There was once a land that was at war with another land

There was once a land that was at war with another land. The war had been going on for longer than anyone could remember. Every year young men and women were shipped off to fight. Those who came home returned with limbs blown off or scars that disfigured them or injuries that never fully healed despite the surgeons’ skills. In time, because the land needed people to run its factories, till the land, teach the children and do all the jobs a normal country has to do, those wounded soldiers got on with their lives as best they could. Many fell in love, set up homes together and had children themselves. But because of their own injuries, the newborn children looked different and strange to them, and many felt the children could not be theirs if they did not bear the same scars, it became common, then accepted, to change those children’s bodies to match those of their parents’.
The maimed children grew up and were also sent to the war, returning ever more harmed and disfigured and in pain. And so the cycle was perpetuated, on and on, through time.

Wild Sheep Dismayed

 

Wild Sheep Dismayed

 

There was so much to learn about life beyond the safe, predictable life behind the hedges and fences and farms that most of the escapees found themselves bewildered and disorientated. Some even chose to go back, shortly after their frenzied escape from the field on finally understanding their fate. The cold and the hunger and the fear were all too much for animals who had been reared to accept the sweet hay and sheep nuts left out for them, and the ministering of the vet when ill.

But a hardy few survived the first months beyond the confines of their former lives and those who did realised that the long term survival of the wild sheep meant sharing both knowledge and experience with newcomers, still with their wool fresh and clean and smelling of sheep-dip. If you had comrades with whom you could stand when the blizzards came, then you would not freeze to death on your hooves, and when the predators came, as they will, you can stand and face them. If you all rush as one, you will put most predators to flight by your sheer force of united strength.

For sheep are far stronger than many imagine them to be, not seeing that beneath the layer of wool and insulating fat, they are powerful beasts and capable of laying a man out with ruptured internal organs. But they are herd animals and they are happiest in a group and as time went on the escapees formed small groups that were not quite flocks. The groups had to be small for obvious reasons, because no one wanted to draw attention to themselves and be caught. Fleeces were deliberately allowed to grow green with algae, as camouflage, and instead of following paths they tried to take new routes each time so no new paths could be worn.

As time went on, new arrivals were accepted into existing groups and taught what they might safely eat, where to drink without being seen and other vital things. Some of the new wild sheep were strange looking, rare breeds and even exotic ones escaped from parks and even zoos. The only requirement to join a group of wild sheep was to declare oneself to be a wild sheep.

Once a year, around the autumn equinox, the sheep would all meet high in the mountains to discover what the year had brought each group. A great gathering of silent sheep would scare the life out of any human watching but these sheep knew how to keep their peace and as they filed into the valley a watcher might have marvelled at their numbers, and the variety of the forms the sheep took. Small ones and large ones, black ones and (greenish) white ones, piebald and grey, they came in every shade and form you could imagine. There were even plenty who everyone knew were really goats but who could scarcely be distinguished from the canny, sure-footed little sheep who grazed the mountain passes. The goats were as welcome as any.

Each group had an elected leader who spoke their year’s news and when most had spoken and the wild sheep were feeling content that their fellows were thriving, a ragged looking fellow, so thin his backbone showed through his fleece spoke up. His little band of sheep were no better than he.

Our news is not so good,” he said.

Why so? Your territory has good grazing far from people. What has troubled you?” asked another spokes-sheep.

The ragged sheep was silent for a while.

You will see that we are fewer in number than we were last year,” he said. “Shortly after our last enclave we were joined by a new sheep, fresh from the farm. He seemed as relieved as any to have escaped. He fitted in with our ways and all seemed well for a while. Then our sheep began to grow listless. To grow thin when we should have grown fat, for as you have said, we live on good land with rich grass.”

So what happened?” a small black sheep asked.

Again the ragged sheep took some time to answer.

I have only now understood what happened,” he said. “But I do not understand all of it. The new sheep….was not like any sheep I had known. He could do things I’d never seen. He could persuade you that the grass over there was better than this luscious patch of clover you had been about to eat, or that if we all went down to the road there was a load of spilled beets and carrots to enjoy. But the road is miles away and when we got there, the beets were all gone. If they had even been there. But the worst was to come. He became close friends with certain sheep; you would never seen them apart, grazing together, and slowly, his friends weakened. Some died, in their sleep; some vanished. Some we know went back to their farms. I did not understand that he could have the power to weaken the others until a dear friend of mine fell under his spell. When she became too weak to move, I found her, lying a long way from any of us. As she lay dying, her spirit broken, I made her tell me what had occurred. She had felt like she had fallen into a dream, and she would willingly give up the best grazing for her friend because he had suffered so when he was at the farm. Though our grazing is good, it is sparsely scattered and we are careful not to allow places to become obviously grazed. She would bring him the choicest of leaves and would even venture down to the farm to steal mangles and beets and carrots when he was flagging. He would talk all the time about going back to the farm, and that life out here was too hard and how he missed the life he’d led back there, and that while we would all eventually be slaughtered, better to die warm and well fed. And she would argue that living wild and free might be hard at times, but surely it was worth it to build a better life that was lived as true sheep should.”

The ragged sheep bowed his head.

I sought to find our newest sheep and found him gone before I could question him and call him to account,” he said. “I do not know where he has gone. I cannot ask why he did what he did to so many good sheep, or whether it was his intention to do so. He may have gone back to his farm, or he may be wandering to find a new flock.”

What did he look like?” asked a spokes-sheep from a little further back.

He looked just like any one of us, an ordinary sheep that has sought to be wild,” said the ragged sheep. “There was nothing to warn you. It’s not as if he was a wolf wearing sheepskin. He was just another sheep.”

So how can any of us know if he (or one like him) is among us?” demanded another sheep, her voice full of fear.

We must be vigilant and we must talk to each other,” said the ragged sheep. “Support each other, share our burdens widely. Not with just one sheep, but openly. What we have learned needs to be shared with all, but so too does what we experience. I have heard tales of vampire sheep that suck the blood of others, but these are just tales to scare the lambs into silence at night. This is far worse because you offer your strength willingly to another, believing that the other will share with you when you need it. And they do not. I would rather a ravening wolf came among us than this.”

Soberly the conclave of sheep ended and the groups dispersed as silently as they had come, each thinking hard thoughts of their own and feeling a chill like winter had come early.

Snip

 

Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

Your girlfriend?” she asked.

Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

That’s all I can do, now,” she said.

*

He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010

Stone soup

The following story is based on a dim memory of another story I read years ago and is written through my own personal filters since then.

Stone Soup

Once upon a time a large group of very different people began a long journey together. None of them were quite sure why they were making the journey but they all knew it was important; it may have been a pilgrimage, it may have been a holiday, it may even have been a diaspora. Who knows?

None of the people had had much time to pack or prepare for the journey and on the first evening as night fell, fires were lit and people settled down to rest. Tummies began to rumble and the question of food came up. No one had brought food, it seemed.

A little away from the main group of fires a man alone was tending his fire and to the surprise of everyone, he went to the stream nearby and filled a cooking pot to the brim with water and set it over the fire to heat. As the steam began to rise, he was heard muttering, “MMMmmm, soup!!”

Curious, a few people drifted over wondering what he might be cooking.

It’s stone soup,” he said when asked. “You see, I have here a stone that makes the most amazing soup. It’s an ancient magic from the time of Atlantis and I quested long and hard to find it. Anyone who owns this soup-stone will never go hungry. It’s time to put it in; the water’s about hot enough now.”

Out of his small knapsack he pulled a medium size round pebble, big enough that you could hold it in your hand but never close your fingers round it, and he dropped it with a plop into the steaming water. After a moment, he inhaled loudly.

Ooh, that smells SO good!” he said. “Doesn’t it, just? Hmm, but I do think it needs some thing else. Let me taste it. Yes, it needs a little onion.”

One of the bystanders suddenly rushed away and returned with an onion.

It was in the bottom of my bag,” she said, and the onion was duly chopped and added.

MMM,” said the man. “Smelling sooo fine now. But…” he breathed in the steam again. “I can’t help feeling it would benefit from a little bit of potato.”

Within moments another bystander had brought a large potato and was peeling it and adding it.

This is going to be such an awesome soup,” said the man. “Don’t you just smell the goodness now? Hmmm, I think it needs something….Yes, just as I thought, it needs bacon.”

Bacon was duly brought out of a bag and added.

Yummy,” said the man, tasting it. “It’s going to be superb. The stone magic never fails. I think it needs something though. Cabbage, and maybe some carrots.”

Bit by bit, the crowd grew and so too did the soup. Lentils, and beans and a host of other things were found to be lurking in people’s bags and before long the whole party were waiting and watching as the soup simmered away and the glade where they rested was filled with the savoury smell of delicious soup.

I think it’s ready,” said the man and began dishing up a few spoonfuls to each of the people in their bowls. When all had had a little, and had gone back to their own fires, he ate what remained in the pot. When he had finished, he patted his now very full tummy and sighed. The soup-covered stone waited in the bottom of the pot and he managed to get to his feet and stagger to the stream to wash it.

During the dark hours of the night, many of the travellers found they were unable to sleep well. The little soup had merely taken the edge off their hunger and most had the same thought going through their minds: If I owned that stone, I could make enough soup for me and my family and we’d never go hungry again.

Needless to say, the man with the soup-stone had little sleep that night as one by one many of the travellers crept to his bivouac and begged him to sell them the stone.

Well,” he said, in a whisper. “I might just part with it but….it will cost you all the money you have. You see, that stone would have fed me my whole life and if I sell it, I will always have to buy food again. So it’s only fair that I get a decent amount of money to compensate for it.”

Willingly, they gave him their money and in the morning, few travellers were left at the resting place and those were the ones who had not crept to the man’s bivouac. Hungry but ready to start the day, a man went to the stream to wash and ready himself for the new day ahead. As he splashed in the water, he noticed that the bed of the stream was made up of many rounded pebbles, though there seemed to be gaps where others might once have been.

That’s strange,” he said out loud. “Those stones look very like the soup-stone. I wonder where he got his from?”

Snag

 

Snag

By Vivienne Tuffnell

 

There was thunder in the air and a scent of coming rain, and as he went down the steps into the cool of the cellar bar, he had an odd sense of expectation, though he couldn’t have said why. It was just the usual post-work drink on a Friday, a couple of glasses of something cold before going home to shower and change ready for the night ahead, a demarcation point between the world of work and the real one. So he didn’t know quite why he had the feeling he might have had if he had been expecting to meet someone, when the chances were at this time, the bar would be deserted.

It wasn’t quite deserted. In the corner to one side of the door two women lurked, chatting in bored tones over white wine. He knew one of them slightly. They had history, but not the earth-shattering or even earth-moving sort, so he nodded to her curtly so she didn’t think he was ignoring her.

He was about to order a drink from the languid and damp-looking barman when the door swung open again and in a sweep of rain-scented air a woman walked in. A girl really, though as he glanced at her he realised he really couldn’t guess her age. She had the freshness of skin only the under twenties usually have but her eyes had a kind of self-aware intelligence he’d rarely seen in anyone under fifty. She was oddly dressed, and as she entered the bar, the woman in the corner said in a deliberately audible stage whisper,

“God, I hardly think wearing a sack is exactly the height of fashion.”

The girl paused, her arm nearly touching the bar. The dress was a bit odd, true enough; the fabric did indeed have the open irregular texture of hessian but as he looked at it he saw that the cloth had a shimmer and a gleam and a softness that could never come from sackcloth. Raw silk, or linen and silk mix maybe, cinched in with a wide, worn leather belt of burnished brown with a plain buckle of some dull metal.

He saw her brow contract and the girl bite her lip with hurt and on impulse he leaned over and said in an equally loud stage whisper,

“Ignore her, it’s a lovely dress.”

She gave him an uncertain smile.

“Do you think so?” she said, her voice soft and musical. “I made it myself. Excuse me, I should have a word with her.”

She turned away from him and went unhurriedly to where the other woman had now turned her back on her.

“A word?” said the girl, touching the woman’s shoulder gently.

“Well?” she demanded, staring up at her with undisguised contempt.

There was a definite pause and even the barman stopped polishing glasses to see if a fight was about to erupt. Then the girl leaned down and spoke directly into the woman’s ear. The woman’s face froze as she listened, and then went very red and finally so pale her blusher stood out on her face like the imprints of a slap. She seemed to gasp and then got unsteadily to her feet and rushed out. Her friend stayed still for a second or two and then rushed after her, shouting,

“What did she say? What did she say?”

The girl gave a small secret smile and walked back to the bar.

“What did you say to her?” he asked, impressed.

She smiled again, a pleased smile.

“I only tell people their own secrets,” she said and ordered a drink.

His curiosity was piqued.

“OK,” he said. “Tell me one of my secrets then.”

She sipped at her wine and shook her head.

“You won’t like it,” she said.

“You don’t know any,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “But as you saw from the lady over there, usually people don’t like what I tell them.”

He was a little stung.

“How do you know these things anyway?” he asked. “Are you some sort of private detective or something?”

She shook her head.

“I just have a gift for it,” she said. “An instinct for knowing things if you like.”

“Bet you don’t know anything about me,” he said, a little galled.

“I know you’re getting married in a month,” she said.

“Anyone here might have told you that,” he said unconvinced. “She could have told you that.”

“I’ve never been here before,” she said. “And I don’t even know your name.”

If it was a pick-up line, he wasn’t going to fall for it by telling her.

“But I do know you’re having serious doubts about it,” she went on and his certainty began to waver.

“Oh yeah, why is that then?” he asked, a touch aggressively now.

“That’s for you to know, not me,” she said.

“Lots of people have doubts. You’re not much cop as a psychic, you know. Bit of guesswork, that’s all that was, and maybe some local knowledge,” he said.

She shrugged unconcernedly and took another sip of her drink.

“As you say,” she agreed and it annoyed him that she wasn’t arguing. Then she raised her eyes to his and he saw for the first time that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. He’d so seldom seen a woman without makeup that her face seemed indecently naked and he found himself blushing at that thought. Her eyes were fringed with long thick fairish lashes and he found himself thinking how much nicer it looked than being caked with so much mascara raising the lids must be aerobic exercise. Despite virtually living with his fiancée he was certain he’d never seen her without makeup.

“You keep a photo of your dog from when you were a child in your wallet, under the one of your fiancée,” she said, her eyes looking deeply into his. “She hates dogs, most animals in fact. That’s one of the reasons you’re having second thoughts. You know the others.”

He was shaken, badly shaken but he tried to hide it.

“I take it back,” he said. “You are pretty good as a psychic. Nice trick. How’d you do it?”

“As I said,” she said. “I have a gift.”

There was an awkward silence.

“What did you tell her?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“That’s not for you to know,” she said. “I was going to remind her to get her Lottery ticket tomorrow, because her numbers will probably come up, but when she was so nasty, I thought, no. It’s not her time.”

“So you reckon her numbers will come up?”

Again she shrugged.

“Nothing is certain you know,” she said. “But when I came in here and saw her, the chances were those numbers would be coming up.”

“What numbers were they?”

She laughed out loud.

“Come on now!” she said. “I’m not telling you that. It’s not for you. You aren’t the one who dreams about leaving her highflying, highly paid and hardworking career to live a life of decadent luxury where she need never wear the same pair of knickers twice.”

This time he was shocked.

“How do you know about that?” he demanded. “There was no one else there.”

She smiled.

“I told you,” she said. “I have a gift.”

He was beginning to feel very unnerved now. He had had a fling with the woman who had left. It had been some years ago and it had ended almost as soon as it began. The evening had begun with a lot of drinks then back to her place for more drinks, leading to various confessions of their dreams and ambitions and finally to bed. Languishing in post coital bliss he had made the mistake of asking her how it had been for her.

“Not too bad,” she’d said. “But maybe next time I’ll draw you a map and a set of instructions.”

Understandably from his point of view, there had been no next time. But he had always thought bitterly of her every time he saw the Lottery draw on television. He’d never so much as bought a ticket himself. He’d almost decided to stop coming here on a Friday until he told himself sternly that he would not let her ruin something that he enjoyed. He enjoyed the few quiet drinks here in the dull quiet hiatus between Friday afternoon and the start of the weekend. He enjoyed them so much it was a real effort to go out again properly later in the evening.

“So what are my dreams then if you know hers?” he asked, feigning indifference by finishing his beer and signalling for another.

“You want to make a difference but you don’t know how,” she said and he found himself blushing again as if she had revealed his intimate dimensions to the world. “You worry that if you marry your fiancée you never will get the chance to make a difference anywhere, anytime, except maybe to the prosperity of the shoe and dress industry.”

He was speechless with shock. These were not things she could have found out from anywhere; these were thoughts he had never so much as given voice to. Even in that drunken game of truth or dare he had not revealed his true dreams and ambitions and he had never so much a breathed a whisper of concern about his intended’s taste for expensive shoes and designer clothes.

She finished her drink and set the glass down.

“I must be off,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting my sisters. We work together.”

“What do you do then?” he asked and she frowned slightly.

“It’s a bit difficult to explain,” she said. “You might call it human resources, I suppose. We have our own company.”

“Are you any good then?” he said. “I could put some work your way if you like.”

“We are good,” she said without any false modesty. “The best. We have sufficient business currently though, thank you. It was kind of you to offer though.”

She started to move away from the bar. The sleeve of the dress caught on something, a nail or a splinter and a tiny shred of fabric ripped away and hung on the edge of the bar. She grinned at his distraught face ruefully. He was clearly expecting the kind of tantrum most women were likely to throw at ripping their dress.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m pretty good with threads. And you’ll be all right too. Just listen to what your heart is really telling you and you can’t go far wrong. You’re a kind man, you know. Go make a difference.”

She walked away from the bar, her worn Greek sandals slapping softly on the smooth floor and her strange dress shimmering around her as she walked. He unfastened the shred of fabric from the nail it had caught on and held it up to the light. It felt like silk, so soft he could almost not feel it at all and through the oatmeal coloured fabric he could see finer threads of what looked like gold woven into the material. A faint and agreeable herbal scent seemed to cling to the scrap, a fragrance of bay and thyme so very unlike any of the power perfumes popular with city women but which really gave him a headache. He tucked the shred into his wallet with the picture of his dog and went home.

A week later he found himself in the bar again, listening to the music of rain and traffic outside and contemplating his coffee. He’d half hoped the girl would be there again, but inside he knew she wouldn’t be. Even so, when the door opened, his heart lifted. It was the woman he’d had the fling with years back. He got up and went over to join her, motivated by some curiosity he’d not have given in to before. Her face looked jaded and sour and her perfume had gone sour too with too hot a day and too little fresh air.

“Bad week?” he asked lightly.

She looked at him with the amused half contempt a woman reserves for an inadequate lover who still tries to be friends in the hope of a second try.

“Yes, actually,” she said acerbically. “First of all, I split up from Paul. He expected me to forgive him his little slip but when I told him about mine he blew up and dumped me. Then I was so upset I forgot to buy my Lottery ticket. And of course, guess what?”

“Your numbers came up,” he said quietly.

“Four and a half million quid lost just because that little bitch last week told me that if I didn’t tell Paul someone else would,” she said bitterly. “And you? Bad week?”

“No, actually,” he said. “I split up with Michelle.”

She looked at him with some interest.

“So that makes it a good week then does it?” she said sarcastically.

“Better that now than later,” he said.

“Why did you split up?”

“We want different things from life,” he said simply.

She gazed at her wine for a minute.

“Well, an ill wind and all that,” she said. “How about coming back to mine then and consoling each other? I bet after two years with her you won’t need a map any more, not with her experience after all.”

It might have stung once but not now.

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m going out shortly.”

“You don’t hang around,” she said sharply. “Plenty more fish in the sea after all.”

He smiled.

“Not exactly,” he said, finishing his coffee. “I’ve got my first shift as a volunteer at the Night Shelter.”

He went out into the evening, sunshine showing through the grey clouds like gold thread through raw silk, and smiled at his second chance.

The Parable of the Goldpanner

 

The parable of the goldpanner

 

Once upon a time there was a young man who ran away to seek his fortune.

 He had heard that men could get rich by mining for gold and so he travelled to the gold fields only to be told that the mines were all but exhausted of gold but he could still find gold by panning for it in the streams that flowed from the mountain.

Much gold still remained inside the mountain; indeed, far more remained than had ever been taken out but it had become too dangerous and expensive to go any deeper into the mountain and dig for gold and so men contented themselves with the gold that washed from the heart of the mountain. Indeed, this gold was known to be purer and need less processing before it could be used. In ancient times, the nuggets were simply taken and washed before being skilfully beaten and shaped into rings and cups of astonishing beauty. Now, gold that had been mined had to be crushed and heated and treated with dreadful chemicals to extract the pure gold and by the time the finished product was ready it had cost almost as much to produce as it was now worth.

On his first day the young man stood knee deep in the icy waters that rushed from the heart of the mountain and panned and panned till his back ached and his feet and legs became numb with the cold. All the while he squinted into his pan and every so often he would shout out with excitement and pick out something and stuff it swiftly into his leather pouch. At the end of the day, he ran, tired and cold as he was to the Valuer’s tent and poured out his day’s finds expecting to go home to his family that day, rich beyond belief. A long silence followed that was followed by a low rumble of laughter, first from one man and then from all the men present.

Why are you laughing?” he asked, bewildered and angry that they should mock him so.

Because all you have found here is Fool’s Gold,” said the Valuer, wiping his eyes of tears of mirth. “Every man here did this on his first day. Until you know what gold really looks like, you will think that this mineral here is it. Let me show you.”

The older man pulled from his pocket a small leather bag and extracted from it a small rough lump that shone like the morning sun rising above the hills. It was brighter and somehow purer in colour than the iron pyrites that he had shown the Valuer, and instantly the young man knew what it was he was actually looking for.

The old man who taught me gave me that lump so I would know what I was looking for and not be misled by fakes and forgeries. And now I am giving it to you because sometimes when the winter sun fails to shine and you are cold and miserable, you will need to look at the true gold so you can remember what you are seeking,” said the older man. “And one day, you will pass this nugget onto someone else so they too know what they seek.”

So the young man returned to his icy stream bed and began again. Sometimes he would see a gleam that made his look again but it only took a second before he knew he was once more looking at Fool’s gold and he would sigh and carry on.

Weeks passed and then months and all the time he carried on looking, his small reserve of money dwindling each day that passed until one day he had no money left to buy food. He looked at the gold nugget the Valuer had given him and considered whether he should sell that so he might eat that day, but after looking at it, he realised that he would maybe one day forget what true gold looked like and be led astray once more. So he put the nugget away and carried on swirling the water and sediment in his pan and suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, he saw first one and then another tiny lump of pure gold. All that day he worked and when he trudged back to camp, he had enough gold to sustain him for weeks.

As the years passed, the young man accumulated gold, and slowly and steadily he grew richer and older until one day, standing knee deep in the water of his stream, his bones started to ache with cold and tiredness like they had never done before and he waded back to the banks of the stream and sat down.

All I have had of this stream, I have spent and enjoyed so very little,” he said to himself. “I have bought food and only the necessaries of life. Maybe it is time I began to enjoy the gold I worked so hard for.”

So packing up his kit he walked back to the camp, which by now had become a small town, and went to the Valuer’s tent to say goodbye to his old friends.

I’m going back home,” he told them. “I have enough now that I can support my parents and maybe even marry my sweetheart and start our own family.”

As he started to leave the tent, a second young man came in. His eyes were filled with feverish excitement that the first young man recognised at once.

I’m rich, I’m rich,” shouted the new arrival, pouring out on the Valuer’s table the spoils of his first day’s work.”

The laughter that had seemed once so mocking now seemed friendly and rueful, the recognition of a mistake the men had all made in the past. The new youngster’s face became red and angry and he seemed almost in tears with frustration.

I’ve never seen gold before,” he admitted, sweeping his pile of Fool’s Gold to the floor in his disappointment. “How am I supposed to know if no one has ever shown me?”

The first young man, no longer so very young or so very foolish, went over to the other man and put his hand out.

Here,” he said. “This might help.”

In his hand was the gold nugget he had once been given to help him know what true gold is.

But don’t you need it any more?” asked the newcomer.

No,” said the first young man. “You see, after all this time, I think I will always know gold when I see it. And I have found enough gold of my own now to be able to be sure I will always know how to find more if I need it.”

And so our not-so-young man walked away, and went home to his family richer and dare I say, wiser than when he had set out years before.

© Vivienne Tuffnell November 15th 2008