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The Excursion

Yes I know. If you have read The Labyrinth you will see that it is not in the same league as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, and I’m not really trying to imitate them. Those stories come from a time remote from our own, when the world was far less understood and a lot more dangerous. The best stories from that world, told of an evening around the fire, would have been remembered and passed down generation to generation. Some, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, are considered to be up to five thousand years old. It is worth considering why they were remembered long enough to be collected and committed to writing.

They are in a sense moral tales (good triumphing over evil) but many have more to do with the breaking of rules than what we would regard as evil behaviour. Snow White takes a bite of the witch’s apple while the dwarves are away at work. Cinderella stays rather too long at the ball. More horrifically, Childe Roland is required, when in Elfland, to cut off the head of everyone who gives him helpful advice. And he is there in the first place to rescue his sister, who was spirited away because she ran anticlockwise round a church. Be careful, is the message. The world is a dangerous place, full of magic. Some of this survives even today in the play of children who like to avoid stepping on pavement cracks.

In modern fantasy the woods and the wild places, demons and dragons, remain, but there is greater stress on fairness, less on rules. Little Red Riding Hood puts her trust in the wolf, but in modern versions of the tale (unlike the Perrault version of 1697) she is rescued by the hunters. I believe in some modern versions even the grandmother survives. Evil is as deadly but innocence is no longer punished. 

The ‘magic’ wielded by the princess in The Labyrinth is simply cheerfulness and good will. Thus the wolf is tamed and the dark labyrinth made into a happy place. Ultimately, there will be no resolution until the evil intentions of the stepmother are confronted directly. (Enter the handsome prince.) 

It is worth noting that the female protagonists in the old tales were idealised forms of beauty and innocence, and named after their physical attributes (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Goldilocks, etc.) The women who transmitted the tales were exposed to harsh realities and would have been anything but idealised forms.

Nowadays, we know all the rules, and it would be difficult to venture into the kind of dark labyrinth that existed five thousand years ago. When we travel anywhere, it is generally to a place that nature has well and truly tamed. There are still dangers, including wars and floods, famines and storms, but we know why. We know the kind of magic that is behind these things, and we know the sorts of things we have to do to counter it. Whether or not we can accomplish them is another matter.

For now, I offer you a chapter from my unpublished novel, Dream Hunters. You will recognize the family I depict. There are probably any number of them scattered around the galaxy. The father is tired after a full week of work, the mother is struggling to manage the children and keep up with the modern world, and the children take everything in their stride.

The Excursion.

“Faster, dad, faster!” Pookah was in the front seat, sitting between his father’s legs and clinging to the steering wheel. The car was in the slow lane, easing its way along behind a donkey cart.

“Dad, we’ve got room to pass!”

“Pookie, I want you to get used to steering – watch it, you nearly had us in the ditch!”

In fact the man on the cart, all dark skin, leather jacket, shaggy hair and straw hat, at that moment turned and beckoned the car to pass. Then he saw Pookah, smiled hugely, before taking off his hat and waving them on with it.

“That’s one fan you’ve got today,” said Mr Toomali, who however relented, gave the motor a burst of speed and guided the car to the inner lane.

“He must think you look cute,” said Mrs Toomali. “He doesn’t know you.”

Suddenly anxious, she turned her head and checked the back seat.

“Sesha, what are you sitting on? Not the picnic basket I hope!”

The Toomali’s were on the south coastal road which meandered for miles about the little bays and inlets, now and again skimming along close to an ancient sea wall before abruptly curving inland to round a headland; and finally expiring altogether in a maze of horse tracks and wild flowers. Pookah had at last relinquished the wheel and joined his sister in the back seat. The two were engaged in some activity which involved a lot of giggling. Mrs Toomali looked behind more than once.

“Are you sure you two are feeling all right? It’s a very bendy road.”

It was a wild, wayward road, a little doubtful at times where the sea had made a secret incursion before breaking triumphantly to the surface and sending out plumes of spray. Mr Toomali slowed the car to a crawl.

“Are you sure this is all right, Jaan?”

“It was checked over at dawn, mother. They just said people would have to be careful.” 

“Hey look mum, dad, look at that!”

‘That’ being a precarious stairway up a near vertical rocky face the car was at the moment passing.

“It leads to a beacon and a lookout, son,” said Mr Toomali. “It tells mariners they’re on the way to Kraab. I’ll take you there one day, and you’ll see how messages get sent by flashing lights.”

“Pookah, you must never go up there, it looks horribly dangerous!” Mrs Toomali sounded outraged.

“Mother, there’s an easier way, although I have to say that was how the signalmen used to go.”

Everywhere along the road there were signs of the storm: heaps of rubble that had been hastily pushed aside, stranded, dying fish in pools, a number of damaged or dead seabirds, including one with a broken wing that was running ahead of the car.

“Stop, stop!” Sesha cried out. She had seen a lost hatchling struggling in one of the shingly heaps at the road’s edge.

“Oh, Sesha, dear, it will never survive,” said Mrs Toomali. She knew what was coming.

“It will, it will!” Sesha was out of the car in a flash, and came back cradling the little creature.

“You’ll have to feed it,” said Pookah. “You’ll have to find icky slugs and worms and all sorts of horrible things.”

“Now, now Pookie, don’t tease your sister.”

“Sorry, dad.”

“I can give it some milk,” said Sesha. “I’m going to keep it.”

“Here is where I had in mind,” said Mr Toomali. He pulled off the road almost at its terminus. The car was slightly above the road on a level patch of scrubby grass and sand that, like some big marine animal, had shaken itself dry and stretched itself out to toast in the sun.

Close by was a shallow lagoon into which a good many fish had been swept. The air rang with the cries of birds that were sweeping in, diving, and grabbing

their prey.

“There’s not much shade,” said Mrs Toomali doubtfully.

“Look, we can sit under the bushes and spread a tarp over the top,” said Mr Toomali the practical.

They were in a little patch of calm. The wind was rising, and echoing against the cliff faces. Mr Toomali had just enough room to lie back while the picnic things were spread around him. 

“Dad, why don’t we gather up some of the fish?’

“Eh? No, son, we’ll get some bigger ones from the market.”

The outside world was fading fast for Mr Toomali.

“Jaan! Jaan T! You haven’t eaten or drunk a thing. Come on, sit up before it all goes!”

“Right-ho mother, pour me something from that thermos if you will.”

The food and drink went quickly.

“Mum, dad, can we go and explore?”

“Right-ho son, take care of your sister. Keep away from the water.”

“And you mustn’t go far. Stay within sight of us!” Mrs Toomali anxiously scanned the surroundings.

Mr Toomali yawned, and lay down once more. “There’s nothing dangerous here, as long as they’re sensible. Don’t worry Mrs T.”

The wind dropped a little, but the heat from the sun intensified. Mrs Toomali gathered up the empty bowls and glasses, and stacked them in the basket. Then she too yawned. I must learn to trust my children, she thought. Otherwise they won’t grow up. “Move over a bit Jaan dear, I want to lie down with you.”

Mr Toomali gave a little snore, but he obligingly yielded, sliding sideways on his back without really waking.

But Mrs Toomali lay a long time awake, looking through the leaves above her head to the bright sky. There were no clouds, and the wind was now still, as if the air itself slumbered in the heat. Nearby a thin trickle of steam flowed up in an almost vertical line. She followed it with her eyes, watching it fan out and ultimately merge into the sky. She wondered what was up there. She had heard said that all the little lights in the sky were other worlds, perhaps just like this one. She liked to think that there would be some that were kinder, without wars, or plagues, or vast empty wastelands, or all that wasted life of men and birds and animals.

She had had very limited schooling, unlike the children today. There had been some elementary reading, some limited geography, and lots of practical work, such as how to cook, manage a house, make clothes. Almost all the stories, such as the beginning of the world, the divine beings that guide us through life, or where we go when we die, had come from her mother, that fount of reassuring wisdom. It was all being torn away from her now, and even by her own son, who was always coming back with a new story from school. Mrs Toomali thought now of her mother, that amazing woman that the plague had taken from her too soon. Then she sat up very cautiously, careful not to disturb her still sleeping husband, and looked around. The children were out of sight, certainly among the horse tracks and the wild flowers that were the road’s return to its original condition. She now got down on her knees, closed her eyes, and said a prayer to Maaven, the goddess of hearth and home.

Dear Maaven, I pray that you may keep my children safe, and my dear husband, and the whole city of Kraab. May it thrive and be happy. May I stay strong and well and brave to look after my family, and accept their views, no matter how much they may challenge my own. And oh, please Maaven, may my family stay good and strong, and not be swept away by the madness of the world. Give them guidance, dear Maaven, especially if I am not around. I once heard that even in the most waterless wasteland there will be somewhere a fount of knowledge, and wisdom, like a pure crystal fountain flowing up from the deep heart of the earth. Dear Maaven, if it be your will, if it be in your power, show me a sign that the world is not all meaningless, a blind accident, as some say, and that you yourself are real, and that you care?

Mrs Toomali rose from her knees. The wind had returned, and a gust blew through the bushes. 

Mr Toomali woke up with a start. “Goodness, have I been asleep long? Where’s the sun? Already behind the hills! We’ll have to leave soon. Where’s the kiddies, Mrs T?” 

A moment later they heard them.

“Mummy, dad! Come and see!” Pookah was racing ahead, Sesha not far behind.

“Come and see! We’ve got something to show you!”

“We’d better check this out, mother,” said Mr Toomali.

Mrs Toomali noted that the shallow lagoon, now nearly dried up, was empty of birds and presumably fish. She followed the others along little humpy trails, wading at times through shrubs and ubiquitous red poppies. Then, over a spur of rock into a little bay, she saw what the children had discovered. A fountain of clear water spurted up as high as her knees, and then sank with a gentle hissing into the sandy slope that led down to the sea.

“Aha,” said Mr Toomali. “This comes from the aquifer under the desert. The water filters down through the sand and becomes very clean, which is why springs like this supply half of Kraab.”

Mrs Toomali merely smiled. She had quite a different explanation.

“Will it stay here?” asked Sesha.

“It may. If it does it will form a proper little stream, and over time the vegetation around it will change – and even the little beasties you see hopping around. It might even make a lovely little pool, with things that love fresh water swimming in it.”

“I want to come here again and see if it stays.”

Back at their picnic site Sesha made another discovery, and was heartbroken. “Mummy, dad, you didn’t look after it!” It was the little bird, and it was very clearly dead.

“Darling, it couldn’t have survived,” said Mrs Toomali as she held her daughter.

“Next week I’ll be back from patrol, and we’ll hire another car,” said Mr Toomali. “Look, sweetie, we’ll take a trip through town and see if we can get you a pet bird. Will that help?”

He doesn’t understand, thought his wife. Nothing can replace the one that died.

“Well, son, now you’ve helped drive a car you don’t need elves or shapeshifters any more?” 

It was dusk, the car was heading home, and although the shadowy shapes along the side of the road might once have been monsters of various kinds, they were now merely rocks, or piles of rubble. Pookah in fact felt he had walked, or driven, into another world, and one even more extraordinary than that which had been controlled by his childhood fears. All his terrors seemed indeed to have gone old, and stale, and have transformed themselves into little scraps of idle childhood fantasy.

“And you, Sesha, what do you think?”

“Yes, daddy, I want you to drive through town and get me a bird.”

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