would get him free of my hair, so we sought his book.

“Here, the complete writings of Damascius.” I said, holding the lamp to the collection of scrolls. The man’s hands shot up like a coiled viper. Grabbing a scroll, he opened it swiftly, and placed it to the side. Another, another like a grotesque hundred limbed spider seizing flies.

In moment’s he had emptied the first shelf, and was panting with effort.

“There is no need for such strenuous—”

“I seek neither your opinion nor consul.” He said in a low growl, as he turned through another book. “Where is it, where is it? It must be amongst these, somewhere, somewhere.”

And he began to pull free the second set of scrolls—but in that moment his arm froze. His other hand gripped his chest and he panted. He swore in some alien tongue, his finger nails dragging on the wood as he collapsed before me. My heart, normally an open wound, felt nothing as he expired.

And then the next moment, alarm struck me. As man became corpse, before my eyes, fear struck me. There was a dead man in my house of knowledge! A man who died seeking my understanding! A morbid and frightful curiosity came over me, as I stood over what was once so wretched. I saw he had fallen, his mask knocked askew. And beneath, I saw something foul.

It was as if to stare into death itself. How had such a man, more miasma and malformed rot than flesh, survived to seek me? What had driven him, that this apparition of Hell did not stall or stop him?

I wrote a letter with this inquiry to my college in Athens, who spoke so highly of the man. It was my embarrassment to not know his name—nor did any of the doctors, who wanted him out of their offices as fast as they could.  But he was so striking, that I was sure my colleague would remember him and his miasma of rot. It rattled my brain, how my emotions were quickened when he expired. Should it not be the reverse?

Why should I feel more sorrow for a corpse than a man?

My friend’s missive came in its time, almost a year since the stranger’s passing. He was distraught at the death of his friend, a fellow he knew well—destined for the priesthood, he said, and a bright young philosopher. He had some accident in the woods of Macedonia, my friend said, and had been seeking cure to his affliction. Fate had turned her face from him, and the Devil had filled him with afflicitons.  

He had no known cure, and concluded that some spirit of the woods—perhaps some old phantom of a bygone age, still trapped here on its why to the beyond—was quarrelling with him. Especially as illness seemed to afflict him, and sleep fled him. He hoped that whatever affliction it was, it did not follow him still into the bosom of the Lord.


I wanted to do another historical piece, and found the idea of a character seeking the work I myself couldn’t find appealing. This definitely drew more from ideas of misfortune bringing demons then anything else. I’m rather content with this one. If I rewrite it for Patreon, it will probably take a radical new direction–or expand on the ending, having the confused master of the library seeking what caused the illness. I also would have done more historical research on the actual running of an ancient library!

Next time, we will discuss a 11th century story of the fantastic! I will see you then!

The Last of His Kind

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Resulting Story: Seeking Wisdom

This is another citation that, with some work, can be directly sourced. Photious provides a catalogue of books, including the following entry under Damascius:

Read a work by Damascius in four books, the first of which, in 352 chapters, is entitled, On Incredible Events; the second, in 52 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Demons; the third, in 63 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Souls that have appeared after Death; the fourth, in 105 chapters, On Incredible Natures. They all contain impossible, incredible, and clumsily invented tales of wonderful things, foolish and worthy of the impious and godless Damascius, who, while the light of the true religion spread over the world, remained steeped in the thick darkness of idolatry. The style is concise, clear, and agreeable, which is not usually the case in such stories.

This is the only information I could find on these texts—although I’m amused at the fact that genre fiction was listed as a writing reference even a millennia past. So instead, I turned to Damascius’s own writings. Looking over Wikipedia, there were a few routes to pursue. Damascius himself was a Neo-Platonic writer—and one who was “irreligious”, neither mystic nor paying head to holy texts. His summation of God then was as an infinite and indivisible being—and thus an incomprehensible one. The traits we attribute to the divine are only made by inferences from its actions, not from understanding its true nature.

Damascius’s life highlights a few other interesting facets. He was the last head of the School of Athens, before being fleeing to Persia to escape persecution by Justinian the First. He spent a year in Persia before returning as part of a peace treaty between the two emperors of the known world. Much of his work is lost, of course, and while he taught students, he did not found a school outside of Athens. His commentaries on Plato seem to deal with, from the excerpts linked on Wikipedia, the inherent immortality of the soul as a source of light—comparable to how fire is a source of heat in Platonic thought.

He also briefly met with a politician, named Severianus of Damascus. This man is mostly know through Damascius, and lead his own varied life in politics—as a governor, a strict and draconian one at that, then returning to Athens. Emperor Zeno offered him a high post on the condition he convert. Instead, he helped a pagan  murder plot on the Emperor, which failed.

Pseudo-Dionysius

This alone is enough for a cosmic horror story—but I wanted to go a bit further. Wikipedia notes that one researcher has suggested Damascius is the author of a collection of works called the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. This collection of works has import to the history of the church that drew my attention for further investigation with this quote from Wikipedia:

“All names and theological representations must be negated. According to pseudo-Dionysius, when all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow.”

Creation and definition by lack—the void itself as divine, empty of anything but silence, ignorance, and darkness was a striking image counter to popular descriptions of the divine as a light from heaven, a source of revelation, and heavenly choirs. Reading through his descriptions of the Celestial Hierarchies, we see that this isn’t precisely the case. Angelic minds have something of a knowledge of God—and they in turn seeking deifying knowledge, so they may better imitate God’s nature.

He describes these hierarchies as dancing around the center throne of god, in a way that reminds of me the image of Azathoth around whom elder gods and musicians dance. He goes on to note that the comparison of angels to flame is due to the presence of flame in all things, moving between all things easily, hidden for most of it’s existence—here we must note that there is flame and there is fire, and that flame appears to mean the elemental flame that might erupt from any moment. Heat might be a better, more modern term for the sensation and energy he describes.

He enumerates natures of various implements, and their symbolic meaning—angels have human heads to indicate they are thinking, they where geometric garbs to show both wisdom and the foundations of creation, they wield weapons to divide, they hold scepters to unite. Each of these are key symbols in the perception of the divine.

So we have the last of a pagan school of philosophy, discussing either an incomprehensible god or, if we grant the Dionysian corpus, a god that is defined not by the heraldry of angels but instead the darkness of night. And one who’s interest lied, at one point, in the Platonic theory of the immortal soul that goes through cycles of reincarnation. This covers, I think, the appearances of the dead, but what of the notion of demons?

A daimon of good fortune in the shape of a snake.

Demons in this context perhaps better refers to the Greek daimon, which acted as an intermediary between gods and men. The meaning of this term of course changed with time, but it was generally understood that they were not divine exactly—nor were they visible. Demons were thus forces at play, invisible intermediaries and divine presences. In some works, the constructions of shrines were done so that they would not wander far—and they would keep their blessings nearby. Other cases posit them as the souls of dead men from the Golden Age, now guiding humanity—a characterization that resembles, in part, the fate of the Nephilim in some rabbinic texts—and thus positive. In royal cults, whether Alexander the Great or Augusutus, it was this daimon, this numen, this divine nature or spirit that was revered as opposed to the specific person (although the distinction blurred often).

The change into demons as we understand came from translation of the Septugaint from Hebrew to Greek—and thus changing the word shedim to daimon. This connected the name with wicked spirits, and this in turn lead to the quite literal demonization of such beings. Still, in some texts we see that the idea wasn’t entirely new. In Pythagoren works, they prove capable of infecting others with dieseases and misfortune, while the Platonic ideals gave them a moral character—that some were allotters of wicked fortunes, others good fortunes.

The stories of Damascius then would draw on a tradition of invisible spirits, allotters of fortunes, both wicked and wonderful. Or perhaps of a lost age of heroic peoples, now wandering the world at the will of Zeus. Either way, of beings invisible and ancient—although, unlike Mr. Lovecraft, not altogether malevolent. Indeed, one suggestion for daimon’s popularity in Plato is to bridge the gap between the unintelligible Divine Forms and stars, and mortal person experience with divine. So, what do we do with this?

Well there are a few routes I think. One is to center on the lost works themselves—in the same way that art in Lovecraft is often a window into secret knowledge with the paintings of Pickman and the play the King in Yellow, so too could these lost works be gates to powerful and forbidden knowledge of some dangerous sort. Of course, dangerous knowledge itself is…not a trope that I am exactly fond of. It needs more elucidation.

Another path is to take up the idea of invisible spirits that act as messengers for an incomprehensible being—servants and whisperers of the universe. They might bring messages to our character, stir up fortune or misfortune, acting like a living curse or blessing for those that disturb their shrine or home. The fact that some daimons remained at shrines as a sort of home leads me to consider the destruction of such an ancient place, unleashing an angry and powerful invisible spirit. Not one that is mortal, or mortal as we understand it, but from some bygone time out of time.

Knowledge of such things then might become the cure. A man hunted by a spirit forgotten by all must seek out these lost works, to learn how such a thing can be appeased or dispelled even as it harrows and haunts him. That I think gives us a better grip for how to use the knowledge angle of this prompt then the cursed knowledge.

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Bird of Old Feather

This Week’s Prompt: 120. Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.

The Prior Research:Birds of Pray

I admit, I was surprised when Uncle Ronald died. He was old, sure—I wasn’t exactly sure how old until he passed. He’d joke he’d been forty for fifty years. I mean, he didn’t  look older than forty but age is a strange thing? And now he was dead.

I wasn’t surprised what he’d left me, though. I’d always liked Becky. She was some sort of…parrot, with really long tail feathers. Uncle Ronald kept her in a big, fancy cage—took up a whole wall. She was probably as old as him, maybe older. Her feathers faded in color, and many were long gone. Still, there was something noble about her. I’d taken care of her a few times, when my uncle had business elsewhere. I’d learned to love her song, even when I was young.

Of course, my house was…humbler than Uncle Ronald’s. But I managed to make enough room for her in the yard. I wasn’t worried about her flying off—after all, there were hardly any feathers on her wings. The real trick, honestly, was finding out what she ate. The vet I called to look her over—after confirming she’d been in bad health a while, probably because at the end Uncle Ronald couldn’t feed her—she suggested that Becky would like insects, and probably fruits.

She didn’t sing much those first few days, even as she ate the seed and fruit and insect mix—dried at first, because she certainly lacked the energy to chase them down. I’d spend time with her, taking time off from driving around to talk to her at home. She’d squawk and sometimes I thought she smiled.

I wonder, can even an old bird go senile?

It was a week before the first shimmering feather returned. It was bright red, with streaks of orange, sprouting like a tongue of fire among ashes. I remember, because that was the first day she sang again, whistling a tune through the yard.

“…Is that Wonderwall?” Jenna asked, frowning as the sharp whistles came through. I paused and frowned.

“What kind of bird sings Wonderwall?” She laughed. Looking out the window—yeah, there was the bird. Singing along happily, a single tuft of bright red feathers on her head like a crown. She hopped to the top edge of the cage, her head and body swaying as she sang. She even flared out her wings, tattered and broken as they were.

“Apparently old ones.” I said with a smile, going back to the coffee boiling.

*

Becky’s taste in music did get more refined, as she got more feathers. Bit by bit she recovered, and would sing musicals in her chirpy voice, humming tunes in the morning. She sometimes even gave…unsolicitited advice.

“Too much salt! Too much salt!” she squawked, more than once, when steam came out of the kitchen window.

“Plants need more, yes, plants need more!” She said, hoping along in her cage as I took my morning walk.

“No good, no good!” she helpfully chimed in, when I tried on a new jacket.  An old bird, she had many many opinions. Some were a bit old fashioned I think—at least one bit of advice was in old German and I think was about the proper application of a codpiece or something. For a bird such as her, having a memory that went so far back was…well, a little comforting. Someone remembered all that.

And while I did not appreciate her thoughts on my new car—“Too loud! Too loud!”—some of her advice was useful. She was right about the salt, and even started listing off a recipe or two when I was writing groceries. Not a recipe I could understand, but I kept a little notepad of what she’d said in case I ever ‘cracked’ it.

Which…well, okay, I didn’t. I was chatting with my neighbor, Miss Kovac—I’m sure I spelled that wrong—and while we were talking about the weather and her flower garden, Becky chimed up with another recipe. And there was this light in Miss Kovac’s eyes, just this pure delight for a moment.

“Oh, who said that?” She said, shocked and looking around. When I told her it was the bird, she demanded to see Becky. She told me, as she looked at Becky’s marvelous red-orange plumes—which were still punctuated by dead black and grey feathers then—that she knew that recipe. Her grandmother, when she made sweets, had used that recipe. She was sure of it. She thought it had been lost when her mother and her left for the States, but she was sure that Becky had remembered it.

The sweets were delicious.  Really all her recipes, once got them…as down as we could were delicious. Some of them were in German, some in Latin, some in Old Russian. But she gave good cooking advice, old Becky did. And she sang songs—I know a few where church hymns, and others were school yard rhymes. She must have had a number of owners, to move so easily between children school yard songs.

It was a bit…disconcerting sometimes, my lovely bird. She sang in different voices—all filtered through her squawk. But you could here the rhythm of dozens of voices. You could tell the pitches. And even during the middle of the day, hearing an angry dispute in another language, the sing song of distant long dead children, or the humming tune of a church choir from your backyard—often suddenly, and without warning—was pretty creepy. I didn’t try and think of how old that must have made Becky—or how many owners she must have had, how far she had traveled.

Sometimes she would say…strange things. Usually once a month, she’d stop singing and dancing and sort of just stare on the horizon.  She’d say numbers or words, in a flat voice. Sometimes she’d swear at the moon, perching up on a tree, spreading her red-orange wings and clawing up at it.

Sometimes she would lean very close to the edge of the cage—raising both her wings up to hide her head, flaring out her long peacock like tale. And she’d say things quickly, in a quite voice. Conspiratorially.

Too many of these were in plain English.

“It will rain tonight. Leave out candles. Things live in the rain. Worms come out from the ground. Worse things come up for worms.”

She chirped this one for a big storm. I mean, it did rain—the weatherman had said that much. But what she meant by candles—that night the power went out. So I lit some candles…and let one outside, just in case. Why not, right? In this day and age, why not?

The house across the street, it had some sort of accident. A sinkhole or something, ate up most of the road and severed a lot of powerlines. Just barely missed mine. Which, I thought was conicdence but…there was a nagging thought I just couldn’t let go of.

*

One night, as I was washing dishes, she squawked up another suggestion. Place a jar of dirt outside, and bury it. Bury it with a spare key. I blinked at that. She then went back to singing American Idiot. Which, was almost a more unsettling experience, compared to that strange droning song she sang earlier or the odd chirps of advice.

I had a mason jar, and got some compost. Dropped a key in. I don’t know when exactly I started listening to Becky, but her recipes worked. And this was harmless. Who was going to go to my backyard to find a spare key anyway?

It took maybe thirty minutes to bury the thing. I went to bed after a warm shower.

The screech of tires woke me up. A glance at the clock. Three o’clock in the morning. I blinked and lazily, not entirely awake yet, pulled myself to the window. There was a car outside. Lights off—someone was standing at the edge of the yard.

He was pacing. There was crowbar in his hand. As I blinked awake, I saw him try and walk over the line, towards the house—but stop. Step back. He took a deep breath and stepped forward towards the house again and no, turned back. He did this for five minutes as I watched—and recorded it with my cellphone.

And then he went home.

The police said what you’d expect. No victim, no damages, no crime. Keep an eye on it, but they’ll deal with it later. I was still shaken up about. How had she known? Had she known? Twice was just conicdence after all.

She hoped to a branch close to my window. She sang a nice morning carol as I made an egg recipe she suggested a few weeks ago.  She was content, it seemed, to sing along and through the day. I began to relax, to hum along with her. Nothing else happened that day. I got to working on a new design for a client and sorting through more property for Uncle Ronald.

It wasn’t until sundown that she acted strange again. She got silent, staring at the setting sun—I wonder if she was hoping to catch a glimpse of that green flash people talk about. She didn’t blink, like she was daring the sun to pop it’s head back up before going to bed. And then she made some anxious squawks in my general direction.

She’d knocked her food thing over. It was one of those hanger things—I got a flash light, opened the cage to go and rehang it from the ceiling like I’d done a hundred times. And then she jumped on my shoulder.

That was startling but not new. I mean. She’s a parrot…thing. It was like being a pirate. She did it while cooked sometimes—although a bird chiding you like a disapproving parent was an uncomfortable experience for sure.

She watched as I put the thing back up, hooking it around the mesh ceiling. And then whispered in my ear, quick clicking and purring—or something like purring, like a tongue trying to roll its R’s in a low comforting way. She shook a little, the last of her ashen feathers, a small tail feather falling away.

Becky had a plan, smart bird. A plan that had to be hidden from the moon and sun—only on new moons could anything be done about it. What it was I wasn’t sure, and what exactly the plan did wasn’t clear. She needed me to find a rock she’d buried near my Uncle’s house—it was a special rock, one of those rocks made when a thunderbolt hits sand.

She needed seeds, from an old tree—a really old tree. She needed a jar, a clean but old jar with a silver lid. She needed string, twine, she need something made of metal. Things had to be measured. Dates consulted, she needed me to go to the library and find the dates. It would be slow. But she had time. And she needed it to work properly this time.


I knew this was going to be a strange story from the start, and drew some from an older story here https://undeadauthorsociety.com/2019/05/22/after-the-funeral/. You could consider this a spiritual successor.

The week delay was to put some finishing touches on it, but next weeks research has already begun! See you then!

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.

Birds of Pray

This Week’s Prompt: 120. Talking bird of great longevity—tells secret long afterward.

The Resulting Story: Bird of Old Feather

Birds have come up a few times in our work, most notably here. But we certainly didn’t explore this in it’s entirety—there are still many more stories of the nature of birds, especially long lived and speaking ones.

A common motif found in stories of birds in the Balkans is the nightingale, who’s song completes a mosque. The first example is the story of the Nightingale Empress. The Nightingale Empress is sought after by a king to finish his majestic mosque, sending forth his three sons to find it. Two of the sons are common heroic types, but one is bookish and well read. They come to a path with three routes, two of which people have returned from and one which none have returned from. The heroic brothers take the routes men have returned from—and they in time gave up and took on trades, before heading back.

A common nightingale. I don’t know what an imperial nightingale looks like.

The bookish brother, however, was scholarly and wise in the ways of the world. He went down the path none came back from, and meet a number of monsters. He met a wild woman and gave her a comb so that she wouldn’t have matted hair, getting guidance further. He met a Lynx and his wife, and by teaching the wife how to make bread without burning her paws he escaped her husbands hunger. He was directed to a lion and lioness, both blind, to learn of where to go. The lynx told him to pretend to be their child, accept their caresses and comb the lion’s hair. And so he did, and went further down until three mysterious birds assaulted him. Fending them off, he came to a home where a old woman warned him her three man-eating daughters were returning. So he hid, and found the birds  had become daughters. They agree to take him further, so long as he serves them each for a month.

And so at last he is taken to the place where the Empress Nightingale is: the palace of the vila queen. The palace was guarded by five hundred men, a wolf, a lynx, and a lion.  Most of these protections, however, are bypassed by the aid of the eagle sisters. At last he returns to his brothers…who on the road back attempt to kill him by abandoning him in a well. The eldest then comes home, and claims to have found the bird.

But it won’t sing.

In time, the vila queen arrives however. She wants to know where the bird was found and, when the eldest claims it was in a cypress tree, she is infuriated. She insults him so badly that his subjects turn on him and beat him with sticks. The middle son reveals the truth of the matter, and the youngest bookish brother is rescued from death. And so the Nightingale Empress sings, and the bookish brother marries the vila queen and is named heir.

Then there is a tale from Serbia, about a humble bird catcher who produces a similar nightingale. While he was out catching birds, he caught an old crow—the crow promised to aid him in exchange for its life. The bird catcher, having no use for an old crow, agreed. He tricked other birds into being caught by the bird catcher, drawing crowds over time and bringing attention. The next day, the emperor asked that the bird catcher bring him three nightingales to complete his mosque, on pain of his life. The crow guided the bird catcher—and sure enough they were lured into cages.

Crow

Then the emperor asked for the mistresses of these birds, and the crow again advised him on how to lure her out. Captured, the empress of nightingales becomes the emperor’s bride. She is bitter about her capture, however.  She attempts to have the bird catcher killed—first she sends him to find the broken piece of her ring, which the crow finds using copious oil. Next, she skips right to the chase. She will not formally marry the emperor until the bird catcher has died.

So the emperor tells the bird catcher jump in a fire. The crow gives him advice—first to beat his wife and drive her away. Then to coat himself in the foam of a horse before entering the flame—and doing so, he survives and appears all the younger. Seeing this, the people call him to be released—and the emperor declares the bird catcher will be his vizier. Asking how he can be young, the emperor learns the trick…but it doesn’t work. Instead, he burns alive and the Bird catcher becomes the young emperor and marries the empress of nightingale.

There are more amazing birds found among the Ainu, who tell of great birds and diabolic owls. One such being is a great eagle that soars through the sky, and lives even higher beyond that. Occasionally, this eagle drops large golden feathers—if stored properly, these feathers have magical powers for three years.

A Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

It was mentioned in passing that some birds—the cuckoo, the woodpecker, the nighthawk, the goatsucker and the owl—use their cries to betwitch people wherever they go. The owl has some mixed associations besides. Some owls guide hunters to their prey, while others are mischevious makers. Yet even the mischevious little owls know a wicked man from a good one, just from a glance.

The owl in the Avesta is a divine creation. Called the Asho-zusht, this bird recites the Avesta and prevents the nails of dead men from being used as weapons by fiends. Other wonders persist in Perisan lore—eagles, for instance, earned a life span of a century for shading the prophet Mohammed.  In Zorastrain times, the solar crow provided healing presence to Zoraster, when he suffered a curse. The feathers and bones of the raven grant victory—and that is yet accounting for the famed Simurgh. Half-bird, half-beast, it granted Rostam three feathers. Should these be burned, the great bird would arrive and display its power.

What power is this? The great birds wings from clouds and cause rain—and when he takes flight, he scatters seeds and twigs all over the world, restoring crops. That is the might of this great bird!

Thai statues of the Garuda battling Naga

The scale here implies something else to me, however. It reminds me of some descriptions of the Garuda, especially in Buddhism, where the bird has similar scope and understanding.  Its wings are cosmic in scale, golden, and beat with hurricane force. The Garuda, sometimes a singular being and sometimes an entire species of bird beings, are always at odds with the Naga.

And there is of course the crowning example of birds that live forever: the Phoenix. The Phoenix is a Greek description of a common motif—a bird that is reborn in fire and ash. According to Herodotus, the story comes from Egypt, and yet the bird comes from Arabia—rising in the East it seems, to die in the West. It comes every five hundred years, covered in myrrh. The color of this bird varies, but it is generally the size of an eagle—although sometimes it resembles a peacock.

The Bennu Bird

But is there an Egyptian bird that resemble the phoenix? There is! The Bennu bird, a self created deity that existed before the rest of the world. At least one text has this great bird flying over the waters before the world, landing on a stone, and demanding the world be made! The Bennu, like the Phoenix, is associated with the sun. Bennu is the inner soul of Ra, and rises into the air with the sun every day. While it does not die like the phoenix, it is a solar bird of immense age that travels across the world.

North there is another bird that perhaps resembles more the Simurgh. The Konrul appears as a peacock so big it can carry off a cart,  with chimeric features. Sometimes it is a bird-dog hybrid, other times it has a dog head sometimes a dog head with human face, sometimes lion claws. Like the Garuda, it has an enmity to snakes. It lives near large sources of water, and like the Simurgh gifted a hero three of its feathers—in this case for saving it’s children.

A common thing with ancient birds, then, is the sun, song, and dominance over the skies. The bird as a beautiful creature that is treasured for its song and wisdom—especially crows—is fairly common. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up the longest living bird, and the longest lived parrot (since of course, parrots are famed for their mimicry of human speech).  The three current contenders are all almost a hundred years old—but the oldest bird is one named Cocky Bennett, a cockatoo that exceeded a century in its life time. While not mythic in proportion, a century old bird feels appropriate for a story where secrets are revealed by a strange bird.

This story’s prompt actually reminds me, strangely enough, of our story of the feline who wrote in her owner’s voice from beyond the grave. The idea here I think is very much similar—and Cocky Bennett’s story of being passed on in inheritance feels like the actual start to a story. A bird from a dead and strange relative, that whispers and repeats strange things at night. And sometimes, of course, just speaks with the voice of a dead man.

Bibliography

Batchelor, John.  The Ainu and their folklore. The Religious Tract Society. 1901

Goodell, Grace. “Bird Lore in Southwestern Iran.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 1979, pp. 131–153. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177687. Accessed 28 Oct. 2020.

Marshall, Bonnie C. Tales from the Heart of the Balkans. Libraries Unlimited Inc, Englewood Colorado, 2001.

Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. p. 212. ISBN 0-500-05120-8.

Wratislaw, Albert Henry. Sixty Folk-Tales From Exclusively Slavonic Sources. London. E. Stock,1889.

We actually rewrote the last story on birds on our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/late-january-24921428

The Empty Windows Part 2

This Week’s Prompt: 119. Art note—fantastick daemons of Salvator Rosa or Fuseli (trunk-proboscis).

The Prior Research:Temptation

Part 1:The Empty Windows, Part 1

I spent the afternoon clearing off the window. It was an exquisite work, really. Along its frame were carved distorted statues and cut outs—when the sun shone down, they cast long and wide shadows down, acting out some play along the walls. Sadly, they had been damaged beyond recognition. I couldn’t tell a knight from a knave, nor a man from a goat among the shapes. But a clever bit of artistry all the same.

The glass of the window was more a shade than anything else. There was an attempt, I think, to guide the light not only over the rotating images, but the window itself. Portions, small lines, were lighter than the rest. To cast an image in lighter shadows perhaps…too small to be entirely successful. But still! I wondered what I might find, in this new window. After it was cleared, I gathered my things, looked upward into the dark.

It was like a looming eye looking down on me, a slumbering giant that dwarfed the house.  As the sun shifted across it, I stared longer. I waited for some vision or sight beyond. I waited for a world in the dark glass—but I saw nothing.

Not quite nothing.

I saw myself in the glass. Reflected, distorted. The curves stretched by body, my face and body—it was like a grotesque flower formed of my features. The thin lines looked like abandoned strings falling off my face. Like my reflection hanging from the ceiling, by thin fibirous puppet strings. So perfectly cast, I could feel my own weight above me. It was…disorienting, to see an empty shell of yourself, staring down from a dark and starless sky. Even at noon, there was no color to my reflections skin.

I am not surprised such a window was covered…but I held out hope that day that, in my work, this would open a new insight. A new window into the world beyond. After all, it was so finely made and so opaque—once my vision could pierce it, what wonders would I find behind? What worlds waited?

That night the wind was heavy. The storm was gone, but airy nymphs danced in its wake. Sleep thus so far away from me, I decided to do as I had in the past. I would survey the worlds again, from that sacred seat, with naught but candle, moon, and star.  The room was dark and heavy at night, and I sat to record poetry of Verta, who now sung songs of Gladwing’s endevors. Or so I thought, the images seemed to be of that great hero.

Studying that window, with a candle at it’s base to illuminate the figures, I felt some small comfort. But as I wrote, I felt something else. Long shadows were cast by the candlelight. The moon and cold starlight were enough to cast that pantomime of broken gargoyles…but they seemed less clear. Shapeless, dim masses against the light and dance. They lacked the stark, crisp lines that separate puppets from men.  

I pushed on though, writing. Writing and writing. Even as the darkness felt heavier and the dancing shadows grew more unsettling, while the winds howled and battered at the walls. It was after recording the third stanza—in a tongue I still didn’t know—that I knew real fear.

Because I could not stand.

It was as if a great weight was sitting on my back. It could crush me. It would crush me, if I tried to stand. Only by remaining hunched over, working away at the visions beyond, could I keep the weight off of me. The wind felt cold on my neck, unbidden from some window left agape elsewhere.  

The air pushed in to my lips as I wrote. My limbs were tightened, gripped by unseen iron centipedes, hundreds of small iron pins down. They stabbed, my arm twitched up and tightened, dragging lines across the page, cutting across text or sliding to underline words of warning. Scuttle, scratch, stab. I feel wounds. I bleed but my blood is invisible on the page, it leaves no stain. I write and write and cannot see that I bleed. Even as something coils round my crown. Even as my eyes sting and I taste iron in my mouth. I cannot see that I bleed.

*

The burning heat of the sun woke me the next day, shinging through the skylight. My head was burning as I dragged myself down for water. Despite the ache, I prepared for another day—today I would relax, and recover from the hell of last night. My stomach felt like something had coiled up inside and around it, holding it hostage.

I was determined, however, to write outside that night. To go out amongst the plains, where I might see the vistas with my sharpened vision.  I went then among green plains and forests, to visit the amphitheater of red gods with twin heads. I wondered under the sky, completing my sketches and studies.  

It was while I sat among the seas of memory, watching another investigation of the scholars there—they were fishing up a lost marriage from the deep currents below. It was a broken, sad thing—fins spread out with rainbow colors, reflecting the violet light poking through the clouds. Tender moments carved apart by deep and buried scars. It was on those fins that I saw something strange.

It was like a stain, a shadow—a shape reflected on the scales. One I had never seen before.  It was like a drop of oil paint unfurling on the water of the scene. At first, I thought the shape was a malformed tumor on the memory. A horrible, illict act of violence, remembered in the world beyond. But as I drew close, the fin folded—and the stain remained on the new scales. Perhaps it was some unreal sickness, but such no. It was too flat. It was something in the scales.

It was in the fields behind me. It was shapeless, dark and alien against everything else. A heavy shape, long thin limbs probing out on the grass. It moved with some uncertainty, on thin legs that barely supported its great and terrible mass. One limb rose from the rest. A probuscius dripping with inky darkness, gleaming with stains of light.

I had no desire to follow such a story with a monster like this. But no matter where I walked—to red or green or yellow lands, to listen to songs or poems or witness great wrestling matches, among towers and amiptheatres and zigguarats—it followed. It followed, and slowly made the most dreadful of its own noises. Dissonant unsounds, that were heard by all I saw. Pipping of the most dreadful sort. Dancing limbs, with all the elegance of a spider weaving her web.

That is what it most resemble. A spider, with limbs of thin glass and a body of sludge and fungus and rot. And it moved with such ease, even as the land around it shifted—it paid no head to anything else.

Except, as I reckoned when I closed the door, me.

It would not enter my abode. Perhaps it could  not. Perhaps it chose not. It sulked, like a dog left out in the rain, outside my window. I wished for rain. For some flood or heaving river to well up and wash the stain away. It sat, uncaring, atop even my greatest visions. It was hard to record the wonders beyond with this impish demon, lurking in the shadows and emptiness of the world. The others, my beloved knights and poets, did not see it.

As the day grew longer, however, it grew larger. And it grew company.

I saw it swell like a boil, thin layer of skin holding back a most foul inky bile. Spidery limbs punctured out, spilling dripping bile over the land as a new swarm of self-same demons, with their trunks and crawling limbs ushered out. They two roamed over the landscape. They drew near to my door in packs, clawing at the windows, and revealed mouths with of shadow.

And they would not leave.

They would not leave.

I could not make out the shapings and happenings of Glimmerwing and his kin, because these bestial gnats got in the way. Their buzzing, for they made such monstrous buzzing like each drop was an angry cicada, droned out the philosphers. They darted around the golden fields. And every day there were more, leaning on the edge of stones. They extended their long trunks down, like fishers of men in the most crude of ways.

I saw them catch a man of the red lands once. They pulled him up into nothing, and devoured him whole in their darkness. They devoured up my hope of leaving my old manor. For they were waiting there.

*

I did not answer the cold wind that called me to write at night, when darkness would be thick on the grass. I ignored the sounds and calls of monstrous things. The weeping, the chortling, the sound of pigs crying out at slaughter.

I stayed in my bed, and stared at the ceiling. I had locked the door to my study—for I knew that strange things now lurked beyond the window. Strange things lurked from that dark glass. Hungry and numerous things, waiting all about me. What they wanted, I did not know. But they had nothing but ill intent for me now.


This story was delayed greatly by healthy issues and work. I’m not happy with the result, especially with a delay. I like the idea of a window that looks in on the artist as the final twist, with strange demons coming through over time. But it’s not refined enough, frankly. These two stories together will make a good idea to revisit in a year or so.

Next time! We return to some avian friends.

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Temptation

This Week’s Prompt: 119. Art note—fantastick daemons of Salvator Rosa or Fuseli (trunk-proboscis).

The Resulting Story: The Empty Windows Part 2

This week from Lovecraft we receive one of our most precise and artistic visions—with a bit of effort I was able to track down the exact painting by Salvator Rosa that inspired this prompt, and while Fuseli proved more difficult I found plenty of monstrous art there. I’ll give my commentary on his work towards the end, since it deals with material we are already familiar with in this society.

Rosa’s Elephantine Demon

The image in question, above, is of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Saint Anthony has two instances of temptation, one on ground and one in the air, and both are regularly represented in fantastic and surrealistic art. His first temptation began when he was young and set about the monastic path—arguably the first such monk in Christendom. The devil, envying such behavior, set about his temptation in the usual way at first. He whispered of the riches of the world, of the love of women, of the importance of family, of the difficulty of the task, of the infirmity of the body—but these trusty weapons failed. So instead, he assaulted him by day and night. So vicious were these assaults that they were visible to all who watched. But the constant attacks, even when the Devil came as a woman, were not enough. And this shamed the Devil’s pride, that he who claimed to be greater than god was rebuked by a simple man. After all of this, the devil confessed defeat, appearing as a small boy.

Later in life, Anthony sought further to conquer himself. He went out to live among the tombs near his village in Egypt, and settled there for the night. He asked that his friend bring him bread in the morning, but otherwise not disturb him. The Devil, already alarmed by the discipline of the man,  was afraid he would bring discipline to the desert. So he assaulted the saint with an army of demons and cut him to ribbons, such that his friend assumed him dead when he came to deliver the bread.  He was carried back home and there was a funeral—but he was merely sleeping. He awoke and asked his companion to return him. His wounds were real, however, and he could not stand. So he prayed as he laid on the ground.

The demons, frustrated, shook the earth and attacked the tomb from all four walls in the shape of many beasts and crawling things. But Anthony mocks them, for both relying on such great numbers and such dreadful forms. And as they gnash at him, the roof opens up and he is healed by a golden light. (As an aside, I can’t help but notice that the demons come from the four directions, but the divine aid comes from above. The symbolism to me reads as the demons being the entirety of the world here…but more on that later).

Next he takes residence in an abandoned fortress—the mere arrival of St.Anthony drives out all the reptiles. With six loaves of bread, each lasting a month, and water from the well.  Here, demons assailed him and cried out for him to leave what was theirs. His acquaintances, who came to visit, heard the sounds of violence and were afraid—but St. Anthony was unafraid and told his friends to make the sign of the cross and nothing shall harm them.

Much later in life, he ventured to a new mountain—called the inner mountain in my texts. Here he remained, and began to farm so that those who guided him there would not exert much effort in order to help him.  And here again demons assaulted him—those beyond heard the crashing of arms and saw that the mountain was full of wild beasts. First hyenas were sent, but they were repulsed. Then a beast like a man, with the legs and feet of an ass came and assaulted him. And he was repulsed.

Saint Anthony preformed other acts of healing and exorcism through out his life—leading to the promotion of monasticism through out the land. There was incident that I couldn’t find in my copy of the Life of St. Anthony, but is recorded in the art of Micahelangelo—here demons assault him again, but this time as he is carried through the air by angels instead of when he is in the desert or fortress or other place of desolation.  The story is the same as the variants above, for the most part.

Saint Anthony’s stories reflect a number of folkloric truths about wicked spirits—that they often take the forms of beasts, they dwell in places of the dead or forgotten places where nothing grows. And they have no power of men protected by the Divine. The artistic imagery of the demons is more fantastic, as the images I’ve included no doubt shows—the lives I have includes at best “the crawling things” and the man with the legs of a donkey. Still, invisible and angry demons serves as fruitful ground.

The story also calls to mind stories from India of Sidhartha’s last meditation. Here we encounter not the Devil but Mara, who attempts to dissuade Sidhartha from meditation and enlightment.  He sends three or five daughters to attempt to seduce him—but he remains mediating. Mara dispatches vast storms of rain and stone, frightening away the gods that had gathered around the Buddha—but this was to no avail either. Then Mara dispatches a great host to destroy him, and he remains untouched. Mara then called out that Buddha’s seat belong to Mara—and his whole host agreed with his claim. When asked for his witness the Buddha touched the earth—and the Earth cried out that she bore him witness. And Mara and his hosts vanished.

While this is the most famous text, it is not the only story of Mara attempting to seduce the Buddha. We find Mara in one text exhorts Sidhartha to go and live, to gain merit, for he is gravely thin. His path is too difficult, too rough to bear. And so he is rebuked by the Buddha for being what he is—and the Buddha counts and numbers his ten hosts that stand before him. Other texts have Mara attempting to lure Buddha away from preaching, either to keep it to himself or to abandon the path of preaching. One amusing temptation has Mara bringing letters from the Buddha’s princes, supposedly, that demand he give up preaching.

The similarities of these stories lead me to wonder if there was some influence on St. Anthony’s story from India. They aren’t the only temptations stories—there is the famous Temptation of Christ, where the devil came to Jesus in the desert, and offered him food and power and proof of his divinity. He rejects these temptations and resumes his preaching with citations from scripture. The idea, however, of being assaulted by demons does not feature in the Gospel story. Only in the stories of Anthony and Sidhartha. And the fantastic creatures are also missing. Given that what drew Lovecraft to this narrative was the image of a elephantine creature, I think the idea of a terrorizing demon serves best.

I think it’s also worth noting that the symbolism in Anthony and Buddha’s narratives paint the evils as deeply rooted in the entirety of the world–while they dwell in places of wilderness, the demons that attack Saint Anthony come from all quarters. They take the form of “baser” things–beasts, not men or scholars or intellectually cunning angels. Likewise, the daughters that approach the buddha are named for temptations, and Mara’s callings point to worldly responsibilities. One divergence I noticed is that, while both appeal to how hard the monastic life is, Mara appeals to the Buddha’s royal obligation, while Anthony has no such appeal that I could find. Perhaps because he never held any office?

Artistically, both works cited by Lovecraft have very physical, monstrous, and bodily feelings. They aren’t as abstract as Dali, but rather concrete and monstrous and menacing things. The piece by Fuseli I could find that closest fit what we have here is this one, of a snake devouring a rider. A consumptive, monstrous thing that was very much made of flesh, not dreams.

Before discussing where I intend to take this, I thought it’d be wise to mention that this is another story where the “result” is easily found in Lovecraft’s own work. Well, not his work. Chaugnar Faugn is a creature that resembles an elephant with a trunk that ends in a leech like mouth. A repulsive creature imprisoned in a statue form, or perhaps hibernating, it arrived and shaped life on this planet millions of years ago. When awake, it drains the blood of those that draw near. I haven’t read his original story—Lovecraft featured him in the Horror in the Museum, as an aside, but he comes from  Frank Belknap Long. Reading a summary the story is…bizzare, featuring strange rays that send creatures back in time, hidden cults, inorganic life, and the brothers of Chaugnar Faugn.

Our own story will of course be picking up from last time, with our artist having found the final hidden window. There are a number of strange things that might occur—the demon perhaps is literal, descending on this lonely and isolated man form the empty plains. Or perhaps it will crawl from the new window—or merely observe. Something tangible, devouring, and menacing–something there “in the flesh”. Let us see what lonely and fantastic horror awaits, next time!

Bibliography

Athanasius, St., and Robert T. Mayer. St. Athanasius: the Life of St. Anthony. Newman, 1978.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Māra.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 May 2013, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Mara-Buddhist-demon.

“The Buddha’s Encounters with Mara the Tempter: Their Representation in Literature and Art”, by Ananda W.P. Guruge. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/guruge/wheel419.html .

The Empty Windows, Part 1

This Week’s Prompt:118. Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.

The Prior Research: Through the Looking Glass

It was a special sense of space that brought me to the oriel window. Being new to the building, I had only briefly explored it’s grounds—business had kept me from being too keen on its contents and precise layout. It was a house of relative isolation, for relatively little. The benefit of buying at government auctions, there wasn’t much competitions for the place.  Its grounds were grassland, dotted with islands of white stone. If the house was swallowed up, I doubt anyone driving by would have noticed.

So I took sometime to pace about the house, and there I found it—a strange jutting balcony on the western wall. A set of windows surveyed the land—but they were impenetrable from the outside. And more worryingly, no such structure had been found on my first day inside the building. It took about an hour to find the slightly off color wall—much longer with tools to break the plaster over the heavy oaken door.

There wasn’t a handle either, but that was easy to fake. A twist and some careful strokes and the door came open on a hidden room.

It was a small room—a round balcony, with oddly spaced windows. Each of them had a curtain drawn, and a thick screen pulled over them. In between them was a desk, a chair, and an empty picture frame.

Scooting around the desk, I carefully removed the screen—and what a window was hidden by that dreadful veil! It was smooth and green tinted, and seemed to ripple in the wind. It was exquisite. And each that followed, as amazing as the last. I found crimson, azure, indigo, violet, all the many colors of the rainbow in the seven windows there. I admit, it was a bit gauche—but the light it cast on the table was fascinating. And the view of the same plains, cast in only a slightly different color, made the world of difference.

A few days later, I moved some things into the room—my old typewriter, my note books with sketches, and my personal bookshelf. Finding a place for the shelf that didn’t obstruct the inspiring windows took some effort, but I eventually managed to squeeze it across from the door way.  And then I set about writing, watching at the seas of grass shifting in the wind.

It took sometime for the first changes to be clear. I thought it was the isolation getting to me, gazing out through the windows at the grass. Surely, I was imagining shapes moving out there—a forest so verdant and lively through the green window, a rust-red desert in the red window,  a world strange and in perpetually night in the indigo one. They were faint impressions of shapes, like ripples hidden in the glass that my eye was just now noticing.

But no! I saw them, now more and more clearly. They were worlds, worlds fully formed in the windows of such graceful and alien cast.

I saw in that verdant window a country—I cannot read their script, so I called it Verta for its color. Not the most creative name, no, but it must do for now. I observed such dances and songs by their bards—silent, yes, silent yet. But they were entrancing still. They were a different sort of people than most, thin and frail looking. A strong wind would rip their limbs, I feared, a strong storm would shred and tear their wings. Even when they fought, and they fought often with gallantry and honor, they fought with rapiers and sabers and it seemed more like a delicate dance. Even the spilling of blood, who’s color seemed as green as the trees, was more enobled than dreadful. How they seemed to love and fight with a serene passion, it was wonderous. One I had named Gladwing—he was a fierce fighter, wearing a coat of arms of sorts that I’ve drawn here. He was a superb dancer as well, and truly seemed the flower of virtue—even if perhaps his people’s practice of devouring some of the dead seemed unseemly to me.

The yellow window, almost golden, presented fields of wheat for miles. Vast farms, maintained in eternal summers. Golden, blocky buildings peaked over high walls. At first they were of wood and paper, but in time they were stone to last the ages of the sun baked lands. In great chariots, pulled by creatures that were part lion and part oxen, I saw great kings and queens ride out to survey the land. They met and fought, and built great towers to commerate their battles.

And through the red window, among the long grass, I saw the domain of great giants. Twin headed giants, who discussed among themselves and between their heads often. They sat on great stones and spoke for long intervals—I imagined their tones dull and droning, even as they gestured solemnly at stars and shapes in the distance. They built great tablets, with paintings more expressive than their faces. I found it strange—they cast many images of figures with one head, but they and all life had two. I wondered if perhaps they thought of such singular purpose and thought divinity? Or perhaps each head thought itself as a singular entity, trapped without any privacy.

And then through the indigo window showed me a world stranger yet—for the grass became thick here, not grass at all. No, it became a sea, vast and inscrutable, with slow and heavy waves. Drifting overhead were islands, and icebergs rose from the tips like stones. The people here were strange, yes, but not as strange. They had camps to mine strange ore from the icebergs—often they threw from their dead from floating islands, while others wore heavy cloaks and brought nets in the sea to catch strange fish to examine.  One I noticed came frequently, examining the fish who’s skin seemed to hold lost memories and forgotten thins. I haven’t named him yet, his name is on the tip of my tongue. But I remember him clearly.

And through the violet window, a world where the dead were closer to the living—the gaping abalaster entrances and openings where shades would come to retire. The sun was dim, distant and cold. It was like a moon made more bright, shimmering just barely against the dark and perpetually cloudy sky. Familes grew around these openings—hundreds of generations in vast and ever growing mansions. Like mushrooms, they spread and sprouted out of the ground. I saw the weight of years crush and grind passions. With time, even the dead seemed to become nought but architecture, and I grew fond of a young scholar who made the study of decay her passion. I called her Morrigan, after the crow goddess, for she seemed fond of crows. Ghostly animals were herded past her house, as she entertained and wrote papers, and rode with those dead so near to dissolution.

I saw these and I wondered, at all these worlds—why would they have been hidden from the world? Why would anyone board up and bind these windows tightly? Such insight, such wonder—a man of science would find no end of discoveries with this glass, with these world’s just beyond a thin line of glass between us.

Months later, I realized that it was not just the distortion in shapes of glass—it was distortion of the light itself. My eyes, even when I wandered in the grass for fresh air, they could see the ghosts of worlds gone by. Worlds that were just slightly out of sync with my own perception. I stood beside Gladwing as he fought his dread rival, I stood on a stone to see the death blow. I sat and listened to the great two headed speakers debate on solitary summer stones. I watched the great king Orabi wrestle his opponents to the floor as I wandered through the taller grasses. I heard the lapping of the waters against the seas. How strange and beatufiul, to have such refined and sharpened vision. My eyes, adjusted to the colored lens, now saw the shining wonders everywhere.

*

Perhaps that is how it should have ended. Perhaps at last than I would have enjoyed a dream in this empty house, in this grassy sea. But the plains were wracked one night, with dreadful storms. Thunder and hail bombarded the building, keeping me up all through the night. And when it ended, I found a strange shape form the outside of the house. Atop the old balcony, broken a bit now, was a wooden covering. I had taken it to be a nothing more than a ceiling—but from the ground I saw the sun shine down. And reflect off the dark and smooth  shape of a hidden window of darkest black, resting atop the ceiling.


I’m afraid even with my brief break I ran out of time to flesh this idea out in full. Instead, I’ll leave it here—and return to it after next weeks research!

Through the Looking Glass

This Week’s Prompt: 118. Something seen at oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house.

The Resulting Story:The Empty Windows, Part 1

I think Mr. Lovecraft must have had a strange architectural road trip, given the number of stories that have focused on being stuck in a home and seeing horrible monsters and sights—and checking his timeline, March 1924 was when he moved in with his girlfriend to New York. Which is around the time this prompt is recorded.

Unlike the last few times of circling haunted houses and locked basements, I thought I would look into the specific nature of windows. Windows in many places act as points of entry for unbidden and unwanted spirits. Vampires and foul creatures fly into the homes here, and so they are often critical to protect. Some examples of strange windows that I found include a common architectural design in Vermont, the witches window.

This window, placed at an angle, was supposedly used by witches to fly out of…or to remove coffins from the second story. The windows are placed at an angle, to catch a witch flying—she can’t enter, because the windows would catch the broomstick. This example might be catch Lovecraft’s eye, given his interest in architecture and witches and New England. The validity of such a window being ‘to catch witches’ seems…unlikely, given that it is not the only window in the house. Likewise, a coffin going up the stairs is unlikely—it seems more likely a  body would be brought be back down.

A more fearsome example would be Black Annis—a hag, with a blue face and iron claws. Black Annis was known for eating pets, children, and sheep. She was entirely nocturnal, and would no doubt be a terrifying and fearsome creature. Except she had a habit of grinding her long, white teeth against each other.  This gave everyone time to bolt their doors and run inside—and in fact, windows in the area are too small for the hag to enter. Fire was often located near the windows for the same intention, as when fire was too far from the window she would reach in and steal children. And if both of these failed, the grinding could be heard from five miles away—giving time for farmers to place herbs and skins over the windows

A more fantastic story comes from Grimm. There once was a princess who every day would visit the top of a tower with twelve windows to look through.  From these windows she could see anything in the kingdom. From the first window, she could see more distinctly than any other human in the world. Further, each window made her window sharper and sharper until the twelfth window. Being a haughty princess of such supreme skill, she insisted that she would be married to no man unless he could hide from her view—and further, that if a man should try to hide and fail, he would be beheaded and his head stuck on a pike. Ninety-nine men took such a risk, and lined the castle walls.  Three brothers decided to try their luck. The first hid in a limepit and…well, was found instantly, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The second hid in a cellar was seen from the second window, beheaded, and stuck on a pike. The youngest begged that he be given three chances instead of one—and he was so handsome and charming, that the princess agreed to his terms.

The brother meditated on how to succeed, and thinking of nothing else he went hunting. He spied a raven, raised his gun, and was about to shoot. The raven cried out that he would help the youngest brother if he was spared.  He went down to a lake saw a large fish—and the same scene repeated. And so on with a fox.

The next day, he set out to hide—and asked the Raven for help. And the raven thought for a time, and opened up an egg shell, and placed the youth inside it. And this went well—it took the princess until the eleventh window to see him. And she had the raven shot and warned the man that he had two more chances.

Then the man went to the fish. The fish swallowed the man and went to the bottom of the lake, and there hid from the princess. And this time, it took until the twelfth window for the princess to spot him. And she had the fish killed, and warned the youth again. One more chance, she said—no doubt nervous—that he had one more attempt.

And then the man went to the fox. The fox took the man to a spring, and bathed in it’s waters—and became a stall-merchant. The youth washed himself, and became a sea hare. And the merchant that was a fox took the hare that was a youth and displayed him to the whole town. And the beauty of the youth was carried over to the hare, and all the town came to see—including, in time, the princess. And the fox warned the youth—when she goes to look at the window, climb into her braids.

In case, like me, you’d imagined a sea hare as an adorable fish-bunny.

The princess did buy the sea hare, and took him up to the tower. And as she failed to see him in every window, she slammed the window shut with so much force that it broke every one of the windows and shook the castle. Feeling the sea-hare in her hair, she tossed it in a rage and shouted for it to get out of her sight. So the hare that was the youth obliged and ran back to the merchant that was a fox—and the two became themselves again. And the youth thanked the fox, that he truly knew how to hide. And came home, married the princess, and became king. Never once did he tell her how he accomplished all of this, so she believed he had done so by his own talents and respected him. A rather dastardly end, I suppose.

The Formorians, who’s king Balor had a baleful eye.

A few stories from Ireland caught my attention with windows when I went digging. Some are versions of stories I’m unfamiliar with—such as suggesting that Balor gained his evil eye from witnessing the creation of a poison by sorcerers through a window. The witnessed poison infected Balor’s eyesight. A host of dreadful monsters likewise seeks to enter homes through the west windows—ones that may be the restless and numerous dead or something far worse, depending on the origin. These Sluagh resemble great hosts of blackbirds, and seek at night to steal the souls of the dead before last rites. They were sometimes once people, sometimes merely monstrous fae. Their battles caused not only terror, but death and plague—they might sweep a mortal up with them to sow havoc and despair throughout the land. Clearly, not guests one wants to receive.

I know there is also a tale from Lorraine, France of a window that holds victims still…but sadly, I cannot find a translation of the story to know much beyond that (and I know that only from the myth motif index. That said, I think we have quite a bit to work with here. A window is something that lets eyes in and out, and has all the implications of ‘witnessing’ that implies.  And given the imagery of the prompt—an oriel window, looking out and over a plain, a street, or something else from above—I think that is the crux of the story. Something our narrator has witnessed.

Perhaps it is another place—another time. An alien world or a past time or something else that leaves a ghastly impression. The house or room sits on the edge and only the window can see into the other side. I have not yet read House on the Borderlands, but that seems a wide space to explore. The Aleph, by Borges, delves into the power to view far away vistas and strange places deeply.

There is of course the idea that seeing something changes you—that perhaps seeing something lets that thing see you. That vision is a two way process, and while God may have shut the door…perhaps he opened the wrong window. Things seeping in, leaking in through a window from the beyond seems like a fascinating story in it of itself.  

Windows are ways to observe the world, and I am fascinated by the idea of a set of windows that show something or somewhere more precisely—allowing one to see new and strange vistas, each it’s own little story. That concept is perhaps too long for what we are given here, but perhaps for another time.

Bibliography

Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

“Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare.” Grimm’s Household Tales, Volume 2/The Sea-Hare – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Grimm’s_Household_Tales,_Volume_2/The_Sea-Hare.

Noyes, Amy Kolb. “What’s The History Of Vermont’s ‘Witch Windows’?” Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public Radio, 2017, http://www.vpr.org/post/whats-history-vermonts-witch-windows.

Religion, / Atlantic. “’Sluagh Sidhe’ and ‘Hidden Folk’ – the Host of Souls.” The Atlantic Religion, 9 May 2014, atlanticreligion.com/2013/08/17/sluagh-sidhe-and-hidden-folk-the-host-of-souls/.

Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Kessinger Pub., 1999.

The Family Business

This Week’s Prompt: 117. A secret living thing kept and fed in an old house.

The Prior Research: The Beast Must Feed

My childhood was blessed. While my older brothers had inhabited more of my father’s industrial, entrepreneurial spirit of wanderlust, I was more than happy to be at home with my mother and my tutors. When they returned there would be festivities, with stories of extravagant parties that my mother hushed or amazing sights that she loved. And I would keep rapt attention, because despite all the comforts they provided, I still did not know what the family business was.

I attended school with other boys and girls, who all had homes of equal splendor. And while children do not often discuss the finances of their mothers and fathers, I was a keen young man. I learned, with time, the signs of every source of revenue. The ones who owned farmland were concerned with bad storms—even if they themselves never tilled it. The ones who’s ships sailed the seas went on long voyages, yes, but were superstitious about weather and returned always with exotic gifts. And drank. Often.

Those who owned mines often had some piece from their mind on hand, and talked often of good fortune and a sense for things. Vinters always wished to own a bottle of the land they had. Those who squeezed money from houses often had exceptionally wealthy tenants over for dinner or lunch. Bankers, lawyers, and bueracrats often met at each other’s homes, their children becoming somewhat familiar. With this accumulated second hand knowledge, I strained to review what work my family did.

It was quite profitable work, whatever it was. I wanted for nothing, except perhaps company. Whatever it was, it required a good deal of travel. Some of my brothers, I recognized the signs of sea trade. Others vinters, others wandering merchants without any interest in particular wares. But despite my observations and innocent questions during celeberations, the beating heart of the family was still obscured.  

I had hoped to gain some understanding from my father, when he lingered in the house. Sometimes he would have an accountant over for dinner to discuss matters of business—but never what business. Only that this and that deposit was in order, that this and that would be available then. Where theses sums came from, no, never. Not a word.

That was, until one summer morning. My mother woke me early, my grumbling bringing more sure shaking of me awake.

“Get dressed. Today is a very important day.” She said quietly, perhaps earnestly afraid of startling me. I yawned and looked up in confusion.

“What’s today?” I asked, my tired mind cycling through a calendar of tests and holiday’s and appointments.

“Today is the day you’re father is taking you to work.”

I wore my finest clothes. We rode on two fine horses for two days—up into the hills, where our old family estate was. We rode through fields I had seen from my window and woods my brothers hunted foxes in. I never had the taste for hunting, it was a cruel and one-sided game. At the least, hunting a boar or bear in the older days put one at risk. What might a fox do to a rich man surrounded by friends? Bit him with needle teeth?

We spent our first night in a traveling house in the woods. The innkeeper, a smiling woman who’s eyes never fully opened and exuded a warmth that reminded me of freshly cooked sweets, was familiar with my father. Despite their difference in character, they greeted each other like old friends. She smiled at me, and spoke to me.

“Oh and look at how big he is! Are you sure he’s not your brother?” She said, patting my shoulders and laughing. “Still, not too big for chocolate I hope, I’ve some homemade—let me go get it for you, you’ll love it.”

My father waited patiently for her to return. Not one word until she returned with some slightly mishappen sweets.

The room was smaller than mine at home, even smaller since it was shared. My father removed an old book to read and sat in the corner, a pair of half-mooned glasses from his suit. I had tried asking questions—where we were going, what was expected of me when we got there, who we might meet with, what we might see. But he stayed silent, reading his book through the night.

I had studies to do. I sat at the desk, facing into the darkness of the woods, reading my book. Looking up, I thought I saw a fox, staring at the window with envy from the underbrush. And then it was gone.

The next day’s ride was deeper into the woods—past people who stared at strangers, but averted their eyes when I glanced at them. Carts heavy with logs passed us by—one seemed intent on running us off the road, hurtling down towards us. I pulled horse to the side, but my father stayed still and resolute—and sure enough, the blind horse slowed. Perhaps the driver, face red and eyes glaring, lost his nerve and pulled the reigns while I was not looking. Perhaps my father new some trick with horses. The attempt wasn’t a surprise to him.

Despite being our ancestral home—the home my great-great grandfather had built by hand, using only local lumber—I had never been to this wood. The trees felt familiar, probably because they were kin to the hunting forests of my brothers.  The stone paved road wound its way through ancient trees—a mighty expense, for only one home. Even overgrow with moss and cracked with roots, the stones shone in the sunlight like a river.

The silence my father had as  we rode up the hill stifled any wonder the sights could have presented. At last we came to the end of the road—an iron wrought gate, with a heavy chain around it and verdigrised lock.

“We walk the rest of the way.” My father said, his voice sudden as he came down from the horse. “Not much farther now.”

I was too stunned to ask what he meant. He pulled his coat up,and opened the gate with a small silver key.

We walked a bit farther. Maybe it was a mile. And then it appeared, like a storm suddenly rising on the horizon.

Peeling paint and plaster revealed the brick and stone work below. The roof had a faded coat of arms on it, five flowers blooming in a star. A pair of knights reclined at either side, their spears ready to defend the door. Ivy encrusted lions flanked the stair case, to the heavy, oaken door. Wrapped around it too was a heavy chain, with a shining silver lock. My father wordlessly produced a small gold key—one that seem bent and twisted. But the lock opened with a click, and the heavy chain was removed.

My father ignored my inquiries—what work brought us to such a decrepit house, even if it were our own? There were no clients, no offices, no way of attracting patronage. He merely gestured I follow into the dust and cobweb strewn house.

The distance between doors stretched farther than between our home and the iron gate. The silence was so heavy, it was as if a third had joined our party. Their footsteps interjected between the creaking of old panels, the sigh of slanting supports and tarnished silver. They kept pace with my father, and his occasional mumble or murmur—only faintly made out as ‘a little further yet’—were always to this unseen third. Never to me.

Until we came to the basement door. The chain of silver around the handle, free of times touch, seemed unreal amidst the decay. My father paused, a crude iron key in his palm.

“I think its time we talked business.” He said, turning to me. I nodded silently. Words would not come to me at the sudden focus.

“Down there…down there’s the real family business.” He said, pointing with the key. “And it’s all going to be yours. Your brothers, they’ve got a knack for the little stuff. For wandering and buying and selling—they’re good at what they do. But without what’s down there, it’d all have fallen apart a long time ago.”

The door rattled violently. My father glanced over as I started back.

“I’m going to open the door. Someone is going to fall down the stairs.” He said, turning back to the door. “Whoever it is, they won’t come back home. “

“Wait, what do you—” I started before he held his hand up.

“Who ever doesn’t fall down the stairs is going to travel around for a bit. Maybe go and drink themselves silly.” He said slowly. “Then go home and tell your mother that something terrible happened—like what I told my mother. And what I guess my father told my grandmother. And then, they’ll spend a year doing…whatever it is. And then they’ll come back here, with someone else, and someone else will fall down the stairs.

“And if no one falls down the stairs,” He said, seeing the dawning horror in my eyes. “Then things will fall apart. Money will dry up, fortune will twist and bend, and whatever’s down there will get hungry. Some families, they make their fortune off the sweat of a worker or the blood of a farmer, the tides of the sea. We make ours, our business, with these stairs. And when we can’t have enough of it anymore, and we find someone else to take on the job…well. This is where we exit.”

He turned back to the door.

“I’m going to open the door. And someone is going to fall down those stairs. Only one person will know if they were pushed.”

He reached down. The lock clicked open. A noise was made, like a howling wolf. Teeth and eyes were seen shining in the dark. Was there one figure, bent over in the darkness, mishappen claws peeking into the light? Were a hundred eyes owned by a singular mass? Or was the darkness filled by a hundred hungry limbs?

My father’s body struck the floor with a dull thud. The doors were slammed shut. The locks were clicked shut. I found my way in silence.


I like the basic premise of this story–I’m not sure it quite works, and probably the twist is a bit predictable. But overall, I’m happy with it. A good one to revisit on the Patreon. I’ll add in more links about current events when I get a better handle on them. Until then, next time! We see strange images from a different old manor!