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Vol 2, No 36
23 October 2000
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Celtic god of fertilityThe Modern Human Wind
A short story
Cyril Simsa

The stars were bright down by the edge of the conduit. Fat little ducks bustled self-importantly in the dark, quacking like deluded autochthonous guardians of Rome or noisy fragments of the ferryman's wake, floating like waterlilies hard by the banks of the Styx. Weeping willows like petrified water-sprites trailed their long, pale locks on the well-trimmed lawn, while the lights of the porter's lodge, striking the scene from behind, made them glow a synthetic yellowish-white, like a line of apprentice rusalkas looking for someone to drown.

Dim clouds floated by starlight in the gaps of the tall, angular buildings, puffed up like the briny, gold-embroidered foresails of treasure-filled galleons, while the thump of distant music from the School of Pythagoras refracted round the corner in muffled ripples like the coarsely woven threads of an elaborate tapestry... This scarcely definable tapestry of the night and the stars and the great, shadowy banks of the high-flying clouds' cumuliform Armada... this tapestry of the strange handful of people, who had chosen this place, this night, to meet like a grandfather clock and a Jack-in-the-box on an operating table...

The human wind, to quote the words of the Revolutionary Poet. The wind of the Scythian hordes pouring down off the steppe, with their blood-drenched wooden pyramids and their cloaks of stolen faces... their transvestite, oracular shamans, made womanly on a diet of sweet curds and wild mare's urine... The wind of the tattooed and scarified Celtic head-hunters, baring the exquisite knotwork of their heavy gold nipple-rings to the moon under the canopy of mistletoe-infested oak trees in the secret glades of the druids, long hair flowing like the mysterious sea fogs on the shores of Dumnonia, bodies still and statuesque as dolmens, while the druids cut the poisonous, bitter branches off the trees with their golden sickles...

Ah, yes! The shamanic sweat lodge with its hemp vapour baththat great prerequisite of the visionary poet and leader, so beloved of our earliest ancestors!brought down from the hills above Samarkand. And the gods do so love the taste of sweat, as any houngan will tell you. The sweat of the ordeal or the sweat of the dance floor, the sweat of the Great Rite of the witches... It makes no odds.

He could imagine them sweating now under the majestic twelfth-century arches of the old School of Pythagoras building, with its slightly bow-legged roof and its massive stone buttresses, its indefinable patina of age, that sense of eternal presence which comes only with long human habitation... And inside, on the ill-lit dance floor, lonely young men glowing in the subaqueous gloom like angler-fish, lone women fluorescent as tropical sea anemones, waiting for their encounter in the treacly blackness of the music and the night, the music that held and rocked their bloodstream as surely as the gentle pulsing of the deep-sea waves...

But that was not to be his destiny. His encounter, if indeed he was to have one, lay out here under the sky and the stars, in the peculiar half-darkness, half-stillness of the banks of the Styx, watching the ducks and the occasional couples go flitting past, susurrating like memories... memories of the brooding megaliths rising like frozen belly dancers against the stark grey line of the hills...

Damn this body! If only he could dive into the pool of the heavens like a silvery marlin, returning to the pools of its forefathers... like a dragonfly, like a slithery sea snake... "If only..."—words to conjure up any number of human banalities, while all around him the dance went on.

The Revolutionary Poet had had a fine turn of phrase for it. "Marx made a mistake," he had written heedlessly, caught up in his blind elemental fervour. "The whole revolution—the whole revolution!—smells of sexual organs." No matter that this had turned out, rather, to be the poet's own great mistake—the first of many, which led eventually to his ignominious death on the steppes of his beloved Scythia and his attempted erasure from history.

But history, like the Scythians, is more resilient than that. History winds its threads through our starlit nights and our chance encounters under the severed heads of long-dead Celtic warriors—passing for gargoyles on the sides of our places of worship—like an enormous quadrille... History envelops our gardens and the crumbling yellow brick of our palaces like a web of glass, a silky, asymmetrical wheel of light, woven from the pulsating gills of Cancer and the plunging, evanescent tails of passing comets...

And suddenly, as he sat there by the dark edge of the water, he thought he saw something flicker grey and silver at the edge of his vision—yes, there it was again—something lumpy and angular, like the looming black slag heaps on the bleak, heather-strewn slopes, left by the pick-wielding fairy-folk, or the fragmentary hind limbs of a massive, long-forgotten statue—the gates of Nineveh or the peculiar half-animal, half-hetaira, shape-changing shamaness that the Greeks had, in error, liked to call the Sphinx...

And then he saw it, rising up out of the shadows on the opposite bank of the river, like the ghost of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the ruins of what seemed to be a mammoth, Cyclopean citadel... a citadel vast and terrifying as the huge, anti-Napoleonic fortress raised on a foundation of blood by the newly liberated Black Jacobins on the lip of the mountains above the northernmost cape of Haiti... a citadel dark and opulent as the Cities of the Dead of Old Etruria... a citadel strange and mysterious as the crumbling dry-stone bastions of the long-abandoned acropolis at Great Zimbabwe... Only here, by the banks of the Styx, the citadel was full of people, and they were dancing... dancing in and out of the rocky grey piles of the ruins... dancing as if their very lives depended on it...

And what did he know? Perhaps they did, he thought.

He stood at the edge of the crowd, unobserved, observing, alone in the heart of the tumult. The waves of the crowd parted around him like the Red Sea, leaving a wake of fragmented images behind them as they reformed on the far side of this boulder—this strange individual who tried to stand in the way of their tide.

Shamans and soothsayers and skin-clad Proto-Dene-Caucasian medicine women... Roman legates and Taoist sorcerers... women in white dresses with bunches of multicoloured beads around their necks... green-skinned forest children, raised by covens of tree-spirits in the woods on a diet of stolen silver and acorns... all leaving their marks on the palimpsest of the world like the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers in the caves of Lascaux...

They seemed happy together, dancing there to the thunderous polyrhythms of historical necessity, the song of the wind in the ruined spires of their cultural edifice—always, as each second passed, one step nearer the edge of entropy, always one step closer to their inevitable tumbling dive over the brink of destiny... It made a fine and complex music, that human wind, full of the light and scent of the plains of Africa, the Gothic cathedrals of Northern Europe, the smoky night club bars of the North American ghettos, the saffron flags of the drum-masters of South-East Asia...

Here in the ruins of the citadel, they seemed for a moment to intertwine, fusing into one colossal harmony of pulse and melody, humming like the echo of a distant marimba note on Mount Kilimanjaro... the fragment of a modal peasant flute in a sunlit olive grove... the stamping of a heel that was not quite a goat's and the flicker of soft white flesh in the bushes...

The images kept on coming, until he felt as if he stood simultaneously in a hall of arching proportions and in a dimly lit limestone cave at the heart of a mountain, the folds and stalactites of which were as chaotic as any Third World city on market day... And at that instant he knew that the citadel was held together by the dance, just as surely the dancers were kept from falling into the void by the citadel... And he knew what a shaman must feel in moment of transformative vision...

"You reckon? Well, maybe..." laughed a crepuscular figure by his shoulder. Guardian spirit, shadow spirit... The Revolutionary Poet. "Everything except for the sex and drugs, and the violence. And dressing up in frocks...

"Scythians, Marxists, the Old Testament Witch of Endor..." the poet continued. "They were all pretty much addicted to the sense of historical necessity, that sense of dancing on a knife-edge, of having a personal relationship with the gods of history... Well that, and the excuse to pop a few tabs of whatever was going and to slip into something more comfortable..."

The poet laughed again and was gone.

Trickster, thief, shape-shifting messenger from the subterranean halls of the citadel... The halls of the Na-Dene-Caucasian cave-bear oracle... The halls of the iron pyrites and haematite-prospecting Mountain King...

Then dissolution came, and he was surrounded again by the polyglot voices of a thousand nations, each clamouring for attention like the ducks in the conduit, each asserting its own individuality like the stars over the angular roofs of the college courtyard.

"And then I awoke, and found me on the cold hillside," he quoted. Eyes still dazzled by the lights of Faery... Mind still glamoured... The thumping bass line of the dance still refracting round the corner from the School of Pythagoras...

Two fragments of the human wind were unobtrusively necking in an alcove nearby, obviously not as well hidden as they thought. Should he disturb them?—he wondered. Oh, what was the use? Greenwood marriages had always been two a penny. And the beat had to go on, even here. Even this side of the ferryman's portage.

As the Poet said—The whole revolution! The whole revolution! All the way from the broad floodplains of Scythia to the overly neat lawns of the School of Pythagoras. The Revolution was a dance, not a 24-hour business channel. All it needed was a slight adjustment of the volume control, an intensification of our relationship with the gods of the dance floor... the million tiny shrines along the shamanic pathways, the gods and goddesses of the wayside... All it needed was an eddy in the current, a phase-shifting bass line like the pulse of an artery, a chance encounter in the shadows of a dim university courtyard...

No, no, as the man used to say, the Revolution would not be televised... The Revolution would squeeze like leather and burn like honey, and throb like the fresh tattoos on the back and shoulders of a teenage priestess of Isis... The Revolution would speak in tongues and sing in harmony, and squeal like the creaking roof of an ancient cedar-wood temple on the slopes of the Negev desert... The Revolution would come rip-roaring up out of the wilderness at 120 bpm, and contain re-recorded samples of Marvyn Gaye, Chingiz Khan and the Odyssey of Homer...

Yes, indeed, brothers and sisters—for a moment he felt almost as if the shamanic figure from the cave was standing by his side again and was whispering to him. Yes, indeed. The Revolution would not be televised. The Revolution would be live.

Pump up the volume, and pass the ammunition.

For Boris Pilnyak (1894-?1937)

Cyril Simsa, 23 October 2000

Cyril Simsa is a Prague-based translator and writer with a special interest in the literature of the fantastic. His translations, stories and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Allskin, Back Brain Recluse, Foundation, Science-Fiction Studies, and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

Boris Pilnyak was one of the most popular Russian writers of the 1920s and a foremost representative of the literary avant-garde, before he fell out of favour with the Soviet authorities in 1929, following the publication of his novella Mahogany. He vanished after being arrested by the secret police in 1937.

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