Tuesday Fiction: “On the Feast of Stephen” by Cyril Simsa
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Cyril Simsa. Cyril Simsa is originally from London, but has lived in the Czech Republic since the 1990s. He has contributed translations and non-fiction to a wide variety of genre publications (including Foundation, Locus, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and Wormwood). His stories have appeared in Electric Velocipede, StarShipSofa, Music for Another World, and occasionally also in Czech translation. The present story was first published, in a version by Eva Hauserová, in the Czech anthology Cynické fantazie [Cynical Fantasies], ed. Milan Petrák & Zdeněk Rampas (Millennium Publishing, 2011). Another story is forthcoming shortly in the German online magazine InterNova.
This is the story’s first publication.
On the Feast of Stephen
Just about every nation in Europe has its tale of a legendary hero, who lies sleeping under a hill, ready and eager to come to the rescue in its hour of greatest need.
King Arthur. Bran the Blessed. Charlemagne. We’ve all heard of them.
The thing that hadn’t occurred to me—the thing that hadn’t occurred to any of us, when we set off into the woods—was that, what with the history of migration in Central Europe, we couldn’t be sure whose warrior was sleeping where, or whom we would end up summoning.
I don’t remember which of us first came up with the idea that we should spend the Christmas break out on the hilltops, or who first noticed that St Stephen’s Day—December 26th—was also a new moon that year. It might have been Marketa, our high priestess, or Treestump (his real name, for Czech surnames are nothing if not descriptive). Or maybe it was Marx, who was always trying to match up the planetary ephemeris with the Communist Manifesto. Whatever, the net result was that, while the Czech nation dozed off in front of their televisions, struggling to digest their heavy seasonal diet of carp soup and potato salad, we were parking our van at the foot of Great Blanik, the heavily wooded hill where Good King Wenceslas was said to rest.
It seemed strange to be worrying about global warming, down by the side of the icy road, for it was much colder out here in the country, surrounded by barren fields and the frozen whorls of muddy streams, than it had ever been in Prague. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the weather was still far warmer than it should have been—just barely a couple of degrees below zero, with no more than a hint of ashy dust between the trees, when really, we should have been snow-bound—and that no greater calamity would ever threaten the well-being of the nation than the prospect of a collapsing climate. Indeed, it could endanger the nation’s very survival, for who knew where we would all be driven by shifting weather patterns and the great exodus from the South?
The Czechs had always prayed to St Wenceslas in times of crisis, and now so would we. At least that was Marketa’s plan. Marketa, whose English cognate, Margaret, had given its name to the magpie, totem animal of the original lunar priestesses of the Slavs, and whose inconstant eye gathered to itself the moon and the stars, and the whole chymical fabric of the velvety summer night. Marketa, whose animal name-sake once a year stole the fading disc of the sun, and hid him under the icy roots of the trees, until his rebirth in the dark of the solstice.
And it was with Marketa in the lead that we headed off into the green.
Great Blanik is a glum and oppressive hill. Still covered in places by the original old-growth beech forest, now diluted by spruce and pine, it rises up out of the countryside like a giant Neolithic burial mound, its summit demarcated by the tumble-down remains of a Celtic hill fort and spooky natural rock formations, its broader hinterlands spanned by an ancient trading route. It looms up over the fields, like a sump for the back-wash of history—the forgotten tides of a much earlier state of being. It is not hard to imagine it at the centre of some carefully stone-built fiefdom. Its dominance is palpable. And, as dusk started to highlight the flickering windows of the far-flung villages beneath our parking spot, we picked up the knapsacks in which we had stowed our magical gear—all our ritual props and clutter—and set off along the darkening holloway to retrace the footsteps of those tens of thousands of pilgrims, who had visited these paths before. Our ancestors, or at least our antecessors. All those peoples and cultures whose lot it had been to precede us, and—who knows?—perhaps also to follow us in the endless round of unconscious genetic recombination that sweeps through our past like a zephyr.
It did not take us long to leave the everyday world far behind. As soon as the edge of the wood passed out of the field of our vision, the centuries seemed to close in, like the groves of the mammoth taiga, the feeble light of our torches barely denting the immemorial darkness. Our feet scrunched on the frost-rimed leaves like the ticking of a clock on the day of creation, while our breath streamed out in our wake like the shadows of a stratigraphy that was, if anything, even older. By the time we reached the summit, we could have been in any geological era from the Upper Pleistocene to the far-flung dying future of a Wells or a Hodgson. Only the present moment seemed real.
As we started to unload our kit, Marketa and Treestump quickly took charge. We had already agreed we would build a fire in the shelter of the two gneiss outcrops, not only to give us light to work by, but also as a link to the reality of the past—the way people had lived before Edison, before the Wizard of Menlo, at the flick of a switch, had turned off the lamp-black centuries. That task fell to Marx and Agrafena and Julia Goizenboded. Cupertina and Vercundia were set to unpacking and unravelling the costumes, which had somehow always belonged amongst our group’s favourite ritual items, while Vernal and I had the job of clearing the ground of sharp sticks and stones, and those rather less savoury fragments of detritus that so often seemed to infest any location that was prone to the DT’s. Day-trippers, that is. Marketa and Treestump, meanwhile, did, well, whatever it is that shamans and high priestesses do to prepare themselves for a performance…
Soon, all too soon, we were ready.
Marketa—her slender body draped in her favourite indigo robe, and her long, wavy hair framed by a silver lunar headdress—led. Treestump—his naked torso stocky and muscular, and hairy enough to give the impression he was sprouting a layer of moss—seconded, in a necklace of dried beech leaves and antlers. While the rest of us, dressed up in a strange mixture of fake fur and polished stone amulets and animal masks—wolves with jet bangles, rabbits with amber rings and brooches, wild cats with claws of haematite—followed. In retrospect, I suppose it must all have been pretty incongruous, out there in the woods, but I’d seen so many peculiar juxtapositions in town—so many weird combinations of celebrant and ornament, in the pagan salons of the suburbs—I thought no more about it. It was just how we worked.
Two of the boys had brought their drums with them, and as we started to dance around the fire, their able fingers began to tap out a rhythm that matched the clustered stanzas of our footfalls. And, as the rest of us shuffled along in a kind of timeless gavotte with the drummers, Marketa and Treestump pulled out a couple of slender, fluted swords, spinning their polished blades around their heads in complex ellipses, flashing gold in the darkness, until we were all dizzy.
I couldn’t tell you who had first suggested that the swordsmith should use copper, but it was certainly effective. The ruddy blades glowed the colour of a giant red sun in the firelight, evoking memories of the diffuse carnelian sunset of the deepest midwinter, or an obliquely refracted premonition of the end of time. Maybe the original idea had been to reflect the sunrise, the awakening of the Lord of Light from his cold, dark, terrestrial womb—the fall of the Spruce King and the rise of the Beech King, the death and rebirth of the seasons—but the end result was decidedly one of decay and decline. Like a fin-de-siecle lithograph of a dying pagan priestess evoking the flames of Svantovit, printed in a combination of gold and violet on a background of rose madder. Like the murky bronze livery that disguised the petticoats of the notorious Satan Cep. Like a pool of the King’s dried blood.
I have no idea how many of us were really expecting the ritual to come to anything. Judging by our previous success rate, perhaps none of us. So it came as something of a surprise when the forest began to stir, as if in response to our footfalls.
At first, it was just the vaguest of impressions that the reflection of the flames in the trees was growing wilder—the shadows, more fluid, the rustling of the leaves, louder. Gradually, though, it began to dawn on me that the earth itself was trembling. It was almost as if the cold, hard dirt might, after all, be giving birth to the much-prophesied child of the solstice. As if the very ground had decided to take on a new life of its own, after a long and difficult confinement. But it was not until the dry spruces started to fall around our fire-pit, with a shriek like a thousand basilisks, that we really knew we were in trouble.
Up to this point, we had all done our best to carry on as if nothing was happening. As if standing around at the epicentre of a potentially lethal firestorm was something we did every day. But now, even Marketa—for all her patrician manner, and her Goddess-given self-belief—faltered. She stopped in the ruins of our scattered circle, her long, elegant arms frozen in mid-gesture, her silver crown slipping down the back of her neck. She turned uncertainly to survey the tree-lined nave of her church and her acolytes, and though her eyes still reflected that same incongruous shade of chicory blue we all found so fascinating, they now also bore an expression of strain and anxiety. I think it was the very first time any of us had seen her hesitate .
She spun on her heel, her body slumping forward, the haunted look about her eyes deepening. She raised her arms and clasped them protectively around her head, as if she was being attacked by a swarm of invisible wasps. As if it had finally occurred to her to look for an exit.
Even as the whole raggle-taggle bunch of us retreated to the edge of the clearing, the outcrops where we had built our fire began to open up like a pair of orchids, and the earth bulged upwards, as if a giant mole was coming up for air, direct from the banks of the Styx. Or at least its Central European tributary.
And then he stood before us. Good King Wenceslas—patron saint of the Czechs and, we hoped, saviour of humanity—complete with his mount. Not for him the mealy-mouthed subservience to corporate interests and the dubious blue bird of freedom we had come to expect from our present-day political leaders. Not for him the world of coalition and compromise. Here, I was willing to wager, was a true warrior—a hero who would be glad to take on his role as defender of the faith and standard-bearer of total victory. Here, at last, was a man who would assess the state of the world in its full complexity, and act for the benefit of the whole nation. For him, it would be all or nothing.
True, he was a little smaller that I might have expected, but then, people were shorter in the past, weren’t they? And he had no shortage of manly qualities. Even from a distance, I could see his body was hard and muscular. He was dressed in an absolutely filthy leather jerkin that any normal city dweller, in their modernity, could have smelled from several paces, but somehow that did nothing to detract from his masculinity. Perhaps just the opposite. His eyes were protected by a pair of unusually prominent brow-ridges, and his hair was pulled back from a sloping forehead in a complex top-knot. He had prominent teeth, filed to triangular points, and a set of strangely spiralling tattoos that covered the naked expanse of his face and neck and hands pretty much completely. His heavy boots were spattered with mud and flecks of something white, which even by fire-light looked suspiciously like fragments of bone—to say nothing of the rusty brown stains on his leggings…
His horse was brawny and squat, and evidently used to heavy lifting—its build reminded me of nothing so much as a baby rhinoceros—with a crude verdigris-stained bit in its mouth, and leather armour around its head. It stamped impatiently, as if the one thing it craved most, after all these centuries, was a bit of exercise. Preferably violent.
They were not a pretty sight. And, wherever they had come from, it did not take me long to realise this was not the same Wenceslas that Jirasek, and all those other well-meaning nineteenth-century Christians, had imagined during the Czech National Revival. No, this Wenceslas, with his shaman’s breath and his tribal markings, was of a more distant, and altogether more ancient, provenance. Not alien, exactly, but certainly not from Schengen. The representative of another of those endless warrior castes that had periodically swept in from the plains of Asia. Pre-modern. Perhaps, even, judging by the look of him, pre-human.
He peered around at our circle short-sightedly, as if struggling to get his bearings, and it was clear he was as perplexed by us, as we were by him. A look of bemusement crossed his face, and for a moment he seemed almost to pinch himself. Then, muttering something wheezing and guttural, in what I presume must have been some kind of language—though to my untrained ears it sounded more like the gabbling of a phthisic dwarf—he turned his horse around smartly, and rode away into the dark.
For a few seconds, there was silence. But if we had assumed that, with his departure, our ordeal would be over, we were wrong. Before we could begin to relax, the ground heaved again, and another knight followed.
And another. And another.
We counted thirteen in all, including Wenceslas himself, before the night was still.
And then, at last, as the dust finally settled on the frosty ground, I allowed myself to look at my companions. None of them wanted to meet my gaze. But, if their expressions were anything to go by, they must have been just as confused as I was, and just as dismayed at the prospect that this might all be real. Of course, we’ve all read reports in the newspapers about mass hallucinations and mob psychosis, but it’s quite another thing to experience something like that first-hand. To feel the presence—the sheer, awesome physicality—of something so manifestly impossible. To accept the irrationality of the moment, the derangement of your being and your senses. Just, for once, to lose control.
At first, I was afraid Treestump might use the opportunity to launch into one of his annoying and inapposite monologues—he was always a talker—but in the end nobody said anything. Not even Marketa. We simply dispersed quietly to our separate homes, and though we never took a vow of silence or anything, we might as well have done.
I heard nothing from anyone in the following days. Indeed, it was a couple of weeks before I could even bear to think of seeing them, and by that time it was all too clear it had been no hallucination. That our real dilemma would be coming to terms with what, in our well-meaning naiveté, we had done.
Yes, just about every nation in Europe has its tale of a legendary hero, who lies sleeping under a hill, ready and eager to come to the rescue in its hour of greatest need. But who knows where these myths have their origins? Are they really just wishful memories from the historical record, or are they far older than that?
What if the sleeper has been watching over the country far longer than we have? What if the spirit of the land lay down to rest not in the romantic glow of knights errant and damsels in distress and the pursuit of the Graal, but in the lunatic fire of an altogether stranger and more ancient stratigraphy? Chthonic. Tectonic. Atlantean, or worse… What if our national hero should emerge from the ground as the avatar of some long-forgotten race from beyond any fully human notion of time, rising like some latter-day conquistador out of the great Indo-European grasslands and, like every conquistador, bringing his own agenda with him…?
Yes, Good King Wenceslas, or Arthur the Bear, or whoever it was we had summoned, came riding in from his antique land, accompanied not only by his nameless horde, but also by any number of interesting, previously extinct Palaeolithic diseases.
Kandahar plague. Pre-human immune deficiency virus. Sudden acute respiratory consumptive syndrome. Plains Ebola. Bear flu.
And, for a time, I thought that, far from being our defender and champion, he had turned out to be the Fourth Horseman. But, on reflection, had we not gone into the woods and begged him to save us from global warming? And by wiping out our cities, and reducing our population, and leaving the world in the hands of the low-carbon civilisation of the steppe, has he not done just that?
Which only goes to show that our planet has a great deal more sense than we have.
Our mother, Gaia, with her tough love.
Our cousin, Artos, from the distaff side of the family.
And our not-so-selfish genes, which have finally decided to put right the transcription error that accompanied our migration out of Africa, when we started to build our empires.
We, the Cro-Magnon.
The children of steel and fire.
The most dangerous plague of all.
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