Monday, January 23, 2012

The Leaf and the Lump of Mud

It was quiet in the forest, except for the blowing of the wind and the pattering of the rain. The forest grew when the rain fell, the soil became moist and thousands of leaves sprouted from the ends of the twigs and branches. In this forest there weren’t many flowers. They weren’t needed because the leaves were so very pretty. In the light breeze they danced on the ends of their twigs and as they danced they chattered away, as ladies often do.

Although all the Leaf Ladies were the same, each one was in her own way completely different from the others, and when they all whispered together, their chatter made a pretty twinkling sound which added to the music of the wind. The soil and mud however was very much the same as any other soil and mud, except that sometimes lumps of it would break away from the ground and when that happened each lump found that it could look around and see some of the plants and trees which had grown from their body.

“Look at the lovely plants and trees which have grown from our bodies” said one lump of mud, “And look and those beautiful green fresh leaves dancing like glamorous ballerinas from the ends of the twigs”, said another as they looked up to the sky.

And likewise all the Leaf Ladies began each day by casting their eyes down in humility as they remembered where they came from. “We may be pretty and fine and fair,” they said, “But we all grew from the common mud and soil beneath us. Let us not forget this, sisters. Their solid character holds us up and gives us all the food and water we shall ever need.”

“Then let us start each day by giving thanks,” said another leaf, “And let us end it by giving thanks again to that from which we came,” said her friend. All the leaves agreed and nodded and danced in the wind on their end of the twigs and the sound they made was so tinkling and pretty that all the plants and insects and birds fell quiet as they listened to the song. The Leaf Ladies heard their own song too and were enchanted with their achievement. The mud however had no ears to hear these songs and just kept quietly feeding the plants, trees and leaves, and after a while the Leaf Ladies forgot about the mud which had no ears for lovely songs. In short, the leaves had forgotten their roots and the ground from which they all had sprouted, because they’d become distracted by the music they could make, and little by little they grew to despise the lumps of mud which had no ears. “Why waste our time singing to those who are tone deaf?” said one Lady. “And after all,” said another, “It isn’t that we’re not grateful to our roots, but these days we’ve become so busy practising our new harmonies.” Furthermore,” said the next Lady, “It’s rumoured that the leaves in the next forest are practising too. They grow on the lower slopes of snow-clad hills which feed them with fresh cool water and their voices are strong and can even move a stone.”
Lady Leaf become Queen of the Air

A few of the Leaf Ladies grew angry at the thought of this, and a slight blush of red colour crept into the green. Several of them jiggled up and down in a pizzicato frenzy, and as they danced, some of the twigs became loose. One of them jumped off to be carried by the breeze and for a few moments this Leaf had moved from being Lady to reigning as Queen because she was held aloft by the air, higher up than all her brothers and sisters and even higher than the songbirds on their branches because they need to have their feet on twigs if they are going to sing.
She was very proud about being higher up than everybody else and believed she was the best. And for the few seconds she was indeed the Queen; but this was only because of the gust of wind which held her up in the sky, higher than all the rest, and it wasn’t long before she started to drift down, down below all her friends, tumbling below all the branches and the twigs and the trunks of the trees, all the way down to the forest floor where she landed right next to a lump of Mud! Within the space of less than a minute, Our Leaf had shifted from being the Highest of the High to someone who was so low that if she went any lower she’d be buried in the ground.

Lady Leaf Lands with a Bump!
Not long ago Our Leaf had been practising her song hard, hoping to make her voice rise high above the others, so that other leaves and forest creatures would turn their heads to look at her and her alone. She’d just started to grow a set of frills on the edges of her leaf and she did look exceptionally pretty rolling and tumbling through the air. So when she finally landed next to the mud-lump the expression on her face was one of total surprise. For the mud-lump, our Leaf Lady was one of the most beautiful things he ever saw. Leaf Lady was startled. In a word, she hadn’t a single word to say. If she’d sat properly to work it all out, she’d probably have thought that the mud-lump was one of the most ordinary creatures she’d ever seen, and her sisters up in the branches might have said he was quite ugly. So perhaps it’s just as well she didn’t have time to think!
Yet in a flash our Leaf Lady now realised that without her supporting twig, she had no safe place in this world. Everything up there changed and jostled and nothing was secure. Furthermore the wind which blew her off the twig was getting stronger. Soon it would sweep through the forest floor and then she would be blown clean away. So the first words she spoke to the lump of mud were, “Oh my! I never was afraid of the wind before, but now I think I must be swept away from the forest and the home I love.” Indeed the wind was rising up, but the mud-lump, although he was a clod, was also a fast worker.
Lady Leaf is Safe from the Wind
“As I have no fear of the wind”, he said “I shall shield you from all harm, but I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me sitting on top of you” and with that, the mud-lump jumped on top of Lady Leaf, who would normally have been flabbergasted at such an unseemly action. After all he was just a lump of common mud and his dirty body would smudge her pretty sheen, still tinted all with pink. Yet from deep within, she felt that right now she needed a body with some weight, and what other body was ready to help her in this way. Nobody at all!

Lady Leaf thought about her life up in the trees with all her sisters whispering and singing away, and what fine words were used and how good they all made her feel. And then she thought about her life down here on the forest floor lying underneath a clod of sticky mud. For a moment she missed her life ‛up there’ and she even tried to wriggle away, but as soon as she poked out one of her frills she felt the howling of the wind. Then she knew for sure that without the Mud holding her down she’d be blown clean away, and indeed when she opened her eyelid a crack to peep out she saw many of her sisters crying and wailing as they were blown away from home. She found it a little strange not being able to move much, but when she thought about it (and this was the first bit of proper thinking she’d ever done) she could have been out in that wind and completely blown away just like her sisters! The moisture in her beautiful sheen would have dried out. And when she did a bit more proper thinking, she found that being still and quiet in the forest she loved was not so bad after all. In fact, she found it strangely peaceful, and a delicious sense of calm began to flow over her.

After some time the wind stopped blowing and the lump of mud, true gentleman that he was, managed to plop himself away from the Lady Leaf so as to leave her alone. She was a little stained with mud, but being a true Lady at heart she didn’t make unkind comments on inconveniences, especially as the one who had made her all dirty has also saved her life. Indeed, she’d had a lot more time to ponder deep within her self lately. She’d been protected during the wind storm by one who had kept her safe at home, and that’s something which had never happened when she was with her high up friends who never stopped jiggling about. She’d spent a long time with her muddy lump now. He never said much, and he only used a word when it was necessary, and the more she thought about it the more sense it all made. She knew that the mud lump thought only when he needed to think and when that was done, he stopped, content to settle into the forest.
However, something else was now beginning to happen: The sky grew dark overhead as rain clouds gathered and heaved. It looked as if they were going to burst and rain upon the forest. The Leaf was happy at this, and looked forward to being washed all clean so that she could look all shiny and pretty again. But the mud lump felt something he had never known before: He was afraid. A deep unknown fear had crept up behind him. He was moved to think and said out loud, “Lady Leaf! I AM AFRAID! Oh God in Heaven, I am now afraid of rain!” Our Lady looked at him astonished, as she had been feeling quite the opposite, and she sang out in a tinkly voice: “Why?”
Lady Leaf keeps her New Friend Safe from the Rain
The mud lump opened one of his hollows to speak but no word came, chiefly because a new feeling had crept over him and he didn’t have a word for it. “Things are different now” he said. “Many times I’ve crumbled off, in one shape or another, from the forest floor, every time with different bits from here or there, and many times I’ve melted back into Father Earth, sometimes to be reformed again. I never feared the rain before. In fact it was a relief for me to lose my funny shape with all its lumps and bumps; but now, somehow after meeting you, it’s all different. You see I think I’m....”
“Oh shut up!” said Lady Leaf who had always been very quick and rather practical too, “So many words don’t suit you at all. Can’t you see that the rain is going to fall right now? Not long ago you jumped on top of me without a word, and now the time has come for me to jump on top of you!”  
And that’s just what she did. She was far more nimble than the mud could ever be, so she floated rather than jumped, only to be pinned down by the first drops of rain which pattered from the cloud, wrapping herself over the lump of mud, who didn’t melt away into the ground. Furthermore our Lady had a very welcome shower.

Events happen quickly in this tale, although telling them takes longer, and it was only within the space of a minute or two that Lady Leaf had sung her heart out, been torn off her twig, floated like a Queen of the Air, landed on the ground and met a lump of mud who had introduced himself by jumping on top of her when the wind blew. Now their positions had been reversed and she was wrapped tightly around the lump and protecting him from the rain. It was an extraordinary meeting and a most unlikely friendship between two people who were such opposites in every way. Yet they had formed a delicate relationship, and both had changed. Lady Leaf was as beautiful as ever yet somehow the veins in her body ran deeper now; and they were a little drier than they used to be. Of course the mud lump made sure she had as much fresh rain as possible. He kept his body a little wetter than before. By sucking moisture from the ground he was able to give her the occasional massage and mud bath and this certainly helped. Some of the red colour from the Leaf’s earlier anger had now seeped into the mud, and sometimes you could see little streaks of red colour in the body of Our Lump, especially when it was twilight. It was as if he’d had a dab of rouge. Some of the Leaf Ladies remaining high up in the branches caught glimpses of the couple as they went around together. Peeping through the gaps between their crowded sisters they giggled and tittered and said the two had fallen in love, and did you ever hear of such a thing!
Meanwhile on the forest floor the couple continued to weather their storms, but the mud was starting to feel wetter than usual. Truth was that Lady Leaf had lost a lot of her pretty sheen, and every time it rained now she couldn’t quite manage to hold all the water off her lover and protector. One day the sun came out a little more and both had a chance to sit side by side, enjoying the Autumn of their days. Many of her sisters from up above were falling down now. Without protectors they were blown around, often mounding up in heaps in the boles of trees. “I’m glad that things have turned out this way” she said, and meeting you has made me the happiest Lady alive.” The Mud said nothing as he looked at her very deeply. Small holes were appearing in the body of the Leaf where the rain had penetrated, and he knew that they were both going to... “Oh don’t say anything!” laughed the Lady Leaf to the Mud, “Not even in your thought! Bless you, you have always been the Perfect Gentleman, so eager to protect me from myself, so keen to shield me from unkind words. But I know the truth, my dear! Separated from my twig, I cannot live for long. I am drying out, and my life up there and also down here with you is coming to an end.” If you looked at the Mud Lump now, you see he was a little redder than before he’d had a little pink on his cheek.. It was the effect of the slight drying out caused by the hazy Autumn sun.
“Heavy Rain Coming Tonight!” said the Mud. “Lady, will you cover me one last time? We cannot last through the deluge as two, but with your help, we’ll stay together for a little longer!”
“Oh need you ask!” she tinkled in reply: “Where in this planet would I rather be than here with you?”
The couple continued in their special relationship for the rest of the day, smiling, sharing, often joking together, and by the end of the day they both were Ready, happy in the knowledge that come the morn they would both be a couple no longer. The rain arrived, and Lady Leaf jumped on top of her partner. They continued where they always had been, and saw that nothing had really changed. It pelted onto her body and the Mud sighed, a sigh of contentment as more and more rain pelted through the holes in his lady love. Wetter and wetter became the mud and holier and holier became the Lady until she was far more Hole than Leaf. Soon all her colour had gone, and all the flesh tissue between the veins which held it all together. By the end of the night all that remained was a skeleton leaf, and the man she loved had joined joined his Father in the ground.
After that the rain stopped, and the forest fell silent as it waited for the new day to dawn.

Acknowledgement: Many go to Ms Gabriele Ebert, whose sketches provided the fuel and the thrust for this tale.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

An Engrossing Tale. Sort Of.

Drowning RoseDrowning Rose by Marika Cobbold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 I fell straight into this book and became absorbed to such an extent I began to swear every time I was interrupted by somebody wanting something. OK, what they wanted was to remind me that it was time for me to eat, or go to bed; or perhaps I’d care to get into the car which I’d called for earlier and it had been waiting for me for 25 minutes. Annoying irrelevant things like that. Things to do with Me. That’s the extent to which it dragged me away from my own annoyances. Opening my Android phone I pulled up a note, wrote “Did Sodding Life Get In The Way?” and emailing it to myself I added it to the list and put a tick in a new box for my list called Review Criteria. Then I returned to guffawing chuckling, smirking and nearly sniggering at  some of the antics three of the main characters, known as ‛The Princesses’ got up to. The theme outside this clique was unfolded by a fourth girl, Sandra/Cassandra  whom the other three kept excluding from their lives. Many little strings were tweaked for me here, and once the joking, smirking and nearly sniggering had burnt itself out, these situations always twanged the nostalgic air in a minor key. Most of all, the story reminded me of someone I knew a long way back. I loved the odd take she had on life, the pokes she gave to nearly any- and everybody, especially to herself, many little verbal quips which ignited, flared and died away.  Yet underneath this frolicsome, funny and yet rather cruel charade it seemed a deeper purpose was slowly moving, something which was distracting me from the subliminal underflow by all the frill and froth bubbling away in front of me. I tensed myself and waited for my jaw to drop .

The story kept me thinking further back to my own childhood as I remembered how desperately I wanted to make friends with other children, especially boys; yet most boys spent their time lying on their stomachs ruffling bedsheets and candlewick covers into mountains, dales crevasses canyons and rolling plains. They were positioning their little plastic soldiers into the smooth steps and slopes formed by the sheets. Many of the men were half-folded in a crouching position with rifles mounted on their knees. This set was ‛our’ people I was told, and the opposite set of people were called ‛Jerries’. The game was to lie in ambush behind folded rocks,  ruffled trees and crimped-up bushes  going “ack-ack blam-blam-blam!” to see how many ‛Jerries’ you could shoot down. It was all rather horrid. Considering my Dad himself had been a decade out of The War as a fighter pilot he must have been engaged in this, yet he’d always remained silent at home. When I wouldn’t join in with these boys they labelled me ‛sissy’ and some of the nurses added that if I didn’t like playing with boys I should have to play with girls instead. Which is exactly what I did.

The girls with their loves and hates sometimes spat poison at me like “Today we’re all ganging up on you” or “Linda says your radio’s no good ’cos it crackles” which would come out in an early morning hiss, followed later on by the making up with its love and smiles and whispered conversations about ‛Who’s going to cuddle Johnny next?’ or ‛Has anyone seen his willy?’ It all came hurtling back to flood my mind. Yet Drowning Rose was far more than these memories of half a century. Here it was the use of words and the gentle self-mocking of the protagonist — a girl called Eliza, who had grown on to restore porcelain pottery — which had me captivated and enthralled. A lady who loves to mend things in this broken world will always have a firm place in my heart.  Lovely phrases like “sitting there as if he belonged, the glass of wine in his hand, his legs outstretched, cutting the kitchen floor in half” and “This bore the nose-print of my mother and I had wanted to ask her to please not put ideas into an old man’s head” were examples which lingered with me for a long time. Here was a lady whose words and me would I hope make very merry partners.

On this ghastly system of awarding ‛Stars’ to the book, I was thinking Five Stars, Five Stars all the way. I just couldn’t think of any other score for it. At times I was chuckling till my chest hurt and I had to take a drink of water. In fact I was high on the ride of the narrative and I kept on wanting more.

Yet sadly the hope of finding a new author whose work I could merrily munch through became a little jaded when I reached the section titled “Cass and Ben”. I was puzzled at the complete shift in tone. It wasn’t that another element was being brought in, as I was expecting a gear change at some point in the narrative. It was just that the change was so sudden, so different; so alien that I checked my ebook several times to ensure that I hadn’t somehow jumped into the middle of another tale. I now seemed to be in a pulp fiction novel I’d picked up from the Bangalore Bus Station in 1985. I told myself never mind, it will all fall together and make sense. And fall together it did in a way which was OK. Sort Of. Still I kept asking myself “How?” “Does the way this falls together work as well as the rest of the tale?” and sadly it didn’t.
    For me it’s a matter of what you come to expect. The more the writing engages me, and the more it  holds me in thrall, so the more I anticipate —and require— that the standard be maintained. So any shift which is below par and below tone in the harmony of the piece cannot entirely work. Nonetheless I had a hell of a time with this story and would love to have given it its Five Stars. Miss Cobbold’s exercise didn’t quite pull off though, which is a shame as it’s such a good story and there’s plenty of meat and trimmings here. If only a few extra resources had been applied to giving it a good brush, comb and spray before the final presentation to the public it would have been a cut far above what the ‛Princesses’ in the narrative could have managed.  
    When I look back on it, I certainly enjoyed it. But the strange jarring of the Cass and Ben chapter with its sad consequences  certainly worked. But only Sort Of, and to an extent which appeared more limited every time I looked at it. I just couldn’t quite get rid of that feeling of being let down at the end. My jaw opened slightly, but it never really dropped. I’d been on a good ride, and I know the author has plenty of other rides available. So would I fork out on another one? Certainly the reader could do a lot worse than reading Miss Cobbold’s books. Yet many other artists out there have lots of different rides nuzzling me in all the right places and I’m giving their call more attention than listening to the capable harp of this author. It will be yet awhile before my hand lands on this author again when I give my book carousel another spin.

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