Wednesday, 23 September 2015

“Winter on the Plain of Ghosts” by Eileen Kernaghan

A few years ago I read the one and only self-published novel by award-winning writer (Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, it's true. But that doesn't necessarily mean you will ever have heard of her), Eileen Kernaghan.

Winter on the Plain of Ghosts: a Novel of Mohenjo-Daro. The book is set in the Indus Valley, so long ago that all we know of the culture that existed there is what we can divine from a set of clay seals (pictured above and below). Kernaghan does a wonderful job of filling in the world and peopling it with compelling characters.

I have no idea why, of all her lyrical and thoughtful adult and young adult novels, this one failed to find a publisher. After ten years of bouncing it around Kernaghan caved in to her husband's nagging and put it out herself under the imprint Flying Monkey Press.

I am so glad he did keep bugging her. Left to her own devices, would she have thought it was just a lousy novel and gone on to the next beautiful gem? I don't know. What I do know is that I had (for me) a rare experience when reading this book: that of spending the day, while off doing other things, thinking with great pleasure about the writingthe words themselves and the places they were taking meand anticipating somewhat impatiently when I would get to be home again with feet up and Winter on the Plain of Ghosts on my lap.

It has stayed with me as a precious read, but a faded memory, one I don't pull out too often. Recently I glanced at the book again and read the poem that opens it, a poem that is collected with her other delicious speculative offerings in Tales from the Holograph Woods. It reminded me of how much I'd enjoyed the book, and how annoyed I am that so few people have had the chance to enjoy it as I have. So I thought I would introduce you to it and urge you, if you like what you see, to get a copy, read it, pass it around, and let the world know how much you enjoy this novel and this inestimable writer's work.


The salt earth is bleached
and brittle as old bone, in winter
on the plain of ghosts.
Shrill and thin down the grey
millennia, the spirit voices
cry on the parched wind.
Language of a dead land―
the wind’s riddles:
insistent and insinuating
whisper of pale grasses,
tongueless as corpses the slow
suck and hiss
of the river’s mouths
and age-deep in the dust
of empty water-courses
the cryptic dialect
of broken stones.

But on the terraces below the citadel
a flute plays
and ghosts rise in their shining bones
bedecked with jade and lapis lazuli.
Above the luminous pools white birds drift
long-stemmed as water lilies
and terrible in their stripes
behind the broken walls the tigers walk
among the glamorous trees.

This gives you a sense of Eileen Kernaghan's wordcraft and imagination. But let's give you a little of the novel itself. I shall indulge myself by adding a fair dollop of it below. Before we go, I'll add these links, and then leave you in Ms. Kernaghan's capable hands.

To read the review on the Historical Novel Society website, click here.
To order either the print edition or the e-book of Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, click here.
To order Tales from the Holograph Woods, click here.

Winter on the Plain of Ghosts:
A Novel of Mohenjo-Daro

            this morning, when I visited the warehouse, Akalla was breaking the seal on a chest full of luxury goods — among them some jars of unguent imported from the western deserts of Meluhha. I took one home with me and opened it in the privacy of my bedchamber. Released from its stone container, the rich, oily perfume awoke a rush of memories.
            Once again I breathed the fragrance of oleander, growing high up in a desolate hill pass. I heard the throbbing of the skin drums, the wistful music of the reed-pipes; and the shrill voice of the desert wind, crying across the parched, dun-coloured plain. But underneath the scent of spice and sun and flowers there was a hint of something darker, muskier — a cloying, sweet-sour odour of the swamp. And there rose in my mind's eye a vision of the great Meluhhan capitals, those once noble cities of the plains. I saw them crouched behind their crumbling walls like enormous stricken animals, choking on their own poisoned breath.
            Already it is the month of Nisan. The floodwaters are rising, and another year is almost over. I have lived long; have, I believed, sinned no worse than other men; have suffered much, and have received many blessings from the gods. It is, at this moment, as though I am standing on a high terrace, from which it is possible to look down upon my life's beginning, and on its end.
            And so, in this city of Ur, in the reign of the great king Rim-Sin of Larsa, I, the merchant-captain Rujik, set down my history — having instructed my storekeeper to lay in a great quantity of clay.

            My first clear memory is of a journey along a narrow, treacherous path, with crags and precipices above and a rushing torrent of water below. One image follows another: a glitter of ice on bare black rock; snow falling — huge, soft flakes borne slantwise on the wind; the river, a jade green ribbon coiled at the base of sheer grey cliffs. I remember mountains, snow-clad, luminous in sunlight or veiled in mist, and beyond them, always, other mountains.
            Much earlier there had been another place, a land of yellow air, yellow sky and earth and crumbling yellow rock, above which there rose a long cloud-suspended ridge of flame red peaks. And there had been warm arms holding me, as I rocked and swayed on the back of some tall, slow-moving beast.
            I cannot say where that country was, or if it has been charted on any map, though I know there are few places on this earth where the merchant caravans have not travelled. I possess to this day a small lump of polished jade-stone on a cord of silk. It is the only legacy I have ever had, and the only clue to my birthplace — unless one counts a certain odd breadth of cheekbone, a coppery cast of skin; and hair that, though it is white now, was once the colour of new-mown wheat.
            Of that journey's end, I remember only dust and searing heat, in an endless waste of grey-brown stone. Somehow, at last, I came to the place where I was to spend my childhood — a small village sheltered in a fold of western Meluhha's ochre-coloured hills.




       They called us the Chosen Ones. We wandered freely through the village and every door was open to us. At every house we were kissed and fondled, praised like small princes and offered honeyed fruits.
As children do, we accepted this pampering without question. It was one more blessing, we thought, from our loving and benevolent goddess. Every village had its particular goddess — though I suppose in truth they were simply aspects of the One Great Mother, who governed us all. Our goddess was called Yamash, and she lavished many gifts upon our village.
All around was mountainous, stony desert, where flocks of scrawny goats and sheep grazed on thorn scrub and stiff grass; and gaunt, patient women gathered the grain harvest stalk by stalk into meagre sheaves. But in our valley there was shelter from the hot, harsh wind and a year-round water supply. Some earlier folk had built stone dams and ditches to contain the water that roared down from the high peaks in flood-time. And so in our village we led a charmed existence, among date palms and flourishing green fields.
            Still, as we were to discover, Yamash’s favours had their price.
            I lived with the headman of the village and his wife, in a large stone house with white-plastered walls. The wife was called Tvashi. She was a plump, placid creature, who loved me as generously and uncritically as she loved her own extensive brood. It was she who bestowed on me the name “Rujik”, which in their language means “yellow-haired”. I was not a child much given to introspection, or else I might have wondered that the largest lump of goat meat always found its way into my bowl. Nor did I question that there was always a new homespun kilt for me, though the other children of the household wore patched and threadbare garments.
            Once when Tvashi had gone to the well for water I stole into the house and picked up her mirror, a prized possession she had forbidden us to touch. Until that day I had never seen my face except as a distorted reflection in a polished kettle, or a fragmented glimpse in the stream that ran through the pipal tree grove. I had known that I was different from the others, but even so I was astonished to confront this thin face with its broad, high cheekbones, copper-flecked green eyes and bright bush of yellow hair. Truly, it was the face of a being from another world. 
            In our village there were perhaps half a dozen other foster-children, scattered among as many households. I remember a pair of curly-haired, dark-skinned twins who may have come from the Meluhhan river plains, and a round-faced girl with slanted eyes. The others have vanished from memory — all but Bima, who was nearest in age to myself, and my special friend. I can see her now as clearly as if it were yesterday. Tiny and light-boned she was, with large, dark-rimmed, tender eyes like a gazelle’s, and a fierce knife-blade of a nose. She told me that she came from a desert country, over many mountains.
            Only once during the year was our freedom curbed. Ten days before fall sowing the floorboards of our foster-houses were taken up, and each of us was thrust alone into a windowless cellar, with a single oil lamp to hold back the dark. Twice a day our meals were handed down to us. We never knew if we were being punished, or protected from some unknown danger. Then one day Tvashi explained to me in her gentle voice that this was a ritual going back to the First Age of the World. By means of this yearly ordeal, we Chosen Ones learned the true nature of man’s life on earth — a time of bondage, suffering and endurance, from which the Dark One, the Terrible Mother, would one day release us into enlightenment and bliss.

            After ten days we emerged into the hot dazzle of the upper world. Everyone in the village embraced us. We were bathed in flower-scented oils, dressed in new garments, fed on melons and honeyed figs. It seemed to us that we had, indeed, been reborn into an earthly paradise.
            Each year it became more evident that we were singled out for some high destiny, yet to be revealed. Each year too we grieved for one of our number — the oldest, always — who during our time of trial had been mysteriously struck down by illness. But it was the brief, uncomprehending sorrow of children. That friend, that foster-brother or sister, the adults told us, had gone to live with the Goddess in the Garden Behind the Winds. How pleasant, we thought, to walk in those sweet-scented orchards, to lie in the cool shade of pomegranate trees, to bathe in lapis-coloured streams. I imagined the Goddess waiting there — a large, smiling, calm-faced protectress, with brown, bangled arms outstretched in welcome.
            The autumn that I was twelve, I learned that I was to share my captivity. Bima’s foster-mother had died in child-birth, and Bima was sent to live in Tvashi’s household. I was glad of this news, for I had been dreading the loneliness and boredom of confinement. I knew that Bima, who was a bold-natured, talkative child, would be lively company.
            Yet when Bima arrived on our doorstep with her few treasures rolled up in a blanket she looked wan and ill, and her eyes were swollen half shut from weeping.
            “Do you grieve so, for your foster-mother?” I asked.
            For answer she gave me a strange, haunted look, and jerked her head away.
            Then, just before they put us into the cellar, she reached out and caught my hand. When I felt the desperate pressure of that small damp palm, I knew that fear, not grief, had robbed her of her voice.
            As the boards slid into place above us, shutting out the air and light, I stood beside Bima and gripped her hand hard. She crept closer to me, and I could hear the quick, nervous flutter of her breath. At length she said, in a scared, shaking voice, “Rujik, this year it is your turn. And next year it will be mine.”
            I stared at her, uncomprehending.
            “Rujik,” she cried, “you are not such a fool as you pretend. Can you not see, do you not remember from one sowing season to the next? They call us the Chosen Ones — have you never asked yourself for what it is we are chosen? Each year at sowing time the eldest of us disappears ― dead of heat-sickness, they say, or bad meat, or worms in the belly. Every year without fail, Rujik. And then in a month or so, a band of desert men will come to our village, and there will be a small child among them  —  a child whose mother has died, they say  —  and he will be taken in by the village.”
            “As we were,” I said. There was a sick, empty feeling in my belly.
            “I saw the bargain struck,” she said, “for little Druvah. I went to the window when I heard the camel bells, and no one knew that I was watching. So many jars of sweet unguent, Rujik, for a small healthy child!”
            “But why,” I asked  —  already half-guessing the answer  —  “when there are so many children already in the village, so many mouths to feed?”
            She turned a grim, furious face upon me.
            “Listen,” she said. “I will tell you the reason. I will tell it to you, just as Pisaka the son of Jorah told it to me. He wanted me to go out to lie with him in the pipal grove, and I would not. So he was angry, and wished to frighten me. He said that I would do well to take my pleasure while I could, for in another year I would be dead, and no use to him or anyone.”
            She took a deep breath. “So I told him I would do whatever he wished — but first he must say straight out what he meant.”
            “And did you? Do as he wished?” At once I regretted the question. Pisaka the son of Jorah was a smirking, ill-favoured lout, at once dull-witted and malicious. I had seen the lustful way that he looked at Bima.
            “What, lie with him? Do you think so ill of me?” Her voice was shrill with indignation. “No, Rujik, I heard what he had to say ― and then I  ran.”
            I smiled to myself, imagining Pisaka’s rage. Bima had the fleetest feet of any girl in the village.
            She looked down at her hands, and I waited. She gave a sort of shrug, finally, and said, all in a rush, “So then. This is what Pisaka the son of Jorah told me. Tomorrow they will come for you, Rujik. They will take you out of this place. Your hair will be shorn, and your body anointed with oil and butter. They will lead you to the pipal grove beside the stream and bind you to a post.” I could hear in her sing-song tones an echo of Pisaka’s mocking voice. “For three days the people will dance around you, and offer up prayers to the Dark One. At noon on the last day, they will carry you in procession through the village. And so that you go quietly to your fate, they will break all your limbs with a stick. They will take you back to the pipal grove and force your neck into the cleft of a tree which the shaman has dedicated to the Mother of the Fields. And then the crowd will rush upon you, and with knives and fingernails and teeth they will tear the living flesh from your bones. Every man will take home his shred of flesh wrapped up in leaves, and will bury it in his own field, so that his crops will thrive. And then your head and bowels and bones will be burned on a funeral pyre, and your ashes scattered over the fields.”
            She sat with bowed head, her thin brown hands clenched in her lap, the knuckles showing pale in the lamplight. For a long time I did not speak. But my mind was working furiously, as many things, half-perceived, made a sudden pattern  —  as rivulets in the rainy season rush together to form one tumultuous stream.
            The affection and care that had been lavished on us, like the hand-fed gazelles in the deer parks of the Meluhhan kings. The rising air of tension, of expectation, that hung in the air those weeks before autumn sowing, as though a thunderstorm were about to break. And, in other years, the sounds that had drifted into my cellar from the street above  — the frenzied laughter, the music and swift-running feet, and sometimes the dreadful cries, like the shrieking of wild beasts. Still, childlike, I had thrust such things from my mind.
            I remembered a little pottery goddess-figure that Tvashi had shown me when I first came to the village. Some trader in trinkets and votive objects must have brought her down from the northern hills. She was hooded, with round, staring eyes, a nose like an owl’s beak and a terrible slit of a mouth. Young as I was, I had read in that scrap of clay a thing perhaps unintended by the potter who had shaped it; for I glimpsed in her dreadful visage the spirit of all that was dark and primitive, inimical to man. Mother of Jackals was she, the Lady of the Burning Ground; Queen of the Black Aeons. I screamed when I saw her, and would not look at her again. For years afterwards she haunted my dreams.

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