No 5 - 1982
Cranstone Enters the Darkness
Randolph Cranstone is sitting at the window of his study gazing at his estate in the grip of winter. Rime covers the grass running down to the lake. The lake itself is thinly coated with ice that holds the bulrushes round the bank in its cold clutches, so that only the upper part sways slightly with the movements of the air. The trees of the wood are bare and their leafless branches point in all directions, tangled signposts that would leave a traveller in a state of bewilderment and indecision.
Indecision dominates Cranstone’s frame of mind as he looks away from the window at the book-lined walls of his study. Ought he to give himself over to the printed word, the dreams or the lives of others, or ought he once more to go out into the world - the world of his estate or the wider world beyond ? He looks at his hands. They bear no scars. The events of his last excursion, then, have left no mark. He knows that it is time to venture out once more, but he cannot escape misgivings. Misgivings that are intensified by the fact that it is winter. Never before has he set out in winter. The inhospitable appearance of the outside world makes his study seem all the more a haven of warmth and security. He sinks into a leather easy chair and reflects on the alternatives before him: on the one hand, a continuance of the comfortable but somnolent existence he has lately been leading; on the other, who knows what exciting or distressing adventures.
With a sigh, Cranstone rises, puts on an overcoat and a woolly hat and steps out into the cold.
His first objective is the lake. As he left the house he picked up a walking stick. With this stick he taps the ice on the lake. Immediately it splits in two and ice and water together part and move back, forming two walls on either side of a muddy path across the bottom of the lake. Cranstone steps off the bank and into the mud. Another pace and he sinks through the mud, which closes behind him. Cranstone is in another world, a world of light. Above his head is a ceiling that sparkles as though with precious stones. But although he is surrounded by light where he stands, ahead of him there stretches a dark tunnel.
Gazing with trepidation into this tunnel, which he knows he must enter, Randolph Cranstone regrets the comfortable study he has left. He regrets too that he has come alone, unaccompanied by his faithful comrade, the red-haired Moira. Taking a firm grasp of his stick, the closest thing he has to a companion, Cranstone steps forward into the tunnel.
The darkness that fills the tunnel has the consistency of softly yielding velvet, and as Cranstone passes through it, it gives off a low rustling sound as of fingers brushing over satin. This sound grows louder and louder, until it reaches an almost deafening crescendo. Meanwhile, as though in harmony with the sound, the darkness is shot through with flashes of colour, at first dark purples, blues and greens, then increasingly bright reds, oranges and yellows. As the sound dies down to a low hum, the colours merge into a single rich magenta that continues in a rhythmic undulation accompanying Cranstone in his forward march.
Cranstone knows that he will emerge from this tunnel into a new world, a world within the world, more real and lasting than the world outside; but he has no idea what this world will be like.
As he walks on, the humming sound becomes mingled with the bellow and roar of wild beasts, the hiss of serpents, the cackle and caw of birds. Cranstone shudders with a malaise that is not fear, but only a reflex reaction of the nerves. He knows that whatever dangers may lie in wait for him will not befall him in the tunnel but in the world to which the tunnel leads. The tunnel itself is only an introduction, a scene-setting for the real action to follow.
As he walks on, Cranstone reviews in his mind all the elements of which this world might be composed, all the people, all the landscapes from his past that might reappear in it. Names and faces pass before his inner eye; mountains, rivers, forests, rocks, gardens, intimate fragments of landscape, single trees, moss-covered banks, secluded corners on the shores of lakes or beneath the overhanging branches of a flowering shrub return to his memory asking to be repeated, to be relived. No doubt he could accede to their request, did he so wish. But he is determined, so far as possible, to enter a new reality never experienced before. He is only too well aware that nothing is entirely new, that what appears new is permeated with elements of the old, that the future is only a transmutation of the past. But he is resolved not wittingly to reconstruct the future from the past.
While these thoughts were occupying his mind Cranstone had come very close to the mouth of the tunnel, which now emerged before him as a circle of light. As he reached the opening and looked out he found himself confronted by a wide plain or savannah on which herds of animals of all kinds were grazing together in peaceful harmony.
Some intuition told Cranstone that once he had stepped out of the tunnel into this landscape its peace and tranquillity would be disrupted, that the animals grazing side by side in amity would know, because ho knew, that they were each other’s enemies, that some were predators and some were prey, and that carnage would take the place of this idyll. For this reason, Cranstone sat down at the mouth of the tunnel, his legs crossed and his hands on his knees, and watched the scene before him without attempting to participate in it.
The roaring in the tunnel, which had grown fainter as he approached the mouth, now rose to a fresh crescendo and soon afterwards a multitude of formless black shapes came tumbling out, brushing against him as they passed, and bounded down the mountainside towards the animals grazing below. These shapes, which had the appearance of cumbrous, deformed beasts, fell upon the peaceful grazing animals and began to tear them to pieces, The animals of the plain seemed unable to see their attackers. Instead of defending themselves against them, they turned against one another, attacking or fleeing according to their respective natures. Soon the plain was empty of all but the dead. The attacking monsters had melted back into the mountainside and from the tunnel behind him Cranstone heard the same low hum as before the holocaust.
Having no further reason to restrain himself, Cranstone walked down the mountainside into the plain.
As he descended, he became acutely aware of the contrast between the wide, empty whiteness of the plain before him and the dark constriction of the tunnel behind him. The desolate expanse ahead attracted him not at all, but nor did the black inferno behind. In any case, he felt, even if he wished to retrace his steps, he would almost certainly find re-entry into the tunnel barred to him. He therefore continued down the mountainside and began to walk across the plain.
Even as he took the first few steps into the plain a change began to take place. Shadowy buidings began to rise up around him, white marble structures of oriental appearance, interspersed with palm trees, small lakes or tanks bearing lotuses and waterlilies, colourful shrubs, all of them, to begin with, transparent and insubstantial like a mirage. Gradually, however, as he walked on, the buildings, the vegetation, the water took on substance and became real.
Soon Cranstone found himself entering the courtyard of a temple. In the centre of the courtyard stood a single tree covered in purple blossoms. Feeling drawn to this tree, Cranstone approached it. When he was a few feet from it, the tree changed instantly into a beautiful young woman in a purple sari, who introduced herself with the words: “I am Maya, Queen of Darkness, Princess of Illusion. I am to be your guide in this world of delusions.”
So saying, she took Cranstone by the arm and led him into the temple, where swirling incense, throbbing drums and hypnotic chanting so confused his senses that he lost all sense of time and place.
Words, eyes, lips, voices, strands of hair and falling flowers crowded in upon him, accompanied by the droning of an organ. Against this turbulent background there formed ever more clearly the image of Maya unwinding her sari, unwinding her sari, unwinding her sari, like a strip of film run through the projector in never-ending repetition. Cranstone’s mind was caught up in the endless river of silk and spun round and round. A feeling of oppression gripped his chest and constricted his entrails. He longed to escape and yet he was fascinated by his own sensations. He held on tight to some invisible rope, striving to save himself from being swept away on the tide of his visions. He let go and was carried away, far away it seemed, past banks dotted with clumps of flowers, past villages whose inhabitants stared at him without apparent surprise, past reedbeds in which huge birds were nesting that peered at him with impassive eyes and craned their necks forward with outstretched beaks but without rising from their nests. Gradually the speed of his advance slowed until finally he came to a stop and found himself, nor in the temple, but in Maya’s bedchamber with Maya sitting beside the bed on which he was lying and looking at him with an enigmatic smile.
Cranstone felt exhausted, as though the experiences he had been through in his mind had been real. In spite of the charm of the room and Maya’s beauty, he felt out of harmony with his surroundings, as though he were an alien and unwelcome presence unable to respond in the right way to the demands of his environment - and yet the environment was making no demands on him whatever.
He lay back, closed his eyes and listened to the soughing of the wind in enormous trees that must be swaying to and fro very nearby. When he opened his eyes he saw the great branches up above rocking this way and that as though struggling to break free from some restraining force. Fearing that they might fall, Cranstone would have fled, but he found that his wrists and ankles were tied and it was impossible for him to move from the spot. He closed his eyes again. Darkness came over him and rolled him down a slope into the water of a waiting lake. Floating on his back, Randolph turned himself into a canoe, his head and feet curving up to form the prow and the stern. Maya boarded him and paddled out across the water. In the centre of the lake, over which a thin mist was hanging, she took a pile of books from the bottom of the canoe and dropped them one by one into the water, saying as they sank into the depths: “Fish, read and know.’’
Then, with a quick flick of the paddle, Maya spun the canoe round and drove it swiftly to the shore. As the prow cut into the soft soil of the bank Randolph regained his human shape and sprang ashore.
Seating himself cross-legged on the grass. he looked round for Maya; but she was nowhere to be seen - unless a tall purple lotus growing a few feet from the bank … Cranstone’s attention was diverted from speculation as to the possible identity of this strikingly beautiful lotus, whose presence he had not observed before, by the approach of an ornate and luxurious looking barge that was being rowed across the lake towards him by two gigantic negroes. Seated in the stern of this barge, in regal splendour, was a young and lovely woman whom he immediately recognised as Queen Nefertiti, wife of Akhnaton, the Sun King of Ancient Egypt. Randolph was so bewitched by this vision of royalty and beauty that he remained sitting where he was as the barge came to a halt against the bank of the lake directly in front of him. One of the two rowers gestured to him to rise and enter the boat. In a kind of daze Randolph did so, his eyes fixed unwaveringly upon Queen Nefertiti, who acknowledged his arrival with an almost imperceptible movement of the head and eyelids.
As soon as he was aboard, the rowers turned the boat and headed back the way they had come. Before his eyes the Lake was transformed into a river, a river which Randolph, although he had never seen it before, immediately recognised as the Nile.
Randolph was seated on a pile of skins on the floor of the vessel, gazing up at Nefertiti who was seated on a kind of platform at the stern. They exchanged no words, but some sort of understanding seemed to have been reached between them.
After a while, the river, which till then had flowed between sandy banks surmounted by palm trees, entered a city. Here the rowers tied up alonside a marble quay from which steps led directly to the imposing portals of a palace, through which they entered a luxurious hall cooled by fountains and green plants. Here they were greeted by a number of young women who, on orders from Nefertiti, led Randolph away to a different part of the palace. Speaking a language that was entirely familiar to Randolph, even though he had never heard it before, the young women - evidently servants of Nefertiti - explianed to Randolph that he was to be bathed and dressed in fresh clothes. Immediately afterwards he was stripped naked and invited to step down into a pool let into the floor of what was clearly to be his apartment.
Having washed himself in the limpid water of this pool Randolph climbed out and was at once anointed with scented oils by the waiting women. After this they began to dress him. Randolph was struck by the fineness and softness of the garments and somewhat surprised by their character. Once he was dressed two of the women began to apply to his face what could only be makeup, completing the process by placing a wig of long hair on his head.
When the women had finished their ministrations they brought Randolph a bronze mirror, into which he gazed with a kind of horrified fascination not unmixed with a faint tingle of delight: what he saw in the mirror was a strikingly attractive woman bearing only a distant resemblance to his former self and dressed in the most gorgeous and obviously costly raiment.
A woman who was evidently the leader of the group, since she had supervised all the operations from the outset without taking any direct part in them herself, now approached Randolph and explained to him that this was the role that Nefertiti had chosen for him and that he should adapt himself to it in every way. She then pointed out the armed eunuchs standing by the walls of the apartment and informed Randolph that should he forget his role as a woman, these eunuchs were under orders from Nefertiti to render him like themselves. Randolph shuddered at this terrible threat and resloved to avoid any pretext for its execution.
That evening Randolph dined with Nefertiti, who greeted him affectionately and called him “My sister”. Her beauty was such that it induced in him an awed admiration which, for the moment at least, excluded male desires, a fact for which, under the circumstances, he was profoundly grateful.
The days and nights passed in a kind of dream or trance. Randolph wandered about the palace at will, sometimes accompanied by Queen Nefertiti, sometimes attended by one of her women. He sat in the shade of palms beside cool fountains or bathed in the numerous pools let into the marble floor. He began to write again and was struck by the extreme refinement of what he wrote. His writing had a gossamer quality, a delicacy as of dew-pearled cobwebs or jewels sparkling by candlelight. It would, he supposed, be called decadent by many, but in his present guise it pleased him. He knew that he would have to exclude it from the canon of his work, but somewhere, he was sure, he would find a place for it. At the same time Randolph was embarrassingly aware that he was paying for his idyllic existence, luxurious surroundings and perfect working conditions by the acceptance of a a psychological emasculation imposed upon him by the threat of physical emasculation; that lie was masquerading as something he was not and that he was accepting from Queen Nefertiti a friendship offered to him only so long as he remained willing to play the role which, for reasons of her own, she had seen fit to allot him. For the time being, however, his revolt against these circumstances was far too weak by comparison with the pleasure he derived from them to lead to any action.
To further weaken his spirit of revolt to the point at which it was virtually non-existent, Nefertiti had soon taken to visiting Randolph’s bed at night and sharing with him pleasures that were none the less intense because they were based on the continued acceptance of his false role as a woman. The scales were overwhelmingly weighted in favour of such acceptance and only some kind of irrational pride, sonic atavistic sense of machismo still nagged him with its abhorrent prodding, which he would willingly have silenced for ever.
And so Randolph continued to write delicate, gemlike poems about the rustling of palm fronds, the drip of cool fountains on a not afternoon, the pleasure of resting in the shade beneath the wafting breeze of a feather fan, and tributes to the exotic beauty of Nefertiti, his sister and his mistress in more senses than one. And he continued to take a delight in the colourful silks in which he was clothed, the sparkling jewellery with which he was adorned and his own painted beauty reflected in the mirror or in the waters of a pool. But he was uncomfortably aware of the slaves who suffered to make all this possible. Sometimes he caught a whiff of blood among the scents of the flowers and every now and then the crack of a whiplash or an anguished groan introduced a jarring note among the singing of birds or the soft twang of musical instruments. At such times Randolph wrinkled his nose or sought to stop his ears, but a slight speeding of his heart-beat revealed only too clearly that he could both smell and hear.
This situation continued unchanged for a period whose duration Randolph did not trouble to note. Then one evening he observed in a corner of his room a drum. He was puzzled by the question of who could have put it there and why, or, if it had been there all the time, how he could have failed to notice it before. Since he had no way of answering this question, however, he dismissed it from his mind and sat down to play the drum. After a quiet and hesitant beginning Cranstone began to play more and more loudly and vigorously. As he played, the sweat ran down his face, washing away the makeup with which it was daubed. As his fervour increased still further, he cast off his clothes one by one until he was stripped to a loincloth. He slowed down, tapered off both the loudness and the speed of his playing and finally ceased altogether.
He looked about him. Strangely enough, considering the volume of sound he had produced, no one had come to investigate. He was still all alone. He became filled with an overwhelming desire to leave this place and return to a more normal existence. He walked out of his apartment without interference, made his way down to the riverside and stepped into a boat moored at the foot of the steps. He cast off, picked up the oars and rowed off in the direction from which he had originally come. In a surprisingly short time, he was back at the point on the riverbank from which he had set out on his jouney to the palace in the company of Queen Nefertiti.
With a single vigorous stroke, Cranstone beached the boat; then he stepped ashore and sat down in the shade of a tree by the bank. Becoming aware of a feeling of discomfort in his stomach, he looked down. His belly was strangely swollen and he felt a movement inside it. On a sudden impulse, he seized a pointed stick and gouged a hole in his side. Immediately a host of small but monstrously deformed creatures poured out one after the other a winged rat, a two-headed frog, a monkey with four arms and four legs and other creatures that he could not even identify as variations on existing animals. The column of monstrosities plunged into the water of the river and completely disappeared. The hole in Cranstone’s side closed up, leaving not even a scar. His belly assumed its normal shape and the feeling of physical discomfort was gone; never the less, Cranstone was prey to a mental uneasiness provoked by the fear that this inexplicable incident might be repeated, perhaps several times over. If he had known the cause he would have felt less worried, since it would have been within his power to avoid its recurrence. Since he had no inkling as to what might have brought it about, however, he felt helpless in the knowledge that there were no concrete steps he could take to prevent it from happening again. Although he experienced no ill-effects, he was convinced that a repetition - and, above all, a series of repetitions - would prove disastrous. Nothing of the sort happened.
In a basket among the reeds a black cat is curled. It is not asleep. Its open eyes are similar in colour, and even in shape, to the leaves of the reeds that rustle around it with a sound like a low purr.
From our hiding-place among the bushes we hear the sound of running feet. It is Randolph Cranstone racing along the path beside the river. As he passes the cat it leaps out at him. Apparently he was expecting it, for without turning his head he delivers a karate chop with his right hand that catches the cat in the stomach and sends it flying back among the reeds. Cranstone runs on. The cat climbs out of the water, shakes its wet fur - and turns into a black stallion that sets off after Cranstone at a furious gallop. Cranstone hears it behind him and just as it is about to reach him with neck outstretched, flying mane and teeth bared he grabs the branch of a tree above his head and swings himself up out of reach. Pulling himself up onto the branch, he stands erect and then climbs one branch higher up the tree.
The stallion turns back into a cat and begins to climb the tree after Cranstone. As it reaches him Cranstone tries once more to ward it off with a karate chop. But this time the cat is ready. As Cranstone tries desperately to defend himself, the tree loses its balance and falls with Cranstone and the cat into the river. As it falls the tree catches fire and when it sinks into the river the water turns to steam, which rises with such force that Cranstone and the cat are hurled back onto the path as though by the jet from a geyser.
Once they have recovered from the shock, Cranstone and the cat assail one another with destructive fury. While they are fighting, the stallion gallops up. Cranstone and the cat are propelled onto its back by some invisible force - or are they each animated by the desire to escape from the other ?
However that may be, the two of them are carried off out of sight, and only the pounding of hooves reminds us of the scene we have just witnessed.
In a corner of an uncultivated field stands a girl with long black hair holding a hunch of red roses. In the diagonally opposite corner stands Randolph Cranstone. In the third corner of the field lies a rusty plough half overgrown by grass and weeds. Cranstone advances to the centre of the field, then comes to a stop. The plough, rousing itself from its age-old lethargy, speeds across the field towards Cranstone, leaving a furrow in its wake. As it reaches him, Cranstone deflects it with a gesture of his hand and the plough heads towards the girl. Halfway between Cranstone and the girl, the plough stops. Cranstone realises that it is waiting for him to take a hand. He walks up to it and grips the handles. Immediately, the plough is set in motion and moves rapidly towards the girl, so fast that Cranstone can only just keep up with it. As it nears the girl, she takes two steps forward and stands with legs apart. The coulter passes between her legs and the plough comes to a stop. The girl throws the roses onto the plough, which is immediately set in motion again, moving, this time, towards the fourth corner of the field, carrying the girl upon it and dragging Cranstone behind it. In the fourth corner of the field is a pond. The plough plunges into the pond, carrying the girl and dragging Cranstone with it. The plough, the girl and Cranstone disappear beneath the water, leaving the roses floating on the surface - the only sign, together with the twisting furrow left by the plough in its dash across the field, of the singular events we have just witnessed. In time the roses sink out of sight and some while after grass grows over the furrow, obliterating the last trace of the presence of Cranstone and the girl in this field. We must assume that they themselves are now far away.
With an effort, Randolph Cranstone pulled himself together. He rose and made his way up the grass slope leading from the water’s edge to the white mansion at the top. Here he hoped to be able to collect his thoughts and make a fresh start. He walked down the columned arcade, mounted the stairs and went into his study, from where, seated in his chair by the window, he could look out over his estate in the red, brown and gold of autumn. A pale sun was casting the usual leaf shadows on the grass and it was, perhaps, the message, written by these shadows that impelled Cranstone, after only a very short rest for recuperation, to go back out into his estate again.
This message, though he could not put it into words, had appeared t:o he of an imperative character, an order or, at the very least, a piece of advice which it would be unwise to ignore.
He walked down to the border of the lake and gazed at its enigmatic surface, at once dull in colour ( a dark, muddy green) and shiny in texture - like a polished bloodstone, opaque but gleaming. The waterlilies were flowerless, the reeds still, for the most part, green, but with leaves yellowing at the edges and altogether lacking the sprightly effervescence of spring and summer. Already they seemed to he rustling with the dry sound they would produce in winter especially when they were stiff with frost.
Cranstone walked away from the lake and into the wood. Here, too, a presentiment of winter hung over everything: trees, bushes, plants, even the moss on the rocks and tree trunks seemed tired, seemed to be clinging in exhaustion to whatever it was growing on.
Randolph sauntered on along the path littered with dead leaves and soft with disintegrating humus. An occasional stone or tree-root conveyed a different message to him through the sole of his foot; but in general the mood emanating from the ground was one of apathy and passivity, according only too well with Cranstone’s own disconsolate state of mind.
He made his way to a clearing, in which stood a tall, moss-covered boulder, which Cranstone knew from previous experience to possess magical properties. Cutting a hazel rod, Cranstone struck the boulder with it three times, a ritual which in the past had caused the boulder to react in unforeseen, but always interesting ways. Nothing happened - perhaps the boulder shifted very slightly, like a sleeper but without waking. Angrily, Cranstone struck it three more times. The boulder seemed to twitch irritably, like a horse bothered by a fly, but gave no other response. Cranstone was afraid to strike it again, for fear that in its anger it might crush him. He half wondered whether to beat it really savagely might subdue it to the point where it would docilely follow him. But in view of its great size and weight, he shrank from putting this idea to the test. Instead, he turned and walked away.
He strolled around the wood a while longer, feeling that somewhere behind the veil of silence that hung between him and it, there lay another reality altogether, one which would satisfy his desires and free him from the state of suspended animation. bordering on futility, in which he now found himself. But the veil, invisible and insubstantial though it was, appeared impregnable.
Randolph Cranstone packed his bags and left the house on foot. No sooner was he outside his estate than he came to a fork in the road. One side degenerated into a waterlogged track through a marsh; the other led across a vast and arid desert. Confronted by this situation there was only one solution: Randolph took the left hand fork, Cranstone the right.
Randolph trudged across the waterless desert beneath a burning sky. Cranstone floundered through a quaking bog and forced his way through thickly-growing reedbeds.
Up above, a flock of black birds wheeled this way and that in anticipation of disaster; but the urgent and overwhelming desire to be reunited must have given both Randolph and Cranstone superhuman strength, for after tremendous efforts and perseverance that taxed their endurance to its most extreme limit, they found themselves together again in a green and pleasant countryside beyond the marsh and beyond the desert.
Through this countryside Randolph Cranstone now made his way in a frame of mind that combined in almost equal parts relief at having overcome such monstrous difficulties, elation at his new-found power of division and fear that he might once more become split.
In order to avoid this latter occurrence, ot at least to keep it under control, he purchased a strong leather belt at the first town he came to and buckled it tightly round his waist.
Randolph Cranstone continued on his way through the world, spreading darkness wherever he went. This darkness took the form of great blocks of black, amorphous and penetrable. After crossing the Bridge of Sighs, whose waters are made up of the massed tears of the world, Cranstone hurled into the road in front of him a particularly large, particularly black block of darkness. Pulling his belt tight and drawing a deep breath, Cranstone plunged into this black hole in the air and vanished - perhaps forever.
The beating of a drum, first soft and slow, then rising to a crescendo of rhythmic frenzy, accompanied his disappearance.
When finally the drum fell silent there was no trace left of Cranstone or his darkness.
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- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
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- Purple Patch
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- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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- Yellow Crane, The