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Monday, October 25, 2021

 

Short story: The Pond


I'm sorry to have to announce that the publication date of In The Heart of Hidden Things has been moved from March to June 2022. This is nothing to do with the book or with Jo Fletcher Books; it's simply that Britain is facing shortages in pretty much everything at the moment, and for the publishing industry, that includes paper. 

Well, I'll try to be amusing in the meantime. We play a game on my Facebook page: people post pictures in the comments, and I write little sketches inspired by them. When I say 'inspired', I mean that in the loosest sense; I usually wander pretty far away from the original picture within a few sentences. 

Some of these sketches are short, but sometimes they turn into little short stories too long for the Facebook format. When that happens, I'm going to post them here. That happened with this picture (source), so here we go. Feel free to join in the game and post pictures on the Facebook!

One small note before we begin this one which might be helpful. In Hidden Things, the characters are 'fairy-smiths' - that is to say, blacksmiths who specialise in the kind of iron that repels fairies, also known as the Good Neighbours, the kind friends, and, most often in my world, the People. While writing, I noticed something immensely pleasing: if you can call a mill-worker a miller, you could call a fairy-worker a farrier, couldn't you? Farrier work is a real profession; these days it's a specialist in horses' feet, so something between a blacksmith and a vet. I just nicked the word because nobody stopped me. Hence, when I say, in some of these stories, 'farriography', don't upset yourself trying to find it on the Internet; it's just a silly word I made up to pretend that the study of fairy-smithing was a real academic discipline. Hidden Things doesn't take place in an academic world; this tale is one of several that involve imaginary modern scholars of an imaginary time and place long past. 

And, with that, let's go!


IMPORTANT NOTICE
From the Bath Institute of Farriography


We feel it's important to put to rest certain rumours that have been circulating of late: to wit, that the pond found in the ornamental gardens of Loathbury House is a sigil, and capable of philosophies.

We do not expect our members to accept a flat contradiction without question, so for the sake of ending the spate of vandalistic landscaping that has been taking place in recent weeks, we are prepared to disclose the following facts:

The layout does have a certain formality of design, and arithmychologists of recent years have spent a lot of time and ink analysings the proportions. Most notable among these has been Master Tommy Faber-Morris, late of the Cornwall Centre for Farriographical Preservation. No doubt members will all join us in sprinkling salt for his rapid recovery.

Members of his clan report that the problem was that he grew, over the years, increasingly preoccupied with numerology. This is a discipline the BIF does not advise the study of except under the supervision of an elder farrier of applied farriography, preferably one of at least two-score years and ten, and the fate of Master Tommy is a case in point. While it is not within our holdings to research or assign blame, it is evident that he was not adequately supervised. His researches took their own course, eventually resulting in the theory that the diameter of the human pupil, relative to the straightness of the eyelash, was a reliable predictor of the fate that awaited the soul after death.

It is not in the nature of farriographic institutes or working forges to discourage robust dispute, and we do not condemn Master Elizabeth Favre for her challenge to his views. The fact that she is not expected to emerge from her isolation until seven seasons have elapsed, beginning with the summer of this year, is an act of voluntary self-shunning, in order to express compuntion for any role she may have played in Master Faber-Morris's decline. We will welcome her back, and wish her fair fortune with her studies in the meantime.

What Master Favre did was only to point out, colleague to colleague, that while Master Faber-Morris's knowledge of numerology was unquestioned, his grasp on anatomy was a little shaky. This was, in fact, the case: in specific, he had failed to remember that the pupil of the eye varies in diameter moment to moment, depending not only on the amount of light - a fact Master Faber-Morris had acknowledged, and developed an elaborate system of sundials and sextants to adjust for - but also on the emotions of the eye's owner.

Master Faber-Morris, reluctant to abandon his theory, was heard to make many remarks on the connection between the eyes as windows of the soul, and the deadly sins, all of which, he argued, should be understood as emotional states rather than acts. 

So much would have been mere theology, except that he became, over time, a subscriber to the defunct Kovalenkan heresy that the People should be considered, not a class of being exempt from common doctrine, but a form of physical-spiritual dislocation - that is, souls without bodies, or bodies without souls.

At first, Master Faber-Morris attempted to publisher papers conflating fairies with ghosts, but, finding these rejected from peer-reviewed journals, he eventually moved on to a still-more eccentric position. To wit, he contended that certain states of emotion were so deadly in their sinfulness that they caused the pupil of the eye to distend to what he called 'the sulphuric ratio' - in other words, a ratio between eye diameter and eyelash length so diabolical that it caused the soul to escape the body entirely and join the fey, leaving the body prone to shapeshifting without a soul to keep it in order, and the soul a creator of illusions, marshlights and other such disreputable antics.

Had Master Faber-Morris been at home when he came up with this theory, it is likely that his clan might have assisted him to a better state of mind, but unfortunately, he was cataloguing some recently-discovered relics in the estate of Loathbury House, discovered when a drunken docent got into an argument with a floorboard in the stable building, on the grounds that the knots in the wood were giving him disrespectful looks and attempting to 'upskirt' a certain young lady visitor of whom he had hopes, and kicked in the board, revealing a hidden cache of talismanic implements below, evidently of old Faber worksmanship and of great historical and practical interest.

Master Faber-Morris's work on cataloguing this find was diligent, although unfortunately not useable for practical purposes given his tendency to digress upon the subject of whether the look given by the 'eyes of the wood' (the knotholes to which the docent had taken such unnecessary exception) should be considered within the sulphuric ratio. The more preoccupied with this he became, the more unsettled he became in his spirits, but it was the kindly-meant remark of a groundskeeper (name withheld for the man's privacy), who remarked that Master Faber-Morris looked tired and must be 'reading his eyes square', that truly deranged his methods.

Master Faber-Morris was fond of swimming, and had for some time been dipping his feet in the formal pond on the Loathbury grounds by way of refreshment. It was unfortunate that the shape of the pond was a combination of rounded and quandrangular; while Master Faber-Morris does not note this as an influence, he was observed, for several days in a row, attempting to douse his head within its water.

A groundskeeper approached and reasoned with him pointing out that the practice was not hygienic. Master Faber-Morris replied that he was attempting to 'keep body and soul together', and that his feelings were so disordered of late that he could never be certain that his pupils and lashes were in proper alignment. This somewhat confused the groundskeeper, who was aware that the cosmeticians of the local village had been finding Master Faber-Morris something of a nuisance, but, intending to be helpful, said that you'd need to be a newt to see comfortably below those waters, and Master Faber-Morris should take care of his health.

At this, Master Faber-Morris was heard to exclaim, 'Eye of newt!', and dived into the pond - in which, it should be added, a colony of crested newts did reside.

The groundkeeper reports that Master Faber-Morris made a creditable effort to stuff the first newt he found into his own eye socket; unfortunately, however, the pond was only three feet deep, which is not a depth at which diving is advisable.

Master Faber-Morris's concussion did not prove fatal, and his clan report that he is recovering well. He was somewhat disoriented, and apparently under the impression that smell of the pondwater was a contradiction to his theories of the sulphuric ratio, on the academically shaky grounds that the pond smelled cold and damp, and sulphur smells hot and dry. However, since the groundskeeper's remarks on 'reading his eyes square' and 'eye of newt' seemed to have had so deranging an effect on him, he was fortunately referred to Master Jennet Mackem, whose reputation in diagnostic farriography needs no elaboration here.

Upon examination, Master Mackem was able to diagnose Master Faber-Morris with, among other disorders, a hypersensitivity to proverbs. She therefore counselled him that he no longer believed in his wild theories, for the pond had 'knocked some sense into him.' 

Master Faber-Morris appears to have accepted this prescription and holds, for the moment, to entirely conventional views.

We are disclosing Master Faber-Morris's proverb sensitivity in the hopes that members of the community will make kindly accommodation when in his company, and also to put to rest any silly notions that the pond itself was responsible, either for the curing of disordered ideas, or the suppression of artistic temperament - both of which we have heard proposed in recent weeks, chosen apparently according to the preconceptions of the ranter. 

These are unstable times, and should any members of your own clan appear to be succumbing to excessive preoccupation along these lines, Master Jennet Mackem requests me to say that she is open for appointments, which may be booked through the address below.

There is nothing further to add, except that we counsel all members of our community to touch iron, remember their common sense, and also to please spare the pond any further interference. It is, as mentioned, home to a colony of crested newts, which are declining in numbers within these isles, and do not benefit from farriers up to silliness in their breeding waters. Have some respect, we charge you.


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