A Harrowing of Words

posted Friday, 24 August 2007
A collaboration with Paul Bradshaw…over and over it went. The sun stung the cold sides of the toppling thing, sending out gold rays. It seemed impossible to stop. Impossible not to be scared of its obvious point. But was there the danger of rolling off into eternity and back again? The hill was steep, the air sharp … the colours intensive as they whirled around its prong.

It finally came crashing to a halt in the side of a ship.

From the top of the hill the land-locked onlookers read and re-read the groundswell of its thoughts. Thoughts as alien to them as the name on the ship’s side—Queen Of These Dreadful Rivers—though these words failed to indicate the true meaning of thoughts embedded in the sea-steeped cross-grain. The name was merely that—a name.

Like children are called something.

Yet true names start deeper than that.

On the bridge a captain stood in a tall hat. He scowled as the hull stove in. The exact point of impact was between the e and a of Dreadful—a knot of wood punched through by the sharp collision.

The crew—all the robots, anyway, set to … in an attempt to repair the hole in the hull, while the humans created a carnival of carnivores in the galley.

Seven times they had rolled; rolled down the rivings of dream, rolling down a rolled up newspaper of rivers and rollicking towards the star-spangled banner of the sun.

At the end, there was no point to it. So there was no need to wind up the ultimate robots of all—readers. Well, you landlubbers had to be called something or other, didn’t you?—consciousness or not.

Over and over and over the hills and far away…

And then, atop the mentioned hill, there appeared the Frustrated Writer, clinging to an expression of impure horror. His nostrils aquiver and his brain oozing ideas for Storylines (not good ones), he dropped the wheelbarrow handles and gazed at the dreamy river, and in particular the oh-no-it’s-the-end-of-the-world sight of the punctured vessel. He emitted a scream of much shrillness and chagrin, and the chorus of Readers immediately stopped reading each other’s clothing and directed their word-swarmed eyes to the hapless figure at the hill’s summit.

“Look at that man!” one of them cried, his eyeballs popping in an agog manner.

“Yes,” another onlooker called, a female in a fashionless beanie hat. “But he has no words upon his clothing!”

And so, abandoning him like a ship in distress, they resumed their attentions on the robotic crew, searching for logos upon their non-human limbs and torsos and heads and exposed mechanical genitalia. Anything worthy of a good (or bad) read.

The Frustrated Writer, unpublished, a literary virgin, started up the chase, letting loose his position on the hill’s edge. Like a diabolical ski-freak, he found himself free-footing down the steeply slope, cursing like someone terrified (which perhaps he was). His legs were hopping around frog-like, knee-scabs kissing his beard as they spluttered absurdly, like pistons of flesh and trousers. He then lost his equilibrium. Over and over he tumbled, smashing his bones upon the incline, until he discovered lots of new bruises at the foot of the hill.

Because of the fuss, the Readers stared, like hawks observing a desert of dust. Even the android sea-lubbers looked up, synthetic minds introducing figures and co-ordinations and instructions so confusing that madness threatened.

The Frustrated Writer marched over to the Queen Of These Dreadful Rivers (now quickly re-named Queen Of These Drdful Rivers). A turmoil came into his head, shoving his pathetic ideas and Storylines to one dark side. His ire boiled over as the truth sunk in. His sentence had fallen out of the wheelbarrow, toppled down the hillside, and crashed into the ship’s hull like an erection into custard.

“My poor sentence!” he yelled. “My story will make no sense at all without this vital collection of words.”

He then became overwhelmed with grief, and gaped out at the Alphabet River, all the letters, both vowels and consonants, lower and upper case, mingling together in a swirl of eddying, alphabetical spume. He noticed lost alphabets, Greek and Phœnecian, hieroglyphics and Mayan glyphs, Rongorongo and Japanese kanji, and even undeciphered scripts from Mars, Pluto and Saturn, supposedly non-existent but alarmingly evident in this foaming flow of chaotic text. He realised that there would be no way of finding his lost sentence among all this bric-à-brac of universal symbols. Even the naval robots were having difficulty in locating the absent e and a from the ship’s name.

He uttered an expletive, the vowel i interspersed with the consonants h, t and s, in a jumbled fashion. He considered the rest of the story, sitting in the wheelbarrow at the top of the hill, baking in the sunshine. A literary blasterpiece. Hell became a lot closer at this point. When he retired for the night, he naturally removed his teeth. So, waking up, sheet-tossed and sweaty, he was perturbed at finding more than a tongue inside his mouth. Crammed up against his familiar gums were words which felt like real teeth (as far as he could remember from his youth). Two were particularly protrusive—and sharper than new pins.

Eventually, with growing alarm, he wondered how it was possible to be so coolly detached when faced with such a dreadful mouthful. Indeed, he had been studiously describing his own predicament, as if he were in a story.

But it now slowly dawned on him that this was real. Too real for comfort.

The room was dark. Too dark. Too dark for death.

He fumbled beside him in the bed to reach the comforting shape of the book he had dropped (upon dropping off himself)—and felt something that was not a book nor even unwritten (nude) words … nor the bedroom wall—unless, of course, the wall was made of words.

He flailed to the other side—with more deliberation this time to find some semblance of semantic texture—and, yes, though he still felt words they had more meaning this time. A cross between words and a wall—as if barely substantial wood had seeped through the cracks and made it imaginatively firmer.

Indeed, underneath him were words that held him up. And above, too—a ceiling so close, he could feel its damp surface with his nose. He gingerly touched a single word with his so-called teeth. He snarled, as he tried to gouge slots into the grain of words. Jawfuls of word-pulp. Part of him panicked. Another part still coolly detached. Frustrated writer, he might have been, but he was no ordinary chip off the writer’s block

However, he used to be an ordinary man. A straight-up-and-down cove who liked nothing better than playing cards. Thus, the fact that he was now buried alive in words was furthest from his thoughts. Not in a sane world, surely. If he were dead, he were dead. Writers could not possibly mistake death for something else. Unheard of.

But why did he possess more deep-thinking now than before? He didn’t mind betting it was all a dream dredged from somebody else’s dreadful riverbed of creativity. Some godawful nightmare. But why couldn’t he wake up? Perhaps because he was sharing this dream with a partner in ‘crime’, someone who refused to wake up because the words meant more during sleep than otherwise.

He tried to pinch one hand with the other. A finger and thumb on his left hand took a wad of flesh just below the knuckles of the right hand and squeezed it unmercifully. He shrieked in pain. But shrieks in such a closed environment did not sound like shrieks, but rather moans and groans.

He was a cross between a King and a Knave.

Or, rather, a frightful contamination of writer and reader, having found a window in the wall of words through which they could take frustrations out on (or from) each other. But windows—are they what they seem to be? He peered closely, nose twitching. Things didn’t appear to be as they should. It was almost … fictional.

“Am I asleep and in a dream?” he asked his befuddled, word-swarmed mind. “Or am I asleep in a story?”

It was difficult to distinguish. Yet that window—it wasn’t a window at all. No glass, no smear of bird-shit, no flowery curtains (the ugly kind). Not even a soft-tiny computer logo engraved in the corner like a security device.

It was more like … a door?

Yes! A door! Ajar and in mid-creak, and with a face, hideous and uninspiring. The Frustrated Writer observed, shivering beneath the sheets of the bed, trapped in an alphabetical smorgsasbord. A capital Q dropped from the ceiling and hit him on the head. He yelped like a doctored dog. He hated the unsightly squiggle that hung like a wad of snot from the said capital. He also hated the sight of his repellent spouse, whose features shadowed the entrance to the bedroom.

“Why can’t you get a proper job?” screamed Mrs FW, nostrils glaring. “All this writing, all these words. It’ll get you nowhere. Rejection slips won’t pay the bills! We want food on the table, not reams and reams of paper. All those tortured trees…”

But the Frustrated Writer wasn’t listening. Inside his head, word-worms were wriggling, loony-letters squirming around, whipping up sentences which vanished as soon as they appeared, constantly replaced by new ones, in real worm fashion.

“And I’m going to sell that wheelbarrow!” continued Mrs FW.

The Frustrated Writer managed to catch (if slightly misspelt) the word ‘wheelharrow’ in his cricket-glove of a brain, even as the word-worms writhed, words appearing like fairies in a wonderland. He recalled the story—it all came back to him. Or was it a dream? Same thing, really. Stories, dreams. Dreams, stories. The same, only different.

He tossed away the sheets, exposing his sweat-stained night attire and his story-like dreams. Like a romping baby he scrambled across the letter-strewn covers, catching his toe in the loop of an a, shaking it to freedom, cutting his finger on the point of a V, droplets of claret dripping on to misformed words (like the Countdown conundrum before it’s been guessed). They were all there—the triangles and loops, horizontals and perpendiculars, upper and lower case, i dots and l erections. But then he saw light. Light! A window. A genuine, grime-and-dust window, shit-free and glazed double (almost like his eyes).

Outside he noticed faces looking in. Nondescript, yet focused, eyes alert. Readers. And beyond them, a hill. A river. A ship, damaged. And a wheelbarrow, perched at the hill’s summit.

“Lots of letters in there,” said one reader. “Pity they don’t make much sense.”

“Not much on his night attire either,” said another. “Stripes are so very hard to read.”

Yes, it all came back to him. His lost sentence, floating along the Alphabet River, streaming like flotsam. It was impossible to be coolly detached in these circumstances, as he scratched his fingernails upon the crushing walls around him, scraping away loose consonants like mud off a shovel. Outside he noticed the sea-faring robotic figures, scratching their solid heads, searching for thoughts. He almost considered joining the ranks, and becoming a reader-rather-than-a-writer, but then, amazingly, a shrill voice swam through the glass, causing him to look through the window, in search of the perpetrator. A gorgeous woman, waif-like and absorbing, dainty lips and murderous eyes, a waist that could stop a male heartbeat. She appeared to be miming, like a bad actress in a foreign B-movie, her words penetrating the pane and drifting over to his fearsome ear crevices.

“I have news of your sentence,” she whispered.

The Frustrated Writer was so dumbfounded he could feel the draught from her fluttering eye-lashes. B-movie girl, he wished she had big boobs just like that B—and horizontal rather than perpendicular. He scratched his head. Recurring words made a most beguiling sense: unreachable whilst strangely meaningful. Still, this creature was the dreamboat of his dreams—bar the breasts.

Something may come from this ultimate jeu de cartes trick of all. His sweetheart Queen, his lady love ……. but then, slowly as his now own fluttering eyelash echoes travelled from the waspish waist towards her nether regions, he eventually realised that she had (like a picture playing-card) a second head instead of legs—the spitting image of Mrs FW, the erstwhile spurious spouse, the empty boil-cores of her riven cheeks now laced with wordworms, and barnacles leeched to the suppurating surface of the neck. A river of teardrops cascaded like molten teeth, whilst the teeth proper were writ over with semantic plaque.

Talking about plaque, the Frustrated Writer had always hoped he’d be famous enough for a blue one on his house. His mind was so torn between beauty and vileness, the words that covered the window (mercifully hiding the B-movie’s lower case but, sadly, also its upper waif) was now crawling all over with an inarticulate plague of languages: ÜppÏÏ Øriìÿ Ürzx…

He couldn’t write them quick enough … for fear of the frustrations being inflamed by the scratching of the raging sores of the two-headed reader beyond this window of windows. As they say, though, most people have a good side … but a good end?

The words in his head had now started eating his brain. He felt them like unscratchable itches, but worse. Simply that.

Words are names by another name and true names eat deeper than imagination. We writers are nothing but a robot reading another robot that is itself—until, along an endless river of sweat, over and over it went: a dreadful sentence.


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