A Sort Of Runic Rhyme

A collaboration with Rhys Hughes

Mannaz, the logic-souper, travelled the land in search of a bowl to hold his soul. And, once, within a grated house, he passed through kitchens measureless to manservants. He simmered with spite upon seeing a swarthy toad that sported an apron stained with spicy sweat: evidently the inventor-cook of gunpowder who had mixed the charge that blew its master’s palate off … later confessing it couldn’t see what all the fuse was about.

“Hiss, bubble, glooop!” … words cried forth from the crier’s culinary glossolalia. A white hat, far taller than the wearer, was a veritable castle-keep around which the steams curled … and the selfsame toadish wearer touched the strings of Mannaz’s lute, taut as cheesewires. “Glub!”

“No,” replied Mannaz, “I don’t slice parsnips.”

But he meant celery. Forsaking any further attempt to get the words right, he stepped through the open window and found himself in the midst of a garden-party. Chambermaids pranced. “Goats and Monkeys!” he cursed, weaving between steaming soup-tureens. In all directions, girls and boys of various cheer rotated or slept.

“Where have all the flowers gone?” enquired a girl with kissable lips. Her look implied that she had just woken up via various steps of eyelid-pouting dream.

“Beneath the mountainous corpses,” drawled a gloomier one.

The kissable girl blinked at Mannaz and said: “Who is going to intiate me in the secret ways, promised when I was enticed hither?”

“I’m uncertain if you’re ripe enough for such a beginning, upstart!” said Mannaz.

“Then try me!” And she spread her legs so that Mannaz could view what required educating. Better than any swarthy toad’s soup, without the need to go back and compare certainties, he thought. His scrimshaw boner was too obvious to conceal, so he prepared himself for the task in hand. He hoped to rub off on her with an irony steamier and tastier than most hot ore.

Valets came to drag him away, shutting him into a prison. He relaxed as they closed the heavy door, closed his eyes, thought of them closing that heavy door, and silently closed waking’s shutters as he slept on a cold earthen floor – only to dream he was snoring loudly through closed nostrils.

There was a demon giant in one dream who had a girl’s arms and hands.

“What small arms you have!”

“All the better to juggle with.”

“What gentle hands you have!”

“All the better to strum with.”

Mannaz’s snores sounded like laughter. He knew he had met the giant in a different form amid waking reality – but this dream showed the giant in its true form, a feat only possible assuming it were a dream that was being dreamed as if dreamed by a squirrely abbot who had studied the collected ontologies of existence’s kernel rather than as if dreamed by a logic-souper such as Mannaz. Furthermore, the giant’s skirt was a vast wrap-around tapestry which was tougher and coarser than prison walls…

…to which Mannaz returned upon waking up.

He ignored the heavy door of thunder-struck iron and – with the sardonic aid of his crooked shadow’s smouldering eyes – scorched his way out through the wall of the prison tent.

He found himself in the heart of a battle. A local war, one that was scheduled to last three weeks, clattered its seventeen centuries around his ear-lobes. Its spoils of mortality had been mammoth, shocking even the most warlike. And to this spot Mannaz had followed the kiss-girl across the continents, which had not been easy for him as he toted a totem that had been skulking under the giant’s skirt, one with a runic message cut into its length which lessened his load – but not by much.

Indeed, his body bent under its burden bit by bit. The message was a spell of peace, if indeed the wenching Mannaz could follow sufficient to find.

His crooked shadow – some have called it a gospeller, others a simple narrator, others a storyteller whose narrator has a competing tale to tell, others a bibliophile, others a chess maestro, others a saint – prayed his owner’s journey never to end, since inevitable failure would mean despair.

Despite this, Mannaz tried to break his thoughtful shadow at its weakest point against a rock. But his muscles wrung: fossilised and veined with rivulets of cobalt frost. His head, with wrinkled brow and flapping ears, was elephantine, filled with thoughts of having juggled with tureens on days off and with women when asleep.

The now even more crooked shadow offered some advice: “I’ve heard this war leads to steps that give access to other worlds. You must slide down the bannister and thus outdistance your pursuer.”

Mannaz frowned. Was he not the pursuer himself and where were the steps, where the bannister? His frown was dark, and he made black bread of his shadow’s holy host, as was his yeasty wont at the darkest times, and dipped it into the luminous broth of his logically mismatched machinations.

Treading the path of such visible taste, there emerged the girl, that wench of unquenched kisses, one after whom even love lusted.

“I am your tree, I am your totem,” Mannaz thought he was certain he mumbled.

The crooked shadow mock-mouthed the same message before shuffling off unseen into other shades of thought, whilst Mannaz followed the shapely figure – beside leaning wigwams, amid a maze of unlit trenches, beneath black-bleached orchids, across the fuzzy breath-marks of bleary beasts and up a sooty slope that ended in groping white-out … eventually reaching a square of renewed darkness which was a doorway to a canvas-walled castle wherein resting warriors on stained couches feasted from tureens. As for Mannaz, he could not rest or, if he could, only piecemeal. Indeed, his dreams were excerpts, concerning chambermaids or swarthy toads or…

But Mannaz’s mind tried to emulate its owner’s crooked shadow by assuming absence, to relieve Mannaz of suffering and sorrow – through which much of Mannaz’s life had already dragged – but, of course, absence of any emotions entailed absence of all emotions, including Mannaz’s favourite one: joy, an emotion which was even preferable to love in his book, as love often became a pea-souper of missed chances, recrimination and frustration whence he rarely found himself whole again.

Whilst his mind was thus preoccupied, Mannaz had arrived at a castle room with the words HALL OF UNADULTERATED REST sewn into a billowing sign. A palliasse here, he thought, would suit a real treat – and he squinted up at smaller stitches saying ‘Genuine Rust Purveyors and Dream Removers’.

Inside the room, a soup-seer greeted him morosely: “I’m going to make something of you, indeed I shall bestew a soul with your thoughts.”

The stove threw a tiny flickering shadow of the speaker’s nose on the tattered ceiling, the ghost of a butterfly-kite.

Mannaz decided not to react straightaway. He felt it important to gain his bearings, giving vent to potential thoughts, thus:

“I was born this day some forty odd years ago. I lived a simple life, each year dovetailed to the next. The people passing through my life appeared blinkered – perhaps that’s why I kept to the sidelines. However, some caught me in the glare of their eyes and, of those, some loved me, others not. A few even hated me. Some I loved, others not. I hated none of them. Crystallising the man I surely am is more difficult than merely looking in the mirror at the reflection which happens to be there…”

The soup-seer, having been entranced by Mannaz’s saying of sooths, stoked the stove-embers, made shadows of shadows and proceeded to stir the cauldron above the rekindled wings of flame. Then turning to Mannaz, he asked him what would happen if reflections were black or were eaten by solar flares or cut by political chisels into the door of the latest shadow cabinet. He asked how flat Mannaz would feel if he were a mirror.

“Well,” said Mannaz, “what’s done is double do-able. The crooked man plays chess without rooks. The girl is deflowered and strewn on dead people’s graves. And knowledge has escaped into dreamerless dreams…”

Through the roof-gape swooped parrots, strings of chillies dangling from their beaks. Another ethnic restaurant had been raided, He glanced up, saw angels dying downward, mortals dying up, both believing there was a tandoori cadavery midway. Tonight, he would eat in, he decided. Or else have oven-ready irony and aviary-nest soup.

“Well,” Mannaz said, “what’s done was never done, what’s known never known and what’s dreamed never dreamed – or else!”

He wandered from the crooked castle and into a wood. Heliographs flashed sunlight through the trees. Squirrels leapt, cutting the signals. He guessed the received messages would be dangerously inaccurate. How many wars had been generated by this crude form of communication? It appeared that precision was not a prime concern of the region’s lords. Mead and anvils were all they cared about; the former to kill toothache; the latter to give birth to swords.

As for Mannaz, love and lutes were all he cared about; the former to kill loneliness; the latter to give birth to words.

It might be best to seek work in a larger, more thriving castle. He soon found an example the size of a town. In a souk, feeling sick, he reeled from stall to barrow until, stalled outside one burrow, tent of the unreal, he watched men and women with jealous eyes enter and leave. He pressed back the flap and looked inside where a ugly parrotter squatted over a box and threw words into a shaft of light: “Anything a customer needs!” Thin as a silk cloak, the parrotter tugged his woolly beard.

Mannaz exchanged his turtle-lute (which, at some unknown point in his memory, had once been the rune-etched totem he toted) for a single try: opened the lid and thrust in his hand. “The favours of a girl’s fiery kisses,” he cried, “the fire of five hundred gems, the flavours of a flightless dove!”

The parrotter shook his head and uttered a groan. “Those are the things you want, not what you need.”

Mannaz groped for a while and pulled out a second turtle-lute of inferior workmanship, with cheesewires upon which were threaded diced celery and small pieces of meat. The result was the basted son of his skewered lunch. “Shish!” he grumbled.

Granted a second apocryphal try, he pulled out a yew-patterned soup-bowl whence he deduced he was no legendary hero after all. Indeed, had he but known, his tardy godhood was the subject of ontological jokes amid the gildenspires of Acadreamia. Yet – the bowl was not a bowl but a skull, one that was patterned both in and out. Surely, the scratches inside were runes, devices stolen from an ancient bone totem, a totem which bore, inter alia, a title on its spine…

Mannaz knew that such a book was made from woven textures fluttering in the oasis winds. He played leapfrog lobotomy, became someone else; he guessed that death and sex were two sides of the same tossed coin. In his new guise, the coin had landed on its edge and the mirage in the bowl reflected the Unreal City, billowing on a hill that overlooked the Shift of Steps. And those citizens thereof who were under the suzerainty of sorrowful dreams dreamed at last of escaping such dreams by merely hoping.

“Hope,” said an ancient woman he vaguely recognised, one with dried-out kisses on her lips, “is the thing you need, not what you want.” And she indicated a castle (whereon a rook roosted): the whole castle being a single canvas tower with, hung from its central totem tent-pole, a man in his cups. His eyes, if not himself, watched the citizens digging holes for sandcastles…

Mannaz shattered the bowl.

He needed a job and, in the castle town, there were vacancies reaping prisoners-of-war. Scythe-blades were sharpened, poles lashed to the spokes of a waterwheel. The tapestry in the great hall made a fine conveyor-belt, stretched around the windlasses of two wells. One at a time, the prisoners were weighted down on the gaudy loop by pocketfuls of stones.

Mannaz sighed as the scythes rose and fell. He pulled and pushed on his handle. As the contraption bore the prisoners closer to their doom, he took a moment to study the tapestry itself. Although much faded with age the pattern was discernible. It showed peasants harvesting rye with iron sickles.

“A wry irony, eh? But ever seen a horny man impaled on his own totem?” The toadish foreman regarded Mannaz wih a sly smile. “Let me tell you what it’s like.”

Mannaz seized his chance for a non-sequitur. “My music is more captivating than that. I can strum with my tongue what other musicians cannot tickle with their toes. Give me this chance to play. You won’t deny me a proper wage when you have heard.”

The foreman pulled his warty ears. “You’ll have to repeat that. A little deaf these days. Something about a different job? We’re short of a minstrel-boiler. What can you do?”

Mannaz gulped a glub. “Sew walls.”

But the following morning he fled the castle town. On the shore of a sea, he fell asleep and woke to find himself adrift in a coracle which – he realised when sought to stand – was actually a non-stick wicker cauldron. It twirled towards a maelstrom while mosquitoes landed on his stagnant lobe, infecting him with exotic diseases.

As the whirl grew, so did Mannaz, swelling with purple boils until the cauldron no longer held him. Bigger and bigger he festered, cauldron a slipper on a foot, pus in boots. When he plunged into the eye, he was so enormous he filled it entire. Still he grew.

Reclining in his oceanic bath, he scrubbed his back with a coral reef and viewed the gargle of the plug-hole with a dry smile. Finished at last, he waded to an island of giants.

On the steepest hill, an abbey made of sleeves was being erected. Translucent silks dyed with blackberries and the blood of rotting gums made holier windows than tapestries stained with soup.

The abbot, an ex-bishop with a bulbous nose, gestured at the altar and held his mitre in place as he nodded. “We hope to create a static environment, a dusty locale where nothing will change. When I recruit enough monks, we’ll talk philosophy all day. Mead and women’s nipples will be outlawed topics. As will bone totems, etched or not.”

Mannaz wielded his tortoise-lute as if it were a priapic weapon. He laughed, suddenly ceasing the tattoo of his drumskins and the honing of his horniness. He sensed himself all over, looking down at what he had become: a black whole.

Tha abbot capered. “It was I who sent the cauldron, the soup-skull and the rare anemone in disguise. Even the contents of the sea obey me.”

Mannaz rushed out into the arms of the kiss-girl; they tasted freedom as a storm broke over the island, an island that was them. Huge droplets, distilled through wildwood canopy, fingered their energy points. The flavour was a pagan soup, like a wet oakleaf on the tongue. Afterwards, upon the crest of a wave, he managed to secure a proper job stirring the sea, mainly because, in the interview, he likened the unsloping flow of the tide to soft steps – and hard steps to corners on their sides. Despite none of it rhyming with rune, the interviewer was evidently in tune with the brand of Mannaz’s lateral thought and told him to keep stirring the sea until the sea thickened into oyster soup as the first stage in a coastal defence programme.

Although Mannaz knew little about the sea he was happy as a sandboy sailing the company dinghy and proudly wielding the ladle-oar with which he had been issued. Such a pleasant change from dry berths in land-locked oases whence he’d stumbled crookedly in fleeing the capering abbot.

Unluckily the job had side-effects. It didn’t suit his cockadilloes, even his erotic dreams beginning to involve riggers that sailed too far from the wind and tuna trawlers that had no nets nor notes and Dutch cruisers that floated netherwards – rather than dreaming of bare buxoms and black forest soups to dunk his boner.

Unknown to Mannaz, there were many more fruitful ways than one to sow a sea-wall. And, furthermore, he never received any wages, because the kiss-girl, now become a witch again, absconded with them, merely leaving a note that pyramids were ideal to keep teeth in.

He knew no longer how to cross the sea, save to employ the totem he suddenly again found upon his person. “Bone that barge, pick that nose!” he idly sang to himself as he eased the dream-trunk into the fetid waters of the cold ocean. The current was like furmity, awash with rye-husks and neap-tide raisins.

Reaching the far shore, he wiped his nose and dried his totem. Along the beach jerked a pinstripe mob of shadows, armed with newspapers and helical hats. The leader, barbarically dressed in shirt and tie, marched in a straight line, canavas umbrella held lopsided before him.

Looking closely, Mannaz saw he was blind. He seized him by the arm. “Where are you going? What do you seek? And how so straight your gait?”

The shadow scowled at Mannaz. “We are forming a movement. What does a movement do but move?” He removed his headwear. “This is our symbol. The Boweler hat. It represents movement.”

On a sudden whim, Mannaz broke the leader upon a rock-pool and began running in straight circles on the sand. Behind him, the mob of shapes fell in slag heaps, their shadowy motion no doubt carried.

As Mannaz listened to seeming silence, men upon oaken frames, with canavs wings and perforated buckets, swooped in to crop-spray the dead piles of shadow. But the leading shadow, although bent and twisted, was still alive and whimpered through its dentures: “Nature hasn’t always had an upper hand. Once this land was acres of polluted swamp and incompetent industry. But irresponsible developers planted acorns and introduced wildlife. We hope to get back to the rusty ecstasy of metallurgy and fossil-fuel extraction and dry dreams.”

“I’m looking for a paid job,” Mannaz replied, wincing as a kiteman plummetted into his lobe.

The shadow protruded its crude-oily tongue and lowered his tone a sticky pitch. “Six strings to your lute, eh? If it was twelve…” He gestured at where the kitemen rested between bouts of flying. “We like to hear the traditional numbers. Rat Stevens is my favourite. Perhaps if you play his songs twice.”

Mannaz turned away. Despite himself, his feet were tapping to the click of the shadow’s mercury fillings. Keeping time, time, time. His own tongue looped through his mouth, a kite-wing stitched from slugs and avocado skins. This was no good, so he moved on, over the tallest dune and into the very thing he sought…

The Shift of the Infinite Steps was beneath the sun’s bladder – yet, here, girls and boys wallowed in flowers, the hard edges of the steppery crooking their bare backs while straightening those that were already crooked. Mannaz both anticipated and remembered trekking up and down the steps for seeming ages and felt double his forty years … or more.

“Squirrels and Scythes!” he cursed aloud, as he inadvertently tripped over a girl with kissable lips; but not seeing her it dawned on him that the going up and the going down, as well as the waking and the sleeping, were perfectly pointless, if not edgeless. Like soft steps. And soups and souls. And shadows.

(Published ‘Ocular’ 1998)


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