The working title of my urban fantasy is the translation of a Gaelic proverb, Is ann air a’ bheagan a dh’aithnichear am móran. The initial edit is done and now I turn the project over to my editor with her big red pen.
Set in Esquimalt, British Columbia in present day, Jennifer MacGregor, heartsick and devastated over the loss of her father and brother in a car accident two years before, fled to a small hilltop in the middle of the township with a handful of pills stolen from her estranged mother. After taking the pills in a desperate effort to end her suffering she is brought back from the enfolding darkness by a most unlikely creature; a Ghille Dubh.
“He placed a hand on the deeply lacerated rock; heard the soft, distant memory of the ice from 10,000 years before.
“Till this stone has been crumbled away.
Till the streams cease to flow from the mountains,
Till this tree with old age shall decay.
And drought dries from the hills all the fountains.”
The grass and Deer ferns waved in the breeze then suddenly the soft, laboured breathing of the girl faded into quiet, deep inhalations. A smile formed on her face.
“Wake up,” the creature said as it sat back on the stone. “Time tae come back.”
Another quote, as the Ghille Dubh named Aeonghus can also take the form of an Irish Wolfhound.
“Sitting off to the right upon a low hump of mossy rock amongst a brood of low lying Deer fern that waved in the soft south-easterly breeze was a dog. It was no ordinary dog that brought Jennifer up short and caused her to stare, however. It was a massive creature; its black wiry hair greying and its powerful body stooped with age, its enormous teeth exposed as it gazed upon her panting in the warm afternoon. She recognized the breed – an Irish wolfhound; an imposing and frightening creature that might have terrified her with its prodigious size and intense gaze upon her had she not had a faint feeling of placidity come over her as she and the creature gazed upon each other. The feeling persisted, maybe even strengthened, and the burdens of the day began to fall away. An odd tranquility rose within her and the strangulating fears vanished to be replaced with an exceptional euphoria. She felt, if only for a moment, a smile form on her lips as she and the dog continued to look upon each other. For a few more moments the curious connection endured then the animal rose stiffly to its feet, turned, and cast a final glance at her before disappearing into the shadows of the twisted Garry oaks.”
I’m rarely hesitant to admit the truth when it comes to my ability to market myself; I am a writer, not a marketer. This summer, I am deep in my first non-science fiction project, an urban fantasy set on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, so my focus these days is on anything but marketing (Add to that the weather is lovely and I have a canoe, backyard and dog all beckoning for my undivided attention) Sometimes, marketing opportunities literally sit down in front of you over a glass of pinot grigio and announce themselves, and one buys into them with all of the thoughtless zeal of a hot dog contest participant. This particular opportunity came from my wife, an award-winning artist, who thought a collaboration between ourselves – my writing and her art, would be a grand idea. I did so as well, and like renovations, trip planning and changing flat tires, it had its trying moments… very trying indeed for two very stubborn and opinionated artists.
The collaboration is complete, her works are up in a show at a local art gallery, garnering no end of quizzical looks and my imagined questions: “So, the mammoth in the painting, why?” or “Is that soldier playing golf?” or “Is he throwing up?”
So, I plan to deliver the series of works with commentary on this blog, beginning with, Tin Pot Battleships.
My wife was quite keen to capture the battle of Coloe Vallis where a mixed force of United Nations Off-World Legion jawan soldiers, Pavonis Constables and a hundred or so Neo Celts, also known as the Feradadh Boys, attacked the Tong Fort located there in retribution for the earlier murder of a pair of jawan soldiers. She was interested in the paddlewheelers, wondering at how they were laid out, requesting imagery, and generally wondering what a recoilless rifle was. As with any question posed to me in 2014, I quickly directed her to Google, but she has the tenacity of a terrier when she has questions, and she would not be swayed. So we sat down while I pulled up images of British Columbian paddlewheelers from the 1890s, a picture of a recoilless rifle, and laid out my own imaginings of the climax of the amphibious assault with recoilless rifles blazing away. It was exciting stuff, mind, my descriptions of the explosion,s the fires, the licking flames, the horrific damage, and the inexorable assault as the three paddlewheelers punched through hell to get to the beach. The enthusiasm I held faded slightly as my wife sat unmoved, then proceeded to lay out her ‘impressions.’ My wife is an impressionist, I might add, whereas I am a zealot for realism; that should have been the greatest warning to me of the storms that would come. Her impressions were indeed impressions, and contained little of the, or maybe it was ‘my’, emotion of the events. She laid out her thoughts and I balked; she mused over the imagery and I was horrified; and she considered the sentiments and I nearly cried. Although it lacked the volume of our other discussions – more on that in another post – we did come to a somewhat amiable conclusion with the imagery she ultimately chose.
I present to you, Tin Pot Battleships with the appropriate narrative from the anthology, The Scarlet Bastards
We pointed our bow towards the beach and fired the recoilless rifle and the heavy machine guns. The battered Zhuanyun and the burning Belladonna did the same, but as we were in far better condition, we easily outpaced them. I kept low as we closed the beach for we again came under withering small arms fire. Lukinaos continued to blast the Black Hand defences causing great smoking rents in the fascines and Hesco while the streams of 50 calibre tracers punched deeply and ricocheted in a wondrous fireworks show. We closed the last 100 meters and entered a hailstorm of lead as the Black Hand focused everything upon us. I cowered quivering in terror at the thought of having to raise myself from my meagre protection and leave the ship for the open beach and its almost certain death. Yet that was my task, and as MacShaka crouched amongst us shouting encouraging words that I no longer remember, I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and willed myself to work up the nerve.
I must admit that I was emboldened as the small arms fire began to fade, for the efforts of those three little tin pot battleships was enough to turn the Black Hand defences into a hellish mess. The fascines were nothing more than a low, smoking, splintered ruin; both of the towers had collapsed into burning messes; and the Black Hand recoilless rifles were silent.
In the diminishing din with less than 50 meters to go, MacShaka roared, “Steady lads, be ready tae gae!”
With Thoe steering and the Naimaidan Regina making best speed, we closed that beach with a rapidity that must have been daunting to the defenders. Then with a suddenness that belied my preparedness, there was a crunching sound and the bow rose as the paddlewheel drove the ship up onto the rocky beach.
“Now, lads! At ‘em!” MacShaka screamed. The jawans and Neo Celts on the foc’sle leaped over the bulwark to drop to the beach while those within the ship piled out of the cargo doors into a meter of water. While the paddlewheel continued to thrash and push the ship up farther, the heavy machine guns and recoilless rifle peppered the defences 30 meters away with an appalling destruction that showered the charging troops with splinters.
As you can imagine, I was not keen to move. I was well holed up in the bow with Usman, but MacShaka wasn’t having any of it. “Sikunder!” he thundered as he grasped me by the collar, “move yer fucking keelie ass!” With Usman in tow he manoeuvred me to the bulwark, picked me up with that latent strength of the Hyperion that dwelt within him, and tossed me over the side. I landed in a few centimetres of water on top of my backpack – which likely saved me a broken back – then rolled over and squirmed towards a rock that just barely protected my head. Usman pushed in beside me, and we had a wicked argument over who should get the rock and who should go find their own.
Around us, bullets chipped off rocks and fanned the air, bowling the jawans and Neo Celts over like skittles. They lay fallen, their cries rising into a chorus of soul wrenching shrieks that had me sobbing and cowering while above us Lukianos continued firing the recoilless rifle. The detonations from each hit were now so close that they reverberated through my body and sent waves of splinters around us. I shrieked my hatred towards the mercurial old Greek, but he couldn’t hear me. The sound, that terrible blasting bedlam that drowned out everything, the sound that pounded my skull beneath that horrific discord of death and destruction was too complete. Nothing could penetrate it.
Or so I thought.
As I sought to bury myself deep in the cold granite stones of the beach, a new sound entered my consciousness – the deep drone and screeling cries of the pipes. Yes, the pipers had struck up their tune again; standing in the water on each side of the groundedNaimaidan Regina they brayed Johnny Cope as theZhuanyunand the Belladonna pushed on the beach on either side of us. Suddenly, scores of newly arrived jawans entered the fray, and the focus on our group wavered. We weren’t in the clear by a long chalk, but by God it was no longer raining lead.
“Cope sent a challenge frae Dunbar:
‘Charlie, meet me an’ ye daur,
An’ I’ll learn you the art o’ war
If you’ll meet me i’ the morning.’”
My wife was particularly interested in my piece that centred on my main character, Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Armstrong, and his round of golf in the Samsara tundra. Now, I’m not a particularly good player myself, indulging in that kind of stress only a few times a year as I do, but I admit to occasionally enjoying the challenge of using a metal club to put a ball in a cup with as few swings as possible. That the fairway looks like the Battle of the Somme afterwards, or that colourful language fills the air with more force than normally delivered by a troop of stevedores, or that I more often than not, come away with a new hatred for the dreaded game is completely irrelevant. I enjoy the challenge, or maybe I enjoy the company as I fail the challenge miserably. I’m not sure I had any particular event when I first thought of including g a round of golf in the story, but I certainly did when I mused for a while upon it. One of my worst games took place on a boggy little par nine in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, a small fishing town on the north coast. Sure it was Spring, but after the rains of winter, the grass literally had bubbles of water beneath it, and the ball when it fell, created craters like mortars. It was a terrifically bad game and I lost the better part of 20 balls in the mud and rain that day. The company, however, was good and though I had to, on occasion, throw my ball in order to make any progress, it was just one more bit of comic relief. In the end, I chatted with the locals in a kilt damp with rain and mud, chuckled over my horrific game, and reveled in the companionship of a few of my fellow sailors on a much-needed bit of shore leave.
The story of Sikunder’s round of golf in the tundra, found in The Scarlet Bastards – A Company Soldier, is a celebration of the game and rough companionship of his fellow jawans in the United Nations Off-World Legion. At a time when Sikunder’s spirits had plummeted and he grew morose in the first months of his new life on the colony of Samsara, some 20 light years from Earth, the simple pleasure of the game drew Sikunder from his growing depression and thrust him into an appreciation of living the moment.
I had thought, foolishly in retrospect, that I had seen all of the curious facades of Subedar Angus Motshegwa, but this latest had proven that arrogant assumption quite wrong. Grinning beneath his long sable beard, MacShaka pulled out a One Wood and rested it with a cocky nonchalance upon his broad shoulder – a Doryphoros statue minus the javelin and with a belly as broad as a barrel. Cong grunted beneath his long goatee.
“Năo càn. Is it possible for you not to play fool, Angus?”
Beaming, MacShaka pulled a ball from a cartouche pouch on his hip. “Och, ye mawkit keelie,” he replied as he placed the ball on a tee inserted in the boggy morass, “ye’ve a face like a burst melodeon an’ ye haver somethin’ awful!”
“Shăguā,” Cong replied testily, “must you speak such incomprehensible filth?”
Chuckling, MacShaka swung back his One Wood, then with a grunt, let fly a brilliant drive.
“Marvellous,” Adoula remarked as she watched the ball disappear over a low rise.
“A miracle,” Cong muttered. With a surliness dripping with insubordination he asked, “Did you not slice so far to right last time that you land your first shot in stream?”
“Nonsense,” replied MacShaka as he placed the club back in its bag.
“And before that,” Cong continued with a wry grin, “was not your hook so complete as to ricochet ball off nearby rock and hit your own camel?”
“Hauld yer tongue, ye bletherin’ fantoosh numpty!” MacShaka snapped, parrying the good natured banter.
The biting chatter continued between the two – beyond Adoula’s slice and Cong topping the ball, a shot which resulted in it landing in a thick morass that required a full three swings from myself to clear. The game advanced as MacShaka and Cong shared contemptuous musings while Adoula and I chuckled as each barbed insult scored a mark. One could easily see that these two were close friends – otherwise they would have been at each other’s throats.
One of the fondest memories of my youth was at scout camp and enjoying the liberating adventure of canoeing. There were many woodcrafts to participate in as well as many games and other outdoor activities, be they hiking, carving, soccer and such, but it was canoeing that was always the subject of my deepest desires. It was the independence of course; the absolute freedom to slip the bonds that tied me both to land and to adult supervision. I always had a partner with me, but that was an irrelevance to the idea that I was alone in the world, for at that time alone was purely the absence of adults. My partner and I, whomever he may be, would paddle around the flat calm of Okanagan Lake as it baked beneath the beaming of a summer sun, happy in the dulcet warmth that seeped into our young bones. There might be a sunburn or two, but that meant nothing; a minimal price to pay for our freedom.
I didn’t have many options to canoe as I grew older. A momentary chance in the early years of my marriage when my wife and I rented a canoe for a few hours while camping in Manning Park in British Columbia’s wild interior. For me, it was an opportunity to reminisce and pine for my dimming youth, for my wife, who has a curious fear of submerged logs, it was an uncomfortable experience and not one to be repeated any time soon. So, my childhood and its pleasures faded until one day while haunting a local Canadian Tire store, I spotted a red canoe for sale and was instantly transfixed with the thought of reliving my youth with a son who had achieved the age where I had first learned the joy. So I bought it, and the family, though more my son and I, have enjoyed it ever since. Fishing or canoe camping, or just relaxing on a pleasant summer afternoon. That wondrous feeling of liberation never faded, and that first wobbly trip on the water near brought tears to my eyes.
I sorely missed it.
When writing the short story, A Canuck and a Canoe, as part of the anthology,The Scarlet Bastards – A Company Soldier, I reflected long on the simple joy that paddling my red canoe brought me, a joy that could sweep away the trials of a day and replace them with innocent joys of youth. My character, Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Armstrong, a young Okanagan lad who had joined the United Nations Off World Legion and found himself on Samsāra 20 light years from Earth and surrounded by all manner of hostile people who looked upon him as at best, a joke, and at worst, an easy target, found solace in the simple act of paddling a canoe on a nearby stream close to his home in the fort, Ophir Castrum. As I wrote it, with the canoe arriving on the back of a cloned wooly mammoth, it was hard to fight the smile as once again I was that young boy, paddling a canoe on Okanagan Lake and alone in a wide world that lay before me.
A Canuck and a Canoe:
“During my first summer in Samsāra, when the scant warmth of Delta Pavonis wrenched the colony from its long winter somnolence, MacShaka made another desperate attempt to introduce a new form of leisure to the decuria. I remember it well, for I was on latrine duty with Usman Khan hauling barrels of mephitic waste to a composter and cursing our plebeian place in the Legion hierarchy when a caravan of lumbering mammoths – that corporate genetic experiment that provided for much of the colony’s transport needs in the trackless wastes of Samsāra – arrived in camp with backs bent with supplies, and of all things, a bright red canoe.
“Aye, ye cannae tell me ye would hae thought o’ this?” MacShaka boasted proudly to our decuria’s jemadar and second in command, Er-hong Kim. She was a Manchu Messalina of extraordinary temper who looked upon the conveyance with a mixture of amazement and contempt.
“You right, I did not,” she replied with icy disinterest before walking away.
Usman and I gave thanks for the diversion and abandoned our latrine cleaning efforts to join the growing throng of jawans in various states of undress as they stared with all of the cautious curiosity of two dogs meeting in a park. I will even say, with no small exaggeration, that I observed one or two who sniffed and touched the diminutive vessel, while at least one bearded grandee dressed in his scarlet salwars and long kurta shirt, poked the conveyance with his Khyber knife. This all may sound fantastic, but recall that these jawans were mostly poor uneducated refugees from various camps in Afghanistan and Turkistan. They had no more seen a canoe than an Oregon pinot noir or a Toronto film festival. So their confusion was understandable if not predictable. After a few minutes of listening to the bewildering cacophony of Pashtu, Mandarin, Tajik, and Russian, I was about to leave when MacShaka’s booming bass called out, “Sikunder! Stand fast, lad!”
“Huzūra!” I replied as I jogged over and stood before a man who reminded me of a buffalo in rut.
“Sikunder, ye’re a Canuck. Ye ken how tae use one o’ these boats. Show the lads.”
As scandalous as his dialect was, I understood quick enough that he wanted a demonstration. And with the jawans beginning to jeer like Maple Leafs fans in May, I figured he wanted it done quickly.”