This is the first of a Quartet of plays set during the twentieth century exploring for succeeding generations. It is set in a fictional East European country.
A play in one act
(Lights come up on a frozen tableau of Lydia, mother, father, and Nana Neda. Lydia steps out of the tableau and addresses the audience)
My mother was strong, like a man, my father lame and an object of ridicule in the town and in the corn fields. I remember potatoes that stank, and apples that fermented on the ground, and partridges a-lying drunk on their greedy pecking of cidering fruit. I can still smell the peat fire and the dung on the porch, drying in the sun with Nana Neda all evil eyes and curses on our neighbours, her right hand a dealer of stings upon my arm, her left a source of security and sanctuary which I would clutch and peer into the wooded dark of twilight, as we made our tired way back from the church, or the meeting house, or the dance, or the cemetery.
It took a hundred years to reach my twelfth year, and a hundred seconds to lose my innocence to Matjas. I had only two dresses, and the best one was ruined amongst the bracken, in the mud, with kisses, and feelings I still cannot decide were pleasant or terrible.
I remember sunsets as red as blood, moons clear in the night sky and portentious stars which were read like a prophet’s diary, telling of famine, or curse, or blooming springtide, or death of a loved one. God gave us hope, but he didn’t put enough food on the table. I remember being hungry most of the time. I never stole though I once ate grass which made me sick and berries which gave me cramps for a week. Red they were and the taste should have been warning enough.
Nana Neda used to tell me stories of the days before the War, of fields of goats and sheep, and of orchards laden with delicious crunchers; of olives the size of tomatoes and tomatoes the size of small pumpkins, and pumpkins…well… She lullabied me songs which, though she sang like a dying cat, I begged her over and again to repeat: “More, Nana, More !”
I was a child of the Moon. I walked the room and mama would come in and gently wake me. “Sleep child”. They gave me valerian and camomile tea to prevent my night-time strolls. I cried at the horror of the taste, at the bitterness of tea too hot to sip then too cold to drink. They tied me down once but I rocked the bed so much they thought it better to let me roam. I once dreamt of not one moon, but two – a pair of shining eyes which I should follow to a land of steaming cocoa rivers and trees laden with cakes of hard cheese on candied branches.
Nana Neda it was who suggested the ropes to quell my nocturnal wanderings, and Nana Neda it was who spanked my behind when I cried out in the night, and Nana Neda it was who rocked me asleep with her tuneless lullabies.
My father lived for his pipes and his microscope from The Paris Exhibition. He would spend hours squinting through the lens saying “Aha! Aha! Aha!” while my mother and Nana Neda worked with needle and thread by the light of the sputtering flames.
Once he showed me some of his bunion on a slide. It was like a tiny yellow universe, swirling about a red sun at the centre. I stared and stared, fascinated, marvelling at the wonder of the world and, from that day, I looked on papa’s swollen feet with new eyes.
The thunder which echoes through the underground caverns below our fields gave me bad dreams and trembles, though I loved to explore the tunnels down by the Lannica and built a secret place which I filled with provisions for the day when I would run away or when the invaders would come across the plateau bringing their anger and their terrible ways. That thunder often gave me pause for thought and even at twelve I asked the questions that others never ask or ask when in their twentieth year, or more.
Once Nana Neda was struck by lightning. She came home, her cream shawl blackened at the ends, her eyebrows singed and her eyesockets wide and red as bulls’ blood. She said she had been touched by Christ but Papa said she would say that and it was more likely Beelzebub. She soon recovered, though I received a whipping when I told her what papa had said.
Spires like oasthouses filled with as many fermented hops in the stomachs of parishioners, bent on salvation with a tot of rum to wash away the sins – or the memory of them. The village was a stew, its ingredients a heady mix of neighbourly conflict, too much of the jar, and a soupçon of cuckolding and poison tongues a-lashing. I grew up in this place, beaten for trifles, and loved for being a child innocent enough to fall into the traps of youth, in which there lurked the birch and slipper.
In this I grew up and arrived as a woman with a suspicious smile and a dislike for the simplicity of people. A hundred times or more I cursed them for accepting so little and suffering so much. ‘Dear Lord, I thank you for the bread to eat, give thanks for shoes upon our feet…’
Shoes. Shoes at fourteen from the hide of a beast I called my friend at ten. Sunsets and snails and stories of giants with two heads and dragons… dragons which guarded burning caves filled with gold. Kisses on cheeks and lips and pies filled with kidney and mashed carrots and soup. Always soup.
Smoke used to fill our living room (in which I also slept), a mix of pipe tobacco and poor ventilation above the hearth. Papa never managed to fix the problem, and Nana Neda used to complain daily of its effect on her bronchitis and, it is true, everything in our home became impregnated with the odour of smoked fish and covered in the smudges of grey ash and soot.
I never knew my grandfather. There was a photograph of him on the old dresser where Nana Neda kept her wig and her mirror and her bible. There was also a stuffed owl, a tawny, a gift from Eduardo the Taxidermist who, though he could no longer walk, and went about with his pants wet and stinking, still harboured secret wishes of stealing Nana Neda’s cherry – that man believed anything she told him! Once I saw them in the Green Cave up on the hill, locked in an embrace, their toothless kisses and creaking moans, saliva falling everywhere, white like the foam on the Lannica Falls, hands in pockets and long pants raised to reveal blue veins and more hairs on her than on him. They grappled and gripped, and panted, growing ever more exhausted, grasping for each other as if it were a final grope before oblivion. I hid behind the rocks on the edge of the sunflower fields and again she refused him as he tried to take her, one last time, perhaps to his grave.
But my grandfather, he lies in his soft bed by the sycamores in the lower graveyard where the moles use his head for a nest and the worms play hide-and-catch amongst his ribs and his spine. His charred remains bore witness to his love of fire, and the burning fate which met him when he entered that barn convinced the people of our town that Grandfather Julian was bound for Hell. Only Nana Neda disagreed, announcing that Hell was too good for the bastard.
I used to imagine what it must be like to burn to death. Old Man Stefan used to tell me that our family was descended from witches who were burned during the Inquisition, that fire ran in the blood, which was why Nana Neda had set his boat on fire when he had called her unfaithful to the Lord’s Word. I used to lie on the grass down by the Moon Pool and pretend I was lying upon a pyre, an ancient queen, or a goddess, or a witch, flames lapping like little waves against my legs and my gently scorching arms, my head heating up, and my hair catching alight, the pain of reddening heat growing in my gut. And then I would scream and leap up and shout and laugh and plunge into the icy pool, fed by the streams above, shivering cold, shivering cold. Cold.
Fire in the blood. I used to adore to sit around the fire as the stew was stirred. I sat, fascinated as they lit first the twigs and then the logs, how quickly the flames caught and then leapt and danced caressing the pot which steamed with potatoes and onions and tomatoes and splattering pig fat.
My father’s hands were always cold as ice, even in Summer. Frozen as his own dreams. Chilled to the bone. My mother’s and Nana Neda’s burned with a fierce heat, even in Winter. Nana Neda used to call Papa a living corpse who had cheated death. He never sat too close to the fire and it was always my mother who fed the flames with wood-sticks or peat. His pipe was always going out and sometimes he would just sit there, in his chair, puffing away at it – the both of them stone cold, nodding his head and sighing to himself and Nana Neda would say:
Nana Neda: See what I tell you ? Dead as a doorpost. Call the undertaker and let’s give the old fool a decent burial.
Mother: Neda !
(Lights come up on Lydia sitting at the feet of her grandmother Neda. Neda is stroking her hair)
Neda: Oh yes, dragons. Dragons that breathed fire. Yet not the fire we use to light the stove, or the fire that good-for-nothing papa of yours uses to stoke his rotten pipe. This, child, was the fire of the evil spirit, and these dragons built their smoky nests in the wombs of foolish women like you. Then before their poor babes were born they slipped like snakes into their mouths and those Christ-forsaken children grew to be the worst cholerics you could imagine, filled with anger and tempers to turn a Gorgon to stone. Some were terrible evil but some led our armies into battle and repelled our enemies filling the guts of their own kings with terror from a single look at the flames in their burning eyes – they looked upon the dragon nestled within, grown large now in tandem with the child’s own path through life, it’s own scaly legs now filling out the legs of its carrier, right down to the bony toes, the tail curled up along the spine pushing against the outer skin for want of a swish or a swash, the forlegs the arms, scratching from within, lashing inside out, the wings trapped in the ribcage, struggling to unfold and fly, the head perched within the brain, smouldering and smoking ready to burst through the ear-drums – boom ! boom ! boom! And red hot anger pressed against the inside of the eyes. You can always tell a dragon lies within when the eyes are red and bulge as if they would burst.
(enter Papa, smoking his pipe)
Papa: Stuff and nonsense and poppycock and twaddle.
Neda: Now there’s someone who had never so much as a tiny spark within a cat’s spitting distance of him. Cold, he is, like the north, but not cold and strong as ice, but cold as slush, like fresh morning snow that yields all too quickly to sunlight.
Papa: Dear, deary me. Stuff and nonsense.
Neda: Now child. That dragon have we all, awaiting on our left shoulder, biding his time till we open our lips for a kiss stolen from the marriage bed, a-waiting he his to slide into our throats, through the lungs and into the stomach, there to grow on our food and feed on our heat ’til it is all used up and he can possess us ’til we die.
Lydia: And you, Nana. Did he possess you ?
(Nana Neda slaps Lydia hard on the side of the face)
Neda: Wicked child ! Be out of here ! Out !
(Lydia, still smarting from the blow runs out)
Papa: Oh, Neda. Tut. Tut.
Neda: And you’ll be out of here too if you don’t want that pissin’ pipe shoved up your useless arse!
(Lights up on Papa. He is cutting a new pipe out of a piece of wood, humming to himself. He then sings to himself)
I gave this bowl to you my love
A rose to put within
I gave this rose a name my love
A lovers’ christenin’
Away my love
Come away my love
Across the hills with me
And I will give to you my heart
For all eternity
Will you a-go with me my love
Into the wooded glade ?
And will you lie down with me my love ?
Amongst the ferny shade ?
Away my love
Come away my love
Across the hills with me
And I will give to you my heart
For all eternity
I drink a toast to you my love
The wine of my desire
I feel the rising heat my love
Of your sweet burning fire
Away my love
Come away my love
Across the hills with me
And I will give to you my heart
For all eternity
(he continues to carve the wood as the lights fade)
(Enter Neda stage left, wearing a scarf and a hat, who walks centre stage. Enter Nina, Leonora and Joanna, stage right, they huddle down giggling and plotting)
Neda: Something is stirring and it bodes not well for this place. The heat is rising on the noonday tide and the salamanders in the deep glade are a crawling on their bellies…
(the three girls burst forth and Leonora grabs Neda’s hat and tosses it over Neda to Nina. Neda tries to grab at it but Nina tosses it to Joanna, forcing Neda to turn)
Leonora: … which means we are all going to be murdered in our beds !
(tosses the hat to Joanna)
Joanna: Some say she is a witch and she has the devil in her…
(tosses the hat to Nina)
Nina: My father says that Neda is an enemy of progress and that no honest party member would waste five minutes on her…
(tosses the hat to Joanna)
Joanna: She once cured my papa of a terrible poisoning. He shook all over, then he turned green, like a willow.
(tosses hat to Leonora)
Leonora: My papa says all her remedies are the same – sheep shit mixed with honey!
(Leonora tosses the hat up on the air and it lands on the floor as they rush off stage left, laughing. Neda turns to front stage centre, catching her breath. Enter Eduardo in the wings stage left, he steps forward to stage left front)
Neda: Even when the dragon gives us no mercy and the sun pours scorn on our ailing crops, it is a simple matter to sink a well and find fresh water. Our people are built on shifting mud and our town moves upon a funeral march of tides and flows which carry our land slowly west.
A thousand ages and a thousand more and we have lurched but a few kilometres towards the sea where crumbling cliffs must topple yielding with them the occasional house, a cormorant’s nest, or perhaps a pair of foolish lovers, hand in hand, eye to eye, too lost in each others’ sin-filled gaze to pull themselves back from the edge.
Eduardo: I have always found the entrails of a cat quite unpalatable. The stench of the innards, particularly the kidneys mixed with ammonia, I have never really become used to it. Whereas the odour of the heart seems to improve as the years go by, why one can even grow to like it. ”Tis a sweet smell with an airy hint of rotting sycamore leaves. Without its insides, an animal may appear to be an empty shell, a shadow of its former self, yet, with the precise skills of taxidermy it is more than possible to preserve the essential features and even to give a hint, in the cast of the head, in the choice of the eyes, in the fixing of the posture, of the animal’s living self, its individual quirks and mannerisms, its soul if you like.
Neda: Sometimes as I lie awake, a-shivering in my cot, I can feel the timbers of our home a-shifting on their feeble foundations, borne another part of an inch away from the place where they would prefer to rest til judgment falls upon us all. Yet onward we are all pulled and the dragon murmurs her disapproval for what will befall us when the cave of Carandak herself is dragged over the precipice and into the waves which lap like the tongues of famished cats to quench themselves on the milk that is her fire, her vitality, her love.
Eduardo: When I look at my sweet Neda, and often, I am ashamed to admit, I admire her from a perch behind the cowshed as she attends to her toilet, I can perceive through the trials of time, the years of arthritis and a general ceasing and creasing up, I can still experience in my loins the cut of her virginal jib, he graceful pose and her regal gait. Oh Aphrodite ! Oh Eros, if my princess sweetmeat were to leave this world before me, I would give my lonely soul to Lucifer, for the chance to fill her shell with the finest stuffing, to preserve her with only the most refined chemicals, the most expensive formaldehyde, I would sew her up with delicate stitches and fix her with nails of the finest bronze to a stand of generously cut mahogany or chestnut.
Neda: As I lie awake in the ebony radiance of night, I sense in deep of my bones an ancient time when we would make a sacrifice, a lamb or a goat, or perhaps a… a sacrifice to calm the restless waters of the underworld, to slow the tide, to stay the march, at least for another season ! At least for another season!
Eduardo: Each night, before retiring I would bend low and plant a kiss on her preserved lips, sweet as fresh plums, which I would adorn with ruby lip paint anew each morning. And when it came, at last, to my turn to depart this world, I would instruct the executors of my last will and testament to bury us together, cold hand in cold hand, icy lip to icy lip, in a loving embrace, there to lie in unity for eternity. But, Neda, oh my ravishing harlot, while you live, do not deny me my right as a man, to kiss you in forbidden places while you still move !
(lights up on Mother, just enough to light her face)
Mother: There is more to us than you might see on a first visit. Our people are simple – and there’s no wrong in simplicity. Our land has been kicked and poked…
Lydia:…. prodded and pushed…
Mother: …forwards and backwards…
Lydia: … eastwards and west…
Mother: … by peoples which crowd in upon us from all sides. We are a small country and our language is like an unfathomable soup, stirred too much and too often…
Lydia:… one moment piping hot…
Mother: … the next left to cool for too long…
Lydia: … too much of the salt….
Mother: ….too much of the cloves….
Lydia: … stinging with peppers…
Mother: … and lumpy with undercooked potatoes.
Lydia: …Always adding something more…
Mother: … or taking something away…
Lydia: … heated too much…
Mother: … or cooled for too long. And so we are meek Easily stilled. But when the fire is too bright, when the woodsmoke crackles into flame, then you will see under our skins, then we rise up and take flight like the dragons we are, then it is we who shall pour fires upon our fearful, fleeing enemies!
(Enter Lydia, mother immediately calms down and becomes quiet)
Lydia: And so we dreamt like children, in our melancholy stories and our dour songs. We rode into battle on white chargers built of phantasy and our dragons were made of smoky dreams and hope-filled wishes.
Mother: “We are a mountain people – a peaceful people – a closed people.”
Lydia: Our land has over fifty dialects, from one valley to the next you might be in a different world, so afraid we are of seeing what is on the other side of the summit. Our peaks were the spikes of huge dragons which kept us from harm, the clouds were the smoke, rising from unseen nostrils, the thunder the warning growls of Carandak the Terrible, the Lannica Falls her tears…
Mother: … pure and clear…
Lydia: … casting a blessing of approval on our impotent routine of plant and harvest…
Mother: … reap and sow…
Lydia: … sin and repentance.
Mother: Summer and Spring the water washes clean our land, the Lannica tears overflow bidding our corn and pumpkin to grow ripe in the sunshine.
Lydia: Winter and Autumn the rains fall, cascading down the sides of the Dragon’s Back and filling our little valley with lakes and pools, devouring those that have no strength to swim against the tide.
Mother: … Many are so taken.
Lydia: And high on the mound up by the Sign of our Lady, where the sun-warmed doe awaits the spring dance of bucks aplenty, I used to stand and call down the thunder and lay down my challenge to Carandak to strike me aflame in pouring rain and northerly winds, to set me on fire and bear me up, all ablaze into her crimson eyes to fly with her into Christ’s land when Armaggedon comes.
Mother: Foolish child.
Lydia: Yet never once, did she reply, and all I arrived home with was a soaking, a winter chill and a scolding from Nana Neda and hot soup from mama. Soup. Always soup.
(enter Lydia and Joanna, her friend. They are sweating with the heat)
Lydia: Then came the drought, the terrible heat…
Joanna: the endless days…
Lydia: the drying of twigs and ancient springs…
Joanna: the shrivelling of corn in fields…
Lydia: …and corns on toes
Joanna: The sun burns fierce upon us and some say that old Carandak is angry and others pour scorn on the old ways and say at the holy virgin will appear on Easter day…
Lydia: Nana Neda coughs more than she talks and so we are relieved of her nagging but lie awake in the night as she retches and moans (impersonating her) Take me sweet Lord, save me from the snapping jaws of Moloch!
(they both laugh. Enter papa who walks to stage left, sighs and sits down wearily)
And papa goes about slower than a snail and it takes all his energy to light his pipe, and he sleeps in the sun and snores in the night, a quart of milk, warm from the cow at noon, and a flask of Elderflower tea, buried all night in the cool earth behind the chicken hut, to last him the day
Joanna: Watch this !
(she takes out an old pair of spectacles)
Lydia: Where did you get those? She’ll murder us!
Joanna: She won’t murder anybody. She’s sleeping, and the old fool isn’t in the shade. She won’t disturb us. I took them right off her nose, and she didn’t stir an inch.
Lydia: Maybe she’s dead!
Joanna: She’ll never die! The old cow’s forgotten how! Now, watch !
(Joanna holds the lens still and carefully tries to make a fire. Lydia gets very excited)
Lydia: What are you doing ?
Joanna: Watch will you !
(the fire catches)
Lydia: Fire ! You’ve made fire !
Joanna: It’s easy ! Easy !
Lydia: Let me try !
(she also makes fire)
Joanna: That’s it ! Just like a dragon !
(she growls and jumps on Lydia. They roll around in mock-wrestling, laughing then sit up face to face looking at each other)
Lydia: Like dragons. We can make fire wherever we wish !
Joanna: Wherever we choose !
(Lydia turns to the fire and slowly puts her hand into the flame at first withdrawing it in pain but then keeping it there, smiling and shaking with pain at the same time)
Lydia: Poppy fields and pumpkin seeds, ouch… and … sinful thoughts and noble deeds….
(she takes her hand away, sucking at a burnt finger)
Lydia: Now it’s your turn.
(Joanna turns to look at the fire, then back at Lydia, frightened but half-smiling. Lights)
(Lights come up on Eduardo and Nana Neda. Neda is sitting, doing some embroidery. Eduardo has something behind his back. He approaches her)
Neda: Be gone, ‘wardo, it is too hot for your sinful ways…
Eduardo: Neda, sweet, Neda. I have a present for you. For my sweet Neda. Do you not wish to see the wonderful gift your darling ‘wardy has made for you?
Neda: Not if it is another stuffed weasel.
Eduardo: But Neda !
Neda: No, Eduardo. The smell. Don’t you understand? They smell in such heat at this! Now, where did I put those blessed spectacles…
Eduardo: But I love the smell. The smell of the preservative mingled with your own delightful body perfume. Oh, it drives me wild !
(He reaches for her, taking a sad look at the stuffed weasel which he throws aside before grabbing her by the bust. She kicks him hard in the shins and he hops about in pain, she into a coughing fit)
Eduardo: Neda ! That hurt !
Neda: I’m too hot and in no fit state for fiddle fuddle !
Eduardo: You’d be cooler if you weren’t wearing those hot rags. We could go up to the Moon pool where there are shadows a-plenty…
Neda: Perhaps, in a while…
(Eduardo reaches tentatively forward and touches Neda’s shoulder. She lets him)
Eduardo: I could stuff you a beaver… an albino… a male…
Neda (thinking): with it’s winter fur ?
Eduardo: And with ruby eyes…
(she takes his hand and pulls it onto her breast)
Neda: ‘Wardy, you are a dreadful man !
(lights to black)
Eduardo: Oh Neda, I’d stuff you a hundred beavers. You set me aflame with passion! On fire !
(Neda bursts into a fit of coughing and laughter)
(Lights up on Mother who is sitting beside the table. Papa is in his chair leaning over his microscope. Neda is sitting by the fire peeling a potato, Lydia is sitting on a rug by the fire, turning the pages of a book)
Papa: Aha ! Aha ! Aha !
(Lights up on Joanna and Nina front stage left)
Joanna: Our games were dangerous, but with pails-full o’laughter and smiles and bruises from birch-twigs well worth the peril.
Nina: Once we hid in the gorse, arms all scratched and thorns in quivering cheeks…
Joanna … – above and below…
Nina: … and Lydia trained the sun through this lens (she takes out a lens) right onto Eduardo’s tailcoat just as he was presenting Old Neda with one of his stinkin’ ferrets, stiff as a post and reekin’ of cheap perfume.
Joanna: Still as corpses we tried to be, praying to Jesus that the little old runt would stay where he stood.
Nina: We waited.
(Lights down on Joanna and Nina who stay in tableau)
Neda: Maria says it will be another scorcher tomorrow…
Mother: Everything dry as dry. What happens when the pool dries up altogether…?
Neda: What happens when the entire back of Carandak crumbles into dust and buries the whole lot of us. I tell you something is wrong in heaven, very wrong…
Mother: The weather will change, and change again. There’s rain a-waiting in the next valley.
Neda: Very, very wrong. Too many virgins are bound for hell. Did you hear me Lydia…?
Lydia: Yes, Nana.
Neda: And where are you bound, child ? Have you sold your sinful soul cheap ?
Lydia: Not for a beaver !
Neda: Poisonous creature !
(she reaches forward to hit Lydia who ducks out of the way)
Mother: Be careful ! The fire !
Neda: Never mind the fire. That child will burn at the feet of Satan. She’s flames written upon her…
Mother: Neda, don’t say such things. Always frightening the child !
(Lydia is giggling to herself)
Papa: Aha ! Aha ! Aha !
Neda: If the mischief in that child was rain, we’d all be drowning…
Papa: (loudly): AHA!
(he looks at all of them but they just stare, not interested)
Papa: Er… never mind.
(lights up on Joanna)
Joanna: There we were, crouched like cats, the sunlight targeted like an arrow on a deer’s rump, and the heat rising on his tailcoat, Eduardo lost in flattery and talk of Neda’s sweet breath and ladylike gander.
Nina: But Lydia kept to her course and the temperature rose as a million acres of burning sun gobbled its way into Eduardo’s Sunday best, smoke appearing like a genie rising from a lamp and then… it caught !
Joanna: A flame and before you could say “fetch a bucket!” Eduardo was alight and, at first, he didn’t even realise it !
Nina: “Oh Neda ! Sweet Neda ! You make me aflame with desire!”
(they laugh as lights fade on them and come back up on the family)
Mother: Tomorrow, you’ll see – it’ll break tomorrow.
Neda: A great storm, you say ? Come to wash all our sins away ? Soap and water. A cake of soap for every sinner – and that’s one for every damned soul in this town…
(Lights come up on Eduardo and Papa, basking in chairs, sweating in the hot sun centre stage. Joanna stands frontstage right, Leonora frontstage left, Nina centrestage back, all in tableau. Papa puffs away on his pipe)
Eduardo: I’ve never known a heat like it. Sweet Jesus, send us some rain !
Papa: Rain, rain, rain. Tut. Tut. Tut.
Eduardo: My owls are weeping nitric tears, and the stench from that Whitsun badger is becoming unbearable. I’ll have to shut it in the cellar.
Papa: With the apples and the garlic ?
Eduardo: Damn ! I forgot about that. You wouldn’t consider…
Papa: Out of the question. Neda would quarter us both – and stuff us as well !
Eduardo: A fine pair we’d make on some fine lady’s baby grand !
(they laugh and then freeze in tableau. Lights up on Joanna, Nina and Leonora)
Joanna: Oaks leaves which were once soft and used to lay their healing moisture on cuts and wounds now crunch and crumble under our weary feet.
Nina: The bark a-peeling from trees dry as tinder, branches bare of summer green, like a Winterman, uninvited to a summer solstice gathering, intruding in, turning emerald to yellow, and yellow to brown, as once proud sunflowers now bent low kiss the ground, then crack their stems and perish in the parched earth.
Leonora: The Moon Pool a-buzzin’ with mosquitoes the size of chestnuts, you plunge into the welcome cool, holding your breath, you dive to the deep and wrap yourself in bubbles and sand, only to rise, your lungs a-burstin’ for air which is hot and putrid and you get bitten and buzzed and you wish to Jesus you’d stayed in the shade or dipped your swelling toes in the tricklin’ mud up by Lannica Falls.
(They freeze in tableau as lights come up on Eduardo and Papa)
Papa: Tut. Tut. Tut.
Eduardo: You don’t think the wine will spoil ?
Papa: It’s likely. You need less than eight degrees.
Eduardo: Then there’ll be drinkin’ to add to our troubles. Nothing to do in the fields, and a thousand barrels of red to be dispatched before it sours.
Papa: There’ll be brawling and bruises.
Eduardo: And more than a few sore heads from well aimed saucepans.
Papa: No. Not in this heat. They won’t be stirring from their cool beds in the shade so long as this spell holds.
Eduardo: Neda says it is a judgement upon us.
Papa: Neda sees Armageddon in a moth that flies into a night light. But you’re right, ‘Wardo. Something has got to break. Something WILL break.
Eduardo: And soon. Dear God, soon.
(Eduardo mops his brow. Papa and Eduardo stand up, the three girls move centre stage as the two men stand, Papa front stage right, Eduardo front stage left. Leonora and Nina crowd around Joanna who holds a piece of broken glass. Enter Lydia stage left)
Lydia: What are you doing ?
Nina: Hold it still !
Leonora: I AM holding it still !
Lydia: What is it ?
Joanna: Roasted worms ! Yummy !
Lydia: You’re horrible.
Nina: Put another leaf on.
Joanna: No. Let’s try a twig.
Leonora: Jesus, it smells disgusting.
Joanna (getting up): I know, I’ll get some corn oil from the store.
(The girls freeze in tableau)
Eduardo: I saw the children playing with fire this afternoon.
Papa: Not the fire that we toyed with when we were young; not the fire of stolen kisses…
Eduardo: …or stolen pumpkin pie…
Papa: Not the fire of poaching quails eggs, or night-time raids on old Samuel’s vintage red.
Eduardo: We too built tiny pyres of all manner of things to discover which would burn the best…
Papa: We fashioned precarious volcanoes from tinder-dry wood and gunpowder stolen by night from the old mine.
Eduardo: And played at hand-in-the-flame.
(freeze in tableau)
Lydia: We built a bonfire large and shrieked in panic when it caught a nearby blackberry bush, all bush and no blackberries
Nina: I am standing there and screaming: “Get some water before the whole forest catches !”
Leonora: And I say: “There’s no water, you fool. The Lannica’s a mud pool, not a drop to be had !
Joanna: And we laughed ’til it hurt and choked on the smoke and the rising dust.
Nina: Sweat is pouring down my face and my chest, and blisters, blisters the size of buckwheat pancakes.
Leonora: Then we climb up to the caves where there’s water a-plenty in running streams and we lie there in the cool dark, singing to the echoes and counting the replies.
(freeze in tableau)
Eduardo: I tell you, they will grow weary of their meagre games and search for larger fish to fry.
Papa: We used to fear the danger of playing with fire, but they greet it as an old friend.
Eduardo: They will laugh as the golden flames climb higher and ever higher … like the resurrection of our lord .. someone should warn them, before it is too late…
(freeze in tableau)
Lydia: I grew to hate them all as they slept through that summer, and the hotter it grew, the more they languished in their shadowy hidey-holes. They poured scorn on our games of fire.
Papa: They’ll sail too close to the wind one day, you see if they don’t…
Joanna: It was I. It was I to blame.
Nina: You don’t know that…
Joanna: I know !
Leonora: You can’t be sure…
Joanna: I tell you, I know ! I know !
Lydia: There’s nothing you know. There was more than one flare-up on that day where god’s own sun and wind could plead guilty.
Eduardo: And their fire will take us all…
Lydia: It came from the North, carried on the wind across the Lannica Valley, with the speed of a unicorn…
Joanna: We should have known when to stop.
Lydia: Fool ! If you know when to stop, you never give your heart to the journey.
Nina: It could have been anyone … or anything.
Lydia: The flames came a-lapping at our door on the last day of August, a-lapping like waves on the Moon Pool beach. Carandak lay down her challenge and Papa and Mama and Nana Neda and everyone was called by the Sun to shake the hand of the fire.
(lights up on Neda and Mother)
Neda: Well ?
Mother: It’s bad. Bad, Neda. Another week, and there’ll be no harvest to worry about.
Neda: You know what your father would have done…
Mother: That is dangerous talk, Neda…
Neda: The Party can burn in hell. Not that there’s any substance to burn.
Mother: Another week. We need that rain…
Neda (turning furiously): Then say your rotten Lord’s Prayer with a bit more passion, child. Or perhaps the saviour has taken a holiday with the Royal family in exile !
Mother: Neda !
Neda: I once believed our hills were filled with a living magic, but now -now, it seems that nature herself has put and end to all our dreams and condemned our stories to burn on the pyre. When hungry souls feed on nothing but picture books and marvels from over the hills, then it is time to bury the past and to pronunce the dragon is dead.
I used to dream strange dreams of peat fires and savages fighting for the right to sit close to the heat, the biting cold of winter all about. I stood, with the best of their men, chanting the name of the dragon. Then they bore me up on a beam, and delivered me onto a pyre, set within the burning flames. I remember screaming, yet chanting with them. I remember staring into the eyes of the dragon, as her great jaw opened to reveal yellow teeth on which there clung all the lost souls of time.
Fire fills a hundred caverns and a hundred more deep within the earth. Our volcanoes are long dead, yet far below there are echoes of their ire, all knotted up twisting rock into quartz in a death embrace between veins of grey and shimmering green. What lies below lives within.
Mother: Neda, you are a fool.
Neda: Let time be the judge of my foolishness.
Mother: I do not doubt your vision, old woman. But you cannot carry such a burdon at your age. You would have us lead the whole valley up the mountain to shake our fists at the moon.
Neda: Once, you all would have gone willingly. Now your fire is all spent.
Mother : Perhaps. And yet…
Neda: And yet you feel one more blaze, a-burning within, enough kindling in your kidneys for one more fire…
Mother: Sometimes… I do.
Neda: Then show them, show them the fire in your veins before they lose all of their will and sink into their lazy beds forever !
Mother: You are too old, Neda !
Neda: Then shall I myself lay down and die ?. Give Eduardo my passion, and then tread the path of final judgement, and let all here rot as, by the dying fire of Carandak it surely will.
Mother: Carandak and Christ. Our people are cut into two. No wonder they are dull and weary.
Neda: And who will you choose, daughter ! Who will you choose ? The offspring of the union of a volcano and a fire god, or the sickly son of a weak virgin ?
Mother: Do not take me for a fool.
Neda: And as for Eduardo…
(they both look at each other then laugh like young girls)
Neda: Bring in that water and fetch the wood…
(In the darkness the sound of a fire grows. Lights up to red. Papa is sitting in his chair centre stage. Enter Eduardo, running, pulling up his trousers)
Eduardo: Fire ! Fire ! It’s a big ‘un!
(Enter Neda following, stopping only to button up her blouse)
Neda: Get your pails ! The Devil’s come a visiting !
Eduardo: Fire ! Fire !
Voices off stage: Fire !
(The voices mix with the rising sound of fire. Enter Lydia with a handful of beating sticks. Enter Joanna, Nina and Leonora who each take a stick and they form a line ready to beat freezing in tableau)
Lydia: And Papa jumps out of his chair…
(Papa jumps up)
…caring nothing for his lame leg, throws his microscope aside and, pipe still in his mouth, his eyes a-bulging with red, and takes up a broom and disappears in the smoke.
(Papa grabs a broom and disappears offstage)
And even Eduardo finds time to break off his beatin’ to send a naughty wink to Neda who holds her own in the line despite her four score or more, she’s like a young woman, cuttin’ the corn during the second harvest.
(sounds of fire grow even louder)
Thrash! We know not what we are doing but mama and Joanna dig a trench by the church gate to keep the flames at bay.
And I can see nothing but black smoke like an evil morning mist, but through the murk I hear papa a-singing like I’ve never heard him sing in all my life.
(papa sings from offstage:
“Away my love
Come away my love
Across the hills with me
And I will give to my heart
For all eternity)”
Lydia: His voice is strong and sure like the autumn wind and he’s laughing as he dances with the fire, laughing at death, lovin’ the peril of it !
Joanna: Thrash ! And we beat beat beat with our lives at the feet of crazy Carandak. I’m crying, the tears I wish were million and a million more to fill our rusted buckets, empty now, with our store all spent, and all we can do is beat, beat, beat !
Nina: Thrash ! I howl like a famished wolf and call after my mama and papa but I can’t see them through the thick clouds of smoke. I take hold of Lydia’s hand and there’s old Neda like a warrior queen, her skirts hitched up and she’s laughing. Laughing likes she cares for nothing!
Neda: Here, dragon ! Here ! Neda wants a kiss, dragon ! Neda wants a kiss !
Leonora: Thrash ! and we turn over the earth with our shovels, ploughing and a planting seeds of fire to quell the heat and the smell of roasting meat tells me the our horse has gone under and I call Carandak a whore and Jesus a betrayer, and all I want to do is to dive into the Moon Pool and swim, down ever down and to lie at the bottom ’til there’s no more air to breathe, but it’s hot, so hot, and I want it to leave us in peace, leave us alone, so I beat it back, beat it back !
(They thrash and beat until they are doing so in unison as the sound of fire gets louder, slowly they move together and slow into a tableau, with Lydia standing before it looking in, and the sound fades)
Lydia: I remember sunsets as red as blood and I’ll never forget the flames that came to our valley. I’ll always remember the fire that rose inside each and every one of is when Carandak bade us shake her hand. Old Eduardo, lost in the blaze, he went down like a warrior of old, and we built him a tall stone statue on Carnak Peak and buried him there with his weasels and his owls. Nana Neda, terrible Neda with an angel on her back and a devil under her tongue. She’ll outlive us all. Joanna and Nina and Leonora, as soon as that smoke lifted off they trekked, over the back of the dragon, once more asleep, to north, west and to east, their eyes burning with fire, red as a blooded sunset. And papa, dear sleepy old Papa, climbs back into his creaking chair to fashion a new pipe. And mama is in the fields with a hundred others, a-planting as soon as the rains came a-pouring. And I left alone, heading to the south, in search of love. Still searching. Tut. Tut. Tut. Perhaps it’s time to go home.